Friday, March 4, 2011

Dinner Soiree!

Last month, B and I had the honor of hosting two of our favorite friends over for dinner. Liz and Nikki are this fantastic couple who are creative, funny, unique, and really down to earth. Our conversations are never dull, and whenever I'm with them I secretly hope they'll never leave! B and I always feel so great after hanging out with them, and our dinner with them was no exception!

Liz and B hanging around the dining room.

Liz is gluten-free, so I wanted to create a menu that was utterly delicious, but also completely safe for her to eat as well. For a while I freaked out about this, not knowing what to make, and scoured the internet for gluten-free recipes. There's some pretty cool stuff out there, but a lot of the recipes just weren't things that I wanted to eat (or that I knew B wouldn't like - he's a fairly picky eater). Lying in bed a few nights before the dinner, I confessed to B that I still had no idea what I was going to make, and that I needed his help in brainstorming what would be okay. We finally realized that French Onion Soup is gluten-free, and unbelievably delicious, so we decided on that, with a fruit, cheese, and meat tray to start, and a little mixed green salad with homemade dressing on the side. It felt like the perfect meal for a frigid winter evening!

B and I in our dining room with the cheese platter. Maybe one day I'll get around to posting an apartment tour, but as much as I love interior design our first place isn't much to look at!

For the cheese platter: sharp cheddar cheese and manchego; organic, grass-fed salami (I can't remember the brand now but it was from Whole Foods and SO delicious); rice crackers, ritz crackers; gala apples and purple grapes. We served the appetizers on a silver platter that my Grandmother gave me for my wedding - a family heirloom with a 'D' engraved in the center, and a low china bowl that was my great-grandmother's 50th wedding anniversary present. It felt great to be able to take these heirlooms out of the hutch and actually use them!

Me in our very messy kitchen, preparing the last of the cheese platter. The apron I'm wearing was made by my dearest friend, Hannah McBride, for my bridal shower! I wear it every time I make something!

For the soup: I basically followed Deb's recipe for Onion Soup, but I tweaked a few things. Here are my Bench Notes:
- I used a lot more onions than what is called for. In fact, I used closer to 10-15 CUPS of onions (5-7 very large yellow onions) in my soup. I peeled and quartered the onions, and then used the top/vegetable slicing blade on my food processor to slice them up to the perfect size.
- I use the largest and widest pot I have to make this soup - it helps cook everything down quicker.
- Because I'm using more onions, it takes a little bit longer for them to caramelize and cook down, so I leave myself 1.5-2 hours to make this whole recipe.
- I generally don't simmer it for the last 30 minutes or so. If we're ready to eat, we just eat it about 5-10 minutes after I add the beef stock to the onions (also, I use Better-than-Bouillon - never the actual bouillon cubes).
- I used dry vermouth instead of cognac because I didn't have any, but it didn't make much of a difference. I've made it before and left the alcohol out and it's come out fine.
- For cheeses, I do a mix of gruyere and mozzarella, with maybe a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan.
- We serve this with slices of crusty baguette that we dip in, and it's absolutely divine. To make this gluten free, I bought some frozen gluten-free stuffing pieces from Whole Food's (it's in their frozen bakery section). I just let them come to room temperature, and they were crunchy and delicious!! That was the only part of the meal that we got a special thing just for Liz, but we all ate the 'croutons' (as we dubbed them) because they were THAT good!
- For the vinaigrette, I followed Deb's recipe that she has underneath the Onion Soup recipe, but I made it all in the food processor. I didn't have any champagne vinegar, so I used regular vinegar, and I softened it with some lemon juice. Instead of a clove of garlic OR a shallot, I did both, and it came out magnificently. The dressing looked creamy but tasted light and fresh, and had a bit of a kick to it. It was enjoyed by all!

And that was our evening! Delectable food, endless wine and fabulous company. I can't wait to get together with Liz and Nikki again!! :)

ps: All photos taken by the incredible Nikki Jarecki, hence why she isn't IN any of them!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Monkey Cake!

A day late and a dollar short - but at least I'm posting today, right? Progress.

March 22nd happens to be none-other than T-dubs FIRST birthday. I'm so excited! I cannot believe this little guy (who is getting bigger and bigger every day - make it stop!!) is turning ONE YEAR OLD!! Just the other day he was a tiny nugget in my arms. Now? Babbling, walking, hummus-loving crazy boy, who is such a sweetheart. To mark the occasion, I wanted to bake him a very special birthday cake. Deb at Smitten Kitchen created this Monkey Cake for her son's first birthday, and I thought it was absolutely perfect for this little monkey's big day, too. :)

I enjoy making cakes, but I'm not the best at assembly and decorating (bundt cakes are my specialty), so I wanted to make sure that I could pull off creating this cake before I went ahead and committed to making it for his birthday party. This past Saturday I decided to do a test-cake, to see how long everything would take me, to make sure it tasted good, and to practice my decorating skills. It took me the whole day to make (including cooling times), but I was also taking it slow, enjoying my Saturday off, and making sure I was doing everything Just Right.

Here you can see the large cake and the miniature (which is still quite large!) 'smash' cake.

I essentially followed Deb's directions to a T, so I won't re-post her recipe. Click here to view the recipe. Below are my bench notes:

- I did the Option One, which is for one two-layer big cake, and a smaller 'smash' cake (for T-dubs)
- Since I did the Option One, I also opted to make the larger (7 cups!) batch of frosting. This made A TON of frosting, and my 9 cup food processor had a little trouble with it at first, but with a little coaxing it all came together. We had a lot of frosting (both white/vanilla and chocolate) left over.
- I only had 3 cups of cake flour on hand, so I made my own cake flour for the other 3-3/4 cups using Joy the Baker's recipe. I ordered more Cake Flour from King Arthur Flour for T-dubs actual cake (because I didn't want to spend time aerating and sifting it later).
- I did not color the white/vanilla frosting as Deb suggests. It was getting late in the evening (hence the yellow fluorescent-light-glow of the pictures)and I figured the white was fine enough, and I thought it turned out fine, too.
- I didn't have two 9-inch circle pans (I have no idea where the other one went...) so I used one 9-inch circle pan, and a 9-inch springform pan, and when the cake was cooled I removed it from the circle pan, washed, and reused it to bake the last/third layer. It seemed to work fine.

The cake turned out DELICIOUS and it had The Best chocolate fudge frosting I have EVER eaten in my life. T-dubs family tried some, and they loved it too! My plan for his big birthday party is to make this cake again, but change it up ever so slightly. I'm still going to make it according to the large proportions, but instead of doing a two-layer banana cake plus a banana smash cake, I'm going to make it a three layer cake (two layers vanilla, one middle layer banana cake), and a banana smash cake. I'm going to use the rest of the banana batter to make banana cupcakes, and I'll also make some vanilla cupcakes too, and decorate them with monkey faces as well. I'll let you know later this month how the whole project turns out! :)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Busy busy bee!

Hello there! My apologies for the delays in posting... it has been a busy month indeed! For two people who generally like to hang in and relax (or nonstop watch The know), we hosted 2 different dinners at our apartment, I had three new team members join my unit, I went to a Valentine's Pastry Market, B and I saw Deerhoof in concert, we filed our taxes, we celebrated the birthdays of good friends, we had B's parents over for dinner, I went to an incredible Ladies Night Out, and I baked a trial cake for T-dubs 1st birthday. That may not seem like a lot to some of you, but for us, that was jam packed! As busy as it was, it was delightful none the less.

Speaking of delights, one of the many delectable things I got to sample at the Valentine's Pastry Market was Katherine-Anne's Confections - specifically, her chocolate-covered-honey-vanilla-CARAMELS. Sweet baby Jesus, these were sprinkled with a little Fleur de Sel and the most incredible chocolate-covered-caramels that I have ever eaten. I bought a box for myself and told B he bought them for me, for Valentine's day. He was pleased with the arrangement. I was pleased that I got to indulge in these delights for the next couple of days. I cannot wait to get my hands on some more!

This is a picture I grabbed off her website of the assorted caramels; this isn't what the chocolate covered ones look like. I bet these are utterly delicious, too!

 Seeing Deerhoof perform live was another major highlight of our winter. They played at the Bottom Lounge, which I had never been to before, and was very impressed with the venue! Deerhoof, as always, was incredible. Hearing them (and watching them) play live is like nothing I've ever experienced - they're so electric, their music is so much larger-than-life, it's as if they fill everyone up with their energy and the room just explodes. Really, if you get the opportunity to see them live - GO.

On a different note, I'm going to work on posting more often/almost daily. This was one of my major goals in having a blog, but I've been feeling very shy when it comes to writing something. What do I have to say? What does what I'm writing about say about me? -- I'm going to try and lighten up a little and just post, and then when I begin to find a theme, or discover something that I'm really passionate about, I'll take it from there. Okay? Does that work for you? Great. ;) Goal #2 would be to comment more on the blogs that I'm reading daily. I feel like it's been a one-sided relationship, where I know so much about them, but I'm not communicating to them. Maybe that's a weird way of looking at things, but I know that I love it when someone comments on something I've written about.

Preview for tomorrow's post: A trial Monkey Cake for T-Dubs 1st birthday!!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Being Content but Dreaming Big

One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me figure out "what's next." At the beginning of 2010 I knew I wanted to do two things: graduate from school, and get married.

Granted, I had technically just graduated that December (2009), but I graduated early, and in Vocal Performance that's almost unheard of (side note: I wasn't trying to graduate on purpose, I just happened to take a lot of classes/overload during my freshman and sophomore years, and when I realized my junior year that I could complete a semester early and thus save a little money, I decided to work my ass off and do just that. I faced a lot of obstacles and had to petition (what felt like) everything I did [there was also a mix-up with the graduation program, cap and gown information; they still had me down for a May graduation even though I filed for December, so I found out three days before the ceremony that I couldn't walk. I was upset at the time, but now I don't even think about it]) so until I got my diploma in the mail, I did not consider myself a graduate.

At the beginning of 2010 I didn't think much about life after getting married - not that I wasn't concerned with my future, it simply wasn't the focus of my time and mental energy (pulling off a wedding with some crazy family dynamics while living 1,000 miles away took up the majority of those categories). I knew that I had a job as a nanny for at least a year, and hoped that B would be able to get a full-time job (which he did!), and knew that we'd live happily ever after. I didn't anticipate feeling anxious that I didn't know what I wanted to 'be when I grew up', or feeling frustrated that I couldn't tell what my 'big life passions' were. I just felt depressed, lost, in a seemingly never-ending fog.

I was lucky that B understood what I was (am) going through, as he went through his 'existential crisis,' if you will, a few years ago. His support, love, and challenges to remain content yet continue being creative have helped me immeasurably. Another thing that has helped me has been the blog Makeunder My Life, written by Jess Constable (here in Chicago!!). I've been recently introduced to her blog through one of the other blogs I read, and have been in love since the first post I came across. I felt like she was talking right to me about me! She has a page dedicated to the Best of MML and it was there when I found 'the post.' I was glazing over the post titles when I saw "What to do when you don't know your purpose yet." ! ! !  People actually talk about this?! I'm not the Only One?!!! Click on the link to get the full idea of what Jess is talking about, but in a few words at the top of the post it says "When you find yourself  lost in the dark...start feeling around." I LOVED that! The whole post I just kept saying "Yes! Yes! Yes!" to myself! It was exactly what I needed to hear. Listen to your gut, pay attention to yourself and what you're feeling, and be okay with waiting for the answer. I felt like she was saying "Yes, Sarah, you are in a time of transition in your life and it's okay to be waiting right now. Keep feeling around in the dark, and eventually the answer will come, and everything will be brought to light." And that, my friends, felt so good.

Check out Jess' blog, and also her incredible jewelery business Jess LC. She has no idea I'm writing this (or have any idea who I am. That's a little creepy, when you come to think about it, but hopefully she won't think that), so obviously I'm not being compensated to write a thing. I just wanted to pass it along so if someone else is stuck in a life rut, they know they're not alone and there are genuinely good people out there who want to help them, like Jess.

To close, I want to showcase one of Jess' necklaces that I am OBSESSING over:
It's from her Franklin collection, and it is Braille for 'Dream Bigger.' You can find the necklace and product info here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Valentine's Day Dinner

Happy belated Valentine's Day! I hope you all had a relaxing and love-filled day like mine! B and I aren't really into doing a whole lot for Valentine's Day, but in the past we normally stay in and make a fancy dinner together. Last year we had pan-seared scallops with linguine and a creamy white wine sauce. It was utterly delicious! This year I was feeling a little less inspired (or perhaps, a little more busy and a lot more tired) and I was craving our homemade pizza. Luckily, B was happy to oblige (you see, I make the dough, and sometimes the sauce, but he does everything else concerning the pizza) so last night we made our specialty - The vL Pizza Extraordinaire!

Sorry for the less-than-ideal picture, but my phone was all I had on me!

The recipe is based off of Smitten Kitchen's Updated Pizza, but instead of a small, thin-crust pizza, this makes a hearty, thick (almost foccacia-like) dough that's perfectly flavored. For the sauce, I stick to what Deb has beneath her pizza recipe (I'll blend it if I'm feeling fancy and I want a smoother sauce), but when I don't have 30 minutes to whip it up (or am just lazy, like last night) we'll use a traditional pasta sauce, lightly spread across the dough.

The vL Pizza Extraordinaire

1 1/2 C warm water
1/2 C white wine (we use Charles Shaw White Zinfandel)
2 tbsp active dry yeast
1/4 C olive oil
1 tbsp table salt
2 tsp honey
6 C flour
Corn meal

In a large bowl, whisk warm water, wine, and yeast until yeast is dissolved. Add oil, salt and honey and whisk until well blended. Add flour, and with one hand gently incorporate the wet and dry ingredients until the dough is mostly together in a shaggy lump. Then, dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and, using two hands, knead together for a few minutes until smooth and slightly tacky (Alternatively, you can mix the ingredients in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment for the first two steps, and switch to the dough hook when you add the flour and knead on medium-high speed for two minutes or so, until the dough is smooth).

Clean the bowl you made the dough in (or get another large bowl) and lightly oil it. Add the smooth dough back to the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Put it in the fridge and allow it to rise for approximately 8 hours. An hour before you want to make the pizza, move the dough from the fridge into the oven (or a warm, draft-free space) and bring it back to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to the highest setting (after you take out the dough, of course). Dust your pizza tray/stone with corn meal (or, alternatively, once you have shaped the dough you can lightly dust the underside of the dough with it) and shape the pizza on a floured surface until flat and round (feel free to use a rolling pin to help you get to the desired thickness and size). Put the pizza dough onto the pan (or stone) --WITHOUT SAUCE AND TOPPINGS -and bake for 6 to 9 minutes - what you're looking for is the dough to get a little puffy and baked, and LIGHTLY golden. When it reaches that golden good spot, take it out of the oven and let it stand for a minute or so, and then add the sauce (just a little bit, you don't want the cheese to swim) and top with your favorite toppings. We do: sauce, pepperoni, and a shredded mozzarella/cheddar cheese blend, and top it off with some dried herbs and a little grated parmesean. You don't want to go real heavy on the toppings because then the dough will get soggy (but par-baking the dough kind of helps with this), but a couple of ounces of your favorite topping should be fine.

Add the pizza back to the oven and bake for another 7 to 12 minutes, checking at 7 minutes for done-ness (the pizza dough will be a darker golden color, the cheese and bits of topping will have melted or slightly charred (my favorite!). Remove from the oven and allow for it to stand for 2-5 minutes to cool before cutting (otherwise the cheese will go everywhere). Enjoy!!!!

If you make it - let me know what you think!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Inspiration Files

I've been thinking lately about what images inspire me and evoke a certain sense of happiness and excitement about a space. Here are a few that I've had in my inspiration/"Future Home" files for a while (I apologize - I saved these before I knew about blogger etiquette in regards to citing sources! If you recognize any of these pictures or know where they originally came from, please let me know so I can give due ownership!).

I love this picture because of it's immediate possibilities. The cork board/'tool' organizer is something that I could pull together in an afternoon if I had all of the right parts and bits. I showed B this picture when we first moved into our apartment to see if we could get a similar concept up in our kitchen, and I think he may have even mildly agreed to the idea, but 9 months later we are still stacking pots and pans in an Ikea floating island.

Sigh. This is my dream pantry! All of the open space! The visibility! The different kinds of jars and containers that all blend perfectly together! The catch-all bottom baskets! Sigh. I've got a (barely) similar, much-smaller-scaled version of this picture in my current pantry. I picked up a couple of Bell jars at Marshall's and a few large glass containers from Crate and Barrel and use them to house flour, sugars, oatmeal, cornmeal, and other baking items/dried goods.

I'm also mildly obsessed with white dinnerware/bowls/cups/plates/serving dishes - okay, anything white, I love. I bought a hutch similar to this for my first apartment (I got the hutch, a dining room table with a leaf, and six chairs, DELIVERED for $150! Oh the joys of Craigslist!) and it's currently housing a similar collection of white, but not as much as this gorgeous picture.

This last little kitchen-esque nook really speaks to me, too. I'm not sure if it's the matte black popping against the cream walls, or the functionality of the whole piece, but I love it. I love the little bar set up at the end, I love the open shelving, the little drawers underneath, I love the movable hooks - I'm just smitten with the whole picture.

I realize the focus here has been mainly on kitchen/pantry items, but that's one of the sore spots in my apartment (we live in a very, very old building) that unfortunately I can't do a whole lot with. Just a few more months until the search for a new apartment begins!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Books I'm Loving

Have any of you read Ruth Reichl, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, before? A dear friend of mine let me borrow a copy of Comfort Me with Apples a few weeks ago, and I devoured the novel as one might their favorite snack. Her writing is witty, poignant, filled with fantastic stories and delicious recipes. I was sad when I finished the book - I never wanted it to end! I loved getting lost in her world, feeling like I was traveling along with her, experiencing new food and awakening my soul to new love. Reading her makes me feel like I'm listening to an old, wizened, adventurous friend. Needless to say, I loved her work, and immediately ordered everything else she's ever written.

This past week I finished For You Mom, Finally, and just this evening I finished Tender at the Bone (her first work). I realize now that I read them slightly 'out of order' - Tender at the Bone was her first work, and Comfort Me with Apples takes off where the first one left. For You Mom, Finally, is her latest work (I believe), and in between Comfort and For You she also wrote Garlic and Sapphires and compiled and edited Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet.

Do yourself a favor this week and pick up one of Reichl's books. I promise you that you won't be disappointed!