Gonna Eat A Lot Of Peaches...

I may not be moving to the country, but it's hard to deny that I am eating a lot of peaches this summer nonetheless. With a huge chunk of my freezer dedicated to the frozen fruit, I decided to tap some of my resources to create a frozen dessert that I had recently spotted on one of my favorite food blogs, the Galley Gourmet. Though I was initially attracted to her blog for her cakes, most of her recipes fall into the realm of things that sound good in theory, but would be too labor-intensive for me to seriously consider making. When I saw her recipe for a buttermilk peach sherbet that purportedly captured the flavors of peach pie in frozen form, however, I was intrigued. Not only was it a quick recipe to throw together, I was fresh off of actually baking a peach pie and figured this sherbet would be a good pinch-hitter for the more involved recipe if it panned out.

Without a doubt, this recipe was a cinch to make. With a stockpile of peaches peeled, sliced, and ready to go in the freezer, all I had to do was dump the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. From there, they went into the ice cream maker, since the frozen peaches already had the mixture quite frosty, then into a Tupperware container to freeze until firm. It was quite possibly the easiest peach creation I've attempted all summer.

However, I was slightly disappointed in the finished product. Though I have a seriously fierce addiction to the tart white peach frozen yogurt at Red Mango, the combination of tangy buttermilk and peaches in this sherbet was too much for me. Also, I think it could have used more cinnamon (perhaps a 1/4 teaspoon instead of an 1/8?), but then again, I think basically everything in the dessert would would benefit from a heavier hand with the cinnamon. Plus, I was afflicted in my sherbet effort by the same problem I had with my ill-fated apple sorbet, namely crumbliness.I'm not sure why I keep having this problem -- this sherbet had peach Schnapps in it to keep it from freezing too hard, just like my always-perfect peach sorbet -- so I think I'll stick to my tried-and-true frozen dessert recipes for a while, at least.

Even Dad, perhaps the greatest aficionado of peach desserts in my life, proclaimed it, "not my best work," so I doubt I'll be attempting this recipe again. If you like tangy frozen desserts, however, feel free to give it a try. Just remember to season to taste...

Peach Buttermilk Sherbet
adapted from The Galley Gourmet

2 lb. fresh peaches, peeled, pitted, and chopped
2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. white sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of salt
2-3 tablespoons peach Schnapps

Place all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. If peaches are frozen, you may churn right away. If peaches are room temperature, pour the puree into a bowl and refrigerate overnight until well-chilled. Churn in the bowl of a 2-quart ice cream maker, as per manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to a airtight storage container and freeze until solid.


It's All Greek To Me...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I have an amazing and diverse group of friends who are out there pursuing their dreams in fascinating and exciting ways. Today, I was able to celebrate an accomplishment of one such friend, the aspiring playwright Jessica, with whom I went to high school, when I took Justin to see a production of one of her plays, The Trojan War: Or How One Bad Apple Spoiled The Whole World. Having one's play produced is no small feat, one that many would-be authors never attain. It implies years of persistence and belief in her own talent, and for that, I must congratulate her. 

The Trojan War presents a Sartre-esque scenario in which the major players in the Trojan War -- Paris, Helen, Aphrodite, and Eris, the goddess of conflict and discord -- have been trapped in a sort of cosmic purgatory for three thousand years as they cast blame upon each other for causing the conflict in question. They become aware of the audience, dismantling the fourth wall almost immediately, and decide to present a detailed accounting of the events leading up to and during the Trojan War so that the audience can make their own judgments about who was really at fault. As they delve deeper and deeper into the story, it becomes clear that no one person or celestial being is solely responsible, and that any and all of them had the potential to stop the chain of events that caused so many innocent people their lives and none of them did. What results is an anti-war statement that admonishes the audience to think carefully about the potential implications of our own actions.

The play was staged by the Inconceivable Theater Company, a local troupe renting the studio space at the Apollo Theater, whose main stage is home to the perennially popular (though I've still not seen it) Million Dollar Quartet. Although the space was small, I thought their staging was effective, and they actually had relatively good fortune with regard to the timing of the El passing by. When I saw the theater was basically underneath the tracks, I wondered how well sound-insulated it was, and it quickly became apparent that it wasn't at all.  However, the El seemed to pass by mostly at dramatically appropriate moments, when its sound underscored the action of the story. Justin noted that for him, it channeled the sound of Zeus throwing lightning bolts from Mount Olympus.

Jessica's words were brought to life by a largely talented group of actors. At times, I thought they hammed things up a bit too much, and that the writing would have been more effective if they had let it stand on its own to a greater degree. Then again, I thought Jessica's attempts to make the Trojan War more relevant to a contemporary audience by peppering the story with a series of modern-day references and jokes was somewhat forced; I think the historical material would have been more cohesive if allowed to stand on its own. Then again, I have more of a historical background and interest in history than most people...

I'm not sure The Trojan War will become a classic of American theater, but I am proud of Jessica, and I can't even imagine how exciting it must be for her to see her work fully-realized and performed live on stage. I'm eager to see where she draws inspiration from for her next work, and I wish her future success in her burgeoning career as a playwright.


The Help...

In case you hadn't noticed, I've been lying low lately. I made a vow to stop baking and making frozen desserts until I cleared out some of the backlog in my freezer. You see, those root beer float ice pops and the Aztec "hot" chocolate ice cream from last month are still maintaining a strong presence in my freezer, and I figure it's time for me to eat my way though some of my inventory before I go adding to it. I've been hanging out with friends a few times a week, but nothing really blog-worthy.

Today, however, I journeyed up to the suburbs to do movie and lunch with Lauren. Sadly, the number of these get-togethers has declined precipitously since Lauren moved to Evanston; back when she lived 15 minutes away we used to catch the cheapest, earliest movie of the day and have breakfast beforehand a few times a month. Now we're lucky to see each other every few months, but we're still making the effort. 

At Lauren's suggestion, we saw The Help, based on the popular novel of the same name. To me, it seemed like an obvious feel-good bid for Oscar nominations, but there weren't a lot of promising options at the theater, so I decided to go and try to keep an open mind. 

As a college student, I spent a significant amount of time studying social movements of the 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement was often given particular emphasis at Wash U because it happens to be the repository for the archival footage that went into the making of the seminal documentary series, Eyes on the Prize. With so much primary source material on hand, my professors were eager to make the best use of it possible. Hence, I was probably better informed about the Civil Rights Movement than the average viewer of The Help, and I couldn't help but be distracted by its lack of realism. Difficult as the maids' lives are as depicted on film, I think the movie underestimates the repercussions that their civil rights activities would have had on their employment and their lives in general. 

Furthermore, while the Civil Rights Movement was assisted by a number of well-meaning whites, I felt like the story minimized the agency of the African-American community in building their own movement. Instead, Skeeter (played with characteristically quirky aplomb by Emma Stone) comes across a bit overly heroic and unselfish. I think the audience shouldn't lose sight of the fact that her original aim in telling the story of the South's black maids is to tap an undiscovered literary resource to create a literary career for herself, not necessarily because she is interested in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, her curiosity about Jim Crow and institutionalized racism comes later. 
Still, the movie does have some extremely entertaining moments, from a pie with a disgusting secret ingredient to a prank that involves the delivery of an entire yard-full of toilets to the local bully. I tend to like my films on the depressing side, but The Help offered its share of delightful comedic moments instead. It was also rife with fantastic female performances, my favorite of which came from the relentlessly sassy maid, Minny Jackson, played by Octavia Spencer. Of all the actresses who made solid contributions to the film, I'd like to see her rewarded come Oscar season.

I do think The Help was on-balance, entertaining and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon with a friend. I take issue with it from a historical perspective, but that probably doesn't matter to the average movie-goer, so I say, go ahead and check it out if you're in the market for female-friendly theater fare this summer.


Tales From The City - Part Five...

There are truly a limitless number of oddities to encounter in the city. Take this little item that I found on the sidewalk today, in the niche formed by an average, unimportant building on Van Buren Street:

It appears to be a fake deputy badge, attached to a mouse trap. If two other passersby hadn't spotted it first and stopped to snap cell phone pictures, I would have walked right by it. Who left it there? Perhaps some kind of street artist? Why not leave something bigger, that would make more of an impact? Also, I'm no expert in mousetraps having never needed to use one, but isn't it loaded? Wouldn't it really hurt if someone stepped on it?

Is it a statement that the police and people in positions of law enforcement are rats? Are they trying to catch magpies by putting something shiny in the trap? The piece is woefully lacking in context. We'll probably never know what the intention is behind it, or what it means. Such is the nature of these absurd little blips on the radar of urban life, but at least they keep things interesting...


Crazy, Stupid Love...

I was a bad hostess this weekend: I had house guests once again, but this time I did not bake for them. I'm trying to avoid adding any more desserts to the house until I've finished last week's Texas cake, and some of the stockpile of homemade ice cream and ice pops in my freezer. I did, however, spend some time with my cousins Danielle and Chris while they were in town for today's Cubs game against the St. Louis Cardinals, and tonight we went to see a grown-up movie, a treat for them at the height of their child-rearing years. We settled upon Crazy, Stupid Love, mostly because I mentioned I was planning on seeing it, but it also boasted enough Steve Carell humor to appeal to Chris and enough of Ryan Gosling's abs to bring Danielle and I through the theater doors.

As far as romantic comedies go, Crazy, Stupid Love was a cut above. Steve Carell masterfully blends buffoonery and gravitas to lend emotional credibility to a comedic role. I can't' think of a movie in which I've seen Julianne Moore where she wasn't fantastic, and while I don't quite see why so many men seem to think Emma Stone is the hottest ever, the quirky comedic sensibility she revealed in the fantastic Easy A translated to her role here as well. Ryan Gosling, known to most women for his swoon-worthy turn in the chick-flick classic, The Notebook, broke with his usual good-guy image to play a cynical douche, but his liberally-utilized physique made up for his character's lack of likability. As Stone's character pointed out, it really was like he was Photoshopped.

A top-notch cast only gets a movie so far though, and the writing for Crazy, Stupid Love failed to disappoint as well. Though the romantic comedy genre is often tired and cliched, this film managed to come up with a creative central plot twist and some clever grand romantic gestures. I also appreciated that the movie managed to create some riotously funny moments without relying on gross-out humor, which seems to be the Hollywood norm these days. Remember Bridesmaids?

Even if I was a third wheel on this particular evening, I think Crazy, Stupid Love would make a great date movie, and I'm already looking forward to re-watching it again and again when it makes its television premiere. Check it out if you're looking for a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy this summer.


Let's Do The Time Warp...

Today, buried in the flurry of updates on my Facebook feed was a fascinating video posted by the museum (yes, I'm a "fan" of my place of employment on Facebook). It is a short travel video about Chicago, dating back to 1948, when a visit to the movies often included a couple short films and/or newsreels in addition to the main feature (these were the days before pre-film advertising and television at home). It was produced by MGM, so it has good production values, vibrant Technicolor views of the city, and a narration oddly reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart.

For me, it was most interesting to see how much of the city that I'm familiar with today has been constructed in the time since this film was made. South of the river, basically nothing exists east of Michigan Avenue, and there's not much going on in River North either. Street cars still ran down the center of State Street, past the Marshall Field's building that was still occupied by it's namesake and not Macy's, as it is today. The Union Stockyard (as mentioned in the unofficial city theme song, "My Kind of Town,") was still considered a major landmark. The film also discusses the popularity of recreational fishing along the lakefront, showing crowds of men casting their rods from piers on Lake Michigan. Today, the idea of eating any fish you might catch in the lake yourself is virtually unfathomable.

Most striking, in my opinion, was how dirty all the buildings were. I'm not sure if that's a factor of people still burning coal for energy, more lax emission standards for automobiles, or just a more lackadaisical attitude towards facade maintenance in pre-Daley Chicago, but light-colored buildings like the Merchandise Mart are practically unrecognizable. Still, even if the city barely looks the same compared to 63 years ago, Chicago is every bit the ideal city to live and visit that it was all those years ago.


Back In The USSR...

Strangely enough, the very first thing to go on my 2011 to-do list was not a theater production, street festival, or day trip I wanted to take; instead, it was an art exhibit. For some reason, I got a flyer in the mail last summer about an impending interdisciplinary arts program that was starting in Chicago, focused on the former Soviet Union. A wide variety of events would be going on throughout the city, including ballet performances, history lectures at the University of Chicago, a Chekhov production and a Russian opera, performances of works by great Soviet composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and, most interestingly to me, a major exhibition at the Art Institute on Soviet propaganda art of World War II. Even though the exhibition wouldn't be opening until the end of July in what was then the following year, I started my 2011 to-do list that very moment so I wouldn't forget to see it when it opened.

I knew I wanted to invite Mireya, my usual companion for things World War II-related (we went and saw a documentary about Winston Churchill earlier this year), so as soon as we were able to find a mutually convenient time, we made a date to go see Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at home and Abroad, 1941-1945.

The story behind the exhibit reads a bit like an episode of Antiques Roadshow: museum employees were cleaning out a disused storage closet during the course of a mid-1990s renovation when someone found a pile of paper-wrapped parcels, covered in dust. When they opened them, they discovered hundreds of wartime propaganda posters that had been sent by the Soviet government to arts organizations and other cultural institutions in the United States as "cultural ambassadors" from the besieged nation. Nobody at the Art Institute had ever even opened them, and they sat folded and slowly decaying in their original packaging for over fifty years. After a long conservation and research process, the museum finally opted to create an exhibition around them.

This drawing demonstrates how the artists behind the Soviet propaganda machine saw themselves: as part of a coalition of writers, artists, and soldiers working together to conquer the Nazi invasion.

The posters were produced by TASS, the state-controlled news agency in the Soviet Union. For each day of Soviet involvement in the war, a different poster was created and hung outside the TASS offices for the citizens to get an update on the progress of the war, along with messages to persevere. The outdoor location for the posters explains their enormous size, and because they hung in the windows of the building, they tend to be long and narrow. Subject matter for the images was drawn from the latest battlefield reports, though the content of each poster had to be cleared by government bureaucrats before it could be mass-produced, so there was a time delay in bringing the officially sanctioned information to the public. After being displayed at the TASS offices, copies of the posters were disseminated across the Soviet Union and shipped to their allies for their own use.

Interestingly, the posters were not created using standard printmaking methods such as lithography or other forms of modern offset printing. Instead, they were created by elaborate sets of stencils, through which the posters were hand-painted one layer at a time. As a result, no two are identical, and each has a unique artistic imprint.

Apparently, every country had its own version of the "Loose lips sink ships" mantra. The Russian equivalent was "Rumors are the enemy's weapon."

The theme of this poster was more or less that we reap what we sow. The robust, Social Realist peasant is diligently sowing a field of grain, while the Nazis are spreading nothing but war and destruction.

Windows on the War features 157 TASS posters, along with a variety of earlier Soviet propaganda from the period of the Russian Civil War onward to trace the evolution and influences that came to bear on the later wartime posters, examples of American, British, and Nazi propaganda for comparison purposes, and examples of later Cold War propaganda to demonstrate how quickly American-Soviet relations soured after the war. With the large collection, coupled with all of the supplementary materials, the exhibit is truly daunting in scale. Mireya and I were there for two hours and got kicked out about two-thirds of the way through the exhibit because the museum was about to close. Even after seeing two-thirds of the show, we were both getting visually overwhelmed and suffering from information overload.

A British propaganda poster, created from a repurposed Soviet image.

Part of the problem with the pacing of the exhibit is the fact that you have to stop and read every single label if you want to understand what the posters are about. Obviously, the writing is all in Cyrillic, so you have to get a translation, plus, the visual language of the posters does not make readily apparent sense to an American audience. The TASS posters draw on events from Russian history, play on Russian folk sayings, and employ symbolism with which we aren't familiar. Other visitors in the exhibit seemed to be focusing on the posters from a graphic design perspective, and were moving through the rooms at a much brisker pace, but if you wanted to understand the historic context and significance of each work, you had to take the time to read.

A perfect example: this poster was made to commemorate the invasion of Normandy, but draws on the story of St. George slaying the dragon. The knight with his sword at the throat of the demonic representation of Hitler represents the USSR, and the knights in the background bear the flags of Great Britain and the United States.

On the one hand, in this era of edu-tainment, when many museums are reluctant to tackle intellectually rigorous subject matter, I applaud the Art Institute for asking so much of their patrons. On the other hand, I found Windows on the War to be exhausting, and I didn't even see the whole thing. I'm going to have to make a second trip just to finish it, but I do think it'll be worth the time and energy. Given my interest in the former Soviet Union, the exhibit proved fascinating.

As the Soviet soldiers pressed westward, they discovered the full atrocities of the Nazis, including the concentration camps that were mainly located in Eastern Europe. This poster shows an innocent child, maimed by landmines that a devious Nazi is attaching to children's toys.

I will say that I questioned the layout of the exhibit; I'm not sure they adequately anticipated how visitors would move through the space and planned their exhibits accordingly. Time and again, Mireya and I would discover that we had read the main information panels out of order, which proved disorienting. Furthermore, in an effort to contextualize the pieces, objects were often placed in non-chronological order. The curators might have been trying to show how an artist's experiences creating propaganda or satirical artwork in the pre-war era influenced their wartime work, but the extraneous pieces often proved confusing. At times, it seemed that they were trying to provide too much information, and would have done well to be a bit more judicious in editing the story they were trying to tell.

This painting was done by an American artist, but I can't for the life of me remember who. Apparently, I missed the "No Photography" sign next to this one, because the man behind me got yelled at by a guard when he tried to follow my lead in photographing it.

Finally, I felt a bit hampered by my inexperience with the Russian language in trying to track all of the artists. I think the curators were trying to show how various artist's styles changed over time, and how they were distinct from one another, but each person's name was so long that I couldn't hold any of them in my mind long enough to be able to recognize them from piece to piece. I'm not sure how they could have remedied that problem, but I do feel like it impeded my ability to fully absorb the lessons of the exhibition.

Here, Hitler has a nightmarish vision of all the German soldiers who died under his command.

Still, challenging as it was, and despite the fact that I didn't get to see the whole thing, I think Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at home and Abroad, 1941-1945 was on balance a good exhibit. It was exceptionally informative, and apparently it represents the first ever scholarly investigation of these works in the English language. It's an important show, even if it's a bit ponderous and poorly organized in parts. At worst, I think the curators are guilty of trying to do too much, since they were faced with a more or less blank slate when it came to these pieces. They try to tackle everything at once, and it overloads the viewer with information and images. Still, I'd highly recommend the show to anyone interested in World War II, Russian history, the Cold War, or even simply just graphic design; I'd just budget a minimum of three hours to do it justice...
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Pie In The Sky...

The other day I told Dad to consider me the OPEC of baked goods, as he pestered me for yet another batch of "S" cookies, despite the fact that I just made him a batch in June for Father's Day. I still owe him a birthday treat, more then a month after the fact, and I'd promised him his favorite lemon cake, but he's been angling for "S" cookies relentlessly. As you may have noticed, however, I don't like to repeat myself very often in terms of my cookie output, and I figure the more often I make "S" cookies, the less special they will be. Better to keep supply low and demand high, in my opinion.

Another thing he's been persistently requesting lately is a peach pie/cobbler. Ever since my salted caramel apple pie debuted in July, he seemingly hasn't been able to get the idea of a peach counterpart out of his mind. Initially, I was resistant to the idea, as I more or less hate peach pie. I just can't stand baked peaches; it's mostly a textural thing. Yuck.

However, as I scoured the blogosphere in search of baking inspiration, I happened to come across a couple different peach pies that were so pretty that they captured my attention and I filed them away in case I changed my mind regarding Dad's request. One, from Bon Appétit, featured plums, and I recently discovered that I like pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid fruit) at a dinner with Justin earlier this month. The other, found on a random blog, featured cinnamon and a irresistibly gorgeous photo, and I can't say no to either.

Just as I was mulling over a mash-up of the two, I came across an article on CNN's food blog Eatocracy about popular food blogger Jennifer Perillo, who recently lost her husband at a young age to a sudden heart attack. Overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from her followers who wanted to know what they could do to help her in her time of grief, she asked them all to make a pie. Specifically, a peanut butter cream pie. It was her husband's favorite, and he would request it from her frequently, but in the shuffle of her food writing career and the need to supply new content to her readers, she kept putting it off, promising she'd get to it the next day. Now she'll never be able to make that pie for him again. So she requested that her friends, both real and virtual, make the pie and share it with someone they loved.

I wasn't inspired by her peanut butter pie recipe, but her message of cherishing our loved ones while we can and doing something to show them how much we care resonated with me. When I went home that day and found a coupon for money off a produce purchase at Jewel, making the peach pie seemed meant to be.

I ended up baking the pie earlier than I had anticipated, though the fruit was definitely ready to go by the time I got around to it. You see, I accidentally sliced my thumb open while preparing for last night's dinner party, so I needed Justin to peel, pit, and slice all my stone fruit for me. I just didn't think there was any way I could get through more than four pounds of fruit with a bandage and a rubber glove -- those juicy peaches and pluots are slippery buggers! Because he's awesome, Justin did all the chopping for me even though he wouldn't be around to get a slice of the pie when it was done baking. Is he a keeper or what?

I wanted to experiment with the Cook's Illustrated pie crust recipe, which I've read lots of good things about, but I didn't read the recipe carefully and omitted half of the shortening that they called for, inadvertently recreating the Alton Brown recipe, but with an additional tablespoon of sugar and the 50/50 ratio of vodka to water in the crust that I was mulling over after my banana cream pie experience. Despite the flub, it was by far my best crust to date, as it browned beautifully (no doubt due to the extra sugar content), and it was incomparably flaky. I'm still going to give the Cook's Illustrated recipe a go next time just to see how it turns out, but this crust will remain a very strong contender going forward in my search for perfection.

Also, since both of my inspiration pies had lattice tops, I decided to experiment with making one for the first time. I probably could have gotten my strips a bit narrower and squeezed more of them onto the surface of the pie (I really like my crust, and lattice pies always seem like a waste in that regard to me), but all things considered, it wasn't difficult to accomplish, and I feel like this turned out to be my most attractive pie to date. I mean, just look at it up there! Gorgeous golden brown crust with hints of purple and orange fruit peeking through? Almost too pretty to eat.

Despite being beautiful and having lots of cinnamon, I just couldn't get past my hatred of peach pie. It was plenty juicy (but not watery, since the juices were extracted first and the excess discarded), and perfectly spiced, but I still hate cooked peaches. Thankfully, it's intended audience didn't feel the same, and the pie was otherwise deemed a success. My pie may not have been "S" cookies, but I think Dad enjoyed it nonetheless, and I'm going to consider us square now on his belated birthday treat.

Stone Fruit Lattice Pie
adapted from Bon Appétit

1 recipe pie crust (see below)

1 lb. pluots (or plums)
1.5 lbs. white peaches or nectarines
1.5 lbs. yellow peaches or nectarines
1/2 c. sugar
3 tablespoons corn starch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon coarse sugar, for sprinkling

Roll out both rounds of dough to 14 inches. Place one into a 9 inch pie plate, allowing for 1 inch of overhang all the way around. Dock the dough with a fork, then cover, and refrigerate until needed. Transfer the other round to a cookie sheet, cover, and refrigerate until needed.

Peel, halve, pit, and slice the fruit into 1/2 inch slices. Place all fruit into a large bowl and mix with 1/2 cup of sugar, coating everything evenly. Pour the fruit into a sieve and place over the bowl to drain at room temperature, for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 400.

Reserve 1/4 cup of fruit liquid, and whisk with cornstarch. In a bowl, combine the fruit, cornstarch mixture, and cinnamon, tossing gently to coat.

Pour fruit mixture into the prepared pie dish. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut the remaining dough into 3/4 inch wide strips. Weave strips over the filling, creating a lattice. Trim the strips so there is no overhang, then fold the bottom crust over the strips and crimp decoratively.

Brush beaten egg over the edges of the crust and lattice. Sprinkle with coarse sugar. Set the pie on a parchment-covered jelly roll pan, and bake for 40 minutes. Turn down the temperature of the oven to 350 and bake for 40 minutes more until the crust is brown and the juices bubbly. Let cool on a wire rack before serving.

Pie Crust

12.5 oz. all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, very cold
1/4 c. shortening
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 c. ice water
1/4 c. very cold vodka

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Sprinkle the butter and shortening over the flour and use a pastry blender to cut the fats into the flour until pea-sized pieces remain. Sprinkle the liquid over the flour mixture and use a spatula to fold them together, pressing down on the dough, until the dough forms a cohesive mass. Divide in half, place onto plastic wrap, and form into two 4 inch disks, wrapping tightly. Refrigerate at least an hour, or overnight.


Dinner With Friends...

It's been a while since I shared an unbearably cute Justin story, so let me try on this one for size:

A couple months ago, in a moment of concern that we were hanging out too much with my circle of friends, and participating in more activities that were my idea than his, I mentioned to Justin that perhaps we should do more stuff with his friends. He responded, "But I feel like your friends are becoming my friends too..." Swoon. I absolutely love that we're becoming more and more a part of each others' lives.

Part of this merging of lives that we've been engaged in these past few months has been going on a prolific number of double dates with couples I know, and building a social life as a couple. One couple that we often go out with, Sarah and Zach, are exceedingly generous and insist on paying for us whenever we share a meal together. Since we've long since passed the point where we could hope to return the favor monetarily speaking, Justin and I decided to repay their generosity with hospitality, and had them over for an intimate dinner party. After all, I do enjoy entertaining, and it's hard to pass up the opportunity to have a nice evening with one's friends.

Since Sarah is Italian, I opted for pasta, selecting my much-beloved Tomato Saffron Sauce with Sausage as it has become one of Justin's favorite things in my cooking repertoire as well. I complemented the main course with some frozen garlic bread (like the last time I had a dinner party, I'm not Superwoman and can't make everything from scratch), and a lovely summer salad of mixed greens, white nectarines, goat cheese, and a peach-thyme vinaigrette. Though the pasta was well-received by all, the salad seemed to be the most popular, as nary a speck was left at the end of the evening. For dessert, I served my latest ill-fated Texas cake, though, as predicted, with a scoop of ice cream on top, nobody could tell that anything was amiss.

Overall, it was a great evening spent with even better company. Though I certainly enjoy going out on the town with Justin, trying new restaurants, and experiencing all the city has to offer, there is something deeply satisfying about trying a little domesticity on for size as well. It makes me look forward to a future chapter of our lives, when we'll share a home together, something we both want. Until then, I'm going to savor these times that we have together right now, both with just the two of us and with the friends we have in common. Life is good, and I have a lot to be grateful for...


Don't Mess With Texas...

(Cue the theme song to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)

As it turns out, I have a nemesis in the kitchen. My history with this recipe goes far back, as it is actually a family recipe from my Grandma Betsy. The cake that it produces, known in the Wyatt clan as Texas cake, but called Texas sheet cake or cookie sheet cake in other corners of the U.S., might possibly be my favorite dessert in my genius dessert-baking Grandma's repertoire. It's got moist, chocolate cake accented with a hint of cinnamon (and we all know how I feel about that pairing), topped with luscious chocolate frosting and rich pecans. I might even love it more than Grandma's red velvet cake. I often alternate between the two when making requests for my birthday. And yet...

I've managed to bungle the recipe every time I've attempted to recreate it on my own. The first time, everything was going to plan until I mixed up the ingredients for the frosting. I thought it looked awfully anemic in the pan, but I'd followed the recipe as written, so I figured perhaps it darkened as it dried on the cake. Needless to say, it did not, and I discovered that I had transcribed the recipe incorrectly from Grandma's original. Instead of 4 tablespoons of cocoa powder, I had written down 4 teaspoons of cocoa powder, so my frosting was lacking a full 66% of its chocolate content. Oops.

The second time, despite my recipe being flawless, I had another measuring mishap with the frosting. The recipe calls for a pound of powdered sugar, but my digital scale's battery was dead. I couldn't recall having used the powdered sugar for anything besides making my first Texas cake, and since it's sold in two pound packages, I figured I could just use the remainder of the box for my icing. Except I forgot about using the powdered sugar for another project after all, so my icing was thin and runny. It soaked right into the cake instead of resting on top, and my second attempt was a soggy but still tasty mess. I believe Mom's commentary at the time was something along the lines of, "Maybe you should give up on this one?"

However, I refuse to go gently into that good night. Ever since my last Texas cake failure a few years ago, I've been haunted by my inability to achieve chocolate-cinnamon perfection, but in recent months, the hunger to finally slay my white whale has grown steadily stronger until it could no longer be ignored. Since Justin and I are having dinner guests over tomorrow and we'd have people to help us eat the Texas-sized cake, I thought I'd live dangerously and take another stab at it. At least by preparing it the night before, I'd have time to make something else should I have another failure on my hands.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the Texas cake managed to best me once again. The problem, as always, came with the frosting. This time, it dried with a weirdly crispy top layer that is decidedly absent in Grandma's version. It wasn't inedible, it just wasn't right. I decided that if I slapped a little ice cream on top, it probably wouldn't be noticeable, so I opted to serve it to my guests anyway and forgo making a back-up dessert.

The more I thought about it, however, I began to have a realization: every Texas cake I've eaten in recent years has been frozen and defrosted prior to making its way to my plate. Due to health issues, Grandma doesn't have the stamina for marathon cooking and baking sessions whenever people come over, so she prepares food when she's feeling up to it and freezes it until family arrives to consume it. I haven't eaten a freshly-baked Texas cake in years, so I really have no way of knowing how my version compares to hers. Still, I'm not willing to proclaim a victory just yet. For now, Texas cake is going to remain my culinary equivalent of Moby Dick, but at least it gives me something to aspire to. Someday, I will conquer it, and until then, there will be plenty of chocolate practice cakes to sample!

Texas Cake
recipe from Grandma Betsy

2 c. sugar
2 c. flour
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 c. vegetable oil
6 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
1 c. water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 eggs

1 stick butter
4 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
6 tablespoons milk
1 lb. powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 c. chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350.

For cake:
Sift together sugar and flour. Heat to boiling: butter, oil, cocoa, and water. Pour over flour/sugar mixture. Mix well and add cinnamon, buttermilk, baking soda, vanilla, and eggs. Pour into a jelly roll pan and bake 25 minutes.

For icing:
While cake is baking, in last 10 minutes, heat to boiling: butter, cocoa, and milk. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Ice when cake is hot. Garnish with pecans.


Sometimes You Feel Like A Nut...

Although I was a little sugared out after yesterday's chocolate making lesson, I have house guests this weekend and no tour of hostess duty is complete without baking something for my boarders. After all the time I spend writing here about my kitchen experiments, I feel it would be somewhat unfair not to share with people who come to visit me. So, despite lacking my usual enthusiasm, I set out to find something to bake for my family.

I was prepared to bring an end to the Martha embargo this weekend, after weaning myself from her recipes for nearly a month and a half, but all the recipes I've been most excited to tackle from her book once I finally returned to it contained chocolate, and the idea of eating more chocolate at this point turned my stomach a bit. (Shocking, I know! I didn't think it could ever happen to me either.) Instead, I turned once more to my new Alice Medrich book, even though I find it, on balance, less inspiring than Martha's, for a variation on classic peanut butter cookies. I actually have an old, family recipe for peanut butter cookies that I don't really ever hope to improve upon, but these new cookies caught my eye because they were encrusted on top with chopped toffee-covered peanuts.

Toffee peanuts are a bit of an obsession of my mother's, who then introduced them to her siblings, and they became a bit of a family-wide addiction for a while. Since I knew both my mom and my aunt would enjoy the toffee peanut aspect of the cookies, I ran over to Jewel to pick up a can, as well as a jar of natural peanut butter, which I don't keep in the house. (I'll stick to the emulsifier-laden, processed within an inch of its life version for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, thanks.)

Despite the extra effort and mess that came from trying to stir up a full jar of separated natural peanut butter, the cookies were easy to make, largely because Medrich gives all measurements in weights and volumes, so I could employ my digital kitchen scale and save myself a bunch of measuring. The only labor intensive part was rolling the tops of each cookie in the crushed peanuts, but even that was fairly straightforward. I was pleased to discover that the finished cookies had a chewy, moist texture, whereas my go-to peanut butter cookie has a crumbly, sandy consistency, and I think the chewiness paired nicely with the crunch of the peanuts on top.

The toffee flavor was a bit lost, aside from adding some additional sweetness, but I loved how the shiny, candy-covered peanuts looked on top of the cookies. It was almost like they were covered in sparkly peanut glitter. The toffee peanuts help elevate what would otherwise be a basic cookie to something pretty and special, and I think these would make a lovely gift to someone if you wrapped them up in cellophane with a bit of ribbon.

Toffee Peanut Cookies
adapted from Alice Medrich

1 1/3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. light brown sugar, packed
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 c. natural, but not unsalted, peanut butter
5 oz. toffee peanuts, coarsely chopped

Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl and mix together thoroughly with a whisk.

In a large bowl, mix the melted butter with the sugar. Whisk in the egg, vanilla, and peanut butter, add the flour mixture, blending with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon just until evenly incorporated.

Cover the dough and refrigerate for an hour or two and up to 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 325.

Pour the chopped nuts into a shallow bowl. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and coat the top and sides heavily with the chopped nuts, pressing in any pieces that fall off so that there are no bare spots. Place 2 inches apart on parchment lined baking sheets.

Bake the cookies 15-18 minutes, until they are lightly colored on top. The cookies will be very soft to the touch, but will firm up as they cool. Cool cookies completely on wire racks.


The Candyman Can...

Prior to last month's cooking class fiasco, I had already set into motion another Groupon-based cooking class experience with my friends Lauren and Natasha, this time, to learn the art of chocolate making from a chocolatier in my neighborhood. I pass by his shop, Canady Le Chocolatier, all the time, though I'd never purchased any of his wares beyond some obscenely delicious gelato. Mostly, I try to avoid going in there at all, solely because the gelato is so good. I consider it a testament to my will power that I've only been in the shop three times in the four years I've been living at my current address.

Still, given my love of desserts in general and chocolate in particular, I was excited to spot such a convenient and interesting Groupon opportunity. I quickly contacted everyone I thought might be interested, and put a tidy little group together to go. Thankfully, despite my spotty track record with Groupons, this class turned out to be much more serious and informative than the last. For one thing, the class was not BYOB, nor was any alcohol served, so the atmosphere was focused on learning. Plus, the small class size of five individuals meant that we got a lot of individualized instruction from the teacher.

In fact, the instructor was so serious that he bordered on the Gordon Ramsay end of the spectrum when it came to his style. Despite beginning his career in academia, he was certainly not a nurturing educator. Instead, he expected his pupils to pick up information quickly, and to intuit his guidance with little assistance. I found his demeanor rather off-putting, personally, but I still came away from the experience having learned a great deal and felt that I got my money's worth out of the class.

Lauren, learning how to make milk-chocolate caramel.

After a brief lesson on the production of chocolate and a ill-advised dictation session in which the teacher made us copy down a series of recipes by hand (he would have cut about thirty minutes off the class's excessive 4.5 hour run-time had he given recipe handouts instead), we went straight to the kitchen, where we made six different fillings for truffles, including a mind-blowing milk-chocolate caramel, four different flavors of ganache, and a pineapple-flavored fondant, then proceeded to decorate molds, line them with chocolate, fill them, and turn them into six different shapes of truffles.

Me, engaged in my thirty minutes of vigorous stirring. Check out the motion blur!

We also undertook the onerous task of preparing almond dragées, which are blanched almonds coated in caramel, which causes them to clump together. They must then be vigorously stirred for approximately thirty minutes as the nuts roast and eventually come up to a high enough temperature to separate. Then, whoever is tasked with making them must pour the molten mixture out onto a Silpat to tediously separate the rapidly hardening candy with two forks. Finally, the candied nuts are coated in innumerable layers of chocolate and a coating of powdered sugar.

The instructor seemed to think this would be a good task for me after I breezed my way through the dark chocolate ganache (perhaps he thought I'd get cocky and wanted to bring me down a peg?), and then proceeded to make fun of me at every turn for lacking the bicep fortitude necessary to complete the task. I was not a fan. He then informed me that I was being too sensitive. Also not a fan. At least I picked up some caramel tips that I intend to apply to my future salted caramel sauce attempts...

Lauren, filling truffles with pineapple fondant. My dark chocolate ganache truffles are in the foreground.

For four and a half hours of candy making, I feel like we had a prodigious output. We ended up with dark chocolate ganache truffles, milk chocolate raspberry truffles, white chocolate macadamia nut truffles, dark chocolate chili truffles, pineapple fondant truffles, dark chocolate covered milk chocolate caramels, and the almond dragées. We made so many different candies, in fact, that sampling at the end for quality control was actually a bit overwhelming. After about three truffles, Lauren and I desperately agreed to split the rest going forward, and by the end, I achieved the impossible -- I was sick of eating chocolate. I'm not sure when I'll be able to eat it again, but I fear the contents of my goodie bag might go bad before I can eat them all.

Natasha, and our other two classmates, coating the almond dragées with chocolate.

Adding to the slightly unfriendly atmosphere in the kitchen, the instructor never so much as asked us for our names, nor did he have us introduce ourselves to one another. I feel kind of weird having shared such an intense learning experience with two strangers whose names I didn't even learn. I was pretty grateful that I brought friends with me, otherwise the entire evening probably would have felt even more hostile and alienating.

Near the end of the class, I was finally able to get a shot of the three of us together, which prompted the instructor to icily request that we pay attention to him and not each other.

I wouldn't exactly call the class a fun experience, though Natasha and Lauren didn't seem to share that assessment. It really was the exact opposite of the dumpling class -- all seriousness, and little joviality. I did learn quite a bit, though mostly I think I learned that chocolate making is extremely labor-intensive, and I have little desire to try it at home. Those pricey truffles in expensive artisan shops are worth every penny, and if I get a craving for them, I'll gladly fork over the money with a greater appreciation of the work that went into making them.

Without the Groupon, the class runs $200 per person, and considering the abuse I feel I took, I'm glad I didn't pay the full price for the experience. Furthermore, while I learned some handy candy-making tips, I probably won't be making truffles that elaborate ever again, so the main skills we covered will ultimately not be useful to me. It was an informative but exhausting evening, and I'm ultimately pleased to have gotten a deal on it.

Our collection of chocolates. Pretty professional-looking, eh?


A Most Delightful Folly...

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn? - Jane Austen

Occasionally, life gives us a truly ridiculous number of second chances. It's rare, but it does happen. Such was the case when I stumbled across an improv group based in Chicago (where we have an exceptional improv comedy scene in general), whose premise was creating on-the-spot improvised plays in the style of Jane Austen. I first saw them mentioned in an article in the Metromix section of the local free paper near the end of 2008, and in the past intervening two and a half years I approached basically everyone I knew about going. People moved away before we could go, they procrastinated making solid plans until the troupe had ended their engagement at a given theater, or they never responded to my invitations at all. Still, I followed The Improvised Jane Austen on Facebook, and held out hope that eventually I'd make it there.

Finally, the stars aligned and I was able to make it there tonight, though it took making a new friend for it to happen. Recently, I randomly ran into my old college friend, Brad, at a suburban liquor store when I was purchasing Calvados for my apple pie and apple sorbet experiments. He happened to mention that he and his wife were in the market for new couples to hang out with, having relocated last year to Chicago, so Justin and I went out to dinner with them a couple weeks later. There, I discovered that Brad's wife, Chaya, not only takes improv classes as a hobby, but is also into literature. Finally, it seemed, I had found the perfect person with whom to catch The Improvised Jane Austen.

The troupe is currently engaged in a run at the Chemically Imbalanced Theater, and their performance is prefaced with a ever-changing roster of opening acts. We saw an improv duo called "Dry Toast," who were approximately as exciting as their moniker implied. They were apparently engaged in a form of improv called a "Harold," though I didn't know that until I described it later to Justin, who was part of an improv group in college. They performed a series of tangentially related sketches, none of which were particularly funny, and I was mostly relieved when they were finally finished and the headlining act came on stage.

As one might expect, after three years of waiting to see The Improvised Jane Austen, it wasn't quite as good as I had built it up to be in my mind. Yes, it was a love letter to all the tropes and cliches of Austen's writing style, but at the same time, her books aren't necessarily known for their humor. To make things funny, the comediennes took the material to a bluer, raunchier place that Miss Austen would have found positively shocking. Most of the jokes were based on the male characters thrusting their crotches at people, and remarking about how "very masculine" they were. The remainder of the jokes had to do with the unfair disparities between a ridiculous but beautiful sister who is given preference by all over her intelligent but more plain sibling, which was, at least, textbook Austen.

The story they were spinning was hard to follow at best, and as far as I could tell, even the participants had trouble keeping their character's names straight. It did have its comedic moments, and I got more than a few laughs out of the performance, but on balance, it wasn't especially memorable. I'm glad I finally got to go and satisfy my curiosity, plus it was a perfect event to attend with a new friend, but in the future, if I want to get a much-needed dose of witty ladies and dashing gentlemen, I'll pop in a DVD of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility and catch up with Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Marianne, and Elinor.


Shake It Like A Polaroid Picture...

Despite owning an iPhone, I wouldn't describe myself as a particularly gadget-oriented individual. I don't really take advantage of my phone's capabilities; I still use a regular iPod because I don't want to tie up my phone's memory with music files, and I still carry around a digital camera at all times, because I like its macro features and zoom lens. After almost two years of owning it, I have just slightly over two pages of apps, and only 21 of them didn't come with the phone. Of those, I probably only use 8 of them regularly.

Still, when Justin got a smart phone a couple weeks ago, I couldn't help but feel a little deficient when he announced the number of apps he'd gleefully installed on his new acquisition and it was more than three times as many as I had. Not surprisingly, he's way more into technology than I am, but I still felt like I should be doing more to use my phone to its best advantage. So I went on a app hunting spree, and found four new ones (included in my count of 21, so up until just recently I only had 17,) for a variety of useful things like converting metric to English measurements, storing my grocery list, and scanning those annoying QR codes that advertisers have decided to stick on everything nowadays. (Man, that last one makes me sound old and grumpy, doesn't it?)

By far the best of my new apps is Instagram, a free version of the popular photo-editing program Hipstamatic, which features a variety of built-in filters that mimic the photography effects seen in vintage film cameras. It lets you create your very own digital Polaroids, and it makes iPhone photography a much more creative, interesting process. Here are some of the pictures I've edited lately using Instagram:

Sunset, from the corner of Clark and Division.

I actually snapped this photo after work this winter, when the sun was setting earlier, but never did anything with it because it wasn't that good on its own. Cropping and applying a filter that slightly intensified the colors made it much more compelling.

Mosaic, Wicker Park.

I love mosaics, and I saw this one on the side of a school when I was strolling down Division last week, killing time while I waited for Justin's family to arrive for dinner before seeing The Rose from Stambul. I love how vibrant and saturated the colors are.

Ghost Sign, Wicker Park.

I also spotted this one when I was out on my walk last week, and we all know I can't resist documenting a ghost sign when I see it. I like how the filter in this one washes out the color a bit more, and adds to the faded, retro vibe.

Chopin Theater, Wicker Park.

This one I snapped during an intermission for The Rose from Stambul, which was playing at the delightfully eclectic, perhaps only slightly over-decorated Chopin Theater. Virtually every interior surface of the building was covered in some sort of kitsch, so photo opportunities were rife. I think the colors and composition of this photo give it a certain aura of mystery.

Instagram is the most exciting app I've downloaded since Angry Birds, and I appreciate the fact that it's caused me to be more aware of my surroundings as I search for the next quirky photo opportunity. Not only am I getting better use out of my iPhone, I'm also exercising my creativity and finding greater beauty in the world around me. Not too shabby...


Open Sesame...

Now, I know I said yesterday that I was trying to branch out a bit in terms of my new dessert experiments, but let's be real here -- did you really think I could stay away from cookies forever? Especially when you take into account the fact that my copy of Alice Medrich's new cookbook, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies just arrived from Amazon late last week? No, I think not.

After stalking my mailbox all week long, the first thing I did when the package finally arrived was tear it open and pour over the book from cover to cover. Although I had high hopes for Medrich's new book after finding great inspiration in Pure Dessert, I found myself a little disappointed in her latest outing. First of all, it contained several recipes that I'd seen in her other books, like the Nibby Whole Wheat Sablés that I baked not more than a month ago, and the Golden Kamut Shortbreads also from Pure Dessert. Honestly, recycling recipes from her old books seemed a little cheap to me, no matter how good they were in the first place.

Also, the organization of Medrich's new book, if you couldn't tell based on the title, is based on cookie texture, which seemed like a blatant rip-off from my usual go-to cookie cookbook, Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share. In fact, the books are even approximately the same size, and come in the same paperback format. The recipes from Medrich seem a bit more gourmet, with ingredients that are harder to locate in regular stores, though not necessarily any less labor intensive than Martha's. However, Martha's book has significantly more pictures, which actually makes it much more inspiring, in my opinion. It has a beautifully-styled photo of every single recipe that tempts you to make every last cookie, whereas Medrich relies on the powers of description alone.

One of the limited photos did capture my interest though, for long, skinny cookies speckled with toasted sesame seeds. I'm more or less indifferent to sesame as a flavor, but the technique was unlike anything I'd seen before in a cookie: a crumbly, pie crust-like dough gets pressed into the bottom of a loaf pan, creating a thin layer that is then sliced crosswise to create strips of dough. It was an innovative riff on the classic slice-and-bake cookie, and I wanted to give it a spin. Plus, Justin likes sesame seeds, so I figured he, at least, would be a fan.

The cookies, which were found in the "Crispy" chapter of the book were definitely more crunchy than crispy, but that might have been because the exceedingly crumbly dough was nearly impossible to cut into sticks as thin as those pictured in the book's photo. That said, they were still quite good, with a a pleasantly nutty flavor and a buttery finish. They weren't overly sweet, so I think they would make a nice accompaniment to a cup of tea, or perhaps a dish of ice cream.

Sesame Sticks
adapted from Alice Medrich

1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
2/3 c. sugar
1/3 c. lightly toasted sesame seeds
1/3 c. ground blanched almonds
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cold water

Put the flour, sugar, sesame seeds, almonds, and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk to blend. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender until butter is reduced to small pieces. With the fingertips of both hands, lightly toss and rub the mixture together until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Combine the vanilla and water in a small bowl. Stir the flour and butter mixture with a fork while the water and vanilla into the bowl. Continue to toss and stir lightly with the fork or your fingers until all the dry ingredients are slightly damp. The dough should remain crumbly and stick together only when pinched.

Dump the mixture into a 5x9 inch loaf pan lined with aluminum foil, and spread it evenly. Press it very firmly, making a thin layer. Fold the foil over the dough and wrap it tightly. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Unwrap the dough and transfer it to a cutting board. Use a long sharp knife to cut the dough crosswise into 1/4-inch (or thinner, if possible) slices. Use the knife to transfer each slice to a parchment-lined baking sheet, placing the slices 1 inch apart. The slices will be fragile and require the support of the knife in transit.

Bake for 12-18 minutes, until the cookies are golden with golden brown edges. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool completely before eating or storing.