Ticket To Ride...

For the next week and a half, The State of Haley will be taking a hiatus, while Dad and I travel across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bavaria. Keep your eyes peeled for vacation photos and stories when I get back!


Great Expectations...

Speaking of Caitlin, although I am just now getting around to writing about it, the two of us recently went out to sample the fare at The Publican, darling of the 2009 Chicago restaurant scene. After reading about it in every local foodie publication, every national publication and even spotting it on the Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, my curiosity was beyond piqued. It is, however, the kind of restaurant that Dad (my most-frequent dinner companion) would hate -- too trendy, too noisy, too foodie-centric, so it took a while before I discovered that Caitlin was also curious about the place, and we were able to find a mutually convenient time to eat there.

The Publican is located in the Fulton Market District, sort of Chicago's version of Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District. It's a slightly incongruous mix of butchers and meat/seafood wholesalers with high-end, destination restaurants, such as molecular gastronomy mecca, Moto. It took virtually an entire hour to get there on public transit after work, despite being only a few miles away, but in this case, the destination far exceeded the journey.

The Publican is the third restaurant by James Beard Award-winning Chicago chef and restaurateur Paul Kahan of Avec and Blackbird fame. A gastropub concept, its menu focuses on a tremendous selection of European beers along with snacks, charcuterie, and entrees centered around the whole livestock that are butchered in-house. The interior plays on the feel of a central-European beer hall, with lots of blond wood, communal tables (which contributes to the noise factor), rustic portraits paying homage to the pigs that are the focus of the menu, and a veritable forest of globe light fixtures. Caitlin and I both enjoyed the atmosphere, although I did have a hard time following our conversation at various points throughout the meal.

We ordered an almost embarrassing amount of dishes, overwhelmed as we were by the bounty of interesting choices on the menu. We started off with a plate of vegetables that had been pickled in-house, which Caitlin had ordered while she was waiting for me to arrive. It wasn't my favorite thing that we had that evening, but I suppose it was beneficial to balance the meat-heavy meal with at least some vegetables.

Next, we tried the homemade pork rinds (which had been the featured item on The Best Thing I Ever Ate), and the chef's selection of three hams, sliced paper-thin. Although Caitlin enjoyed the pork rinds, pronouncing them, "Just like bacon-flavored air!" I discovered that pork rinds aren't high on my list of preferred snackfoods. Of the three hams, my favorite was the Serrano ham from Spain (naturally, the most expensive of the bunch), followed by the Querica ham from Iowa, and I did not much care for the Kentucky country ham on our plate. The tasting notes listed on the menu described it as "sweet and clean" but in my experience, it was creamy, but unpalatably salty.

For a main course, Caitlin paired a selection of oysters that she seemed to enjoy, with a side dish of corn inspired by the traditional Mexican preparation -- grilled and accompanied by a chili-lime aioli. Boringly, on a menu full of offal and tempting pork dishes, I opted for the half roasted chicken, mostly because it came with a side of frites (which I would have ordered as an appetizer had it not been for the ham tasting), and sausage (and I am totally a sucker for encased meats in all their forms.) It turns out that I need not have been ashamed for ordering the safest item on the menu -- it was, I think, the most delicious chicken I have ever eaten. The meat was perfectly prepared, moist, succulent, and flavored through and through. It was unbelievably good!

Although I was already stuffed, and I was not seriously entertaining the idea of dessert, Caitlin persuaded me to share the chocolate tart with her, and I was glad I did. It came in a crisp, wafer-like crust, with a layer of oozing salted caramel, a layer of dark chocolate ganache, and a scoop of fruity olive oil-flavored ice cream that paired surprisingly well with the other flavors. The tart provided the perfect ending to a decadent meal.

My only complaint about the evening, besides the ambient noise-level, was the cost of the meal itself. In all the reviews I had read prior to the dinner, The Publican was hailed for its affordability. Perhaps that estimation was formed in contrast to the prices at Kahan's other enterprises, because the total tab, including one beer for each of us, tax, and tip, came to $106! That is not a sum I am accustomed to spending on dining out! In one fell swoop, I had blown out a disproportionately large amount of my September entertainment budget. Delicious as everything was, I can't imagine I'll be returning to the Publican again soon, unless a special occasion arises.

I do think it is worth making a comparison here, in terms of restaurant hype. Last month, Dad and I checked out another new-ish restaurant that has been the recipient of a great deal of positive press -- Province. Dad is always complaining about what a rut we are in with our dining choices, so I selected Province as a new place for us to try. The decor was a little avant garde for his taste, consisting largely of neon pink walls and branches hanging from the ceiling, but I thought the food would appeal to him, based on what I had read.

I was vastly mistaken. Although the food included several interpretations of contemporary American cuisine, they did not take kindly to Dad's customary requests for alterations to the menu. Clearly, the chef wants the customer to appreciate his vision and challenge their palates instead of catering to the whims of the clientele. I sampled the shrimp and grits as and appetizer, which was the dish most heralded in all the reviews I had read, often cited as being the finest example of the southern classic to be found in the city. I hope there aren't many places you can find shrimp and grits in the city, because if these were the best, I'd hate to see what else is available. Neither Dad nor I cared much for our entrees either, and, given the deplorable level of service and long wait-times for the food we had received so far, we decided to skip dessert.

It just goes to show, you can't believe everything you read. Both Province and The Publican had received a lot of hype, and my expectations were set high for both, but only The Publican delivered. In the end, the only opinion that matters is your own.


School House Rockin'...

Earlier this week, I received a most intriguing email from Caitlin, inviting me out to see School House Rock LIVE with her at an improvised performance space above Hamburger Mary's (the Andersonville outpost of a national chain of flamboyant burger joints catering to the gay community). Considering how much I love School House Rock (I have the music on my iPod, and I attribute much of my love of history to my early exposure to America Rock in fifth grade), I figured even a bad live version would still be pretty good. Even if it wasn't, tickets were only ten dollars, so there was really nothing to lose.

So, tonight I headed up to the North Side for the evening, catching a tasty little pre-theater dinner across the street at A Taste of Heaven, a bakery that Caitlin had been wanting to try. Since we were just down the street from Darrell's apartment, he stopped by to hang out for a bit before we headed over for the show. Caitlin had wanted to check out the restaurant largely on the strength of their cupcake offerings, and both she and Darrell gave me a hard time about my dislike of the pastries, rooted in my dislike of frosting. To appease them, I sampled a red velvet cupcake, but it wasn't nearly as tasty as Grandma Betsy's version, and the presence of a large dollop of cream cheese frosting was certainly no help.

Ultimately, I felt somewhat ambivalent about the show itself. It was fun to hear all my favorite songs from the cartoon, and I was particularly glad that the heartwarming "The Tale of Mister Morton," and "The Preamble" (the song that got me through my eighth grade constitution test) made the cut in addition to popular favorites such as "I'm Just a Bill" and "Conjunction Junction." The performance was high energy, and I particularly appreciated that they encouraged the audience to sing along to their favorite songs. However, the four performers were probably more talented than their material, the non-singing portions of which bordered a bit too much on the hokey. If I had been as drunk as the posse of gay men sitting next to us, I probably would have had a similarly raucous good time, but as it was, I couldn't get myself into the right frame of mind.

Also, I was slightly unnerved by the two mothers in front of us, who had brought a cadre of children to a play that was essentially staged in a bar. The moms, who could have come straight out of an episode of Desperate Housewives sidled up to the bar for their wine, whilst their children boisterously demanded food before the show. Then, during the show, as one might expect in a performance space above a gay-centric restaurant, the performers tossed condoms at the audience during a reference to fairies in "A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing." Much to his mother's horror, one of the little boys picked up a condom packet and loudly inquired, "Mommy, what is this?" The audience erupted in laughter, but the parents really should have known better. Just because a show draws its material from a children's television program, it isn't necessarily child-friendly. It's more about the kitsch and nostalgia factor.

Nevertheless, I was glad that Caitlin invited me to go. Despite my faithful reading of the Redeye, this production was not on my radar screen in the least. It was definitely fun getting in touch with my inner child, such as it exists. And, building on the theme, I met up with Darrell again after the show, and we went out for ice cream. Any day that ends in an ice cream cone is a pretty good day in my book!


Tales From the City - Part Two...

Today I experienced another one of those fantastically surreal moments that can only occur in the city. I was walking out of work, headed toward the bus stop, when a ruckus ahead of me caught my attention. There he was, a man who might have been homeless, although it wasn't immediately obvious. Around his waist were two cords, tied together and tied to a plastic milk crate, which he was dragging behind him on the ground, which was the origin of the noise. Since his burden was slowing him down, I quickly caught up with the man, upon which I observed that his milk crate was full of prescription medicine bottles. It was all just too bizarre, so I whipped out my camera to grab a photo clandestinely, but the man looked right at me and caught me, so I had to stow it quickly. The paranoid frenzy with which he was glancing around was a little scary, so I sped up and crossed the street, where I got my picture in relative safety.

The other patrons at the bus stop, a group of college students, were similarly intrigued by the unusual spectacle, and were all snapping pictures on their camera phones. They mused if he was some sort of performance artist, perhaps making a statement on our national healthcare crisis -- literally, healthcare was weighing upon him and becoming a burden in his life. It's possible, I suppose, but I think that explanation is akin to hearing hoofbeats and assuming a zebra is coming, when a horse is the more plausible culprit. I suspect the man was just crazy. After all, if he was performing some sort of one-man show with a political statement, wouldn't he have been downtown doing it, instead of roaming around near Lincoln Park? The world may never know...

In a healthcare-related update, I finally gave in and dragged myself to the doctor this morning. Turns out, my transient illnesses of the past two weeks were the result of a severe kidney infection. I've got antibiotics now, so hopefully I'll be back to normal before I head on vacation next week.


Me And Da Mare...

This morning, ever with his eye on advancing my career, Dad dragged me to a fundraising breakfast for the Special Olympics, which was, coincidentally, hosted by one of the non-museum partners from my project at work. All of the political elites in state and city government were expected to attend, and many of them were there: Governor Pat Quinn, numerous Chicago Aldermen, including Ed Burke, Dean of the City Council, and Hizzoner, Mayor Richard M. Daley himself. I did some productive networking with several VIPs who we are seeking to interview for the project, but I think that Dad's principle reason for bringing me along was his single-minded determination to get a photo of me with the Mayor.

Of course, as perhaps the most inhibited person I know, I'd been looking forward to this breakfast with intense trepidation, from the fear of looking like a fawning groupie in front of the city's highest elected official, but Dad was undeterred. He marched me right up to the Mayor, prodded me to get aggressive about moving in for the photo, and snapped the picture. No flash, completely blurry, no good. By then, another person had moved in to get face time with the Mayor, but Dad sent me right back for a second picture. I might have been mortified, but Dad was shameless enough for the both of us, and he ultimately got the shot.

I finally found a photo op for my favorite new dress, even if you can't get the full effect here. I've been saving it for just this occasion, determined to make it my "meeting the Mayor" dress.

So, here I am with the Mayor. It never ceases to amaze me that he isn't very tall. As a politician with virtually unchecked power in his domain, Mayor Daley has always been built up to epic proportions in my mind. I've met him twice now (both Dad's doing), and both times I was shocked by his height. Granted, I had heels on in this photo, but not particularly high ones, and I am the same height as Hizzoner.

(Between you and me, it's pretty neat to have a picture of me with Mayor Daley. He's a Chicago legend. Occasionally, even if he forces me to get way outside of my comfort zone, Dad does have some good ideas. Just don't tell him I said that.)



For the second week in a row, all is not well in the state of Haley. Last Sunday, I fell ill, with a slight fever, aches, and exhaustion, and I missed a day and a half of work. Today, I had a series of symptoms that I misdiagnosed in myself. I was achy, which I attributed to sitting too long working on my new computer; I had a headache, which I similarly attributed to looking at the screen too long; I had no appetite, in spite of eating only a piece of toast the entire day; I was strangely cold, despite wearing warm clothes. When I went to check the thermostat, assuming that the temperature must have fallen, I realized that it was me and not my environment. I took my temperature -- 100.1!

I went to bed, and huddled under the covers, managing to sneak in a nap before mustering the energy to check my temperature again. This time it was up to 100.5! So I took some Tylenol, and retired to the sofa. Eventually, I garnered the strength to sit upright, and work on this post.

I can only hope that this bug is short-lived. It won't look very good to miss work on consecutive Mondays. What are the odds of getting sick twice in such short succession anyway?


I'm Haley, And I'm A Mac...

Step aside ice cream machine. Our affair was brief, and passionate, and we can continue seeing each other, but there's a new machine in my life now: my brand-new 13-inch MacBook Pro. It's smaller and thinner than my old MacBook Pro, so I can take it out in public more easily. It doesn't heat up like my old computer, so I can be more comfortable when we spend long periods of time together. It's more efficient, it has a better memory, and it's lightning fast. Of course, like any new relationship, there are a few rough spots -- I have to get accustomed to the new mouse configuration, the flatter keys will take some getting used to, and the shiny screen is giving me more glare than the matte finish on my old computer, but I have no doubt that I'll come to appreciate all of its seeming "flaws" in time.

I suppose I should feel some sort of extra pride regarding my new Mac; it is, after all, the most expensive purchase I have ever made with money that I earned myself. I don't know though, I'm pretty sure I would have been just as happy to receive it as a gift from my parents, like my 2006 Mac. That was back in college though, and those days are sadly over. (Mom and Dad, when you read this, try not to celebrate too loudly; the neighbors might call the cops on you.)

Still, it may have temporarily bankrupted me, but I predict a lifetime of happiness for me and my new acquisition. Well, probably not a lifetime, but I'm sure there will be a few very happy years on the horizon.


Sugar and Spice...

Over the weekend, I used my favorite new toy to whip up a batch of cinnamon ice cream. For those of you who aren't in the know, cinnamon ice cream was, for a long time, my favorite flavor. Finding it somewhere was always an extra-special treat because it was often seasonal, making its appearance only around the holidays. The only semi-reliable source was as an accompaniment to other desserts, such as apple pie, at restaurants. Over time, I acquired the habit of ordering a dessert just because it came with cinnamon ice cream. Occasionally, if I asked the server politely enough, a dish of just the cinnamon ice cream could be obtained.

Cinnamon might just be my favorite spice. It certainly seems to be the one that I go through faster than any other: I use it in copious amounts in my famous snickerdoodles; it is a subtle presence in my beloved Texas cake; I even throw some into some of my savory dishes, such as Cincinnati-style chili, and pasta with pumpkin cream sauce. Given my love for all things cinnamon, it was only logical to place cinnamon ice cream early in the experimentation queue for my new ice cream maker.

Careful, don't drool on your keyboard...

For a recipe, I looked no further than the bible of ice cream production, David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, since it has never steered me wrong in the past. This time, however, the results were slightly less stellar than I had been hoping for, but I am convinced that it was not due to the recipe, but rather, my ingredients. David's recipe calls for infusing a truly decadent number of cinnamon sticks in a mixture of milk and heavy cream for at least an hour. I did go out and buy new cinnamon sticks just for this project, but apparently, even ten brand-new sticks aren't enough when you buy the cheap stuff.

You see, most of what is sold as cinnamon in the United States is actually from a different plant all together. Cassia is a relative of true cinnamon, but lacks some of the intensity and complexity of true cinnamon, which is much more expensive, and can usually only be sourced from specialty spice purveyors and gourmet shops.

The next time I take a stab at homemade cinnamon ice cream, I think I'm going to have to make the extra investment, because while the texture of my recent batch was unctuous and smooth perfection, it didn't quite pack the wallop of cinnamon flavor for which I was hoping. It wasn't bad, by any stretch of the imagination, it just didn't capture the flavor profile that won over my taste-buds for so many years. Still, it was a worthy experiment, and I'm glad that I tried it. However, as soon as I polish off this batch, and get the freezer space back, I'll be moving on to other ice cream varieties for the time being.


Evening In The Park...

Last night, I partook in one of my annual Chicago summer rituals: catching a live music performance at Millennium Park. In the past, I have seen the Decemberists, and my favorite solo musician, Andrew Bird. This year, nothing on the schedule caught my eye, and I had gone the whole summer without heading over to Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion to listen to a concert. Then, while enjoying an after-work cup of tea with Lauren earlier in the week, she invited me to go to the park to catch a performance of the "Stars of the Lyric Opera." I wasn't busy, so I agreed to go, despite not being much of an opera fan.

I liked the performance just fine, but it turns out that Lauren is a huge opera-phile, and she loved the show. I think her enthusiasm was an important factor in magnifying my own enjoyment. I'm not sure I would have liked it even as much as I did if it hasn't been for her infectious sense of joy.

For me, the best part of the evening was the chance to see the special pavilions installed in the park in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago. The installation consists of a curvilinear structure by British architecture firm, Zaha Hadid, and a free-form, roofed structure by Dutch architects UNStudio.

The Zaha Hadid pavilion is in the foreground, and the UNStudio structure is behind it.

The Zaha Hadid pavilion was constructed from fabric stretched over a recyclable aluminum frame, and like a giant screen, they project films about the future of public planning in Chicago on the interior.

The inside of it had an unusual perforated roof, designed to give a glimpse of the skyline. It made me feel like I was inside of a whale.

Lauren and I, outside of the Zaha Hadid Pavilion.

I couldn't resist snapping a photo with the skyline in the background, and apparently, neither could the guy with the cell phone camera.

The pavilions are open all day to the public, but they are particularly spectacular at night, when they are illuminated with a shifting palette of colors. I liked the Zaha Hadid pavilion much better; to me, the UNStudio pavilion seemed more like a piece of public sculpture, as opposed to an interesting vision of what the future of architecture has in store. In my opinion, the form, the construction, and the interactivity of the Zaha Hadid pavilion were all more innovative.

The opera might not have been my cup of tea, but I was glad to spend the time with my friend, and to have an excuse to be in the park after dark. I might not get the appeal of the opera, but avant-garde architecture exhibitions are much more my speed...


The Great Pumpkin...

Muffins, that is. It might still be eighty degrees outside, but it is September, which is close enough to being fall that I can rationalize the baking of Katherine's pumpkin chocolate chip muffins. See, I really love these muffins, and not just because of how incredibly delicious they are, but also because of all the fond memories attached to them.

I can't remember with clarity the first time I ever sampled these diminutive delights, but logic would indicate that it was probably the fall of my senior year of college. Those were halcyon days (at least I have come to reflect on them as such, with no small degree of nostalgia), in which our group of college friends was still tightly-knit, and living within a mile of each other. Now that we have scattered to the wind, we not only live on separate continents, we are barely even awake during many of the same hours. As much as modern communications tools like email, Skype, and Facebook make it easier to keep in touch than ever before, it still causes me no end of heartbreak to be so far away from the people who I came to love so much.

So, when I am reeling from a particularly acute sense of nostalgia, I often find myself overwhelmed by the desire to bake pumpkin muffins. I even hoard a supply of canned pumpkin during the fall and winter, so that I can indulge my habit year-round. Talking to Katherine might not be as easy as scaling a flight of stairs to her bedroom, but baking the muffins that she used to make recreates a little piece of her presence right in my kitchen.

This week's batch of pumpkin muffins, however, turned out to be a portend of good things to come. I had known for some time that Katherine would soon be moving back to the United States, although she never told me exactly when it was going to happen. Monday night, I was struck by a craving, baked up a batch, and when I emailed her to tell her of my exploits, I learned that her Japanese email account had been canceled. A quick email to Scott (for whose email diligence I am always eternally grateful) confirmed it: she was on her way back!

Now, if I miss my friend, I can give her a call, instead of plying myself with baked goods. To be honest though, I doubt I'm going to stop making these muffins. They are too darned delicious!

Ahem, I couldn't wait to eat one before taking a picture, so the plate bears the evidence of my gluttony. My bad...

Katherine's Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Grease the muffin tin, and preheat the oven to 350.
2. Whisk the dry ingredients together.
3. Whisk the eggs, butter, and pumpkin together. Stir in chips.
4. Pour wet ingredients over dry, and fold together until just moist.
5. Bake 20-25 minutes.


Day At The Museum...

You might think, after spending forty hours a week at a museum, that I might be sick of them. However, I have the good fortune to work in an environment that I love. Therefore, when Natasha invited me to go to the Field Museum this weekend with her and her family, I was game, even though there weren't any special exhibits that caught my fancy. Natasha and her family were hoping to catch the Pirates exhibit, but it was already sold out by the time we got to the museum. 

I must say though, there is something about the Pirates exhibit that really bothers me. Sure, it has been a powerhouse for the Field, regularly selling out within the first few hours that the museum is open. I don't begrudge them the source of income, especially in this economy, but I can't help but feel that they have "sold out" by taking on this exhibit. It is, after all, the Field Museum of Natural History, not the Field Museum of Internet Memes. To me, it seems like the museum is capitalizing on the recent popularity of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and ongoing Internet-based pirate fandom, instead of advancing the museum's mission.

The dummy pirates rappelling from the ceiling add to the kitschy atmosphere.

The Field Museum was founded for the "accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science, and history." Somehow, I don't think pirates quite fit into the theme. In order to draw visitors, museums often find themselves in the business of peddling "edutainment," but the fiberglass pirates decorating the inside of the Field, and strewn across the city of Chicago as viral advertisements for the exhibition seem to cross the line into more entertainment and less education. Call me an idealist, but museums are meant to serve the public interest. 

The museum provides plenty of photo-ops with the faux pirates.

The Field Museum's other temporary exhibit, which we did take in while we were there, was a much more appropriate selection -- Road To Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement. Although the exhibit seemed more appropriate for perhaps a photography museum, or even a historical society, I still felt that it was more in line with the museum's stated objectives. I know it could be argued that the museum needs exhibits like Pirates to make exhibits like Road to Freedom possible, but I just can't shake my conviction that the Field is sacrificing their integrity to make more money. 

It is possible to bring in blockbuster exhibits that have greater relevance to the museum's mission. The Field's Cleopatra exhibition of several years ago is a perfect example. Next month, the Field is going to host a large exhibit on diamonds, for which I am very excited. Diamonds are, after all, my birthstone. I could be biased, but I feel like a geological, socio-political, economic, and artistic exploration of diamonds fits in with the Field's mission statement, while still capturing public imagination. Whether the exhibit will prove a success remains to be seen, but if it does, I think it will demonstrate that museums can strike a better balance in their pursuit of edutainment, without sacrificing their credibility.


A Nice Day For A White Wedding...

Yesterday I rounded out my 2009 wedding trifecta by attending the nuptials of Audrey, my old elementary school friend. The ceremony and reception were both held at the University Club, a fancifully neo-gothic structure on Michigan Avenue where captains of industry once congregated to indulge in mid-afternoon cigars and brandies. A large contingent of our old high school posse was there to celebrate the occasion, everyone dressed to the nines. 

Ashley, me, and Taryn at the ceremony.

The ceremony took place in the Club's "Cathedral Room," a space which featured stained-glass windows and an ornately carved wooden ceiling containing many decorative buttresses. Although I am not a fan of Harry Potter, and have not seen any of the movies, my friends all assured me that the room looked much like the interior at Hogwarts. The chuppah was of dramatic height, and the billowing off-white fabric was gathered with branches bearing tiny orange berries.

The "flower boy," who dropped clumps of fall leaves along the aisle. 

In accordance with the bride's wishes to minimize the carbon footprint of the event, they opted to keep the flowers at a minimum, as most flowers are grown on the other side of the planet, utilizing mass quantities of water, and flown to their final destination. Instead, the ceremony space was decorated mostly with large vases of water bearing floating candles, as was the cocktail space, and the centerpieces for the reception consisted of a mix of seasonal vegetables with a spare amount of seasonal blooms, and towering vases containing water and twigs. The only flowers to appear in force were in the bride's cascade of white orchids and some unusual orange orchid-clad faux purses carried by the bridesmaids in lieu of traditional bouquets.

Unfortunately, all of my photos of Audrey were on the blurry side, but you can get the gist of her dress.

The bride looked lovely, in a very trendy mermaid-style satin gown with rhinestone accents, a plunging back, and a intriguing train of pleated sheer and satin ruffles. She also sported a short veil, worn to one side, with a glamorous spray of feathers and more rhinestones. The overall effect was decidedly vintage, with strong overtones of 1930's Hollywood. The groom's attire echoed the vibe, as he wore tails, white spats, and donned a top hat for the reception.

We managed to snag one photo with Sarah, who was a bridesmaid, although you can't really see much of her dress. From left: Lindsey, Sarah, Taryn, Ashley, and me.

Of course, for me, the real story of the evening was the food. Audrey's mother, Laurie, was a foodie before the term foodie even existed, so I had high expectations for the catered fare. For the most part, I was not let down. The hors d'oeurves for the cocktail hour followed the current trend of miniaturized comfort foods, consisting of demitasse cups of tomato soup with bite-sized grilled cheeses, sliders with petite cones of fries, small dishes of mac and cheese, individual portions of falafel, and chicken nuggets. The dinner itself, despite not concluding until after eleven o'clock, was decidedly above average for catered food: the butter lettuce salad had an interesting strawberry vinaigrette and the chicken breast was still moist. The star of the show was the dessert table, which built off the theme of the hors d'oeurve course with scaled-down versions of homey sweets, such as root beer floats served in shot glasses, demitasse of hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows, milkshake shots, chocolate chip cookie sandwiches on sticks, mini-donuts on sticks, bite-sized Boston cream pies, assorted fresh fruits, and, a somewhat out-of-place croquembouche, the traditional French wedding confection. As an aside, I now know that I don't care much for croquembouche, which makes sense, since I don't like profiteroles, but somehow, I never put two and two together that I wouldn't like croquembouche either.

The table arrangements kept with the theme of minimal flowers, using local fruits and vegetables instead.

Overall, it was a beautiful wedding. I have to confess though, with every wedding I attend, I become more convinced that a traditional wedding is not in the cards for me. All the artificial photo-ops, the enforced public dancing, and the embarrassing, drunken speeches turn me off. Maybe someday, when I find the right person, I might get all caught up in the romance of a big wedding, but for now, all that spectacle seems overwhelming to me. For now, I suppose I shouldn't jinx myself by putting too much thought into it. After all, for there to be a wedding, there has to be a groom first...


My New Toy...

Settling into adulthood might have its frustrations, but there is one remnant of childhood that never goes away: being excited about new toys. This time, the toy in question is my new electric ice cream machine. For the past couple years, including this year's orgy of frozen dessert production, I had been using an old Donvier hand-crank model that I re-appropriated from Mom, and which probably predates my birth. It did a great job on sorbets, but an experiment in July with homemade frozen yogurt revealed its ineptitude for dairy-based desserts. So, using a combination of Dad's unused credit card reward points and a sale at Williams Sonoma, I recently found myself in the possession of a new Cuisinart machine.

For its inaugural batch, I decided to heed the words of Chicago's own Daniel Burnham, and "make no small plans." I settled on an ambitious recipe from David Lebovitz, whose book The Perfect Scoop is my frozen dessert Bible. His website had recently featured an ice cream recipe utilizing new technique for caramelizing white chocolate, much in the manner that sweetened condensed milk is made into dulce de leche. It called for top quality white chocolate, for which I had to make a special trip to the dangerously well-stocked Fox and Obel Food Market (Chicago's premiere purveyors of all things gourmet, and egregiously priced). The caramelization process itself was straight-forward, but time consuming: Spread the white chocolate on a baking sheet, melt at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, and stir every 10 minutes until the chocolate has taken on the color of peanut butter. Lebovitz's instructions indicated that this process would take about an hour; it took me a little under three.

Caramelized white chocolate, in the process of hardening.

The ice cream base itself was also a first for me, as I had never forayed into the production of custard-based desserts before. I was nervous about tempering the yolks, fearing that I would create scrambled eggs instead of a silky-smooth custard, but the entire process was far less intimidating that I originally feared. I was concerned, however, about the ultimate taste of the final product. With all of the sorbets I had made in the past, the unfrozen base had always tasted better than that resulting sorbet. With the ice cream, the custard base tasted flat -- vaguely sweet, but not much else going on. Still, I decided to trust the master and carry on.

My brand new Cusinart, churning away.

I was also unduly trepidatious about my new machine. Despite all of my online research, I could never locate an ice cream machine that didn't have mixed reviews, so I had ultimately let the sale price at Williams Sonoma sway me in favor of the Cuisinart. Thankfully, I experienced none of problems indicated in the online horror stories about unfrozen ice cream and an extremely loud motor. Sure, the machine was much louder than my old manual one, but it was no louder than my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer.

Instead, I found myself rather fascinated by the workings of my new toy. I stood over it for nearly the entire thirty minutes it performed its magic, watching the liquid base become fluffier and fluffier, and sneaking several samples along the way. It was truly a moment of food-nerd nirvana.
Mmm, hello my tasty friend...

And, like a proud mama, I am pleased to announce that the resulting Caramelized White Chocolate Ice Cream was a complete success. I shared some with Mom and Dad, who both liked it, although Mom had difficulty conjuring a flavor memory to compare it with. In my opinion, it tasted much like the fleur de sel caramel products that Dad and I sampled in Brittany during our 2007 trip to the north of France, and that is a very good thing indeed. I'm not sure it was worth the three days of after-work effort (one for making the caramelized white chocolate, one for making the base and chilling it overnight, and one for churning), but it was mighty tasty. Most importantly, I have dispelled the mystique of homemade ice cream, and I am already plotting my next adventure. I'll be sure to keep you posted...