Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas! I'll be back soon.

Preparing to have Christmas dinner shortly, but wanted to leave some holiday wishes here. Dinner?, you ask. Yes, dinner, I say.

Alex and I are in jolly old London town for Christmas this year, celebrating with his family. I have lots of pictures, but no cord with which to bring them to you. 

We'll be back on the 26th and after some serious sleeping, I'll show you some pictures. 

Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Bonnes Fetes, etc.!
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When I was little

I was an only child until I was 8.5 years old. My parents, who were both 23 (barely) when I was born, and my uncle Bobby, who lived with us, were the closest thing I had to siblings. They were alright and all, but it's tough having siblings who are 23+ years older than you. They spend all day working instead of playing. They go to parties you cannot go to. They own the cars and therefore get to make the decision to go to the grocery store instead of Chuck E Cheese. Ugh. Add to it the fact that they were parents/uncle instead of siblings and so tasked with discipline, homework and piano practice enforcement and the aforementioned working, and you can begin to understand why I spent a lot of my childhood yearning for real siblings.

I also loved music as a kid. My family was one of the first in our neighborhood to have cable. My dad got it for the ESPN. I loved it for the MTV. MTV was the best back then - all music, the moonman, the best.

Is it so far-fetched, then, that I would spend time daydreaming about being on MTV, with my siblings (who were always two little brothers), entertaining the masses? I would pretend my jumprope was a microphone, imagine our family band and put concerts on in our house. I imagined multi-colored lights, awesome 80s hair, synthesizers. It was way cool.

It's like watching Phil Collins

While it isn't exactly what I imagined, it did cause me to remember those days when I found my real (not imaginary) brothers playing imaginary (not real) music on Rockband last night. There they are, my rock-and-roll, family band.

The it's-all-about-the-music shot.

They may not be a real live band, and they would probably never play backup to my singing outside of the context of Rockband, but they're pretty cool. And I'd have to say that I pretty much got what I wanted when I got them...

...rockstars. Total rockstars.
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cookies for the holidays

Whether he wanted to or not, Patrick was willing to comply with my holiday wishes and make cookies with me. His other option? Seeing Four Christmases with Chris and his girlfriend Monica. Apparently he didn't miss out on much.

And he got to eat these little goodies straight out of the oven.

They were tasty - all of them. We made cookies in record time this year, thanks to my newest ideas in cookie making.

PROBLEM: When I make a batch of cookies, I eat them all.

SOLUTION: Make a couple cookies, freeze the dough in cookie-sized balls, have cookies ready to bake whenever you want them!


So Patrick and I baked peanut butter cookies that we had made earlier in the year. Only, when we made them, it was the first time I experimented with my cookie theory. And we froze the dough in a giant ball that we had to chop up with a knife and roll into balls, but everything was fine in the end.

Fortunately, Patrick and I have very warm hands and our defrosting powers are mad. A few rolls in our hands and they were ready to be pressed with a fork. Here's Patrick in action:

Here's Patrick impatiently, but happily waiting for cookies to emerge from the oven:

We also whipped up a batch of chocolate cookie bars with M&Ms on top of some, but not all, of them. And double chocolate cookies, which are insanely chocolate-y. The dough was basically black, but the cookies, ooh baby, with a glass of milk to cut the insanity, they are quite nice.

Recipes follow. The chocolate cookies are from the newest (January and February 2009) issue of Cook's Illustrated, which has a lot of amazing stuff in it, including a fantastic recipe for Wiener Schnitzel. We made that tonight. It, too, was awesome.

From the January and February 2009 issue of COOK'S ILLUSTRATED

0.33 c + 0.5 c granulated sugar
1.5 c unbleached all-purpose flour
0.75 c dutch-processed cocoa powder
0.5 tsp baking soda
0.375 tsp table salt
0.5 c dark corn syrup
1 large egg white
1 tsp vanilla extract
12 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
0.33 c packed dark brown sugar
4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 0.5 inch pieces

1. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large (18x12 inch) baking sheets with parchment paper. Place 0.5 c granulated sugar in shallow baking dish or pie plate. Whisk flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt together in medium bowl. Whisk corn syrup, egg white, and vanilla together in small bowl.
2. In stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter, brown sugar, and remaining 0.33 c granulated sugar at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low, add corn syrup mixture, and beat until fully incorporated, about 20 seconds, scraping bowl once with rubber spatula. With mixer running at low speed, add flour mixture and chopped chocolate.; mix until just incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping bowl once. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no pockets of flour remain at bottom. Chill dough 30 minutes to firm slightly (do not chill longer than 30 minutes).
3. Divide dough into 16 equal portions [Kathleen note: I suggest 32, 16 makes BIG cookies and these are INSANELY, OVERWHELMINGLY CHOCOLATE-Y]; roll between hands into balls about 1.5 inches [or smaller] in diameter. Working in batches, drop 8 [16] dough balls into baking dish with sugar and toss to coat. Set dough balls on prepared baking sheet, spacing about 2 inches [1 inch] apart; repeat with second batch of 8 [16]. Bake, reversing position of baking sheets halfway through baking (from top to bottom and front to back), until cookies are puffed and cracked and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will look raw between cracks and seem underdone), 10 to 11 minutes. Do not overbake.
4. Cool cookies on baking sheet 5 minutes, then use wide metal spatula to transfer cookies to wire rack; cool cookies to room temperature.

From Baking: From my home to yours by Dorie Greenspan, who is amazing
2.5 c unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
0.5 tsp baking powder
0.25 tsp salt
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c peanut butter - crunchy or smooth, not natural
1 c packed light brown sugar
0.75 c sugar
2 large eggs
1.5 c chopped, salted peanuts [Kathleen note: I skipped these]
0.5 c sugar, for rolling


Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed for a minute or two, until smooth and creamy. Add the peanut butter and beat for another minute. Add the sugars and beat for 3 minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and, on low speed, add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they just disappear. Mix in the chopped peanuts [I skipped]. You'll have a soft, pliable (mushable, actually) dough.
Pour the 0.5 c of sugar into a small bowl. Working with a level tablespoonful of dough for each cookie, roll the dough between your palms into balls and drop the balls, a couple at a time, into the sugar. Roll the balls around in the sugar to coat them, then place on the baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between them. Dip the tines of a fork in the sugar and press the tines against each ball first in one direction and then in a perpendicular direction - you should have a flattened round of dough with crisscross indentations.
Bake for about 12 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point. When done, the cookies will be lightly colored and still a little soft. Let the cookies sit on the sheets for a minute before transferring them to cooling racks with a wide metal spatula. Cool to room temperature.
Repeat with the remaining dough, making sure to cool the baking sheets between batches.

From the back of the Nestle Tollhouse bag

Follow the directions on the back of the bag (same ingredients as the cookies - follow the pan cookie baking directions). Use slightly more brown sugar than called for (maybe a tablespoon or so). Pour some M&Ms on the top, because they are pretty. And they are tasty.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas emerges from the chaos

It's been quite a few months. Shoot, it's been quite a week. But today, here, it's not about that. It's about Christmas!

While I was busy writing about our vacation, I was also decorating our house. Because I love Christmas. And because I don't want to start making cookies until Patrick is here to eat them all. Otherwise I will eat them all. And that would be bad. Because I don't have the metabolism of a 21 year old college kid. Actually, I don't think I ever did. Oh well.

Our house is prettiest at night, so I just took some pictures...

Decorating the house for Christmas is, for me, as cool as opening presents on Christmas morning. You see, as I've gotten older two things have happened: First, I've gotten more involved in what I get for Christmas, so my presents, while usually awesome, aren't always a surprise. Second, my memory for small details that aren't relevant to my daily life has gotten a little weaker. Those two things add up to create a very exciting experience on Thanksgiving day (or whenever I decide to decorate), because I've pretty much totally forgotten what I bought last year at the after Christmas sales on decorations by the time the next year rolls around. So I open my ornament boxes and find all sorts of lovely surprises like this ornament from Paper Source's after-Christmas-2007 sale:

And this gem (ooh, that's almost a pun!) from Pottery Barn:

Oh, and these giant ornament clusters that we've hung from the staircase railing on the second floor, so they just seem to float down to the first floor.

That picture got me thinking how beautiful a Christmas tree is when it's out of focus. I bring you this study in increasing levels of focus on our tree, entitled "I can't decide how blurry I want this photo to be":

And of course the nutcrackers come out. There are a lot of nutcrackers in our house and Alex and I love to put them out even more these days in honor of my dad, who was head over heels enamored with nutcrackers.

The two kings of our nutcracker family, watching over the tree :)

Alex has been playing Christmas music just about every day at home. I'm getting into the spirit, slowly. And taking these pictures, actually focusing on the result of our efforts, has helped a bit as well.

Once Patrick arrives on Sunday, and I really start baking, I should be there! Click here to read more!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Vacation recap

As promised, here's a summary of all of our vacation posts, in case you missed anything. Back to my daily life when/if I return...

It all started in April, when we first purchased our tickets for a sweet trip around the Pacific, shortly before the Star Alliance doubled the price and restrictions on Circle Pacific fares: phew!!

You didn't really hear much more about it until we were on our way and passing time in the San Francisco airport.

And then we took our first real look at the Sydney skyline and even though it was overcast, it was beautiful.

We got to be really busy, having so much fun on the trip, so I posted this, and that's about it, until I posted a teaser and told you to wait for NaBloPoMo.

Then I started really telling you about our trip
from the Sydney bridge climb,
to the rainforest,
to the beach at the lovely Thala Resort
and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef
(at which point you were totally jealous of our outfits),
and back to Sydney
for the zoo,
the Royal Botanic Gardens,
Bondi beach,
the Manly-to-Spit "walk"
and a tearful goodbye to our new favorite city.

Then I told you about New Zealand
including our amazing friends who hosted us at their lovely B&B and took us out for wine tasting.
I showed you the lovely Lake Wanaka,
Puzzling World in Wanaka,
sights from a plane above Wanaka,
and a lovely hike near Wanaka (click on the panoramic! it's worth it!).
And I showed you
our glacier hike,
the views from my window on our road trip across the South Island,
the quaint town of Hokitika (go to this page and vote for your favorite picture!! if you haven't already, that is),
and the big city of Christchurch.

And then there was Tokyo, crowded and crazy and 180 degrees different from New Zealand, but cool in its own way, because it has
fish markets,
beautiful parks (the Imperial Palace and Hibiya Park),
Shinto shrines (the Meiji Shrine),
terrific shopping and fantastic people watching,
a great national museum,
Buddhist temples (Senso-ji),
more gardens, conveyor belt sushi and surprisingly amazing Belgian waffles.

It was an amazing trip.

Really truly amazing.

Thanks for letting me re-live it.
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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Last full day in Tokyo - gardens and conveyor belts

This is pretty much it for the vacation recount. I'll put together a summary tomorrow for anyone who missed anything, but you won't have to hear about cultural sites across the Pacific for a while.

I think.

No promises.

If someone gives me a trip to Asia for funsies, I'm not turning it down, ok? And I'll probably write about it. Just want the record to be straight.

Our last full day in Tokyo was spent catching up on shopping and relaxing and sights that we weren't able to see earlier, the first of which was the East Garden of the Imperial Palace, which is not open every day, only certain days.

The traditional Japanese architecture, beautiful gardens and impressive stone walls are well worth the visit. As are the "tickets" they make you carry around while you're inside. (I think it is to be certain that everyone leaves when the close the park each day, but given we've never seen anything like it before, it was a bit of a curiousity.) Show us the tickets, Alex:

The garden encompasses former areas of the Edo Castle. Most of what you see are guardhouses, thankfully, they are very pretty guardhouses.

The guardhouses are separated by long tranquil walks around the impressive walls.

And every now and then we saw a lovely building in an area we weren't allowed to go to.

Oh, and it was a lovely day, not like the day before, when gray skies covered Asakusa. I love the traditional Japanese architecture when the sky is blue.

After the park, some shopping, some working out and some swimming at our hotel, Alex and I headed out for dinner.

Our last dinner in Tokyo was at GinSen for some quality conveyor belt sushi. Mmmmm, sushi delivered on a conveyor there anything they can't do?

Or if you prefer, you can ask the nice sushi man to make you something special and he just gives it to you.

As you can almost see on the wall behind the sushi man, each different color plate has a different price. You take all the sushi you want, stack up your plates and the nice lady counts them at the end. We did a pretty good job of trying everything, wouldn't you say?

And the tap on the counter? Free hot water! To go with all the free matcha you can consume. So cool!!

After dinner, we headed back to main street in Ginza, Harumi-Dori, in pursuit of dessert. If I've learned anything living in Chicago with Garrett's popcorn, it's that when locals stand in long lines for a food product, you must join them!! Alex and I had seen long lines of Japanese people standing in line at this Belgian waffle store a couple days prior and we knew we had to join them.

Sounds stupid, right? Waiting in line for waffles? In Japan? But we had to know.

Oh, and about the waffles? They were so amazing that we ran by the store again before heading to the airport the next day for another batch. Wow. So. Good.
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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Senso-ji in Asakusa

A couple more days and you'll be done with hearing from me daily. Until then, more about our trip to Tokyo.

From the Tokyo National Museum, we headed to Asakusa to check out the Senso-ji temple.

Senso-ji is Tokyo's oldest temple.

Bombed during World War II, the temple was rebuilt later as a symbol of the peace restored to Japan. The main hall and the pagoda are concrete replicas of the originals that burned down.

The walkway leading up to the temple is filled with shops selling souvenirs and snacks. It's a little unsettling at first to see so many vendors selling their overpriced wares outside of the temple, but then I remembered Piazza San Marco in Venice and many other Catholic churches surrounded by overpriced tourist trap shops, and I felt totally comfortable.

The temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and people come from near and far to pay their respects to her by throwing coins and lighting candles.

Photographs hardly do this temple justice as the real experience is hearing the thrown coins and the clapping and watching the masses devoutly follow their rituals.

It was peaceful and lovely in a special sort of way that only the sound of coins being thrown at an altar and clapping echoing throughout a large concrete hall can be. But in its own way, it was.

After the temple, we headed to this crazy place (Robata Yaki) for dinner at our concierge's suggestion. (Oh, wow, concierges are so great, just ask Michael Scott!)

The food was excellent. Even this scary looking guy was tasty.

And Alex made a new friend.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

The Tokyo National Museum

100th post! 100th post! 100th post! :) I just noticed that. Thanks for reading! (Wait, someone's reading all of these, right?)

The vacation fun continues. I guess I'll just stick with this posting every day thing until I've finished up telling you all about our vacation. NaBloPoMo lives on!

Our next stop in Tokyo was the Tokyo National Museum.

The museum is actually a number of buildings of different architectural styles which together contain one of the world's greatest collections of East Asian art and archeological finds.

Alex and I had a great time exploring the museums and reading anything we could find in English so it made some sense to us. As we often do when exploring the artistic or religious sites of other cultures, we stayed until everything started to look the same.

There were a lot of different things to see, so that took a while.

Especially since each of the buildings were a little different. From art to archeology, we saw a little bit of everything.

But it eventually did start to look the same.

I mean, even the locals get tired.

But it was well worth the trip.
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