Deck The Halls...

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, I can set about the business of decorating my apartment for the holidays. For the large part, I didn't make many alterations to last year's decorative scheme, but I did acquire new abstract tree-shaped ornament hangers for the mantelpiece and the niche by the front door, which I filled with snowflake ornaments that Mom and I scouted out during our shopping escapades with her sisters over the weekend. I think they look pretty snazzy, and they are definitely much more festive than the usual artwork that graces those spots, so I thought I would share the loveliness with all of you:


Morning Glory...

In a weekend devoted to the consumption of mass quantities of heavy food, a bit of lighter fare is sometimes in order. For our family, that reprieve came in the form of cinematic levity instead of a heaping plate of fruits and veggies. While the menfolk headed out to the riverboat to part with their money in an non-traditional manner for Black Friday, several female members of the family gathered for lunch and a movie. Given the diverse audience, we opted for the film with the widest appeal -- something light and funny, with celebrities recognizable to a wide age range. For us, Morning Glory fit the bill.

Morning Glory
tells the story of Becky (Rachel McAdams), a television producer who takes a job at a struggling morning show after she is laid off from her long time position. She must struggle with difficult co-anchors, played by Diane Keaton (who is so convincing in her role that I could easily see her stepping into a real-life morning news slot) and a very curmudgeonly Harrison Ford, a boss who is intent on canceling her floundering program, and an obsession with her job that stands in the way of her personal life. Despite the workplace focus, the film isn't really feminist in its sensibility. Indeed, it doesn't seem to have much of a goal at all besides providing entertaining. To that end, the film is definitely pleasant enough, and contains some genuine laughs near the middle of the story as Becky begins to rely on increasingly ridiculous on-air stunts to draw more viewers. Also, I had a hard time suppressing a giggle every time the station itself was mentioned. I'm not sure who's bright idea it was to name their station IBS, but whoever it was clearly hasn't seen as many television ads for Irritable Bowel Syndrome medications as I have...

Overall, it was a good enough film, and I enjoyed the couple hours of escapism that it provided. Although I usually go for more challenging or serious films, it was nice to get back to the "chick flicks" of my youth for an afternoon, and I would definitely recommend Morning Glory if you caught it one night on television or if it were the in-flight entertainment on a plane someday. I wouldn't run out to see it, but if it were there, one could do a lot worse in terms of a way to pass some time.


Happy Thanksgiving...

As per family custom, we made our annual trek to St. Louis this week to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with Dad's extended family. His cousin, Candy, was kind enough to host all 50 odd people in her brand-new home, and as always, there was enough food spread across the two meals and dessert table to feed a small army. I took a few photos from the day, which I am sharing below, while I talk a bit about what I am thankful for this year:

First of all, I am thankful this year for my support network. No man is an island, and I am grateful to all the people in my life who share their strength with me in whatever form they can. The older I get, the more I realize the paramount importance of love in my life, whether it is platonic, familial, or romantic, and in the past year, I have felt love and encouragement from all sides. The Beatles may have been onto something when they wrote, "All you need is love..."

Dad, getting into the annual game of "Rob Your Neighbor," which I continue to boycott in the belief that it doesn't foster a very loving environment on a day that's supposed to celebrate family and togetherness.

Secondly, I am thankful this year for all the blessings in my life. I have a job, which, given my age group is truly nothing to take for granted; only 41% of 18-30 year-olds have full-time jobs. I'm more or less in good health, and I have health insurance to help me take care of any problems that might arise. I lead a comfortable life, free of debt if not all monetary concerns, and I enjoy enough disposable income to maintain hobbies and interests that enrich my life. Life is good, and I'm not taking it for granted.

Cousins from both halves of the family engaged in conversation at the post-Thanksgiving dinner table.

All in all, I feel very fortunate for the past year, and can only hope that I'll be able to say the same when it comes time to give thanks next year. What were you thankful for in 2010?


It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas...

I know, I know. A lot of people feel strongly about the phenomenon of "Christmas creep," and honestly, I do too. It bugs me to see Christmas goods for sale, and decorations installed as soon as Halloween has passed. In my opinion, the Christmas season really shouldn't start until after Thanksgiving. This year, however, as I face an immensely busy December, the premature start of the holiday festivities has become a blessing in disguise, as it allows me to fit more celebrating into my packed schedule. Today, for instance, I took an extra day off of work for my Thanksgiving break to sneak away to the Museum of Science and Industry to see their annual Christmas exhibit, "Christmas Around the World," with Justin. It had come up in a conversation with him a few weeks earlier that we had never seen it, so I was determined to make time for us to go together this year.

The enormous tree in the central rotunda features Muppet-themed ornaments in conjunction with the museum's other special exhibit, "Jim Henson's Fantastic World." Though you can't see it in this picture, there Kermit is sitting under the tree looking up at the lights.

Justin and I also walked around the rest of the museum, including their scale model of downtown Chicago. I had to stand on a step to be taller than him in this photo.

"Christmas Around the World" features 56 Christmas trees donated and decorated by local families and business, each reflecting the holiday traditions of a different country. Since there was not a single entity doing the decorating, the trees are extremely variable in quality. Some give a definitive sense of place and tradition, while others could have hailed from any generic department store. Some are covered in elaborate ornaments, and other look... well... like they were decorated by small children, in all honesty.

In a strike of serendipity, Justin and I showed up in Christmas colors without planning it. If we were the type of people who sent holiday cards, we could have gotten our photo today.

Oddly enough, my two favorite trees hailed from Asian countries. The South Korean tree on the left featured origami versions of traditional Korean apparel, and the Japanese tree on the right featured a variety of paper ornaments, including garland fashioned from paper cranes.

Although the Christmas trees weren't quite up to par with my expectations, it was still fun to get in the holiday spirit with Justin, especially since we won't actually be celebrating Christmas together. We'll both be with our families that day, so it was nice to have a festive day together, even if it is still technically November...


A Different Kind of Stuffing...

Home cooks the nation over are spending this week in a mad dash to prepare what is arguably the most important meal of the year -- Thanksgiving dinner. Luckily for me, because our family travels for the holiday, I am always largely off the hook for the preparation of the turkey and its requisite side dishes. However, with my reputation as a baker comes the assignment of bringing baked goods to the Dad's family's annual potluck dinner. Last year, I brought an assortment of family and personal favorites, but this year I felt like bringing something unexpected to the Thanksgiving table.

Given their popularity among those I shared them with, I whipped up a another batch of lemon poppy seed cookies, but I also wanted to capture some of the flavors of the season. Anything with pumpkin or traditional fall spices seemed like overkill in light of all the pie that would be on offer at the gathering, so I turned to a recipe I'd run across in a Better Homes and Gardens cookie anthology I'd impulse-purchased from the check-out line at the grocery store. The allure of these cookies was two-fold: they featured cranberry and orange, the classic combination found in cranberry relish, and they were pinwheel cookies -- a genre with which I had not yet experimented. Plus, I had cranberries hiding away in the freezer, and nothing beats the convenience of a recipe for which you already have all the necessary ingredients.

Amazingly, despite having to make a filling, roll out dough, and chill it overnight, it seemed like the cookies came together with relative ease. Although I don't make them often (in fact, I don't think I've made any since I started blogging over a year and a half ago), I really appreciate the slice-and-bake ease of icebox cookies, and being able to prepare these cookies in advance and bake them at my leisure greatly eased some of the stress of what has been a busy, over-scheduled week. I think they're perfect for any harried holiday baker, and the flavors of the finished product were spot on. They were reminiscent of the season without being a cliche. If you're looking for something a bit unexpected this Christmas, I would seriously consider baking a batch of these.

Cranberry Orange Pinwheels
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

1 c. cranberries
1 c. pecans
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
zest of one orange
3 c. all-purpose flour

1. For filling, in a food processor combine cranberries, pecans, and brown sugar. Cover and process until cranberries and nuts are finely chopped. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter on medium high speed for 30 seconds. Add granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt. Beat until combined, scrapping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in eggs and orange peel until combined. Beat in as much of the flour as you can. Stir in any remaining flour by hand. Divide dough in half. Cover and chill dough about 1 hour until easy to handle.
3. Roll half of the dough between two pieces of wax paper into a 10-inch square. Spread half of the filling over dough, leaving a half-inch border around the edges. Roll up dough. Moisten edges and pinch to seal. Wrap log in plastic wrap or wax paper. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill about 4 hours, until firm.
4. Preheat oven to 375. Using a sharp knife, cut logs into 1/4 inch rounds. Place slices 2 inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are firm and bottoms are light brown. Let stand for 1 minute on cookie sheet, and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.


It's About Time...

Not unlike Netflix, my baking aspirations are arranged into a bit of an ad hoc queue. Whenever I find a recipe that strikes my fancy, I file it away to bake when the time is right. Sometimes, things make it to the top of the list right away, like the lemon poppy seed cookies that were needed to fill the citrus slot in this year's Cookie Bonanza. Some recipes, however, lurk on the list for eons, waiting patiently for their time in the spotlight.

This recipe for Chocolate-Caramel Thumbprints has been percolating in the back of my mind since last Christmas, when I spotted it on a blog. Since I already had a nutty cookie, and a chocolately cookie in my 2009 lineup, I didn't feel that it was right for that year, and it didn't really fit my lineup this year either, but I felt almost guilty about letting it languish on the list for yet another twelve months, so I decided to take advantage of my unexpectedly quiet weekend to whip up a batch.

As it turned out, it was a good thing that I had so much spare time to devote to these cookies, as their preparation turned out to be excessively time consuming. From the time it took to make and chill the dough, painstakingly form them and roll them in nuts, to making the caramel filling and placing it carefully in each cookie, this recipe just wasn't worth all the effort. Sure, they look spectacular. However, the flavor is just mediocre. The chocolate cookie could use a much more intense boost of flavor, and the caramel centers could seriously benefit from a bit of fleur de sel.

For all of the labor involved in making them, I expected them to taste a bit more special, and a bit less cloying. If your preferences lean toward the simple, and you have some extra time on your hands, I might consider recommending these cookies to you, but as it is, I think you'd be much better served by a variety of other cookie recipes I've featured here at "The State I Am In."

Chocolate-Caramel Thumbprints
adapted from Better Homes & Gardens

1 egg
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter, softened
2/3 c. sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
16 vanilla caramels, unwrapped
3 tablespoons whipping cream
1 1/4 c. finely chopped pecans

1. Separate egg; place yolk and white in separate bowls. Cover and chill egg white until needed. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, and salt; set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl beat butter for 30 seconds. Add sugar. Beat until combined, scrapping sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in egg yolk, milk, and vanilla until combined. Beat in the flour mixture. Cover and chill dough about 2 hours or until easy to handle.
3. Preheat oven to 350.
4. Lightly beat reserved egg white. Shape dough into 1-inch bowls. Roll balls in egg white, then in pecans to coat. Place balls 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Using the rounded end of a wooden spoon, make an indentation in the center of each cookie.
5. Bake 10 minutes or until edges are firm. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool.
6. In a small saucepan, heat and stir caramels and whipping cream over low heat until smooth. Spoon melted caramel mixture into cookie centers. If necessary, reheat caramel mixture to keep it spoonable. Allow cookies to cool completely before consuming.


The Path Not Taken...

I had hoped to deliver a series of cheery, action-packed posts this weekend about a planned visit from my friend, and former college roommate Joy, but life is often what happens when you make other plans. We'd planned to go on a hot dog crawl, exploring Chicago's various providers of encased meat products, among other fun activities. Alas, Mother Nature intervened and Joy ended up staying home in St. Louis with the flu. I hope she feels better soon, and that I'll get to see her before another entire year passes...


The Social Network...

Despite dating for a month, somehow, Justin and I had never been on a classic "dinner and a movie" date until tonight. I am in the suburbs for the weekend, so our other options were rather restricted, and a movie just seemed like the logical thing to do. Unfortunately, this week's box office offerings were less than inspiring, so we opted to catch The Social Network, because it was at the end of its theatrical run and neither of us had seen it. Due to the pervasive buzz the movie has received, both of us were skeptical about whether it could possibly live up to the hype. Although the proclamations of its Oscar-worthiness might be over-stated, Justin and I both enjoyed the film.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin tackles a difficult subject matter -- the creation of a website and its ensuing legal battles -- and manages to create a story that is intensely compelling. He crafts characters in whose fate we feel vested, even if they are not necessarily likable, and he weaves their opposing viewpoints together in a seamless manner. If anyone deserves an Oscar nomination for their work in conjunction with The Social Network, it would be Sorkin.

I was also impressed with the performance of Jesse Eisenberg, whose portrayal of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, may very well go down as one of the most epic assholes in cinematic history. The film version of Zuckerberg comes across as so completely oblivious to the feelings of others and so socially inept, I found myself questioning at times whether he suffered from Asperger's syndrome. If Eisenberg has any social graces at all in real life, then his performance as Zuckerberg was quite the accomplishment.

Oddly, my favorite moment of The Social Network had nothing to do with acting or the script; instead, it came at the end of the film, as Zuckerberg has just been advised to settle his lawsuits out of court, and he gazes longingly at the Facebook page of his "girl who got away." As the image fades to the credits, the soundtrack swells to the tune of "Baby, You're A Rich Man," by the Beatles. To me, it was a genius stroke of song selection -- it captured the moment, and the mood of the film perfectly. No doubt it will be stuck in my head for days...

Based on my highly-scientific polling of my friends, The Social Network seems to be fairly polarizing. People seemed to either love it, or hate it. I think love might be a little strong of a word for me to use, but I did really enjoy the film, and I highly recommend it, if you can catch it before Oscar season.


Let's Hear It For The Boy...

I haven't been up to much lately, but Justin got a bit of happy news. Some time ago, he entered a contest over at Boing Boing to recreate something computer-generated out of traditional artistic media. He opted to capture Tetris in a stop-motion video using folded construction paper. The entry (which is very neat, by the way), garnered him an honorable mention, so I thought I'd share it with all of you:


Sweet And Sour...

If there is a theme to this year's pre-holiday cookie recipe run-through, it would be the presence of thumbprint cookies. As I wrote when I made the chocolate rendition, I felt last year that the only think missing from my assortment was a thumbprint cookie. Since the chocolate cookies weren't right for this year's Cookie Bonanza, I pressed forward this weekend with another attempt to capture the genre. This time, I opted for a recipe for poppy seed thumbprints from Carol Walter's Great Cookies: Secrets to Sensational Sweets that I had spotted when I was searching for cookie inspiration last month.

In the author's version, the cookies were filled with raspberry or apricot preserves, but when I saw the poppy seeds, my first thought was lemon.
I always strive to include a citrus-flavored cookie in my holiday lineup, and last year's entry, Ginger & Lemon Cookies, struck me as somewhat mediocre. Knowing I had room for improvement, I decided to adapt Walter's recipe, swapping fruit jam for store-bought lemon curd, and adding lemon zest and lemon extract to the dough. I prepared half of the dough to the recipe's specifications (just for experimentation's sake), and half using my alterations.

Since I'm not a fan of lemon at all, I preferred the cookies made from the original recipe, which I filled with peach preserves. However, the lemon cookies, which I shared with more lemon-friendly palates, were a rollicking success. My coworkers came by to express their appreciation in person instead of sending emails, and Justin proclaimed them some of the best cookies he's ever had (though he might be a tiny bit biased towards the chef.) The lemon version has earned an instant entrance into this year's Bonanza, so look for them to make another appearance in December...

Though I'm only including the recipe for the lemon cookies, this picture features a combination of the lemon and peach versions.

Lemon Poppy Seed Thumbprints
adapted from Carol Walter

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. poppy seeds
1 c. unsalted butter, slightly firm
1/2 c. sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. lemon extract
zest of one lemon
Lemon curd

Preheat the oven to 350.
1. Whisk together flour, salt, and poppy seeds in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium-low speed until smooth. Pour in sugar and mix until just incorporated. Add the egg yolks, extracts, and lemon zest, mixing only until blended. Stir in the flour mixture on low, in two additions, until just combined. Do not overmix.
3. Roll the dough into walnut sized balls and place 2 inches apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Using the rounded end of a wooden spoon (approximately 1/2 inch), make a deep indentation in the center of each cookie, dipping the spoon in flour between each cookie.
4. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven, and repress the indentations with the end of the spoon. Fill the centers with the lemon curd, being careful not to overfill.
5. Return cookies to the oven and bake 4-5 minutes more, or until cookies are golden brown around the edges. Cool on wire racks.


Cin City...

One of the joys of knowing how to cook, and being in control of my own meal planning, is that I can now make the special occasion dishes I once enjoyed as a child whenever I damn well feel like it. Growing up, I always enjoyed Mom's Cincinnati-style chili (a dish consisting of an unusually-spiced sauce served over spaghetti and several optional toppings), but I could probably count on one hand the number of times she made it. Usually, it was something she would prepare if she was having a soup buffet dinner party for guests, or for a special occasion such as a birthday, if someone made a request. However, it was never something in the regular dinner rotation, because it required lengthy simmering and the preparation of an array of condiments. Regular chili, or spaghetti, was a a more convenient choice.

When I was in college, and teaching myself how to cook, I copied the recipe into my newly-purchased cookbook when I was transcribing all my favorite family recipes. Now I could have it whenever the craving struck, and although I still don't prepare it often, I still enjoy it several times a year. This week, I prepared a batch for a weekday dinner with Justin, and much to my satisfaction, he enjoyed the unique flavor combination. If you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary to infuse some excitement into your dining routine, I'd seriously consider giving this recipe a try.

Cincinnati Chili
from Mom

2 lbs ground round
3 cloves of garlic
1 large white onion, minced
15 oz can beef broth
2 8 oz cans tomato sauce
2 8 oz cans water
2 T. semisweet chocolate chips
2 T. chili powder
2 T. cider vinegar
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 bay leaf

1. Cook ground beef with garlic and minced onions.
2. Drain fat with paper towels.
3. Stir in remaining ingredients.
4. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat.
5. Cover, and simmer 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Serve with spaghetti, warmed and drained kidney beans, chopped onions, and shredded cheddar cheese.


Here Comes The Sun...

There used to be a time in my life when the only way I saw the sunrise was if I'd happened to stay up so late that the sun rose before my head hit the pillow. I am not a morning person; in fact, working a job with regular 9-5 hours is basically a constant affront to my natural circadian rhythm. Now that I do regularly glimpse the start of the sun's daily journey across the sky, I frankly can't see what the big deal is. Usually, there's nothing more than few weak rays of yellow and orange light, and I've failed to understand why it's considered so romantic to stay up and watch the sunrise. Give me a vibrant, technicolor sunset any day!

But this morning, I happened to peek out the window at just the right moment, and was rewarded with an ethereal explosion of color over the lake. It's not enough to turn me into a morning person, but it was beautiful enough for me to grab my camera and capture the experience to share:

Good morning Chicago...