This Magic Moment...

After two weeks of vegging in front of the television, my eyes glued to Olympics coverage like some sort of voluntary, athletic-themed re-creation of the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange, I am ready for the closing ceremony tonight. Don't get me wrong -- I still love the Winter Olympics just as much as I did before, but it's time for a break. I'm ready for my sleep schedule to return to the semblance of routine it had before I couldn't start my evening chores until the Olympic coverage ended at 11:00. I may be a night owl, but washing dishes at one in the morning because there's no view of the television from the kitchen sink is not my idea of a good time. I'm also ready to go out to dinner without angsting about what Olympic event I might miss. It's been fun, but I'm ready for a return to normalcy.

So, to celebrate the end of the 2010 Vancouver Games, here is a list of my favorite Olympic moments from the past two weeks:
  • Erectile Dysfunction at the Opening Ceremony: Who can forget the awkward glances of the torchbearers, when the framework for the Olympic cauldron failed to materialize from underground? The minutes seemed to stretch for eternity as Canada's sporting icons stood statue-like, as the music repeated itself again and again. As the scene unfolded, I could only think to myself, "If this had happened at the 2008 Beijing Games, somebody probably would have paid for it with their lives..." As it is, the cauldron malfunction was a prophetic omen for what many have been calling the "Glitch Games."
  • The Trials of Apollo: I can't deny it; I love me some Apollo Anton Ohno. I'm not quite sure what it is about him, but, my personal feelings aside, few things have been quite as nerve-wracking at the games as watching Apollo skate in the various heats necessary to advance to his medal round races. His tactic of skating at the back of the pack, them making a last minute drive to the front drives me crazy! I'm at the edge of my seat, anxiously cheering him on every time! I think he's probably bad for my blood pressure...
  • Take That You Commie Bastard: I have always been a wee bit obsessed with figure skating; combine that with the ability to root for a Chicago native, and I was all over the Evan Lysacek/Evgeny Plushenko rivalry like white on rice. I spent the entirety of Evan's long program with my hands over my mouth, scarcely remembering to draw breath. I don't care how much Plushenko whines about losing, Evan's combination of grace and artistry put the obnoxious Russian's cursory choreography to shame. If Plushenko feels like he has to re-brand his silver medal as a platinum medal, he can go right ahead -- he's only making himself look like a bigger fool. Evan won the gold, and nobody can take that away from him.
  • High Flying Adored: Shaun White gets serious air. That kid's talent is incredible, and undeniable. Enough said.
  • It's a Sweep: Well, almost. As I predicted, the Canadians were dominant in curling this year. The men's team took gold in a match against the humorously-clad Norwegians, whose flamboyant pants were perhaps the most-reported curling-related story of the games. I, however, was equally bemused by the ensembles of the Danish women's team -- they were they only curlers who I've ever seen in skirts. Their choice may have been fashion forward, but given the physiques of the lady Danes, and the shear amount of squatting required in curling, I couldn't help but wonder about the wisdom of their choice. Disappointingly, the Canadian women, after a nearly undefeated run in tournament play, lost their gold medal match to Sweden. Still, the Canadian successes stood in stark contrast to that of the Americans, whose men and women's teams came in dead last in the rankings.
  • It's Miller Time: Who can resist a comeback story at the Olympics? After the total bust that was Bode Miller's over-hyped performance at the Torino Olympics, I was frankly surprised to see him again at Vancouver. He might have gotten a late start to his season, and visibly struggled with exhaustion at times, but this time around, Bode Miller showed the world that he really is the skiing phenom he was built up to be four years ago. Now he has a complete set of Olympic medals to prove it.
  • Courage Under Fire: My heart went out to Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, who lost unexpectedly lost her mother to a heart attack a few scant days before she was set to compete. If I were her, I would have been curled up in the fetal position in bed, not fighting to win a bronze medal. Her grace and bravery were truly astounding. She brought tears to my eyes every time she left the ice. With the lengths NBC goes to to unearth every conceivable inspirational story at the Olympic Games, I found hers to be the most touching.
So, there you have it -- my favorite Olympic moments. I'm not particularly looking forward to the Sochi Games, what with the collective bad attitude exhibited by the Russians at these Olympics, and the relative obscurity of Sochi within the Russian Federation. I'm much more eager to catch the London Games in 2012, which is just as well, since they are coming up first anyway. Plus, two years is just enough time to get over my Olympics saturation. By then, I'll be craving some gymnastics, swimming, and track and field action to be sure. Until then, I'll just have to be content with my memories of Vancouver...


Short And Sweet...

I almost feel like it's becoming a bit clichéd to begin my posts with, "One of the nice things about living in a major metropolis like Chicago is..." but, once again, I just can't help myself. There are just so many interesting opportunities to take advantage of in the big city! Today, for instance, I headed to one of the city's numerous art house movie theaters to catch a screening of the Academy Award-nominated short films. I had a choice between the live-action films and the animated selections, and if I had done any research on them in advance, and learned that the new Wallace and Gromit offering was among the animated nominees, my decision would have been clear. Thankfully, I arbitrarily chose the animated offerings anyway, so I was treated to the unique delights of claymation, among the other outstanding contenders.

Although A Matter of Loaf And Death, the Wallace and Gromit short, was my favorite among the bunch, I'm not sure that it will ultimately win the Oscar. Everything that made it so great also made it predictable. There was the inevitably wacky sequence of Wallace's Rube Goldberg-inspired wake-up apparatus, obligatory intertextual references (most notably an allusion to the iconic "Sometimes you just can't get rid of a bomb!" scene from the original 1966 Batman movie), and a plot that you could see coming a mile away. It delivered everything I've come to love and expect from Wallace and Gromit, but I felt like it didn't push the envelope or bring anything new to the table.

My pick for the win goes to a French film, Logorama, which created an anarchic, perverse vision of Los Angeles in which every person, animal, object, and building is created from a corporate logo or mascot. In the short, the Michelin Men police are pursuing a deranged, weapons smuggling Ronald McDonald through the streets of L.A., until an apocalyptic earthquake releases a tsunami of oil that washes through the city, toppling the symbols of capitalism left and right, and severing a Nike Swoosh shaped fragment of California off the coast of the remaining United States. Hard to explain though it may be, Logorama was brutal, dark, and profoundly experimental castigation of American values. It was so densely packed with cultural references, I think I'd need to watch it a half dozen times to pick up on all of them. I might just have to consider downloading it from the Apple Store when it goes on sale next month, and no, the irony of that statement is not lost upon me.

Depending on the mood of the Academy, I think the contest is largely between Logorama and A Matter of Loaf and Death. That is not to diminish the quality of the other nominees, however. There was a heartwarming second French entry, French Roast, in which a homeless man comes to the aid of a businessman who had previously rebuffed the vagrant's request for money; a delightful Spanish film, The Lady and the Reaper, in which an ambitious doctor and the Grim Reaper engage in an epic battle for the soul of an elderly woman who is tired of carrying on with life; and a deliciously offbeat Irish short, Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty, in which a twisted grandmother terrifies her granddaughter with tales of the indignities of old age. All three of them were funny and charming in their own right, but they lacked the substance of the longer pieces.

Ultimately, I'm proud to be able to say that I have seen all the nominees for at least one category at the Academy Awards, and to have an informed opinion on who ought to win. I think it makes the telecast more interesting when you have some sort of investment in the selections. Plus, I am always curious when the short film categories are announced, because there is usually no opportunity for the lay audience to see them. This year, I can pretend I'm a Hollywood insider, if just for a few minutes...


The Times They Are A-Changin...

Yes, winter (and to a slightly lesser extent, fall) are my favorite seasons. That doesn't mean, however, that I am not looking forward to the dawn of spring. The main reason? Longer days. I can handle the snow, and the cold, but if there is one thing that brings me down in the winter, it is the endless parade of days when I trudge to work when the sun is just weakly starting to cast its first tentative rays, and I trudge home after it has already gone to bed for the day. Since my office has no windows, I can go the entire day without seeing natural light. It starts to get old.

Recently, however, the days have started to get longer, and it hasn't gone unnoticed. Every day that I leave the museum and the sun is still above the horizon is like a tiny gift. Today, it was even still up by the time I got home -- a minor miracle! For some reason, it makes me really content when I can sit in my living room and watch the sun set over the city's southwest side. Even when the sunsets aren't full of deeply vivid hues, they make me happy anyway. You just have to take your happiness wherever you can find it, I suppose...

Nonetheless, this harbinger of warmer temperatures reminded me that I should take advantage of the season while I still can. Although seasonality has never been one of my chief concerns in menu planning, and canned pumpkin is available year-round anyway, I decided that pasta with pumpkin and sausage sounded like a particularly tasty dinner option. I first came across this recipe when I was in college, and would come home from class to find a double-header of Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals on Food Network. Even though I find Rachel Ray's voice and personality to be extremely grating, I actually have several recipes of hers in my repertoire, that I've adapted to my own tastes. Not that that's something I would ever admit to in the company of foodies...

I mentally filed the recipe away and promptly forgot about it until I was making pumpkin muffins a couple years ago. It always bothered me that the muffins didn't require the full can of pumpkin puree, and I was always too lazy to freeze the remainder, such that perfectly good food was going to waste. I remembered this unconventional pasta recipe, and decided that it would be the "green" solution to my problem. I gave the recipe a spin while maintaining very low expectations, after all, as delicious as it had looked on television, the pairing of flavors was decidedly unorthodox. Shockingly, I was very pleased how it turned out. So much so, that I whip up a batch these days without even making muffins first. It's that good.

Pasta with Pumpkin and Sausage
adapted from Rachel Ray

4 links hot Italian sausage
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/2 white onion, finely minced
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
1 c. chicken stock, divided into two 1/2 c. portions
1/2 c. canned pumpkin puree
1/4 c. heavy cream
a pinch of cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg
1/2 lb. whole-wheat rigatoni pasta
salt and pepper to taste

Add sausage links to a large, deep nonstick skillet, cover with one inch of water, and bring to a boil for fifteen minutes. Pour off the water, reduce heat to medium high, and brown the sausage on the outside. Remove the links to a paper towel-lined plate, and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, then the onion. Saute 2 to 3 minutes until the onions are tender, then add the garlic and saute 1-2 minutes more.

Add bay leaf, sage, and 1/2 cup of chicken stock to the pan. Reduce stock by half, about 2 minutes. Add remaining stock and pumpkin and stir to combine, stirring sauce until it comes to a bubble. Slice sausage into 1/4 inch rounds, and return to pan, reduce heat, and stir in cream. Season the sauce with the cinnamon and nutmeg, and salt and pepper, to taste. Simmer mixture 5 to 10 minutes to thicken sauce. While sauce simmers, cook rigatoni according to package directions.

Remove the bay leaf from sauce and pour drained pasta into the sausage pumpkin sauce. Combine sauce and pasta and toss over low heat for 1 minute. Serve with red pepper flakes on the side for those who like things extra-spicy!


Börk, Börk, Börk...

In a Stickies note in the corner of my desktop, I keep a very important to-do list. But, instead of appointments and deadlines, this list details a collection of experiences I would like to have in my beloved city. There are festivals, parades, public events, and even restaurants that I have yet to try, but feel like I should in order to be a better Chicagoan. This weekend, with the assistance of Lauren, I was able to scratch a new item off my list by having breakfast at Ann Sather, a Chicago dining institution.

Ann Sather is a 63 year-old Swedish restaurant on the city's North Side, owned and operated by a Chicago alderman, who purchased the location from Ann Sather herself, and successfully turned the popular breakfast spot into a local franchise. Its claim to fame is its cinnamon buns, which, despite 24 years of living in the city, and the fact that they are offered at Taste of Chicago, I had never sampled.

For me, cinnamon rolls are serious business. Cinnamon is my favorite spice, but more than that, cinnamon rolls are powerfully linked in my mind with my grandmother. Grandma Betsy, the family baker and role model for my own kitchen aspirations, has always had cinnamon rolls for breakfast when we go visit. She makes them up when nobody is around and she has ample time, then individually freezes them so they would ready if anybody wants one. Just pop one in the microwave, and there is sweet, oozy, yeasty, cinnamon-y goodness at the ready. She might never stick to the same recipe more than once, but 95% of the time, her creations are magical.

Since I'm not quite ready to take a stab at making them myself, I was more than willing to let Ann Sather do the work for me, and I was delighted to find that the restaurant's reputation for excellence was well-founded. Their rolls were pure perfection; I didn't even mind the deluge of icing, and that's saying a lot. Astonishingly, two cinnamon buns constitute one side dish -- a side dish which would constitute a meal unto itself for any normal mortal. Still, I couldn't resist the siren song of sampling traditional Swedish fare for the first time.

After all, how often does life present you with the opportunity to eat Swedish food, outside of Sweden? It is moments like this that make me appreciate all the unique opportunites afforded by living in a major metropolis...

Since my other plans for the day involved eating again in a few hours, Lauren and I decided to split a Swedish Breakfast sampler, which consisted of a Swedish meatball (naturally), a Swedish pancake served with the obligatory lingonberry jam, eggs, and a piece of potato sausage. Our fantastic waitress even went the extra mile by splitting our food onto two plates for us so we wouldn't have to fight over the more choice morsels. Surprisingly, given my profound love of what Anthony Bordain terms "meat in tube form," the potato sausage was not my favorite part of the entree. Although I love potatoes, and I love sausage, I think it is better that they never combine in a single, homogenously textured meat product. The Swedish meatball was much tastier, and it was certainly nothing like this:

I was definitely glad that I finally had the chance to check out Ann Sather, even if we had settled upon the ungodly hour of 9:30 on a weekend to do it. But, I must concede the wisdom of Lauren's plan: as we left at 10:30, a formidable line had formed. It seemed the entirity of it was populated by people reading to each other from Chicago travel guides, trying to convince their travel companions of the import of the Ann Sather experience when they could probably obtain food much more quickly elsewhere. I almost wanted to tell them that after waiting 24 years myself, Ann Sather would be well-worth the wait.


So Happy Together...

Some things just go together. Peanut butter and jelly. Pork chops and applesauce. History and musicals. Yep, I said it, and no, I'm not kidding. My love of musicals has long inspired and fostered my love of history, starting with my early obsession with School House Rock, and moving on into my love of 1776. So, when my college friend, Andrew, posted this YouTube video on his Facebook page earlier this week, it completely made my day. I would be remiss if I didn't repost this fusing of pop-music parody and American history, so here it is for your viewing pleasure:


Remembering Grandpa Jack...

Psychologists have a term for your memories of occasions that are so traumatic you can remember everything about them in photographic detail. They are called “flashbulb memories.”

On February 17, 2005, I realized that I had left my phone on my desk as I walked to class. There was no time to turn back and get it, so I went about my day, stopping at the library afterwards to study. As I left, and headed back to the dorm, I ran into my roommate, who said that my phone had rung a dozen times, and my parents had called looking for me. I started to panic – were they just being paranoid because they couldn’t get in touch with me, or was something more troubling afoot? After the events of the previous month, my sense of security had been shaken enough that I hastened back to call home.

The news I received was worse than I could have imagined. Like some sort of sick joke, one month after losing Paw Paw, I had lost my Grandpa Jack to a sudden heart attack. I was incredulous; I actually thought my parents were kidding, despite the fact that the death of a loved one is no laughing matter. It just didn’t seem possible.

I had just seen Grandpa Jack a few days before for lunch at my Aunt Faye’s house. He had seemed healthy, and completely in his prime. He was still working five days a week, and was as charmingly ornery as ever. How could he possibly be gone?

My cousins Jeff and Candy picked me up at school, their SUV laden with food for the mourners, and drove me over to Du Quoin for the wake and the funeral. I don’t remember much of that time – I was numb with grief. In the course of a month, I had become suddenly grandpa-less. It was too much loss for me to fathom.

For most of my life, I had been not just an only child; the age gap between my dad and his sisters had made me an only grandchild until I was in my late teens. Unfortunately, because we lived so far away, I mostly only saw Grandpa Jack a few times a year, but when I would go down for my annual summer visit, he would always take me out on Sunday, when he would meet with his friends for coffee, and show me off. Grandpa Jack had always been so proud to have me as his granddaughter.

I think the best illustration of the kind of man that he was, and the love, pride, and loyalty that he had for his family, is this story: When I was graduating from high school, my parents invited all of our relatives up to Chicago for a huge celebration. I scrambled to secure as many of the limited tickets to the ceremony as I could, and it wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination. Despite all of our warnings that the weather in late-May would not be temperate by any means, most of our family did not pack accordingly, and when the day of my graduation rolled around, it was downright frigid. Everyone ended up opting to skip the outdoor ceremony because it was too cold – everyone except Grandpa Jack. He was the only person out of our extended family who was willing to tough out the elements to support me. He might have been half-frozen, but he knew how much it meant to me, and I will never forget what he did for me that day, and how proud he was of me.

I'm not sure how much my cousins will remember about Grandpa Jack when they are older. They were still young when he passed away, and some of them had not even been born yet. I was truly the fortunate one, to have had so much time with him, but if there is one thing I could pass along to my cousins about Grandpa Jack, it would be the pride that he would have had in all of them as well.


The Bonspiel Is Afoot...

The Olympic curling tournament starts today, and even Google is celebrating the occasion with a curling-themed banner. So, if you're home and looking for something to do today, may I recommend tuning into USA or CNBC for a little curling coverage? And if I can't convince you, maybe this slideshow will. Enjoy!


Happy Valentine's Day...

Maybe someday I will feel differently, but as a single person, Valentine's Day is not my favorite holiday. Thankfully, this year I had a distraction from my misery in the form of another batch of cookies to decorate, this time for a charity bakesale benefiting the victims of the Haitian earthquake. I mostly stuck to the same patterns as the last batch of heart cookies I made, but I did some additional experimenting with marbling techniques, which I had abandoned after a few unsuccessful attempts with my last batch. I was more pleased with the outcome of my experiments this time, but I consider the marbling to still be a work in progress.

The bakesale is being held at Dad's office, so I decided to go the extra mile and package the cookies attractively in hopes of soliciting maximum donations. I wrapped them in pairs in a piece of cellophane, and tied the parcels with curling ribbon. It took forever, but given the investment of time represented by the project as a whole, the extra effort was a drop in the bucket that elevated the entire enterprise to a higher level.

Topically, Dad chose to write his annual Valentine's Day poem to me on the topic of my baking fixation. His poems are a treasured family tradition, and with his permission, I thought I would share his thoughts with all of you:

Valentine's Day 2010

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
It's that time of year
So here's a verse for you.

How this tradition began,
I really can't say.
But I always come through
On Valentine's Day.

In years gone by
I've offered a reading
That offered my views
On your hobby of beading.

I thought beading was fine,
It presented no harm;
You even won prizes
And the pieces had charm.

But beading is gone
The gear's put away.
There's a new hobby
That fills up your day.

At first I had doubts,
Thought maybe you were faking.
But I can't dodge the fact
Your new love is baking.

Who would have thought
That you'd come to take pleasure
From sifting and mixing
And spices to measure.

Thousands of dollars
For tuition and books...
And what does she do?
She bakes and she cooks.

It could have been law,
But you're chopping and dicing.
It could have been business,
But you're an expert at icing.

It's probably genetic,
This passion to bake --
It could have been mining...
No, that's too much to take.

But it's important in life
To go your own way --
To find what you love,
And do it every day.

So baking it is,
If it makes you feel happy --
Just make some "S" cookies
For your tired old Pappy!


Sneak Attack...

Some things just sneak up on you. While I was busy baking ridiculously delicious chocolate chip scones and a decidedly mediocre peach Bundt cake and blogging about neither of them, somehow I managed to read and watch an increasing number of Olympics-related news items without realizing that the opening ceremonies are TOMORROW! Despite my general disinterest in sports, the Olympics are the one time every two years that I take an obsessive interest in them. In fact, my one regret about them this year is that I am employed for the first time in my history of Olympics viewership, and cannot spend every day of the games watching television coverage of them like a junkie. There is no sport too obscure -- in fact, one of my absolute favorite components of the Winter Games is the curling competition.

Perhaps its the fact that curling is seemingly the only sport in which average-looking people compete, as opposed to the perfectly-sculpted physiques and years and years of dedicated physical training required for other disciplines. Now, I'm sure that the Olympic curlers spend years honing their craft, but they also happen to look like they spend their off-hours slumped in a La-Z-Boy drinking beer. At this point in my life, curling is the only sport that keeps the spark of my childhood Olympic aspirations alive.

I cultivated my initial interest in curling back during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games when I was in high school. Even then I was a deeply ingrained night-owl, and I spent many nights working into the wee hours of the morning on papers, projects, and other miscellaneous homework. That was where I first encountered curling, relegated to the 3:00am programming block on television. The first time I saw it, the game made absolutely no sense, but there was something hypnotic about the Midwestern-looking competitors sliding heavy rocks upon a plane of ice, easing their path with a team of broom-wielding sweepers. I couldn't believe this insanity qualified as a sport.

Curling remained my trusty late-night companion during the 2006 Torino Games, when I was up working on an intensive research project for a Vietnam War seminar in which I was enrolled. I would Tivo the matches I wasn't still up to watch, and my roommates thought I was crazy, but I soon won them over. I even created a curling-related Facebook group that I got them to join. (Hey, it was 2006. Facebook was young; we created groups for anything and everything back then, the more ironic the better. Drew and I were the admins of the "Lawrence Welk Appreciation Society" too, but that's a story for another time.)

I'm not sure how I'm going to feed my curling addiction this year. I've gotten rid of my Tivo because I don't have the space for it anymore, and I have a 9-5 job, so all-nighters in the name of curling are out of the question. My best hope is finding re-aired footage of the matches on the Universal Sports Network. Never has there been a channel that has been a greater friend to the obscure sport fanatic niche audience. During Olympic off-years, it plays host to a number of sport competitions that bore most normal people. Ski jumping, bobsledding, and yes, curling -- Universal Sports has been running them for months already. So, fingers crossed, I'll be able to find curling at a convenient time.

I'm predicting Canadian dominance this year. They are a traditional curling powerhouse (indeed, the sport enjoys its greatest popularity there), along with the Nordic states like Sweden, Norway, and Finland that are consistently strong in the Winter Games, but with the home court advantage of competing in Vancouver, I think they'll be untouchable. I'll still be rooting for Team USA when competition starts on Tuesday, and for now, I'll just have to content myself with the opening ceremonies tomorrow, and the cornucopia of other winter sporting events taking place over the long weekend...


They Grow Up So Fast...

I might not have cute kids to blog about, or even a live-in pet to take care of, but there is a small population that depends on my care and attention for survival -- my houseplants. At present, they number at five: a rather sad croton plant that has been dying a slow death ever since it first came into my care nearly three years ago, a pathos plant that dates back to my sophomore year of college, an aloe plant, my youngest, and two amaryllis plants that I purchased in after-Christmas sales at the now defunct Smith & Hawken in two different years. I am particularly proud of my older amaryllis plant, because it has recently entered its third consecutive year of blooming.

Most people receive amaryllis plants as a holiday gift, allow the bulb to bloom once, and then dispose of it. That I have managed to keep mine alive, and blooming for three years is somewhat of a point of pride. Since mine came from a gardening store, it is a more unusual varietal -- instead of the characteristic crimson flowers, mine produces white blooms with delicate pink and red edges. It's really quite fetching. Sadly, it only blooms for about a month out of the year; the rest of the time it boasts little more than a rather unremarkable-looking spray of leaves (hence the reason why most people don't keep them around for long.) Still, it gives me a sense of accomplishment that I have been able to successfully nurture a plant for so long. Its sibling still shows no sign of emerging from its dormant season, but at least I can count one achievement on my gardening resume for 2010.


Less Than Three...

I am a glutton for punishment. As it turns out, I was correct in my prediction that the tediousness of cookie decorating would turn out to be like the pain of childbirth -- I soon found myself wanting to do it again. It all started when Sur La Table had it's annual sale, and I found myself picking up a truly ridiculous number of 56 cent cookie cutters. (Seriously, that store is possibly the most dangerous threat to my credit card in existence; it's a good thing they only have sales once a year!) With a bounty of new shapes at my disposal, I found myself looking for a proper occasion for baking, and finally settled upon Mom's current trip down to White Hall to visit the family.

Back in December, when I had assembled the yearly Cookie Bonanza, I delivered a box of cookies to my cousin, Aimee, who was a brand new mother at the time. Little did I know that I would generate a maelstrom of family tension by not gifting all of my cousins with baked goods -- Aimee's sister Trista, one of my loyal readers, felt slighted that her diligent blog readership was not rewarded by cookies. I decided to bake a Valentine's-themed batch for her February birthday and send them down with Mom. Next thing I knew, my cousin Danielle was feeling excluded, as she had received neither birthday nor Christmas cookies. I considered sending no cookies at all to alleviate the tension, but I had already made the cookie dough, so I opted to send them anyway and let anyone have them who was willing to drive to Grandma's and pick them up. Whoever the ultimate recipient of this bounty is, I hope you enjoy them! At the very least, I hope they don't end up sitting at Grandma's house uneaten...

I dedicated most of my weekend to the cookie-decorating project. This time, however, I invited Lauren over to keep me company while doing the final stages of piping work. I whipped up a double batch of royal icing and let her bring her own cookies to decorate, which made for a pleasant, relaxing afternoon.

Overall, I think I'm experiencing a positive learning curve in my cookie decorating odyssey. I was able to achieve a better consistency for most of my piping and flood icing, and I was largely pleased with the outcome of my cookies.

The only problem I experienced was an insane surplus of icing. When I had decorated my Christmas cookies, I ran out of icing, so with Lauren coming over to decorate cookies as well, I thought a double batch of royal icing would be in order. However, for some reason I ended up with more than enough icing to decorate an entire new batch of cookies. I hated to throw it away, so I whipped up more cookies, this time to take to the office. This time, I took a risk and deviated from my tried-and-true Alton Brown sugar cookie recipe, and attempted another recipe from Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake and Share for Chocolate Cut-Out Cookies. While they didn't have quite the hit of cocoa that I usually look for in my cookies and brownies, they baked up beautifully and were a nice change of pace. I didn't get as elaborate in my decorating with them, but they were still a huge hit at the office.

Hopefully, they will go over just as well at Dad's office. In two weeks, his firm is having a charity bakesale, for which I have committed to make another batch of cookies. If they sell well, it might be time to start taking commissions. After all, with the stockpile of cookie cutters I'm sitting on now, I can handle pretty much every occasion from baby showers, to weddings, and themed birthday parties. Something to consider...


Snow Days...

If you recall, just a few days ago I was rather unhappy with the Mayor's Office of Special Events for their decision to reinvent Chicago's annual 4th of July celebration. Frankly, I'm still perturbed about that entire state of affairs, and I'm leaving the MOSE on notice for now, but they have redeemed themselves slightly in my estimation after staging the annual Snow Days Festival over the weekend, right across the street from my apartment building.

While Chicago is better known for its numerous summer street festivals, we do not let a little cold stand in the way of enjoying a little outdoor entertainment. After all, our most-famous son, President Obama once said that Chicagoans are a people of "flinty toughness" when it comes to the weather. In evidence of that statement, the city throws a the Snow Days Festival in the dead of winter, consisting mostly of a snow sculpture competition and related activities such as dog-sledding demonstrations and the creation of an man-made hill for human sledding.

Ironically, in all the years that I've been aware of its existence, the festival has fallen after a period of thaw has melted all the snow, such that there is no actual snow on the ground, and all the snow for the sculptures and the artificial sledding run must be artificially generated. Still, even if the weather fails to cooperate, the sculptures are quite the sight to behold. When I was little, I would hassle my father every time there was a significant snowfall to go outside and build a snowman with me. I only recall succeeding a scant number of times, and from what I can remember, our creations most definitely had nothing on the impressive artistry that I observed on Saturday:

This sculpture was inspired by Chicago's "Windy City" moniker. It features our trademark skyscrapers and a hat taken away by the strong breeze off the lake.

I was blow away by the engineering present in this statue of a lantern, my favorite piece in the show. I marveled at how the columns held up the heavy-looking roof, and apparently, so did the other festival-goers. This sculpture took second place in the contest.

Snow sculpture festivals are popular throughout Asia, and the top prize went to this creation from a professional snow sculpture team from China. I was struck both by the impressive detailing in her costume, the smoothness they were able to achieve on their surfaces, and the expressiveness of the statue's eyes.

A sideview of the sculpture.

I also liked this sculpture of sea turtles in a coral reef. As with the lantern sculpture, I was impressed by their use of negative space and precarious sense of balance. Plus, check out my building in the background -- how many people are lucky enough to enjoy this kind of artistry in their own front yard?