Five O'Clock World...

Last year, when I went to select my favorite things about 2010, I was surprised to find that I had less categories to pick from than I had in 2009. Particularly troubling to me was the discovery that I had only been to the theater once in the entire year, and it was to see Carmen. This year, I have been determined not to miss out on so many theatrical experiences, so I have been making a point of seeing every show that catches my interest. So far, I've already been to Les Miserables, Laika: Dog in Space, and Hair, and tonight I continued the spate of theater-going by checking out a revival production of Working, a musical based on the oral histories of Studs Terkel.

Since Working is a fairly obscure show, I had originally planned on skipping it, but Studs Terkel is practically the patron saint of the Chicago History Museum. My boss' office is festooned with portraits of him, and the project I lead is technically conducted under the auspices of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History. I was feeling some small, but ignorable pangs of obligation, until Justin and I were out to dinner across the street from the theater where Working is playing, and the restaurant was offering a promo code to get cheap tickets to see the show. Since it would be more affordable to go, Working became more attractive, and we picked tonight to attend.

The one-act show is constructed as a series of musical vignettes about the lives of people from different walks of life, and the work that lends shape to their identities. Virtually no character appears more than once, though the same six actors play different roles throughout the course of the performance. The fact that the actors are constantly transitioning through different characters was handled well, and wasn't as distracting as I thought it would be. In fact, part of this staging's conceit was to reveal the work that was going into its own production, and the stagehands and dressers would often appear on stage to aid in the actors' transitions. At first, the breaking of the theatrical illusion bothered me, but eventually I just found myself impressed at their craft and by how fully they threw themselves into each role. Beyond the acting, I was also struck by the quality of the singing -- they may have been the best vocals of any show I've seen this year, including the fancy national touring production. Local talent runs deep, it would seem.

Heading into the show, I was also concerned about how well the songs would hang together and transition into one another, given that the show has been revised numerous times, by numerous different writers, including James Taylor. Going against the maxim of too many cooks spoiling the broth, the show flowed well, and although there were no particularly memorable songs, all of the numbers worked together nicely.

Most notably, Working made me feel better about my own employment situation. Things could be worse -- I could be working in a factory, repeating the same tedious, dangerous tasks over and over again for eight hours a day; I could be cleaning other people's offices while everyone ignores my existence; or I could be selling myself on a street corner. All of those things would certainly be worse than what I do now, and I came away feeling more appreciative for what I have. Even if the show itself hadn't been so surprisingly enjoyable, the reminder of how good I have it would have been worth the ticket price alone.


The Fertile Crescent...

Something I've been trying to be better about lately is using up leftovers in the fridge before they go bad. I feel like I throw away a lot of food, which is wasteful and expensive. Yesterday, Justin and I made chicken hash for breakfast utilizing only random finds from the icebox, and it turned out mighty tasty. Continuing that trend, I decided to use up the cream cheese that was left unused after last week's hamantaschen. I could have taken the seemingly easy way out and bought some bagels, but growing up in a predominately Jewish suburb made me selective about my bagels, and there are no decent ones to be found within proximity of my apartment. Keeping with the Jewish theme, however, I decided to bake rugelach.

Rugelach are a hybrid of pastry and cookie, consisting of a rich, cream-cheese dough layered with fillings such as jam, cinnamon sugar, nuts, chocolate, and/or dried fruit, and rolled into crescents or spirals. Prior to this project, I always believed I didn't like rugelach, based on my encounters with dry and otherwise unpleasant versions served at delis back home. My dislike of the cookie is partially why I decided to make them -- I often try to satisfy my urge to bake without making food that I'll be tempted to eat. Also, rugelach presented a challenge, as it is often described as difficult to make. In fact, that reputation had dissuaded me from trying them before now, but my success with the hamantaschen emboldened me.

Actually, I discovered that the rugelach were actually fairly easy to make, though it took some time to assemble them. I think it's time for me to come to terms with the fact that I've accumulated quite a bit of baking skill and know-how, and stop being so intimidated by dishes that are supposed to be "too hard."

Depending on how you look at it, these cookies could be viewed as either an overwhelming success, or somewhat of a failure. The combination of tangy, flaky dough with sweet jam, crunchy nuts, and cinnamon (one of my all-time favorite flavors) completely won me over. These cookies were completely (and surprisingly) delicious. So much so, that I more or less abandoned my plan to dispose of the caloric little treats at the office, and ended up hoarding all of them in my cookie jar. I discovered a new dessert to add to my repertoire, but my waistline will not be thanking me. If you're going to make these, beware: you may end up finding yourself unable to share.

adapted from Ina Garten

4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick of unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 c. flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 c. walnuts, finely chopped
3 tablespoons apricot preserves
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon milk, for egg wash

Cream the butter and cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer until light. Add two tablespoons sugar, vanilla extract, and salt and mix to combine. Add the flour, and mix on low until just combined. Divide the dough in half, shape into disks, and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill at least one hour, or overnight.

To make filling, stir together 3 tablespoons sugar, brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and walnuts in a small bowl.

To make topping, combine 1 tablespoon sugar with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.

Dust the counter with powdered sugar, and roll each ball of dough into a 9-inch circle. Spread a heaping tablespoon of apricot preserves to cover each disk, and sprinkle half of the filling over each as well. Using a pizza cutter, cut each circle into 12 wedges -- cutting the whole circle into quarters, and then cutting each quarter into thirds. Starting with the wide edge, roll up each wedge into a crescent. Place the cookies, points tucked under, onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and chill 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350.

Brush each cookie with egg wash and sprinkle with topping. Bake 15-20 minutes until lightly browned. Remove to wire rack and let cool completely before eating.


Let Me Upgrade You...

Life is full of less-than-pleasant tasks. Today, I spent nearly $100 rebuilding my pantry after a winter of bean and pasta dishes left me seeing the back of my cabinets for the first time in ages. I also disinfected my freezer's ice tray with bleach because for whatever reason, it is determined to grow mold, even though sub-zero temperatures are supposed to be a deterrent for such things. Such are the necessary evils of adult life that nobody warns you about when you're young and dreaming of all the things you'll do when you grow up.

Yesterday, before I left for my day trip with Justin, I hauled myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 6:00 on a Saturday morning to make it to one of the few DMV branches in northern Illinois that is open on the weekend to renew my driver's license near its opening time of 7:30. Although a trip to the DMV is never anyone's idea of a good time, I was actually really looking forward to getting a new license, specifically, a new photo. My old picture was a truly heinous affair, the result of the technician telling me to look in the wrong direction when she snapped the photo. I ended up looking some combination of exhausted, stoned, and like I was trying to give a Myspace version of sexy. Not good at all.

As you can see, my new photo is a vast improvement, and it actually looks like me. With the old picture I sometimes got funny looks whenever I got carded, as if the grocery clerk/bartender wasn't entirely convinced that my card wasn't a fake. Now I don't have to worry about people catching a glimpse of my hideous photo whenever I open my wallet. Going to the DMV might be one of the most odious chores around, but this time the necessary evil turned out for the best.


Just Down The Road A Piece...

Although there is no shortage of things to do in Chicago, occasionally it's time for a change of pace and some new scenery. What I really need is a vacation and a concentrated block of time off from work, considering I haven't had more than a three-day weekend since Christmas, but that's not really in the cards at the moment. Instead, I've done the next best thing and set up a couple of day trips with Justin that will at least provide a temporary escape.

The impetus for today's excursion actually came from Justin, who mentioned that he was interested in seeing "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I readily agreed to go with him, since I like our neighbor to the north and its art museum in particular. I first went to the Milwaukee Art Museum on a field trip with my AP Art History class when I was a senior in high school, and I went again with Katherine during Spring Break our senior year of college, when she wanted to visit a friend who lived in Milwaukee. 2011 would put me on pace for visiting the museum once every four years -- I couldn't resist maintaining the pattern.

Naturally, no trip to Wisconsin is complete without consuming some cheese, and we stopped at the landmark Mars Cheese Castle, which is familiar to any motorist who has traveled the span of I-94 that spans Milwaukee and Chicago, due to its enormous sign. I think I've stopped there every time I've been in the area, largely for the cheese curds, my favorite Wisconsin delicacy. Cheese curds are little bits of fresh cheese that haven't been pressed to form a solid block. As a result, they make a pleasant squeaking sound against your teeth when you bite them, due to the trapped air, and they are very mild in flavor, since they have not been aged. They're virtually impossible to find in Chicago, aside from the occasional farmers' market, so I try to pick some up whenever I pass by.

The Mars Cheese Castle recently underwent a renovation, and now actually looks like a castle. Before, it was a large, corrugated metal structure, which provided a humorous contrast with its regal epithet.

Getting to the museum turned out to be a bit more harrowing than originally anticipated, as the enormous parking structure across the street where both of us had parked in the past for the museum was closed for construction. We unsuccessfully tried locating street parking, and the lot for the museum was full, as was the lot for the museum next door. We ended up having to valet the car (which always makes me nervous), though at $10 regardless of how long you left the car there, it was still a deal compared to what it costs to park in Chicago.

Justin and I in the Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the first U.S. project designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit focused largely on Wright's vision for the future, as expressed in his conceptual drawings and models for planned communities that were never constructed, as well as his developments in modular housing and what we would call "green" design today. There were also drawings for a large number of houses and other buildings that he designed during his career which demonstrated the unconventional ways that Wright utilized space in his designs.

Personally, having visited a few of his buildings, including Unity Temple and Wingspread (a mansion designed for heirs to the S.C. Johnson family), I feel that Wright sometimes created unusual spaces just because he could, or because they were aesthetically interesting, but they weren't always necessarily practical for everyday living. His ceilings are low, his furniture tiny and uncomfortable, and rooms are often laid out in an inefficient manner. His works are interesting places to visit, but I wouldn't want to live in one.

Overall, I found the exhibit to be interesting, but I felt that it could have used more photographs of his completed projects. I understand where the curators were coming from in focusing on his drawings and models -- they wanted to emphasize Wright's creative vision, not how it was realized by builders. Still, after seeing floor plan after floor plan, it became a little difficult to visualize how his drawings translated into reality. The lack of photos is my only criticism though; by and large I found the exhibit to be quite informative, and it taught me several things I didn't already know about a figure about whom I had already read much.

"144 Pieces of Zinc," Carl Andre, 1967

Beyond the special exhibit, I've always enjoyed the permanent collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This could stem from the fact that I've visited there far fewer times than the Art Institute, but their collection always seems fresh, exposes me to artists with whom I am unfamiliar, and I see something new every time I go. I am particularly fond of their modern and contemporary art collections, and my favorite piece is the sculpture pictured above, "144 Pieces of Zinc."

It consists of nothing more than an array of metal plates on the floor, and is overlooked by many museum patrons who simply stride across it without noticing it. In fact, I did the same when I was first there eight years ago, until the metal clanged together under my feet and looked down. Panicked, I was afraid I'd stepped on a piece of art by accident, but no alarms had gone off. It was then that I realized that the sculpture is designed to challenged our expectations about art and how we should interact with it.

"The Sawdust Trail," George Wesley Bellows, 1916

I was also struck by this painting of women fainting at a religious revival, located in the American Modernism section. It is by an artist who is entirely new to me, and it reminds me simultaneously of the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and the German Expressionists, one of my favorite art movements. As I have written in the past, I am a bit jaded when it comes to art museums, so it always makes my day when I can find something new and exciting.

Although I forgot to jot down the information for this piece (all I can tell you is that it isn't by Millet, though that was what I'd guessed when I first looked at it), I found it intriguing for its demonstration of the dramatic impact of conservation on a painting. Technicians are working to remove a layer of stained, yellowed varnish off the surface of the paint, revealing a much brighter, pastel surface underneath. The underlying colors are what the artist originally intended, and the difference is striking.

"Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher)," Beth Lipman, 2007

While some contemporary art elicits a head-scratching response from me, I did appreciate this installation by Beth Lipman, which assembles a collection of clear glass objects. I'm not sure what she's trying to say with it, but on a purely aesthetic level, I thought the textures created by the combination of items was quite pretty. I know art is supposed to make you think, but amidst all the other thought-provoking works on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, it was nice to shut my brain off for a moment and just look at something lovely.

We may have only made a day of it, but we both enjoyed our brief sojourn to Milwaukee. It was good to get away and experience something new together. I'm already looking forward to our next journey together, but you're going to have to wait to hear about that one...


I Want To Ride My Bicycle...

Normally, I don't write about the movies I go to see at the Gene Siskel Film Center, as their release is usually so small that the vast majority of my readers here would have no chance of seeing them unless they live in Chicago and can make it to the same theater before the run ends. However, since I have a membership at the Siskel (it's an off-shoot of the Art Institute, and therefore sells membership packages that offer cheaper tickets and perks like free popcorn), I find myself attending screenings there on a fairly regular basis.

The Gene Siskel Film Center is Chicago's foremost independent cinema, featuring a selection of documentaries, art films, foreign films, indie films, and retrospectives of historically significant directors and film genres. It is a place to go when you want to challenge yourself, more so than be entertained.
Right now, the Siskel is running its annual European Union Film Festival, and because I fancy myself to be the sort of person who ought to enjoy foreign films, I try to find something worth seeing every year. In my years of attendance, I've learned it's better to stick to films that are either in a language I can understand (i.e. German), or that have been nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. The latter promises some degree of quality, and in absence of that, the former ensures that I at least get language comprehension practice. I've imposed these restrictions because, frankly, I've seen a lot of terrible, obtuse, and pretentious films over the course of my encounters with the E.U. Film Festival.

This year, a documentary caught my eye, entitled
Rabbit a la Berlin, which purported to tell the tale of a colony of rabbits that thrived in the no-man's-land that existed between the two layers of the Berlin Wall. The documentary would not only tell the story of the rabbits, but it would showcase them as a parable of life in East Berlin, and life after the Reunification. As a Cold War history buff and lover of all things cute and furry, it was a irresistible combination. Unfortunately, Rabbit a la Berlin was being shown as a double feature with another documentary about the Berlin Wall called, The Invisible Frame, a sequel to the 1988 documentary Cycling the Frame. Both movies feature the indie actress Tilda Swinton biking the 96-mile path of the Berlin Wall. I was... less than enthused.

Since Justin also speaks German and enjoys documentaries, I invited him to accompany me, and (unsurprisingly, given our
divergent opinions on the weirdness that was Laika: Dog in Space) we each enjoyed one film more than the other. For my part, my pre-theater bias was confirmed, and I found much to admire in Rabbit a la Berlin. The bunnies were indeed adorable, and I thought the filmmakers were quite clever in their construction of the film. They included humorous interviews with East German border guards who watched the rabbits out of boredom during their sentry duty, as well as the perspective of an elderly hunter who mused on rabbit psychology. There was a ridiculous computer-generated recreation of the rabbit's Utopian homeland between the walls, complete with an analysis by a biologist as to why the rabbits were able to thrive in such a habitat. Best of all, however, was a series of historical photographs interspersed throughout the film that all featured rabbits in the background. I'm not sure if they were authentic or if they had been Photoshopped, but they served to connect the plight of the bunnies to their larger historical milieu. I thought the brief film was great, but Justin later confessed to sleeping through several minutes.

Justin, however, somehow managed to enjoy The Invisible Frame, which literally featured nothing but Tilda Swinton riding a bicycle and doing wacky things around Berlin. There was Tilda reading a book in the middle of a fork in the road, Tilda reading a poem in a forest, Tilda pumping water, Tilda laying in a meadow and waving her hands to simulate the movement of a bird while chanting, "Flap, flap, flap," and Tilda supplying a pretentious voice-over musing on life and how it has continued since the wall fell.

Shortly after the film began, I leaned over to Justin and suggested we give it ten more minutes to become more interesting, but when the ten minutes were up, he wished to stay. He was enjoying the cinematography and the look at an unseen side of Berlin. Plus, Justin likes to bike himself, so I think part of him was imagining it was him on the same journey. I, however, have never wanted to walk out of a movie so badly in my life, and I have never been pushed far enough to walk out on a film before, no matter how much I wasn't enjoying it. The only thing worse than sitting through
The Invisible Frame is knowing that it's a sequel, and there's another film out there in the world of Tilda doing little more than riding a bike.

On the plus side, Justin and I have now expanded our repertoire of inside jokes, given the proliferation of pompous absurdity provided by the film. Also, I'm pretty sure he owes me now. I don't know when, I don't know where, but I suspect there may be a chick-flick in our future...


Three Corners Has My Hat...

Just in case you hadn't noticed, I'm kind of big on traditions, whether it's the ones I create for myself, like my annual Cookie Bonanza, or the ones I create with friends, like going to eat during Restaurant Week with Lauren, or taking a photo in front of the Daley Plaza Christmas tree with Lisa. For the past three years now, I've been trying to initiate a new tradition with Lisa of baking hamantaschen, a three-cornered, jam-filled cookie, for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Lisa brings the religious background to justify baking them in the first place, and I bring the cookie baking skills, so it ought to be a perfect match, right?

We managed to get together to make the cookies back in 2009, but since it was the first time baking them for both of us, that particular batch was somewhat of a disaster. The recipe was bland, yielding hard, flavorless cookies that failed to hold their shape upon baking. We ended up with a bunch of part-circular, part-triangular blobs that leaked filling all over the cookie sheet. In 2010, scheduling difficulties kept us from making another effort, and this year, we made plans to bake hamantaschen together on Saturday, the actual day that Purim fell upon this year, but Lisa had to cancel. We rescheduled for today, so I prepared the dough last night to have it ready to go, but circumstances once more came between us and our best laid plans. I'm still not ready to give up on turning this into a new friendship tradition, but this year, I had to carry on without her.

As a pinch-hitter, I tapped my favorite dough-roller-and-cutter, resulting in two non-Jews baking a batch of cookies for a holiday neither of us celebrate, after the holiday was already over. C'est la vie, I suppose. In fact, when Justin told his mother that he was heading out to make hamantaschen with me, he had to explain to her that I'm not Jewish, but have many friends who are. In response, she asked him, "Was Haley raised in a church?" to which he replied, "Nope, she was raised in a house." Have I mentioned lately how much I adore him?

Our gentile hamantaschen actually turned out relatively well -- certainly much better than my 2009 attempt. With an extra two years of baking experience under my belt, I had a trick up my sleeve: to keep the hamantaschen from coming apart in the oven, I put the sheet of formed cookies into the freezer for about fifteen minutes prior to baking them. It seemed to do the trick, and we produced the most aesthetically pleasing cookies of my brief hamantaschen-baking career.

Furthermore, this time I selected a recipe that used a tender, cream cheese dough flecked with fragrant bits of orange zest, which was a marked improvement over the bland cookies of yore. I think I've settled upon a recipe and a technique now that I can be satisfied with, so I can be ready in case Lisa and I can ever manage to turn hamantaschen baking into the tradition I've been working towards for so long.


adapted from
Smitten Kitchen

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

3 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature

3 tablespoons sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon orange zest

1 1/3 cup plus 4 teaspoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

various jams (we used apricot, peach, and fig)

1. Cream together butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and mix one minute longer, then add egg, vanilla extract, zest, and salt, mixing until combined. Add flour and stir until a sticky dough has formed. Form dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill at least an hour or overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 350.

3. To form the hamantaschen, roll out the dough on a surface liberally dusted with powdered sugar until approximately 1/4 inch thick. Using a 2.5-3 inch round cookie cutter, cut the dough into circles. Spoon 1 teaspoon of jam into the center of each circle. Fold the dough in from three sides, forming a triangle, and carefully pinch the corners together. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and stow in the freezer for 10-15 minutes. Then bake for approximately 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Cool completely on racks before eating.


The Age Of Aquarius...

They say that insanity is repeating the same actions again and again and expecting a different outcome. While there is some wisdom in advising people against banging their head against the wall fruitlessly, there is also something to be said about giving second chances and hoping things will work out. I am often guilty of the latter, as it seems to be in my nature to be convinced that I can make myself like something if I only give it enough opportunities to impress me. Sometimes, this approach pays off -- I finally taught myself to like cottage cheese a few years ago after a lifetime of abhorring it -- but most of the time it leads me to wonder why I keep subjecting myself to things I don't like. Sometimes I'm just too stubborn to admit defeat.

Today, I threw myself into another such encounter, when I convinced my mother to take me to see the production of Hair that's been playing in Chicago this month. A musical about the drug-addled hippie culture of the 1960s featuring full-frontal nudity might not seem like a natural fit for a mother-daughter outing, but I grew up hearing Mom's story about how her own mother forbade her to see Hair when she was in college as an illustration of how she was a much more liberal parent than her own. It seemed to me that it was time to correct her original deprivation, even if it's now almost forty years later.

My own history with Hair is just as tortured. Given my love of musicals, I'd watched the movie ages ago and had been thoroughly unimpressed (and largely confused by the incoherent plot) though I liked some of the music. When I was in college myself, the Washington University theater department put on a production that I went to see, and it was similarly awful. I was made uneasy by the hippies roaming the theater and getting touchy-feely with the audience while "smoking" oregano joints that made the room smell terrible. However, I found myself even more taken with the music featured in Hair, even if I couldn't really understand what it was supposed to be about, or what was supposed to be happening on stage.

Hence, when I saw that the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Hair was coming to Chicago on tour, I decided to give the show one last chance. If a version with high production values couldn't win me over, then it was truly a lost cause and I should resign myself to enjoying its songs on my iPod.

After seeing today's show, I think I'm still ambivalent about Hair. All of the singers were talented and carried their roles well, the exposition of the plot was the most intelligible I've seen to date, and the production did spread a sense of joy throughout that was quite pleasant. However, the costumes seemed to be rather inaccurate and lacking (most of the clothing seemed to have been culled from the boho-chic closets of the ensemble and 2011 thrift stores, not the 1960s) and I was mostly glad that Berger, one of the male leads, put a pair of jeans over his very tiny loin cloth after the first musical number. We might live in liberated times, but I was in no way prepared to be exposed to that much pasty man-thigh for an entire show. Also, although the progression of the story was more clear than ever, I wasn't sure it was entirely compelling. Frankly, I think it might be more relatable if it were viewed in a similar state of intoxication as portrayed in the show itself. The songs might still hold up after 40 years, but the psychedelic tribal love entanglements do not.

I think I'm ready to give up on live productions of Hair now. I enjoyed today's show, but not enough to roll the dice again in the future. The next time I'm keen to "let the sunshine in," I'll do it over a pair of earbuds.



I had big plans for today. It is, after all, Pi Day (the 14th day of the 3rd month of the year, or 3.14, get it?), the day on which the food blogosphere celebrates a mathematical concept with the copious baking of pies. I've always wanted to participate, but I'm not much of a pie baker in the conventional double-crusted dessert sense, and last year I was otherwise occupied. This year, I was finally going to get in on the celebration by preparing a savory Spanish chicken pie based loosely on the Moroccan delicacy pastilla. I made it several years ago for a fancy New Year's Eve dinner, and it seemed like an appropriately festive dish for Pi Day.

But then, last night, I started feeling an ominous tickle in the back of my throat, and by this morning, I was wallowing in the full-blown misery of an epic cold. Any kind of elaborate meal preparation was off the table, but I still wanted to acknowledge the passing of Pi Day in some way. My only recourse was to bake up some spanakopita that I had made quite some time ago and stashed in the freezer. Although I make my spanakopita appetizer-sized, the full-pan version is usually described as a Greek spinach pie, so I'd still be fulfilling my pie agenda, if only on a technicality.

I actually make fantastic spanakopita, from a recipe that Mom found when I was in middle school and had to make a Greek dish for a class party when we were studying ancient Greece. I think it was the first time I ever enjoyed eating spinach, and even though the recipe requires a colossal output of time and energy, I added it to my own cooking repertoire when it came time for me to learn how to cook for myself. It's so much work, in fact, that I'm not going to bother typing the recipe here, because I can't fathom that anyone reading this would be willing to take on the project.

I'm afraid, dear readers, that you're going to have to wait another year for a proper celebration of Pi Day, and as for me, I can only hope that the virus that ruined this year's observance doesn't last nearly that long.


You Are So Beautiful To Me...

I think I'm about to become one of the bloggers who annoy me. Usually, it drives me crazy when I read other women bragging about how handsome their mates are, because, let's face it, perceived attractiveness is a very subjective thing. Sorry to anyone who's blog I read, but no, I don't think your significant other is the sexiest man ever, in fact, I don't really find him attractive in the slightest. I'm happy for you though.

Lately, however, I've come to at least understand where the bragging impulse comes from. Every time I look at Justin, whatever he's doing, whether he's aware that I'm looking at him or not, I think to myself, "Damn, he is hot!" I've always thought that Justin is the most attractive man I've dated, but I swear I think he gets a little more handsome every time I see him.

Psychologists have a term for this: the mere exposure effect. Humans, it turns out, learn to enjoy a stimulus more the more they are exposed to it. This effect is wide-ranging across all aspects of human behavior, but it also applies to faces, and partially explains the popularity of celebrities and the effective use of their image in marketing campaigns. Hence, you think your significant other is the hottest man you've ever laid eyes upon because you lay eyes upon him all the time.

So, in light of that little discussion, consider this a rhetorical question, as I don't expect you to agree with me per se: Is this not the sexiest thing you've ever seen?

Honestly, what is more enticing in the morning than the sight of the man you love, making you breakfast?

I've written before about my fondness for the weekend mornings I spend with my beloved, and today was no different. Justin and I made a last minute decision to make waffles from scratch as a change of pace, and I gave him more of an assist than usual by whipping egg whites for the batter. Although our hasty recipe selection turned out to be less than stellar, and was written in a complicated way that resulted in my accidentally leaving out an egg, the waffles weren't a complete disaster. In fact, they came out of the waffle iron perfectly golden brown and crisp, even if they were somewhat bland.

They were enough of a success that I was motivated to do some research in the food blogosphere and find a couple other recipes to try in the future that have been thoroughly vetted by cooks with more waffle-making prowess than I. Until then, I will continue to revel in the sight of my devastatingly handsome boyfriend making me a slew of delicious breakfasts, and contemplate how I ever got so lucky to have him in my life.


I Feel The Earth Move...

Although my love for Chicago runs deep on a normal day, there are days when I'm particularly glad to live in a city where the worst possible natural disasters are blizzards and tornadoes. Although those are certainly bad, things could be much, much worse in terms of human lives and damage to property. Being in the middle of the country, we aren't exposed to the hurricanes or tsunamis that can hit coastal areas. We don't have mudslides, or volcanoes. Illinois does have two seismic zones -- the New Madrid Seismic Zone on the southernmost end of the state, and the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone along our southern border with Indiana, but most of their tremors are barely noticeable in this neck of the woods.

After the February earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand while Justin's parents were there on vacation, and today's massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, where my friends Scott and Abel live, I am counting my blessings that Chicago won't be next on the list. Thankfully, everyone I've known who's been close to one of these disasters has survived relatively unscathed (though Justin's parents were separated from their belongings and had to travel home without them, Scott and Abel live far away from where the quake and tsunami struck.) My heart goes out to the victims of both tragedies and their families, and I for one will think long and hard before planning any vacations to places that are earthquake prone in the next few months.


Reunited And It Feels So Good...

Every now and then, life tosses a welcome surprise in your direction. Today, I was sitting at my desk when I got a text from my friend Natasha, who has been busy recovering from a stem cell transplant for the past few months, telling me she was on her way to the museum with her sister. There are few things that make me quite as happy as having lunch dates with people besides my coworkers (not that my coworkers aren't lovely, it's just nice to have a change of pace), so I was beyond delighted to be able to spend some time with Natasha in the middle of my day.

Irene also stopped by to say hello to Natasha, just as the museum's AV technician was walking by with a camera.

It was heartening to see her out and about, even though her immune system is very weak and it's generally not a good idea for her to be in public places where she might encounter potentially germ-y strangers. She says she's still struggling with stamina and exhaustion, but it definitely seems like the light is back in her eyes, and the effervescent joie de vivre that defines her spirit is making a comeback. We had a fantastic little chat, getting caught up on each other's lives over the past couple months, and I got a chance to admire the sassy blue wig she's currently rocking after losing her hair to the pre-transplant chemo. As always, her grace and bravery are an inspiration, and I wish her a speedy recovery so we can get back to regularly hanging out!


A Whole Lotta Love...

There is nothing better than a man who makes you laugh:

Me: I love you.

Justin: I love you too, lots.
Me: Lots and lots.
Justin: More lots than there are vacant lots in Detroit.
Me: (laughs hysterically)

Justin: I guess I could have come up with a more romantic way to say that...


Cold As Ice...

It's somewhat mystifying to me that even after almost two years of blogging, there are still beloved foods and recipes that I've failed to write about. For instance, though I've mentioned it several times, I still haven't talked about my favorite, fool-proof, insanely delicious chocolate cake recipe (though it is on the docket, as I'm planning on baking one for my birthday unless some other whim captures me). Also, I've somehow managed to go the last two years without making one of my favorite frozen desserts -- chocolate sorbet.

I know what you're thinking: "Chocolate sorbet? How does that work?" Sorbets often get a bad rap for being icy and lacking the smooth, unctuous mouth-feel of ice cream, but I can assure you, a properly made sorbet can be just as velvety as its dairy-based brethren; the secret is to make sure the mixture is very, very cold before churning, which prevents the creation of large ice crystals caused by rapid chilling, and in some cases, to add a small amount of alcohol to the sorbet mix, both as a flavor enhancer and to lower the freezing point of the sorbet which also prevents a hard, icy consistency.

Sorbets were actually my initiation into the world of frozen dessert making, as I was intimidated at the time by the custards required for ice cream. I began with simple combinations of pureed fruits, sugar, and alcohol, and my initial successes included a raspberry sorbet so much more delicious than any I'd ever had before that I couldn't help but continue in my explorations. Soon, I'd obtained a copy of David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, and a electric ice cream machine.

It was in that book that I spotted a recipe for chocolate sorbet, which struck me as a novel concept. It would be less caloric than chocolate ice cream due to the lack of cream and milk (though still not healthy by any stretch of the imagination), and I would be able to avoid learning how to make a custard base for a little longer. I made my first batch, and I was completely unprepared for how intense it was. Without the dairy to mellow the chocolate flavors, the sorbet was somehow more chocolatey than chocolate itself. It is, quite possibly, the most chocolatey dessert I've ever consumed in my life, and I've eaten a lot of chocolate in my 25 years.

I made this particular batch for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I'm playing hostess this weekend to my college friend, Joy, who is in town for a convention. I wanted to have a homemade treat on hand to offer her, but I couldn't get myself excited about anything in my baking repertoire. Instead, the recent scant increase in temperatures and lengthening hours of sunlight had brought thoughts of summer delicacies to my mind. I settled on chocolate sorbet after a conversation with Justin, in which he expressed his skepticism over the idea of chocolate sorbet, and I knew it was time to spread the gospel of this unusual dessert. Both Justin and Joy were easily converted by the unmitigated deliciousness that is this chocolate sorbet, and if you have an ice cream maker, I promise you will be too. Nothing will satisfy a chocolate craving like this can. Just trust me...

Chocolate Sorbet

adapted from The Perfect Scoop

2 1/4 c. water
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. unsweetened, Dutch-process cocoa powder

Pinch of salt

6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups water, sugar, cocoa powder, and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Let it boil, continuing to whisk, for 45 seconds.
Remove from heat and stir in the chopped chocolate until it's melted, then stir in the vanilla extract and remaining 3/4 c. of water. Pour mixture into a glass bowl and blend with an immersion blender for one minute. Chill the mixture thoroughly, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.


Love At First Bite...

Some foods have magic powers of seduction. Three years ago, I was standing in my cousin Candy's kitchen on Thanksgiving, watching the highly-choreographed ballet of food preparation underway, when I spotted an innocent-looking little cheese plate that Candy had set out for people to nosh on until lunch was ready. Having recently acquired an affinity for goat cheese on a trip to Normandy earlier that fall, I smeared what appeared to be an herbed chèvre on a cracker and popped it in my mouth. It wasn't quite as tangy as goat cheese, and though I wasn't sure what it was, I knew it was tasty.

Embarrassingly, I'd soon eaten almost all of the round piece of cheese, and had to ask the hostess what it was that had just caused me to lose all self-control in the face of an even bigger meal to come. Candy told me it was called Boursin, she bought it at Costco, and she liked serving it when entertaining. Ever since that fateful day, I've been engaged in a full-blown love affair with Boursin, and I don't even want to think about how many foil-wrapped packages I've consumed on crackers since then.

Hence, when I was scouring the web looking for compelling recipes to satisfy my
New Year's resolution of experimenting more in the kitchen and I came across a recipe for macaroni and cheese employing Boursin, it skyrocketed to the top of my to-do list. In my years of Boursin consumption, it had never once occurred to me to use the cheese as a cooking ingredient, or anything more than a snack, so I was curious to see how it would work in a different context. I recruited my favorite sous-chef, whose impeccable cheese grating skills rescued my manicure, and we made quick work of this mac and cheese recipe.

Both Justin and I really enjoyed this recipe, which was creamy and luscious, though the herbs and garlic included in the Boursin were what truly made the dish spectacular. It wasn't as good as my favorite mac and cheese recipe, which includes bacon, gruyère cheese, and deeply caramelized onions, but it also took significantly less time to prepare, making it a more viable weeknight dinner option. I'll definitely be making this dish again (though probably not anytime soon, as its caloric content must be truly formidable), though I would bake it longer than the 5-10 minutes suggested in the original recipe, as my breadcrumbs did not brown in the slightest. Based on other recipes I've consulted online, I've adjusted the baking time to 25-30 minutes instead.

Boursin Mac and Cheese

adapted from
Kitchen of Friends

1 pound short pasta, I prefer pipette

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour
2 c. milk

1 package Boursin cheese, Garlic and Fine Herbs flavor

3/4 c. sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1/2 c. parmesan cheese, grated

1 c. panko breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 400.
1. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat, add flour and whisk it constantly until it forms a paste. Gradually add milk and turn up the heat to high, continuing to whisk. When mixture boils, turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and add Boursin, cheddar and parmesan.
2. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions and drain. Combine in a large baking dish with cheese sauce, and cover with breadcrumbs.

3. Bake 25-30 minutes, until breadcrumbs are browned, and sauce is bubbly.


He Speaks...

As Justin and I were walking to the El station after watching Laika: Dog in Space at the Neo-futurarium, we were discussing what we had just seen, and our conflicting opinions thereof. Knowing that I would be blogging about the production here, he asked if he could do a guest post to share his thoughts about Laika, and I thought it seemed only fair to give him a voice of his own.

After reading his review, I think I've just fallen a little bit more in love with him. I always known that he's very intelligent, but I hadn't had the pleasure of reading his writing, outside of emails and IMs. He's good at it! In fact, I think his review is more eloquent than mine by a long-shot, but I also think he connected with the material more than I did. That's my story and I'm sticking to it...

Check out what he had to say about Laika:

Laika: An Alternative Review

As Haley explained in her review, it was initially my interest in the story of the first dog in space and curiosity about the Neo-Futurists that brought us to attend a performance of Laika: Dog in Space. The subject matter sounded appealing, and music and puppets sounded like an interesting medium for the narrative. From the description provided, I was expecting something along the lines of a musical telling of the events of Laika's short life, albeit in an offbeat and somewhat humorous way. What the show turned out to be was not what I expected, although arguably better than I expected.

Before I continue this review, I should make a few facts known about me:

  1. I am a huge nerd, and I mean that in a positive way.
  2. I have a seemingly higher tolerance for accordion music than most people.
  3. I used to perform improv comedy, so being on stage with a small audience isn't a new experience for me.
  4. Borscht is one of my favorite soups.

The first inkling that something different was afoot was the exhibit space that led into the theater, which we were invited to browse as the stage was set. The large-seeming room was lined with strange artifacts said to have some relation to the show. In some ways, I found this to be the most interesting part of the evening, as I definitely felt primed to "get" more of the references in the show, particularly those dealing with the 1960s-era TV show The Prisoner.

Beyond that, however, I also found that the gallery of famous dogs and the odd science-y gadgets helped set the overall tone and mood of the show. The best illustration of this was when one of the cast members enticed me to try out a Van de Graaf generator set up as one of the displays. Besides the comical sensation of being engulfed by static electricity, I now realize that this was a way of mentally preparing me as an audience member for later involvement in the show's events. Or perhaps to gauge how open I'd be to it later.

Laika: Dog in Space turned out to be not so much about Laika's life, but rather an exploration of what her life meant for the show's creators/performers. It's difficult to draw a thread of continuity through the production, since there isn't really a single theme that ties it all up, but some of the issues that come up are imprisonment, isolation, innocence/childhood, the canine mind, the nature of scientific knowledge, and an absurdist view of the Cold War.

The show is structured into segments, directed by the soothing, offstage voice of an announcer of sorts, a reference to The Prisoner that surely would have left many scratching their heads if not for the aforementioned primer. Segments include rock concert-style musical numbers (which were sometimes sonically problematic), storybook styled retellings of a few key events in the Laika narrative, a cooking sequence where the cast made borscht for the audience, and a space-race themed game show, in which I participated and memorably got Tang up my nose. There were also several monologues and vignettes, which raised interesting ideas but could have done a better job of relating the content to the audience - specifically in answering the question " what?" In one sense, it's nice not to be told what to think about the themes, but a little more direct relevance wouldn't hurt.

At this point, I should add that I'm usually fairly skeptical of audience participation, which might sound surprising from someone who performed improv. The issue I have with it is that, as an audience member, it can be somewhat alarming to suddenly be handed the responsibility to making a moment of the show work. To be fair, the performers are themselves taking a risk by shifting focus momentarily from themselves to an untested amateur, but that usually does little to put the person in the spotlight at ease. Additional measures are needed to make the experience more comfortable

This is an area where I think the cast of Laika did a fairly admirable job. The exhibit and interaction before we even got into the theater was a subtle way of preparing the audience for interaction later, and when people in the audience were approached, it was often in a way where the spotlight wouldn't immediately be on them. That wasn't always the case, as when I was brought up on stage for trivia and upside-down Tang consumption, but it also helps that the audience was small. When 75% of the people there are asked to do something, you feel less singled out.

Approaching the show purely from an aesthetic level, I found it to be pretty amusing and thought-provoking for the most part, if occasionally a little pretentious. The house band, a four-piece keyboard-accordion/guitar/bass/drums outfit was very talented, and though none of the performers were particularly noteworthy as vocalists, the songs didn't really require such skill.

The musical style seemed heavily influenced by The B-52s, which I thought was a good stylistic choice. That particular sound has a stylistic foundation in the 1950s Cold War era, but it also reminds of the 1980s, which is when the ensemble members (and, presumably, the intended audience) were children, and that childhood experience is a theme that came up more than once, particularly in the "story-time" segments, at the onset of which all of the actors would scream "YAAAAAAY!" and dive for a nearby pillow. The staging made good use of the small space with its science-bordering-on-science-fiction trappings, including video monitors to display interesting little animations during certain segments.

On a conceptual level, Laika covers some good ideas and for the most part presents them in an entertaining way, but that said I can see why the show wouldn't appeal to just anyone. It does ask more of its audience than the average show, and while you get the sense that it's done out of respect for the audience's ability to get the ideas in the show, some might find that to be an imposition. Personally, I didn't mind, and I enjoyed the out-of-the-box way it delved into the subject matter. Plus, the soup at the end was pretty tasty.


Lost In Space...

It never ceases to amaze me, the circuitous routes we take to the unusual places we end up in life. Tonight, for instance, found me partaking in perhaps one of the strangest theatrical experiences I've ever had, all due to a conversation I had with Justin several weeks ago.

You see, Justin likes to read to me. We've entered into a phase in our relationship where we don't need to be paying constant attention to one another, and enjoy simply coexisting in the same space while engaged in separate tasks. Often, I'll be perusing a cookbook or magazine, tidying up, or cooking something, and Justin (being the naturally curious and inquisitive sort) will be browsing Reddit or researching a random thought he's had. If he stumbles across something interesting, he'll usually read it aloud to me. On this particular occasion, I was putzing around in the kitchen, while Justin read to me about Laika, the first dog sent into space by the Soviets in Sputnik II. Like the majority of such tangential conversations, it would have passed silently into oblivion if it hadn't been for a copy of Time Out Chicago that I paged through while on my lunch hour at work later that week, where I spotted a theater listing for a play entitled, Laika: Dog In Space. Now aware of Justin's interest in Laika's story, I suggested to him that we go see it, and we dutifully made plans.

Knowing that the play had been written and produced by the Neo-Futurists, an experimental theater troupe operating out of Chicago and New York, I was prepared for the show to be a little... offbeat. The descriptions I found online painted the play as a combination of "original music, dance, and puppetry," which I thought held some promise. After all, how bad could a cute dog puppet be? Plus, tickets were only $15, so the risks seemed minimal, even if it was awful.

Awful would be a strong word to describe what unfolded at the Neo-Futurarium this evening; bizarre, absurd, pretentious, and just plain weird are all more apt descriptors in my opinion. The experience began with a pre-show installation of dioramas, writing exercises, a short film, scientific instruments, and handouts about such seemingly unrelated topics as the 1960s era British television show, The Prisoner. It was a good thing we got there early enough to look at everything before the show, because it turned out that the "installation" was full of the information necessary to understand the references being made within the play, which drew parallels between Laika's life and such disparate sources as The Prisoner, and the children's book, The Little Prince. It seems to me that if you have to do that much educating before the show so that your audience can have an inkling of what's going on, you might be reaching a little far in your material. Indeed, Laika: Dog in Space was more a meditation on isolation, science, the connections between people, community, courage, and imagination than it was a story about Laika. The real Laika, it seemed, was little more than a creative jumping-off point for the writers.

The show itself was somewhat of a post-modern pastiche, creating a collage of different elements to explore its themes, some of which were more successful than others. I enjoyed the original rock songs, the use of puppetry, and the "Story Time" segments that actually talked about Laika against a background of animated video components. Then there was the cooking segment, in which the actors prepared a beaker of borscht, and served it to the audience at the end of the show as a way of provoking discussion among strangers over a shared meal. I don't eat beets, but it was an interesting way of approaching the idea of communities and creating relationships that overcome our personal isolation. I think that might be the most positive comment I have to make about Laika -- it was often interesting, but not necessarily enjoyable.

I particularly did not enjoy the long, rambling monologues about the actors' personal thoughts on Laika, their embarrassingly awkward interpretive dances, and the pervasive attempts at audience participation. Not unlike high school, I spent most of the evening hoping no one would call on me or single me out in front of the audience. Justin was not as fortunate, as he was pulled on stage to participate in a Space Race trivia game that involved being spun around in a desk chair, wearing symbolic headgear representing the different nations who participated in the Space Race, answering difficult questions, and ultimately, being asked to drink a glass of Tang upside down. Even after all that, Justin still enjoyed the show more than me, which is a sign that he's either a better sport than I am, more open-minded, or he just understood what they were getting at more than I did.

I didn't really like or dislike Laika -- instead, I thought it had both positive and negative moments that virtually balanced each other out. It's a difficult production for me to describe, because I'm not sure I understood it well enough to do so. It leaves the intellectual heavy-lifting up to the audience by suggesting themes to consider, but without doing much delving into those themes. I will say this: Laika left me thinking, which is at least a partial success for any piece of art. I'm just not sure what to think...