I Love 2012...

Back at the beginning of the year, I predicted that 2012 would be the year of quiet domesticity, but I was wrong -- if anything, 2012 has been a year for change. Yes, on a day-to-day basis, I did less around town than in years past. Justin and I saw far fewer plays, fewer movies, and ate out less, though with my new restaurant column, we may have actually tried more new restaurants. We stayed close to home, and I managed to try over a hundred new recipes from my seemingly endless recipe queue. But looking at 2012 on such a finite scale ignores the huge changes that happened in my life this year.

I left the South Loop, where I had lived for four years for free, for my own condo in Roger's Park, that I share with the man I love. It's been about eleven months now, and our house feels like home to me. With the exception of hanging the curtains in the master bedroom (in almost a year, I haven't managed to work up the energy to tackle all that ironing), we have finished all the short-term projects I wanted to tackle. And we have opened our home to friends and family for more dinner parties and festive gatherings than I can count. 2012 was certainly a great year for entertaining for us.

Though it wasn't my choice, I also left my job at the Chicago History Museum after four years. For the first time, I learned what it is like to be unemployed when you have bills to pay, and I had the joy of experiencing a relentless series of frustrating interactions with the state's unemployment benefits system. I was incredibly lucky to find a new job in about a month and a half, and though finding my footing at ASSH has been a challenge, it's been challenging in a good way. I feel like I am growing and expanding my skill set every day, and I am looking forward to establishing more of a routine in the next year.

Introspection aside, the end of the year is usually the time when I reflect back on the previous 365 days and evaluate the highlights. So without further ado, here are my favorite things about 2012:
  • Best New Recipe - Savory: After trying so many new dishes in 2012, you'd think it would be hard to single out a favorite, but you'd be wrong. Far and away, the best new dish to come out of my kitchen in 2012 was the banh mi burger recipe I improvised to use up some leftover ground pork that was hanging out in my freezer. I did a mash-up of an awesome, but labor intensive meatball banh mi recipe we had tried earlier in the year with a random Asian pork burger recipe that I found online, and the results were so good that we repeated this recipe over and over through the summer and fall on our new Weber grill. We made it for guests, we made it for ourselves, and we occasionally doubled the recipe so we'd have lots of leftovers because they were that good. If you try one recipe from my blog this year (and you eat pork), let it be this one. 
  • Best New Recipe - Sweet: This category is actually much more difficult for me this year, because I did so much less baking than usual. If I had to pick just one thing, however, that stands above the rest, it would have to be the Mexican Chocolate Tart with Cinnamon-Spiced Pecans that I made for Cinco de Mayo, the first time Justin's family came to see our new home. I had actually eaten the recipe before when a colleague made it, and the memory of it came back to me at just the right time. I finally got to put my tart pan to good use, Justin's family was very impressed, and I have enough leftover Ibarra to make it again if I want to. It's a win-win situation, as far as I'm concerned. 
  • Favorite Movie: In case you hadn't noticed, I have stopped reviewing films here on "The State I Am In," because I stopped enjoying writing the posts for them. That doesn't mean that I stopped going to movies, however, though I fell somewhat short of my goal of seeing one a month for the year. Nevertheless, I'm going to say that the best thing I saw this year was probably The Sessions, an indie film telling the true story of a profoundly paralyzed man and his quest to explore his sexuality through visiting a sexual surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. Despite its content, the film was far from tawdry, and it explored the subject matter with surprising humor and depth of emotion. The performances were incredible, and I find myself hoping that Helen Hunt gets an Oscar nomination, and even a win for her work in this role. 
  • Favorite Album: Though Mumford and Sons released a new album, Babel, this year, I still haven't gotten around to downloading it yet, so this accolade is going to have to go to Andrew Bird's Break It Yourself. I know, I know, it's the predictable choice for me, and it technically came out in December of 2011, but that's so late in the year that I'm counting Break It Yourself as a 2012 album. As with many of Bird's releases, it took some time for this recording to grow on me, but now that it has, it has entered the pantheon of my all-time favorite albums. This is why Andrew Bird is my favorite musician, hands down. 
  • Favorite Song: People are going to hate me for saying this, but I loved (and still love) Goyte's "Somebody That I Used To Know." It got totally overplayed, but I don't care. I thought this song was hauntingly beautiful, heartbreaking, and it didn't hurt that Goyte looked fine in the buff for the video. And while we're on the topic of videos, the one for this song spawned so many awesome parodies that I kind of can't help but love it even more. Sorry guys! 
  • Favorite Theater Experience: Justin and I definitely scaled back our theater attendance this year; whereas we saw fifteen shows in 2011, we saw five in 2012. While The Book of Mormon was definitely the most hyped production we saw, with the most difficult tickets to obtain, I think I actually preferred Fela!, the biographical musical telling the life story of the African musician, Fela Kuti. I was totally surprised by the infectious energy of that show, and the spellbinding and charismatic performances of its actors. The Book of Mormon may be the biggest thing to hit Chicago's theater scene in 2012, but surprisingly, it wasn't my favorite.
2012 was a busy year, full of upheaval, but on balance, everything turned out for the best. Here's hoping 2013 goes just as well, though I'm definitely looking forward to more peace and stability in the year to come. Happy New Year!


Stop The Presses - Part Five

After a brief hiatus due to the recent upheaval in my life caused by my unemployment and re-employment, my restaurant review column in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, "Dining Due Diligence," made a comeback today. Check out the latest installment:
Sequestered away in a largely residential area of River North is Chef Michael Taus' Zealous, a true hidden gem of the Chicago dining scene. Its unassuming exterior belies an elegant yet industrial-inspired interior, decorated in muted earth tones punctuated by regal purple accents. A dramatic skylight dominates the space from above, while a unique bamboo garden gives a degree of privacy to a special chef's table in the center of the room, suitable for entertaining a medium-sized group.

The tranquil environment provides the perfect atmosphere to encourage conversation, and the generous distances between tables would allow business diners to discuss delicate matters with discretion. Furthermore, the exceedingly obliging staff is quick to cater to any food intolerance, allergy or special request, making Zealous an ideal destination for picky eaters and discerning palates alike.

Attention to detail not only characterizes the impeccable service, it is the guiding principle behind Taus' food as well. A seasonal amuse-bouche of a truffled pumpkin profiterole opened the meal, followed by a basket of warm, subtly dill-scented bread that was not overpoweringly herbaceous.

Visually-arresting appetizers were soon to follow, providing a feast for the eyes as much as the taste buds. Yogurt was the perfect, tangy accompaniment for the rich, lamb meatball flatbreads. Za'atar, the sumac-based Mediterranean seasoning blend, provided a lemony component that further balanced the dish and prevented it from becoming too heavy. The Polynesian salad presented a pleasant combination of savory flavors and textures, contrasted with a sweet dressing, though the fried shrimp on the plate seemed slightly less than fresh.

The entrée course was somewhat less successful, though every plate that arrived at the table was photo-ready. Filet of beef was beautifully cooked and meltingly tender, though the mushroom "lasagna" that accompanied it was dull and muddled in flavor. The waiter recommended the Korean-style fried chicken as a current favorite of the chef, but the boneless chicken emerged dry and tough, if shatteringly crisp.

A salad of apple and daikon provided a crisp, refreshing counterbalance to the fried meat, but the accompanying sticky rice sticks lived up to its name in the worst possible way by firmly insinuating themselves into the molars.

The kitchen succeeded when it came to fish. Both the Asian-inspired Chilean sea bass and the roasted halibut were cooked to perfection.

Though Zealous may not be the trendiest spot in town, Taus lives up to his restaurant's namesake by executing tremendous food in a soothing atmosphere. Given the effort put forth by Taus and his staff, the restaurant at 419 W. Superior St. is well-named.

Visit the restaurant's website at


So This Is Christmas...

Fair is fair, and since Justin got to experience the full-blown Wyatt family Christmas over the weekend, it was my turn to learn about all the traditions observed by his family on Christmas Eve and Christmas. I probably ended up spending more time with his family in the past two days than I have in the past three years, and I really enjoyed seeing how close he is with them. It is a challenging, but special thing to become part of a new family, and I was happy to have this bonding time with the whole clan.

On Christmas Eve, we traveled north to Milwaukee (we're really getting around this season!), to have dinner at Justin's cousins' house. I could relate to his cousins' Italian heritage, and was happy to see minestrone soup on the menu. Apparently, it's a family tradition, and a highly beloved dish. I can't blame them; it was excellent! Though we were seated at the "kids'" table in a separate room from Justin's parents' generation, I appreciated the casual vibe created by being among people our own age. Justin's cousins were very welcoming and convivial. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that I was a little sad that I will only get to see them once a year.

After dinner, we gathered around the piano to sing Christmas carols, led by his great-aunt on piano. It was almost like something out of a greeting card, but it was nevertheless fun to learn about one of his family traditions. It's a good thing I love my Christmas music so much, as I was able to sing-along without any problem, and largely without having to rely on the lyric print-outs.

Justin was a little sad that we missed out on his father's annual Christmas Eve reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," but it was already very late by the time we made it back from Milwaukee, and we needed to be back early the next morning to have brunch and open gifts. I felt like a mean girlfriend for insisting that we go home, but both of us are grumpy when we haven't had enough sleep, so it seemed like the best decision in the long run.

We were back bright and early the next morning bearing bagels and gifts (one of the perks of living close to a predominately Jewish neighborhood is that the 24-hour bagel shop is also open on Christmas, meaning that you can satiate any bagel craving you might have, at any time). Justin's sister, Cathie, needed to head back to Ohio to spend the afternoon with her boyfriend's family for the holiday, so we opened gifts and ate breakfast in relatively short order. 

Justin's parents generously gave us a Nest, a fancy Internet-enabled "smart" thermostat that Justin has had his eye on for some time. Over time, the Nest learns your habits and will program itself to operate with maximum energy efficiency, resulting in a savings on your heating bill. Plus, you can install an app on your smartphone that enables you to change the temperature in your house remotely, so you can have the house warmed or cooled to your desired temperature before you get home for the day. Pretty cool stuff!

I was charmed to discover that Justin's mom still does stockings for the family as well; I can't remember the last time we did stockings in our house. In fact, it was an entirely different experience having Christmas with just his immediate family. Since we've been going down to White Hall for as long as I can remember, my parents and I never really developed that many holiday traditions within our nuclear family. Sometimes we opened gifts on Christmas Eve, sometimes we did it on Christmas morning. Sometimes we were out of town and did it when we got back. There were never any specific foods that Mom made, instead we always ate whatever Grandma felt like making that year. I'm not saying that either system is inherently better, just different.

I'm glad that we were able to reach a holiday compromise this year where everybody ended up with what was most important to them. Both of us got to spend time with our respective families, and we got to spend time together. It will take time to become fully integrated in each other's family lives, and I am not sure yet how we will divide our time come next Christmas. Still, I'm proud of us for negotiating our way through this holiday season, and I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to do it all again next year.


Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time...

As part of the holiday compromise that allowed us to go to Ireland and miss Thanksgiving back home, Justin and I had generated a plan months ago wherein we could divide our time at Christmas between our two families but still do all of our celebrating together. The lynchpin of this plan was the fact that the annual Wyatt family gathering in White Hall no longer falls on the actual day of Christmas. We either hold it earlier or later in order to accommodate the schedules of our ever-expanding ranks. Because Justin's family celebrates on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and those fell in the middle of the week this year, we were able to accommodate both, even though my family event is a five-hour drive away.

How good does Mom look? I'm so proud of her!

As a result, Justin was able to experience the full splendor and madness of a Wyatt family Christmas. This year was an especially good year for him to attend, as every twig and leaf of the family tree was in attendance, even my uncle, Pat, who lives in Florida and whose work schedule seldom allows him to come to Illinois for the holidays, and my cousin, Jenny, who just moved back to Illinois from Las Vegas. Sadly, I think the last time all of us were in one place was for my beloved Paw-Paw's funeral, back in 2005, so it was nice to have everyone under one roof once more.

Grandma with all of her kids.

We marked the occasion with heaps and heaps of food, including an usually abundant supply of dips and appetizers culled from my aunts and cousins' Pinterest obsessions. Truly, Grandma overdid it this year; we could have easily fed a family twice our size, and the Wyatt brood is formidable in the first place. There were sandwiches, pulled pork sliders, chicken and noodles, mac and cheese, multiple salads, salads, pies, cookies, brownies, and undoubtedly more dishes than I can even remember. If Grandma shows her love through food, then she must love us very much indeed.

My entire generation.

The children ran around like little lovable demons, and for the first time in a long time, there was no new baby to fawn over. Perhaps the size of the family has finally stabilized for the time being...

There was also an entire table full of gifts for all the children, but perhaps no one received more gifts than Grandma Betsy, who is the recipient of everyone's gratitude and generosity. The rest of the adults relied on the luck of the draw to win their presents in the form of gift cards and cash prizes through the annual bingo game. I struck the jackpot for the second year in a row, taking home the hundred dollar prize, eliciting allegations of favoritism, since my parents run the game. It truly was luck, however, as I was the second-to-last person to achieve a bingo and pick my prize. My envelope sat there practically the whole time and nobody chose it.

In keeping with all the family portraits.

All in all, I would say that Justin was probably a little overwhelmed by the entire Wyatt Christmas spectacle, but in the end, I think he managed to enjoy himself. If anything, I think he understands me a little better now, and I love that he is becoming a part of my family as much as he is already a part of my life. It meant a lot to me to be together for this celebration, and to share this experience with him. I look forward to sharing a lifetime of Christmases with Justin and the little two-person family we are building.


The Most Amazing Book...

Though Justin and I have been together for two years, and plan on spending the rest of our lives together, it still feels a little strange to me whenever I plan something in the distant future for the two of us to do together. Some tiny voice in the back of my mind will question, "But what if you're not together by then?" But then, a stronger, more rational voice will say, "Of course we'll still be together by then - plan away!" Every time I schedule something months in the future, it feels like I am making a vote of confidence in the strength of our relationship.

That is definitely how I felt back in February, a full ten months ago, when I purchased tickets for The Book of Mormon, the much-lauded musical by the creators of South Park, Trey Stone and Matt Parker. The show wasn't even going to open until December, but Justin has been listening to the soundtrack and dreaming about having the chance to see it almost as long as I've known him. Back in 2011 I briefly entertained the idea of springing for a long weekend trip to New York to see it for his birthday, but it was sold out for months and months in advance. Besides, the whole idea was kind of cost-prohibitive at the time anyway.

When I found out that the show was coming to Chicago on tour, I knew that I had to get tickets for us to go. I angsted about whether I'd be able to score tickets, given the popularity of the show on Broadway, but then I received an email from American Express, with whom I have a credit card. They were offering pre-sale tickets to cardmembers, and I made a mental note to log on to Ticketmaster the moment the tickets went on sale. I nabbed a pair of tickets for the show's second performance, and from there, I could only bide my time for ten long months.

Tonight, we finally squeezed into the sold-out theater for our chance to see the show. Justin was so excited that it was worth every penny, even before the show started. When the curtain went up, however, it was soon apparent that this wasn't going to be my kind of show. I knew that the show would be irreverent, coming from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and it wasn't necessarily the content or the language that offended me. It was the fact that I felt like it was poking fun at the genre too much.

Whereas Justin doesn't take his musical theater seriously, and prefers shows that expose the artifice of its tropes and traditions, I take my musical theater very seriously, and prefer shows that draw me into their storyline and help me become lost in the world created on the stage. With The Book of Mormon, however, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was watching a show, not because it was specifically self-referential like Spamalot, for example, which includes such numbers as "The Song That Goes Like This," "If You Want to Succeed on Broadway," and "Whatever Happened to My Part?" Instead, The Book of Mormon employs theatrical conventions in such an obvious and exaggerated way that I felt they detracted somewhat from the storytelling.

Nevertheless, the show did have some very funny moments, such as the "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," in which the main character has a terrifying vision of the hell that awaits him after having sinned, which includes Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmner, dancing cups of coffee, and a towering rock guitar-playing Satan. And there were a handful of catchy, memorable songs, including "Hello," the opening number depicting the Mormon missionary training facility, and "Hasa Diga Eebowai," in which the newly-arrived Mormon missionaries learn that the favorite expression used by the locals they are planning to convert translates to "Fuck you, God." The score doesn't quite pack in the hits like a typical Andrew Lloyd Webber production, but it certainly wasn't lacking either.

I didn't quite feel that The Book of Mormon lived up to the incredible hype surrounding it, but Justin certainly seemed to enjoy it, and since the tickets were a gift to him, I 'd say it was a good present. I wouldn't go through the efforts of buying after-market tickets to one of the sold-out performances, but if they continue to extend the show's run at the same pace that they are at present, then by all means, pick up some tickets and judge it for yourself.


A Whole New World...

Given my interest in food, one of the distinct joys of my new job is its West Loop location, conveniently located in the midst of some of the hottest restaurants in the city. Though my lunch break is a mere half hour these days, that is plenty of time to check out the unique take-out options in the neighborhood, and there is always dinner if I want to check out some of the sit-down locations. The options feel limitless, and I am in foodie heaven.

Though I've only been here a month, there are already two serious contenders for my neighborhood favorite: J.P. Graziano's and Publican Quality Meats. J.P. Graziano's has the advantage of being the closest to my office, though its Italian sandwiches would be worth the walk even it it wasn't. It also happens to be one of the oldest establishments in the neighborhood, as it was founded XX years ago and has remained in the same family ever since. When they started, they operated more as a grocery and delicatessen to the Italian immigrants who lived and worked nearby. Now they focus on selling sandwiches using their top-quality imported meats, cheeses, and condiments. Though I have to eat around 11:00 to avoid the long lines around noon, I've yet to sample anything there that isn't totally delicious, and the family members running the shop are friendly and welcoming. It certainly beats Jimmy John's or Subway any day of the week.

The lovely Mr. G: prosciutto, salami, sopressata, provolone, truffle mustard, artichokes, balsamic vinaigrette, fresh basil, and lettuce.

Snob that I am, I think I prefer Publican Quality Meats (PQM), however. Opened by chef Paul Kahan as an ancillary to his earlier project The Publican, which operates on a nose-to-tail carnivore philosophy, PQM is an honest-to-goodness butcher shop that does a side business in sandwiches and soups. They produce their own charcuterie as well as smoked and cured meats that they put between locally-baked bread with house-made condiments, and they also send their wares over to The Publican. I loved both of my experiences dining at The Publican but can't afford to be a regular, so getting to eat lunch at PQM is sort of the next best thing.

They have a killer muffuletta, which, though nontraditional, has pickled vegetables so tasty that I could practically eat them on their own. Their chicken Parmesan sandwich is reliably good, though it doesn't push the envelope as much as their other creations, but with an ever-changing, seasonally-influenced menu, there will always be something new for me to try. Heck, I even like the spicy Asian slaw that comes as a free side to all their sandwiches, and I am certainly no fan of cole slaw, or cabbage in general. I'm starting to wonder if they can do any wrong...

Is it weird that one of my favorite things about PQM is the perfectly shaped Ziploc bag for the pickle? You can squeeze it up from the bottom without getting pickle juice on your hands.

Plus, tonight we had our staff holiday party at Girl and the Goat, the restaurant helmed by former Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard. I think it was selected partly due to its proximity to our office, but picking a great restaurant in our neighborhood is like shooting fish in a barrel. After four years of either no holiday parties due to budget constraints or parties held at whatever establishment was willing to donate one for free, the prospect of getting to dine on the company dime at a restaurant that is so in demand that I've never been able to secure a reservation kind of boggles my mind.

The meal that we were served far exceeded my expectations, and made me a little bit sad that I had waited this long to experience Izard's cooking. We were served no less than 15 courses, all of which came in the form of small plates that were meant to be shared, but there were so many plates of each course that there was still a ton of food. I made a point of trying everything that we were served, even the things that I don't ordinarily eat, because these kinds of opportunities in life are rare. It turned out to be a good policy, because many of those dishes turned out to be eye-opening.

Since our CEO is a vegetarian, our tasting menu included a large number of vegetable dishes, and I found myself waxing poetic about the heavenly chickpea fritters (this coming from a girl who has only started to eat hummus in the last six months), kohlrabi salad, and green beans so divine that I came home and looked into buying Izard's cookbook just to see if it contained a recipe for them (it does not.) I even forced myself to try the fried oysters, which were surprisingly good and not as texturally challenging as I was expecting, based on my experience with oysters in the past.

I truly cannot believe my good fortune that I was able to have such an incredible food experience through my new job. Izard is allegedly soon to open a diner concept across the street from Girl and the Goat called Little Goat, and I can't wait to give it a try. Being so close to so many great dining venues is dangerous, not only for my waistline but for my wallet, but for now, I am too giddy over all these new opportunities and experiences to mind all that much.


I Am Strolling Down Memory Lane...

All December long, I have felt like I was playing catch-up. Somehow, the holidays snuck up on me this year, and I was woefully under-prepared. My decorations were barely up in time for my cookie party, I had less time to cook for my guests this year, and when it came time to select a final lineup for this year's Cookie Bonanza, I made the horrifying realization that I had only tested five new cookie recipes in all of 2012.

Facing a choice between giving out untested, and therefore potentially sub-par cookies or working myself to death trying to test enough recipes in time, I discovered a third path: this year would be the fifth year of my beloved giveaway -- what if I treated my recipients to a retrospective of my best recipes? A "Greatest Hits," if you will.

I read through the past three years of posts here at "The State I Am In," and looked at pictures of my 2008 cookie boxes (the only record I have of my inaugural year), thought about what had received the best reception, and what recipes held the fondest memories. Eventually, I was able to pull together a list that was both full of nostalgia, and managed to meet my criteria for scope and balance.

Here is what ended up going into every box:
Every cookie had a story. I first made the chocolate gingerbread for a friend who is allergic to eggs; when she came to my first cookie exchange and didn't see them again, she was devastated, and I realized for the first time the impact that my baked goods could have on people. Snickerdoodles are my dad's favorite, the cranberry pinwheels are my mom's. Justin is partial to the lemon poppyseed (I first made them with him in mind, after all), and the maple macadamia sticky bars might just be my favorite cookie in my repertoire, though honestly, asking me to pick a favorite cookie is like asking someone to pick their favorite child.

I once paid $80 to FedEx a box of chocolate peppermint cookies to Katherine when she was living in Japan because she loves them so much. The iced sugar cookies have been the star of the show ever since I first learned how to decorate them in 2009, and now I feel like no assortment is complete without them. And while they play more of a support role, I have a soft spot in my heart for the vanilla bean spritz. They may not be the most impressive cookie in the lineup, but they are deceptively addictive, and I get to make them with a cookie press that was passed on to me by my grandma, which is a powerful connection to history that I cannot ignore.

Even if my cookies weren't new and exciting this year, it felt good to relive these memories, and to share the best of the best of my baking repertoire with my family and friends. I ultimately gave out fourteen boxes this year, but when you factor in sharing, it's hard to know how many people my act of generosity ultimately touched. It may be a ton of work every year, but to me, it is totally worth it to make so many people happy with the gift of cookies.

For whatever reason, revisiting all my old recipes left me feeling renewed instead of exhausted.  Normally, I can't stand to so much as look at a cookie, much less think about baking, for months after the annual Cookie Bonanza. This year, however, I can't wait to get back in the kitchen and see what adventures it has in store...


    A Religious Experience - Part Eleven

    Back in October, when we were undertaking our ambitious Open House Chicago itinerary, our second stop was right in our own backyard, practically within walking distance of our condo. It was a location that we had driven past dozens and dozens of times, and yet, we had no idea what it was. 

    In fact, I had always assumed the structure was a school, based on the signage. As it turned out, the building is a Benedictine convent, home to a community of nuns, who just happen to worship at a lovely and historic chapel inside the compound. If it hadn't been for Open House Chicago, I never would have given this building a second thought, and I certainly never would have had the opportunity to view the beauty that lies within.

    St. Scholastica
    7430 North Ridge Boulevard
    Chicago, IL

    The Benedictine order opened their Roger's Park facility in 1907, dedicating it to Saint Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict, founder of their order, and the patron saint of nuns. Their current chapel, however, came into existence with the construction of a major addition to the building in 1924. To this day, the sisters observe their morning prayers, vespers, and Sunday masses there.

    Architecturally, the chapel is rather plain; instead, it is the striking murals that define the space. They were painted in 1938, when the order paid to bring Josef Steinhage, a German painter who had trained in ecclesiastic art, to the United States to work on the project. Though the murals reminded me of Byzantine art, due to the bold outlines, prominent use of gold, and the faux-mosaic work painted into the backgrounds, I learned that they are actually considered to be Beuronese in style.

    The Beuronese school of art is unique to the Benedictine order, and was developed by monks living in Germany. Its works are notable for their subdued color palette (so as not to distract worshipers from thoughts of God), early Christian influences (hence my connection to Byzantine art), and its integration with architecture. Before visiting St. Scholastica, I had certainly never heard of this obscure school of religious art, but I was glad to have had the opportunity to see an example of it with my own eyes, and to expand my base of knowledge.

    The main altar depicts a relatively generic scene of Jesus, the four evangelists, and eight saints with particular significance to the Benedictine order. Because Christ is the center and focus of worship, the brightest colors are reserved for the panels depicting him and his stories. Flanking the altar are two scenes of Christ's miracles.

    Off to the side of the chapel is a scene in more muted colors depicting a major story from the life of Saints Scholastica and Benedict. Apparently, since the two siblings had both taken holy orders, they were only permitted to meet once a year, during which they would discuss matters of faith. Near the end of Scholastica's life, she sensed that this meeting would be their last, and when her brother was preparing to leave, she prayed for a terrible storm that would prevent him from going so that they could talk a bit longer. God answered her prayers by initiating a violent storm, and Scholastica died shortly thereafter. 

    Today, the murals remain in an incredible state of preservation, largely due to a 1993 restoration by two students from the Art Institute of Chicago, whom the nuns persuaded to take on the project for free, as a senior thesis. When they first laid eyes on the chapel, they were overwhelmed by the prospect of having to match all of the original paint colors, and feared that the project would be impossible on the non-existent budget. 

    One of the elderly sisters came to the rescue, remembering that one of the nuns at St. Scholastica in the 1930s had been of an especially thrifty mindset. Rather than throw away Steinhage's leftover paint, she had painstakingly saved all of the extra paint cans and soldered them shut. Fifty-five years later, their contents were still good, and the students were able to use it to complete the restoration. It almost seems like a miracle in its own right.

    The chapel is also notable for its stained glass, not because they were completed by a famous workshop, but because they were designed by one of the sisters. I doubt that many places of worship can boast such an intimate connection between its artwork and its parishioners.

    Given the tragic number of crumbling churches I've seen in the course of my pilgrimage through Chicago's great religious sites, it was truly refreshing to see a space that was so well-maintained, despite its tiny and shrinking congregation. The St. Scholastica complex was once home to a Catholic school, which closed its doors in 2012 due to low enrollments. Now, they lease their facilities to a new City of Chicago charter school, and the aging population of nuns goes about their quiet lives of contemplation and prayer. One wonders what will become of this beautiful secret space if the convent is eventually forced to close its doors as well...


    Do You Hear What I Hear...

    I've made no effort to hide my love for the Christmas season; in fact, I even love holiday music, the highly polarizing songs that are loathed by many, especially anyone who has ever had a retail job between October and January. However, I am picky; I have a definitive playlist of songs that I like the most, and I do not tolerate covers or versions by other artists. It is heavily skewed toward the classics, with only a handful of songs from the 90s, and absolutely nothing more modern than that. You won't find any N'Sync, Brittney Spears, or, God forbid, Justin Bieber on my iPod come Christmas. 

    You will find Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song," in a nod to my upbringing in Highland Park and all my Jewish friends who attend my annual cookie exchange. And because I am an unabashed Barry Manilow fan, he is well-represented as well.

    My favorites are there, to be sure. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" by Judy Garland will always be my all-time favorite holiday tune, and my sing-along favorites "Last Christmas" by Wham! and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love, are perfect for rocking out seasonally in the car. There's the seemingly incongruous pairing of holiday crooning giant, Bing Crosby and David Bowie for "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy," as well as Bing's iconic "White Christmas." There's truly something for everyone, not just me.

    As far as I am concerned, these are the only holiday songs you will ever need, so queue up this playlist, whip up a batch of apple cider, and get ready to channel your Christmas cheer:
    1. "Jingle Bell Rock" - Bobby Helms
    2. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" - Brenda Lee
    3. "A Holly Jolly Christmas" - Burl Ives
    4. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" - Barry Manilow with K.T. Oslin
    5. "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" - The Carpenters
    6. "Winter Wonderland" - Johnny Mathis
    7. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" - Judy Garland
    8. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" - Mariah Carey
    9. "Carol of the Bells" - Mormon Tabernacle Choir
    10. "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas)" - Nat King Cole
    11. "Misletoe and Holly" - Frank Sinatra
    12. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - Darlene Love
    13. "The Chanukah Song" - Adam Sandler
    14. "Do You Hear What I Hear" - Perry Como
    15. "I'll Be Home For Christmas" - Doris Day
    16. "White Christmas" - Bing Crosby
    17. "Last Christmas" - Wham!
    18. "Sleigh Ride" - Johnny Mathis
    19. "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" - Doris Day
    20. "Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)" - John Lennon
    21. "Christmas Through Your Eyes" - Gloria Estefan
    22. "Because It's Christmas" - Barry Manilow
    23. "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" - Bing Crosby & David Bowie
    24. "Silver Bells" - Johnny Mathis
    25. "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
    26. "The First Noel" - Frank Sinatra


    Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree...

    In large part, my holiday season this year has been about recapturing a sense of normalcy after the upheaval of being mid-move last year. I've been trying to revive all the traditions that I've established over the years, from decorating my home to hosting my cookie exchange, and I hope to make it to see the Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo this year before they close for the season. In addition to my Cookie Bonanza, there is one other tradition that is essential enough to cram into my busy December schedule no matter what else is happening in my life -- visiting the Christkindlmarket with my best friend, Lisa.

    As I've discussed in the past, we have been visiting Daley Plaza and taking our picture in front of the municipal Christmas tree there since 2006, and have never missed a year since. It was important to me to snap photo number seven with her this year, because, in a way, these photos are a record of how we have changed over the years. There are new glasses, new hair colors, changing styles, and the slowly emerging signs of the passage of time on our faces, but in spite of it all, we brave the cold to record this moment together in our lives every year.

    The ritual has changed over the years -- in 2006, Lisa's ex-husband was on hand to take our first picture on a whim. The next couple years, we would try to get an obliging stranger to take our photo, which never delivered great results. Then we transitioned to using a portable tripod, which was a considerable improvement as long as we could find a decent spot to set it up, and now Justin tags along and uses his photography skills to capture the moment for us.

    Sure, the Christkindlmarket may be overpriced and kind of kitschy, but it is our thing now, and I will gladly eat lukewarm bratwurst in the freezing cold if it means getting to spend some quality time with my best friend. I don't know what the future has in store for us, but I do know that as long as we are friends, we will always have our annual holiday photo op to look forward to...


    Give The People What They Want...

    It is pretty rare for me to have a dish in my kitchen arsenal without a concrete recipe. I am not the kind of cook who throws ingredients in a pot and hopes for the best. I am methodical, and I enjoy having a plan; I think this is why I like baking so much. Even so, there are a few informal dishes in my arsenal that I can put together on the fly, like a simple frittata, or fried rice. Small as this list is, it has grown even smaller this week, as I have apparently created a definitive recipe for mulled apple cider.

    I like to make mulled cider whenever I'm hosting a get-together in the cold weather months. Not only is it delicious, it also makes your home smell amazing and especially welcoming to visitors. So far this year, I've made it three times; once when I had Lauren over to hang out, once for my Halloween party, when my guests supplemented it with rum, and now for my cookie exchange yesterday.

    While people enjoyed it the first two times, and have always seemed to enjoy it in the past, this last time they raved about it. People asked me what I had done differently, and told me I should do it again. They were so adamant, in fact, that I sifted through the debris left in the bottom of the crock-pot to retrace my steps. Since so many people asked for the recipe, I finally wrote one down, and now hopefully all of us can recreate the magic of this week's mulled apple cider for years to come...

    Mulled Apple Cider

    1 gallon apple cider (use the kind that they sell in the produce section, not the juice aisle)
    4 cinnamon sticks
    peel of one orange, cut into one long strip, if possible (try to avoid the pith)

    grating of fresh nutmeg
    8 allspice berries
    6 cloves
    3 star anise

    Fill up the crock-pot with cider. Add the cinnamon sticks and orange peel. Grate fresh nutmeg over the top. Place the allspice, cloves, and star anise into a tea infuser and place into the pot. Add the lid, and simmer over high heat for an hour. Reduce heat to low to keep warm for serving.


    That's How The Cookie Crumbles...

    Last year, I felt like I got deprived of having a proper Christmas. The only ways I was able to celebrate the season last year was through my annual Cookie Bonanza and my yearly trip to the Christkindlmarket with Lisa. As a result, this year it was very important to me to be able to host my usual cookie exchange. When I didn't hold it last year, so many of my friends were disappointed that it felt like a top priority to be able to welcome them into my home in the name of cookies this holiday season.

    Though it was only one week into the month, I decided to host my cookie exchange this weekend in the hope that it was early enough that my friends wouldn't be overly committed yet with other festivities. I even polled my friends to figure out the best time for everyone, which turned out to be a Saturday. It was, however, the first weekend of Hanukkah, so I made sure to start the party early enough in the afternoon that my many Jewish friends would be able to get their fill of cookies and still make it to their families in time to light the candles. I still ended up getting several last-minute cancellations due to illness and other emergencies, but I ended up with a group of ten for my fete, a respectable number nonetheless.

    Without any prompting or meddling from me, my guests managed to bring a varied and diverse assortment of cookies. There were no-bakes, brownies, drop cookies, bars, and frosted cut-outs. They touched on a wide spectrum of flavors as well, including chocolate, mint, coffee, peanut butter, chai spices, and fruit. I really couldn't have planned it better myself, and it was certainly a contrast to my last cookie exchange two years ago, when there was a full-fledged mint chocolate zeitgeist and nearly half the cookies featured that flavor combination.

    For my contribution, I was forced to scale back somewhat this year, because the party was on a Saturday instead of a Sunday, which left me less time to prepare. Normally I make a couple of different types of cookies and several savory entrees, but this year I stuck to one cookie, a cheese plate, frozen mini-quiche, and spanakopita that I had made a few months back and stored in the freezer. All three of those things could go together quickly, with minimal effort from me, and they would all taste good at room temperature.

    For my cookie, I went with the carrot cake sandwich cookies that I made for the first time last year, and knew at once that they would be perfect for a cookie exchange. Not only is cream cheese frosting incredibly popular, the cookies would be unusual enough that I could be sure nobody else would bring something similar. As predicted, they were a huge hit.

    It always warms the cockles of my hear to see my friends all in one place, getting along and mingling together, even though they come from different periods in my life, and they don't all necessarily know each other well. And it also makes me happy to have a mini-reunion with my high school friends. This year, Lisa, Sarah, Ashley, and Taryn represented Highland Park High School, and provided yet another reminder that we really don't get together often enough. I still love seeing those girls, even a decade after graduation.

    Traditions and togetherness are my two favorite things about the holidays, so it meant a lot to me to be able to honor both this holiday season by reinstating my yearly cookie exchange. The treats may be the ostensible focus, but for me, they are just an excuse to bring my friends together. Now that Just and I thoroughly settled into our home together, I look forward to many more years of surrounding ourselves with loved ones, good food, and good times.


    It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas...

    Now that Justin's ban on early Christmas decorations has been lifted, I've been hard at work getting our home ready for Christmas. I started out by driving down to my parents' condo, where considerable collection of seasonal decor was still in storage (I didn't really see the point in moving it all last January, it seemed like we had enough to deal with at the time), and the sheer quantity of it filled my little Beetle to the brim. Justin, the Grinchus, was none too pleased about having to make multiple trips up to our third-floor walk up to bring up all the awkardly-shaped boxes and bags, but to me, it was well worth the effort.

    Since I wasn't able to decorate last year, it was like Christmas came early as I opened all the packages and discovered all kinds of decorations I had forgotten about. In a way, it was like reuniting with old friends, and I was practically giddy with excitement.

    Though our living room and kitchen are actually larger than they were at my old place, it was a challenge to find a place to put everything, but I managed to find a home for most of it. It was also fun to see my old pieces in a new context -- somehow they manage to look completely different.

    I'm very pleased with how everything turned out, and I have to give thanks to Justin, whose love for me overcame his dislike of both the trappings of Christmas and home decorating; I was able to persuade him to hang the snowflake and crystal garlands from our curtain rods because he's tall and I'm afraid of heights. He also hung up our outdoor lights (the first time they've ever actually served their intended purpose), and even made a trip to Home Depot for a timer and an outdoor extension cord to do so. Thanks, babe!

    I know, I know, the garden gnome ornaments don't really go, but I can't resist a gnome, and all of them were gifts...
    I know it's seen as lazy, but I'm planning on leaving these decorations up as long as I possibly can. To me, they are beautiful regardless of how close it is to Christmas, and it makes me a little sad to think of how plan our place is going to look without them. I'm definitely going to enjoy them as much as possible while I can!


    That's No Moon...

    Here in Roger's Park, we are surrounded by diversity on a daily basis. Within walking distance of our condo there are two Hispanic grocery stores, an international market, and two Hispanic bakeries offering specialty products that cannot be found at our local mega mart. I occasionally frequent them when I am looking for Mexican chocolate, chipotle chiles, cotija cheese, fresh rolls for Cuban sandwiches, or when we discover half-way through cooking a meal that we are out of onions and don't want to get in the car to drive to the store. What I have never seen at these purveyors of all things Latin-American is an avocado other than the standard Hass varietal that you can buy all over the Midwest.

    Recently, however, we became the beneficiaries of some generosity from our family friends, the same family whose garden-fresh tomatoes we turned into homemade pasta sauce back in September. They had a bumper crop of avocados from a tree at their summer home in Florida, and they decided to share the spoils with us. At first glimpse, I thought they were mistaken, and had, in fact, given us some green papayas -- they were huge!

    I had never seen an avocado that big before in my life. Each one was easily 4-5 times the size of a Hass, and would be sufficient to make an entire batch of guacamole on their own. I tried to figure out what to do with them while we waited for them to ripen, but they never changed color, like a Hass. Instead, we decided it was finally time to cut them open when they started to get squishy, which proved to be the right decision.

    Just look at how it dwarfs my hand!

    Cutting into the fruit, I half-expected it to actually be a papaya on the inside, but it was, in fact, just a gigantic avocado. The pit alone was the size of a regular Hass avocado. In light of the fact that I don't like, and don't eat avocados, Justin was going to have a big task ahead of him.

    Initially, I had planned to use the avocados as a garnish for tacos, but there was so much of it that we had to hastily throw together a batch of guacamole just to keep it fresher in the fridge for longer. It was a humbling moment.

    Justin says the avocado was better than the ones we usually get at the grocery store, which seems fairly par for the course for home-grown produce. We can only hope that we'll be the recipients of our friends' gratitude again in the future, ideally right before we are ready to host a big party...


    You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch...

    As I have made abundantly clear over the years, I really love Christmas. I love the decorations, the seasonal foods, spending time with friends and family, the presents, and unlike anyone who has ever worked in retail, I even love the music. For me, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

    However, a certain somebody in my life doesn't feel the same way, and now that we are sharing a home, our differing perspectives on how best to celebrate the holiday season are bringing us into conflict. For instance, I wanted to start decorating before we left for Ireland, not only so that our home would be beautiful longer, but because I knew we'd be hosting a holiday party not long after we returned and I wanted there to be one less thing to stress out about. Justin, however, being opposed to the phenomenon of "Christmas creep," vetoed my plan to decorate before Thanksgiving.

    Whenever we pass the holiday music station while searching for something to listen to on the radio, Justin's reaction is something akin to hearing nails on a chalkboard. You'd think I was torturing the poor guy.

    Normally when he exhibits this kind of behavior, I tell him to stop being such a grumpus, but in honor of Christmas, I've developed a new moniker for him --  Grinchus. It stemmed from a conversation in which in the same breath I told him to stop being such a grumpus, and that he was acting like Mr. Grinch from Dr. Suess's How The Grinch Stole Christmas -- he was becoming a Grinchus!

    I'm not going to let Justin's Grinchus-y ways put a damper on my celebratory mood; in fact, giving him a cute new nickname some how makes his anti-Christmas attitude more endearing. Nonetheless, I can only hope that some of my Christmas cheer will rub off on him as the holidays approach.