Southwest Adventures and Peppermint Mocha Marshmallows

In the beginning of December, two of my coworkers, a fellow SLP and a PT doctoral student, dragged me to Carlsbad Caverns in the Southeast portion of New Mexico. Perhaps “dragged” isn’t necessarily the appropriate term, but they definitely needed to cajole me to wake up at 7am on a Sunday to drive 3 ½ hours each way the morning after our open bar work holiday party.

One of the factors in my decision to move to the NM was to be able to explore a quadrant of the country that I haven’t seen much of. After moving, I started off my explorations strong, but then quickly faded as work piled on more tasks and the holiday season set in. In the end, I was really glad they convinced me to go to the caverns.

Carlsbad was amazing: it is the western hemisphere’s largest cave, and its largest room is about 4,000 feet long by 625 feet wide. There are actually two known caverns within the cave: an upper cavern open to the public, and a lower cavern that has been preserved for research and is only available to scientists by permit. They are still discovering offshoots and rooms with the cavern, which was first estimated to discovered in 1898. (Although it is still not known if Native Americans knew about the cave sooner.) My favorite recent discovery story is that of the Halloween Cavern, which was discovered accidentially by a balloon on Halloween, therefore inspiring it’s name.

No worries, we actually did not touch any of the cave in this picture. (Its one of those optical illusion pictures.)

No worries, we actually did not touch any of the cave in this picture. (Its one of those optical illusion pictures.)

I’ve explored several caverns throughout my life before, but Carlsbad was by far the best. It is the most decorated cavern I’ve been to, meaning that there are stalagmites and stalagtites galore; there are dots of water pools, rock windows with views of smaller rooms, pockets illuminated like passageways, and even a whimsical area called Fairyland. Venturing into Carlsbad is like entering a different world. While touring the cavern my friends and I were trying to create descriptions to describe the sights: “the Middle East”, “The Moon”, “a fossiled coral reef”, were all thrown out but quickly abandoned simply because there just are no adequate words.

Since we went in winter, there weren’t any crowds, which turned out to be eerie. To enter the cave, you can either take the elevator down or walk the winding path that slowly descends into the natural mouth of the cave, switching back and winding through and around boulders and growths and moss-covered rocks. The day we went, we chose to walk down, and since we were one of the few groups of people there, our voices echoed as the three of us descended into the quickly engulfing darkness. If not for the lights along the path, it was evident that we would have been in complete and total darkness within 3 minutes of entering the cave.

The natural mouth of the caverns from above.

The natural mouth of the caverns from above.

The natural mouth of the cave, but this time, looking up from total darkness. 

The natural mouth of the cave, but this time, looking up from total darkness. 

The entrance of the cave is a natural mouth, meaning that the ground naturally opened up into an entrance, or in summer, a grand exit. It is estimated that Carslbad Caverns is home to an estimated hald a million bats, and at dusk in summer, they exit in flocks through the natural mouth, creating clouds of flying creatues swirling and dipping through the sky on their way to hunt. I’ve linked a video of this here from a user on YouTube so you can see this magnificnent show; unfortunately the bats had already migrated to warmer Mexican locales by the time of our winter visit, so I did not see the bat show first hand. I’ve already decided, however, that I will be back to see the nightly mass exodus when the bats return to their home in spring.

The caverns, amazingly, keep a stable 57 degrees year round. My fellow SLP, Alexa, told me that in summer, the caves are refreshingly cool: the cave’s placement within the Guadalupe mountain ranges on the border of southeast New Mexico and rural Texas, in the middle of a vast stretch between the middle of nothing, desert, and borderlands, creates soaring and dry temperatures in summer. Alexa explained that visiting the caves in summer is like a little cool oasis, and the constant humidity of 90% underground is refreshing. Even when we visited in winter, the humidity in the air felt cool and comforting: after living in the desert, suddenly stepping into a room of sorts with moisture in the air is novel and refreshing.

Our timing to visit the caves was incredibly appropriate. As much as I love working with kids, trying to gather their attention and cultivate growth during the time period after Thanksgiving and before winter break is incredibly grappling, difficult, and taxing. Those few weeks between each holiday are really exhausting, and I’m sure everyone can relate. In the past, I have plowed through the holidays with constant stream of coffee and a candy induced sugar high, but I’ve since realized that that is not sustainable for long. Instead of creating burnout that takes weeks of solitude and relaxation to recover from, I’ve decided to boycott that entirely. No more gathering willpower to muscle through our self-induced periods of stress and anxiety; its just not a way to live. This holiday season, and hopefully for every one after, I’ve decided to make time to take breaks, to explore to recharge, just like I did in Carlsbad Caverns, and to take time for the activities that I really, truly enjoy engaging in.

I challenge you all, this holiday season, to take the time to do whatever is you need to do for yourself: whether that is reading a book, taking a road trip, or spending all day in the kitchen decorating holiday cookies. Recharging is important, and necessary for a well-cultivated, enjoyable, and productive life.

So what will I be doing in the coming weeks to recharge? Dreaming of Carlsbad Caverns, mapping the rest of my Southwest adventures, and curling up with a good book and a mug of these holiday-inspired Peppermint Marshmallows. (I just can’t get enough!)

Happy Holidays.

Paleo Peppermint-Mocha Marshmallows

  • 3.5 oz. high quality, dark chocolate
  • 1 cup water, divided
  • 3 tbsp. powdered beef gelatin
  • 3 tbsp. instant coffee granules
  • ¾ tsp. peppermint extract
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup coconut sugar
  • Tapioca Starch, for dusting
  • In a large bowl, mix all powdered beef gelatin with ½ cup water. Let set for at least 10 minutes to soften.
  1. In an 8x8 baking pan, line with parchment paper. Dust bottoms and sides with a small amount of tapioca starch. Set aside.
  2. In a saucepan, combine remaining water, vanilla, peppermint extract, coffee granules, and coconut sugar. Stir and then bring to a medium simmer, then immediately reduce heat so mixture has only occasional bubbles. Let heat for approximately 10 minutes longer, until mixture is thoroughly heated and all coconut sugar has dissolved. Mixture will be a dark amber color.
  3. Add ¼ saucepan mixture to bowl with softened gelatin. Turn on mixer and beat on medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Add second ¼ of saucepan mixture and continue to beat on medium-high heat. Repeat process until all saucepan mixture is used.
  4. Once all of saucepan mixture has been added into the mixer bowl, increase mixer to high speed (setting #8 on a Kitchenaid stand mixer) and beat for about 3 minutes, then on highest speed (Setting #10 on a Kitchenaid Stand Mixer) for about 4-5 minutes more. Marshmallows will be done when they have the viscosity of marshmallow fluff. Be careful not to over mix, as they will become too springy and difficult to handle.
  5. Using a spatula, pour the marshmallows into your prepared baking pan and gently shake until they are level. Dust the top once more with tapioca starch, and then place another strip of parchment paper over the top of the marshmallows for evenness and protection.
  6. Store pan of marshmallows in a cool, dry spot for approximately 4-6 hours, or even overnight, to let set.
  7. Once set, remove top strip of parchment paper, and lift marshmallows out of pan by pulling out the parchment paper. Cut marshmallows into evenly sized squares.
  8. In a small bowl, melt chocolate in the microwave in 10 second intervals, stirring in between to avoid scalding or burning. (You could also use a double boiler to melt the chocolate, if that is your preference.) 

Happy Birthday America! (Ain't No Party Like a Funfetti Party)

For anyone who follows South of Vanilla on Instagram, you will have surely discovered that it was my boyfriend’s birthday last week. His birthday coincidentally coincides with the summer solstice, which is ironic because his dislike for his own birthday is extended over the longest day of the year. (For anyone following astrology, he also is Gemini-Cancer cusp, which makes him a bit mercurial with a side of exceptional empathy. He drives me crazy. But I like it.)

Since CK spent several years in the military, he has a great love for, among other things, his country. I’ve gotten into the fashion of creating America-themed birthday cakes for him (Last year’s was a cake in the form of a hamburger.), so it takes the focus slightly away from a whole day just about his birthday.

Birthday cake from 2013. So much has changed!

Birthday cake from 2013. So much has changed!

Back when I first started Paleo, CK joined me about two weeks into my journey. He’s struggled with it more than I have, and maybe perhaps I’ll have him write a guest post about his Paleo struggles eventually. For him and his sweet tooth, one thing he really missed was Paleo desserts, which is one of the reasons I started creating my own recipes. Fast-forward almost a year, and I’ve finally gotten around to making Paleo version of one of the classics: “funfetti”.

P.S: Isn’t this cake topper perfect for celebrating the 4th of July holiday today?  And its super easy.  Instructions are included below.

Paleo “funfetti” Cake

For the Cake:

  • 1/4 cup raw honey 
  • 8 tbsp grass fed organic butter, room temperature
  • 3 eggs 
  • 1 tbsp vanilla 
  • 1 1/2 cup cashew flour
  • 1/3 cup light tasting olive oil 
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda 
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder 
  • 2/3 cup almond milk 
  • ¾ cup rainbow sprinkes**

For the Frosting:


  1. Preheat over to 350 degrees.
  2. Beat butter, eggs, honey, eggs, olive oil, and vanilla together.
  3. Add in cashew flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Mix until incorporated.
  4. Slowly add in the almond milk while mixing the cake batter.
  5. Spray pan with nonstick coconut oil spray. Pour batter into one 9-inch pan and bake
  6. At 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Alternatively, if you would like a smaller cake or multiple layers, you can always bake this cake in a different sized pan, just make sure to adjust the baking time.
  7. After baking, wait until cooled, then frost. 

** Sprinkles are not Paleo. Why? They are full of refined sugar and dyes. But sometimes life is too short.


Patriotic Cake Topper

  • 3 paper-striped straws
  • twine
  • 7 small American flags
  • Scotch tape
  1. Take one of the straws and with a ruler, measure out the halfway point. Cut the straw; these will become the two shorter “posts”.
  2. Cut two pieces of twine, with one piece about 2 inches longer than the other.
  3. Take each piece of string and tie onto the ends of the straws. One string should be between the two tall straws, and one should be between the two short straws.
  4. Take a small square of tape, and tape each flag to the piece of twine. There should be 4 flags between the shorter posts, and 3 between the taller posts.
  5. Place on the top of your cake with the taller posts in back and enjoy! 
Raw materials ;)

Raw materials ;)

Winner winner, cake for dinner (Plus, an exciting announcement!!)

It’s a very exciting in the South of Vanilla kitchen. On a scale of 1-10 I’m elated. So… 15? 20? Maybe even 25. 

Why, you ask? Because….

…we’re getting published!

The book should be out in July sometime, and yours truly will be in it.

Paleo Bakehouse, a Paleo baking company, is raising money for their Kickstarter. They’ve been running their (fantastically delicious) business out of their home, and are looking for a commercial kitchen to get their Paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free cookies, brownies, and mixes into a store near you. They just can’t keep up with demand as their orders increase and their business grows. As a thank you to their supporters, they’re collecting and publishing recipes in an ebook for distribution. An ebook in which I will be published. A book that is also featuring Civilized Caveman, Living Paleo, Fed & Fit, and a few others. Pinch me. These are all big names in the Paleo community. So…just pinch me.

If you’re interested in supporting Paleo Bakehouse AND getting the ebook, click here. (And if you ever want some fantastic Paleo treats, try some of their cookies. They’re pretty fantastic.)

I started this blog two months ago as a way to document my life, do some writing for stress relief, and to have a place to keep my Paleo recipes organized. I never really expected that I would have followers, fans, or subscribers. I never expected to have people reaching out to me for advice, people posting pictures of the South of Vanilla creations on Instagram. I truly can’t believe it, and I am so thankful to all of you. Really. Thank you.

I am so thankful, in fact, that I decided to make a celebration cake. If any of my fans are nearby, comment/email/Instagram/facebook me to get in contact and I’ll give you a piece. (I’m not joking, I really will.) I will be eating this cake all week until Friday, which is when I’m having a girls night on my rooftop, and the cake will surely be gone after that. (You were warned.)

But really, this cake is awesome. I know I’m biased, but I think I’ve tried out every Paleo cake recipe searching for a cake alternative. I had pretty much given up on sufficient Paleo cake, until I created this lovely masterpiece.

I’m not even going to tell you how many attempts it took me to get this chocolate cake recipe to work. I tried experimenting so many times that I almost gave up. And then, magically, this gorgeous chocolate cake emerged from my oven smelling glorious and decadent. (Cue sound effects here.) I knew immediately just from the smell that it was a winner. I believe they say “winner winner chicken dinner”. I would like to formally change that to “Winner, winner cake for dinner”. Much better.  And realistic.


For the cake pictured, I actually doubled the recipe to make a two-layer cake. Doubling this recipe makes a ton of cake, so I don’t recommend it unless you have a big family, a lot of friends, friendly neighbors, or are throwing a party. Even though this cake easily fits into a compact 7-inch pan when baking, do not underestimate its smallish size. It is one dense, very filling, very chocolately cake. (Hope you have a glass of almond milk ready.)

Celebration Chocolate Cake  (HOORAY!)

For Cake:

  • ½ cup light tasting olive oil
  • 4 tbsp. organic grass-fed butter
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup coconut sugar
  • 1 tsp. pink himalyian sea salt
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla
  • 3 tbsp. raw honey, melted
  • 1 cup cashew flour
  • 2 cups tapioca flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • ¼ cup coconut flour
  • ¾ cup dark chocolate cocoa powder
  • Olive oil or coconut oil spray for baking

For Glaze Frosting:

  • ¼ cup raw honey, melted
  • 2 tbsp. powdered egg whites
  • 1 ½ (18 oz.) cans coconut cream
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Optional: sprinkles, food dye**

For cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 350
  2. Cream olive oil, butter, eggs, coconut sugar, salt, honey, and vanilla together.
  3. Add in cashew flour and tapioca flour, beat well.
  4. Add in coconut flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda. Mix until well incorporated.
  5. Spray 7-inch round baking pan with cooking spray.
  6. Bake for approximately 45 minutes until toothpick comes clean.
  7. While cooling, make frosting.
  8. Frost when cake has completely cooled. The frosting will not hold together if the cake is warm.
  9. When storing, make sure to keep covered in the fridge. The cake can be made a few days before serving, but the frosting should be made the day of or day before serving.

For frosting:

  1. Whip coconut cream, vanilla, and honey together on high speed for 5 minutes. (I used the second highest speed on my KitchenAid.)
  2. When light and fluffy, place bowl in freezer for 10 minutes. Once chilled, whip again on high speed for 3 minutes.
  3. Add in powdered egg whites.
  4. Place in freezer again for 10 minutes.
  5. Remove and whip again on high speed.
  6. If desired, add food dye*

This is my mixer. He’s tough, just like a WWII airplane is his limited edition Candy Apple Red finish. He’s also like this plane below. My favorite <3

Missiles are also at the war museum. Hmmmmm….

*For the cake pictured, I doubled this recipe to make two layers.

**Food dye is definitely not Paleo. Dyes are processed, manufactured, and do contain chemicals. For this frosting glaze, I did experiment with natural food dyes, but the viscosity cannot tolerate food dyes such as fruit or vegetable juices for color. These juices make the frosting much too liquidy to stay on the cake.

*** Life’s too short without sprinkles

At this point, I thought my creative frosting idea was just a complete mess

At this point, I thought my creative frosting idea was just a complete mess

For this whimsical frosting job, I divided the frosting into halves. In one half I dyed the frosting blue with exactly 3 drops of food dye, and then frosted the cake. Once that had set, I plopped the white frosting on top and let it very slowly drip down the sides to make the melting effect. Dr. Seuss would be proud.

****My fabulous HOORAY cake topper is from Oh Joy’s Target collection. She has an amazing style, and all of her items for Target are so incredibly priced. Check the line out! And her blog too!

Life's too short (without sprinkles)

I love donuts.

Let’s be honest here….That’s an understatement if there ever was one. 

Donuts combine 3 of my favorite things in a dessert: sweet batter, frosting, and sprinkles. Imagine my dismay when I realized that Paleo cavemen and cavewomen didn’t eat donuts. I’m still waiting for the press release revealing that archaeologists have discovered a primitive deep fryer. Guys, its coming. I know it, only a matter of time.  Then we can rest assured that we re doing our bodies good by piling our plates high with leafy grains, bacon, and donuts. (No wonder the Paleo community gets a bad rep sometimes.)

Donuts are tricky on Paleo. Most Paleo baking uses almond flour, cashew flour, or coconut flour. These are all fantastic grain substitutes, but coconut flour has a coconutty-taste to it, and nut flours can be very dense. They generally don’t lend themselves well to pastries, especially donuts by any means.

My mom shares the same love of donuts with me. As a kid, it was always a special day when she would bring home a dozen donuts from the grocery store. Our favorites were the vanilla cake donuts with chocolate glaze. I would promptly dunk those babies into a cold glass of milk, or if I was feeling really saucy, a chocolate glass of milk. Chocoholic from day one, I swear.

I semi-regularly indulge on donuts, both Paleo and non-Paleo. Naturally, the week I decided to take the Paleo plunge, a Dunkin Donuts opened up 2 blocks from my apartment…. On one of my favorite running routes. Naturally. I also work a quarter of a mile next to a Maryland based grocery store that has quite possibly the best donuts I have ever had. Another irony? The nurses at my work are just as obsessed with donuts as I am. They bring in a dozen at least a week, and they are always offering me one. Life, you are a funny, ironic beast.

A subtle message from my lovely German grandmother

A subtle message from my lovely German grandmother

What I really want to share with you is this Paleo chocolate donut recipe that is more donut-y than other Paleo recipes I’ve tried out. The outside edges are a little crispy, and the inside is still soft.  They’re a little labor intensive, especially since this recipe only makes half a dozen, but I think the donut lover inside of all of us realizes that art takes time. I’m still working on perfecting the Paleo donut frosting, but I decided to post anyway because I was just too excited. Hope you enjoy!

Triple Chocolate Paleo Donuts

For the donuts:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tbsp. melted butter
  • ¼ cup coconut milk kefir (or just regular coconut milk)
  • ½ cup coconut sugar
  • 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ¾ cup tapioca starch
  • ¼ cup coconut flour
  • ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dash of sea salt

For the glaze:

  • ½ bar dark chocolate
  • 1/8 cup coconut oil
  • 1 tbsp. powdered egg whites
  • Chocolate sprinkles, if desired*

For frying:

  • About ½ cup coconut oil

To Make the Donuts:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine the eggs and sugar, beat with a mixer.
  3. Add butter, coconut kefir, apple cider vinegar, and vanilla, mix again.
  4. Add in the tapioca starch, baking soda, baking powder, salt and mix again with a mixer until everything is mixed well.
  5. Add cocoa powder, mix again.
  6. Add the  coconut flour, and mix until just incorporated. You batter should still be liquidy.
  7. Pour batter into donut pan, you should have 6 very full donut molds.
  8. Bake in middle rack at 350 degrees for 17 minutes. Donuts should be set in their donuty shape, but when a toothpick is inserted, it should not come out completely clean.
  9. Once donuts have cooled enough to safely remove from the baking pan, heat coconut oil in a frying pan. Once the oil is melted, place 2-3 donuts at a time in frying pan. Fry each side of each donut foe 2-3 minutes, until each side is crispy. Repeat until all donuts are fried. Watch your donuts closely here, they can burn very fast.
  10. Let dry on paper towels. While drying/cooling, prepare you frosting.

To Make the Glaze:

  1. To create the chocolate glaze, melt chocolate and coconut oil in a bowl. You can do this using a double boiler, but I went the easy way and just did it in a microwave.
  2. Once almost cooled, stir in the powdered egg whites.
  3. Using a fork, dip one side of each donut into the bowl with the glaze. Place onto baking racks to dry. Add sprinkles, if desired.

*The sprinkles aren’t Paleo. Life’s too short.

** Because the glaze is made with coconut oil, it will melt at warm temperatures. Be mindful of this when storing your treats.