One From The Vaults...

Making good on my promise to lay off the Martha for a while, I found myself looking at my shelf of cookbooks when I spotted one entitled, Pure Dessert. My first thought was, "What the heck is that? I don't even remember ever buying that book," but upon pulling it from the shelf and paging through it, it quickly came back to me. I originally purchased it back in 2007, not long after graduating from college, when I was having a love affair with the writing of chocolate expert and baking guru Alice Medrich. I'd checked out her earlier works from the library, photocopying the recipes I deemed interesting enough to try at a later date, but Pure Dessert was newly released, so I invested in a copy of my own.

The book focuses on respecting the integrity of quality ingredients, and seeks to educate its readers on the "pure" flavors of each. There are chapters dedicated to the flavors of dairy, where she makes things like cheesecakes and simple ice creams, chocolate, fruit, and the one I found most interesting, the flavors of grains. To write this chapter, she went beyond the standard unbleached all-purpose flour used for most baking to explore the unique flavor possibilities presented by incorporating various whole grain flours into baked goods. Many of her more intriguing recipes had ingredients that were too difficult for me to source without resorting to ordering them online (for instance, a phenomenal-looking recipe for shortbread featuring kamut, an heirloom wheat variety with its origins in ancient Egypt).

I ended up settling for a recipe that turned regular whole wheat flour into buttery, crumbly sablés studded with cacao nibs, which were just beginning to become trendy at the time. Cacao nibs are the fermented beans of the cacao plant that are broken up into tiny pieces before being ground and processed to become the chocolate that we're used to eating. The nibs are crunchy like a nut, with a variety of complex floral, fruity, bitter, and roasted flavor notes. I easily found them at Whole Foods, but it took a while to get around to trying the recipe.

Not unlike my current custom of pawning off my baked goods on my hungry coworkers, I was in the habit of taking my baking experiments to the office where I was working my first job, because one of my coworkers was a self-described foodie with whom I often exchanged recipes. It was a small office though, consisting of about four people besides myself, and one of the ladies who worked there was a sad, middle-aged floozy who wore things to the office that wouldn't be appropriate on a woman half her age, and spent long hours during her day on the phone with her girlfriends loudly discussing her sexual exploits. I couldn't stand her, to say the least. One day, I'd baked some peanut butter cookies and brought them to work, and she angrily poked her head in my office and hissed, "You're just trying to sabotage my Weight Watchers aren't you?!? You know I'm on a diet!" She wasn't kidding.

So, I did the only thing I could do -- I baked my first batch of Alice Medrich's Nibby Whole Wheat Sablés and took them in to the office with a sign that read, "Whole Wheat Cookies with Cacao Nibs -- Full of antioxidants and low in calories!!" I gleefully watched as the woman gobbled down cookie after cookie, thanking me for considering her dietary needs. I never felt the need to let her know that each batch of cookies contained a full half-pound of butter, and I made sure to bake them frequently and bring them in to work for her enjoyment.

After that job and I parted ways, the recipe fell off my radar screen until I was compelled to pull its book off the shelf once more. It was fun taking a trip down memory lane, but even more fun getting to taste these sophisticated treats once more. Now that I've got more baking experience under my belt, it might be time to see about obtaining some of the other ingredients featured in Pure Dessert so I can make some more flavor discoveries. Until then, I can definitely recommend these sablés as a starting point for someone looking to experiment with alternative flours in their own baking.

Revenge is a dish best served full of butter.

Nibby Whole Wheat Sablés
adapted from Alice Medrich

1 c. (4.5 oz) all-purpose flour
Scant 1 c. (4 0z) whole-wheat flour
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 c. cacao nibs

Whisk together the all-purpose and whole wheat flours and set aside. In a medium bowl, with the back of a spoon, beat the butter with the sugar, salt, and vanilla for about one minute, until smooth and creamy but not fluffy. Stir in cacao nibs. Add the flour and mix until just incorporated. Scrape the dough into a mass and, if necessary, knead it with your hands a couple times, just until smooth.

Form the dough into a 12 by 2-inch log. Wrap with wax paper and refrigerate for at least two hours, or, preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Use a sharp knife to cut the cold dough log into 1/4-inch slices. Place the cookies at least 1.5 inches apart on parchment lined baking sheets. Bake until the cookies are golden brown at the edges, 12-14 minutes. Let the cookies firm up on the pans for about a minute, then transfer to a rack and allow to cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to one month.


A Matter of Taste...

Two years ago, as a part of the fiscal restructuring at work, our vacation time went from a roll-over plan in which you accrued days over time and were able to save them indefinitely, to a "use it or lose it" plan in which we're given all our days at the start of the fiscal year and we have one year to use them or they disappear. I've always been kind of ambivalent about this plan -- on the one hand, it's nice to be able to take a vacation whenever you want in the year, but on the other hand, I've found myself hoarding time because I'm concerned something will come up at the end of the year for which I'll need to use vacation time. As a result, the past two years I've hit the end of the fiscal year with a bank of unused time. I used most of mine for Katherine's visit and my trip with Justin to White Hall, but I still had two days left to use this month.

Without the funds to travel anywhere, I opted to give myself two three-day weekends, starting last week. Originally, Justin and I had hoped to take our much-rescheduled day trip to Starved Rock State Park, but again, the forecast was against us. We ended up experiencing rock formations in a different way, by seeing The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3-D documentary about French Neolithic cave paintings, but I discovered that day that I'm not a big fan of Werner Herzog's work, slept through much of the movie, and therefore didn't blog about it.

Today, I opted to make slightly better use of my day off by checking out the Taste of Chicago, which opened today and runs through July 3rd. I invited Mom along for the experience, since we haven't gone to the Taste together since 2008, and as always, we adhered to my annual Tate of Chicago game plan:
  • Pre-purchase tickets at Dominick's the week before the Taste begins, when they cost $6 a strip, 25% cheaper than buying them at the actual event the day of.
  • Pre-game with Pepto-Bismol before leaving the house to avoid any possible retribution from your gastrointestinal tract for being subjected to so many greasy, marginally quality food products.
  • Pack appropriately: take plastic utensils, especially a plastic knife for cutting up any food you intend to share, bottled water, hand sanitizer, extra paper towels, and a Tide pen for spills.
  • Go early, preferably during the day on a week day, to avoid the crowds.
  • Stretch your tickets as far as possible by sticking mainly to 4-ticket "Taste portions," and save full-price items for the things that are really special.
We lucked out with perfect weather for the day as well; I find a slightly cool, overcast day is actually better for festival-going than a sunny day in the mid-90s. No worrying about getting sunburned or dehydrated, and the "bad" weather helps keep the crowds at bay.

Am I the only person who thinks photo-bombing is a seriously annoying trend?

In keeping with tradition, I made sure to get my annual pickle on a stick from the Vienna Beef tent. I swear that they're smaller than they used to be when I was a kid, but the taste still takes me right back to my childhood. Unfortunately, drippy pickles are meant for summer days, and aren't really compatible with long-sleeved apparel -- I had to be careful not to make a huge pickle-scented mess of myself.

Since people seemed to enjoy the photo collage from my birthday dim-sum, I thought I'd make another from my Taste photos. From the upper right hand corner: pulled chicken sandwich from Smoke Daddy, doubtlessly one of the most popular stands at the Taste; fried green beans from Harold's Chicken Shack -- these had my vote for second-best thing I ate today, the batter was mildly spicy and really flavorful, and fried green beans are a burgeoning obsession of mine in general; Brazilian sausage from Texas de Brazil, which was tasty, but small and the bun was actually cold from being in the refrigerator; mini-Maxwell Street Polish from Bobak Sausage and Bakery, a Chicago classic; Loukaneko, or Greek sausage, from Pegasus, which was kind of forgettable, but easily the best value in terms of size out of all the Taste Portions we sampled; the obligatory pierogis from Kasia's Deli, one of my perennial faves at the Taste; and apple dumplings from O'Briens that were kind of a throwaway item, and tasted like the apple pies from McDonald's.

In the center is my favorite item of the entire day, which, embarrassingly, came from Garrett's Popcorn, but at least it was a new product that they were debuting for the first time at the Taste, and not something I'd eaten before: caramel vanilla swirl ice cream with caramel corn topping. I had to shell out a full eight tickets for it, but it was worth it. Garrett's is amazing all on its own, and it makes a surprisingly delicious ice cream topping. I wouldn't have thought it, but I'm totally going to recreate this at home with some vanilla ice cream the next time I bring home a bag of Garrett's.

I don't think Mom was very happy about my self-portrait request...

Like any year, there were hits (the ice cream from Garrett's) and misses (a Taste portion of fudge from The Fudge Pot that was overly sweet and barely tasted of chocolate at all), but it was still a fun way to pass an afternoon. It was nice to see a lot of new establishments there this year, in addition to the places I look forward to eating from every year. I'm also particularly proud that I purchased exactly the right number of tickets; we used every single one and for the first time in several years, there were no leftovers. Perfect budgeting + perfect weather + good food = perfect summer afternoon in Chicago.


I'm Getting Better...

Lately, I've been feeling like a terrible friend. You know that girlfriend of yours who dropped off the face of the planet once she met a guy? I'm pretty sure I've turned into that girl. I know it's healthy to maintain a life outside your partner, but it's hard not to succumb to the ease and comfort of spending all my time with my beloved. So, in the past couple weeks, I've been making a concerted effort to get back in touch with my girlfriends. I've fallen into a bi-weekly girls' night with a couple of high school friends, made lunch and dinner plans with others, and finally managed to schedule a reunion with my former coworkers Mireya and Natasha, who's recently been cleared to be around other people after receiving a stem cell transplant several months ago to treat her lupus.

Meeting these girls is one of the best things to come out of my time at CHM.

It's been great seeing everyone that I've gotten together with so far, and I'm looking forward to the plans I've scheduled in the next few weeks. Plus, I feel like less of a deadbeat friend. Spending time with Justin makes me undeniably, irrepressibly happy, but a girl needs to get an estrogen fix every now and then...


Raspberry Beret...

Actually, I do in fact have a raspberry beret:

It turns out that berets are the only type of hat that looks good on my head (trust me, I've tried them all), so I have them in a multitude of colors to go with my various winter outerwear options. However, this is not really a post about hats, it's a post about something that rhymes with raspberry beret: raspberry sorbet.

Although you wouldn't know it from the veritable orgy of cookie baking that's been going on in my kitchen lately, for normal people, the warm temperatures of summer demand the production of frozen desserts. I did make those fudgsicles back when my air conditioning was broken, so I've technically gotten on the frozen treat band wagon this season, but I felt like I was cheating a bit for not bringing my ice cream maker out from the deepest depths of the freezer to which it is normally relegated the other nine months out of the year.

As I've written in the past, sorbets were my entree into the world of frozen desserts, since I was afraid of making scrambled eggs if I attempted to make the custard base necessary for most ice cream recipes. I've overcome my fear and gone on to produce some fantastic, creamy concoctions ever since I got my electric ice cream machine in 2009, but the appeal of sorbet lingers for me. For one thing, pureeing some fruit in the blender requires no use of the stove -- a definite plus during the summer. Plus, fruit sorbets are a perfect way to enjoy the unadulterated glory of fresh summer produce, uncluttered by the dulling presence of dairy.

I've kind of been holding out on you these past two years with this recipe. I came up with this raspberry-peach concoction a few years ago without any sort of recipe; in fact, it was the very first sorbet I ever made, and I was damn lucky that it turned out so well. I knew I liked raspberry sorbet and peach sorbet, and since the two flavors are a classic pairing in the form of Peach Melba, I decided to give it a try in sorbet form and I was glad I did. Even though it was utterly delicious -- all smooth, cold, and full of fruity brightness -- I very seldom made it. You see, I prefer to strain all the raspberry seeds from the mixture before churning it because I hate getting them stuck in my teeth. In fact, those infernal little seeds are why I don't eat raw berries as a snack, ever. I like the flavor of berries, but hate their texture.

For the past couple years that I made this sorbet, I was under the impression that to strain the seeds out of a berry puree, you dump the liquid into a sieve and manually force the liquid through the screen using a spatula, just like they do on television. This always took at least an hour, often more, and a great deal of elbow grease. As a result, this recipe was a nightmare to prepare, so I only made it for special occasions. Recently, however, I saw someone on a t.v. cooking show straining something through a sieve and received some of the greatest advice I've gotten from the Food Network in their current era of programming cooking competition shows instead of cooking instruction shows -- you should shake the sieve or tap it with a spoon to get as much of the mixture through as possible before pressing with a spatula. Pressing early on only pushes material into the screen that will clog it up from the beginning; it's better to press at the end only to get the last bit through. I could have smacked myself in the head; it made perfect sense, and as soon as I heard this, I was eager to see if this alternative method worked better than my admittedly disastrous one.

So, I whipped up a new batch using the peaches that I got on sale earlier this week, and some raspberries that I'd bought and frozen when they'd been on sale in the past. With my new straining technique, I was ready to churn the sorbet in under 20 minutes. Genius! Now that it's practically pain-free to make, I figured I owed it to all of you to share my recipe, so that you too can enjoy a bowl of icy, summery perfection. Enjoy!

Raspberry Melba Sorbet

12 oz. raspberries, rinsed and dried
2 ripe peaches or nectarines, peeled and sliced
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. orange juice
1/4 c. peach schnapps

1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree completely, so that no chunks remain.
2. Pour the mixture into a fine mesh sieve over a glass bowl, shaking until the majority of the mixture has passed through, then pressing the remainder through with a spatula to remove all seeds.
3. Chill mixture well, either in the refrigerator overnight, or in the freezer for thirty minutes, stirring every ten minutes to prevent freezing.
4. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer's directions.
5. Remove to an airtight container, then store in the freezer until scoopable.


A Real Peach...

Recently, I mentioned that I don't particularly like fruit. I realize that this makes me a sort of social pariah, especially in the post-Omnivore's Dilemma world in which we've all been instructed to, "Eat food, mostly plants." I've gotten better about it in recent years, and I now eat a wider range of fruits than I did before, but I still have trouble eating them raw and by themselves. Although it greatly diminishes their nutritional value, I've found that I have to turn most of my fruits into some sort of dessert in order to trick myself into eating them. For example, the peach ice pops that have become my favorite freezer mainstay during the summer months were my gateway into the world of eating stone fruits. Now, two years later, I can even persuade myself to eat them plain, and I eagerly await the arrival of peach season all year long.

Since the beginning of June, I've been stalking the produce department of my grocery store, waiting to find peaches that were both reasonably-priced and reasonably ripe (unlike the early season peaches that are as hard as the pits contained within.) Finally, this week I found nectarines on sale for 99 cents per pound, and they actually smelled like peaches, indicating that they might be flavorful once they eventually softened on my kitchen counter. I shoveled them into my grocery cart like the crazy ladies on Extreme Couponing who buy a hundred bottles of mustard because they're essentially free with their coupons. Maybe I need to stop watching that show so much...

Anyhow, I already had plans for this batch of fruit; plans that had long been percolating in my feverish cooking brain, and just waiting for the appropriate produce to come to fruition. The first of these was a batch of fresh peach cookies from Martha Stewart (shocker, I know, but I promise this will be the last of my experiments from Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share for a while; it's time to show my other cookbooks some love now), and the other you'll just have to wait to find out about.

Martha's book is divided into chapters by texture, and these cookies came from the "Soft & Tender" category. I think that was a bit of an understatement in this case, as these "cookies" were really more like free-form peach cakes. They tasted good; Dad, who was over when I baked them, described them as "a peach-flavored snickerdoodle." The peach flavor was much more intense than I had anticipated, probably due to the presence of the peach jam on top of the chopped fruit, and it was beautifully accented by a hint of cinnamon sprinkled on top, not unlike a good peach pie. However, the cookies were really soft and floppy, and after a night in the cookie jar, they were already getting soggy by morning. Martha says in the book that the cookies are best the day they're made, and she's not kidding folks. Still, I think these cookies could make a nice addition to a summertime backyard barbeque, or a picnic, as long as they were baked the day of...

Fresh Peach Drop Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 c. plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 lb. peaches or nectarines, peeled, pitted, and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1/3 c. peach jam
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375.
1. Whisk together flour, salt, and baking soda.
2. Put butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Reduce speed to low. Add egg and vanilla; mix until well-blended, about 1 minute. Add flour mixture and mix until combined. Add diced peaches and peach jam; mix until just combined.
3. Using a 1 1/2-inch cookie scoop, or a tablespoon, drop dough onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing 2 inches apart. (Chill remaining dough between batches.)
4. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle each cookie with 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake cookies until golden brown and just set, 11-13 minutes. Let cool on sheets five minutes, then transfer to wire racks and allow to cool completely. Cookies are best the day they are made.


Happy Father's Day...

Like Mother's Day, I feel like I've written just about all I can about my wise and generous father in honor of his special day, and there's not really anything new I can bring to the table this year, except to commemorate what I actually put on the table to thank him for his continued support and presence in my life. I'm not really sure what this says about gender roles, but to fete Mom on Mother's Day, we went out to celebrate so there would be no cooking and no dishes to wash, but for Father's Day, I spent the day in the kitchen preparing his favorite dishes as my gift to him.

First, with the assistance of Mom and Justin, I made Lentils a la Brasserie du Theater, easily the most complicated dish in my entire cooking repertoire, as it requires very finely chopping vegetables, poaching eggs, and monitoring three vessels on the stove at once. I actually haven't made it since his birthday in 2009 (when I described it here but did not photograph it), so I figured it was time to tackle it once again. We experimented this year with silicone egg poaching cups, which significantly eased and cut down on the mess associated with poaching eggs, once we went online and researched how to properly use them. Given how much I dislike poaching eggs, I highly recommend investing in a set of these if you're interested in performing that particular kitchen task on your own.

For dessert, I baked up a batch of Dad's favorite cookies, which were a labor of love, as always. I must confess, I was a bit concerned when I discovered that Justin actually liked them upon being offered a sample, as I was previously convinced that one had to be genetically related to our family in order to possess whatever tasting gene is required to enjoy them. However, given Mom's extensive genealogical research into our family's origins, I think it's safe to say that she would have figured it out by now if Justin and I were distantly related. I'm just going to accept it as a good thing that he can tolerate our traditional family foods and stop questioning it.

On top of my gifts of fine cuisine, I also got Dad another awesome card from Etsy. I often rib him about how easy he had it as a parent, considering what a goody-two-shoes I turned out to be, and I managed to find a card that reflected that:

His response? "You haven't eloped with a guy you met on the Internet... yet!

Dad, I may have made things easy on you by staying out of trouble, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate all the guidance and encouragement you've given me for the last 26 years. Happy Father's Day!


Just For Laughs...

Riding past the Chicago Theater on my bus ride home is becoming detrimental to my wallet. Although I am religious in tracking the comings and goings of Chicago's theater scene, I seldom pay attention to the other forms of entertainment that come through the city on tour. There are only a handful of bands that I follow closely enough to want to see them in concert (Andrew Bird being the notable exception), and same generally holds true for comedians and other celebrities on speaking tours.

However, as I was sitting in the State Street traffic a week or so ago, I happened to notice Demetri Martin's name on the marquee for the Chicago Theater, in conjunction with TBS's Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. The Just for Laughs Festival, now in its second year in Chicago, brings major names in comedy from around the Anglophone world to the city for five days of performances during the summer. It's a great opportunity to catch your favorite stand-up act, or partake in some sort of unique comedic happening, and I was lucky enough to spot Martin's name on the roster this year. I've been a fan of his since he launched his Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin in 2009, when his good looks helped attract me to the show. His unique blend of stand up, clever use of props, comedic songs, and sketches held my attention, and I was sad when the show was canceled after two seasons.

The next day, after consulting with Justin about whether he'd be interested in going, I picked up some tickets on Ticketmaster (and was later bummed to find them on Hottix this morning for half-price, but I wasn't willing to take the risk at the time.) Once I looked into the show a little bit more, I was disappointed to find that Martin would mostly be emceeing, and that the bulk of the evening's entertainment would come from five other comics that he had hand-selected to showcase.

Thankfully, it turned out that Martin did a set of his own to open the show, which was tight, well-edited, and above all things, funny. He didn't sing, or do any bits with drawing, both of which had been my favorite segments in Important Things,but it was still cool to see him do his stand-up act live. The remainder of the show featured a mix of unknown and fairly famous comedians, the most well-known being Kristen Schall of The Daily Show, and Paul F. Tompkins, formerly the host of Best Week Ever on VH1. Since they were the biggest names, their sets came at the end of the evening, however, they failed to provide the big finale that I think the show's organizers had expected.

As it was, the show gained momentum through the first three performers following Demetri Martin's opener, climaxing with the third comedian, Hannibal Buress who was the biggest surprise of the evening. Kumail Nanjiani was first, with a well-selected set that focused on race issues and the discrimination faced by Muslim-Americans. That he was able to take such a serious subject and make light of it was impressive, but I'd recently caught him on television and recognized many of the same jokes. It's nice that he brought us his best material, but I would have liked to have seen something different from him.

Next, after a brief interlude from Martin, was David O'Doherty, a hilarious Irish comedian who brought the musical humor I was expecting from Martin. (Perhaps Demetri decided not to sing to avoid stealing O'Doherty's thunder?) I'd never heard of him before, but his song about the dullness of real-life house parties provided a comedic counterpoint to the endless jams we're accustomed to hearing from hard-living musicians about the crazy parties they go to. O'Doherty was an unexpected gem, and I'd definitely make an effort to catch his act again in the future if the opportunity arose.

Best of all though, was Hannibal Buress, a writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, who was by far the funniest performer of the evening. I was laughing so hard during his set that I got a headache from the lack of oxygen I was sending to my brain because I was too busy laughing. He definitely earned a new fan tonight, and it doesn't hurt that he's originally from Chicago, so I can take pride in calling him one of our own. If you're in the city, check him out next month at Zanies -- it's totally worth it.

After the midpoint of the show, things started to go precipitously downhill. I was most excited to see Kristen Schaal, since I was familiar with her work from The Daily Show, and had always found her funny. However, it quickly became abundantly clear that she needs a writing team behind her, because her original material, if it can be called that, was terrible. It seemed like she had no plan or organization to her jokes, and most of her time on stage seemed to be spent telling us about the joke she was going to tell, instead of actually telling it. When the big joke she'd been setting up finally arrived, it turned out to be entirely about taints, and not even my inner middle-schooler found it funny.

Demetri Martin was still funny in between sets, which salvaged things somewhat, but the last act of the evening was by far the worst. Paul F. Tompkins came out strong, with a crack about getting to keep all the water bottles still on stage because he was the last comic, but after that, he seemed to run out of material. He fumbled around, struggling for something to say, trying to play to the crowd unsuccessfully, before telling a lame, uninteresting story about a hat shop he once worked in. It was awful, and the only thing keeping me in my seat was the hope that Demetri Martin might tell some more jokes at the end to wrap things up. Otherwise, I would have left and gone home. Sadly, all Martin did at the end was re-introduce the comics who had just performed for a curtain call. We should have just left and gotten a head-start on the traffic.

Still, approximately 66% of the evening was funny and amusing, and that's not bad. I discovered some new comedians that I wouldn't have known about otherwise, as well as seeing an old favorite in person. The Just for Laughs Comedy Festival is a welcome addition to our city's annual entertainment offerings, I'm glad I decided to check it out this year, and I'm already looking forward to checking out their line-up for next year.


A Sticky Situation...

Here it is, Wednesday, a full week after my air conditioning conked out on me, and the HVAC repair company that services our building has informed us that it will likely be Saturday before we can get it fixed. Not cool -- literally. But, tonight I found myself in the same quandary as I was Monday night: I had more food in my kitchen that was about to go bad if it wasn't used in a timely manner, and of course, its intended destination was more cookies. (This is clearly an example of life interfering when you have other plans; I went out and bought ingredients for baking only to have my air conditioning break down in the middle of summer. Perhaps the cooking gods are trying to send me a message about adopting a more seasonal outlook in my meal planning...)

This time around, the rapidly expiring ingredient in question was a carton of heavy cream that I had used in the ridiculously delicious Maple-Macadamia Sticky Bars I made with Katherine while she was in town, and intended to use again for a cookie with a similar flavor profile -- Cashew Caramel Cookies. I'd been meaning to make these cookies for ages, and at one point, had even purchased the ingredients to do so, but I never got around to it and eventually, I just let my dad nosh on the cashews as a snack (they're his favorite type of nut.) I'd recently spotted the nuts on sale at the grocery store, so I picked some up again, this time determined to finally scratch these cookies off my to-do list.

Hence, with the ingredients on hand and the heavy cream only days away from its "use-by" date, I was locked into baking these cookies tonight, despite my reluctance to turn on the oven. Still, I'm glad I did. The recipe requires a bit more effort than most cookies, in that you have to make homemade cashew butter in the food processor, but I think the extra step yielded sufficient returns in flavor to be worth the time and energy. The cookies have a deep, roasted cashew flavor, and a pleasant, chewy texture with a hint of crunch from the extra chopped nuts. They're really quite good all on their own, but the addition of caramel on top really pushes them over the edge. They're a perfect balance of sweet, salty, crunchy, and chewy.

They are also profoundly messy. I'm not sure if it was my warmer-than-average kitchen, or the addition of the heavy cream to the melted caramel, but the surface embellishment never really set up. This made the cookies basically impossible to store, as they couldn't be stacked, and they dripped caramel wherever they rested. I ultimately put them in the fridge overnight hoping to firm them up enough to layer them between wax paper for transport to work in the morning, but I suspect that won't be helpful either. I think what ultimately might be a better solution for this recipe would be to turn the cookies into sandwich cookies, trapping the messy caramel inside, or alternately, turn them into thumbprint cookies. Since the dough doesn't spread in the oven on its own, I think the recipe could easily be adapted for thumbprint use.

Ultimately, I think the Maple-Macadamia cookies are a bit better -- the caramel to cookie ratio is higher -- but they would be difficult to package in an assortment of cookies since they are both sticky and crumbly. Looking forward to this year's Cookie Bonanza (yes, I'm aware it's half a year away still, but I like to be prepared), I think these might be a better option if I can just figure out a way to contain the liquid caramel enough to pack them. I don't think you could go wrong with either these or the Maple-Macadamia bars; it ultimately just depends on what kind of nuts you like the most, and how much of a mess you're willing to cope with in your kitchen...

Cashew Caramel Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 c. roasted, salted cashews
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. light brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. white sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
7 oz. soft caramel candies, unwrapped
1/4 c. heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350.
1. Sift together flour and salt. Coarsely chop 1 cup cashews; set aside. Process remaining 1 1/2 cups cashews in a food processor until finely chopped. Pour in oil; process until creamy, about 2 minutes.
2. Put cashew mixture, butter, and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in egg and vanilla. Reduce speed to low; gradually add flour mixture and reserved chopped cashews.
3. Roll dough into 1 1/2 inch balls and place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake 6 minutes; remove cookies from oven and flatten with the bottom of a glass. Return to oven and bake 7 minutes more, until bottoms are golden. Let cool on wire racks.
4. Melt caramels with cream in a saucepan over low heat, stirring. Let cool slightly before drizzling caramel over cookies; let set. Store cookies in single layers in airtight containers up to three days.


Tales From The City - Part Four...

Near my apartment is a small sculpture park, mainly notable for the proliferation of signs there that ask that people not walk their dogs there to protect the plantings, and for the large number of dogs that can be seen relieving themselves there anyway. In the summer, however, it becomes a favorite outing venue for some manner of day camp, and I often see its children waiting there at the end of the day for their parents to pick them up.

I think the focus of the camp has something to do with creative pursuits, as the children are more often than not occupied in some sort of craft project. Today, when I walked by, I noticed that they had adorned most of my block in sidewalk chalk. Some of the drawings obviously came from the kids, but some appeared to have been created by the counselors, including this one, which was my favorite of all the impromptu art:

I couldn't agree more...


Going Bananas...

I realize that basically the last thing anyone in their right mind would do when their air conditioning is broken is turn on the oven, but last week, when I was still occupying an artificially frosty apartment, I got it in my head that I needed to try a cookie recipe I'd spotted that employed bananas, so I dutifully went out to the store, bought the fruit, and left it on my counter to ripen. When I eat bananas out of hand, I like them to be just barely ripe, one or two days home from the store, max. I've never been much of a fan of fruit in general, particularly if it gets too sweet, like a very ripe banana, or a ripe melon. So there was really nothing I could do with my purchases once they were more than a few days old, besides turn them into the cookies for which they were intended.

Which is how, dear readers, I found myself baking tonight. Thankfully, the weather has been cooperating with my lack of air conditioning fairly well, and it's been unseasonably cool out, so far. Hence, it wasn't too much of an imposition to crank up the oven in the middle of June, even without a functioning HVAC system.

I was attracted to the recipe in the first place because it vaguely reminded me of one of my favorite childhood treats, the oatmeal banana cookies baked by the mother of a neighborhood boy I used to play with. They were dense and chewy, perfumed with ripe fruit, and adorned with festive multi-colored sprinkles on top -- the key to any child's heart. I'll never be able to get that recipe, but I've been on the lookout for a cookie that combines oatmeal and bananas for ages now in hopes of recreating at least part of that childhood memory.

The cookies I baked tonight were slightly more elaborate, but in a good way; they also featured walnuts and chocolate chunks. Honestly, what recipe isn't improved by the addition of chocolate? I chose to take the opportunity to use up the odds and ends of several different packages and varieties of chocolate that I had sitting around the kitchen: the end of a bag of Ghirardelli bittersweet chips, part of a bag of Tollhouse semisweet morsels, part of a bar of Ghirardelli baking chocolate that'd been hanging out in my cabinet a while, and a few milk chocolate chips, just to get the total up to seven ounces. It definitely felt nice to clear some of the clutter out of my baking supply hoard.

Ultimately, I was glad that all those bits of chocolate gave their lives to make these cookies, and that I risked heating up my apartment to make them, because they were really quite delicious. Imagine, if you will, the love child spawned by the seemingly unholy union of banana nut bread and chocolate chip cookies (two of my most frequent baked good cravings), and you're in the ballpark of what these cookies taste like. It wasn't quite the flavor profile I was going for, and they didn't remind me of those oatmeal banana cookies from my childhood, but I think I'll be adopting them as the favorite banana cookie of my adulthood...

My enormous cookie jar, from Target. We've been through a lot together...

Banana-Walnut Chocolate Chunk Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 c. mashed ripe banana
1 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
8 oz. semisweet chocolate (chips or 1/4 inch chunks)
1/2 c. coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375.
1. Whisk together both flours, salt, and baking soda in a bowl.
2. Put butter and both sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Reduce speed to low. Add egg and vanilla; mix until combined. Mix in banana. Add flour mixture; mix until just combined. Stir in oats, chocolate, and walnuts.
3. Drop tablespoons of dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet, spacing about 2 inches apart. Bake cookies until golden brown and just set, 12-13 minutes. Let cool on sheets about 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks and allow to cool completely.


Old (Town) Style...

As you may have noticed from last night's date night, I'm slowly motivating myself to get out of the apartment more. Today, I even managed to drag myself (and my mom) up to the neighborhood of Old Town to take advantage of one of my favorite summer happenings in the city -- the Old Town Art Festival. As I've mentioned in the past, the Old Town Art Festival is one of the few remaining independently-produced art fairs in the Chicagoland area, and the panel in charge of curating it has impeccable taste, or at the very least, we seem to share a similar aesthetic. Given my recent attempts to scale back my spending and monitor my finances more carefully, it probably wasn't a good idea to go to this today, but I just couldn't resist.

Predictably, I ended up dropping some money I didn't really have on a set of three photographs from an artist that I encountered at the festival for the first time -- Xavier Nuez. His work really blew me away; he uses a vintage film camera and very long exposure times (up to a half hour), to capture images of urban ruins and other dilapidated, forgotten elements of our decaying infrastructure. During his long exposures, he changes the lighting set-up to create other-worldly colors in his photographs. The resulting pictures are hauntingly beautiful, despite their unconventional subject matter. Check out the gallery on his website here; it will be time well-spent.

While we were in the neighborhood, we also decided to check out the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company, a restaurant that's been featured on several television shows concerning Chicago travel and tourism. The restaurant is notable for its unique gimmick: the pizza pot pie. In a city where deep dish is king, the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company literally turns the tradition upside down, by placing all their cheese, toppings, and sauce in bowl, topping it with pizza dough, and un-molding the creation tableside. I've been meaning to try it myself for years, and have actually recommended the place to out-of-towners looking for something a little different.

Pizza pot pie -- looks kind of like a stuffed portabello mushroom cap in my opinion.

Now that I've actually been there and sampled the pizza pot pie for myself, I would like to apologize to anyone that I ever recommended this place to. It's fame is solely based on the novelty of its featured menu item, not due to the quality of the pizza in question. The cheese was passable, but not outstanding; the sausage, which comes standard and cannot be left out because it is part of the sauce, was flavorless and lacking in fennel -- it easily could have been mistaken for ground beef; the tomato sauce tasted like it came from a jar; the crust was soft and chewy, but due to the cooking method, lacked any of the exterior crispness that makes a good pizza crust worth eating. Truly, it was a disappointing experience, though I'm glad I tried it once, for the novelty, and at least I can say that I scratched another Chicago experience off my list...


The New Deal...

Because I still haven't stopped reeling from last month's $1500 credit card bill, I've been aspiring to a new level of thriftiness lately. Partially inspired by my new television obsession, Extreme Couponing, on TLC, I've been clipping more coupons for my grocery purchases, and trying to stick to buying sale items as much as possible. I'm never going to be able to attain the 98% discount rates that the people on the show do, mostly because I live in an area where no stores double coupons, I don't have the space to amass a hoard of items purchased with coupons, and I just plain refuse to dedicate the same amount of time to chasing deals that they do. Still, I managed to buy $80 worth of groceries recently for $46, a savings of 43%, and I'm pretty damn proud of that.

Similarly, in this spirit of thrift, this evening I decided to curate a date night for Justin and I based entirely on coupons from online daily deal sites. I had a $50 Groupon to a neighborhood Italian restaurant that cost me $25, and I had a Livingsocial deal for two movie tickets to be purchased on that cost me $9. Since movie tickets in Chicago cost about $12.50 per person for non-3-D movies, the Livingsocial discount saved us $16 alone. The Groupon was less of a good deal, since the restaurant we ate at still cost us an extra $20 in tax and tip above what was covered by the coupon, bringing the out-of-pocket cost of our dinner to $45, which was about what we might have spent if we'd gone to one of our usual restaurants, sans-online deal. Basically, the Groupon only enabled us to try a restaurant that would have ordinarily been beyond our means. Still, overall, we saved $41, or 43%, on an evening out in the city, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Oh, and as for the movie we went to see, it was X-Men: First Class. You may or may not remember that I'm a sucker for superhero movies, though it's usually a father-daughter bonding activity for me. However, since Dad was never a fan of the X-Men comics growing up, he's never been interested in seeing any of the films the way he is with Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, and their ilk. I, however, occasionally caught the X-Men animated television series as a child, so I cultivated an interest in their film franchise. I really enjoyed the first and second films, was less than thrilled with the widely-derided third installment, X-Men: The Last Stand, and decided not to bother with the Wolverine-based spin-off. That decision turned out to be for the best -- I later caught it on t.v. and couldn't bear to watch after about the first five minutes.

I did, however, really enjoy this latest attempt to reboot the X-Men franchise. Oddly enough, the special effects were occasionally a little tacky/sub-par (especially with regard to Emma Frost's transformation into diamond form), but I found the film to be well-acted (aside from the truly unfortunate decision to make almost everyone speak in an American accent, leading to distracting slip-ups), and entertaining. Usually, the reverse is true in comic book movies -- the acting and plot are lacking, but the razzle-dazzle of special effects keeps you distracted.

In particular, I enjoyed Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Magneto. I thought Sir Ian McKellen's Magneto was one of the best parts of the first three films, so I was glad to see a nuanced, energetic performance of his character in this film as well. James McAvoy, in the role of Charles Xavier, was pleasing to the eye and delivered a decent enough performance. He was no Patrick Stewart, but then again, no one is. Also, although I think January Jones is a terrible actress in general, she was well-cast as Emma Frost, where her inability to emote actually enhanced the character's frigid disposition.

For me, X-Men: First Class would have been worth the trip to the theater if only for the look of joy on Justin's face when it was my idea to see a movie based on a comic book. Apparently, a girlfriend with an interest in superhero films is a serious asset to a guy who's a self-professed "huge nerd." Even if it hadn't won me brownie points, in all honesty, I think the latest X-Men offering might be the best comic book-based film I've seen since The Dark Knight (though it wasn't even close to being on that level.) I recommend it regardless of whether you're a fan of the franchise; it's the perfect way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.


Oh, Fudge...

Ask and you shall receive. Earlier this week, I was sitting in the unwelcome swelter of my apartment, ruing the short in my air conditioning's computer circuitry that has rendered it useless, and has me impatiently awaiting the arrival of a new computer board to restore a comfortable level of temperature to my abode. While perusing the usual assortment of blogs and websites I frequent in the evening, I thought to myself, "Wow, I could totally go for a Fudgsicle right now," and lo, I clicked over to the Smitten Kitchen site and found myself face-to-screen with a mouthwatering photo of the same icy treat I had just been dreaming about. Clearly, this was a sign from the Internet gods that I was destined to make these fudgsicles. Since tonight was the first night I've been home alone in a while, I stopped by the store, picked up $1 worth of whole milk (the only ingredient I didn't have in the house), and I was on my way to frozen chocolate nirvana.

Though I shared the blogger's skepticism over the seemingly negligible amount of chocolate in the recipe, I decided to take a leap of faith and prepare the popsicles as written. It was the right move -- these fudgsicles are just as good, though in a different way, than my previous favorite summertime frozen treat on a stick. These are everything that a fudgsicle should be: fudgy and creamy, with an unctuous mouth-feel, while remaining light and refreshing. They definitely satisfied my craving, and I know I'll be making another batch before the summer is over.

As written, this recipe makes four popsicles, which was fine for testing purposes, but I think I'll be doubling it in the future just to have more on hand. I'm already looking forward to enjoying them on a balmy summer evening in the near future when the steamy weather is where it belongs -- outside.

Fudge Popsicles
Adapted from On a Stick!, via Smitten Kitchen

2 tablespoons semi-sweet chocolate chips or chopped semisweet chocolate
1/3 c. sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/4 c. whole milk
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

In the bottom of a medium saucepan over very low heat, gently melt the chocolate chips/chopped chocolate, stirring constantly until smooth. Stir in sugar, corn starch, cocoa powder, milk and salt and raise heat to medium. Cook mixture, stirring frequently until it thickens and reaches a pudding-like consistency, 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat, add vanilla and butter, and stir until combined.

Set aside to let cool slightly, then pour into popsicle molds and freeze until solid.


Whatever and Ever...

As you've probably noticed, I haven't felt much like writing lately. It's a combination of the writer's block that afflicts me from time to time, and a general sense of being a bit in the doldrums. Not only have I not felt inspired to write, I've also had little motivation to do anything worth blogging about. I know, I know, I'm missing out on the supposedly best time of year to be living in Chicago, but I'm just not feeling it right now. Until I am, I thought I'd share a little piece of randomness from my daily life with you.

As if this mannequin isn't creepy enough, I enjoy the fact that it's aligned with the portrait behind it so that it looks like it has a tiny, shrunken male head.

This, my friends, is a Schlappi, one of the mannequins used by the museum in our clothing exhibitions. For some reason, they seem to turn up in strange places around the museum, often seemingly abandoned for long periods of time. Randomly running across one, especially when the lights are dim early in the morning, can be a truly unsettling experience. This particular one has been hanging out in our main conference room for a couple of weeks. The fact that it is covered in padding seems to indicate that it was intended for use in an exhibition, but surely it wouldn't have been left out in a public place for so long if it were needed imminently. In fact, it's been sitting there so long that some staff member finally felt emboldened to touch it, and put it into this flamenco-like pose. All it needs are some castanets. Seriously, what is it doing there, and why hasn't someone put it away yet? Such are the mysteries that come with working behind the scenes at a museum...

Fun Fact: The costume department staff stuffs pantyhose with batting and sews extra layers around the breasts and stomach to bring their mannequins into the shape of the woman who originally wore a given garment. Old clothing was usually tailored to fit a specific body, so not only does it not look right if it's hanging off a skinnier, less curvy form, it actually puts additional gravitational stress on the fabric and seams if they aren't properly supported. Originally, our museum used to create custom forms for each piece of clothing they put on display, but they recently decided it would be more efficient to switch to pre-made mannequins and add custom padding as necessary.


Back To Basics...

There were a dozen or so things I could have done this weekend. Summer festival season is in full swing; I could have checked out the Printer's Row Lit Fest in my own backyard, the humorously-named Sausage Fest in Lakeview (which, appropriately, raises money for prostate cancer research and awareness), or rekindled my interest in Germanic culture at the Mayfest in Lincoln Square. I could have gone out and enjoyed the decent weather we finally had today. However, I didn't partake of any of the interesting, blog-worthy events that were going on in my fair city this weekend.

We all process grief in different ways, and this time around, I really just wanted to stick close to home and have some peace and quiet. I read a book, took naps, and did some of the household chores that had accumulated while I was busy gallivanting with Katherine and going down to southern Illinois with Justin. It was productive and restorative, but in my world, no attempt at self-healing would be complete without baked goods.

I am a big believer in sublimation. When I am upset or frustrated, I tend to either go on cleaning sprees or baking binges as a more positive way of channeling my negative energy. Either way, I end up with a distraction from the thoughts that were plaguing me in the first place, and something tangible to show for myself in the end.

This time, I decided to try one of the newly interesting recipes I spotted during a recent leafing through Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share. Having recently developed a fondness for cream cheese in baked goods, I opted to test Martha's recipe for Cream Cheese-Walnut Cookies, which looked fairly simple to throw together, as they were basic icebox cookies. I also had almost all the ingredients on hand; all I had to do was pick up some cream cheese, and a trip to the grocery store was already on the agenda for my Sunday of domesticity. I was sold.

Sadly, though I find myself newly fond of cream cheese-based baked goods, these cookies were a bit of a disappointment. They did not showcase the tangy flavor of cream cheese whatsoever; instead, they came out like any standard shortbread recipe. If I didn't know there was cream cheese in the dough, I would have assumed that the cookies were just made with a high-quality, cultured, European-style butter. They were sufficiently tasty, just very plain, and lacked the special quality that I've come to expect of baked goods that will ultimately bear my name. Frankly, they reminded me of the kind of cookies you'd find on a holiday platter, baked for filler so it would look like a larger assortment, since they are quick and simple to make. I know it's snobbish of me to say, but I can do better.

One additional note: Something that's starting to drive me crazy about Martha's cookie recipes is that the yield predictions are frequently totally off base. I used to think the problem was me, in that I often eyeball the dough as I portion it out, instead of using a cookie scoop. However, when I've baked cookies that call for rolling out the dough to a certain thickness, using a certain size of cookie cutting, or forming dough into a specific size log, I usually use a ruler, and I still don't get as many cookies as Martha's staff says I will.

For instance, when I made her Maple Pecan Shortbreads in 2009, I got five dozen cookies when the recipe predicted two dozen. This time, the original recipe predicted I would get four dozen cookies, so I halved it, since that sounded like rather a lot for something I was just testing. Upon halving the recipe, I still ended up with 44 cookies, just short of four dozen. If I'd made it as instructed, I would have ended up with nearly eight dozen cookies! Just a word to the wise: completely disregard the yield instructions for this book.

Cream Cheese-Walnut Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. walnuts, 3/4 c. toasted and coarsely chopped, 1/2 c. finely chopped

1. Whisk together flour and salt in a large bowl.
2. Put butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in sugar and vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture, and mix until just combined (do not overmix!). Stir in toasted walnuts.
3. Transfer dough to a work surface. Divide in half; shape each half into a 8 1/2 inch-long log about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap each log in wax paper; freeze until firm, about 30 minutes or up to two weeks.
4. Preheat oven to 350. Unwrap one dough log, and roll in 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts, coating completely. Cut into 1/4 inch-thick rounds. Space 1 inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
5. Bake cookies, rotating halfway through, until golden brown around the edges, about 18-20 minutes. Let cool on wire racks. Repeat with remaining dough log and remaining 1/4 cup of walnuts. Cookies can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature up to 3 days.


All Dogs Go To Heaven...

Today, after about a month of illness, Caesar, our family dog, passed away from congestive heart failure. For much of his life, Caesar had the delicate throat that is common in Malteses and other small breed dogs, and would suffer coughing spells if he got too excited. In April, however, we noticed a cough that didn't seem to be going away, and when we took him to the vet for a pre-teeth cleaning consultation, the doctor discovered that Caesar's heart murmur, another long-term condition, had gotten worse.

He gave Caesar a chest x-ray that showed an enlarged heart, and suggested that we take Caesar to see a specialist in cardiac veterinary medicine for an echocardiogram. He also put Caesar on Lasix, a diuretic often used to treat heart failure-related edema. Although his regular doctor was reluctant to give us a diagnosis, some googling on our part led us to believe that Caesar was likely suffering from congestive heart failure.

He continued to get worse in the weeks before his visit with the specialist, coughing all the time, refusing food, and often struggling for breath. At last, the cardiac vet confirmed our suspicions of congestive heart failure, but she predicted that with proper medication, Caesar might live another 1-2 years. On his new medicine regime, Caesar was peeing every hour or so, but he seemed to be getting better. His breathing was less labored, he had more energy, and he was eating a bit more.

Still, this morning I got a call from my parents that Caesar had taken a turn for the worse, and that they were rushing him to the vet. The doctor took another x-ray of Caesar's chest that revealed that the small amount of fluid that had been in Caesar's lungs causing him to cough in April had almost completely filled his lungs. It was his belief that the faulty valve that had been causing Caesar's longstanding murmur had ruptured, causing him to bleed out internally. He wanted to talk to my parents about euthanasia to end Caesar's suffering, but before he could, Caesar passed away at the vet's office all on his own. My parents have opted to have him cremated, and Mom plans to scatter his ashes at the cemetery where my Paw-Paw is buried, since they were friends when both of them were alive.

Caesar might have been trying at times, and goodness knows I wasn't his favorite person, but his enormous personality exceeded his diminutive size, and enlivened and enriched the life of our family. Although we chose his name before we even brought him home (it was a blatant appeal to Dad's interest in Roman history to help sell him on the idea of getting a dog), it was a title that he quickly grew into. Without its little emperor, the house will seem all the more quiet in his absence. Eleven years is a long time to maintain a relationship with any living being, and it will take time for all of us to recover from the loss of his presence in our lives. He will be greatly missed.

Caesar at three months old, shortly after we got him, in 2000. He was just about the cutest thing we'd ever seen.


Kind Of A Drag...

Sometimes you have to give the people what they want. Imagine my surprise when my mom informed me that for her birthday this year, she wanted to go see Dixie's Tupperware Party, a piece of performance art/actual Tupperware sales party featuring Dixie Longate, a drag queen who makes semi-regular appearances on the WGN Morning News. I always thought I was the one in the family with a soft spot for men in drag, considering my deep, abiding love of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and my great appreciation for The Birdcage and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. I do love me some drag queens. Apparently though, Mom had caught Dixie's act on television, and it had piqued her interest. Surprised, but never one to turn down a chance to go to the theater, I duly purchased tickets for today, Mom's birthday.

The evening didn't go quite as smoothly as I had hoped, as Mom quickly developed some misery-inducing blisters from wearing uncomfortable shoes, which automatically ratcheted her enjoyment of the evening down several notches. I took her to a pre-theater dinner at Franks 'n Dawgs, after last month's blog post sparked her interest in the place, and while she enjoyed the food, she most certainly did not enjoy the walk there from the North/Clybourn El stop, even though it was only a couple blocks. Worse still, I managed to get us lost walking to the theater -- a result of a multi-street intersection featuring more than one diagonal street (when you're used to living on a grid system, diagonal streets can be confusing) -- that resulted in us walking an additional six blocks, or 3/4 of a mile out of our way. She was displeased, to say the least.

Thankfully, Mom did enjoy the show, which was full of bawdy, off-color humor and sexual innuendo, as any decent drag performance should be. Dixie does actually sell Tupperware at her "party;" order forms are left on each chair at the start of the show, and as a result of her act, Dixie is actually one of the most prodigious Tupperware ladies in America in real life. Dixie's back story is that she began selling Tupperware when she was released from prison and needed to find work to support her children and get them back from foster care.

Her unorthodox lifestyle choices lead her to imagine a variety of alternative uses for the Tupperware she hawks. For instance, in Dixie's imagination, a cupcake caddy becomes a jello shot carrying case, and a whipped cream dispenser becomes the key towards impressing a new sexual partner. She also instructs the audience on the fine art of "rimming," or sealing the lid on the rim of a collapsible Tupperware container, and then conducts a rimming contest complete with prizes. In fact, the show was full of audience participation, whether Dixie was gently poking fun at members of the audience, or pulling one particularly clueless man on stage to attempt to use a modern top-mounted can opener. From the looks of it, he'd never stepped a foot in the kitchen in his life and we all enjoyed a good laugh at his expense.

All jokes aside, however, there was a strong undercurrent of female (or "female") empowerment running through Dixie's performance. She reverently told the tale of Brownie Wise, a pioneer in social networking decades before the term gained its cultural and economic cachet. Ms. Wise, as it turns out, invented the Tupperware party and the idea of women selling products out of the home. She became the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week in 1954, and Dixie presents her story as a parable of female determination and success in an often hostile world. In addition to peddling the "best plastic crap on the planet," it would seem that Dixie is also selling the audience a female-centric vision of the American Dream itself.

Although her run in Chicago is ending soon, Dixie is taking her party on the road, and if you get a chance to see her, I highly recommend Dixie's Tupperware Party. Not only will you practically pee your pants laughing, you might just come away inspired as well. But if you take your mom, try not to ruin her evening before the show even starts...