Open House...

Ever since Justin and I first looked at our new home, one of the greatest proponents of our move (after my mother, who has been, by far, our biggest champion) has been my friend, Lauren. This could have something to do with the fact that we used to live about a mile and half from each other, and got to hang out all the time, until she moved with her husband to Evanston. When I told her we were looking in Roger's Park, she was thrilled at the prospect that we might be living close to each other once again, and when our short sale finally came through, she began eagerly lobbying to see our new place.

Generally speaking, I've been reluctant to let anyone see it until it's completed, since it's full of dust and our much patched and yet-to-be-painted walls look rather diseased, but today was Lauren's birthday, so I invited her to come hang out in our new dining room table while Justin and I worked on painting and cleaning. Though I would usually bake something to commemorate such an event, because I'd only been in town one night since returning from St. Louis, Justin and I picked up some treats from a bakery for Lauren's birthday, and proceeded to do our first entertaining in our new house.

It was low-key, and I worked on scrubbing old grease off the fronts of our kitchen cabinets while we talked, but it was nice to open our home to a friend who's been such a supporter of our move. We're both looking forward to having Lauren and Clarence over as guests more often in the future -- after all, we're back to being kinda-almost-sorta neighbors!


The Muppets...

The day I have been waiting for all year has finally arrived – after months and months of teasers, trailers, and other marketing devices designed to drum up interest that, for me, had started the moment I first heard about it, I have finally seen The Muppets. As I’ve explored here before on several occasions, my love for the Muppets runs deep, and may, in fact, be genetic. I’d probably go see anything involving the Muppets, but even a fan of my intensity must admit that movies haven’t really been their best medium in recent years. 1999’s Muppets from Space was an unmitigated disaster, and the movie that almost killed the franchise. A string of lackluster television movies followed, all of them equally forgettable. The new millennium has been unkind to the Muppet fan base. 

Still, I held out hope that the puppets' latest outing would turn things around, like Star Trek did for its eponymous franchise in 2009, or Batman Begins did in 2005. Luckily, my hope proved to be very well-placed. 

I was a little skeptical when I saw that the film was being written by Jason Segel, whose writing credits include Forgetting Sarah Marshall. What would a man primarily known for his television work and for doing full frontal nudity know about the Muppets? As it turns out, quite a lot – he’s a life-long fan with an interest in puppetry. Accordingly, while The Muppets had a bit of a more modern sensibility, it still felt true to its roots.

There was less gross-out humor than I would have expected from a man with Segel’s oeuvre, and the movie was imbued with a whimsical sense of innocence that occasionally seemed a bit too self-conscious. Aside from these moments when the movie felt like it was veering into taking an overly ironic view of itself, it was still a highly enjoyable film overall.

It felt good to be reunited with characters that are so familiar they’re almost like friends. The gang was all there, and no single character received too much screen time, except maybe the film’s new character, Walter. My only criticism on that front would be that I would have liked more time with Kermit, Piggy, Fozzy and crew, but Walter’s storyline was sweet nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of “Man or Muppet” with Segel and a cameo by Segel’s fellow CBS star, Jim Parsons. Plus, Walter’s defining moment, which I shan’t spoil for you, comes complete with a performance by the incomparable Andrew Bird, which is always a good thing in my book.

I feel like it's safe to say that the Muppets have finally found their way in the new millennium. They're back, hopefully to stay. Even if you aren't the superfan that I am, go check out The Muppets. You won't regret it.


Happy Thanksgiving...

To be honest, I was a little bit bummed this year that Justin and I were unable to work out a holiday compromise so that we could spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together. Justin’s parents originally made arrangements for him to fly out to Colorado to spend the week with them at their vacation home there, but he ended up snarled in a scheduling snafu at work, and had to spend most of the holiday weekend working. 

We’ve already started negotiations on a deal for next year, so hopefully we won’t have to be apart for the holidays again. This year, however, I found myself headed down to St. Louis without him, much to the chagrin of my paternal relatives, who are especially keen to meet him for the first time. I can’t really blame them though… he is pretty great.

Thanksgiving with Dad’s family was spent in all the traditional ways.  All of our classic dishes were there, along with a few new items: salad with mandarin oranges, almonds, and celery; a range of cranberry preparations; perfect homemade rolls from my cousin Andy’s new wife, Chelsea; broccoli-rice casserole with Velveeta cheese (I think this might actually be my favorite item on the menu); corn casserole (most decidedly not my favorite dish of the day); green bean casserole; Aunt Dolly’s much-beloved rice and ground meat stuffing; Aunt Faye’s traditional bread stuffing; sweet potatoes with the marshmallows (which I actually ate this year for the first time, though I dug down to the bottom to get some without the sugary topping); mashed potatoes and gravy; and of course, turkey.

I’m unclear as to how many turkeys we prepared this year, but it had to have been a lot to serve our crowd. I did my best to count the people in attendance and came up with a minimum of 45 people. I don’t know how my cousin Candy does it, but she’s a saint for hosting such a large group every year. Furthermore, we found out that next year our family will be growing of factor of three; one engagement and one pregnancy were both announced today, and another cousin of mine is due to have a baby sometime this winter.

 My contribution to the annual potluck, as per usual, came in dessert form. I brought the gingersnap almonds that I’ve already discussed, and the “S” cookies that are a family tradition on Dad’s side. In defiance of his numerous persistent demands, I did not make orange icing to decorate them with (not everyone in your family is a Fighting Illini fan, dear), but instead opted for a lovely burgundy shade more in keeping with my own personal taste. Thankfully, Mom and I both wore purple so we could match our dessert.

More popular than my homemade offerings was, I believe, the bag of Garrett’s caramel corn that I picked up on my way home from work yesterday and brought down on the plane. Dad’s relatives always request a visit there when they’re in town, so I thought I’d surprise them with a bag, and it was a huge hit. The jumbo-size bag was gone by early evening.

Of course, we also played our annual games of bingo and “rob your neighbor,” though I chose to sneak in a nap during the latter, as I’ve long boycotted that particular game for what I perceive to be its undermining of family affection togetherness, in contradiction of the holiday spirit.

Cousin Daniel wore this awesome turkey hat all day.

Overall, there was much to be thankful for this year, from good food, to happy news, to the mere chance to see so many familiar faces in one spot. Spending our Thanksgiving is a tradition for us that goes back so far, there is actually a video that we watched at last year’s Thanksgiving of seven-month old me, rolling around on the floor with seven-month old cousin Daniel, while my cousin Sheri cradles my newborn cousin TJ in her arms. 

Even though the family has expanded by leaps and bounds since then, we’re still gathering just as we always have. It means a lot to me that we’ve maintained our traditions across all those years, and that my huge family is so close in spite of the distances that separate us. I’m grateful to have been able to spend Thanksgiving surrounded by so much love (“rob your neighbor” excluded.) Happy Thanksgiving!


Almond Joy...

It's pretty clear that the stress of moving is wearing on me. The process is feeling endless right now, and I'm starting to get pretty bummed out over my inability to celebrate the holiday season like usual. It doesn't help that I keep fielding inquiries from friends about when I'm going to have my annual cookie exchange. It's sad enough to me that I won't be able to host, without having to remember that I'm disappointing the people around me. As a result, I've kind of lost my mojo a bit.

I was slated to bring a dessert to our annual Thanksgiving gathering in St. Louis this week, but absolutely nothing was inspiring me. I looked through my old recipes, browsed around online, reviewed my bookmarked items on Pinterest, and even went through my beloved Martha Stewart tome, and found literally nothing I wanted to bake. I think a large part of the problem stemmed from the fact that what I really wanted to make was a pie, but that would have been too difficult to bring on the plane, so I was limited to things that would transport easily. I ended up going with a batch of "S" cookies, since they're a family tradition among Dad's relatives, but it felt like kind of a cop-out.

Finally, inspiration found me, in the form of an email forwarded from my friend Lauren, which contained a recipe from Mama's Nuts, the business venture of some of Darrell's X-Marx buddies. They sell nut brittles and are particularly well known for their spicy Szechuan peanuts, and Lauren and I picked up some of their wares at a Dose Market a few months ago. I was very impressed with the quality of their products, so I was excited to get to try one of their recipes myself. 

Although the recipe was for almonds with a coating reminiscent of gingerbread, and I generally abhor molasses in all forms, I decided to give them a try anyway. I ended up being glad I did, because the folks at Mama's Nuts know their stuff -- the flavor of the nuts was fantastic! I did make a couple changes in the form of more salt and less cayenne (just personal preferences), but the results were a perfect storm of everything that we look for in a snack food -- salty, sweet, spicy, and crunchy. My only problem was that I couldn't locate roasted, unsalted almonds at my local grocery store, so I went with raw almonds, which was a mistake. They were a little bit soggy, but they still tasted great. 

While I was cooking them, I was certain that the recipe would never work. Basically, you create a super-saturated syrup with the sugar and molasses, which crystallizes when it dries. As I was reducing and stirring it, I was sure it would never set up properly and that I would end up with a wet, sticky mess, but I shouldn't have doubted.

If you wrap these up in a little cellophane pouch with a ribbon, I think these would make an ideal holiday gift -- something slightly unusual and homemade. Go forth, track down the right type of almonds, and go nuts!

Spicy Gingersnap Almonds
from Mama's Nuts

1/4 c. molasses
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. water
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
12 oz. roasted, skin-on almonds, unsalted

1. In a wide, shallow pot, combine molasses, water, and sugar. Simmer to make a thick syrup.
2. When the syrup is reduced, add the spices to bloom. Cook a few minutes longer.
3. Turn off heat and add almonds. Stir to coat, and continue stirring until the nuts begin to separate and dry, and the sugars crystallize.
4. Spread nuts on a cookie sheet several hours to cool completely.


Getting Better All The Time...

Once again, the majority of my weekend was devoted to working on our new condo. I dedicated yesterday (theater-going aside) to a suburban shopping journey in which I selected new rugs, picked up crafting supplies to make a "floral" arrangement for our new dining room (I use air quotes there because it will consists mostly of dried sticks), and, of course, made one of the many, many Home Depot trips that have already happened and will continue to happen for the foreseeable future. Today, I met Mom over at the condo for another day of manual labor (no Justin today, as he had to work.)

I tackled the jacuzzi again, putting it through another two cleaning cycles until I ran out of Cascade, and am happy to report that it was only putting out a few negligible pieces of debris by the time I was finished. It's not perfect, but the huge chunks of brown mold are gone and it's come a long way since I started this process two weeks ago. I'm ready to proclaim victory at last -- it only took nine cycles to get it acceptably clean...

The clean jacuzzi. At least I can take solace in the fact that it won't require so much water to fill it when there is a body in it to displace some of the volume.

In other bleach-related news, I removed all the shelves and drawers from the refrigerator and sanitized them, and the inside of the fridge, with a bleach solution. I didn't have a chance to get to the freezer yet, but the fridge is now move-in ready.

Mom spent the day cleaning grease from the tops of our kitchen cabinets (which nobody will ever see, unless they are standing on our kitchen counters, but at least we have the satisfaction of knowing they're clean, I suppose), as well as painting the area over the cabinets. This latter development means that our kitchen/living/dining room is very nearly finished, with the exception of only the window wells. I'm really pleased with how the color combination came out, and I think Mom and Justin did a great job with it.

I also tackled a few small projects for the day, such as putting felt sliders on our dining room furniture, which was delivered on Thursday while Mom and Justin were there working and I was at the office. I'm really happy with the furniture I picked out from Dania -- our dining room table serves six, and expands to fit up to ten guests, which will be perfect for entertaining and hosting dinner parties. I got a deal on the matching buffet table, as they had a floor sample for sale in the same finish, and saving money is always a good feeling. Finally, I'm glad I decided to go with upholstered chairs instead of solid wood, because our room was starting to feel a little wood-centric, between the dining room furniture, the Brazilian cherry floors, the cherry cabinets, the giant wenge entertainment center, and a wenge bookshelf that I hope to put in the room as well. The neutral fabric helps break things up a little, in addition to creating some nice texture.

I still have to hang the artwork I have picked out for this space, but the dining alcove is currently the most complete space in our new home.
Lastly, I arranged the curly willow for the vase on the buffet table, which I found at a furniture outlet store that was going out of business (where I also got my nightstands, but you won't get to see those until we officially move and there's actually some other furniture in the bedroom besides just those.) The vase appealed to me because it has circles on it (aesthetically, I love anything circle-themed, and you'll probably notice that as a common theme in my decorating), and I really love the texture it brings to the area. Initially, I was worried about the height of the curly willow, and had thought about trimming it down, but given the scale of our ceilings, I think the dramatic height of it really works. I'm going to have to rethink how I'm going to hang the three photos that I have picked out for that wall, but I think it's worth tweaking my vision.

It's great to have some observable progress under our belts, but when I stop and think about the fact that we still have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a ton of packing ahead of us, I start to get seriously overwhelmed. I'm going to have to forgo a lot of my usual Christmas traditions this year, including my usual decorating and my annual cookie exchange. I know it will be worth it in the end, to be sharing a space I love with the man I love, but I can't help be a little sad over the sacrifices I'm making this holiday season. I just hope I can figure out a way to make my annual Cookie Bonanza happen this year. I'm not willing to let that one fall by the wayside just yet. In the meantime, I'm going to try to focus on one task at a time, and not think too hard about everything that needs to get done...


The Final Frontier...

Although things are pretty busy around here, I did manage to carve out some time this evening to hit the theater in support of my friend Jessica, the budding playwright, whose latest work, Space Wars: The Panto! is being produced at the Piccolo Theater in Evanston this holiday season. Justin and I made an evening of it with my friend Jess, from work, who had voiced her interest in the production when I mentioned it at work a couple weeks ago. Jess is both a sci-fi enthusiast and a bit of an anglophile, so the prospect of a panto (a traditionally British form of comedic theater) was particularly appealing to her, and I was happy to help spread the word of Jessica's play to others.

I wouldn't exactly say that Space Wars was my cup of tea -- audience participation and physical comedy don't really appeal to me in any context -- but it seemed that Jessica was right at home in the genre. Her pop culture references, which seemed a little forced in The Trojan War felt wholly appropriate in Space Wars, even if some of them stemmed from a place so nerdy that even I was left in the dark about a great number of them. (The audience needs to be fluent in Battlestar Galactica as well as Dr. Who in addition to Star Trek and Star Wars to get all the jokes.) 

The plot may have been a bit too complicated, drawing the play out longer than it really needed to be, but the audience seemed to be engaged and enjoying the many twists and turns. The show seemed to particularly appeal to the numerous children in the audience, which may have something to do with Jessica's long-time attraction to children's theater. Even if they couldn't get all the references, the slapstick humor and cartoonish staging seemed designed to appeal to kids.

My favorite part of the evening was a black-lit space battle between glow-in-the-dark puppets, which drew on all the relevant conventions from the awesomely bad early sci-fi movies from the 1950s. The actors must also be commended, especially those who were dressed in drag for the duration of the evening (apparently, gender-bending is a panto tradition, which dates back to its origins during the Victorian era), as everyone gave a lively, appropriately campy performance.

Overall, I'd recommend Space Wars: The Panto! for a night of light entertainment, particularly if you're a sci-fi nerd, and even more so if you need to entertain children for the evening. Kudos to Jessica for having another one of her works produced, and for cultivating a longstanding relationship with a theater group (the Piccolo Theater has produced one of Jessica's pantos every holiday season for the past few years now; I just haven't been able to make it in the past.) Congratulations!


Oh, Happy Day...

I've read that happiness (and its counterpart, misery) are contagious. When the people in your circle are happy, you feel happier too, and vice versa. Tonight, I'm ready to believe that assertion, because I'm positively floating on cloud nine after receiving two fantastic pieces of news this week. First, one of my coworker friends found out that she's pregnant after struggling with infertility treatments. Then tonight, I received a hilarious, and oddly apologetic voicemail from my friend, Sarah, begging forgiveness because she had to cancel our dinner outing tomorrow night. Her reason? She'd literally just gotten engaged!

Sarah and Zack are the couple that Justin and I hang out with most often, so we're both thrilled for them. I am SO excited for the two of them, and wish them nothing but the best of luck in this new step they've taken. Congratulations guys!


Home Is Where The Heart Is...

It's Sunday again, and that means another day of work over at our new place. Justin and Mom focused on patching and painting again (I'm too afraid of heights to be coaxed onto a ladder to reach our eleven foot ceilings, so I've been leaving this task to them), and made some good progress in the combination living/dining room. They've started with the main color for the room, which will be a greyish shade of beige. For most of my life, I've decried beige as a paint color, but given that I'm going to be sharing my space with a straight male, I figured it was better to trend toward neutral colors and pick statement colors for our accents, like the aubergine in the dining room and around our fireplace. I don't want things to get too girly in there.

For my part, I did further battle with the god-forsaken moldy jacuzzi, putting it through two more cycles with the bleach and Cascade, and a rinse cycle, only to have it spew forth more muck and dirty. It's disgusting, and there's no further wisdom on the Internet about what to do about the situation besides the universally recommended bleach/Cascade solution. I'm trying to figure out how much longer I should keep trying this before I consider investing in a commercial jacuzzi cleaning product to see if that would be any more effective. I guess I'll see how things go next week.
I also took on the interior of our kitchen cabinets (I figured there was little point in trying to get the grease and dirt off the outsides until Justin and Mom are done sanding in there). I scrubbed them all out with some mild detergent, with an assist from Justin who used his greater height and longer arms to reach some of the cabinets that were too deep for me to access, even with a step-stool. I was drawn to this condo largely due to the fantastic kitchen, which has tons of cabinets and storage space, but I was certainly mentally cursing that decision when it came time to clean them all! Some of the cabinets were so deep, if they hadn't had shelves, I'm pretty confident I could have crawled completely inside them!

Today was mostly notable because Dad brought over some carryout from Leona's, a nearby Italian restaurant where my family used to eat regularly back when we lived in Evanston over 20 years ago. Justin and I had brought over a folding table for the occasion, and we gathered around it to have our first meal in our new house. Everyone's gotta start somewhere, right?

How skinny does my Mom look? So proud of her and her weight loss!


How Sweet It Is...

The record will show that I need very little excuse to bake. I'll bake at the drop of the hat, just because I feel like doing it, and because, as I mentioned last week, it helps relieve stress for me. However, having a raison d'ĂȘtre for creating my baked goods does give me a certain creative spark. If I'm baking for a specific occasion, like Justin's birthday, to take a recent example, or my yearly Cookie Bonanza, I try to push myself to go the extra mile.

Accordingly, when my turn came around again on the Cake Day roster at work, I started making grandiose plans. I've been bookmarking cake recipes like crazy ever since my success with Justin's birthday cake, and I'd been looking for an opportunity to try my hand at it again with a large enough audience to properly consume the end product. Cake Day would provide just the opportunity I was looking for. Alas, my dreams of towering layer cake perfection were not to be this week. I ended up having too much on my plate this weekend between fixing up our new place and making dinner for Justin's parents' Sunday night to get a proper head start on an elaborate Cake Day tour de force. That particular aspiration will have to simmer on the back burner for a while.

Instead, I turned once more to my old friend, Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats to Bake and Share, and selected a new recipe, just to give my skills a bit of a stretch at the very least. Having loved the Macadamia-Maple Sticky Bars I baked with Katherine in May, I'd been curious about Martha's recipe for pecan bars ever since, wondering if they could possibly live up to the recipe I'd already tried. Plus, pecan bars are reminiscent of pecan pie, which is a typical Thanksgiving treat, so I could make a nod to seasonality without baking yet another pumpkin dessert, which have been dominating the Cake Day offerings since the start of fall.

I've long been enamored with the idea of pecan pie, as it combines three things that ought to be delicious -- pecans, caramel-y filling, and pie crust, but more often than not, it's an overly sweet mess. I know pecans are expensive, but that's no excuse for a pecan pie to be 90% corn syrupy goo. These bar cookies resolve that problem by spreading a thin layer of nuts and honey-based caramel over a crisp shortbread base. There actually could have been a few more nuts, as they were a little sparse for my liking, but there was just enough filling to tie the whole thing together without it becoming overwhelming.

Overall, the bars went over well with the Cake Day crowd, and I was happy with how they turned out, even if I'd rather have baked an actual cake. The pecan bars were, however, not nearly as good as the Macadamia-Maple Sticky Bars, so I think I'll look to those again if I'm looking to make a caramel-nut flavored cookie. They're still in the top five of baked goods to come out of my kitchen this year, and while I'm glad to have satisfied my curiosity about Martha's pecan bars, I'll be sticking with what works from now on.

Pecan Bars
adapted from Martha Stewart

18 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 c. all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
6 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 oz pecan halves
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375.
1. To make the crust: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add salt, and mix to combine. Add flour 1 cup at a time, on medium speed, mixing until fully incorporated after each addition. Continue mixing until the dough begins to come together in large clumps.
2. Press dough about 1/4-inch thick into a 9-by-13-by-1-inch baking pan lined with parchment paper. Prick the pastry with the tines of a fork. Chill until firm, about 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely
3. Reduce oven to 325 degrees. To make the filling: Place butter, brown sugar, honey, granulated sugar, heavy cream, and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until mixture coats the back of a spoon, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat; stir in nuts and vanilla.
4. Pour filling onto the cooled crust. Bake until filling bubbles, 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Run a paring knife around edges of the pan, and pull parchment to remove to a cutting board. Peel off the parchment, leaving the pastry filling side up. Use a sharp knife to cut into 1-by-3-inch bars. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.


Our House (Will Be) A Very, Very, Very Fine House...

You'll have to forgive me if things are a little quiet around here the next couple months. I'm trading in my routine of evenings at the theater, dinners with friends, movie-going, and other more glamorous pursuits for paintbrushes and bottles of bleach. Justin and I are giving up most of our free-time to whip our new place into shape, and that includes patching and painting the entire place, sanitizing the bathrooms, and cleaning the kitchen. It won't make for much of an exciting read, I'm afraid, but I'll do my best to document it nevertheless.

Justin's already started working with my mom on the patching and painting (they began while I was in Italy), but today marked my first day of work on our condo.

While Justin and Mom started applying this deep shade of aubergine to the accent wall in our dining alcove (it dries darker than it looks in this photo), I started doing battle with our mold-infested jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom. When we had the unit inspected prior to buying it, the inspector pointed out that it was badly in need of a cleaning, but even after two cycles of cleaning it with a bleach and Cascade concoction universally recommended on the Internet, the jets were still spewing chunks of blackish-brown mold when they were activated. Seriously gross.

Unfortunately, my cleaning escapades revealed a troubling fact: our hot water runs out before we can even fill the (admittedly enormous tub). I'm not sure what this means for the usability of the jacuzzi once I finally get it clean (I'll be trying again next week), but it needs to be cleaned whether we end up using it much or not. Thankfully, there's a smaller, jacuzzi-free bathtub in the guest bathroom that I'll be able to use for my beloved baths on a regular basis, if necessary.

It's kind of disappointing how little visible progress we seemed to make this weekend, but every little bit gets us closer to our goal. After all, they say that the longest journey starts with a single step...


No Holds Barred...

People often like to say that cooking is an art, and baking is a science. Cooking is more forgiving; you rely on your instincts to add a bit of this and a bit of that to balance flavors and create the kind of dish you're looking for. Baking is exact; chemicals interact in certain ways to create lift, tenderness, and moisture. If you're going to start making substitutions in your baked goods, you better know what you're doing, or you'll more than likely end up with something too bland, too dry, too dense, too tough, or some other kind of wrong. This is often the problem encountered by people trying to create their own reduced-fat recipes for cakes and cookies. It doesn't help that you can't taste as you go along -- the baking process alone transforms a dough or batter so greatly that it's often impossible to predict how the finished product will taste until it is done.

The need for precision is actually one of the primary things I like about baking. If you start with a decent recipe, if you follow everything exactly, you end up with a reasonably tasty end result. There's something reassuring about that to me. I can control how well I measure my ingredients, how long I mix a dough, and how long I leave something in the oven. When everything else in my life feels like it is veering wildly out of control, baking is often where I turn as a source of solace.

I'm more than a little overwhelmed about the prospect of my upcoming move. Change is ultimately good, and I am definitely excited to be creating a home to share with the man I love, but I seriously have a TON of stuff. All those belongings need to be sorted, purged, and packed. It feels like an insurmountable amount to accomplish, though I know I will tackle it eventually. I'm also facing a dizzying amount of decisions about paint, furniture, and decorating. I do love that sort of thing, and I've long been looking forward to designing a space that is properly mine, but that doesn't make it any less stressful. Generally speaking, I just feel like I have a lot on my plate right now.

That's why I felt that familiar urge to bake something tonight. I grabbed Martha's reliable tome off the shelf and flipped through it till I found a recipe that called for melted butter, so I wouldn't have to wait for it to come to room temperature before I could get started -- the baking needed to happen now. Blondies aren't necessarily my favorite, but I had all the ingredients on hand and they would come together quickly, so I opted for Martha's Brown-Butter Toffee Blondies. 

I've had mixed results with brown butter in the past and I kind of don't understand what the big deal about it is, other than that it makes your kitchen smell ungodly amazing when you make it. I don't really pick up on the flavor of it in the finished cookies, but it did produce perhaps the most fragrant cookie dough I've ever made, so that could be worth the effort unto itself. Thankfully, the finished cookies turned out to be chewy in texture, rather than the "cakey and tender" promised by Martha. I really prefer chewy as a cookie texture any day. Even with one and half teaspoons of salt, I felt the recipe could have used more, but then again, I've always been a fan of the salty/sweet interplay in my baked goods. 

Really though, the cookies being tasty wasn't the point. I felt better after baking them, so the experience was more about the therapeutic value of the process than the end result for me. I'm sure, however, that the coworkers who will benefit from them at the office will readily endorse my chosen form of therapy...

Brown-Butter Toffee Blondies
adapted from Martha Stewart

1 1/4 c. unsalted butter
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 c. granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 c. chopped walnuts
1 c. toffee bits

Preheat oven to 350.
1. Spray a 9x13 inch baking pan with Pam. Line the pan with parchment paper, and spray with Pam with Flour.
2. In a saucepan over medium heat, cook the butter until it turns golden brown and smells like toasted hazelnuts; remove from heat, and let cool. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine browned butter and both sugars; stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Attach bowl to mixer; add eggs. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add vanilla, and beat to combine. Add flour mixture, walnuts, and toffee bits. Mix until thoroughly combined, and pour into prepared pan.
4. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes (do not overbake). Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before pulling out of pan onto a cutting board. Peel off parchment paper; cut blondies as desired.