Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ho Ho Ho!

Wishing you and your families a charmed Christmas! I'll be back on Monday!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Garland Land

When I went to the corner store to scope out their holiday decorating wares a few weeks ago, I spotted a large coil of pine garland all bound up. The chicken-scratch sign seemed to read "15 ft. $25". Let me just start by saying that I have no idea what the street value of pine garland is, so that seemed like a fair price to me, and seemed like the perfect length for my staircase, so I purchased what was essentially a rubber-tire sized bundle. However, when I got the thing home and untied all the bindings, I realized that I had misread the sign and it was actually 75 feet of garland (or 60 feet more than anyone could conceivably need in Manhattan), so then I felt simultaneously like a bargain shopper for getting so much, and like a sucker for paying so much in the first place for what I thought was less. And I was stuck with a lot of garland, and not a lot of apartment to put it in. So, I draped it over our mantles with ribbons and holly, wrapped it all the way up the railing, stuck bits of it into wreaths and on our Christmas tree, and festooned the railings of our balconies. It looks classic (very Currier and Ives), smells great, and still looks pretty, even after it's dried. It seems I discovered a great economical Christmas decoration by accident. Next year, I might buy 150 feet.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ready, Set... Go!

After a snow-covered New England weekend, my husband and I are looking forward to flying to sunny California tomorrow for Christmas and the rest of the week.
Today I am zipping around finishing my gift shopping and packing, and readying the apartment for the week it will spend alone.
To keep myself from going insane today, and from having that "oh no, rotten bananas!" moment when we return home, I compiled a checklist of must-dos before leaving for a trip. All of it is common sense, but common sense I have completely lost in the rush to get out the door to catch a flight.

Before You Go:

Clean out the fridge and kitchen of any produce or perishables that will go bad in your absence. Make sure you get rid of that Chinese Take-Out in the very back.

Unplug electronics you won't be needing. This will save them from damage in the event of an electrical storm, and will also save you money on your bill- a plugged-in microwave or TV uses electricity even when it's not in use.

Water all of your houseplants, and move them out of direct sunlight. They should be fine without another watering for at least a week. Throw out any cut flowers and rinse out the vase- those lovely blooms will be rotting corpses by the time you get back.

Pay your bills that will come due while you are away.

Do your laundry, even if you won't be needing any of it for the trip. Mildew-y towels are only going to get worse if you leave them in a hamper for a week. And while you're at it, do the dishes, too.

Make your bed and put away your clothes. Walking into a clean house or apartment after a long day of travel on your way back will help to take a little of the edge off of the fact that your vacation is over.

Hide your valuables. It's always wise to keep your most precious jewelry and whatnot in a non-obvious place, but it becomes even more important when you will be away from home for any length of time.

Ask a neighbor to take in your mail and newspaper or call and have the post office and paperboy put a hold on them so they don't build up outside, getting damaged and broadcasting your absence to n'er-do-wells.

Leave a key with a trusted friend or neighbor
. It's always good if there is at least one person who can get into your house in the event of an emergency (or if you realize on the way to the airport that you left the tea kettle on the stove).

Lock up (obviously). Make sure you walk around and get all the doors and windows, including those in the bathrooms, and in your basement or attic.

Set your thermostat/heater or air conditioner on very low (in the Winter/Summer), to avoid extreme temperatures in your apartment that can damage plants, electronics, and perishables.

Take out the trash. This is best done right before you walk out the door with your suitcase, so you make sure to get rid of anything that might get (even more) gross or smelly.

Turn out all the lights and make sure anything potentially dangerous (space heaters, curling irons, Christmas tree lights) are also off. If you have one (and are a real trickster), you can also set a timer to have a few lights come on at night.

Enjoy your trip (and let the relaxation begin)!

For a comprehensive packing list, click here. And if you have any tips of your own for leaving for a trip, please feel free to post them in the comments section!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Can't Live Without...Blush

With a dreamy snowstorm outside (at least on the East Coast) and the holiday spirit in the air, I doubt that many of you will be needing much artificial enhancement to get those glow-y sugarplums in your cheeks these days.
But should the need arise, I am here to suggest you make your next blush purchase NARS Blush in "Orgasm"($25).
I used to think of blush as something best reserved for geisha and old ladies, but this product made me change my tune. Because it's such a subtle and natural shade, it won't give you that clown-y cheek spots look or that glittery thing that some blushes have going on, even if you have to put it on in the dark. And due to some magic the mad scientists at Nars put in the recipe, it looks equally good on everyone, regardless of skin tone or complexion. You heard it here first- all that nonsense about needing to find the right shade for your skin type was total bull hockey- this is the right shade for everyone. Seriously.
If you don't believe me, stop by Sephora and get the "Orgasm" glow for yourself from their samples. Or you can get it the old-fashioned way...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fun with Onions

One of the most common cooking tasks that elicits the most unnecessary dread is chopping onions. If you do it wrong (and there are so many ways to do it wrong), you will spend 10 minutes with make-up streaming down your face, wrestling with chunks of onion and end up with uneven, sloppy chunks and a sliced thumb, when all you wanted was guacamole. This Good Housekeeping video illustrates the proper way.

I'm a total wimp about onion tears, so I have several of my own crying-avoidance strategies that aren't mentioned in the video that I've listed below, along with the basic steps.

1. Slice the onion in half, from root to tip, using a nice large chef or santoku knife (not a little paring knife or steak knife, people!)
2. Immediately place both of the flat open sides face-down on the cutting board to prevent the tear-inducing gases from escaping into the air.
3.Cut the tips off (but not the root) and peel both sides of the onion, throwing away the skins.
4. Take one half of the onion and slice it once or twice parallel to the cutting board.
4. Slice evenly into the onion from front to back making several even cuts without slicing through the root.
5. Slice across the onion evenly making nice even cubes.
6. Immediately transfer all of the onion pieces into a small bowl and cover with saran wrap or a plate (again, we are trying to contain the weepy juices here).
7. Repeat steps 4-6 with the other half of the onion.
8. Immediately rinse your cutting board with cold water.

*Use this exact technique for cubing potatoes, or adapt it for chopping garlic or shallots (just use a smaller knife and make more cuts in all directions).

*If you have a stainless steel sink, run your palms and fingers on the metal to get rid of the onion smell on your skin (it works, I swear!)

* If you aren't too vain, and really hate the tears, swimming goggles will completely protect your eyes. No cool guy, sunglasses won't work.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Kitschy Classics

At this time of year, if you aren't already sick of hearing all that holiday music in every store and in line at the bank, it can be nice to have a good go-to mix of holiday classics to play at home. Call me crazy, but nothing gets me in the mood for Christmas like hearing little Michael Jackson insist, "I did! I really did see Mommy kissing Santa Claus!" to his disbelieving brothers (I believe it's Tito who exclaims, "Aw, c'mon, Michael!) Personally, I've always been a fan of the kitschy oldies, even though I come from a family (and married a man) who favors the Three Tenors and the Messiah. These songs send me right back to a simpler, happier time that can feel sort of hazy and distant (because it was before I was alive). Somehow, listening to this music while baking cookies or wrapping presents makes it all feel that much more fun and festive. And it's a great mix for a party, too (unless you plan to invite my poor, suffering husband).
I posted my favorites as an iMix on the iTunes store, and you can see the full list below:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Log Blog

Who hasn't looked at a mossy, mushroom-covered log and thought, "I wish that was made out of chocolate cake, so I could eat it"? That's right, at some point or another, we've all made that wish, and, thankfully, it has finally come true. My family has always had a traditional büche de nöel (I've got mad punctuation skills) yule log cake for Christmas dinner, and for the last few years I have made it from scratch. The full recipe (find it here) takes the whole day- the log consists of a chocolate genoise cake rolled around a chocolate mousse center, frosted with chocolate ganache, and garnished with chocolate "bark" and meringue and chocolate mushrooms. It's surrounded by candied rosemary sprigs and cranberries, and then dusted with cocoa and powdered sugar. I take pleasure in the whole production of it, but it's a labor of love and care, and, I'm realizing, a total waste of time. At least, this year. My husband and I will be arriving at my childhood home in California on the afternoon of the 23rd, and I don't think I will be able to pull off the Christmas miracle it will take to put that thing together, and get all of my other baking in (and also spend the afternoon sunbathing and swimming in the pool with my friends and fam.) It pains me, but something's gotta give, and it looks like it's gonna be the log.
However, I have a couple strategies up my sleeve to make a close approximation of the original log, with very little of the elbow grease. My plan is to make this cake in its original log form, frost it with chocolate whipped cream, and decorate with pieces of store-bought toffee to represent the bark. See?- I know how to cut back and simplify.

Well, I might make the mushrooms ahead of time and pack them in my suitcase.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wrap Stars

I'm always impressed when people come up with creative ways of wrapping holiday presents beyond the Santa paper and stick-on bows from the drug store. No matter what is inside, if a gift is carefully and thoughtfully wrapped, it feels like the person giving it to you really cared (and if it turns out that it contains Paulie Walnuts cologne, at least you got to enjoy it for a few minutes before you opened it).

The package above was wrapped in white paper, and then a pattern and "bow" were carefully drawn on with markers- I found it on this crazy website called WrapArt that has tons of wild ideas with detailed how-tos.

This stack of gifts (the photo is from Martha Stewart) is wrapped paper made from color photo-copying pretty fabrics (copyright infringement, be damned!)

These wine bottles are wrapped in pretty linen napkins or dishcloths and tied with ribbon (photo is from Real Simple). A good way to dress up (or disguise) a re-gifted bottle from your last party.

I spotted this idea on Lupin's blog, Bugs and Fishes (and then everyone else's blog, because it got widely linked to- watch me jump on the bandwagon). So clever and personalized!

Lastly, I found these old pages from a 1960's ladies' magazine (Good Housekeeping, maybe) while zipping around the internet. I downloaded them, and then promptly and thoroughly forgot where I got them. But they are full of fun, kitschy wrapping ideas, and seem to prove that, when it comes to gifts, originality has always counted. That's a wrap!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Colour Like No Othour

In a thinly veiled attempt to distract you from the fact that I am too busy this morning to post anything original, I am posting my first video (I'll post some party pictures later). This is a commercial that Sony made a couple of years ago (so maybe you've seen it) by dropping 25,000 bouncy balls down a street in San Francisco. It puts me in a blissful calm mood every time I watch it. Though, when you think about it, 25,000 bouncy balls coming down a street at you would probably actually be totally terrifying.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just Chillin'

I'm a little behind on planning the menu for our holiday shindig tomorrow night. I always have so many dessert recipes I want to make that I have to pare back for fear of putting everyone into a sugar coma. But one thing I will definitely be making is my favorite no-bake Icebox Zebra Cake. My mom (and probably everyone's mom) used to make it in it's classic form- cookies stacked with whipped cream in a log shape. But I like to make it in a cake shape, like this photo from Smitten Kitchen. It's fast, delicious, and has to be made ahead of time (I'll make mine this afternoon), so I can just pull it out of the fridge right before the party.
The hardest part of making this cake is finding the elusive Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafer cookies it requires. I used to have to order mine in bulk from Amazon, but happily they sell them at the Gristede's grocery store by my new apartment (which was obviously a major selling point for this place for me). If you can't find them, you can sub in chocolate graham crackers, and break them to form the circle shape. the layers won't turn out as pretty, though, so you might want to "frost" the whole thing with more whipped cream before serving. A little more whipped cream never hurt anybody.

You will need:

3 cups whipping cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 (9-ounce) packages chocolate wafer cookies
Chocolate shavings

In a large bowl, beat cream, powdered sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form (if you don't have a mixer, you can use the canned whipped cream instead- you will probably need 2-3 cans of cream).

On a flat plate or cake stand, arrange 7 cookies in a flower shape, with 1 cookie in the center, and 6 around it.

Spread with 1/2 cup whipped cream, making a 7-inch circle (staying 1/2 inch away from the edge of the circle of cookies). Repeat with remaining cookies and cream, making 11 layers of cookies. If some of the cookies are broken, put them on the inside, and keep the pretty round edges on the outside. Top with a layer of cream (there will be a few cookies left over). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 8 hours).

Just before serving, sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wreath-thinking pt.2

Inspired by the gorgeous brussels sprout wreath I posted earlier, and my incredible luck at having a fireplace in my new kitchen (I like to pretentiously call it the hearth), I decided to make a veggie-themed wreath to decorate it. After a brief (45 minute) brainstorming sesh in the produce aisle, during which I manhandled every type of veg to test for durability (white asparagus was very tempting, but seemed iffy), I wired sprouts, radishes and mushrooms and attached them to a simple evergreen wreath that I bought for $8 from a street vendor. I finished the whole thing off with a gorge vintage ribbon that I may or may not have purloined from the ribbon closet at my old job.
You know what they say- home is where the hearth-wreath is (just don't try to say it ten times fast).

Rethinking Wreathing

I've been seeing a lot of unconventional wreaths around and loving it.

Look at this genius wreath made from brussels sprouts I saw on housemartin's blog! I (freakishly, I know) love brussels sprouts, so this wreath is somehow both adorable and appetizing to me.

You probably recognize this yarn ball wreath from the door of your local Starbucks- good for them for coming up with something so clever and cute. It's as sweet as a venti gingerbread latte.

These gumdrop and cotton-ball-and-white-pom-pom cuties are both from Martha Stewart. I've always loved the gumdrop one, but it seems like a lot of work spearing all those gumdrops into place, without any of the reward of getting to eat them.

On the other hand the pom-pom wreath just seems like it would be a fun afternoon spent glue-gunning, albeit one resulting in very linty fingers.

I haven't finished my own wreaths yet (far too lazy and behind in my decorating to start from scratch, I am just going to gussy up some evergreen ones I bought from a street vendor). I'll post photos this afternoon, once I have donned them in their gay apparel. Er, once they have donned their...Once their gay apparel has been donned. On them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In Nog We Trust

How much do you really know about George Washington? Sure, you know he was the first president of the United States, and had wooden teeth, and chopped down a cherry tree (to make more teeth, maybe). But did you also know that he was a major boozehound? George Washington built a rye whiskey distillery on the grounds at Mount Vernon, and some explanation for the erratic tree-chopping and rotten teeth may come from his (incredible) egg nog recipe. It takes up to a week to cure it (so plan ahead), and is made from mostly booze, cream and eggs with the caloric content of, well, a mixture of booze, cream and eggs. But it tastes fantastic and is guaranteed to make your holiday party a historic one (if there is anyone left with a memory of what transpires). It is absolutely delicious and has some serious kick, I cannot tell a lie.

2 cups brandy (like Hennessey)
1 cup rye whiskey (like Old Overholt)
1 cup dark Jamaica rum (like Myer's)
1/2 cup cream sherry (just ask at the liquor store)
10 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 quart milk
1 quart heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick

Mix all the liquor together in a pitcher (but be careful, you might get drunk from the fumes). Separate the egg yolks and whites into two large bowls. Using a mixer, beat the egg yolks while adding sugar, until the mixture turns a very light yellow (almost white). Slowly pour the liquor into the egg yolk mixture, while beating, until totally incorporated. Add milk and cream simultaneously, while continuing to slowly beat.

Clean your mixer beaters, and then beat the bowl of egg whites until stiff peaks form. Slowly fold the whites into the yolk/alcohol mixture, using a figure-eight motion. Add nutmeg and cinnamon stick and stir to combine. Cover and seal in an airtight container.

Allow egg nog to cure undisturbed for several days (4-7) in the coldest part of the refrigerator, or outside in a very cold (below 40 degrees) place. The mixture will separate as it cures, so just be sure to re-incorporate mixture before serving.

You know what they say, "those who can learn from history are happy to repeat it". Or something like that...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Basic In-Sink

One of the harsh realities of home ownership is that we no longer have a live-in Super whose job it is to take care of all of our little home emergencies, and, in fact, now that's our job (gulp). So last week when our bathroom sink stopped draining, I immediately reached for the phone to call the plumber. But then I hesitated and thought "maybe I can do this".
What followed was an epic journey that resulted in an expert list of strategies, a more complete knowledge of how plumbing works, and, finally, a lovely cleared drain.
If you would like to save yourself a couple hundred bucks next time your sink drain clogs, try these techniques. And avoid that sinking feeling.

1. Remove Stopper. The first thing to try if your sink won't drain or is draining slowly is to remove the stopper from the drain- there may be hair or soap stuck on it which is obstructing water flow. Most of them will either just lift or screw out, but if yours doesn't, it is probably attached to something under the sink- poke your head under and investigate- you should be able to disconnect it easily.
2. Boiling water. Take your biggest pot and fill it with water, and bring it to a boil on your stove. Carefully pour boiling water down the sink drain- the hot water should dissolve some of the gunk collected in your pipes and clear it away (hot tap water won't be hot enough to accomplish this). Note: if you have PVC or plastic pipes, skip this step, as the boiling water might warp them). I don't recommend using the toxic chemical drain cleaners (and neither do the real plumbers I referenced on the internet), simply because they don't really seem to work, and then you are stuck with toxic chemicals in your sink.
3. Plunge. Fill the sink will enough water to cover the head of a plunger (if you still have boiling water sitting in your sink, add some cold water so you don't burn yourself). You will want to use a cup plunger which is specifically for sinks (not a flange plunger, which is for toilets- for obvious reasons, it's good to have one of each, and not try to just use one for both purposes- gross). Make sure you cover the overflow drain in your sink with a wet washcloth or rag, so the plunger doesn't just drive the water right back out. Plunge vigorously about a dozen times. Remove the plunger and see what happens. If it doesn't work the first time, try again before you move to step 4.
4. Get Plumbery. If you've made it this far, the bad news is that you have a really stubborn clog. The good news is that now you get to feel like a real plumber. Take everything out from under your sink, and place a bucket under your pipes (if there isn't enough space, a rimmed baking pan will do). Using a wrench (or just your hands if it's not too tight), untwist the two bolt-y things that are holding on the J-shaped trap pipe (water, and hopefully the obstruction, will come pouring out into the bucket). There may be some pretty gross stuff in there, so be fore-warned. Rinse the trap pipe (not in this sink, genius), and reattach. Try to erase the sight of nasty gunky hairball from your memory, and enjoy your now-perfectly flowing sink.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Book Club...Ian McEwan

After Atonement-mania last year, if you haven't heard of Ian McEwan, well, I just feel sorry for you. But don't worry- you can quickly get caught up in what all the fuss is about. I recently read these two other McEwan books and recommend them both highly. Both take place over the course of one day in the lives of the characters, and in both books, the mundane details of that day are meticulously rendered but, somehow, never get boring. On Chesil Beach is a very short novel (I would call it a novelette...a novelino) about newlyweds on their wedding day in post-WWII England and their repressed fears and emotions- it is a brutal look at that period in history with a devastating ending. Saturday is the story of one man's "ordinary" day, which turns into a frightening nightmare. Even the unremarkable parts of the day (he visits his elderly mother, he plays squash with a friend) are rife with an odd tension which culminates in the end of the book. The writing is so precise that it takes on a sense of reality, and scenes from both books have stuck with me. I'm telling you, the man has chops.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Such a Card

Well, the holiday greeting cards have started arriving in our charmed mailbox (who are you organized people?!), and it seems like it's time for us to get cracking on ours. Here is our card from last year (my profile photo at right is one of the out-takes). We print ours using Kodak Gallery (and you can get 20% off using the code HOLIDAYGREEN at checkout), but for those less photographically inclined, I found some sweet pre-printed cards from my favorite vendors.
This cute car design is from iomoi. Everything they do is fully customizable with your own message (and they have the cutest matching address labels).

This deer card and swirly letterpress design are both from elum press. Their cards are all printed by hand and super creative.

I've always loved the super-simple single-color letterpress cards from Carrot and Stick Press. They have tons of cute designs and colors (including these snowflake and bow cards) and they make matching seating cards (for your holiday dinner table) that are the sweetest.

This "Three French Hens" card from Kate Spade is pretty charming (they are eating baguettes and wearing berets by the Eiffel Tower). The inside reads "...and a partridge in a pear tree". It's available from Kate's Paperie.

This wreath card and gumdrop card are both from Papersource. Cuteness.

Now to update my address book...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cookies for Rookies

If you want to bake special cookies for the holidays, but the thought of using a mixer makes you break out in hives, fear not. There are lots of easy ways to take refrigerated cookie dough from the grocery store and dress it up to make it seem like homemade.
My two favorites are Cranberry Chocolate Chip and Sugar Cookie Snickerdoodles.
To make the Cranberry Chocolate Chip cookies, take pre-made chocolate chip cookie dough and place scoopfuls of dough on the cookie sheet. Stick 8-10 dried cranberries in each blob of dough. Then just follow the instructions on the tube. The result will be festive, seasonal cookies.

To make the Snickerdoodles, just take 1 cup of sugar and 3 tablespoons of ground cinnamon and mix them in a small bowl. Roll each ball of sugar cookie dough in the mixture before you put it on the cookie sheet (and then follow the directions on the tube). Cinnamonderful!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Olive the Best

The last time my parents came to visit they brought me three of these citrus-infused olive oils from the Pearson Ranch ($16 each) as a little gift. Since then, I have become absolutely obsessed with them and cook with them almost every day. I used the Tahitian Lime one on fish, the Meyer Lemon one on asparagus and my favorite, the Blood Orange flavor, on steamed broccoli- so good. They are also delicious in salad dressing, on stir-fried veggies, or even just as a dip with a nice piece of bread. They sell similar ones at Trader Joe's and CostPlus, so go crazy. They make a great housewarming or hostess gift during the holidays- Olive 'Em!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Gift Guide Roundup

Now that it's December, it's time to get cracking on our holiday gift shopping. The first thing I do every year is consult my favorite magazines' and websites' gift lists for good ideas. Here are some of the best:
Domino: this magazine lists gifts by price, including a whole section of cute things under $1. And there are separate lists of art books and do-it-yourself gift projects.
Real Simple: All of the gifts on this list are under $50, and they have separate lists for moms, husbands, kids, and all the people on your list.
Lucky: Who better to turn to than Lucky for shopping lists? Every gift on their list is available for order online, and costs less than $50.
Design Sponge: This is one of the best blogs for well-designed ideas and products. They haven't come out with their 2008 gift guide, yet, but here is the link to all of last-year's guides.
InStyle: This magazine has gifts for all the different people on your list, and a special section of gifts that "give back".
New York Magazine: A comprehensive list of well-designed presents for the New Yorkers in your life.
People: People hasn't published their picks, but they did create a list of discounts for their readers at popular online retailers. Enjoy!