By Amy Eddings
Some people — me included — think of clothes as protection against the elements. If I can leave the house with enough coverage to keep the cops at bay, then I’ve done my job.
For Brandy J, clothes are tools for self-expression. And getting dressed isn’t a chore, it’s creative and fun.
“Fashion is something I’ve always liked since I was a kid,” the 38-year-old Van Wert native said. “I found it natural to put outfits together.”
She also enjoys telling the fashion-challenged how to do what she so easily does. Brandy J — Brandy Rammel to those who know her in the analog world — writes about fashion, design, food and drink on her blog, Pretty Plain Janes.
“The phrase ‘Plain Jane’ can have a negative connotation, but I think of it as referring to the girl next door,” she said. “I wanted the website to be approachable.”
Brandy J is like the big sister I never had, on the phone and on her website.
“If you have yet to dive into quinoa please do so immediately,” she exhorted readers while offering a recipe for a one pot enchilada bake. “It’s full of protein, packed with all sorts of good-for-you nutrients and it’s absolutely delicious.”
In a post about cutting back on sugar, she confessed to feeling “meh” about getting back into shape. Been there, felt that.
And talking with me about the wide-legged pants she’s seeing on the fashionistas she follows and admires, she admitted to being afraid of wearing them herself.
“Long culottes, I don’t even know if I’m going to touch them,” she said. “But I know some girls are going to take ‘em and throw on a tank top and look super cute.”
Brandy J doesn’t just tell you what she’s doing. She shows it on prettyplainjanes.com in mouth-watering photographs of the food she’s making and so-cute-you-want-to-pinch-them fashion shoots of her weekend “family outings” with 18-month-old son Bingham, 4-year-old daughter Jettie and husband Nick, who she calls by his nickname, Sticky.
“If you met him, you’ll understand,” she said. “You’d say, ‘I can’t call you Nick.’”
They found each other 12 years ago through their love of photography.
“We were a husband-and-wife team,” she said. “We shot lots of destination weddings.” Las Vegas. The Cayman Islands. New Orleans. New York. They were based out of Columbus, but both were from northwest Ohio, Brandy J from Van Wert and Sticky from St. Marys. When children came along, they moved to Van Wert, to be closer to both of their families.
“I lived in Dayton, Brooklyn, Florida. I worked for Disney World when I was in college, that was a great experience.” She said she never thought she would return to Van Wert. “And then I thought, ‘This is not a bad place to have kids.’”
The blog came from her desire to find meaningful work that would allow her to spend time at home. She launched Pretty Plain Janes in 2013. She said the site attracts about 4,000 visitors a month, more when so-called social media “influencers” feature one of her recipes or posts.
“Buzzfeed will pick up a couple links and then the stats will go through the roof,” she said. NBC’s “Today” show and theKitchn.com have also acted as Internet echo chambers for PPJ’s recipe posts, while Better Homes & Garden highlighted a Kitty Cat Birthday Luncheon that Brandy J threw for Jettie’s birthday in 2014. She had designed the invitations, party favors, banner and gift tags. She now sells the templates to the Kitty Cat Birthday Luncheon and other party themes on her website’s “PPJ Store.”
She describes her aesthetic as “fun for the kids, but adult enough for the grown-ups to appreciate.”
“I felt kids’ party invitations were either really generic or over-the-top frilly,” she said. “I told my husband, if I sell these on Etsy, I won’t feel so bad spending so much on the party!”
The party is more than paid for, according to Brandy J. She said the Kitty Cat Birthday Luncheon is approaching 200 in sales.
Brandy J’s fashion aesthetic is also in that sweet spot between “meh” and over-the-top.
“I’m very much a basics person,” she said. “I love a classic look, a woman who looks sharp.” Her touchstone is timelessness, pieces that women “can wear in their 30s and they can wear it in their 50s and it still looks great.”
Her goal is to encourage readers to think as much about style and image as they do about comfort.
“I want girls to know they don’t have to wear yoga pants every day to feel comfortable,” she said.
A recent “family date” had Brandy J wearing skinny jeans, black New Balance sneakers without socks, a red-and-black Buffalo plaid shirt worn untucked under a puffy sleeveless vest for warmth (it was a cold April day) and a scarlet Cincinnati Reds baseball cap.
But it’s the yummy recipes and so-close-you-can-taste-it food and drink photos that really drive traffic to her website.
“You notice the food more than anything,” she said. “I like vivid color. I think that’s pretty obvious. I like food to look, not overstyled, but enough that it looks really good and appetizing. I am dealing with a toddler, so I’m doing it quick. It works to my advantage.”
Her posts from week to week vary, from the sweet and spectacular, like a pavolova with mascarpone whipped cream and balsamic strawberry sauce to the light and healthy, like an asparagus, spinach and feta frittata made with six egg whites. And this young mom isn’t afraid to celebrate the adult side of life, with recipes for mimosa sangria (“It’s like two of the best pitcher drinks got married and had themselves a prodigy child,” she writes on her blog) and watermelon sangria.
“The drink posts are really popular,” she said.
An hour has passed, and Brandy J and I are still chatting easily about makeup (“Tarte’s foundation breathes like a dream”), celebrity style icons (“When Kate Hudson does an awards show, she kills it”), fashion bloggers (Kendi Everyday, Cupcakes and Cashmere, and model Alexa Chung’s Instagram posts are favs) and jeans (“I’m waiting for everything to not be skinny”). It’s that big sister/trusted best friend vibe that comes naturally to Brandy J.
I tell her it feels like we could keep on talking about clothes, makeup, shoes, food. She understands, of course. It’s the whole point of her website.
“It’s good for the female soul,” she said.
ONE POT ENCHILADA BAKE
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 cup uncooked quinoa
2 10-ounce cans enchilada sauce (or 1 can and one cup water if watching salt intake)
1 10-ounce can Ro-Tel or other brand of diced tomatoes and green chilies
1 cup corn
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
6 corn tortillas, halved and cut into 1/4-inch strips
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 avocado halved, pitted, peeled and diced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Lime wedges for serving
Place olive oil in a large oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, jalapeño and cumin. Cook for 30 seconds to a minute, just enough for the flavors to release.
Add quinoa, enchilada sauce, Ro-Tel, corn and black beans. Stir. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer. Cover and allow to simmer for 20 minutes or until quinoa is cooked.
Turn on the broiler in the oven. Place the tortillas strips and cheese evenly on top of the enchilada bake. Place under broiler until cheese is melted. Keep your eye on it. (Omit this step if you want to keep the dish vegan.)
Put avocado and cilantro on top of bake and serve with lime wedges.
PAVLOVA WITH MASCARPONE WHIPPED CREAM AND BALSAMIC STRAWBERRY SAUCE
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
8 egg whites from large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons white vinegar
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 teaspoons sifted cornstarch
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, very cold
16 ounces heavy whipping cream, very cold
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 cup balsamic vinegar
4 cups plus 1 cup hulled and diced strawberries, divided
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the egg whites and salt in a mixing bowl for a stand up mix fit with a whisk attachment. Whisk for 2 minutes on high and then add vinegar and cornstarch, while still whisking. Keeping the machine on, add the sugar in a slow, steady stream. Once sugar is all in, continue whisking until meringue is glossy and stiff peaks form, about 7 to 8 minutes.
Take half the meringue and place on a baking sheet. With the back of a large spoon, form into a 9-inch circle. Repeat with the remaining half on the other sheet. Place both in the oven and immediately turn the oven down to 225 F after you close the door. Bake for 90 minutes. Once the time is up, turn the oven off, leaving the pavlova in with the door closed for another hour. After that time is up, remove pavlova and place on a baking sheet until completely cooled.
To make the cream, place the mascarpone and whipping cream in a mixing bowl for a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Slowly whisk at first, building up to full speed after a minute or two (this is to keep the cream from going all over). Whisk on high for a couple of minutes, adding the almond extract, if using, toward the end. You should have soft peaks in your cream. Set aside until ready to use.
For the sauce, place the balsamic vinegar in a medium sauce pan and place over medium-high heat until it boils. Turn down to a simmer and allow to simmer until it’s reduced to about 1/4 cup. Add 4 cups of the berries, brown sugar, salt and zest, stir and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Take off the heat and smash the strawberries with the back of wooden spoon. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, and then add the remaining 1 cup of diced berries to brighten it up. Allow to cool completely before using.
To assemble the pavlova, place one pavlova on a cake stand and top with half of the cream. Top that with half of the strawberry sauce and then place the other pavlova on top of that. Repeat with the cream and sauce (allow the sauce to spill down the sides a bit). Slice like you would a cake. Keep covered in the fridge. Best if eaten within 24 hours.
ASPARAGUS, SPINACH AND FETA FRITTATA
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
6 egg whites
2 large eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 red onion, diced into small pieces
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
8 asparagus spears, tough ends removed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
1/3 cup feta cheese
2 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, minced
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg whites and whole eggs. Add a little salt and pepper and set aside.
In a small frying pan, heat up the olive oil on medium-high heat. Add onion and saute for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes. Add the asparagus and spinach. Cook until the asparagus is tender and the spinach is wilted.
Pour the egg mixture over the asparagus, spinach and onions. Sprinkle on half of the cheese. Cook for about 5-6 minutes on medium-low heat or until eggs are mostly set.
When the eggs are mostly set, sprinkle the frittata with the rest of the feta cheese and minced parsley. Put the pan into the oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the frittata is firm and the cheese is melted.
Cut frittata into wedges and serve.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours
Total time: 4 hours, 5 minutes
1 cup fresh blueberries or other berries, best if in season
1 1/2 cups orange juice
1 cup peach Schnapps
1 bottle Champagne
Place the blueberries, orange juice and Schnapps in a large pitcher and allow to chill for 4 hours, or overnight.
While stirring, pour the entire bottle of Champagne in the pitcher. The bubbles will flatten over time. Fill glasses with ice and pour sangria on top, allowing the blueberries to fall in the glasses.