Happy Halloween...

As I explored this time last year, I am not much into Halloween. In fact, I hadn't even put on a costume since the Halloween party I hosted with my college roommates back in 2006. So when Brandon invited me to a Halloween bash at his house, I was decidedly reluctant. He, however, was persistent, and eventually I acquiesced to the peer pressure. Besides, for this party I would have a date!

I was flummoxed, however, when it came time to decide on a costume. I couldn't come up with anything that could be thrown together from pieces in my closet, and I had zero desire to go to a costume store and buy some sort of tawdry ensemble. So instead, I turned to the Internet for guidance, googling "easy Halloween costume ideas," and landing on a website full of just that.

I was particularly taken with a section on costumes to be made from cardboard boxes, one of which was a stoplight, which employed Taplights, the infamous infomercial product. Bemused, I mentioned the idea to Mom (this was when I was in the suburbs last weekend), and she replied that we had all those components in the garage. Since assembling the costume would require a great deal of spray-painting, a task for which there was no acceptable place at the condo, Mom ended up making the costume for me, just like she did when I was a little girl. And just as in years past, she more than rose to the occasion -- my costume was a huge success!

Justin put together an impressive Indiana Jones ensemble, complete with a whip fashioned from brown duct tape, and a homemade relic made from floral foam.

I feel confident that I would have won the costume contest at Brandon's party, given the reaction of the other guests to my homemade costume, if it hadn't been for another party-goer who showed up near the end of the festivities in an incredibly elaborate Death costume, complete with articulated puppet arms. Still, it was nice to see a modest, non-risque costume receive such positive attention.

Brandon as a beekeeper, Irene as a burglar, and me.

Justin and I had a fun time at the party, even though we didn't know many of the people there. I think it helped significantly that we were there together, and I was proud to have him there as my date. Brandon and his boyfriend Mark put together some truly impressive decorations, leaving no corner of their home unadorned, and there was enough food to feed a small army. It was nice getting to meet some of his other friends and neighbors as well. Well done Brandon! Thanks for all your hard work!


The Cookie Strikes Back...

My Halloween cookies may have satisfied my urge to practice my piping, but they left me with another problem: a major surplus of leftover black and white icing. When I told Justin about my conundrum (bless him, he never seems to get bored of listening to me talk about my baking exploits), and expressed my plan to bake more cookies by the end of the weekend to use up the excess, he offered to come help me with them. You see, I enjoy decorating the cookies, but I find the rolling and cutting of the dough to be tedious; I would much rather make simple drop cookies. Justin, however, actually likes that part, but lacks my talent with a pastry bag. We're well-matched, even in our cookie baking preferences!

I let him choose what we would bake -- either round cookies to be decorated with black and white spiderwebs, or we could break in the new set of Star Wars cookie cutters my mom picked up for me at Williams-Sonoma. When his eyes got big at the sight of the Star Wars set, I knew the decision was made. An afternoon of nerd cookies was in the cards for us.

Although the set also included Boba Fett and Yoda cutters, the black and white icing limited our options to Darth Vaders and stormtroopers. We whipped up a batch of basic sugar cookies from the same blog from which I'd pulled the Halloween cookie recipe, and I got to sit back and watch as Justin did all the hard work. Once again, the cookies baked up beautifully in all but the last rolling, the results of which were approximately as wrinkled and warped as my standard sugar cookies. I think I may have found a new favorite recipe for roll-out cookies!

I didn't have time to decorate them until the next day, but I was relatively pleased with how they came out. The intricate stormtroopers gave my piping skills a run for their money, but I love the way the finished cookies look. I'm slightly less enthusiastic about the Darth Vaders, which are a little less professional-looking. Also, without any color contrast, the black-on-black of the Vader cookies is substantially less visually interesting.

Regardless of how the cookies turned out, I had a great time spending an afternoon in the kitchen with Justin, and as anyone who's baked with me can attest, the fact that we both survived the experience unscathed is a very good sign. I tend to be a bit... anal-retentive, not to mention controlling when it comes to baking, so kudos to Justin for not running screaming from the kitchen. In fact, I can't wait to cook with him again.

Vanilla Sugar Cookies
adapted from Bakeat350

3 c unbleached, all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder
1 c sugar
2 sticks butter
1 egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350.

Combine the flour and baking powder, set aside. Cream the sugar and butter. Add the egg and extracts and mix. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat just until combined, scraping down the bowl, especially the bottom.

Roll onto a floured surface and cut into shapes. Place on parchment lined baking sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes. Let sit a few minutes on the sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Decorate as desired.



With another holiday at hand, I found my thoughts drifting to my giant box of cookie cutters, contemplating the fact that I hadn't decorated a batch of sugar cookies since Easter. I knew I had a set of Halloween cutters that I had not yet had an opportunity to use, and I figured it was time to flex my icing skills before the Christmas rush. However, I did want to experiment at least a little bit, so I looked through my recipe inspiration archive and found a recipe for brown sugar spice cookies from another blogger who specializes in decorating cookies. I figured her recipe would be reliable, given the quantity of cookies she bakes, and it would provide a nice change of pace from the old Alton Brown sugar cookie recipe I've been using since college.

I actually rather liked the subtle hint of warm spices, and the slightly softer texture to the cookies afforded by the brown sugar. They were still firm enough to ice, but less tough than the cookies I usually bake for decorating purposes. Mom agreed with my assessment, and Justin responded favorably to them as well, but Dad gave the cookies a resounding, "Blech!" and demanded to know what I had done to the sugar cookies. Hence, even though I actually enjoyed these cookies more than my standard sugar cookies, I don't think I'll be including them in my Cookie Bonanza. I think it's just not good to mess with people's expectations that way, and I already have a solid spice cookie contender anyway.

However, the success of these cookies has emboldened me to try tweaking my sugar cookie recipe. The blog where I found this recipe has a plain recipe I think I'll try, since I liked how these cookies baked up. They were less lumpy and more crisply defined than my usual cookies, even without refrigerating the dough as I have done in the past. I still recommend these cookies without reservation -- I would definitely make them again, just not for my cookie giveaway.

For maximum efficiency, I stuck to two cookie shapes that could be decorated with the same two colors of icing: ghosts and bats. I was most pleased with how the ghosts turned out; I love their spooky little ghost faces. My original impulse with the bats was to pipe fangs on them, but it quickly became apparent that the fangs looked more like eyes, so I decided to leave them up to the consumer's interpretation. Also, as ever, I couldn't seem to get the black icing as dark as I would have preferred, but I guess there's nothing particularly bad about charcoal grey bats. Overall, I was quite pleased with how the cookies came out, especially given my strong preference for abstract and geometric-printed cookies.

Brown Sugar and Spice Cookies
From Bakeat350

3 c unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1/8 tsp nutmeg (freshly grated, if possible)
1/8 tsp allspice
1/2 c granulated sugar (I use sugar that I've stored vanilla beans in)
1/2 c light brown sugar (packed)
2 sticks butter
1 egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and spices, set aside.

Cream the sugar and butter. Add the egg and extracts and mix until well-blended.

Gradually add the flour mixture and beat just until combined, scraping down the bowl, especially the bottom. (The dough will be quite may need to knead in stray bits of flour from the bottom of the bowl by hand.)

Roll on a floured surface and cut into shapes. Place on parchment lined baking sheets and bake for 9-12 minutes, depending on the size of your cutter. Let sit a few minutes on the sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Decorate as desired.



There are times when I feel like a total phony. Much as I fancy myself to be a sophisticated urban dweller, there are many cultural pursuits that I just can't bring myself to appreciate. A trip to the Art Institute to admire an exhibit of Post-Impressionist works? Yes, please. A trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see an exhibit of lights and mirrors? Um... no thanks. A night at the theater catching the latest touring Broadway show? Of course! A night at the opera? Uh, I think I have other plans...

That is, unless the person inviting me just happens to be the guy I'm seeing. Although my previous attempts at learning to enjoy the opera had ranged from disastrous (Dr. Atomic) to mediocre at best (The Merry Widow), since Justin enjoys it, I thought I'd give it another go. This time around the production on the agenda would be Carmen, which is one of the few operas I've actually heard of (and if it's that famous, it couldn't be completely awful, right?), and the only opera from which I have music on my iPod. If ever the odds were in my favor for enjoying the opera, this would be the time.

I will say that the music was great -- it was good to hear the pieces I knew, and surprising to discover other songs I'd heard before turned out to originally came from Carmen. The mezzo-soprano portraying Carmen was a substitute (the woman originally cast in the role had to bow out due to pregnancy complications), but she had an excellent voice and did a good job of capturing Carmen's capricious flirtations. However, the quality of the music aside, I just was not particularly entertained by the performance. It is clear to me that opera hails from a time in which people had much longer attention spans, because I found Carmen to be about two acts too long. I was definitely borrowing Justin's shoulder for a catnap by the third act.

For me, the appeal of our night at the opera was more about spending time with my date than the actual performance itself. It was certainly enjoyable enough, at least for the first couple acts, but it's fairly evident that opera just isn't for me. I would go again under the right circumstances, but I wouldn't want a steady diet of opera attendance, not without a nice shoulder to rest my head on for a snooze at least...


It's The Time Of The Season...

Fall is my favorite season. There's just something about the cool, crisp air after months of oppressive heat, the fleeting beauty of the changing leaves, and the imperative to enjoy the last remaining days of warmth and sunshine that comes with the knowledge that winter is right around the corner that captures my imagination. Of course, it doesn't hurt that there's been a little something extra developing in my life the past few weeks to make the passage of my favorite time of year just a bit sweeter -- I've got a new man in my life!

His name is Justin, we met online a few weeks ago, and things have been going swimmingly ever since. We've been seeing quite a bit of each other lately (which is part of the reason why my posting has dwindled recently), and I'm feeling great about how things are unfolding between us. I think it's safe to say that we're both quite smitten...

It was just a little bit windy...

This weekend, we decided to make a day out of seasonal activities, starting off at Richardson Farms, home of what they bill as the "World's Largest Corn Maze." I love a good corn maze, and had enjoyed Richardson Farms when I visited last year with Katherine, so I dragged Justin out to Antioch, Illinois for his first maze experience. This year's theme was the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, and I'm not sure if it was my imagination, but it seemed much more difficult this year than last year. I think Justin and I found less than half of the 25 checkpoints included in the maze to help aid in navigation. Most of the time, we wandered around with little sense of where we were. Nevertheless, the sound of the wind in the dry corn husks was quite pleasant, and the rain held off long enough for us to enjoy some quality outdoor time. Besides, as I joked to Justin, the couple that gets lost together stays together -- because they have nowhere else to go!

I'm a wee bit obsessed with this picture -- how cute are we?

After the maze, we headed to the beach to kill some time until dusk, when we would head to the Great Highwood Pumpkin Festival. That's how unseasonably warm it was this weekend: we were able to hang out at the beach watching the water at the end of October without freezing our buns off. When the sun finally started to dip toward the horizon, we drove up to Highwood, and spent ages driving around the already parking-challenged hamlet until we found a spot that was barely even in town it was so far away.

The Great Highwood Pumpkin Festival is a relatively new event, as it was only in its second year this weekend. The town is determined to break the world record (currently held by the much larger city of Boston) for the most amount of lit jack-o-lanterns in one place. To beat Boston, they needed 32,000 jack-0-lanterns, and while they didn't make it this year (they made it as far as 26,000), the vast quantities of carved gourds were still extremely impressive.

Most of the pumpkins were housed on giant scaffolds that were between one and two stories tall. They were carved by locals who had either brought their pumpkins from home, or who had brought their own tools and purchased a pumpkin at the festival site to carve. Frankly, I was a little worried about combining such a large crowd with so many sharp implements, but I guess that's the difference between a festival in the suburbs and a festival in the city.

I was also surprised to see the festival volunteers lighting the pumpkins with actual candles. Apparently, they had to use actual candles to be eligible to break the record, but 26,000 candles inside of 26,000 flammable containers seemed like an exceedingly dangerous enterprise to me. If I'd been on the planning committee, and it would have met eligibility requirements, I would have used electric lights instead.

All in all, it was a perfect autumn day, even with the intermittent rain. I got to spend time with my new beau, taking in a variety of seasonal entertainments and forging new memories of shared experiences. Hopefully, this is just one in a long line of perfect days in store for us...


Raising the Bar...

As much as I love to bake cookies (and if the 30 posts tagged "cookies" here is any indicator, that would be a whole heck of a lot), I must admit that I am not a equal cookie opportunist. Indeed, there is one type of cookie that I never make -- bar cookies. Although many fantastic bakers, my grandma included, prefer bars for their speed and simplicity, for me, a cookie isn't a cookie unless it's shaped and baked as its own separate entity. This adds considerable time and effort to the baking process, as only 10-12 cookies fit on a sheet at a given time, so they must be baked in multiple batches. Bar cookies, however, are baked all at once and cut into single portion sizes, which makes them much faster. Although adding a bar cookie to my Cookie Bonanza lineup would free up time to dedicate to something else, I had still never really entertained the idea until this week.

Recently, I had traveled to Whole Foods in search of short-grain brown rice in their bulk section. I'd already torn off a bag, but was unable to locate the grain I was looking for, despite the presence of copious more obscure items. Feeling guilty about wasting a plastic bag at the bastion of sustainability, I looked around for something else to find when I located crystallized ginger at a price per pound that was lower than what I had paid for the tiny glass jar I'd previously had in my pantry. I picked up a pound for the heck of it, figuring I'd find some sort of Christmas cookie recipe to use it in.

The crystallized ginger sat in its baggie in the cabinet for a week, until I needed a treat to bring along to a picnic I was going to today. However, given the time restrictions of my over-scheduled weekend, I needed something I could bake in advance on Friday night that would hold up until Sunday. Drawn, as ever, to Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake and to Share for inspiration, I found a recipe for Iced Hermits, a bar cookie that hails from the East Coast, that were originally baked by sailors' wives for their husbands to take on long voyages. Not only did they have a good shelf life, the recipe called for crystallized ginger; my mind was made up.

I did make one major change to the recipe -- I substituted dried apples for Martha's suggestion of raisins. For me, raisins are a food I would rather eat plain than as an ingredient in something else. If I ever encounter them in a baked good, I always pick them out. To top the bars, I followed Martha's instructions to the letter, icing them with a drizzle of brown sugar glaze (which was so tasty even I liked it, and I almost always find glazes and icings to be cloyingly sweet), and a sprinkling of additional crystallized ginger. Annoyingly, the extra ginger did not adhere well to the icing at all, making the cookies messy and difficult to transport. Also, I found the ginger flavor in the cookies to be a little overpowering, so I resolved to leave the extra ginger off the cookies the next go around.

And there will almost certainly be another go around for these cookies, which received an overwhelmingly positive response from everyone I shared them with. Granted, some of them were avowed fans of ginger, but once I brushed the surplus ginger off, even I liked the spicy punch of these cookies. The make-in-advance capability for this recipe also gives it definite appeal for the holiday season. In my experience, the longer the cookies sat, the softer and more intensely flavored they became. I think I might have found this year's spice cookie for my giveaway...

Iced Hermits
adapted from Martha Stewart

For bars:
1/2 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon mace
3/4 c. dried apples, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 c. candied ginger, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1/4 c. unsulfured molasses
1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 c. packed dark brown sugar

For icing:
1/4 c. packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons milk, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 c. powdered sugar, sifted, plus more if needed

1. Make bars: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-by-15-inch rimmed baking sheet with Pam. Line bottom with parchment paper, and spray parchment; set aside. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper, cloves, and mace in a medium bowl; set aside.
2. Put butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until smooth. Add sugar; mix until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in egg and yolk, and molasses. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture. Mix in 1/2 cup candied ginger and the dried apples.
3. With moistened hands, s
pread dough evenly onto prepared baking sheet. Bake, rotating sheet halfway through, until firm, 18 to 22 minutes. Let cool completely in baking sheet on a wire rack.
Make icing: Put brown sugar, milk, and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until butter has melted and sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat; whisk in vanilla and confectioners sugar. If icing is too thick to drizzle, stir in more milk, a teaspoon at a time. If icing is too thin, stir in more confectioners sugar, a teaspoon at a time. Let cool slightly.
Drizzle bars with icing. Let stand until icing has set, about 15 minutes. Cut into 2-inch squares. Bars can be stored in single layers in airtight containers at room temperature up to 5 days.


It's Time To Meet The Muppets...

Last year, when I busily attending screenings from the Jim Henson oeuvre at the Gene Siskel Film Center's retrospective of his work, one of the highlights for me was an announcement that the Museum of Science and Industry would be hosting a Muppet exhibit in late 2010. Of course, at the time that seemed like eons into the future, but here we are in mid-October, and the exhibit in question, "Jim Henson's Fantastic World," has been open for nearly a month already. I had initially planned to make a "girl's day out" of the exhibit by trekking to the MSI with my friends Mireya and Natasha, but due to scheduling conflicts and a shuffling of the guest list, I ended up accompanying Natasha and her mother and boyfriend instead.

Although the exhibit was good, it was much smaller than I had anticipated. When I got to the end and saw the exit, my first thought was, "Wait, that's all there is?!?" However, I was fortunate enough to only pay $5, the cost of the additional special exhibit surcharge, because my employee status at one of the Chicago area-museums gets me free general admission at all of the other institutions. If I'd had to pay $20 to see the exhibit (as I would have if I were a non-Chicago resident), I'm not sure it would have been worth the trip or the expense just to see the Jim Henson exhibit alone. Of course, most out-of-town tourists would be seeing the entire museum, which would add value to their cost of admission. Since I was just there in March, I felt that it was okay to skip the rest of the museum, minus an Omnimax movie for which Natasha's family got me a ticket through their family membership.

The main focus of the exhibit was Jim Henson, his creative process, and the fully-realized fantasy worlds that he created for his characters to inhabit. As a result there weren't as many three dimensional objects as I was expecting. Some of the crowd favorites represented in puppet form, but by and large, the exhibit consisted of Henson's doodles, many of which served as the germs of ideas that later turned into internationally recognizable icons such as Big Bird, and story boards that demonstrated Henson's craft as a storyteller. They were the rare, unusual materials that one doesn't usually expect to see, which made them interesting, but I still felt like the show needed more puppets.

Wilkins and Wonkins from the series of surprisingly violent ten-second commercials that Henson produced for Wilkin's Coffee in the 1950s. Since the commercials were filmed in black and white, it never occurred to me that Wilkins and Wonkins were any color other than grey. The story board to the right shows several ideas for various advertisements.

The cover for Henson's original proposal for The Muppet Show, which he shopped around to numerous outlets before CBS expressed interest in a syndicated version of the program.

For me, the most exciting artifact in the exhibit was the puppet of Mahna Mahna and two of the Snowths that provided backup dancing his eponymous musical number. Although photography was technically prohibited in the exhibit, there was only one security guard on duty, so it was easy to sneak pictures. Unfortunately, the one guard was stationed directly next to the Mahna Mahna case, and I tried several abortive attempts at getting my photo before he finally looked in the other direction. Mahna Mahna and the Snowths were a perfect example of why it was so fascinating to see the puppets in person. In my mind, I had imagined the puppets would be much larger, and I was surprised to see some of the materials that were used to fashion their bodies. From the distance one sees them on television, it is harder to tell how they are made, but the closeness allowed an illuminating view on their construction.

Natasha creating her own Muppet.

As a family-friendly exhibit, "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" had several interactive activities to appeal to children and adults alike. One was a paper-doll-like concept built on the idea of Henson's "Anything Muppets" or blank puppets with interchangeable features that could be used to create any number of characters. There was also a puppet theater with shows geared towards children, a storyboarding activity using Magnadoodles mounted on a wall, and a movie on a loop about Henson's career.

I was pretty psyched to see that the curators included Rubber Duckie in their Bert and Ernie display, which prompted Travis and I to break out into renditions of the "Rubber Duckie" song and "Put Down the Duckie." Natasha would have joined the sing-along but for a cold that deprived her of her singing voice.

Gobo and Cantus of Fraggle Rock, one of my favorite shows as a child.

Ultimately, even thought I thought the exhibit was a little small and lacking in three dimensional artifacts, I still thought it was worth seeing, especially for a Muppet fan of my caliber. I probably would have paid $5 just to see Mahna Mahna in person, though I recognize that's hardly a normal reaction. For a museum-goer with a healthy interest in Jim Henson and his Muppets, the exhibit would make a pleasant addition to a full day at the Museum of Science and Industry, though I wouldn't structure a trip there just to see it unless you are a die-hard fan.

Natasha and I in the circus exhibit, en route to the Omnimax theater, where we saw (or really, napped through) a movie about the recent repairs to the Hubble space telescope.


Never Let Me Go...

I confess, I do not read enough. Ever since college, when I became massively burned out on literature and academic fare alike, I just haven't been able to relocate the hunger for books that I once had. I don't think it helps that I spend much of my days at work sifting through old newspaper articles; by the time I get home I'd much rather veg out in front of the television or even commit words to the page (or screen) than pick up a novel. In truth, I am lucky to read one or two books a year, and only that many because I like to take a book along to read on long flights. This year, despite several false starts, I haven't managed to finish a single book and it's nearly November. It's sad, and a little shameful.

When I can find the energy, however, I do enjoy reading, and one of the best novels I've picked up in recent years was Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel tells the story of a dystopian future in which nearly all illnesses can be cured by organ transplants, but to supply the demand for organs, an underclass of cloned humans has been bred specifically to be kept alive as their organs are harvested a few at a time until they eventually "complete" their donations. Ishiguro explores the impact of this life on a trio of young "donors," tracing their lives from a special boarding school where the clones are isolated from a society that both fears them and prefers to pretend they don't exist, to their brief adult lives. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are involved in a love triangle fraught with jealousy and spite, but ultimately each finds a way to make peace with the brevity of their existence. I found the original novel to be hauntingly tragic, but also incredibly suspenseful, as Ishiguro never explicitly explains the nature of the organ donation process and his character's doomed fate. Instead, the reader must piece together the details for himself in a format that, for me, almost echoed a mystery novel.

I enjoyed the book so much, in fact, that I received the news that it was to be turned into a movie with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Film adaptations of novels seldom capture the true essence of what made the original great, but it can still be fascinating and entertaining to see one interpretation of how the characters can be brought to life. Hence, when Never Let Me Go , starring Carey Mulligan and KeiraKnightley was given a limited release this month to make it eligible for the Oscars, I made a point of making it out to see it.

The story's science fiction overtones helped me persuade Lisa to accompany me on my outing, and I think her inexperience with the novel is illustrative of my point about film adaptations of books: I thought the film was a decent reflection of the plot portrayed in the book, but I felt it lacked the suspense that Ishiguro was able to impose through his ambiguous writing, and that the characters were more two-dimensional when I wasn't using my own imagination to fashion them in my mind. On the other hand, without having the book as a point of comparison, Lisa greatly enjoyed the film, felt invested in the characters, and was moved by their ability to make the most of the time they were given. I think she might have an excellent point there -- it wasn't that the movie was bad, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the cinematography was quite lovely. For me, it just couldn't hold up to the source material.

I would recommend the novel to you before the film, but if you are like me, and can't find the motivation to read, then I would suggest you seek out Never Let Me Go in theaters if it is nominated for an Academy Award and receives a wider U.S. release. At the very least, it is definitely a story worth experiencing.


Belle And The Boy Sebastian...

Generally speaking, I'm not much of a concert-goer. I like music, to be sure, but I'm perfectly content to enjoy it in its clean, studio-produced form. Basically the only artist who I make an effort to see live is Andrew Bird, because he is not only sensational live, but he also tends to pick quirky venues and his concert structure is not that of a traditional rock concert. However, when I was riding the bus past the Chicago Theater several weeks ago, the marquee caught my eye: it was announcing an October tour date for the Scottish band, Belle & Sebastian.

It just so happens that Belle & Sebastian are my favorite group musical act. I first discovered them in college, back when I had my first iPod, and iTunes was in its early days. Back then, iTunes had a feature that allowed users on the same network to listen to one another's music collections without downloading the music permanently. Since you could listen to whole songs, it was a good way to test out new music without having to purchase it first. One day, I was browsing through the collection of an anonymous user in my dorm, when I came across a song called, "Dylan In The Movies." As I was heavily into Bob Dylan at the time, I clicked on the song to see if it had any relation to him. It didn't in the slightest, but I was charmed by the song's infectious pep. I was intrigued, and started listening to the band's other music, finding that I liked it as well. Soon, I found myself downloading the entire Belle & Sebastian catalog.

Unfortunately for me, the band only releases new albums every 4-5 years, and doesn't tour often. Their last album,
The Life Pursuit, was released in 2006, and marked the last time they toured in the U.S. For a while, I had religiously stalked their website looking for new tour dates, but none were forthcoming and eventually I stopped checking. Hence, their current tour and tomorrow's release of a new album, Belle & Sebastian Write About Love, came as a complete surprise to me. So much for being a loyal fan...

Still, as soon as I got home, I checked Ticketmaster for tickets to the show, only to find that it was sold out. Opting to take a risk, I looked on Stubhub, where I agreed to part with an outrageous sum of money for a resale ticket. After all, I figured, if Belle & Sebastian is only going to tour twice a decade, I might as well splurge. The ticket arrived in the mail in a timely manner, and tonight, I found myself at the Chicago Theater in truly stupendous seats -- almost worth the money I'd shelled out for them.

Although the band was ostensibly touring in support of their new album, which will be released tomorrow, they only played two songs from it. Instead, their set list focused on material from their older releases. In fact, their last album,
The Life Pursuit, was only represented by one song as well: "Sukie in the Graveyard." Here was the set list for the evening:
  1. I Didn't See It Coming
  2. I'm a Cuckoo
  3. Step Into My Office, Baby
  4. She's Losing It
  5. I'm Not Living In the Real World
  6. Piazza, New York Catcher
  7. Lord Anthony
  8. I Want the World to Stop
  9. Sukie in the Graveyard
  10. (I Believe In) Traveling Light
  11. Stars of Track and Field
  12. Mayfly
  13. There's Too Much Love
  14. The Boy With the Arab Strap
  15. If You Find Yourself Caught In Love
  16. Simple Things
  17. Sleep The Clock Around
  18. Judy and the Dream of Horses (Encore)
  19. Me and the Major (Encore)
Lead vocalist, Stuart Murdoch.

All of this older material gave the concert a bit of a feel of a reunion tour -- the kind of shows a band plays when they are past their prime, and cashing in on their former glory. I haven't had a chance to listen to their new CD yet, but I hope this isn't a sign that the band feels their best work is behind them. Nevertheless, I was happy to hear most of my favorite songs from their catalog, although I was profoundly disappointed when the microphone system cut out during my favorite song of all, "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love." Not only is it my favorite Belle & Sebastian song, it's one of my favorite songs period, and I was crushed to hear it inadvertently turned into an instrumental piece due to technological difficulties.

The band was also active in engaging the fans directly. Stuart, the lead singer, pulled an audience volunteer onstage to put mascara on him during "Lord Anthony" to tie in with a lyric about blue mascara running down a crying boy's face. He also recruited a cadre of dancers to join him during "There's Too Much Love," and launched signed merchandise into the crowd, which won him a tremendous amount of goodwill with the audience.

The devastating technological mishap that ruined my favorite song aside, the band had good energy, and put on a very entertaining live show. They did not improvise much, which I appreciated, as I tend to get annoyed when the songs I go to hear sound little like I expected. For me, Belle & Sebastian's performance was really everything I look for in a concert, and if I get the chance to see them again, I would jump at it, even if I have to wait another five years.


Looking Good...

Although I stayed in this weekend and did little besides bake cookies and clean house, my parents had a more active weekend, and they were in town tonight to attend the wedding of one of their friend's daughters. They made quite the handsome couple themselves, so I took a picture to show them off, since I know much of my family is out there reading. Don't they look nice?


A Taste of Fall...

By and large, I have been taking it easy lately. I've been sticking close to home instead of going out, and there hasn't been much of interest to report. However, the inexorable march of time into the future does mean one thing -- we are getting closer to December by the day, and as a result, my quest for the perfect Christmas cookie lineup continues.

At this point in my experimenting, only one recipe has wowed me -- the chocolate thumbprints -- but they were too fragile to survive the Cookie Bonanza. This week, I thought I might experiment with a new recipe to replace the "spice cookie" slot in my assortment, previously held by chocolate gingerbread cookies. Although that recipe had been well-received by friends who had eaten them, neither I nor my family was particularly crazy about them. For inspiration, I chose this time to look to a different source: Carole Walter's Great Cookies: Secrets to Sensational Sweets. I felt like I was depending a little too heavily on Martha Stewart for my cookie recipes, and I had recieved Great Cookies as a gift from a friend and not made anything from it. Indeed, my bookshelf is laden with cookbooks from which I have never prepared a recipe, and it is a minor goal of mine to try to make at least one recipe from each of them.

When I saw a spice cookie in Walter's book that utilized a cookie press, I thought I would give it a try, as it would give me another opportunity to use an under-utilized kitchen gadget. After all, the cookie press comes with several seasonal dies that extend beyond the Christmas season; it seemed a waste to only use it once a year. So with my pumpkin die loaded and ready to press, I set to work on the cookies.

Walter's original recipe called for a thin, wafer-like cookie, and I knew my decision to change the shape would likely alter both the consistency of the cookie, and the baking time. Instead of thin, crisp wafers not unlike Moravian spice cookies, I ended up with thicker, softer cookies more in line with commercially available gingerbread. The cookies that resulted were buttery yet moist, with a subtle spiciness. They would have made an excellent accompaniment to a steaming cup of tea.

However, they were not nearly spicy enough for me. In fact, my first instinct upon tasting them was that perhaps I needed to replace my ground ginger before the start of the holiday season. They did improve somewhat upon sitting in terms of flavor, but they still weren't intense enough for me. I was insufficiently moved by this recipe to want to use it to replace either my "spice cookie" offering, or my "presed cookie" offering (which were kid-friendly vanilla-bean spritz cookies last year.) However, if you like your spices mild and subtle, I might recommend this recipe if you have a cookie press in your closet that's gathering dust.

Spice Cookies
adapted from Carole Walter's recipe for Spiced Rickrack Wafers

2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 c. unsalted butter, slightly firm
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, clove, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium-low speed until creamy and lightened in color, almost 2 minutes. Add the 3/4 cup of sugar and mix for another 2 minutes to combine. Mix in the egg, molasses, and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
3. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients in two additions, mixing only to combine after each addition.
4. Load the cookie press die of your choice. Following the manufacturer's instructions, fill the press with dough, and press onto parchment-lined baking sheets, 1-inch apart.
5. Bake cookies 7-10 minutes or until edges begin to color. Do not overbake.



As you may or may not remember, back in July I began the process of investigating my sleeping patterns in an effort to figure out why I am constantly sleepy. The first test was inconclusive, showing some apnea, but not enough to account for my excessive fatigue. In mid-September I had my second test sleep study with a multiple sleep latency test the following day to test for narcolepsy. Today, I got my results from that test.

Frustratingly, the results from the second round of tests were also somewhat inconclusive, although I did sleep much better the second time around and gave them a much better set of data to interpret. Here's a brief comparison:
  • In Test 1, I had a 63% sleep efficiency rating versus 98% in Test 2.
  • In Test 1, I was in REM sleep for 13% of the night, versus 30% in Test 2. Such a high amount of REM sleep is an indicator for narcolepsy.
  • In Test 2, they observed far more apnea than in the original test, especially when I was in deeper sleep and REM sleep.
  • During the multiple sleep latency portion of the test, I fell asleep almost instantaneously for each nap, which is a narcolepsy indicator, but no REM sleep was observed during the naps, which is the hallmark sign of narcolepsy.
Hence, the test was sort of a mixed bag -- some of the indicators for narcolepsy were there, but not others. However, since they observed such higher levels of apnea than in the previous test, they've decided to treat for apnea and see if that resolves my daytime tiredness. If it does, then they won't pursue narcolepsy. If, after being treated for apnea, I'm still having trouble staying awake during the day, they will continue testing for narcolepsy. It's not really the neat and tidy answer I'd been hoping for, but at least it's a start, and we have a course of action now that will hopefully result in a more wakeful existence.


Wake Me Up When September Ends...

I was relieved to see the calendar flip over to October today. Although the balance of the past month was productive and positive, September petered out on a bit of a sour note for me. After Monday's boat trip, I found myself worshiping at the porcelain throne, despite having consumed no alcohol at the event (as most of my colleagues did.) Somehow I had acquired either food poisoning or a bout of gastroenteritis, and I was laid up at the condo with it for two days. There are few things quite as miserable of being sick and alone with no one to take care of you. No one brings you Sprite, saltine crackers, or an extra blanket. Living on your own and getting sick makes all those times you were sick as a child seem like a picnic by comparison, and few things can make a grown adult want their mommy more.

Thankfully, I was feeling well enough to go back to work by Thursday, and to go out with Natasha and Mireya for dinner tonight, which was a perfect way to start the month on the right foot. Even though we no longer work together, the three of us have been trying to get together on a semi-regular basis, and keep up with each others' lives. Dinner once a month might not be the same as lunch twice a week, but I am very glad that we have been making the effort to stay friends. Here's hoping the rest of the month is just as full of friends and good cheer...