Movin' On Up...

After two and a half years of working at the museum, I finally got the piece of news that I had been hoping for since the day I started -- I am getting my own office! From my first workspace tucked into a storage room in the bowels of the museum that wasn't heated in winter, I was moved to an open niche in the hallway on the administrative floor, subjected to conversations of every passing coworker. This exposed area has been particularly unfortunate, given the expensive recording equipment I must keep on hand for my oral history interviews that I can't properly secure since my "office" only has three walls, much less a locking door.

Now I'll have a door that locks, and more importantly, a door to close to screen out the noise created by my coworkers that interferes with my ability to do sound editing work, which requires quiet in order to properly hear the material on the recordings. At last, after all my patience and repeated entreaties to the HR department, I will have my own space.

On another work-related note, the photography department finally sent out copies of the photos they took of the Peer Recognition Awards. I particularly liked this photo, where the instruction was for us to look "pumped," but instead, it looks like Jessica's trying to punch me in the face:

From left to right: Me, Ben, Jessica, Janis, Rachel, and Rey.


Restaurant Week 2011 - La Madia

My final foray into the Restaurant Week offerings was inspired by a conversation I had with my coworker and lunch companion, Jessica, in which we were discussing the chicken and grape pizza I made with Justin last month. She mentioned her love for the talegio and grape pizza at La Madia, a restaurant not terribly far from the museum, and highly recommended the place if I were looking for a new pizza spot.

Generally speaking, my Chicago roots run deep, and I am fairly loyal to my beloved deep-dish pizza. The only other pie to win a place in my heart is that of Dewey's, an Ohio chain with a presence in St. Louis, which I learned to love when I was going to college there. Otherwise, I tend to stay away from the thin crust stuff. However, after Jessica's recommendation, I happened to walk past La Madia when I was out at the Snow Days Festival with Lauren and Justin, and realized just how conveniently located it is. Given the location and the good word of mouth, it certainly seemed worth checking out.

Since Restaurant Week lunches are a bit of a tradition for me and Lauren, I thought La Madia would make a good choice, since many of the participating locations are only available for dinner. We ended up having a tremendous feast of a meal, both in quantity and in its quality. If the purpose of Restaurant Week is to win new local clients for Chicago eateries, then I think our trip to La Madia might have been the most successful of my outings this week, as it is likely to be the only place I'll being dining at again in the future.

Ambiance - The interior at La Madia was crisp, modern, and bright with natural light, even though it was an overcast day. I'm not sure how it would look at night, for dinner, but I didn't get the sense that this would be the best location for a romantic or otherwise intimate meal. The pizza oven was surrounded by an open work area, where customers seated at a low bar can watch the pizzaioli preparing the food, and where participants in monthly Italian cooking classes are seated as well. Really, my only complaint in regard to the atmosphere was the fact that they had two unisex bathrooms, instead of devoting one stall to men and one to women. I hate unisex bathrooms; I have never seen one that wasn't gross. Women shouldn't have to sit where men with poor aim have stood. End of story.

Service - Our server was a little gruff and grumpy, but that didn't stop him from zealously refilling our drinks, and answering our questions about the menu in well-informed manner. It was a much more pleasant experience than Mercat a la Planxa, but the service lacked the warmth I felt at LM.

Food - Although it was far from the fanciest food I tasted during this year's Restaurant Week, the dishes I had at La Madia might have been my favorite. I know I won't be returning to the previous two restaurants, due to their expensive menus, but La Madia's fare is somewhat more reasonably-priced, and their portion sizes are quite generous. I think two people could easily dine on one appetizer and one pizza, thereby saving money. Also, their lunch menu is even more affordable than their dinner menu, which is also a nice perk. I will definitely be returning. Here's what I thought of the dishes I sampled:
  • Pizza Fondue - This rift on standard pizzeria bread sticks was good. A very simple concept -- pillowy soft bread and a marinara dipping sauce, but elevated to a sublime level by quality components. It was big enough to feed at least two people, and I would have been happy having it just as a meal unto itself, but I was glad to have it on my table. I'm already thinking about when I'll get to have it again, and it's no small accomplishment to be sold on a repeat visit by the strength of an appetizer alone. I'd recommend La Madia, solely based on the strength of this appetizer alone.
  • Sausage and Pepperoni Pizzas - Technically, the sausage pizza was mine, and the pepperoni belonged to Lauren, but a mix-up in the kitchen caused our leftovers to be mislabeled, and I took home her pizza instead of mine, so I feel qualified to speak about both. After the huge first course, I could only manage half of my pizza, which, again, easily could have fed two. The pizzas were Neapolitan-style, meaning they were stretched thin and baked in a wood-burning oven to create a charred, crispy crust. I'm not such a big fan of the charred crust (I don't ever like my food to taste burnt, which is part of the reason why I tend to avoid grilled foods), so for me, the virtues of the pizzas lay in their ingredients. The sausage on my pizza was tasty, with a good fennel presence, but there wasn't much to make the pie special or memorable. Lauren's pepperoni selection was much more interesting, as it was topped with a drizzle of truffle oil that added a musky, earthy overtone to the dish that was unique and compelling. Next time, I will probably try one of their white pies, or even a pasta entree or calzone, but the pizza was far from disappointing.
  • Blood Orange Ice in Prosecco - After all those calories, and the chocolate pot de crème last night, I felt like I ought to have a lighter dessert, so I opted for this Italian ice, as I love blood oranges. Coupled with the prosecco (sparkling wines and champagnes are about the only forms of wine I can handle), it made for an effervescent, refreshing capstone to the meal.


Restaurant Week 2011 - LM

Tonight's Restaurant Week excursion had it's impetus several weeks ago, when I was watching one of my favorite local television shows, Check Please!, which features a panel of ordinary Chicagoans offering reviews of area restaurants. This particular show contained a review of LM, a neighborhood French restaurant in Lincoln Square, which caught my eye not only due to the glowing recommendations, but also because I have several friends who live in, or near Lincoln Square and I find myself dining there increasingly often.

In fact, Justin and I already had plans for a double date in the area with my oldest friend, Sarah, and her boyfriend Zach to go to a different restaurant, when I saw the LM episode of Check Please! It wasn't until I spotted the restaurant on the list of Restaurant Week participants that I suggested we change our plans, and due to the customary post-Check Please! bump in popularity, we booked our reservation weeks in advance. For the most part, it was worth it.

The four of us had a lovely evening at LM, and on balance, enjoyed the food. The atmosphere was warm and inviting, and the service was by far the friendliest and most pleasant of all my Restaurant Week experiences. I'm a little sad that I probably won't be able to afford to return, especially given the proliferation of more cost-effective options in the neighborhood, but I was glad that I spotted it on television and had the opportunity to check it out for myself. Here's a more in-depth rundown of our experience at LM:

Service - Our waiter was very friendly, making an effort to connect to us on a personal level by making conversation with us, and sharing stories about his favorite dishes on the menu, even though we were sticking with the Restaurant Week menu. We felt very welcome at LM -- a feeling that is often absent during Restaurant Week, where servers often seem resentful that they are working at more crowded restaurants with lower tips as a result of the fixed-price menus. The owner was also on-site, effusively greeting guests, and generally creating a pleasant atmosphere. He even personally writes a thank-you note to each table that is presented with the bill at the end of the evening, thanking them for choosing his establishment. Whether or not that is a tactic designed to increase tips, it was nevertheless a very refreshing gesture.

Ambiance - The space at LM was a bit awkwardly laid out, starting at the entrance, where the first thing we encountered was a heavy curtain, a coat closet, and no immediately evident hostess stand to make sense of matters. We tentatively drew the curtain aside, and were greeted by the owner and hostess in a manner as if to suggest, "Yes, you are in fact in the right place." The restaurant consists of a series of rooms connected by a narrow hallway, which made the space difficult to navigate as we dodged a fleet of servers, but the small rooms gave a cozy feeling of dining in someone's home. That homey feeling was reinforced by very comfortable, padded chairs, that definitely made us want to linger over our dinner for further conversation. However, that conversation was hampered by the closeness of our fellow guests, whose tables were located mere inches from our own. The layout was crowded at best, claustrophobic at worst.

Food - Overall, our meal at LM was quite delicious. The restaurant is categorized as French, but I would classify it more as contemporary comfort food with a French inflection, as there were few classically "French" dishes on the menu. My only criticism of the food was in their failure to indicate the presence of a major allergen in one of their dishes, which was a potentially dangerous oversight. It was the only blemish on an otherwise lovely evening.
  • Duck Rillettes - Although rillettes is a traditional French preparation of meat that has been salted, slow cooked, then shredded and blended with fat to create a spreadable paste, I feel it's presence on the menu was less a nod to classical French cuisine and more a product of the recent snout-to-tail movement in American cooking. I'd never seen or heard of rillettes until the food philosophy started becoming trendy a few years ago, and restaurants started looking for novel ways to present less-known cuts of meat. These duck rillettes were smoother, less rustic, and less salty than others I've had, and therefore more bland. The saving grace of this dish was the fig jam with which they were served.
  • Roasted Salmon - This dish was the above-mentioned offender, as it failed to mention the presence of hazelnuts. Sarah is allergic to them, and had no way of knowing they were on her plate, because they weren't listed as one of the ingredients. Thankfully, her allergies aren't of the severity that mere contact with her food will send her into anaphylaxis, but she was very unpleasantly surprised when the waiter informed her that what she thought had been large chunks of garlic she'd left on her plate were in fact, hazelnuts. Our waiter was horrified at the mistake, and both Sarah and the restaurant were lucky that she didn't have any reaction to the dish. That problem aside, the salmon was absolutely perfectly prepared -- it was well-seared, and still slightly rare on the inside. I don't think I've seen such a nice piece of salmon since I checked out Le Colonial for my last Restaurant Week. Surprisingly, the salmon also paired perfectly with the sweetness of the apricots, which I never would have expected. I might just have to start experimenting with that flavor combination in my own home...
  • Chocolate Pot de Crème - Basically, this dish is a fancy term for chocolate pudding, but this version was intensely chocolatey, unctuous, and rich. It was accompanied by a delightful, crumbly sablé that provided a perfect textural contrast to the pudding. This dessert was a scrumptious finale to a delicious meal.


Regime Change...

Revolution might be rolling across the Middle East, toppling dictators and throwing the future of the region into uncertainty, but I'm slightly more concerned with the historic change that hit my beloved city overnight. Chicago has a new mayor, in one Rahm Emmanuel, former Congressman and Chief of Staff to President Obama. For the first time in 22 years, Richard M. Daley was not on the ballot, and for the first time in my conscious life, he will not be the mayor.

At this point, nobody knows how the Emmanuel administration will differ from that of Daley, but I am eager to see how the City Council, and the mayor's relationship with it will change. Under Daley, city government operated under a strong mayor/weak council paradigm. The City Council basically acted as a rubber stamp for Daley's initiatives, and had very little power. The election also brought in a considerable crop of new aldermen, so it will be interesting to see if they are able to claim more power back from the mayor, or if the status quo will continue when Emmanuel takes charge.

I'm also curious to see how Emmanuel will tackle the numerous crises facing Chicago, from the budget crisis, to our floundering schools, to the perpetually-on-the-brink-of-disaster CTA. Will he do better than Daley, or did Daley have magical powers that mystically kept the city from turning into the next Detroit? Only time will tell, but I'm eager to see how the Emmanuel mayoralty unfolds...


Restaurant Week 2011 - Mercat a la Planxa

In economic terms, February is kind of a slow month for Chicago. Tourism is at a seasonal low, and as a result, restaurants and museums have their slowest month of the year. Several local museums deal with this drop in traffic by clustering their state-mandated free admission days during this month, to minimize their lost income. Since the beginning of the Great Recession, local restaurants have banded together to minimize the impact of a slow February with the advent of Restaurant Week. Restaurant Week has become an annual gastronomic event in the city, where an ever-expanding roster of eateries feature $22 fixed-price menus at lunch, and $33 fixed-price menus at dinner, as a way of attracting new business and inspiring locals to get out of their houses and venture out into the cold.

The best way to take advantage of Restaurant Week is to dine at an establishment that is far beyond one's ordinary means, where $33 for a three course meal could be considered a true deal. In the past, I've used the bargains provided by Restaurant Week to sample the fare at then uber-trendy Italian spot Piccolo Sogno, and the venerable upscale Vietnamese food at Le Colonial. Both years afforded me with the opportunity to try places I hadn't been before (nor have I been able to return to since), and expanded my experiences with the local dining scene.

This year, I decided to spend a ton of money and consume a vast quantity of calories to maximize my Restaurant Week potential. I picked three restaurants, and made plans with three different friends to go try them out. Tonight, I started my 2011 Restaurant Week journey close to home, at Mercat a la Planxa, a very expensive tapas restaurant located in the newly-renovated Blackstone Hotel. I've passed the restaurant literally hundreds of times on my way to and from my apartment, but it was the kind of trendy restaurant that I'd never be able to convince my Dad to take me to, and it was far out of my budget on my own. When I saw it on the Restaurant Week website, I knew I finally had my chance to check it out, so I posted an invite on Lisa's Facebook wall, and dinner was quickly arranged in tandem with a viewing of tonight's new episode of Glee. The plan had all the makings for a perfect Girl's Night.

Ultimately, I'm not sure it turned out to be a perfect Girl's Night, but it was still pretty decent. The food at Mercat a la Planxa was fantastic, but our experience there suffered on several other accounts. I was happy to finally satisfy my curiosity about the place, but I'm not sure if I would return, despite it being in the neighborhood. Here's a rundown of our experience:

Service - Even before we opted for the Restaurant Week tasting menu, our waiter was out to upsell us on everything possible. He talked Lisa into a more expensive "seasonal" sangria, which featured charred apples that didn't look particularly appetizing, but was delicious, according to her. Very annoyingly, the waiter never made eye contact with me again after I failed to order alcohol, and talked only to Lisa for the rest of the meal. Just because I didn't order a beverage with a high mark-up doesn't mean I'm not a good tipper.

The real hard-sell came when it became clear that we intended to order the cheaper tasting menu, whereupon he tried to talk us into Chef's Tasting Menu, which was $65 per person, a fact he conveniently failed to mention. The more expensive option was more customizable, which he touted as a benefit given Lisa's allergy to nuts, despite our assurances that she would not enter anaphylactic shock over our meal. We remained firm with our choice, however, but the waiter tried valiantly to convince us that the Restaurant Week Menu would leave us hungry, and we should order at least two additional small plates from the regular menu, at a cost of roughly $10-15 a pop. After we refused, he essentially disappeared, and we barely saw him again until it was time to request the check, aside from his appearances to fawn over the higher-spending table next to us.

Ambiance - The space was dark, and trendily decorated. It could be romantic if the tables weren't so close together and it weren't so noisy, though plenty of couples were clearly there on dates. I suppose one could argue that being seated so close to one's fellow diners ups the sense of European realism, but given that we were seated next to two of the most obnoxious, demanding restaurant patrons I've ever encountered, I would have just have soon had a little more personal space. At least our waiter got some karmic retribution for his rudeness, in the form of the people sitting next to us.

Food - Interestingly, the food at Mercat a la Planxa was presented in a different way than any other Restaurant Week experience I've had. Usually, the restaurant provides 2-3 options for the three standard courses -- a starter, entree, and dessert. Tonight, perhaps due to the tapas/small plates focus of the restaurant, we were offered no choices, and simply received a small portion of everything listed on the menu. The first course was far and away the best, in my opinion, and my enjoyment of the dishes veered slightly downhill until dessert. Contrary to the views expressed by the waiter, we had beyond enough food without ordering extra dishes, such that we didn't even finish all the food we had.

First Course

  • Serrano Ham & Fig Salad - For a humble salad, this was probably the best dish of the evening and the most generous portion. The entire salad came wrapped in several slices of unctuous Serrano ham, which paired nicely with the sweet figs. My only criticism of this one was presence of bacon in a salad that arrived wrapped in ham, which was a bit of a pork overload.
  • Trutia de Patata - While not quite a classic tortilla española due to the presence of spinach, it was definitely tastier than the frittata I made with the same ingredients. I think the key was the musky saffron aioli that accompanied it and provided a perfect complement to the flavors.
Second Course
  • Cepes & Butifarra - This flatbread was tasty, but the sausage was too thinly sliced and it got lost among the other toppings, leaving me to question whether it was on there at all. The mushroom flavor was also little dominant for my liking, so I picked them off and gave them to Lisa.
  • Mejillones a la Roussillon - These mussels, baked and served with a saffron hollandaise were probably the best mussels I've ever had, which is a grudging admission from me, as I really dislike mussels. They were plump, juicy, and tasted of the sea, which people say is a good thing though I'm not sure I agree. Again, the creamy saffron sauce won me over.
Third Course
  • Butifarra con Judias - This sausage dish would be familiar to anyone with some tapas experience under their belt, as I think I've had some version of it at every tapas restaurant I've been to. This version had good garlic and cinnamon flavors, but it was the lovely tomato/bean/ham stew underneath it that made the dish.
  • Calimari a la Planxa - Again, another seafood protein that's not on my favorites list, but the calamari didn't win me over as much as the mussels did. The grilled squid was a little bit tough and rubbery, though it did receive some good char from the eponymous "planxa" or grill from which the restaurant takes its name.

  • Calçots - This vegetable dish imitates a seasonal Catalonian gastronomic event, the calçotada, in which spring onions are harvested, grilled, and consumed with various dipping sauces at a raucous outdoor picnics. Without all the fanfare, these grilled green onions were a little boring, though the almond-based dipping sauce was rather delicious.
  • Croquetas de Xocolata - This dish that had everything; salt and sweet, hot and cold, and a strange effervescence from the banana marshmallow foam. The unusual presentation offered prepared bites of dessert so that the eater would get just the right balance of flavors in each mouthful. Lisa was deeply skeptical about the presence of straight up olive oil in her dessert, but the unconventional addition contributed a rich, almost fruity note that was difficult to place, and rosemary added an almost medicinal albeit not unpleasant taste. Overall, the dish was overwhelming to the senses, but it was definitely fun to eat, and provided an ideal closing moment to the meal.


Gnomeo and Juliet...

Although, like most people, I don't remember much about my very early childhood, I do remember my favorite television show from that era: David, The Gnome. I used to spend part of every day absorbed in his adventures as he cleverly thwarted evil trolls and saved the friendly creatures of the forest. The show extolled the virtues of respecting the environment, and treating all of nature's creatures with care.

Around the same age, when it was time to send me to pre-school, Mom opted for a school grounded in the Waldorf method, which emphasized learning through creativity and imagination. One of the techniques employed at the school was the creation of a fantasy world of gnomes, and we were taught to sew our own gnome dolls, and search for them in the grass during recess. Suffice it to say, I was quite convinced that gnomes were real when I was little.

Now that I'm all grown up, I know that I'm not going to spot a tiny little man in a pointy hat scurrying around the base of a tree, but I still have a soft spot for the little fellows. When I was in college, my roommates and I had a garden gnome named Schmaggegel who functioned as a bit of an apartment mascot. We used to move him around the room periodically, as a prank on our friend Abel, who found gnomes creepy. Sadly, Schmaggegel went to live with his owner, Katherine, but before we parted ways, she got me a gnome of my own, whom I christened Kiffen. When I moved into my current apartment, I brought Kiffen with me, but Mom found him to be hideous, and banished him to my bedroom, where he watches over my bed.

To satisfy my desire for gnome representation in a public area, Mom purchased me an art glass version of a garden gnome, which I actually find to be fairly hideous, but I accepted the compromise nonetheless. I never managed to find an acceptable name for him, but he hides among the plants of my indoor garden, on a window sill.

So, given my fondness for gnomes, when I saw an ad in the subway touting the impending release of
Gnomeo and Juliet, I was beyond excited. An animated movie about gnomes -- what could be better?!? As it turns out, however, based upon my experience seeing the film tonight with Justin, a lot of things could be better. My patience for the Romeo and Juliet-re-envisioned-with-garden-gnomes premise grew thin within a matter of minutes. I'd like to imagine a more interesting secret life for the garden gnomes of the world than that presented in the film. To be sure, the gnomes were cute, but I didn't really care about any of the characters, or what happened to them.

After getting a gander at the gnomes in 3-D, I was mostly ready to leave and get some dinner. Furthermore, I don't feel that the film made good use of the 3-D technology. Instead of using it to enhance the visuals in a natural way, as in
Up or to create an immersive experience, as in Avatar, the use of 3-D in Gnomeo and Juliet felt like more of an afterthought. It was pretty clear that it was just an excuse to sell more expensive tickets.

Also, the soundtrack was somewhat of a let down. Ads for the movie featured the fact that the film was scored by Elton John, so I was expecting something along the lines of the work he did for
The Lion King. Instead, the movie features a jukebox soundtrack of existing popular Elton John songs, wedged to fit into the narrative of the story. I couldn't help but feel misled by the advertisers. Even if you like gnomes as much as I do, I'm not sure I can recommend Gnomeo and Juliet.

If you're looking to entertain your kids, they might find it worthwhile (based on the ringing endorsement provided by the small child seated behind us at the theater), but even then I would seek out a non-3-D presentation and save yourself a few bucks. Better yet, take the money you would have spent and get a Pixar film from Netflix -- it would be a much better use of your time and money.


Roses Are Red...

I take back everything I've ever said about getting flowers. Sure they're expensive, they die quickly, and they are part of the whole Valentine's Day commercial/industrial complex that people love to rant about this time of year, but I could care less.

Justin gave me my first bouquet of roses, and it was awesome.


Happy Valentine's Day...

Recently, the love song-dedicated Pandora station I sometimes listen to at work played, "All My Life" by K-Ci & JoJo, which brought back memories of all the slow dances I watched from the sidelines when I was thirteen, and all my friends were having their bar and bat mitzvahs. At that moment, I became acutely aware of how happy I am to be 25, and where I am in my life.

You see, for the first time in those 25 years, I am not going to be single on Valentine's Day. For the first time, I am not going going to sit around bitterly muttering under my breath about "Singles' Awareness Day" or
distracting myself with baked goods. Instead, for weeks, I've been happily looking forward to Valentine's Day, making plans and searching for the perfect card:

I ended up with this adorable creation from Etsy, selected based on Justin's fondness for Boolean logic.

Generally speaking, I've been floating around on cloud nine waiting for this holiday, and deflecting the comments of the Valentine's Day naysayers. It's true, we shouldn't (and don't) need a holiday to remind us to express our love to each other, but we are in love, and I think we deserve to celebrate that. I feel loved and appreciated by him every day, but I see nothing wrong with going the extra mile to show him how thankful I am on Valentine's Day. Sure, it's extravagant and a little impractical, but so is love. I am truly blessed to be so blissfully happy this Valentine's Day, and I'm not taking my good fortune for granted for a second. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have such an incredible man in my life, so I'm going to yell it from the rooftops if I must: "Happy Valentine's Day!"


Can You Hear The People Sing...

Ever since I was a very wee lass, I've been a fan of musical theater. When other kids were singing along to Raffi in the back of their moms' vans, my parents were weaning me on a musical diet that consisted of Cats, Phantom of the Opera, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, and Les Misérables. Of these, Les Misérables was my undisputed favorite. Before the age of five, I had virtually all the songs memorized. So when I turned five, my parents decided to take me to see it live. Granted, I was probably more mature than your average five year old, but they still had to teach me to wedge my fingers in my ears and scrunch myself down in the seat so I couldn't hear or see the scene in which Fantine dies, as the thought of a mother dying never ceased to drive me to horrific sobbing.

I managed to make it through my first viewing of Les Miz without tears, and I was hooked. In the past twenty years, I've seen the show seven times (though one of these was a production at my high school, but I'm counting it anyway). Whenever it comes through town, I make an effort to go, so when I was checking the theater listings for the year as I wrote up my 2011 "to-do" list and spotted that the new 25th anniversary touring production would be coming to Chicago, I added it to my list right away.

Since Justin also enjoys the theater, I thought perhaps tickets to see Les Miz would make a good Valentine's Day gift, so I pulled some strings through my network, and scored some fantastic seats. True, a musical in which all but two of the major characters die might not strike everyone as a romantic way to spend one's Valentine's Day, but we would be doing something we both enjoy, and I would be sharing one of my favorite things with him. What's not romantic about that?

As I mentioned, the performance that we saw was a new staging of Les Miz, created in honor of the production's 25th anniversary. Most notably, it eschewed the minimalist stage design of the previous versions I'd seen, in favor of elaborate, multi-layered sets and brighter, more complicated lighting schemes. It felt almost as if they were trying to brighten the somber tone of the story by dressing it up in fancier packaging, which isn't inherently a bad thing; it's just not what I'm used to.

Sadly, I felt that the singing talent of this version wasn't up to par with some of the productions I've seen in the past. This could be because we were subjected to the understudy for the main character, Jean Valjean, who lacked the proper vocal range for the role and often compensated by speaking his lines instead of singing them. For a musical that is "sung-thru," much like an opera, speaking is not acceptable in my book.

Also, there was a glaring, questionable casting choice for the character of Éponine. When the character first makes her appearance in the story, as a child, she is Caucasian, and the child of Caucasian parents. Midway through the story, however, when she appears an adult, the actress portraying her is African-American. I'm all for color-blind casting when it comes to theater, and challenging our expectations for characters, but I think they should at least be consistent. It's beyond confusing when a character changes race halfway through a story. The actress was perhaps one of the better singers in the entire production, but it was still an odd choice, in my estimation.

Unfortunate casting issues aside, I was still moved by the Les Miz magic. The songs held me in their thrall as I silently sang along in my head, and I'm pretty sure Justin enjoyed it as well, perhaps even more so than I did, as he didn't have six other versions to compare it to. I was overjoyed to share something so close to my heart with the man I adore, in celebration of a holiday that is all about love, and I'm excited to keep sharing these things with him in the future to come.


Tea For Two...

Normally, I write about the "interesting" things that Justin and I do together -- museums, theater, festivals, and movies. In all honesty, however, it is the little rituals that we repeat week in and week out that I cherish the most. Of these, one of the things that stand out the most is our quiet Sunday morning breakfasts together. You see, Justin is usually responsible for these meals, and the novelty of having my man prepare scrumptious meals for me never grows old. This week, however, I wanted to do something nice for him, to repay him for all the nice things he's done for me lately, so I decided to take over the responsibility for preparing breakfast by baking some scones.

My enjoyment of scones dates back to my college days, when I fell in love with the chocolate chip variety sold at the campus coffee shop after an unfortunate insect-in-my-croissant incident soured me on my previous go-to breakfast item. The chocolate chip scones were, however, but one in a rotating menu of scones that were often poorly labeled, and I ended up with a lot of unpalatable raisin and blueberry scones during that era. Later, I discovered the delights of the maple oat scones at Starbucks, but it seemed like I could never sync up my sporadic Starbucks visits with the presence of those tasty treats. All I ever seemed to find there were strawberry or blueberry scones. Fie on fruit in my baked goods!

It was clearly time to take matters into my own hands, and I started trolling the blogosphere for viable recipes. The one I ended up settling on, however, came from my own bookshelf and a copy of Baking Illustrated. Since the staff at Cook's Illustrated (who published the book), actively scour the internet sending cease and desist letters to bloggers who print their recipes, I won't be sharing it here, but I actually think they're better than the ones at Starbucks. The oatmeal gets a quick toast in the oven before joining the dough, which gives everything a very nice toasted grain flavor.

We ended up sharing the scones over a nice cup of tea, and it was relaxing to sleep in a little longer without having to worry about leaving time to prepare breakfast. Not that I appreciate his cooking any less, but it felt good to be the one taking care of him for a change. After all, variety is the spice of life...


Precious And Few...

As an aftereffect of my snow-bound cleaning marathon, I've been taking some steps to get my digital house in order as well. I currently have four computers in my two-bedroom apartment, three of which are mine, and of those, only one is properly functional. The other two are out-dated machines dating back to earlier eras in my life, that I had been holding onto because there was data left on them that I still hoped to recover somehow. Although I am tech-savvy enough to work in the modern economy and blog on the side, I didn't know nearly enough about computers to retrieve my old data, and the pair of old computers sat on my desk, taking up space and gathering dust.

Enter Justin. Early on in our relationship, he noticed the old computers sitting on my desk, still plugged into the wall, and commented on the vampire power they were drawing and putting on my electric bill. He offered to take a look at them and see if anything on them was salvageable. Since we've been keeping ourselves busy in the intervening months, the computers slipped off our radar screen, until I found a new font of inspiration to clean house this week and decided to reclaim my desk space.

Tonight, Justin performed some sort of computer magic, extracting the hard drive from my circa 2003-2006 Dell, and using a piece of equipment he just happened to have to connect it to my current Mac. Mostly, I wanted to preserve the papers I'd written in college, since that computer predated my purchase of a digital camera, but lo and behold, there was a small cache of images on the hard drive as well.

Of the forgotten photographs I found, this one was by far the most significant. It represents the last photo ever taken of me with my late maternal grandfather, and one of very few pictures to represent me and both of my grandparents. It was taken in 2005 at the Kampsville Inn, where we'd gone to eat to celebrate the visit of my cousin Jenny. Just a couple months later, Paw-Paw passed away. It may not be the most flattering image ever captured of any of us, but seeing it again brought tears to my eyes. I am so thankful to have this photo back in my collection, and to be reminded of one of the last times I spent with my Paw-Paw. I am a very lucky girl to have such a helpful boyfriend who does thoughtful things for me like this. Thanks babe!


Let Them Eat Cake...

I've written about it before, but there are times in a woman's life (usually on a monthly basis) when she needs chocolate, and I am no different. I have been craving chocolate like nobody's business the past week or so, and while I partially sated my craving with a batch of Ghirardelli brownies during the blizzard (keeping brownie mix in the house is dangerous, kids), they were merely a substitute to distract myself from what I really wanted -- chocolate cake. It wasn't just any chocolate cake that had captured my imagination either; I was fixated on a recipe I'd seen ages ago on the internet, and never gotten around to trying.

The recipe, for a cake that combined two of my favorite things, chocolate and root beer, came from a book that had stormed the food blogosphere when it was released a few years ago, and I was reminded of this particular recipe when I saw that the book's authors had released a new book. I managed to locate the recipe for the cake online, but I was skeptical of the instructions, which suggested swapping as much as a cup of the root beer in the cake with root beer schnapps for a more intense root beer flavor. Intuitively speaking, a cup seemed like a lot of booze for a cake.

So, before I ventured into the kitchen, I tried to find the hard copy of the original cookbook, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, at my local library, only to find there was a wait list. Discouraged, I tried to silence the cake's siren song in my mind, but I ended up bringing it up to Justin, who quickly located the book on the shelf at the library at which he works, and checked it out on my behalf. A quick scan of the original indicated that the proper substitution was a half cup, not a full cup, so I was glad I checked the source.

Ultimately, the cake didn't taste much like root beer at all, possibly because the soda I used for the cake was rather mild. The recipe calls for regular, not diet soda, which I do not drink, so I ended up purchasing Dad's Root Beer, which I hadn't consumed since my childhood, because it came in a size that was more suitable for baking and wouldn't leave me with tons of extra cans or bottles that I wouldn't want to drink. I didn't realize, however, until the cake was finished that the Dad's Root Beer was very, very mild. I think the root beer flavor might come through more with a more assertive soda in the mix.

That being said, I am prepared to give this recipe another chance. The cake was tasty, if slightly dense, and very chocolatey. Unless I can get the root beer flavor to become more prominent, this recipe won't replace my all-time favorite chocolate cake recipe (about which I still have yet to blog), but I will definitely be filing away the recipe for the frosting from this cake. Not only was it mind-blowingly simple to make, it was also delicious.

I don't say that lightly either -- if you know anything about my taste in baked goods, you'll know that I hate frosting. I was always the kid you wanted at a birthday party growing up, because I wouldn't fight for the edge pieces of the cake, or the pieces with the balloons or flowers. I was perfectly content to get an unadorned, inside piece, scrape off the frosting, and pass along the sugar high to another guest. So for me to say that I really enjoyed the frosting on this cake is somewhat of a minor miracle.

I'll keep you posted on whether I can coax more root beer flavor out of this cake in the future, but if nothing else, I urge you to whip up a batch of this frosting and spread it on some box cake or cupcakes. It's that good. And to my lady readers -- trust me, it will satisfy that deep yearning for chocolate.

Root Beer Chocolate Bundt Cake adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking


2 cups root beer (if you can find it, swap out 1/2 cup of root beer for root beer schnapps)

1 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs


2 ounces dark chocolate melted and cooled slightly

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup root beer

2/3 cup dark unsweetened cocoa powder

2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour the Bundt pan.
2. In a small saucepan, heat the root beer, cocoa powder, and butter over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the sugars and whisk until dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool.
3. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together.
4. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until just beaten, then whisk them into the cooled cocoa mixture until combined. Gently fold the flour mixture into the cocoa mixture. The batter will be slightly lumpy–do not overbeat, as it could cause the cake to be tough.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a small sharp knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Cool on a cooling rack completely before frosting.

For the frosting:
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth and shiny. Apply to cake and allow to set before serving.



Double. Snow. Day.

That's right, due to the third largest blizzard in Chicago history, which dumped between 20 and 21 inches of snow upon my fair city, I was granted not one, but two days off of work while the city attempts to dig itself out from under the mess. For my part, I haven't ventured outdoors in two and a half days (hence the lack of photos of the snow carnage). I've been cozily consuming chocolate baked goods and giving my apartment an overdue, and very thorough cleaning, right down to the freshly-scrubbed grout on my bathroom floor.

The storm itself was definitely one to remember. We actually had thundersnow. Who knew such a thing even existed? I'd certainly never heard of it until I saw it on The Colbert Report a week or so ago when the rare meteorological phenomenon struck New York City. It definitely was strange, watching the lighting outside, and listening to the thunder and howling winds, while the sky was whited-out with snow instead of rain. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little scary.

Thankfully, our patio furniture didn't blow away, and even more importantly, I got to exercise the greatest benefit of high-rise living -- no shoveling! Instead, I got to look at the vast expanses of white from the safety and warmth of my apartment, while watching the endless press conferences staged by the city, and following the coverage of the motorists who were stranded on Lake Shore Drive overnight behind a jack-knifed bus.

Although I'm certainly glad I wasn't trying to get anywhere via automobile the past couple days, I must say that I'm anticipating tomorrow's commute to work with no small amount of trepidation. Would a triple snow day have really been too much to ask?