I Love 2009 Not...

Time recently christened the 2000s the "Decade from Hell" for reasons ranging from the September 11th terror attacks back in 2001, to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, to the Iraq War and the advent of the Great Recession. My decade was a mixed bag; I spent part of it in high school, which I hated, in college, which I enjoyed, unemployed and struggling to find a job, and entering the adult world for the first time. On a personal level, I don't know that I can call it the Decade from Hell, but it was certainly a decade of many life changes for me. The past year, however, was largely quiet -- I was steadily employed, and I spent much of my time expanding and solidifying my social circle and enjoying the urban lifestyle. There were, however, some downsides to life in 2009, which I shall dutifully chronicle here:
  • Most Annoying News Story of 2009: If there was one thing I was sick of hearing about in the news this year, it was grassroots Republican activism. I'm looking at you Glenn Beck, and you, the Tea Party people. Our country may have been founded in a revolution, but even the father of our country, George Washington, had no tolerance for anti-government rebellion. In 1791, the American citizenry was infuriated over a new tax on whiskey, levied by the federal government. When the people took up arms in protest, President Washington personally led US troops to suppress the insurrection. It was the only time in American history that a sitting president has ever personally commanded troops on the battlefield. It drives me crazy when these people invoke the will of our founders to justify their actions. To borrow one of the favorite memes of Glenn Beck, do you know what other fringe group got their start by bringing weapons to political rallies? The Nazis. As for Glenn Beck, he brings to mind another historical comparison -- Father Coughlin. In the 1930s, Father Coughlin harnessed the new medium of radio to attract a mass audience for his right-wing demagoguery. He openly espoused a pro-Fascist, anti-government philosophy and garnered millions of followers. He too sponsored a psuedo-revolutionary movement, the Christian Front, which was ultimately revealed to be plotting the assasination of government officials, "communists," and Jews. Today, we look back upon Father Coughlin and see the wrongness of his crusade. I can only hope that people open their eyes to Glenn Beck in the same way in 2010, and people stop paying attention to him as well.
  • Worst Chicago Moment of 2009: While I would like to give this "honor" to the CTA for its atrocious financial planning and the service reductions that are in store for the new year, I think the saddest moment for my fair city came in October, when Chicago lost its Olympic bid. Fear mongering regarding taxes and traffic hampered the bid from garnering the kind of public support it needed to be successful, and now the city has nothing concrete to aspire to in our near future. I think the Olympics would have provided a strong motivation to deal with some of our city's woes (like our crumbling infrastructure for instance), but now we will have free reign to pass such problems on to future generations. Plus, on a purely selfish level, I won't be able to watch Olympic events from my balcony, and that is sad indeed.
  • Biggest Earworm of 2009: It seems like I always have a song stuck in my head, but some are worse than others. In the past year perhaps no artist has been as as successful at making herself inescapable as Lady Gaga. She is a genius for keeping herself in the spotlight, and "Poker Face" was all over the airwaves in the first half of this year. It would get stuck in my head every time I heard it, and I am glad I don't have to hear it as often any more.
  • Least Favorite Book of 2009: Having read Cormac McCarthy's The Road earlier this year and completely loved it, I decided to further explore the author's oeuvre by taking along Child of God to read during my European vacation. I selected it largely based on length (it was short, and would take up little space in my suitcase), but I made a huge mistake. Whereas I have no qualms watching Criminal Minds or shows from the CSI and Law & Order franchises and being exposed to serial killers and perverts, Child of God taught me that reading about such things from a first-person perspective is more disturbing than I can handle. Books are more immersive than television, and as it turns out, I don't want to be immersed in the thoughts and experiences of a necrophiliac sociopath. It certainly didn't put me in a vacation-y frame of mind either. Bad call.
  • Worst Fashion Trend of 2009: I have yet to see the everyday woman who can pull off over-the-knee boots. Celebrities and models can handle a look that edgy, but every woman I've seen in them has either looked like a hooker or a pirate, and all of them have had a desperate fashion-victim vibe about them. I'd still rather see these on a woman than Uggs, but that's not saying much.
Phew! It feels good to let all of that out, and now that I have aired all of my beefs with the year that was, I can move into the new year with a clean slate. Next year will surely bring a new crop of annoyances, but at least they will be novel ones, at least initially. Frankly, if these are the worst things I can think of, then life is pretty good overall, I would say. Here's hoping my grievances in 2010 will be as light as they were in 2009!


I Love 2009...

I don't want to get into all the hours of my life that I have spent watching VH1's I Love the (Fill In The Blank) franchise of shows. Not that I regret it, mind you, it's just that it's a lot of hours, and I don't you to think that all I ever do is veg out in front of the television. The shows appeal to my interest in American culture (it was my second major in college after all), and my love of so many things kitschy. So, in the spirit of the television show and the rapidly approaching end of the calendar year, I thought I would take a moment to run down some of my favorite things from the year that was.
  • Favorite Album of 2009: Andrew Bird's Noble Beast. Nothing else even remotely comes close for me. End of story.
  • Favorite Movie of 2009: I only made it to 10 movies this year (I usually try to make one a month, but I was too busy with other things this year), but I felt that Up was the best of the bunch. Frost/Nixon was impeccable, but although I saw it in 2009, it was released in 2008. Precious was impressively acted, but it didn't strike the same emotional chord with me that Up did, even though it was a cartoon. Plus, Up is far more quotable. "Squirrel!!"
  • Favorite Theatrical Experience of 2009: I'm choosing the dark horse candidate in this category and going with Spring Awakening. The performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that I attended with Lisa was phenomenal, but Spring Awakening was so transcendent that it motivated me to download the soundtrack the moment I got home, and I practically wore it out on my iPod in the weeks that followed. It also introduced me to Lea Michele, who originated the role of Wendla on Broadway, and now stars in Fox's Glee, which brings me to the next award...
  • Favorite New Television Addiction of 2009: For the most part, I continued to watch the same portfolio of programs that I watched in 2008, with one exception -- my Wednesday night lineup. Where I once watched America's Next Top Model and Criminal Minds I have been prompted to abandon the former and catch the latter in syndication by Fox's scheduling of So You Think You Can Dance and Glee at the same time. I'll announce it right now: I'm a Gleek, and I'm proud! I've even gotten my Dad to start watching it, and turned him into a Lea Michele fan. If you aren't watching it, you should be.
  • Favorite New Recipe of 2009, Entree: I cooked so many things this year that I had to divide this one into two categories. The best entree I prepared this year (and have prepared several times subsequently) is a pasta sauce that I added to my repertoire a couple months ago -- Sardinian Sausage Sauce. It has a pleasantly piquant kick from hot Italian sausage, and a subtle earthiness from saffron, the dish's secret ingredient. It feels a little luxurious and decadent to use saffron in a home cooking, which turns an otherwise humble dish into a special weeknight meal.
  • Favorite New Recipe of 2009, Dessert: Oddly enough, despite the hours I dedicated to the Cookie Bonanza, and the elaborate linzer cookies and iced sugar cookies I prepared for it, and the time-consuming caramelized white chocolate ice cream I made with my new ice cream machine, the only dessert that made it into my recipe book this year (where I collect only the most worthy recipes that I know I want to replicate) was for peaches and cream popsicles. They were luscious, refreshing, and simple to make. Plus, there are few things better than a homemade popsicle eaten on the porch on a hot summer's day.
  • Favorite Chicago Moment of 2009: I have had some great moments with my beloved city this year. I saw Riverace (Mr. Vincent Falk) twice, attended some great summer festivals, and realized my dream of riding all the CTA train lines, but my greatest Chicago moment this year was having my photo taken with Da Mare himself. It doesn't get any more Chicago than Mayor Daley, the two are practically one and the same.
There you have it ladies and gentlemen. Stay tuned for my thoughts on what was not so great in 2009, and what I won't miss in the year to come...


Merry Christmas...

Yes, I am fully aware that I am posting this on December 26th, and not December 25th. That's because the big Wyatt family celebration no longer occurs on the actual day of Christmas, so that it better fits into the packed holiday schedules of all the assorted branches, twigs, and leaves of our family tree. It's more important to us to be all together than to have the celebration on a specific day. We did have a smaller gathering on Christmas Day, but there were no presents and no special activities, just tasty food and good company, so I skimped on the photo-taking.

Today, however, I snapped away to my heart's content, so I thought I would walk you through a photo journal of all the day's festivities:

Three generations -- Me, Grandma Betsy, and Mom.

It's a little repetitive, but it's such a good photo of the two of us that I wanted to include this one too.

I'm not quite sure how I became the family expert in pigs-in-a-blanket making, but it has been my solemn duty for years now. This year's batch was by far my most challenging, as the cans of Crescent Rolls exploded dough shrapnel all over the kitchen, and I had to perform a salvage operation using the remaining scraps to wrap up the Little Smokies. It was touch and go for a while, but they turned out fine in the end.

New mommy Aimee with Mya.

Every year we try to take a group photo with all my cousins' kids, and every year, it's a struggle to get everyone to smile and/or at least look at the camera. This year it was Will's turn to cry (far right). From left, Braden, Madelyn (holding baby Mya), Avery, Ben, Abbie, Jalen, and Will. As a reward for sitting through the photo, we let the kids open their presents. So as to garner no accusations of favoritism, here is a picture of everyone:

Avery and Abbie are close in age, and were play buddies all day long. Here they are opening gifts together.

The one picture I got of Will when he wasn't crying, and he's picking his nose instead. Braden is on the left.

Baby Ben liked the wrapping paper almost as much as the gifts inside.

Madelyn, sporting a fetching ribbon necklace.

Jalen, completely engrossed in tearing open one of his gifts.

My default position for the weekend, cradling a sleeping Mya.

Mom and Dad had a great time calling the second annual Bingo game. My prize was a bright pink Snuggie, the photo of which I have omitted upon discovery that the Snuggie is perhaps the least figure-flattering contraption ever devised.

Grandma Betsy, playing Bingo.

Ben is a squirmy bundle of smiles, and he and Mom had a blast entertaining each other.

Abbie and I were headband twins, even though she left her red one at home.

It was a great day. Everyone had fun, and we narrowly avoided disaster when Aunt Brenda's dog Missy escaped its harness when it was being walked outside. Cousin Jason became the hero of the day when he found Missy down the street and brought her back. With a major crisis averted, we can all reflect fondly on a day of rambunctious children, traditions new (Bingo) and old (the pigs-in-blankets), good food, and family unity. I am blessed to have such a large and happy family, and that so many of us are able to be together for this special time each year. I, for one, am already eagerly looking forward to Christmas 2010!


Frosty The Snowman...

There is truly no rest for the weary. After the seven types of cookies I prepared for the Cookie Bonanza, I really didn't even want to think about cookies again until well into 2010, but today, after babysitting Mya, Grandma asked me to decorate some frosting-intensive cookies for the family children. Since there would be no wreath cookies to decorate this year, I agreed. As always, we established an assembly line in which Mom frosted and I embellished with candy. Evidently, the twelve hours I dedicated to cookies with royal icing this year does not cancel out the effects of tradition -- I will always be on red-hot placement duty at Grandma Betsy's.

Thankfully, these cookies were much faster to make than the ones I undertook. Grandma made them from a Pillsbury slice-and-bake loaf, and the decorating took less than thirty minutes. If you want to copy them for next year, all you need is chocolate chips for the eyes, candy corn for the nose, and red-hots for the mouth.

Theoretically, they were intended for child consumption, but they were pretty popular with a certain grown-up frosting enthusiast.

Baby, Baby, It's A Wild World...

Today, Mom and I headed over to my cousin Aimee's house to watch her brand-new baby daughter, Mya, whilst her parents made a diaper run and completed other assorted pre-Christmas errands. Although I generally don't have the touch when it comes to babies (clearly, I am far, far, far away from being ready to have children of my own), Mya and I got along rather well this weekend, probably on account of Mya's impressive sleeping skills. She'll sleep through anything, as long as it's daytime and the adults in her life aren't trying to get any rest of their own. As a result, I spent a lot of time holding, napping with, and playing "baby paparazzi" with my littlest cousin. Here are the results of today's photo shoot:

Mya likes to lay with her legs crossed. Her parents keep mittens on her to protect her perfect complexion after she scratched her nose last week.

It's a rare thing to catch her with her eyes open, but there they are!

Someday, she will not appreciate that I captured this moment, but for now, I think it's pretty great.

More yawning. It's hard to be a newborn!

Smiley Mya.

It's a little scary for me to think about the fact that Aimee is the family member who is closest to me in age, and she already has a child. We used to play "house" together growing up, and now she has a real husband and baby of her own. Logically, I know that I'm still young, that I have plenty of time, and that everyone's life takes a different path, but it's times like this that I feel very much like I'm still a kid, playing a game called "life as a grown-up." I'm sure someday I will reflect fondly on these days before I had a husband, a family, and real responsibilites, but for now I feel like I'm still waiting for my "real" life to start. For the moment though, I'm still pretty content to be able to enjoy the cuteness of my cousins' children from afar. After all, when they aren't yours, you can always hand them back when there's a dirty diaper...


I'll Be Home For Christmas...

The State of Haley will be on hiatus through the end of the week while I travel downstate to spend Christmas with the Wyatt side of the family. I hope you and your family have a lovely holiday, complete with cherished traditions, newly created memories, and, of course, delicious festive treats!

Merry Christmas!


Joyful And Triumphant...

Phew! After three days in the kitchen, I finished baking the 320-ish cookies that comprised the 2009 Cookie Bonanza. I packed them into seasonal-printed boxes (from Martha Stewart, naturally) with clear-acetate tops so that you would be able to see the bounty within. I also printed and included a paper insert for each box with warm wishes for the holiday season and a description of the contents of the packages. Everyone received the following assortment of cookies:
  • 2 iced sugar cookies
  • 2 chocolate peppermint cookies
  • 2 cashew caramel linzer cookies
  • 3 chocolate gingerbread cookies
  • 3 maple pecan shortbreads
  • 4 lemon ginger cookies
  • 5 vanilla spritz cookies
I packed six boxes for my favorite coworkers, and a large bag of miscellaneous cookies to place in the office kitchen for those not lucky enough to be on my list for individual boxes. The cookies were very well-received. I got emails and office visits from appreciative colleagues all day long, and even one hug. It may have been a ton of work, but the true joy of the season is all in the giving.

Reflecting on this year's Cookie Bonanza, I feel pretty good about my offerings. I was proud to have increased the selection from last year's five cookies to seven this year, owing to better advance planning. I think I had a good balance of flavors, and I represented a wide array of techniques, with three drop cookies, one pressed cookie, three cut-out cookies, one of which was a sandwich cookie and one of which I decorated with royal icing for the first time. There might have been a slight bias towards shortbread-textured cookies, but I think that's acceptable. My only regret was not having a thumbprint-style cookie, but I felt I already had enough chocolate offerings and the only thumbprint cookies that caught my interest this year boasted chocolate fillings. Besides, it's good to leave something to aspire to for the Cookie Bonanza 2010.

I must say though, I am thoroughly sick of cookies. Besides one of the cashew caramel linzer cookies that I forced myself to eat to assess whether they were worthy of sharing with people, a few spritz cookies, and a lemon ginger cookie that I broke removing from the cookie sheet, I've barely eaten any of my own production. I get exhausted just thinking about all of them. But I am happy to have made other people happy, and that's what the Christmas spirit is all about.


Inspiration Strikes...

Continuing in today's theme of cookies inspired by Christmas gifts this year, the final selection for the 2009 Cookie Bonanza was an experiment that I devised to utilize an adorable set of mini-cookie cutters that I received from Mom this year. I did not want to fuss with 1-inch cookies, but I did think they would make cute cut-outs for windows on Linzer-style cookies, a traditional holiday sandwich cookie consisting of almond-flecked shortbread cookies sandwiching a jam filling, with a hole in the top cookie to allow the filling to peek through. Since I don't care for jam or almonds, I had always avoided these cookies, but I was attracted to their appearance. Drawing further inspiration from Latin-American alfajores, a sandwich cookie with dulce de leche filling, I decided to engage in a little culinary fusion of my own and make a linzer-style cookie with cashews instead of almonds, and dulce de leche instead of jam.

The cookies were somewhat of a pain to assemble -- the mini-cookie cutters were cute indeed, but the holes they punched in the already crumbly dough caused many to break before I could get them on the cookie sheet. I remedied the problem by cutting the holes once the cookies were already on the sheet, but all the rolling and cutting was a hassle nevertheless. Dad was staying the night at the condo as I filled these this evening, and he commented on my very "methodical" (i.e. slow) process for sandwiching the filling for the final product. All things considered, these are most definitely special occasion cookies, and I'll be saving them for the holidays.

Which is to say that they were certainly tasty enough to make again. I had kept these a secret from everyone I discussed my cookie project with, because I was just going to pitch them if they didn't work out as I had hoped, but they were such a resounding success that I'm prepared to share my creation with the world. Just goes to show, you shouldn't be afraid to experiment with recipes, within reason.

Cashew Caramel Linzer-style Cookies
loosely adapted from The Field Guide to Cookies

1 1/4 c. lightly salted cashews
2 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
1/2 c. dulce de leche, for filling

1. Using food processor, finely grind cashews with flour.
2. Combine the cashew mixture with cinnamon and baking powder in a bowl and set aside.
3. In stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
4. Add egg and mix until combined. Add cashew mixture and beat on low speed until dough forms a ball.
5. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a 1-inch flat disk. Wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 350. Line baking sheets with parchment.
7. Roll out dough to approximately 1/8 inch thickness. Cut out shapes with a 2 or 2 1/2 inch fluted round cutter. Use a small cutter to make cutouts in half of the cookies, so that when you make sandwiches, the filling will show through. Place cookies on a sheet one inch apart.
8. Chill sheets for 15 minutes before baking.
9. Bake cookies 12-14 minutes until lightly browned and fragrant. Cool cookies completely on wire racks.
10. When cookies are completely cool, spread a small amount of dulce de leche on the solid cookies, and top with cutout cookies. Let sit a couple hours to firm up before moving.

Once filled, cookies will only last approximately 24 hours before becoming soggy.

Who Says Vanilla Has To Be Boring...

The sugar cookies that I slaved over most of the day yesterday might be the most attractive cookie in this year's Cookie Bonanza assortment, but the diminutive Spritz cookies that I also made and piped at the same time are far more delicious. Since Mom had gifted me a cookie press this year for Christmas, I felt I should employ it to make Spritz cookies, the buttery shortbread-style cookies that are common around the holidays, and often sent in tins as a corporate gift. This recipe, which I had spotted (again) in Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake And Share, blows those mundane tins of butter cookies out of the water. Flavored with real vanilla beans (which gave me a much-appreciated excuse to peruse the local gourmet shop) and a hint of cinnamon, these bite-sized cookies are dangerously addictive. If you happen to have a cookie press sitting around collecting dust somewhere, this recipe comes highly recommended from me.

To make them extra-special for Christmas, I decided to accentuate them with a bit of festive piping, to underscore the fact that they are supposed to be Christmas trees. Martha suggested dusting them with cinnamon sugar when they were hot out of the oven, which I thought overpowered the delicate vanilla flavor. If you are going to go the dusting route, I would suggest vanilla sugar, but frankly, they are perfectly tasty when left plain.

Vanilla-Bean Spritz Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 vanilla beans, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved
1 c. sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large egg yolks

1. Preheat oven to 350. Whisk together flour, salt, and cinnamon.
2. Beat vanilla seeds and sugar with a mixer on medium speed until incorporated, about three minutes (sugar will clump together slightly). Add butter, and beat until pale and fluffy. Add egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture, and beat until just smooth.
3. Divide dough into portions the size of your cookie press barrel. Pack one portion of dough into the press (Martha suggests using the wreath-shaped die, but I thought mine looked too much like a flower, so I went with the Christmas tree die), and press shapes about an inch apart onto baking sheets. Bake until edges are golden, 9 to 12 minutes.
4. Let cookies cool on wire racks. For a festive touch, pipe with royal icing, or leave plain. Cookies will keep for up to 4 days in an airtight container.

Labor of Love...

Yesterday was a very busy day for me. My parents stayed with me on Saturday evening, and we went out for brunch, after which celebrated our nuclear family Christmas by listening to some festive tunes on my new stereo and opening our gifts so that we wouldn't have to carry them to Grandma's house later this week. I got some great gifts, most of which pertained to cooking and entertaining, and some of which I had acquired early and pressed into service at my cookie exchange and in my cookie baking efforts this season.

One of my gifts was a Martha Stewart cake and cookie decorating kit, full of piping tips and bags, gel food colorings, and other useful utensils. With this new tool in my arsenal, I decided to tackle a new realm of cookie for my annual holiday giveaway, one which I have long avoided as too complicated and daunting -- the iced sugar cookie. Generally speaking, I seldom make cookies that have to be cut out, because I don't like icing, and most of them are too bland to eat without it. Plus, they are a ton of work, and I didn't have the proper tools to do a nice job decorating, and anything that's worth doing is worth doing right. With the proper tools in hand, I decided it was time to expand my repertoire.

First, you have to pipe all of your borders with a slightly thicker version of the icing and allow it to dry. I had troubles with my piping, as it was my first time, and I was wary of making the icing too runny, so I erred on the side of too thick and I made my hand sore from having to squeeze the piping bag so hard.

After the piping has dried, you fill in the large areas with a thinner consistency icing. This is called "flooding." Again, I did not thin my icing sufficiently, so my icing was not very smooth. However, one benefit of the thicker frosting was that it had less moisture to evaporate, so my cookies were dry enough in an hour to pipe the final decorations. Ordinarily, the cookies need six hours or so to dry first. Also, you will note that there is one fewer snowflake now, because I ran out of icing. Oops...

The final product. Overall, they aren't quite as perfect as I had envisioned them in my mind, but I'm trying to cut myself some slack since it was my first time decorating cookies with royal icing. The snowflakes and the stockings turned out to be my favorites.

Although the snowflakes have perhaps the least-attractive base coat of icing, I really liked my piping job, and the sugar pearls that I decorated them with. I used tweezers to place the pearls, which was tedious, but well worth it.

The snowmen ended up being my least-favorite. I'm not crazy about their little smiley faces, which I think makes them look like they were decorated by a little kid, and I had a lot of trouble with the black flood icing I made for the hats. I got it too runny (in contrast to the rest of my icing), and most of it leaked out under the piped edges. I also experimented with putting the sanding sugar directly on the wet frosting, which took forever to dry.

The stockings ended up being the most fun to decorate, since I could let my imagination run wild and experiment with different patterns and piping techniques. Basically, each one represents a test sample for future piping endeavors. For these, I used a technique for adhering sanding sugar that I had read about on a cookie decorating blog: instead of pouring sugar on the wet icing, I allowed the cookies to dry and painted on a mixture of meringue powder mixed with water and poured the sugar on that instead. I found that it worked much better and took less time to dry.

Labor has been much on my mind this past week, since my cousin Aimee gave birth to her first daughter, Mya, last Wednesday. After working on these cookies for nearly twelve hours, I could only hope that cookie decorating would be somewhat akin to childbirth -- that eventually the memory of the suffering would fade away and I would find the motivation to do it again some day. These cookies were a lot of work. Granted, now that I have some experience under my belt, my future attempts might go more quickly, and turn out more attractively. Still, I don't think these were so bad for a first try. I've certainly seen worse on the blogosphere this season. Practice makes perfect they say.


I'm The Gingerbread (Wo)Man...

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is the smell -- that heady mix of cinnamon and cloves that becomes available in potpourri, candles, lotions, and other potions for a few precious months every year. When I was a little girl, Mom would bring out the seasonal potpourri and air freshener and it was always an early sign that Christmas was at hand. I usually stock up on these products during the holidays and use them during the rest of the year, seasonally appropriate or not. Who says it can't smell like cinnamon in my house in July?

My love for the wafting aroma of spices in the air is chiefly responsible for why I am so in love with the idea of gingerbread. With scent so closely linked to our sense of taste, why shouldn't I love a cookie that embodies my most cherished aroma? Unfortunately, I find that my disdain for the flavor of molasses impedes any ability I might have to enjoy gingerbread. I keep trying to force myself to like it, but so far, it's just not happening. Still, even though I don't particularly care for it, gingerbread is somewhat de rigueur when it comes to Christmastime, so I decided to include some in my annual Cookie Bonanza nevertheless.

This particular recipe has been in my repetoire since a holiday party I attended last year, for which I wanted to bring a dessert, but the host had an allergy to eggs. Since most egg-free cookie recipes fall into the sandy and crumby category (as in shortbreads), I thought these chewy gingerbread cookies, enhanced with a hint of cocoa and rich chocolate chunks, might provide a nice departure from what my friend was used to eating. The cookies were such a big hit at the party that I included them in last year's Cookie Bonanza, and when I passed them over in favor of other selections for my cookie exchange last weekend I found myself faced with disappointed guests. This year, I added even more spices than called for in the original recipe (since I had them on hand), which helped mask more of the molasses flavor, such that I was able to enjoy them more than my previous attempts. I must bake what my public commands, but that doesn't mean I can't try to enjoy the fruits of my own labor.

Chewy Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart*

7 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1 1/2 c. plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamon
1 tablespoon Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/2 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
1/2 c. brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. unsulphured molasses 1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons boiling water
1/4 c. granulated sugar

1. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, spices, and cocoa powder. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together butter and fresh ginger until lightened in color, about 4 minutes. Add brown sugar; beat until combined. Add molasses; beat until combined.
3. In a small bowl, dissolve baking soda in boiling water. Beat half of the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Beat in the baking soda mixture, followed by remaining flour mixture until just combined. Stir in chocolate chunks by hand. Turn mixture out onto a piece of plastic wrap, pat dough out into a 1 inch thick round and seal. Refridgerate at least 3 hours or overnight.
4. Preheat oven to 325. Roll dough out into 1 1/2 inch balls (dough will be sticky so work quickly), and place 2 inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Refridgerate 20 minutes. Roll dough balls in granulated sugar and return to baking sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes until surfaces are slightly cracked. Cool on wire racks.

*Yes, this is yet another recipe from Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake And Share. That's the fourth one so far this season, for those of you who are keeping track. Before this month, this was the only recipe that I'd tried from this book after owning it more than a year. I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to it now, but I suspect it has something to do with the fabulous pictures. I am truly envious of the food styling skills of the Martha Stewart staff...


Tis The Season...

The holidays are all about the joy of giving. We give presents so that we can see the joy on people's faces when they open them, and to show them how much we care for them. I prefer to show my love through baking, which sometimes means that I bake things not because I enjoy eating them, but because it will make somebody else happy to eat them. Such was the case with the first thing I remember learning how to bake -- lemon bundt cake. My Aunt Lois was staying with me while my mother was out of town (with Dad working long hours as always, someone needed to be there when I got home from school), and we decided to bake something for Dad that he would like. Dad had had Lois' lemon cake before and liked it, so that's what we made that day, and for several years, it was the only thing I knew how to bake, which is ironic, because I don't even like lemon. I've lost track of how many times I've made that cake -- lemon is always a crowd pleaser -- and while I always enjoy the process of baking it, never once have I enjoyed eating it. It is something that I only do for the benefit of others.

Similarly, when I was curating the list of cookies to include in my annual Cookie Bonanza, I was trying to achieve a balance of flavors. I already had chocolate and peppermint, in the form of my Chocolate Peppermint Cookies; maple in the form of my Maple Pecan Shortbreads; I knew I was going to make some decorated sugar cookies utilizing my new decorating set, and some spritz cookies using my new cookie press; I wanted a spice cookie, and that left me an opening for one more. I wanted to make thumbprint cookies with a chocolate filling (I don't care for fruit in my cookies), but I already had a chocolate cookie in the mix. Going through my spice shelf for inspiration, I came across a bottle of crystallized ginger that was nearing its expiration date, so I started looking for a recipe to use it up. Lo and behold, I found one for a lemon ginger cookie. I don't care for lemon, but I knew that the people receiving my cookies would probably appreciate a lemon offering, so I made up a batch.

The unusual dough contained no leaveners, resulting in a sandy, crumbly cookie, accentuated by the crackly coating created by the pre-baking dip in egg white and sugar. The cookies were refreshing, and not exceptionally ginger-y, besides some residual heat on the palate after consumption. I'm sure the ginger flavor would have been more pronounced if I had used a fresher bottle of crystallized ginger. Since I knew I was doomed to dislike the cookies due to their flavor combination, I brought a few to work to test out on Natasha, a self-professed ginger enthusiast. They won her stamp of approval, so if you like lemon, feel free to treat yourself to a batch of these. If you don't like lemon, consider making them for someone in your life who does. They'll appreciate every tasty morsel.

Ginger & Lemon Cookies
adapted from The Best of Fine Living: Cookies, 2008

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 c. plus 2 T. granulated sugar
3 T. finely grated fresh ginger
finely grated zest of one lemon
1/4 tsp. salt
2 large egg yolks
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. pure lemon extract
11 1/4 oz. all-purpose flour
2 T. finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 egg white, lightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. In bowl of a stand mixer, combine the butter, 3/4 cup of sugar, grated ginger, lemon zest, and salt, and beat on medium speed until well-blended and light, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla; continue mixing until well-blended, 30 to 60 seconds. Add the flour and mix on low speed until the dough is blended and just comes together.
3. In a small bowl, combine crystallized ginger and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and roll in eggs whites. Dip the tops of the dough balls in the sugar/crystallized ginger mixture, and set the balls 1 1/2 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets.
4. Bake 11-13 minutes until cookies are light brown around the edges. Let cookies cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to complete cooling.


Santa Claus Is Coming To Town...

I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with the CTA, one that has most definitely been treading into hate territory the past week since I sprained my foot at the hands of an overly aggressive bus driver. However, in spite of all my present mass transit rage, there is still one aspect of the CTA that I'm willing to celebrate, one which remains untouched by the deprivations of the current economic crisis, and of which I can muster no criticisms: the Holiday Train. Today, I stood twenty minutes on the platform waiting, sprained foot and all, for the annual Holiday Train to make one of it's three scheduled appearances on the Red Line to catch a glimpse of Santa.

Every December, the CTA rolls out a festively decorated train, complete with a flatbed bearing Santa, his sleigh, and his reindeer. It travels each of the eight train lines on different days, and the CTA provides estimated times of arrival online so that you can coordinate your travel accordingly. I've never caught it when it was going in a direction I needed to travel, so I've never had the occasion to ride it, but I am sufficiently cheered by its mere presence that I don't feel any sense of loss over it.

I became aware of the Holiday Train during my first holiday season living in the city. I had been doing some Christmas shopping, and was waiting for a southbound train to head home. While I waited, a northbound train started pulling into the station, emanating Christmas music. I turned to find the source of the sound when I saw Santa speed by, surrounded by a blur of lights. It was there and gone so quickly, and I was so surprised, I almost wondered if I was hallucinating the entire thing. Of course, I didn't have the presence of mind to take a photo, so I had only my memories as a reminder of the event. I subsequently researched the phenomenon and discovered that I had inadvertently stumbled upon a Chicago tradition.

Last year I didn't manage to catch the train again, but this year I made a point of squeezing it into my December schedule. I felt a little ridiculous waiting for it, as I was clearly the only adult there not accompanied by children, but it was totally worth it. The train pulled into the station with its music blaring, and a very jolly Santa greeting all the passersby. CTA staff dressed as elves passed out candy and oversaw the passengers boarding the train so that the train would not leave anyone at the station. I was sufficiently cheered by its arrival, but the best reactions came from the unsuspecting commuters waiting on the platform to catch their usual ride home. They shrieked with joy, whipping out cell phone cameras and calling friends to tell them about their experience. It was pretty fantastic.

I was particularly pleased to see that the CTA staged the Holiday Train again this year, despite all the budget shortfalls. The Christmas tree in Daley Plaza might have been a complete disappointment, but the CTA (which fails at so many things in general) managed to bear the standard in defending our municipal holiday traditions. Goodness knows we could all use a little extra holiday cheer this year.


Sugar and Spice...

I'm not sure what it is about Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake And Share this year, but it seems to be holding some sort of strange power over my imagination. I've already baked two new recipes from it in the last few weeks, and yet despite the pile of other cookie recipe books sitting on my counter at the moment, I can't stop turning to Martha for inspiration. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is the holidays, a time that invites ever more spectacular feats of baking with which to impress your friends and family. Nothing says over-the-top and fussy like Martha Stewart.

This time, it was a recipe for Gingersnap Palmiers that caught my fancy. The concept of the recipe seemed deceptively simple: dust puff pastry with a layer of sugar and spices, roll up, bake, and glaze. I was so excited by this impressive, yet seemingly easy dessert that I bought the ingredients and set my mind on serving them at my cookie exchange. It wasn't until I was ready to make the cookies that I carefully read the instructions and discovered the mess that I had gotten myself into. The recipe was rife with annoying sessions of freezing, thawing, and re-freezing the dough. The instructions themselves seemed poorly conceptualized, with steps that were virtually impossible given their sequencing. I ended up improvising several techniques to cope with the failed directions, but my results weren't everything I imagined they would be.

Instead of crisp and buttery like a typical palmier, these were seriously soft and sticky (a result of all the molasses in the glaze). During the baking process, they came mostly uncoiled, a condition which I had to try to rectify when the palmiers were fresh out of the oven, and still very warm. I had added a great deal of additional spices to Martha's suggestions, which made for a spicy, complex flavor that was quite enjoyable, but
given all the hassle of preparation, I didn't find them to be worth the effort. Sometimes, my reach exceeds my grasp, even with Martha Stewart on my side.

Gingersnap Palmiers
adapted from Martha Stewart

1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1/4 c. unsulfured molasses
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger
1/4 c. water
2/3 c. granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon cardamon
1 package puff pastry, thawed

1. Bring brown sugar, molasses, ginger, and water to a simmer in a saucepan, whisking until sugar has dissolved. Simmer until slightly thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour syrup into a bowl; let cool.
2. Whisk granulated sugar, salt and spices in a bowl. Lightly sprinkle some sugar mixture over a clean work surface; place puff pastry on top. Brush generously with syrup. Sprinkle generously with some sugar mixture; press into pastry with a rolling pin. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll from both long sides, meeting in the center; brush with syrup to seal. Sprinkle generously with sugar mixture. Wrap in plastic; freeze until firm, at least 3 hours or up to overnight.
3. Cut each piece of frozen dough crosswise into 1/2 inch slices, seam side down. Dip in sugar mixture. Space 2 inches apart on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Flatten with your palm. Freeze 30 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 425. Bake 10 minutes. Flip, and brush with syrup. Reduce oven temperature to 400. Bake until darkened, 10 minutes more. Let cool completely on wire racks.


Ms. Haley's Opus...

A few weeks ago, I got a summons from the HR department, notifying me that I had been drafted into serving on the Peer Recognition Committee. Apparently, my supervisor had appointed me, without consulting me before hand. There is basically no committee in the museum that I would rather serve on less -- the main purpose of the group is to script and perform in a skit that recognizes special achievements by the museum's staff in the past year. I was fine with helping select the award winners, but I had absolutely no desire to participate in a performance in front of all my coworkers; I would have been having stage-fright-driven panic attacks for weeks before hand. To keep myself out of the skit, I volunteered to produce a media component for the performance.

We settled on a political theme for this year's production: the "Special Achievement by a Non-Supervisory Employee Award" became the "Bleepin' Golden Award," in a nod to Illinois' notorious former governor; the "Mentor Award" became the "Great Communicator Award," named after Ronald Reagan; the "Unsung Hero Award" became the "Ask Not What Your Museum Can Do For You Award" in reference to Kennedy's famous inaugural address; the "Organizational Distinction Award" for teamwork became the "Yes We Can Award." The skit would be conducted like a political press conference, with one of our group members playing the role of Farrah Schmalin, a Sarah Palin parody.

My media component would be a YouTube question for the press conference, riffing on the ridiculous attempt at integrating social media into the 2008 presidential debates. My coworker, Matt, and I got assigned the task of producing the video, in which we interviewed our fellow CHM employees about what they looked for in an "Ask Not What Your Museum Can Do For You Award" recipient. In keeping with the tongue-and-cheek nature of the skit, we attempted to solicit humorous responses from our peers. This video, in which Matt stars, has taken up an inordinate amount of my time over the last week, so I thought I would share my handiwork with all of you on the occasion of today's Peer Recognition Award Ceremony:

Thankfully, the awards went astonishingly well. Stephanie's rendition of Farrah Schmalin was spot on, and drew raucous laughs and applause. Our transitions to our technological components (such as the above YouTube clip) went smoothly, and most importantly (to me at least), my colleagues appreciated the humor of our video. Matt's intentionally corny intro was a crowd-pleaser, as was the reference to the collapsed ceiling in Heidi's office, Jill the curator's lounging soliloquy delivered from a swan, and the bit involving Russell, the Vice President and boss to many, including myself. I am happy that it went well, but I am even happier that the Peer Recognition Awards are over and I can move on with my life.



There is only one musician who could prompt me to justify standing outside in sub-freezing temperatures on a sprained ankle and foot and a bruised knee tendon (I went to the doctor this morning to confirm the diagnosis) to wait for an optimum general admission seat for a concert in which mostly instrumental music would be played. That artist is Andrew Bird. He is far and away my favorite musician. I love his work so much that I can't even identify my favorite song of his, because I enjoy all of them so much. His style is an eclectic fusion of his virtuosic violin talent layered with guitar and his own whistling, which he records on stage and plays back to accompany his vocals. His songwriting, while often nonsensical, demonstrates a remarkable talent for stringing together obscure and erudite words that sound pleasant when combined.

Although this clip isn't from the specific concert I saw tonight, it demonstrates how he layers together his music to create a song.

I first became aware of Andrew Bird when I was in college and my friend Joy recommended him to me. I downloaded his CD, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and was completely blown away. I've subsequently fallen in love with his later works, Armchair Apocrypha and Noble Beast. Joy had told me all those years ago that Andrew Bird was absolutely incredible live, but I didn't have an opportunity to see him until he performed a free concert in Chicago's Millennium Park in the summer of 2007. I went with a friend, and our lawn seats were way in the back, but Joy did not overstate in the least. As it turns out, Bird (a Chicago native) has something of a penchant for performing in strange venues, so when he announced a concert series at Chicago's Civic Opera House this April, I bought my ticket the very moment they became available. For that concert, I had great seats in the first row of the balcony, and with the better acoustics at the opera house, I discovered a whole new appreciation for Andrew Bird's improvisational live performances. I knew then that I would make every effort to see him perform whenever he was going to be in town.

However, when I heard about his upcoming concert, I took pause: he would be trying out a new concert concept structured around the Dutch concept of Gezelligheid, which translates loosely to coziness. His Chicago show would be held at the landmark 4th Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue (again, the strange affinity for unusual concert venues), and would consist of mostly instrumental music. The thing is, I really don't like instrumental music. The thing I value most in music is the craft of songwriting, and its power to evoke emotion through the combination of sonorous word pairings. But, for Andrew Bird, I decided to suck it up and go anyway. If anyone could teach me how to appreciate music without words, it would be him.

Still, I was mentally cursing myself as I arrived in the vicinity of the church an hour and a half before the concert was to start, with a line already forming. Evidently, Andrew Bird has other fans loyal (and stupid) enough to risk hypothermia to see him perform live. I had planned to scout out the area for food options, but with my range of motion severely hampered by my injuries, I decided to just get in line. After an hour, I was starting to have visions of spending my evening in the emergency room having my frostbitten toes amputated, but in the end, my perseverance was rewarded with what was by far the best seat I've ever had at an Andrew Bird concert -- third row, center.

The stage set-up was pretty typical for Andrew Bird. He's been using these distinctive Specimen speakers, shaped like phonograph horns, for as long as I've been seeing him in concert.

The sock monkey in the three-piece suit is also a constant companion at his concerts.

Considering how much I love church architecture, I was quite pleased with this choice of venue, which featured some particularly nice stained glass.

I honestly don't even have the words to describe how phenomenal the concert was. I never thought I would be able to make it through so much instrumental music without being bored, but I was so fascinated with how Andrew Bird kept building and altering his melodies that I couldn't help but be enthralled. He claimed that his goal was to recreate the experience of the music he makes in his home studio, housed in a barn on his western Illinois farm, and in large part I did have the sense that I was watching him workshop new material. The performance definitely had the feeling of a one-man jam session. He did perform four of his songs with lyrics: "Nomenclature," "Natural Disaster," "Scythian Empires," and "The Giant of Illinois," which was enough to keep me happy. Heck, after this experience today, I would be willing to check out any experimental concert concepts he might devise in the future.

I felt a particular personal solidarity with him this evening, as he was forced to scale down some of his usual stage theatrics and perform the entire concert sitting down; he sprained his foot in a concert in Minneapolis last week.


I Fall To Pieces...

Life, it would seem, is all about balance. Yesterday, I threw a great party, surrounded by friends and delicious baked goods. Today, life decided to put things into balance, fittingly, by reminding me of the deficiencies of my own vestibular system. The chain of events that unfolded today started off on Friday, when I started to come down with a cold. I was too busy preparing for the cookie exchange to get the proper rest to alleviate my symptoms over the weekend, so I was still feeling poorly enough this morning that I decided to stay home a few extra hours and get some additional sleep before heading in for a day of meetings at work. Clearly, I should have sucked it up and gone into the office on time.

As I was getting ready to leave, I remembered that I had made plans to meet Lauren for a free advance screening of the upcoming movie, The Young Victoria, about the early life of England's Queen Victoria. I had planned on being home that night so that Dad could drop by and pick up his garage door opener, which I had borrowed for my party guests, and which he would be needing the next evening when I was similarly going to be out of the house. I decided to swing by his office and drop off the garage door opener on my way to work, placing me on a bus that I don't normally take to get to work.

I boarded the bus, and as I walked towards the back to take a seat, the driver slammed the accelerator, as CTA drivers are wont to do. There was no handle anywhere nearby for me to grab to steady myself, and with the floor slick with morning precipitation, I went flying through the air, landing on my knees. Two other passengers came to my aid, helping me off the ground and into a chair, and the driver stopped the bus and came back with a cursory offer to call an ambulance. That seemed like somewhat of a disproportionate response, but a quick check under my pant legs (which miraculously survived without tearing), revealed an intense case of road rash in the pattern of the parallel ridges on the bus floor that are supposed to provide traction. I was a bloody mess.

As I disembarked the bus and started walking towards Dad's office, I became aware of the fact that I could barely put any weight on my right foot. I could feel a dull ache all the way down the outside edge of my foot from my ankle to my toes. Not a good sign.

Thankfully, Dad's office was equipped with a first aid kit, and I managed to get myself disinfected, bandaged, and on my way back to work. Throughout the day, my foot and ankle swelled and bruised, as did the skin beneath my torn-up knees. I kept throwing Tylenol at the problem, but it only seemed to take the edge off. At this point, I'm waiting to see how things feel in the morning. If things are just as bad as they are now (or God forbid, worse), I'll have to head to the urgent care center to have my foot assessed. They probably won't tell me anything I don't already know, but at least it will give me some peace of mind. With the way things are at the moment, that might be the only comfort I can hope for.