Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry and bright

Christmas feels particularly poignant to me this year. We've spent two of the last three years celebrating this season in the hospital. It's changed how I feel about the holiday, about the month leading up to it, deepened my understanding of the joy we can bring to the day even in the face of adversity. And this year, for the first time, I am married. Our families are at home. Life is huge and complicated. We are lucky.

I'm not religious, but blessed is still a word I use when luck doesn't seem to cover it. We're blessed with another year, another day, another chance to gather with people we love and celebrate that love. I'm ever more convinced that it's all that matters. There are no guarantees in life. We should love each other as fiercely as we know how, for whatever time we're given together. And that is what I intend to do this weekend.

r&r christmas
{r&r christmas}*

Merry Christmas to any of you stragglers out there still reading! Go eat a cookie or something.

* That is my little sister and me on Christmas, I think 20 years ago. Guess what?! I still have that sweatshirt. NOT KIDDING. It's on its last legs, sadly - I think this might be its very last Christmas and I haven't yet found a suitable replacement. Also, I have that haircut again. So basically, that's what our weekend will look like. Minus the Barbies. Possibly. Also, our mom now has a better couch, I'm happy to report. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Around here

The edibles are slowly being stocked.

gifts, accumulating
{gifts, accumulating}

Teeny tiny glittery tags are being made. *

mini glitter tags!
{mini glitter tags!}


I finally got a chance to use the message in a cookie cutters that I got two years ago (my set is old, and I can't find anything exactly like it online to link to, sorry!). The verdict - fun, but sort of hard to get the hang of it. I think I'm improving.

gingerbread cookies
{gingerbread cookies}

cookie messages
{cookie messages}

Also, practicing being nice to myself. I'm not going to get everything done and that's fine. There won't be a ton of genius gifts this year and that's fine. I attempted to go buy a man's shirt yesterday and got so overwhelmed by the color choices and the crowds that I walked out of the store and went straight home and decided to re-watch Harry Potter instead. And that's fine. Actually, it's more than fine.

Because let's be honest - a long (self imposed) to do list and an overabundance of parties is hardly a hardship. Suck it up, lady.

* I've mentioned before that we have a glitter ban in effect around here and yes, it is still in full effect. But we are also both pro-sparkle, so solutions must be sought. These tags are in compliance because they are made out of purchased glittery metallic paper that doesn't shed. I think I need to go buy more, quickly. The tiny tag punch is an old Martha Stewart one, I have no idea if they still make it, but it's perfect for when you don't want to have to write anything except the person's name.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Printable holiday labels

In case you're doing a bit of last minute edible gift making ...

gifts boxed
{gifts boxed}

Here are the fleur de sel caramel sauce labels I used last year - there are a couple different sizes on the sheet, because I had different sized jars. I just cut them out and spray glued them to the lids of the jars. The recipe I use is from Deb, except I use a good pinch of sea salt rather than salted butter. I've made this sauce for the last three years and I plan to keep going. I know that technically Deb recommends you use it within two weeks, but I'm not quite that conservative. If you keep it refrigerated, it's going to stay perfectly good for a long time. Mine has never lasted more than a month (because I can't resist it) but I did have a family friend hoard his over the course of several months and he swears it was delicious to the last spoonful. I recommend using it within one month and that's what the label says.

And if you think my expiration dates are totally sketchy or just want to write on the labels yourself, here is a blank version.

I don't think I got a photo of these last year, but they are fold over labels that work beautifully on glassine envelopes. Just print on cardstock, cut them out, fold them over the top of your envelope and staple them (or sew them) closed. I used them for toffee and for gingerbread cookies, amongst other things. If you'd like blank ones, I've made a sheet of those as well. They're handy to have around.

I still have to design labels for our edible gifts this year, because we're adding a couple more to the roster. But I haven't even started yet. We'll get there. I hope.

*All of these PDFs are provided via Google docs, so when you go to the link, just click on "file" and then select "download original" to save a copy to your computer.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas, accomplished (melomakarona)

I fell in love with melomakarona when I was in Greece. They are bite sized Christmas, infused with citrus and cloves, spiked with a wee bit of brandy, soaked in honey, rolled in walnuts. I purchased them from every bakery that had them, taste tested them rigorously, vowed I would make them every year.


The first attempt, it did not go so well. There are difficulties when working with Greek recipes. Many of them seem to assume that you grew up with a yia-yia who taught you how to bake properly and the recipes are more memory aids than explicit instructions - how frustrating is it when the recipe simply says "add flour as needed"?

Then there is the olive oil issue. Olive oil desserts are popular in Greece, and they're delicious. Good olive oil is light and sharp and it plays well in baked goods. Try using the olive oil we have readily available here and you will quickly regret it - the flavors are muddled and overly strong.

So that first batch of cookies was dense (I kept adding flour) and redolent with the scent of cheap olive oil. I shelved my baking aspirations and bought the cookies for a couple years.

shaped melomakarona
{shaped melomakarona}

But this year, if I managed nothing else, I was determined to make melomakarona. I was prepared to fail and learn, if necessary. I researched several recipes and read all the notes I could find. I decided to go light on the flour and use walnut oil rather than olive oil (you could also use standard vegetable oil, but I had walnut oil leftover from another project and I highly recommend it). We didn't have normal brandy so I winged it with a bit of slivovitz (multicultural cookies, you guys!).

melomakarona success
{melomakarona success}

They are perfect. I am over the moon. And I'm putting my notes and directions here, in all their tedious long winded glory, because I want to be able to replicate this year after year.


Melomakarona (makes about 4 dozen, recipe pulled from several sources + my own memories and preferences, but mostly from here)

For the cookies: 
1 cup walnut oil (highly recommended, although regular vegetable oil will be fine - only use olive oil if you have a really good source)
1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
Grated zest of 1 orange (and I also used zest from 1/2 lemon)
1/4 cup brandy

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

For the syrup:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup honey
1/2 cup water

Dash of cinnamon (or a cinnamon stick, if you have one lying around, which I never do)
A few strips each of lemon and orange zest (just use a sharp paring knife and try to get as little white as possible)

For the finishing touch: 
1 1/2 cups very finely chopped walnuts, practically ground (you can finely chop them, like I did, but next time I'll be getting out the food processor because it took forever!)

:: Preheat your oven to 325F.

:: In a large bowl (I used a mixer, but you don't really need to), start to beat the oil and sugar.

:: Meanwhile, whisk (or sift) the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and cloves together in a bowl and set aside.

:: Combine the orange juice, orange zest, brandy and baking soda. It will foam a bit! Add this mixture to the oil and sugar and mix until well combined.

:: Add the chopped walnuts, followed by the flour mixture. Mix until your dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and easily forms into a ball (this doesn't take very long, actually).

:: Have a couple of baking sheets handy, either oiled or lined with parchment paper or Silpat. Form the cookies by breaking off pieces of dough the size of an unshelled walnut and roll them between your palms to create small mounded oblongs. Place about an inch apart on the baking sheets and bake until the bottoms are lightly browned (about 20 minutes, but start checking at 15).

:: While the cookies bake, make your syrup. Combine the sugar, honey and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the zest and cinnamon and simmer for about 10 minutes before turning off the heat.

:: As the cookies come out of the oven, submerge them in the syrup in small batches for a few minutes on each side. Remove them with a slotted spoon and allow them to drain briefly on a cooling rack before dipping them in the ground walnuts.

Notes (in case I've forgotten this by next year) -

Most recipes describe the dough as "stiff", but I think that's a bit misleading. The dough should be cohesive, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, readily willing to be shaped, not at all sticky. But it is still very soft and pliable. It will look greasy - don't panic! The baked cookies are not greasy in the least.

The dough should be formed into balls that are "the size of an unshelled walnut" (this comes from multiple recipes sources, so I guess it's standard). I have trouble estimating size, so I used a cookie scoop and then cut each scoop in half before rolling. They are a little bit smaller than bakery melomakarona, but not by much. The cookies will swell in the oven, so don't make them too large.

You should bake the cookies until the bottoms are pale golden brown. Mine were just about spot on at 18 minutes in the 325 oven.

You can experiment with the soaking time, but I found that 3 minutes for each side was just about perfect. This is assuming your syrup and cookies are still warm, if not piping hot. As they cool, you'll need more soaking time. If they are boiling hot, you can get away with 2 minutes on each side. You want the cookies nicely soaked but not to the point of mushy-ness. There should still be a good texture.

PUT A PIECE OF WAX PAPER UNDER THE COOLING RACK. Cleaning up the honey-sugar-walnut mixture from our counters wasn't that fun.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The weekend, briefly

Things are decidedly more Christmas-y around here.

christmas 2011
{christmas 2011}

The tree is up!

ornament box
{ornament box}



at home
{at home}


I successfully made my favorite Christmas cookies. For the first time ever. I feel victorious.

christmas baking
{christmas baking}

We had our 13th annual girls' Christmas party.

flocked tree!
{flocked tree}

It's getting good.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Getting in the spirit

pre-christmas prep
{pre-christmas prep}

This is what our apartment looked like at this time last year. We are so not there right now. I'm hoping we'll get a little closer this weekend. I'm resolving to get our tree up, to get that tablecloth out, to stock up on baking supplies and pull out some recipes.

I want to make melomakarona this year, my favorite Christmas cookie that always seems to get passed over because I run out of time. This recipe looks like it might be promising.

I want to candy orange peels and make caramel and bake more gingerbread. I want to sew a few little things and wrap a few other things and spend some time drinking my holiday tea and reading.

But I'll be happy if we put out the tree and sit still for an hour or two. And I can always buy melomakarona (LA people - Papa Christos usually has them). So there's that.

I'm making pies this weekend. Lots of pies. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A few little things ...

So I closed my shop for the summer because of the wedding and then decided not to re-open it for the holidays this year. I'm so grateful for that. If you run a shop, you know that you have to be prepared for the holidays by early November, period. It ramps up from there. I was still recovering from the wedding then. I do miss the holiday bustle of orders, emails with customers, wrapping up packages. But I'm glad to have this little reprieve.

All that said, I happen to have a few of the more popular gift items in stock and I'm happy to make them available to you readers. It's on a first come, first serve basis, as I won't have time to make more of anything this year.

:: four phrases napkins. $30 per set of four napkins + $5 domestic shipping.

:: chalkboard gift tags. $25 per set of four re-useable tags + $2 domestic shipping.

:: "check one" gift tags. $10 for a set of eight tags + $1.50 domestic shipping.

:: silk + leather headband. $25 + $2 domestic shipping. {SOLD OUT}

:: woven headband. $25 + $2 domestic shipping.

If you're interested, send me an email right quick and I'll hook you up. I'll ship everything on Saturday, so domestic orders should arrive in time for Christmas, although I can't control the postal service!

I plan to re-open the shop eventually, but it's all about balance right now, you know?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The weekend, briefly

Jam packed.

the cake
{the cake}

nest beer
{nest beer}

cheese platter
{cheese platter}

AOC family style
{AOC family style}

gb party 2011
{gb party 2011}

circe, dressed up
{circe, dressed up}

gb party 2011
{my house}

I got to play sous chef on Saturday and help make the cake for a friend's wedding. And then we attended the wedding, which was intimate and amazing (just 28 people!). We talked and ate for hours. So good.

As a result, I was a lot less prepared than usual for the annual gingerbread house extravaganza, but we managed to get the houses all put together with just 15 minutes to spare and I relaxed (apple cider + brandy may have helped). It's one of my favorite parts of the season, even when things get hectic. Circe discovered that she loves royal frosting, which means that she now gets excited when she sees pastry bags. I was stepping on her all afternoon. She really is the weirdest dog.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The weekend, belatedly (and not so briefly)

So it's December! Thursday feels like Monday! Posting will happen whenever I can manage to make it happen!

We got hit with a confluence of real work, holiday festivities, general festivities and family needs. I looked at my calendar last week and started to throw up my hands, thinking that we'll just have to power through this month and hope to sleep in January. Or maybe February.

But that isn't very festive. Then the Border Grill, as part of their ongoing quest to make up for our wedding (they really are very nice, you guys), invited us to their holiday cooking demonstration/meal. I wrung my hands at D for about half an hour (via chat) going back and forth about how it wouldn't work out, we couldn't spare the time. And then I realized it was time to man up, make a decision and stop thinking about it or justifying it. So I declared that we would take Saturday off from everything, go to this class and go slowly, via public transit. It was awesome.





We bought day passes and took the bus + subway across town (I know this is LA, but this is easier than people believe it to be - I did it that entire month I had jury duty), walked the few blocks up to the Border Grill. The cooking demonstration was hilarious, the food delicious, the drinks strong. And when we were done at 4 pm, we wandered around downtown, got holiday macarons at Bottega Louie (they have eggnog and peppermint right now!), hit up Más Malo for a couple of leisurely happy hour drinks (the pinata smash is AMAZING) and then meandered back across town, hopping off the bus for a YogurtStop fix and even managing to squeeze in an errand at Century City.

We still fit in some dog time and helped my parents get a jump start on their holiday decorating on Sunday.

snowy head
{snowy head}

lenox snowflake
{lenox snowflake}

My parents are working on simplifying, so this year in lieu of a tree they're just displaying their collection of Lenox snowflakes. They've been buying one each year since they got married. Awww.

This week, I've been getting home from work each evening and immediately putting on my apron. Because this weekend is kind of a big deal around here. (Listening to the David Bowie/Bing Crosby station on Pandora, which can be hit or miss, but is definitely festive)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Finding your place

An hour before our guests arrived, we realized that we probably should have made seating designations. Even with just twelve people, I think it goes a little more smoothly if people don't have to try to figure out where they should sit.

D made these little name cards to tuck into the napkins and I love that they seem to play off our china pattern a bit, with the handfeel of the font echoing the weave on our plates.


He says that was unintentional. Whatevs.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A little more Heath

The annual Heath sale started the week before Thanksgiving. We'd been hoarding a gift certificate we got for the wedding and we went with a fairly specific idea of what we could use. Specifically, a covered serving dish.

But then we found this platter. I picked it up and didn't want to put it down again. It's enormous and persimmon orange and it was the only one.

heath platter + covered dish
{heath platter + covered dish}

I'm generally pretty good about not buying stuff on impulse. But every once in a while I get a feeling about something. You know the feeling. That tug that makes you pretty sure you were subconsciously looking for that specific thing all along. I've had it with two pieces of art and with my Catherineholm bowls and I still think those are among the best purchases I've ever made. D had it with those decanters we found on our honeymoon.

I struggle a bit with the whole idea of consumerism. Things shouldn't make me happy, and yet sometimes they do. So I try to figure out how to winnow it down so that I'm purchasing a minimal number of things that will give me a maximum amount of enjoyment. I limit my purchases, I listen to my gut, I certainly don't always nail it but I'm loads better than I used to be. A little hint - if you get the feeling all the time, you might want to hit the reset button. The shopping hiatus worked really well for me in that regard.

There's a little bit more about my ongoing relationship with spending money here. I guess I think about this a lot, even more as we enter the SHOPPING SEASON.

This was actually just supposed to be a post about how awesome my new platter is - we used it for the turkey and it was perfect and I love it.