Wednesday, December 18, 2013

From the moving frontlines

We are no longer here (thank god).

moving day!
{moving day}

Instead we are here ...

new living room
{new living room}

And, sadly, here ...

settling in
{settling in}

I failed to appreciate just how inadequate our adorable 1930's kitchen would be to my not-so-minimalist stash of kitchen equipment. It's an issue. We are putting in shelves as I type this and I'm hoping I actually make it in there for at least a single batch of Christmas cookies.

Whenever I get discouraged (about ten times a day, for the last two weeks) I just remind myself that my gift this year will be having these scraggly little legs on my sofa full time. Assuming Circe can adjust to apartment living, that is.

alive?
{alive?}

Eyes on the prize, people, eyes on the prize.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Putting together the gingerbread house party

Last year I wrote this up as I was prepping and then never posted it because the party wore me right out. This year might be the first time in nearly three decades that we aren't able to have the party and that makes me sad, even though I realize that adding a big party on top of our move and some ongoing house renovations at my parents' place probably would be hard for everyone involved. Maybe we'll manage to pull it together but in the meantime, I'll try to be a gingerbread house enabler.

cookie cutters
{cookie cutters}

The beginning of December is generally very busy for me at work but luckily the baking can be broken up into parts that I can handle in the evenings after a full day. Here's how it went down last year.

gingerbread spices
{gingerbread spices}

We needed 12 houses so I planned on making 15. I always have a little wiggle room in the numbers. That way if you break a piece or have a house that comes together wonky you don't need to stress. If they all turn out perfectly, well, a decorated house can be a sweet surprise for a coworker, neighbor, etc.

Tuesday morning I measured four sets of the spice mixture, the baking soda + baking powder and the brown sugar. I set out the butter and the eggs. Three batches of dough will make the 15 houses I planned for and the extra one is for cookies, of course. Here is the dough recipe I use, which I love. The only issue with it is that the scraps of raw dough are so good that Dustin and I basically live on them all week and feel mildly disgusted with ourselves.

Tuesday evening when I got home from work I made all four batches of dough assembly line style so I didn't have to clean out the mixing bowl between. The recipe lists the flour in cups so for the first batch I weighed the flour I measured out (1 lb 13.5 oz) and then for the remaining batches I didn't have to bother with the measuring. Much faster. Each batch gets bundled in plastic wrap and refrigerated.

Wednesday - Friday I baked in the evenings. I always make a list and keep a tally so I know how many of each piece I have (for 15 houses it is: 30 roofs, 30 walls, 15 fronts, 15 backs, 15 doors). Once the pieces have cooled completely I put them in large ziploc bags. If you aren't putting the houses together very soon, you should do this. The gingerbread will pick up moisture from the air quickly and you end up with soft pieces that, while perfect for eating, are structurally unsound. This is also why you can't put the houses together too far ahead. Even a couple days of damp weather and everything falls apart. Once you get enough royal frosting on, the houses will usually hold up really well. We've had a few years where it was so damp that the roofs slid off, but that's rare.

You also want to prepare the cardboard bases for the houses ahead of time. The house footprint is fairly small but I aim for nothing smaller than 9x12", to give people some yard space to play with. Wrap each piece of cardboard in aluminum foil, secured on the bottom with packing tape.

The day of the party we cover the old table with aluminum foil and then lay all the pieces with windows out. Do this on a surface you aren't worried about. I've never noticed that it damages the finish of the table, but we use our giant holiday table that's already scarred.

I make the sugar syrup as described here and pour all the windows (note - on top of everything else last year my thermometer was reading too hot and as a result, my windows never set up. Sadness. I've edited that post to remind myself not to blindly trust the thermometer in the future - it takes less than 5 minutes to double check that the syrup is hot enough). Having two people pouring can be useful here, but it isn't necessary. You just want to do it quickly, to minimize the number of times you have to reheat the sugar.

The windows (should) set up quickly and in the meantime I get the kitchen ready for the gingerbread house assembly, as described here. Having a small island or table next to the stove makes this much easier. Pick one you aren't worried about or cover it well. Have your aluminum covered cardboard pieces handy.

gb 2010 blank house
{gb 2010 blank house}

Once the houses are ready we set them all out on the long table. If you have guests who take the house selection seriously, it helps to put out name tags so that people can claim their houses on a first come first serve basis and then your guests don't feel like they have to hover next to their chosen house the whole time.

I make a giant vat of royal frosting, mixing several batches and then combining them. I don't have a recipe on hand so I always end up doing a quick internet search when it comes time to make the frosting (should change that!). I use meringue powder + powdered sugar + warm water in whatever proportion you are supposed to use. I fill several pastry bags (aim for one per person, use couplers and put out extra tips so people can change it up easily) and set them in tall glasses with a bit of damp paper towel at the bottom. This keeps the frosting in the tip from drying out and clogging. When filling pastry bags, only fill 1/2 - 3/4. Keep it closer to 1/2 if you have small kids because it's hard for inexperienced people or tiny hands to handle overly full bags. It's also good to have a medium size bowl full on the table with a spatula.

We ask our guests to bring some candy with them and so we put out a bunch of empty bowls on the table. It's much neater than having bags of candy everywhere and it lets people see what's available. Some years there is a moderate level of candy hoarding going on, but now that we're adults we'll usually share if you ask nicely (actually, kids are way more willing to share because they don't understand how important it is that their houses look neat and symmetrical so they will just slap random candy everywhere if necessary. Amateurs).

Popular decorations:
Spice drops
Dots - my personal fave because I also love eating them
Holiday M&Ms
Peppermint candy in all forms - red and white themes are usually a hit, so having plenty of candy in that color range helps
Chiclets - surprise contender from a couple years ago, makes nice tiles
Shredded coconut is good for snow

I make cookies as well and usually set aside a batch to bake right before guests arrive, so that the house is completely filled with the smell of gingerbread. Having some little bags ready so that guests can take a small pile of cookies home is a nice touch and will sometimes prevent people from eating their gingerbread houses immediately. Technically, you are supposed to wait until Christmas Day to eat your house. I can't guarantee that all our guests obey.

You want food to balance all that sugar, so we have everyone bring an appetizer and set everything out on a table in the living room. We use the crock pot to make mulled cider. Spiking is optional, but highly encouraged now that almost all of our guests are way above the age at which you would expect gingerbread house decorating to be popular.

Please note - playing John Denver and The Muppets at least once is MANDATORY. Saying you are "sick of the album" or "don't like Miss Piggy's voice" is not an excuse and I'm not buying it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My very favorite gingerbread recipe

A sweet reader emailed me about my gingerbread house recipe the other day and I realized that I've never posted about it, which is a shame, because I found a keeper several years ago and I'd never even consider swaying.

gingerbread cookies
{gingerbread cookies}

I use the gingerbread house recipe from Martha Stewart and while I love her, I have issues with her site. The links change, recipes are edited or deleted and the site is hard to search and slooow. I can't be the only one who notices this, right?

I'm going to type out the recipe right here, in case the links disappear again. This recipe makes the very best gingerbread, for houses or cookies. It's spicy, easy to work with and quick to mix up. One batch will make enough dough for 5 small houses, using their template (really hoping that link never dies...) Our family used to make these enormous, absolutely gorgeous custom gingerbread houses and I cried a bit the first year I had to scale back to the small template. But as it turns out, most people find the smaller houses more approachable and kids are less likely to lose interest and run off halfway through the decorating. Serendipity?
Best Gingerbread Cookies (recipe from here, makes a ton of cookies, or 5 small houses) 
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 teaspoons ground ginger
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unsulfured molasses
6 cups all purpose flour (1 lb 13.5 oz)
:: In a large bowl, shift or whisk together flour, baking soda and baking powder, set aside.  
:: In an electric mixer, cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then beat in eggs and molasses.  
:: Add flour mixture in 2 - 3 parts, mixing on low speed until combined. To avoid a flour explosion, I wrap a dishtowel around the mixer to cover the opening of the bowl. If you're using a standard Kitchenaid, it will be pretty full here. Divide dough in thirds, shape into disks or rectangles and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least one hour, or up to a few days.  
:: Heat oven to 350 degrees. On a well floured surface, roll out dough to 1/8" thick. Cut out cookies (or house pieces). Place dough on ungreased baking sheets (I always use my Silpats, though). Pop the tray back in the refrigerator and chill for at least 15 minutes. This helps your cookies hold their shape better. Bake 15 minutes, until gingerbread is firm in the center but not dark around the edges. I bake a little longer for house pieces, because sturdiness is a high priority. I like my cookies chewier, so I bake them a little bit less. 

If you're making gingerbread cookies, you can leave them out at room temperature uncovered and they'll still be great for weeks* and the flavor is definitely improved if you can let them sit for at least a couple days.

If you're making gingerbread houses, let the pieces cool completely and then put them in ziploc bags until you are ready to assemble. You don't want them picking up any moisture from the air because it will make your houses less stable.

Last year I keep a draft post running while I prepped for the gingerbread house party, so that I could share it with you all because I sometimes get inquiries about GB house party logistics, which I take seriously. But then, for reasons mostly unrelated to gingerbread and entirely related to some family medical issues, the party ended up being very stressful for me and I just felt like I'd be a fraud posting about how awesome I am at throwing parties. Now that a year has passed I'm realizing that the post might actually be useful, so I think I'll dust it off and pop it up for you shortly. I'll make sure that it links to the various gingerbread tips I've given over the years, since they're currently scattered all over the blog.




* This will probably horrify everyone, but we almost always give out extra large gingerbread cookies on Christmas, cutely wrapped. A couple years ago I was getting out the wrapping supplies and found a cookie from the previous year in a gift bag. It still looked perfectly normal, so I ate a corner of it only as a test, for science. It tasted fine, and I didn't die. But I did throw out the rest of the cookie because I thought eating a year old cookie just seemed too desperate. I have a sweet tooth, but it hasn't come that yet, thank god.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

You can't take it with you (or at least not all of it)

I would like to say that I'm above material concerns but I have to tell you that downsizing has been giving me some major headaches. Our new place is smaller, for reasons that I'll explain when I have more time, but basically, $$ + location - actually, that explains it fairly well.

I have to convince myself to give up some things and while the excess furniture is heading straight to Craigslist and the more random bits and pieces are going to the thrift store, there are some things that give me bigger pangs.

dyed napkins
{dyed napkins}

I've been hoarding our wedding napkins because I can't quite bear to give them up. Not so much because they are from our wedding but because they are really nice cotton napkins and they're pretty and we hand dyed those suckers and what if I needed to throw a really, really big party? Yes, that means I have had over 100 lovingly washed and pressed napkins in my closet for the last two years. Several dozen have made it into circulation in our house, but try as I might, I can't justify holding onto the rest of them anymore.

pink napkin
{pink napkin pocket folded - photo from our wonderful wedding photog, melissa of happy confetti}

UPDATE - All the napkins are sold, thanks guys! So if you happen to be in the napkin market, I'm letting these go. I'm selling them in sets of four (choose between blue sorry, all gone!, pink or yellow sorry, all gone!) for $20, domestic shipping* is included. These are not fine linen napkins! They are heavy duty, thick cotton that absorbs really well and will hold up over time, even with daily use. No two napkins are exactly the same, since we hand dyed them. You can see the tutorial on how we made them along with some pictures of them in action right here, if you're curious.

wedding napkins
{wedding napkins}

Because they are dyed in a stripey pattern, they will look completely different if you fold them differently. You can play around with them to see where you like the stripes.

napkins hanging
{napkins hanging}

Nothing fussy as far as care instructions go. I just wash ours with the rest of our laundry, which means warm water and tumble dry on high. I don't like to iron everyday napkins so I give them a good snap to shake them out as I transfer them from the laundry to the dryer and then fold them while they're still hot to minimize wrinkling. I'll tuck a little card with care instructions in each set, in case you'd like to give them as gifts.

If you're interested, send me an email at rachel.heartoflight@gmail.com and let me know what color you'd like so I can set it up. I have these all wrapped up and tucked aside in their own box and I'll be keeping them close and shipping them out as I get requests, so they'll arrive quickly. I just want them to go to good homes.

Let's not even talk about my cake stands. Or my enormous supply of stationary. Or the Gocco + assorted inks. I have decision fatigue.

* International readers, you know I love you! It's just that with the craziness of the move I don't have time to jump through the customs declaration hoops at the post office. I'm so sorry! If you'd really love a set and you're willing to wait another week, email me and we'll work something out.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

The morning of Thanksgiving D and I woke up early and started talking leisurely and then suddenly realized that December 7th was not, in fact, two weeks away, it was one week away. Which meant we needed to get our apartment ready for 14 dinner guests and then immediately start breaking everything down so we could move. Oh, and we should probably reserve a moving truck or something. And maybe figure out what the actual address is at our new apartment? 

dough rising, tea waiting
{dough rising, tea waiting}

pile of veggies
{pile of veggies}

sweet potatoes
{sweet potatoes}

mushrooms, pile of
{mushrooms, pile of}

bread cubes
{bread cubes}

setting the table
{setting the table}

pre guest drinks
{pre guest drinks}

lights
{lights}

desserts, thanksgiving 2013
{desserts, thanksgiving 2013}

food, thanksgiving 2013
{food, thanksgiving 2013}

Yes, this is the least well thought out move we've ever made, but I'm about 95% certain we'll survive. And we were able to let it go and just enjoy the holiday.

I find Thanksgiving cooking therapeutic and this year I even attempted to make notes for some of our non-recipes. I worked in the kitchen and D and his brother rearranged the apartment and figured out lighting and then all of a sudden our families were there and we had the usual last minute craziness as we tried to figure out how to get everything to the table more or less warm. (Note - this never actually happens, but it's a valiant fight.)

It was the largest Thanksgiving we've had yet (by a smidge) and we had to reverse the layout of our apartment in order to accommodate a table long enough for everyone. We moved our living room furniture to the dining room area, which meant our guests had to edge past the table in order to get in the front door, but no one complained. Rather than having card tables, we have a couple of inexpensive Ikea tabletops that are the same width as our dining room table and legs that we store disassembled and bring out for large dinners. As I type that I realize that card tables would probably be more convenient, but this works.

It was a really, really good one, and I feel lucky. We have the usual family quirks and annoyances and stressors but I'm truly grateful that everyone loves each other and that when we get together like this we are truly happy to be with each other. That makes up for a lot.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cranberry margaritas

The second I saw the recipe for cranberry margaritas in the November issue of Bon App├ętit I knew what we were serving for pre-giving. I eagerly made the cranberry jam early in the week and then D and I decided to taste test the cocktail, you know, strictly for quality control purposes. And it was .... underwhelming, to say the least. The cranberry jam clogged up the cocktail shaker, making it nearly impossible to actually get the drink into the glass. I'm not a fan of sweet cocktails and this one verged on cloying, with the sugar basically wiping out the tartness of the cranberries. BA rarely steers me wrong, but this just didn't work for me.

But at this point I had my heart set on a cranberry margarita, so I went back to the drawing board and decided to rework the recipe starting with more traditional margarita proportions. I ditched the cranberry jam for cranberry syrup and swapped the orange juice for unsweetened cranberry juice to bring out the tartness. I added just the tiniest hint of heat, which you can barely pick up in the finished product, but I think it heightens the flavor. The end result is a gorgeous deep scarlet drink, tart and strong and just barely offset with a bit of sweetness. It's my new favorite holiday cocktail. 

cranberry margarita
{cranberry margarita}
Cranberry syrup (inspired by this recipe, makes about 1.5 cups, enough for 24ish drinks) 
12 oz fresh cranberries, roughly chopped
1/2 jalapeno (optional), seeded and chopped
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup water
1 tbsp lemon juice
Pinch of salt 
:: Place the cranberries, jalapeno (if using), sugar and water in a small saucepan. Simmer gently over medium low heat, until sugar is dissolved and syrup is red (about 10 minutes). Stir or swirl gently at least a few times during this process. I used a flexible spatula rather than a wooden spoon, to avoid breaking up the berries too much.  
:: Strain through a fine mesh strainer, taking care not to press down too much on the solids, then stir in a pinch of salt and the lemon juice. Chill. You can make this several days ahead of time and keep it refrigerated until use. 
Cranberry margaritas (makes one drink) 
1 1/2 oz tequila blanco
1/2 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1 oz unsweetened cranberry juice*
1/2 oz cranberry syrup 
:: Combine everything in a cocktail shaker with two ice cubes, shake vigorously, strain and serve over ice. 
You can also do this in a make ahead version, which is critical for big gatherings. This is a cocktail that needs to be shaken with ice - the little bit of water you get while shaking it makes the consistency perfect and a pitcher pour won't compare. However, you can combine all your ingredients in the morning, keep them refrigerated and then simply pour and shake during the party. This is the only way I'll consider shaken cocktails if we have a group of more than five people. Obviously, you can scale the recipe however you'd like, but this was a good volume for pre-dinner cocktails for eleven people.
Cranberry margaritas for a party (makes 70 oz total, enough for twenty 3.5 oz pours) 
30 oz (3 3/4 cups) tequila blanco
10 oz (1 1/4 cup) fresh squeezed lime juice
20 oz (2 1/2 cups) unsweetened cranberry juice
10 oz (1 1/4 cup) cranberry syrup 
: Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher and stir well. Refrigerate until you're ready to start pouring. Shake two drinks (about 7 oz) with ice at a time, strain and serve. No need to wash the shaker between pours, of course. But do keep a towel handy. 
Non-alcoholic options - I had a little bit of cranberry syrup left over and I used it to mix up a small batch of drinks sans tequila. It's delicious with a splash of sparkling water and it's nice to have something on hand to offer people who don't drink. I used exactly the same proportions, just left out the alcohol.


* I get the unfiltered, unsweetened 100% cranberry juice in the glass jar from Trader Joe's and I think this point is fairly critical. The juice is mouth puckering and not at all sweet. If you can't track down unsweetened cranberry juice you might want to test out using a lower proportion of syrup. On the other hand, if you like your cocktails with a little more sweetness, you may prefer to use a cranberry juice blend.

In case you're curious, we use these Bormioli Rocco bodega glasses for cocktails and I love them to death. Inexpensive, sturdy, great proportions. 


Monday, November 25, 2013

Pre-giving 2013

I am deep into Thanksgiving prep over here, getting ready for my favorite holiday. We kicked it off with pre-giving over the weekend and I'm so glad that we've started this tradition. It's a chance for me to test out new recipes (family Thanksgiving is all about old favorites and I wouldn't want to traumatize anyone by tampering with the stuffing recipe) and having a really long, leisurely dinner with friends is certainly something to be grateful for. It somehow manages to take all the pressure off the family holiday and leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy about both celebrations.

pre-giving table
{pre-giving table}


apps
{apps}


piles
{piles}

persimmons and crocheted lace
{persimmons and crocheted lace}

ready for guests
{ready for guests}

pre dessert games
{pre-dessert games}

It was slightly complicated by the fact that we settled on an apartment (!!!) which means we're moving in a couple weeks (yes, in the middle of one of the busiest months of the year - we're geniuses, clearly). I got excited the day we put down the deposit and starting listing our furniture on Craigslist, thinking it might take a while to sell, and then all our bookshelves and our coffee table went immediately, leaving us with a bare living room and two big dinners to host. But we rearranged our remaining furniture and D put together a temporary coffee table with a $6 Ikea top and some metal legs from Home Depot and everything worked out fine. We made sure everyone had a cranberry margarita the second they walked in the door and I think that really took the focus off the stacks of books all over our living room.

P.S. - Cranberry margarita recipe will be up tomorrow. I'm very happy with how it turned out.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Apps I'm loving right now ...

I'm not a heavy app user and I rarely download anything new to my phone. So when I find something I like I get very excited and want to share it with everyone.


GymPact - I do better both mentally and physically when I workout on a very regular basis and I'm extremely loss averse, so this app works great for me. Basically, you commit to a certain number of workouts per week (minimum of 1/2 hour to count, no more than one workout per day) and bet a dollar amount that you'll do it. I'm committed to 4 workouts per week at $5 per workout. If I miss a day I pay $5 into the pot and it gets distributed to other people who did make their workouts. Because the pool is huge, you only get paid about 25 cents per workout, but the real motivator is avoiding loss so it works out well. So far I've made $15 and lost $5. The real benefit is that this is the most consistent I've been about the gym in ages. You can sync it with RunKeeper for outdoor activities and I do this to log my runs.

Naturally I obsessively read internet reviews before giving this app access to my Paypal. There are a lot of people who have had bad experiences (common complaints are problems with syncing to RunKeeper, issues with losing or not getting credit for workouts, trouble cancelling the service or changing workout commitments). I dove in anyways because I really wanted to try it (so why did I read all those reviews? I don't know) and I figured I could deal with the hassle of cancelling if it was a bust.

So far (11 weeks in) I've had zero problems with it. Every once in a while it will fail while trying to upload my workout but I hit retry and it goes through. That might just be the spotty internet connection at my gym. I've adjusted my workout commitment on weeks where I had a vacation or just a crazy schedule. As long as you do it before the week starts, it's easy peasy. It uses GPS to make sure you are actually at the gym when you check in, so you need to make sure your gym is registered. I've forgotten to check in a couple times, which drives me completely nuts but that's entirely my fault and I can't blame it on the app, sadly.

I'm sometimes (deeply) annoyed that I can't just skip the gym after work, but that's the whole point, right? I almost never regret a workout once I've done it, so it's just getting myself there that's difficult. This helps me get there.

RunKeeper - As a basic, free app, RunKeeper is pretty good. I like having the option of tracking my outdoor runs and it syncs with GymPact flawlessly so I get credit for them. Some people have been annoyed that you can't listen to music while using the app but I've never had an issue with this. I just open up my Pandora before I start RunKeeper and then they both run simultaneously. There are also playlist options but I still haven't bothered putting any music on my phone. It seems to automatically pause while I'm waiting at stoplights because while the overall time is still running, those pauses don't factor into my pace, which is nice. That said, I have issues with it being less than accurate. I've identified a couple of places along my usual routes that seem to be black holes. I'll run one block and suddenly RunKeeper thinks I've gone 2 miles further than I have, which has me running a 5 minute mile pace. I'd love to take the credit for that, but it's never going to happen. I've learned to avoid certain blocks (not sure what is up with that or if I'm crazy thinking it's that consistent) and my estimates tend to be more accurate. I have no idea if this is something to do with living in a densely populated city with lots of signals bouncing around or if it's inherent in the app. I'm not a serious runner, so the time/distance tracking is for fun and I can live with inaccuracy, but now I'm tempted to get a Garmin or something similar. Data is addictive!

SkyView Free - Just for fun. You get to see an overlay of stars everywhere when you open this app. It's set up so you can "see" straight through the Earth, so you can figure out which constellations are where at any time of the year. Bonus - you can take pictures of people with halos of stars and planets. This has no practical application but it's a nice party trick, if you happen to go to really geeky parties.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Light

I came home after a very long day a few weeks ago and the lights were on in our bedroom even though  I knew D wasn't home.

bedside lamps
{bedside lamps}

Turns out while I was gone he'd purchased mirrored bulbs and hung the lamps we wired back in September! And he'd made the bed for good measure.

I love them. And him.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reading, lately

I was on a bad streak at the beginning of this latest batch. It's my fault, since I was short on time and just haphazardly choosing books and throwing them in my library cart but it was still discouraging.

Fit2Fat2Fit - I can't help it, I'm a sucker for weight loss stories, even though I sort of hate myself for it. This one is particularly terrible. Health obsessed guy (seriously, you will hear ALL about how amazingly healthy he was compared to the rest of us slobs) decides to purposely gain weight so that he can then lose it and have more perspective. It's about as bad as you'd expect it to be. I really wanted to deny that I'd read this (you guys, there are NUMBERS replacing words in the title) but I'm trying to be honest here.

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-Called Hospitality - I love, love, love behind the scenes stories. I want to know what's happening in restaurant kitchens, on reality TV sets (sadly, I haven't found a memoir about how reality TV series are produced, but the second someone writes one I will read it), everything. Unfortunately, the author of this particular memoir is almost unbearable. I managed to get through it by telling myself that he was a character (and maybe it was? that would be clever) and it distanced me just enough from his supreme doucheyness that I could tear through it. I did love the insider info.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder - I DIDN'T FINISH THIS BOOK! That's all in caps because I literally can't remember the last time I didn't finish a book. I'm a chronic finisher, even if I have to groan the whole way through. I think I was exhausted with annoying male narrators after the last two books and I just couldn't handle one more. I got 25% through and decided to call it quits. I checked it out because the premise sounded interesting (building strength through adversity, if I boil it way, way down), but by the time I'd finished the introduction I felt I'd already heard every single point the author had. Maybe an essay would have been better? Or maybe he gets to new and revelatory information right at the 26% mark and I gave up too soon? I'll never know.

Criminal - I love the Karin Slaughter series and this is the latest one my library had with Will Trent. If you love brutal, twisty serial killer novels, you'll want to read this series from the beginning. But I mean brutal. If you aren't on board with disturbing images, you should stay far away.

MaddAddam - Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors and I particularly love her dystopian novels. Not only do I have a soft spot for apocalypse literature (survival stories!) but it's just so clear she enjoys writing this series. That said, I didn't love this third book as much as the other two. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are a little more solid.

Happier at Home - I read the Happiness Project a while ago (and thought I posted about it, but I can't find it?) and found it mildly interesting. I liked this one less. I have only the usual criticisms - it just reads as self-absorbed, privileged and overly obsessive. The big question is why did I read it, knowing that it would be?

Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality - I try to read all of Jared Diamond's books, since anyone who can get the general public interested in science is a winner for me. This is a really quick, light read and I enjoyed it. It's not as in-depth as Guns, Germs and Steel, but I think that's just the subject matter.

Swamplandia! - I was won over by the title on this one. It's the story of a family of alligator wrestlers running an amusement park on an island in the everglades. I think I was expecting a rollicking mapcap novel, which it is at times. But it also gets weirder and darker than I expected. When I finished it I wasn't entirely sure if I loved it, but I do think it's worth a read.

The Cutting Season - A mystery set on an old plantation, with elements in both the past and the present. I thought the writing was a little bit like your standard cozy mystery (i.e. not really literature). This was just okay for me. There is some suspense but it didn't grab me the way I expected.

The Snowman - I'm not sure why I continue to attempt to read so many Scandinavian crime novels when they are almost never my cup of tea. They tend to be so low key as to border on somnolent (feel free to hit me and/or disagree violently - there are millions of people who adore this particular subgenre so I know I'm in the minority here). This one started off slooooowly and I almost quit at 15% but if you can push through to 20% things get much more exciting.

When Will There Be Good News? - This was a re-read for me but I loved it just as much the second time. Kate Atkinson weaves together several different plot lines and keeps all her characters right on point. It's a mystery, but first and foremost a novel. Her dry humor kills me.

I'm currently re-reading The Twelve because I need to re-stock my Kindle. If you're looking for a saga about America after the vampirepocalypse, start with The Passage and read on through. I'm dying for the third one to come out even if the writing occasionally gets bogged down a bit with some overly fanciful phrases.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Around here ...

I haven't been breaking out the camera as often as usual and while it's sometimes a nice break, I also miss it. Here's a few glimpses of what we've been up to over the last couple months.

caramel brownies, again
{caramel brownies, again}

porch dinner
{porch dinner}

stenciling
{stenciling}

carrot cake
{carrot cake}

Apartment hunting. Blerg. Looking for a dog friendly, cute, inexpensive place in Hollywood, Silverlake or K-town. Would also like parking and a backyard with a magical unicorn, obvs.
{apartment hunting}

lasagna in progress
{lasagna in progress}

homemade rice krispie treats
{homemade rice krispie treats}

I may not be a huge chocolate person, but add a little bit of caramel and I'm suddenly on board.

We've been making the most of our balcony, especially with the crazy warm weather over the last month. Leftover wedding candles make everything prettier. Friends make everything more fun.

I told D I was totally over Halloween and just wanted the easiest costume possible that would let me wear sweats. Somehow we ended up hand stenciling skeleton costumes?

It was carrot cake time of year again. I won't deviate from this recipe. Even if shredding the carrots by hand kills me a little every time. (I ditch the maple syrup in the frosting because I swear it doesn't make a difference)

Apartment hunting in LA is a little brutal. We started a month ago and told ourselves we wouldn't settle! I wanted hardwood floors, laundry in unit, garage parking, no popcorn ceilings, patio or balcony for outdoor space. Four weeks later and we're pretty much ready to take the first decent, affordable, dog friendly thing that pops up. Patient, I am not.

Homemade lasagna noodles, inspired by cevd. Worth the time.

Homemade rice krispie treats, which is what happens when I decide to make an easy dessert. I COMPLICATE IT. Turns out homemade marshmallow fluff, while ridiculously delicious, makes for seriously stale rice krispie treats. So that is a bummer. I need to figure out the science on this one.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tamarind simple syrup

I've been experimenting with making our own tamarind syrup for one of our favorite cocktails from last summer (and my current favorite fall/winter drink) and while I haven't mastered the exact proportions of the original (mine is slightly less sweet) it still works perfectly.

tamarind simple syrup
{tamarind simple syrup}

Now that I have the proportions down (which you should feel free to play with - you can do more sugar if you like it sweeter) I can make a batch in less than 15 minutes. It is worth having on hand, let me tell you.

tamarind simple syrup, bottled
{tamarind simple syrup, bottled}

Tamarind simple syrup (makes ~ 1.75 cups)

4 oz tamarind pulp/paste* (slightly mounded 1/3 cup)
6 oz granulated sugar (generous 3/4 cup)
10 oz water (1 1/4 cup)

:: Put everything into a smallish saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat.

:: Whisk the boiling syrup briskly for 1 - 2 minutes. Lower the heat slightly if it looks in danger of boiling over! The syrup will become thick and dark brown once it is thoroughly mixed. You really need to use a whisk here, not a wooden spoon.

:: Turn off the heat and let the syrup cool for 10 - 15 minutes. It's easiest to strain if the syrup is hot but not boiling.

:: Strain the syrup through a fine mesh strainer or a few layers of cheesecloth. The syrup will be thick! I use a spatula to help press the syrup through a fine mesh strainer. If you're using fancy tamarind paste that doesn't have seeds and skins, you might not need to strain it.

:: Store in the refrigerator and shake before use. We usually go through it in 2 - 3 weeks but I'm guessing it will hold up a bit longer.

If you don't already have a kitchen scale, you're missing out (we have this Oxo one and it's held up well over the last two years so I'll vouch for it). Trying to scrape tamarind paste into (and then out of) a measuring cup is much more work than slicing off a chunk and weighing it out. I weigh everything directly into the saucepan. I tested and added cup measurements here but only because I love you guys. The good news is you'll end up with something delicious even if your measurements aren't perfect.

tamarind paste
{tamarind paste}

* I get these blocks of tamarind paste from the local Middle Eastern market. It isn't strained and it has seeds in it and it costs less than $5. There are fancier seedless options but they cost more and it's easy enough to strain it after making the syrup. You should also be able to get it at some Mexican markets. Just make sure that whatever you get is 100% tamarind, without any added sugar.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Tamarind cocktails

First of all, I want to say thank you times a million to everyone who reached out after my last post. Those annual posts are difficult to write, but always worth it, mostly because you guys are so amazing. My heart breaks for those of you going through something similar. I wish I could give you all a hug, but how about a long overdue cocktail recipe instead?

2013 was the summer of the tamarind cocktail for us. We were given a bottle of Royal Rose tamarind syrup and we zipped right through it and then I had to figure out how to make my own (will share that recipe tomorrow in case you want to try it on your own).

The tamarind does make your cocktails a rather unusual murky brown, but once you discover how good they taste you'll start thinking they're gorgeous.

tamarind sour
{tamarind sour}


There are two drink options, one with bourbon and one with tequila. I love them both but we make the tequila based one more often in the summer, the bourbon in the fall/winter.
Tequila Sunset - makes 1 drink / 2 drinks
2 oz tequila blanco              / 4 oz tequila
1/2 oz fresh lime juice         / 1 oz fresh lime juice  
1/2 oz tangerine juice*        / 1 oz tangerine juice
1/2 oz tamarind syrup        / 1 oz tamarind syrup
2 dashes bitters                 / 4 dashes bitters 
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled glass. 
Tamarind Sour - makes 1 stiff drink / 2 stiff drinks
2.5 oz bourbon                  / 5 oz bourbon
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice     / 1 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz tamarind syrup        / 1 oz tamarind syrup
dash of bitters                   / 2 dashes bitters 
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled glass. 
*You can certainly sub orange juice for the tangerine juice, but whatever you use should be fresh. I'm obsessed with the tangerine juice in the refrigerated section at Trader Joe's. P.S. If you want the most inexpensive yet surprisingly decent white tequila, try the Zapopan blanco from Trader Joe's. It isn't a sipping tequila, but it's good in cocktails and it's so cheap. If you've tried it in previous years, maybe give it another go. It's 100% agave now and I've noticed a few nice restaurants around town keep it under the shelf for their well drinks. At this point you may be wondering if Trader Joe's sponsored this post and the answer is no, but they should have.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Five years

It is five years since Dave's accident today and I really, really didn't want to write this year. I don't like where I am in this process. Which is even more dismaying because I thought the "process" was over, that I had come to a point of acceptance. But apparently not. Apparently there are layers upon layers of process I'm still waiting to discover and I'd really like to know when it ends. I'm writing anyways because this annual check in is important to me, personally, and I make it public in case anyone else reading is dealing with something similar. (years one, two, three and four here)

This year I am angry. Angry and resentful and completely ashamed of myself for feeling that way. I'm exhausted. Our family is exhausted. I'm frustrated that every solution I've come up with over the last five years has failed or at best been extremely imperfect.

Over and over again I think I've finally given up hope (which I guess I equate with acceptance, that elusive state) and then I think of something else and manage to convince myself that this time it will be a solution. And then it fails and I lambaste myself for my stupidity. There is no simple solution. My family is not going to magically be fixed.

In August my mom got very sick and we had to scramble to find a way to take care of Dave. In desperation I ended up bringing him to work with me for a week* and then found a respite care facility close by where he could stay for another five weeks. I convinced myself that we would use this time to somehow improve things. I found a self therapy program for brain injury online (patient guide here, family guide here). I read it and felt hugely hopeful** and tried to get Dave to work through it. He was motivated in theory but not so much in practice. I struggled, trying to decide how much I could expect from him, whether the difficulty of pushing through the program might be worth it. Every day for at least an hour I would push him to make a schedule, to work on the exercises, to figure out meaningful activities for his life. I ended up wrung out and exhausted. Dave felt inadequate. We were both resentful. I was putting in long days at work (trying desperately to prove that my family situation wouldn't impact my work performance), hitting the gym in an attempt to knock out some anxiety and then heading directly over to work with Dave before going home to make dinner at 9:30 pm. I don't know how people do this. And there are so many people out here who do this, or something similar.

Here is what I hate about myself, what I don't want to admit to anyone - I'm resentful that this shell of Dave is taking up so much of my time and energy. I want to be able to spend more time with our other parents, who also need us. I want to be able to spend more time with Dustin. Our friends are buying houses and having kids and I'm so damn tired and discouraged that half the time I can't think more than a month ahead, juggling family schedules and trying to make sure that no one feels neglected. I feel hollowed out, right when I want our lives to feel full of possibility. I want to be dreaming instead of doing constant damage control.

I'm terrified and ashamed by how bitter I can feel towards Dave at times. None of this is his fault. And yet I'm still angry with him. I still manage to be hurt by the fact that since the accident he hasn't once asked me how my day went, or how work is going, or how Dustin and I are doing. I know that this isn't his fault, but it still hurts, to invest so much time in someone who has so little to give back. I worry that all this anger has displaced the love we had. But the first night I had to leave him in the respite facility, as I watched him walk into the dining room for dinner, alone, without one of us, for the first time in nearly five years, I had to fight the urge to stay just so I could make sure he was okay. I was so afraid he would be lonely or disoriented, that the other residents wouldn't understand him and he'd have to sit alone. My fear felt physical, like a punch to the gut. I dragged myself home and cried for three hours before giving in and going back to check on him. He was fine, of course. How can I love him so much and still feel so much anger towards him? I want to be a person who loves unconditionally and gives selflessly, who balances work and family and a personal life effortlessly and still has a sense of humor about it. The best I can seem to do is to look like that person at least some of the time. Inside I just feel horribly selfish, fraudulent.

There is still so much love in our family that I have to believe we'll figure out some kind of long term solution. (If I can't believe that, how can I keep going forward?) I'm not sure what we're going to do but we'll keep trying. In the meantime, I'm fighting to break myself out of this crisis mindset, to whatever extent I can. The anger and resentment were big wake up calls for me. I don't want to be an angry person and I don't want to resent my family. So I'm trying to set aside more time to just hang out, fighting the (entirely self-imposed) guilt I feel every time I'm out having fun instead of doing something for my parents. D and I are looking at potentially moving to a new neighborhood, which is no big deal when you rent, except that it feels simultaneously impossible and overwhelmingly exciting. This is how I know I need to open up my life a little more, because the prospect of moving 7 miles away feels daring and spontaneous (note that we've been talking about doing this for four years and keep putting it off because it never seems like the right time - I have to stop waiting for the right time and just start doing things).

So I'm not in a good place this year, but I'm going to do everything I can to be in a better place next year. I think I need to stop fighting this situation and just work on changing myself as best I can.




*Um, yes. This was not my finest professional moment. Asking my boss to let me bring my brain injured stepfather to work with me was difficult but taking time off would have been a bigger hardship and I'm incredibly lucky to work in a supportive environment. I try really hard not to bring my personal issues to work with me because I'd like to be known for being awesome at my job, not for being that person with all the family crises. But sometimes it's unavoidable.

** I'd highly recommend this program for people dealing with TBI. It was helpful to me, as a family member, and I think it would be amazing for many patients. I'm not sure if Dave isn't quite motivated enough or if it's my fault for not having enough time to dedicate to it, but even on a limited basis I think it was useful for us. If we could somehow get the system into place, I think it could be even more useful (apparently I'm chronically optimistic, even when I'm trying not to be).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Reading, last week (er, last month)

I don't have a good list of books for you right now because I haven't been reading as much as I'd like. I also only have 2 minutes to get this post published, even though I've had it mostly drafted for a month.

BUT - if you are looking for a super absorbing, mystery/thriller with lots of suspense and some excellent plot twists, you will probably want to check out Afterwards. I got it because I enjoyed Lupton's novel Sister quite a bit and this one is EVEN BETTER.



I don't like to describe mysteries too much because I think it ruins the surprise. The voices in this novel are strong, the concept is unusual, the characters are enjoyable and I had a really hard time putting it down during the last 1/3 of the book. To the extent where I was borderline rude to Dustin a few evenings in a row because I was so desperate to get to the ending.

It was a good ending.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

And back in LA ...

A couple Sundays ago we treated ourselves to a lighting workshop at Poketo, preceded by a shared flight at Angel City Brewery and a pocket pie from the Pie Hole. I'm sure that drinking before working with electricity is not strictly recommended, but we were technically still on vacation that day.

angel city taps
{angel city taps}

flight
{flight}

strategizing
{strategizing}

lighting workshop at poketo
{lighting workshop at poketo}

I've always shied away from working with electricity, so it was fun to get some experience with it in a setting where I was fairly certain I wouldn't be allowed to electrocute myself. We wired a simple pendant lamp and we're going to use them as our new bedside lamps. Pictures to follow, hopefully. You would think it wouldn't take us two weeks to get a couple of lamps hung, but you'd be wrong.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Palm Springs 2013

We went to the Colony Palms for our honeymoon and now we try to make it back out every year. We only had time for the miniest of vacations this year but we still wanted to get out of town, even if it was just for a day, really. Palm Springs to the rescue! If you're thinking that there is nothing to do in Palm Springs in September, when it is almost too hot to move, you are right! That's the genius of it. You are physically forced to do nothing but lay around and read. It's the most efficient form of relaxing I've found. Plus the rooms are on super discount.

getting started
{getting started}

PS
{PS}

reading, drinking
{reading, drinking}

bar tending
{bar tending}

alcove
{alcove}

archway
{archway}

turrell at dusk - 2
{turrell at dusk}

We brought our own drinks and splurged on a few poolside meals and took serious advantage of the free coffee they offer in the morning. Vacation means having two full hours to spend in the morning talking and drinking endless cups of coffee. I read magazines and mysteries and napped. We finally made it to breakfast at Cheeky's and it was as good as everyone says it is. We stopped at our favorite vintage mall and ended up buying yet another pitcher, after a long discussion about how we probably couldn't because we can't possibly justify owning another one. But it was just such a good one.

On our way home we detoured through Claremont to check out the Skyspace and indulge in some college nostalgia. We did not attempt to crash any parties.