Some Like It Hot...

Now that I'm over a month into my promised moratorium on Martha, I've been forcing myself to not only expand my repertoire beyond recipes from Martha Stewart but also to dessert items other than cookies. With that in mind, I decided to use up the leftover cream and milk from last week's banana cream pie and Boursin mac and cheese in order to try my hand at ice cream again. After all, given the unrelenting summer heat we've been experiencing this summer, I'm eager to sample just about every frozen dessert I can get my hands on.

Despite my recent mishap with David Lebovitz's apple sorbet recipe, I had long had a recipe from The Perfect Scoop for Mexican hot chocolate-inspired ice cream in my recipe queue, and I felt long overdue in finally giving it a try. As I've wrote back when I tried his recipe for cinnamon ice cream, cinnamon might just be my favorite flavor. I love it in all kinds of dishes, both sweet and savory, and hot chocolate is no exception. When I was in college, for instance, I very seldom imbibed alcohol, and didn't have my first alcoholic beverage until well after my 21st birthday. As a result, my greatest vice by far was the Aztec hot chocolate they sold at the coffee shop in the main campus library, which I would often pick up on the way to class with a scone or croissant. Without a doubt, those spicy, cinnamon-spiked hot chocolates are the only campus food I still crave from those days.

Hence, I was inspired when I got my copy of The Perfect Scoop several years ago and saw Lebovitz's recipe for Aztec "Hot" Chocolate Ice Cream, even though it's taken me an embarrassing number of years to eventually get around to making it. I was particularly excited to try this recipe because it creates a Philadelphia-style ice cream, meaning the base contains only milk and cream, no egg-based custard. I feel less intimidated by such custards than I did when I first got The Perfect Scoop, but making them is still a hassle, and calls for a ludicrous number of egg yolks, leaving me with a surplus of whites that I can never figure out what to do with, short of making myself a very health-conscious omelet. Most Philadelphia-style ice creams don't require heat of any kind (a godsend in hot weather), though this particular recipe does call for boiling the cream in order to melt the chocolate. Still, it was an easier recipe than most, and that definitely drew my attention.

I think I actually preferred the eggless ice cream; the flavors that resulted were cleaner and more crisp, without that subtle background note of egginess that I've noticed in the custard-based ice creams I've made in the past. The mouthfeel was a bit chewier almost, definitely more toothsome, but still creamy overall. Of course, given the flavors involved -- chocolate, cinnamon, and a touch of heat from chili peppers, there was really no doubt that I was going to love this ice cream. When you place a spoonful in your mouth, you get the flavor of rich, deep chocolate right away, followed by a wallop of cinnamon, and then a lingering spice that creeps up on you as you continue eating. I simply adored this ice cream, and given how simple it was to make, you better bet I'll be making it again soon.

Aztec "Hot" Chocolate Ice Cream
adapted from David Lebovitz

2 1/4 c. heavy cream
6 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3/4 c. sugar
3 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 c. whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or 2-3 teaspoons ancho or chipotle chili powder
2 tablespoons vodka

Whisk together the cream, cocoa powder, and sugar in a large saucepan. Heat the mixture, whisking frequently, until it comes to a full, roiling boil (it will start to foam up). Remove from heat and add the chocolate, then whisk until it is completely melted. Stir in the milk, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, chile powder, and vodka. Use an immersion blender to blend for 30 seconds, until very smooth.

Chill mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.


Bundles of Joy...

Let me just start off by saying that I am NOT pregnant.

No, the title of this post refers to a different kind of joy in life, one that is far more appropriate to my current situation and life goals. By this, of course, I mean the pleasure that can be derived from small bits of savory fillings gently swaddled in tender dough and cooked for my dining satisfaction, i.e. dumplings. I started out this month by trying to acquire some dumpling-making skills of my own and today I closed out the month by finally making it to the Pierogi Festival in Whiting, Indiana, after years of misadventures that thwarted my attendance.

The fantastically kitschy/retro Pierogi Fest logo.

Have I mentioned lately that I have the world's best boyfriend? I'm not sure how many guys would cheerfully sign up for a day of eating hot dumplings in the hot sun, especially when they're not fond of crowds, but Justin did, and I am so, so grateful to him for finally making my dream of pierogi nirvana come true.

Unfortunately, we happened to arrive in Whiting at the worst possible time -- too late to be able to find street parking nearby, but too early to catch the free shuttle from the remote parking lot. We ended up schlepping a very long way by foot, which might have helped us burn off a few pierogi calories, but it was really too hot and sunny to make up for it. Also, the extra time spent in the sun might have contributed to the wicked sunburn I developed across my shoulders and back, despite giving myself a thorough basting with SPF50 sunblock before leaving.

The Pierogi Festival was every bit as corny as I imagined it would be, from the babushkas tied on the birds in the fountain above, to the Mr. Pierogi Songfest that we made it just in time to catch. There, the festival's mascot, a man dressed in a life-size pierogi costume, sings and leads others in singing pop songs that have been rewritten with pierogi and Polish-food-centric lyrics, such as "My Pierogi" instead of "My Sharona." One of my goals for the day was to get my picture taken with Mr. Pierogi, but alas, we never managed to run into him walking through the crowds after his act. Still, I was glad to have taken in part of his awesomely terrible performance.

Mass pierogi preparation.

And, of course, many, many, many pierogis were consumed. At first, I tried to keep track of how many we'd eaten, but it was just too difficult. My best guess is that we eat somewhere between 20-30 dumplings each, the most exotic of which was a deep-fried, Cajun-spiced alligator version that wasn't particularly tasty. After that flop, we avoided the other novelty pierogis like the taco version offered by a Mexican-themed cart, and pizza-rogis (basically tiny calzones) from an Italian vendor. Having a narrower palate than Justin, I limited my tastings to potato, potato and cheddar, and meat pierogis, while he sampled a variety of different dumpling flavors such as cabbage, sauerkraut, mushroom, sweet cheese, spinach, and probably others that I can't remember.

Further proof of my best boyfriend ever hypothesis: he agreed to make this face when I asked him if I could take a picture of him with the pierogis on a stick.

My favorite pierogis of the day came from a vendor who decided to go the state-fair route and skewer their wares, creating pierogis on a stick. Something about food on a stick just screams "Summer!" to me, and the presence of the wooden rod through their center really added a certain je ne sais quois to the eating experience. Plus, the dumplings from them were particularly succulent and moist, so they were especially delicious on top of the novelty factor.

Hot, sweaty, and sunburned, but happy.

Did the Pierogi Festival live up to the expectations I'd built up in my mind after years of abortive attempts to attend? Actually, I think it exceeded them. The Festival was much larger than I would have expected, and there was a pleasant, laid-back vibe about the place. It would have been nice if it hadn't been quite so hot, but given that we're wrapping up the wettest July in Chicago history this weekend, I guess I should just be happy that we didn't get rained out.

I'd certainly go back, though I might try to get there either at the beginning of the day or later in the afternoon, once the hottest part of the day had passed. Compared to the Taste of Chicago, it was a much more affordable way to spend an afternoon stuffing one's face. I mean, come on, it's a day spent surrounded by delicious pan-fried dumplings and related kitsch -- how bad could that be?


One Love...

Today, I was lurking on Pinterest, skimming through all the various photos, projects, and phrases that had inspired others, when I ran across one that hit home with me. The quote was attributed to Bob Marley, though when I tried to do some sleuthing, I came across multiple variations on the same quote, so it's hard to say if he even actually said those words, or how he really said them if he did. In the end though, it doesn't really matter who said them, because I think there's a lot of wisdom behind the sentiment:
He’s not perfect. You aren’t either, and the two of you will never be perfect. But if he can make you laugh at least once, causes you to think twice, and if he admits to being human and making mistakes, hold onto him and give him the most you can. He isn’t going to quote poetry, he’s not thinking about you every moment, but he will give you a part of him that he knows you could break -- his heart. Don’t hurt him, don’t change him, and don’t expect for more than he can give. Don’t analyze. Smile when he makes you happy, yell when he makes you mad, and miss him when he’s not there. Love hard when there is love to be had. Because perfect guys don’t exist, but there’s always one guy that is perfect for you.
While I was reading through the various other quotes dubiously attributed to Marley, I also came across another passage on the topic of love that I liked even better than the original that launched my search. Bear with me, as it's kind of a text block, but it's worth reading through the whole thing:
Only once in your life, I truly believe, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things that you’ve never shared with another soul and they absorb everything you say and actually want to hear more. You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved and the many disappointments life has thrown at you. When something wonderful happens, you can’t wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry with you when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself. Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you special and even beautiful. There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You can be yourself and not worry about what they will think of you because they love you for who you are. The things that seem insignificant to most people such as a note, song or walk become invaluable treasures kept safe in your heart to cherish forever. Memories of your childhood come back and are so clear and vivid it’s like being young again. Colors seem brighter and more brilliant. Laughter seems part of daily life where before it was infrequent or didn’t exist at all. A phone call or two during the day helps to get you through a long day’s work and always brings a smile to your face. In their presence, there’s no need for continuous conversation, but you find you’re quite content in just having them nearby. Things that never interested you before become fascinating because you know they are important to this person who is so special to you. You think of this person on every occasion and in everything you do. Simple things bring them to mind like a pale blue sky, gentle wind or even a storm cloud on the horizon. You open your heart knowing that there’s a chance it may be broken one day and in opening your heart, you experience a love and joy that you never dreamed possible. You find that being vulnerable is the only way to allow your heart to feel true pleasure that’s so real it scares you. You find strength in knowing you have a true friend and possibly a soul mate who will remain loyal to the end. Life seems completely different, exciting and worthwhile. Your only hope and security is in knowing that they are a part of your life.
Who knew Bob Marley was so (allegedly) wise?

Whether he wrote these words or not, I think they capture my feelings about love perhaps better than I ever could. Not a day goes by that I don't think about how lucky I am to have found Justin, and how happy I am to have him in my life. Things might not always be easy, but they will always be worth it. After all, to quote another famous musician, "All you need is love."


Stambul Not Constantinople...

Although we've established that my tastes in entertainment don't quite trend towards the high-brow, I found myself in attendance at a performance of the Chicago Folks Operetta, a theater company dedicated to reviving forgotten Viennese and American light operas, or operettas, from the late 19th to early 20th century. It wouldn't have exactly been my first pick, but Justin's family is tremendously fond of the opera and of all things Austrian (owing to their family heritage), and they had invited me to come with them. I was slightly trepidatious about the experience, but determined to be open to it at the same time.

The show in question was The Rose from Stambul, a classic tale of mistaken identity, set in Istanbul. There, Kondja, the daughter of a high-ranking official, has been given a Western education and now finds the rules and strict customs of Islamic society to be stifling. Her father arranges a traditional Turkish wedding for her, to a groom she has never met. Meanwhile, Kondja has fallen in love with a European author who writes the illicit romance novels of which she is so fond, and has struck up a correspondence with him. As it turns out, the European novelist doesn't actually exists, he is merely a nom de plume created by Kondja's Turkish betrothed so that the fictional works he pens as a hobby will not be censored. Of course, hilarity ensues as Kondja's husband competes with himself for her affections, and takes three acts to convince him that he and the author are one and the same.

Thankfully, I found The Rose From Stambul to be less slumber-inducing than the regular opera, perhaps because the operetta is considered to be the forebear of modern musical theater, and we all know how I love musicals. Although the vocalists were classically-trained and sang in a style similar to that of the opera, there was spoken dialogue, everything was translated into English, and the pace moved along at a more lively rate. I wouldn't call it my favorite theatrical experience of the year, but it was also far from the worst (that dubious distinction goes to Laika: Dog in Space followed by White Noise).

The actors and actresses in the production were all impressively talented for a show staged at a small venue, though they weren't without their problems. The performer cast as Kondja, for instance, seemed slightly miscast to me, as she was really rather homely in appearance, whereas every character in the show spent their time complimenting and singing of her famously renowned beauty. The man who played her husband, Achmed, had a beautiful voice as well, but it was clear that English was not his first language and he was exceedingly difficult to understand, both in his spoken dialogue and his singing. His talent might have been better suited to a performance that wasn't in English, where his accent would have escaped unnoticed. Still, they were an undeniably skilled group of performers.

In the end, I'm not sure to whom I would recommend The Rose From Stambul; musical theater lovers might find it a bit old-fashioned for their tastes, while opera lovers might find it a bit frivolous. Perhaps opera aficionados who don't take themselves too seriously would enjoy it? If you fall into that category, by all means, give it a shot.


7 Dresses - The Inadvertent Remix...

As I mentioned last week, it was obscenely hot last week in Chicago. So hot, in fact, that I basically couldn't bear the thought of wearing any more clothing than absolutely necessary, and I came to realize by the end of the week that I'd accidentally repeated my "Seven Dresses" experiment from last May. At that time, I had tons of dresses that I never wore, so I launched a mission to explore the depths of my closet and let my dresses see the light of day.

I ultimately didn't learn much from my experiment other than that I perhaps shouldn't over-analyze things so much, but it did break down some of my mental barriers to wearing dresses when I'd spent the vast majority of my life in pants. Ever since that week over a year ago, I've tried to wear a dress at least once a week, and given my desire to look nice for my boyfriend and when I go out to see my friends, I've been sticking to my goal and then some.

However, since I also hate shaving my legs, pants still play an important role in my wardrobe. This week though, I just couldn't stand the thought of fabric touching my legs in the oppressive heat, so dresses became the order of the day, and I still haven't broken down and put on pants yet this week either. Since you guys seemed to enjoy that voyeuristic glimpse into my closet last year, I thought I'd recreate last week's line-up of dresses, none of which were repeats from the last "Seven Dresses," due to my weight loss earlier this year. Some of the pieces were new, and some of the pieces were holdovers from a skinnier time in my life that I optimistically hung on to over the years. Without further ado, here they are:

Day One: I bought this dress back in March, when spring and summer clothes were just starting to show up in stores. It was still way too cold in Chicago to wear it, but that didn't stop me. Initially, I paired it with tights and some purple flats and just tried to think warm thoughts while I wore it out to such events as seeing Working with Justin, and Mother's Day brunch. I like that it has just enough pattern, but not too much, and above all else, that it has sleeves. As I mentioned on Day Four of last year's series, I don't know why dresses with sleeves are so hard to find, but given the heat, it was nice to not have to throw a cardigan over this dress. This dress has definitely gotten a lot of wear the past few months, and it's one of my favorite things in my closet right now.

Day Two: This dress came to my closet courtesy of my best friend, Lisa, who very generously gave me a Macy's gift card for my birthday. I could have used it for something practical, and I actually intended to use it on shoes but I couldn't find any that thrilled me in the entirety of the State Street store's enormous shoe department. A new dress was the next natural step, and this one caught my eye. It's perhaps the most flattering of all the pieces I wore this week, and it even looks acceptable without the matching cardigan, despite the fact that I generally don't like showing off my arms in public. I think the vertical stripes and embroidery serve to elongate my body or something. The studded details on these sandals from last year go perfect with the beading on the dress (which is hard to see in this picture, but is very much there). I think this dress has somewhat of an Eastern European folk costume aura about it, and I've noticed various Eastern European men checking me out when I've had it on. Ladies seem to like it too, and I've directed several to the dress department at Macy's so they can get one of their own.

Day Three: I found this dress when I was out hunting for something to wear for my birthday party this year, and it stood out to me both because it was purple (which is my favorite color for clothing) and because it had ruffles, which might just be my favorite clothing detail. I feel like it strikes just the right balance between casual and dressy, and as a result, I've worn the crap out of it ever since I bought it in late March. It's a perfect transitional piece for wearing to the office and then out for after-work activities with either Justin, friends, or both. In fact, I've worn this dress so many times that I actually noticed a hole in it when I wore it that day, and I'm a little bit devastated about it, to be honest.

Day Four: Ordinarily, I would consider this dress too fancy to wear to work, but after sweating all day in the first three dresses, they all needed to be washed and I was running out of work appropriate dresses. Considering this was the hottest day of the week, there was no way I was going to wear pants, so I sucked it up and wore this sundress that I originally purchased to wear to Easter brunch. I'd originally brought a different dress home to wear that weekend, but it was a wardrobe holdover from college and while it once again fit, Mom and I agreed when I tried it on the day before that it didn't fit well, so we ran out at the last minute and found this dress. I liked the graphic nature of the pattern, and the bold contrast between the flowers at the bottom and the black and white body of the dress. You might also notice that I skipped wearing a shrug that day, despite my policy of never going out with bare arms. It was just too damned hot, and after a certain point, I just didn't care anymore.

Day Five: I cheated a bit on Friday, since I was officially out of work-appropriate dresses, but I included a skirt on Day Six of last year's "Seven Dresses" so I figured I was still in the clear. I had to perform a bit of DIY trickery to make this outfit work, because I actually don't have any summery skirt options that still fit me. This skirt was a full two sizes too big and a bit too long (I didn't discover until I was looking at the pictures from last year's "Seven Dresses" that anything below the knee actually makes me look shorter and I've subsequently adjusted my shopping strategy), so I hiked it up Steve Urkel-style, folded over the waistband so it was the correct size, and secured it with a bunch of safety pins. Since my top wasn't going to be tucked in and the skirt was relatively full, nobody could notice my ad hoc tailoring job. And do I really even need to explain what drew me to this skirt in the first place? One word: circles.

Day Six: I dusted off this look after pulling it from the closet and trying it on a half dozen times or so already this summer but never working up the nerve to actually wear it. I got this little number back in the summer of 2007, and wore it to a variety of events in conjunction with my graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, including both my graduation party and the family party my aunt Faye held in my honor. It technically fits again, though it's too long for my current taste, but it is by far the most form-fitting, body conscious outfit in my entire wardrobe. There's nowhere to hide in this dress. I figured I was safe wearing it today because the only people who'd see me would be Justin (who I'm fairly sure is fond of my figure) and my friends Natasha and Travis, who we'd invited over for dinner. Because this strapless dress has always had a tendency to not stay in place at the top, I paired with with a t-shirt underneath that also rarely makes it out of my closet. I'd ordered it from the Gap's website, where it looked like a lovely shade of pink, but when it arrived, it turned out to be roughly flesh-colored. I couldn't exactly wear it in public, but I thought it might make a nice layering piece, and I think this outfit proved me right.

Day Seven: Since I'd committed to going to Ravinia with Justin and would be spending a substantial amount of time outside, I needed another dress to stay cool. With the pickings getting slim in my closet, I decided to go with this dress, which I bought on end-of-summer sale last year. Due to the unfortunate timing of its purchase and my subsequent weight loss, I figured I'd never get a chance to actually wear this dress, as it is now too big. It's probably my least-flattering look of the week, but I tried it on with a variety of bras until I found one that allowed me to situate the embroidered bust properly. The sweater served to obscure the straps. I still got compliments on this look (and not just from Justin either), so it must not have been too bad, but it was definitely my least favorite dress of the seven I wore this week.

Ultimately, this installation of "Seven Dresses" was less of an experiment and more a matter of practicality. I did notice, however, that when it's brutally hot outside, dresses seem more a practical choice than a stylistic one, and virtually nobody comments on you being "dressed up." I do feel like I got better mileage from my wardrobe than usual, but at the same time, I would just as soon the temperature cool down so I can stop waking up at 6:30 every day to shave my legs to make them presentable in a dress. Seriously, Mother Nature, enough already!

And now, my question to you: Which look is your favorite?


It's Ladies' Night...

Deep down, I think I'm a bit of a homebody. I could easily and happily stay home most of the time, but that seems like a waste given all the entertainment opportunities available in the city on a daily basis. Blogging has been my way of making myself accountable for getting out and leading a more well-rounded life, and even though all this running around occasionally exhausts my inner recluse, I know it's good for me. In particular, I've been focusing lately on hanging out more with my friends, and diversifying my social calendar, which I think has been going quite successfully.

One of the best parts of my summer has been the biweekly girls' night dinners I've been setting up with Sarah and Stephanie, old friends of mine from high school. We've tried a couple different restaurants, but we keep returning to La Madia, where I first went during Restaurant Week earlier this year, and which has quickly become one of my favorite, reasonably-priced spots in the downtown area. It only took one visit to convert Sarah and Steph, and now they're spreading the word to their friends as well. Pretty soon, when we can't get a table there, we'll regret having shared our secret.

My friendships are important to me, and it's always been sad to me how much less time I've been able to spend with my friends on a consistent basis ever since I graduated college and we no longer lived within a mile of each other and operated on more or less the same schedule. I'd gotten used to seeing my friends only occasionally and sporadically, but making a regular date with some of them has been a reminder of times gone by. For lack of a better word, hanging out with these girls every other week has been healing. I can't really express how good it's been for me to get together, share in each others' lives, and really get to follow how things in their lives are unfolding. The support, validation, and deep belly laughs that we share uplifts me and leaves me in a fantastic mood every time we see each other.

Tonight's girls' night will be our last for a while, as Stephanie is headed down to St. Louis to start her Ph.D. in art history at my alma mater, Wash U. Her presence will be missed, but we plan to get together again whenever she's in town. I'm lucky to count these girls among my friends, and I already can't wait for our next girls' night out!


A Little Night Music...

I am a very competitive person by nature, so this is very hard for me to admit, and if you ask me later I might deny it, but my boyfriend just might be smarter than me. At the very least, he is open to a greater realm of experiences than I am. Not only does he enjoy the opera and possess a greater appreciation for the avant-garde, he also likes classical music. In fact, if the atmosphere I've observed at his parents' house (where classical music is a constant background accompaniment to all forms of activity) is any indicator, he was probably reared on the stuff. I, however, do not share his fondness.

I know, because I've been taught, that classical music has complex structures, reoccurring themes and motifs that you can follow, and all manner of other intricacies to be admired, but I just don't get it. My favorite part of listening to music is the craft of songwriting, and hearing how different artists combine words to not only sound harmonious together, but to evoke very tangible emotional responses. Therefore, to be blunt, I find classical music boring. Without words to focus on, my mind starts to wander, I zone out, and eventually I start to drift off to sleep. I can't seem to help it.

Hence, when Justin's parents went out of town for the weekend and left him with a pair of tickets to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra they weren't going to be able to use, I hesitated when he invited me along. Wanting to spend every possible moment with him, however, I decided to overlook my disinterest in the event and go. After all, Justin is always such a good sport about doing things I want to do that I figured the least I could do was return the favor.

Besides, the concert was at Ravinia, the outdoor concert venue mere blocks from my parents' house, that draws a range of (fairly sedate) musical acts all summer long. In addition to being the summer home of the CSO, Ravinia plays host to adult contemporary performers like Rufus Wainwright and Jennifer Hudson, retro acts like The Moody Blues, Deep Purple, and Hall and Oates, midday children's concerts, and a variety of vocalists performing show tune revues. It's not exactly the hippest lineup around, but it draws a fairly robust suburban audience, and it is particularly popular for its so-called "lawn seating" where you can bring a picnic, a set of lawn chairs, and sit under the stars with your friends and have a little party while you enjoy the music (that is when you aren't being eaten alive by mosquitoes.)

Although you can often hear bits of the Ravinia concerts from my parents' backyard, I hadn't set foot on the grounds since I graduated from high school in 2003 (the amphitheater is the preferred venue for many North Shore high school and middle school graduations), so I thought it was perhaps time to give it another shot. Additionally, I couldn't remember going to an actual concert there since I was very young, when my mom would take me there once a summer to see Peter, Paul, and Mary, the 60s folk group whose music I adored as a child. It seemed like high time.

Don't worry, I've been dutifully informed that it is terribly uncouth to take photos at the symphony. My bad.

The program for the evening featured two pieces, Brahm's Violin Concerto in D major and Beethoven's 3rd Symphony in E-flat major, also known as the "Eroica" Symphony. To me, the first piece seemed interminably long, though I was impressed by the violin solos performed by concertmaster Robert Chen, who performed the entire piece from memory with no sheet music. Logically, no musician gets to that position without having some serious talent, but that guy had skills, no joke.

I enjoyed a bit of a nap during the Brahms, but managed to stay awake for almost all of the Beethoven piece, though I did divert myself somewhat by reading through the Ravinia program book. Justin is apparently quite fond of Beethoven, and, bless his heart, he thought I would enjoy him more than Brahms, but no such luck. Rather than focus on the music, I spent much of the performance watching the musicians on the projection screens, trying not to burst out in laughter over a particularly animated flautist whose eyebrows rapidly raised and lowered in time with the music. I think Justin was worried my head might explode from having to hold it in.

At least Justin seemed to enjoy the concert, which is all that really matters in the end. For me though, the highlight of the evening was this:

The music might have been too high-brow for me, but I was happy just to be spending time with the man I love. Justin's presence makes a wide variety of events I would ordinarily find miserable infinitely more tolerable, and it almost doesn't matter what we're doing, as long as we're doing it together. I guess love will do that to a person...



It seems that I've opened a Pandora's box. It used to be that my baking repertoire was limited to cookies and the occasional cake or batch of muffins, and life was relatively simple. Ever since I made that salted caramel apple pie for the 4th of July, though, not only have my eyes been opened to new possibilities, but I've started receiving requests for more pies, and even cobblers. While I wasn't quite ready to try my hand at another fruit pie so soon, my attention was grabbed by a cream pie I was actually linked to when I was researching recipes on the Cooking Channel website for my last pie project.

The recipe that caught my eye was for another pie featuring salted caramel (one of my favorite dessert components), this time paired with bananas and vanilla pastry cream. I immediately earmarked it on my new cooking to-do list, which I've relocated from an email draft in my Gmail inbox to a board on Pinterest, a site where users can pin inspirational photographs to digital bulletin boards. I find that it's a more effective tool for managing my recipe queue, because it's easy to forget things when the list comes in the form of a long series of links. It's easier to be inspired when you can actually see pictures of the dishes you might potentially make. I'm on Pinterest here, and if you're interested in joining, let me know and I can send you an invite. Follow me, and I'll follow you back.

The salted caramel banana cream pie did not linger long on my inspiration board though, as the perfect opportunity to make it quickly presented itself: tonight Justin and I hosted our friends Natasha and Travis for a low-key dinner party. Pie is Natasha's favorite dessert, and in a stroke of serendipity, when I served my pie as a surprise at the end of the meal, I discovered that both she and Travis apparently love banana desserts. (Also on the menu was the Boursin mac and cheese I made back in March, because I remembered that Natasha had commented on my blog that it looked delicious, my go-to salad with homemade dressing, and fried chicken from KFC, because, hey, I'm not Superwoman.)

Thankfully, this pie seemed to come together more quickly than my last effort, even though the humidity thwarted my first attempt at the requisite salted caramel sauce. The moisture in the air caused the sugar to clump together as it was melting, and I managed to burn it before I could coax the lumps into melting smoothly. At least sugar is cheap, and I had another suitable pan available to mount a more successful second try.

As with my last pie, I eschewed the recipe's crust instructions in favor of those from Alton Brown, since my last pie crust was widely praised and I accurately predicted that he wouldn't lead me astray a second time. I did find that the crust was slightly tougher when made with water, so in the future I might try a 50/50 vodka to water mix when making the pie, just to see if it cuts down on some of the gluten formation. Problematically, I only had a few dry beans on hand to weigh down my crust when I was blind-baking it, so it did bubble up and warp somewhat, but I was able to tamp it down with a glass after baking, which resolved some, but not all of the problem. At least it wasn't noticeable once the pie was filled.

The pastry cream was also simple enough, and I think it was much tastier than the Jello vanilla or banana pudding that most people use to fill their banana cream pies, especially because I added some vanilla bean paste that I had in the pantry instead of the vanilla extract called for in the original recipe. In fact, my general dislike of banana cream pies (I made this recipe because I wanted to see if I could make myself enjoy one by adding salted caramel to the mix) probably stems from my dislike of all boxed puddings that aren't chocolate. Still, even though this pie didn't take up quite as many hours of my life as the salted caramel apple pie, it was still labor-intensive, and I can understand why some people would go the time-saving route.

My only problem with Kelsey's recipe was that it didn't call for nearly enough bananas. She suggested that you buy three, but I went with four just because the bananas at my local store seem to run small and I've never had enough for any recipe I've ever made that called for them. Still, I ran out of bananas when I was assembling the layers of the pie, and could have easily used another, if not two.

When all was said and done, the pie turned out splendidly. It was by far the best banana cream pie I've ever had (and I'm convinced now that salted caramel has magical powers that make everything taste better), and my guests seemed suitably impressed and touched that I'd gone through the effort to make it for them. Being the apple pie fan that I am, I still liked my first pie the best, but other people who had the privilege of sampling both came down in favor of this salted caramel banana cream pie. To each his own, I say.

Banana Caramel Cream Pie
adapted from Kelsey's Essentials

Pie Crust (adapted from Alton Brown)
6 tablespoons very cold butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
3 tablespoons very cold lard, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
6 oz. all-purpose flour, chilled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 c. ice water

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt. Add the butter and pulse 5-6 times until it appears mealy. Add the lard and pulse another 3-4 times. Remove the lid and sprinkle with a few tablespoons of water. Replace lid and pulse another 5 times. Add more water and pulse a few more times until mixture holds together when squeezed. Turn out onto a piece of plastic wrap and knead a couple times until dough holds its shape. Form into a disc, wrap tightly, and chill at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425.

On a generously floured work surface, roll out the dough to a 10-11 inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pie plate, and decoratively crimp the edges. Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Refrigerate 15 minutes.

Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the dough, and fill with dried beans. Bake 10 minutes. Remove the parchment and beans and bake 10-15 minutes more, until golden in color. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before filling.

Pie Filling
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon flour
2 1/2 c. whole milk
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1 recipe salted caramel sauce
5-6 bananas, sliced

In a medium sauce pan, combine the sugar, salt, corn starch, and flour. Over medium-low heat, gradually add the milk, then raise the temperature to medium high. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks. When the pastry cream comes to a boil, quickly whisk a 1/2 cup of the mixture into the egg yolks to temper them. Then add the eggs back to the sauce pan, whisking vigorously to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Continue whisking until the mixture coats the back of a spoon and is smooth and thick. Strain into a bowl, and whisk in the tablespoon of butter and vanilla. Stir in 1 cup of sliced bananas. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on the surface to prevent a skin from forming, and allow to cool before using.

When ready to assemble, place a layer of sliced bananas on the bottom of the pie crust. Drizzle 1/4 cup of salted caramel sauce over the bananas. Pour 1 cup of vanilla pastry cream over the bananas and caramel, smoothing to cover. Repeat layering with remaining bananas, caramel and pastry cream, making sure the last layer is one of pastry cream. Place in the refrigerator and chill until filling is set, at least two hours.

Top with lightly sweetened whipped cream.


Whatever Floats Your Boat...

It is inexpressibly, miserably, unbearable hot in Chicago this week. There's been an "excessive heat advisory" in effect all week long, and yesterday the temperature hit 100 for the first time in six years. It's officially too damn hot. Yesterday's food truck excursion aside, I've been doing my best to quickly transition from air-conditioned space to air-conditioned space, and I've lost all motivation to do much of anything with my time. Summer is my least favorite season, and this is why.

I did manage to force myself to try out some new ice pops tonight, not only because they were based on root beer floats, which are one of my all-time favorite things ever, but also because they involved basically no cooking. No fruit to peel, nothing to puree in the blender, and nothing to cook on the stove. Literally, all I had to do was pour some root beer into popsicle molds, spoon a dollop of ice cream into each, top with some more soda, and insert the sticks. The original recipe called for adding a maraschino cherry to the bottom of each mold, but I absolutely detest the garishly-colored fruit, so I left those out. Basically, they couldn't have been any easier to make.

After leaving them to firm up in the freezer, I was a bit surprised to find that they had basically exploded all over its interior. Blobs of sticky frozen root beer had poured over the sides of the molds and dripped through the upper rack onto the bags and boxes of food below, and cleaning it up was a mess. I think I know where I went wrong though: I should have taken the carbonation out of the soda before pouring it into the molds. This suspicion was confirmed when I ate my first pop and found that it had a weird, aerated consistency from the gas trapped in the soda. All the tiny holes diluted the rootbeer flavor somewhat, and the texture was not entirely pleasant against my tongue.

Still, flawed as they were, I think these popsicles have the potential to be great (I really liked the combination of the creamy vanilla ice cream with the root beer flavor) and I would definitely consider making them again. Making soda go flat is simple enough; all you have to do is give it a stir with a wooden spoon. Not unlike the famously explosive Mentos and Coke pairing, the porous wood causes the soda to rapidly release its carbon dioxide bubbles, but without quite the same geyser-like effect. It's a quick fix that doesn't add much additional time or effort to an already easy recipe.

Making these was so simple, I'm not even going to type out an actual recipe. Just follow my description above if you're interested. You'll need one 16.9 oz bottle of your favorite non-diet root beer and a pint of whatever vanilla ice cream is on sale.


I'm In With The In Crowd...

I've never been one of the cool kids, ever since I started school at the ripe old age of five. I've always marched to my own drum, been a little bit nerdy, and generally eschewed things that were popular solely because too many other people liked them. Take Harry Potter or Twilight for example; my logic is that if they appeal to so many people on a broad level, then I probably won't like them. However, there has been one insanely popular trend taking the city by storm lately, and I've been by turns jealous and bitter that I haven't been able to participate -- food trucks.

Mobile restaurants serving affordable, upscale street food have been sweeping the country lately, so much so that the Food Network even had a reality show last season dedicated to the phenomenon, The Great Food Truck Race. The trend has been slow to flourish in Chicago the way that it's taken off in cities like Portland and L.A., largely due to the stringent guidelines imposed on them by the city government. Chicago food truck operators are not allowed to cook on their trucks, and therefore must prepare all their food in advance, load it onto their trucks, and not unwrap or alter it in any way before they serve it to customers. Furthermore, they are not allowed to park within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Still, despite these restrictions, a dedicated cadre of chefs is using Twitter and other social media platforms to gain a cult following around the city.

Given my interest in the local food scene, I've been dying to give one of these trucks a try, but I've been thwarted so far by virtue not working in the Loop, where most of the trucks can be found catering to the office crowds at lunchtime. They can also be found at Chicago's ubiquitous summer street festivals, which I am loathe to attend, and at sporadic meet-ups that either seem to fall on days when it is a) miserably hot, b) raining buckets, or c) I have other plans. Just when I was starting to think that the mobile dining experience was not in the cards for me, however, the stars aligned and the trucks came to me instead of me having to hunt them down.

This afternoon, I got copied on an email from our marketing department that a group of the city's best known food trucks were staging a flash mob in front of the museum! Even though I wasn't hungry, I grabbed my purse and booked it across the street to seize on this unexpected opportunity. Meatyballs (a truck featuring gourmet meatball sandwiches), Haute Sausage, Taquero Fusion, Sweet Miss Givings Bakery (whose to-die-for scones I've sampled at the French Market in the past), and a couple cupcake vendors in whom I wasn't interested were all there, along with perhaps the best-known truck in the city, the Gaztro-Wagon.

Since it was the end of the day, I decided to turn the food truck flash mob into my dinner. I picked up a lamb gyro "naanwich" from the Gaztro-Wagon and a cajeta brownie from Taquero Fusion and took them back to the air-conditioned comfort of my office for a late-afternoon nosh. The naanwich (i.e. a sandwich nestled inside a piece of naan, an Indian flatbread not unlike a pita) was okay, but not exceptional. I felt like the description of it as a gyro was a bit misleading; it was more a pile of tender, braised lamb meat without even the expected Greek-inspired seasonings, topped with onions and tomatoes. I was expecting tzatziki sauce, but there was none to be found. Instead, the sandwich was dripping with its own grease.

I think most of the sandwich's flaws (aside from my unmet expectations about its resemblance to a gyro) can be traced back to the fact that Chicago's food trucks must prepare all their food in advance and keep it hot for customers. If they were allowed to cook it fresh on the spot and add sauces and condiments on demand, I think the quality would be much better.

My cajeta (dulce de leche caramel made from goats' milk) brownie was also a bit of a let down. It looked delicious when I took it out of the package, but it was dense and had a bit of a mass-produced flavor to it that I wasn't expecting from a mom-and-pop outfit. Basically, the confection was a Latin-influenced turtle brownie, and I actually think the ones I made from a Ghirardelli mix last week were tastier, not to mention more cost effective.

I don't know if it's all the hype that's been surrounding the burgeoning Chicago street food scene that created unrealistic expectations in me for the actual experience, or if the food really could be a lot better if chefs were allowed to prepare it to order inside the truck. The current set-up had the advantage of being quick; at the very least I was able to get my food super-fast and dash back inside to escape the 100 degree temperature. I would gladly trade convenience for flavor though.

Still, I'm very excited that I finally got to experience the food truck scene myself, and try some of the food for myself. Now that I know that I'm not missing out on much, I won't grouse quite so much about being trapped outside the Loop at lunchtime. I'll be able to sit back and watch the food truck trend unfold in Chicago with a bit of knowledge under my belt, but I think I'll wait and see if the city reduces the restrictions on how the chefs may prepare their food before I make another concentrated effort to track one of the trucks down. I'd certainly be open to sampling food from the other outfits cruising the city should I find myself in another serendipitous situation where the trucks come to me, but I don't think I'd go out of my way to locate them as long as the existing laws are in place...


One Bad Apple Don't Spoil The Whole Bunch...

Nobody is perfect. Despite my generally high success rate for trying new recipes, I really ought to consider myself fortunate, because this weekend I finally made one that was a dud. At Mom's request, I was trying to recreate a green apple sorbet that she had sampled at a lavish, multi-course dinner party a couple months ago, which she described as tasting like "cold liquid apples." Knowing my proclivity for creating frozen desserts during the summer months, she asked me to try my hand at making an apple sorbet of my own. However, since I didn't try it myself, I didn't exactly have a lot to go on in terms of inspiration, so I turned to the ordinarily fool-proof recipes of David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, where I found a recipe for Green Apple and Sparkling Cider sorbet that sounded promising.

Sadly, for the first time, one of Lebovitz's recipes let me down. After trekking to the liquor store to track down calvados, the French apple brandy native to the region of Normandy, finding dry non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider at the grocery store, and chopping, cooking, and cooking a pile of green apples in a mixture of cider and some sugar, I had high hopes for my creation. However, after pureeing the fruit and its accompanying liquid (all of which had turned a rather unappealing shade of brown after steeping the gently-cooked apples in the liquid for almost an hour without any lemon juice, as per the instructions), when I added the calvados and took a taste, the unfrozen mix tasted suspiciously like Mott's applesauce. I tried to reserve judgment, as many sorbets don't taste the same before churning as they do after being frozen, but I ended up being proven right. All of my effort resulted in a frozen dessert that tasted like frozen grocery store applesauce.

The texture was odd also: despite the presence of alcohol, which usually lowers the freezing point of sorbets to make them softer and more scoopable, the apple sorbet turned out almost crumbly, like a granita. Still, I shared the sorbet with Mom, since she had been the one to request it in the first place, but she echoed my assessment of it as not being very good, and she was disappointed that it didn't live up to her memory of the original apple sorbet that so inspired her palate.

I'm not going to type up the recipe, because I don't think it's worth making, but I did want to share this experience here to add a touch of reality to the portrait of my life that I'm creating here. I have my bad days in the kitchen just like everyone else. At least I tried to do something nice for my mom, but now I'll be moving on to other (hopefully better) things in my recipe experimentation queue. C'est la vie.


When Life Gives You Lemons...

The produce section at the grocery store is an embarrassment of riches lately. Every time I go in there, there are so many beautiful and reasonably-priced summer fruits, only available for such a fleeting period of time, that it's literally all I can do to stop myself from buying them all. Peaches, raspberries, and blackberries -- I've been buying them like a mad woman, taking them home, washing them, then freezing them for future use in sorbets. It's cheaper and tastier than buying pre-frozen fruit at the grocery store, but now my freezer looks a little something like this:

This is why, when I compulsively bought even more peaches at Whole Foods this week (yes, they cost more twice as much as the ones I've been buying at Jewel, but they were so much more gorgeous and fragrant, plus they turned out to be free-stone peaches instead of cling-stone, so the time I saved cutting them up almost justified the extra $1.50 per pound) I realized I really didn't have the space to add even more frozen fruit to my stash. Dad, who was over for the evening, cajoled me to make him a peach pie, but I was in no mood after spending nearly eight hours on my 4th of July apple creation. With my fruit teetering on the precipice of over-ripeness, I knew I had to take action quickly, so I turned to the internet once more, for a recipe I had recently spotted for roasted peach lemonade.

As it turned out, I had also massively overbought on lemons for this week's lemon ginger bars, so creating a beverage from both fruit surpluses would kill two birds with one stone, and prevent the kitchen waste that I've been trying so hard to eliminate from my life. Although making the lemonade portion from scratch was a little time consuming, this recipe wasn't difficult and it felt like it came together relatively quickly despite the time spent on juicing a half dozen lemons by hand. I managed to get everything finished in the time it took the peaches to roast in the oven, and from there it was just a quick spin in the blender before I had a beautiful pitcher of peach lemonade just waiting to go.

The peach lemonade was the perfect summer beverage -- sweet and velvety on the tongue from the peaches, but gently tart and refreshing from the lemons. Even though I'm enjoying it from the comfort of my air-conditioned apartment, I could envision sitting out on well-shaded porch with a tall, frosty glass of this lemonade. It would also be perfect for summer entertaining, especially for gatherings with children, since it is non-alcoholic. If you find yourself with your own surplus of peaches this month, I highly suggest giving this roasted peach lemonade a try.

Roasted Peach Lemonade
adapted from The Naptime Chef

4 ripe peaches, halved and pitted
1 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
6 lemons
4 c. water, divided

Preheat the oven to 400.
1. Place the peaches skin side down on a baking sheet and sprinkle the tops with the 2 tablespoons of sugar. Roast the peaches about 20-25 minutes until the tops of the peaches are juicy and the skins slip off easily.
2. Meanwhile, make a simple syrup by combining the remaining cup of sugar and a cup of water in a small saucepan and cooking over medium heat until dissolved. Remove from heat.
3. Juice the lemons and strain out the seeds. Combine with the simple syrup and remaining 3 cups of water in a blender.
4. When peaches are done roasting, remove their skins and place them in the blender with the lemonade. Puree the peaches completely, until liquid is smooth and frothy.
5. Pour the mixture into a pitcher and chill until ready to serve. Stir thoroughly with a wooden spoon before serving.


The Lullabye of Broadway...

Back in the spring, when the temperatures were still sub-arctic and snow was on the ground, I was busy planning my summer, checking festival dates, looking for free concerts, and writing it all down in my day-planner months in advance. What can I say? I'm organized.

One of those events that I penciled into my calendar months ago was a free concert in Millennium Park featuring Broadway music. At the time, I had no idea what would be on the program for the evening, or who I would get to go with me, but I knew it was show tunes, and that was enough for me. Just as I was starting to despair about finding friends interested in theater who would be willing to trek downtown for the show, I happened to bring it up in the presence of Mireya and Natasha when we met up for Mexican food last month, and they were just as excited as I was at the prospect of a night of free Broadway hits. Plans were made instantly, and we found ourselves in Millennium Park this very evening.

We were blessed with perfect weather for our excursion to the park: ever-so-slightly cool, dry, and sunny. Justin and I brought along several blankets, but were surprised to find the Pritzker Pavilion overflowing with fellow concert-goers a half hour before the show; clearly I had underestimated the popularity of free show tunes. We ended up selecting a well-shaded area outside the actual lawn to set up our picnic, which proved to be an idyllic setting, even if the sound quality of the performance was a little poorer where we were sitting.

Justin and Travis, expressing their muffuletta love despite their less-than-enthusiastic facial expressions.

As I mentioned yesterday, I offered to bring dessert, which consisted not only of the lemon ginger bars I made from scratch, but some Ghirardelli turtle brownies I whipped up from a mix late last night (the lemon bars were tasty, but I'll take chocolate any day.) I also made my version of muffulettas, the classic New Orleans sandwich consisting of olive salad and Italian deli meats and cheeses, which turned out well, though I think the assorted olives I assembled at the Whole Foods olive bar was a bit saltier than my usual mix. Mireya brought chips and deviled eggs, which she cleverly decided to assemble a la minute at the park using a Ziploc bag to pipe the filling as we ate them. That way, the unfilled eggs and their accompanying filling would be easier to transport to the park mess-free.

Mireya and her genius deviled egg technique.

Our out of the way location made it a little more difficult to hear, but we enjoyed the concert nonetheless. The theme for the evening was "Broadway Rocks," so the organizers had selected a lineup of more mainstream music from the past thirty years or so of Broadway productions. There were classics like "Phantom of the Opera" from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name, "Seasons of Love" from Rent, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls, and "Defying Gravity" from Wicked.

However, some of the numbers were serious stretches that I think were chosen more because they were popular songs than for their Broadway provenance, like "Come Sail Away" which was apparently featured in an off-Broadway revue called Power Ballads that played for a handful of performances, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which was part of a similarly short-lived musical called Dance of the Vampires that starred Michael Crawford in the early part of this decade. I'd hardly call these Broadway hits. Still, they were fun to hear, and the singing talent (actual performers from notable Broadway productions, fittingly backed by the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus) was surprisingly top-notch.

The whole crew getting our picnic on: Natasha, Mireya, me, Justin, and Travis.

Overall, it was a fun night of entertainment and delicious portable treats, and I'm glad I was able to bring together some of my favorite people to experience it with me. My only complaint (aside from the somewhat questionable song selection), was that the concert was too short. Though there were 17 numbers, the concert was less than an hour and a half long, and it felt like our evening came to an early close. I'm not sure I satisfied my annual quota for al fresco dining, so I might just have to try to organize another picnic before the summer draws to a close. Hmm...


Pucker Up...

As a general rule of thumb, I do not much enjoy being outside, especially in the summer when the weather is hot and sticky. I'm not exactly sure how people survived in the days before air conditioning, but I'm happy to have been born into the era of central air. Otherwise, I would have had to pursue science as a career track, so I could spend my life engaged in research in Antarctica.

Nevertheless, for some reason, I really enjoy picnics. I loved them when I was little, and my mom would fill up a cooler with special treats, pack up an old Native American blanket she'd purchased long before I was born, and take me to the park to eat and play. In college, my friends and I made a tradition of having a picnic every year, often in old, dilapidated cemeteries around St. Louis. I've tried to maintain that tradition on my own, and I've been moderately successful with making it to Grant Park for an annual alfresco dining experience. Justin and I even went on a picnic on our second date.

Tomorrow, I'm meeting Mireya, Natasha, and Natasha's family for my annual pilgrimage to the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park for a free concert, so it seemed only right to combine a picnic with the evening's events. Naturally, I assumed responsibility for dessert production, but with my self-imposed moratorium on Martha Stewart, I had to look elsewhere for inspiration. I settled on a recipe I'd bookmarked from one of my favorite food sites, Serious Eats. They have a seemingly ever-expanding roster of authors contributing there, and have recently launched a dessert-focused subsection called "Sweets," where I'd spotted a recipe for Lemon Ginger Bars. Since I've become a convert to the ease of baking bar cookies, I was saving this recipe for just the right occasion.

As it turns out, Natasha is a huge fan of ginger (I've used her as a guinea pig for my last two ginger-centric baking experiments), and Justin loves lemon, so I figured this picnic gathering was the perfect opportunity to test this recipe. Despite making a rookie mistake when I turned the bars out of their baking pan that resulted in them shattering into a dozen or so irregular shards, the resulting cookie shrapnel turned out delicious, if somewhat unattractive by my usual standards. Not being a fan of lemon myself, I preferred the bits that had less glaze, as the bars themselves have a subtle hint of lemon flavor from the included zest, while the majority of the lemon punch comes from the topping. The cookies are warm from the ginger, with an occasional kick from the chunks of crystallized ginger, in addition to being pleasantly soft and buttery.

Besides being quite tasty (which is hard for me to admit, as a self-identifying hater of lemon-flavored desserts), this recipe came together quickly, which I also appreciated. They'll definitely be a strong contender for the citrus cookie category in this year's Cookie Bonanza come December. Until then, consider giving them a try of your own.

Lemon Ginger Bars
adapted from Nick Malgieri

2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. sugar
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/4 c. crystallized ginger, finely chopped
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Lemon Glaze
2 c. powdered sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice, plus extra if needed

Preheat oven to 375. Line a 9x13-inch jelly roll pan with foil and spray with Pam.
1. Mix the flour, sugar, ginger, and baking powder in a medium bowl.
2. Melt the butter in a glass container in the microwave, and immediately add to the dry ingredients. Use a rubber spatula to stir into a smooth, shiny dough. Add the egg, crystallized ginger, honey, and lemon zest, beating vigorously until smooth.
3. Press the dough into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface with the palms of your hands.
4. Bake the bars until well-risen, golden brown, and firm, about 20-25 minutes.
5. While the bars are baking, combine the lemon juice and powdered sugar. Add additional lemon juice to thin to a spreadable consistency, if needed.
6. As soon as the bars are baked, remove from the oven. Place a cooling rack on top of the pan and invert, removing the foil. Pour the glaze over the bars, spreading to coat, and allow to cool completely before cutting into 2-inch squares.



Sometimes, I think it's a miracle that I make it to see any movies at all. I frequently see previews for movies that look interesting, resolve to see them, and then either procrastinate, have trouble finding someone to accompany me, or simply lose the motivation to get out of bed early enough to catch the cheaper early morning showings, and end up missing the film's theatrical run. Even though I've managed to make it to eleven movies so far this year, when my annual goal is to see one a month, there are still several movies that I managed to miss, like Potiche, a campy French comedy starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu.

Still, I was glad that I was able to make time this weekend to meet up with Lauren and see Beginners, the latest Ewan McGregor movie. Though I might have had a huge crush on him circa 2001 when he appeared in Moulin Rouge (I am, after all, a sucker for musicals), my motives for catching this particular film were actually rooted in my desire to see the super-cute dog depicted in the preview I saw a couple months ago. Nowadays, adorable dog > man candy, which might just be the influence of being in love with a handsome fellow of my own.

The performance by Cosmo the Jack Russell Terrier as Arthur was, predictable, the best part of the film. In the weeks surrounding the film's initial release, I read an interview with McGregor in which he discusses the traditional Hollywood wisdom never to costar with a kid or a dog. He said he always thought it was because they were difficult to work with, but now, after seeing a cut of the film, he realized it was because they always upstage you. He was, without a doubt, correct.

The plot of the film tells the story of Oliver, who copes with the death of his father who only recently came out of the closet at the age of 75 following the death of Oliver's mother, while falling in love himself and integrating his father's dog into his life, and it is by turns heartbreaking and hysterical. The performances are nuanced and believable, though at times the entire film feels like it's trying too hard to capture a hipster aesthetic, from the characters' overly quirky hobbies to their relentlessly trendy wardrobes. The film is enjoyable though, and presents a unique story that is worth experiencing, but in the end, the movie is really all about the dog.

Arthur communicates with McGregor's character in subtitles that cut to the heart of what the film is trying to portray. Arthur's one-liners are, by-far, the most memorial lines of the entire film, and inspire some "Awwww!" moments that are almost unbearably cute. I've never seen such a scruffy Jack Russell in my life, but his eccentric look only serves to further capture the vibe of the movie, and somehow makes him even more adorable. Jack Russells are way too hyper for me, and I'd never want to own one in real-life, but Beginners sorely tempted my resolve.

Seriously, Beginners is an interesting study of one man's unusual life circumstances, but if you are at all a dog person, I suggest you see it if only for the moments of canine brilliance. You won't regret it.


Think Pink...

I've said it before, but I will say it again: I am surrounded by incredible people. Each of my friends has their own unique strengths, talents, and passions, and I am fortunate to have each and every one of them in my life. For example, tonight I found myself in the burbs once again (for the fourth consecutive weekend in a row!) to attend a fund-raising party being held by my friend Taryn, whom I have known since we were in middle school.

Taryn's family lost their grandfather to breast cancer (yes, it affects men too), and the disease has also afflicted other members of her family. As a result, she is passionate about raising awareness as well as money for breast cancer research. For the past few years, she has participated in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day For the Cure, in which participants walk over 60 miles in the name of raising money for research. Personally, I can't even conceive of walking for three consecutive days for any reason short of finding myself in a post-apocalyptic world where there was no other means of transportation, so I'm amazed by Taryn's dedication to her favorite cause.

Tonight, to raise money for this year's 3-Day, Taryn held a flippy cup fundraiser in her parents' backyard. Since I went to a private university and never once attended a frat party, I'd managed to make it to the ripe old age of 26 without so much as even seeing other people play a game of flippy cup, but I wanted to be on hand to support my friend and contribute to the cause. More surprisingly to me, Justin had never played flippy cup either despite attending state universities for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, but as it turned out, our mutual lack of experience proved to be of little consequence.

Sarah's boyfriend Zach made this stunning creation from Chex Mix and candy. I'm pretty sure most heterosexual men share that sentiment.

In fact, we made it through the entire evening without playing a single game. We made our donation, but focused mostly on the company of my other high school friends who were in attendance. In my flurry of recent social activity, I'd actually seen most of them within the span of a couple weeks, but it was nice to see them again, and weather-wise it was a perfect evening for spending time outdoors, though we did get assailed by hordes of mosquitoes.

Stephanie, Ashley, me, Sarah, and Jessica. Apparently Sarah was the only one who didn't read the "wear pink" part of the invite...

It was great to see everyone again, and even better that I could donate to a worthy cause in the process. If you'd like to sponsor Taryn on her 3-Day journey, click here for her fund-raising page.