Sunday, November 6, 2011

Monday, October 31, 2011

Peppermint Mocha Cookies or Why Butter is your Best Friend and Worst Enemy

My dear friend, Leah and her husband Brian, live in Kimmswick - about 30 minutes outside of St. Louis. Each year, on the day that the town hosts the Apple Butter Festival, Leah and Brian have a cookout at their house, which is right in the middle of the action. As usual, I wanted to bake something to bring over and as usual I turned to Cook's Illustrated for guidance. I settled on a peppermint mocha cookie (as Leah pointed out - it would go awesome with hot chocolate!) and so, last Saturday morning I tried my hand at these simple cookies.
The sky was blue, the birds were chirping and it was a beautiful 60 degrees outside. I had no indication that the day held a baking disaster! ha! As usual, I am exaggerating. However, let me take the time to point out, yet again, why butter and it's temperature are so vital! So here I am, minding my own business creaming butter with sugar - it's a lovely consistency - fluffy and light. At this point, the directions read "add COOLED esspresso" to the butter and sugar. I dip the tip of my finger in the esspresso and notice that the water is actually still quite warm. I think to myself, "hmm too warm. The butter will melt." I then pop the measuring cup full esspresso in the freezer and decide to go do some laundry while the mixture cools. I come back about 10 minutes later and find the esspresso water to be very cold.  I then just dumped it right on in to the bowl and proceeded to try and mix the esspresso with the no avail. The butter became tiny little lumps in the bowl.
Oh goodness. This is when a normal baker would just scrap the mess and start over. Not I. I was committed to mixing these ingredients together if it was the last thing I did! After adding the flour and dutch process cocoa the dough seemed to look normal again. It sure tasted fine! So I decided to roll the dough in to balls and bake it up. I assumed the balls were supposed to flatten out in the oven as they baked. No such luck! Instead, the cookie balls were just like they were before I put them in. Okay. So, I think about it for a couple of minutes and like any pro baker I decide to fake it 'till I make it. I took the rest of the pre-rolled dough balls and flattened them with a serving spoon!

What resulted from all of these kookie cookie cooking techniques is something akin to a chocolate biscotti than a moist, chewy cookie. Sigh. The crushed peppermints and peppermint flavored icing really saved the day though, and as you can see below, the kids loved it!
The moral of the story: never, ever, take your butter for granted!

Apple Butter Festival

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Cake

It's been a while since I have posted any of my cooking/baking forays. Last Saturday I had a dinner party in honor of a co-worker who is leaving. As requested by the group, I made my (Cook's Illustrated's) deep dish pizza and it turned out beautifully. For dessert, I decided to try my hand at making a Chocolate Mousse cake, because it just sounded awesome. And it was.
This recipe needs about 13 oz. of semi-sweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate. Apprently the terms are interchangeable. Something I was not aware of at the time I made the cake. I considered making a grocery store run to buy come chocolate with bittwersweet on the lable, but instead threw caution to the wind and used the Ghiradelli semi-sweet baking bars I had stored away. They worked just fine!

This recipe does not use any flour or tradiational leavening agent. Instead, it uses whipped egg whites - not my favorite method. I've always found that to be a very unstable component. I can never quite manage to "fold" egg whites well enough. I either fold them too much and then render them useless or not enough.
But I folded the melted chocolate and egg whites as gingerly as I could. Cook's Illustrated mentioned to me that they included brown sugar in the egg whites to give them a bit more stamina, so maybe that helped me out this time around? Regardless, the next step to this cake was to bake it in a water bath! The cake needs to bake in an intensely humid environment to form correctly. 
Again, this was a first for me. Aside from freaking out that I had not sealed the pan well enough - if you look closely you may be able to make out the 3 layers of tin foil I wrapped around that puppy - the process was a breeze. Mousse cakes take a while to form once they're finished baking so the finished product bares little to resemblance to what comes out of the oven - a tall, puffy cake. It took about 6 hours for the cake to "settle" or deflate and then chill in the refriderator to the correct consistency.
It's a humble little thing really. At first glance it resembles a dry looking brownie, but The rich chocolate flavor it out of this world and the moist, smooth texture is a total surprise. One of my co-workers remarked that it tasted like a $15 dessert you get at a fancy restaraunt. It was so true! My family, after sampling the leftovers, has already requested this cake for Halloween - I'll be on the look out then, for some fun pumpkin faces I can put on it!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Family Fotogs

 It's getting to that time of year again where moms who are "on the ball" start putting together their family Christmas cards. My sister Aili, isn't one of them. Ha! She and I have been tossing around the idea of taking family portraits for a while now, however, and the Holidays are right around the corner so today was the day to get these shots!
Oh my we got some beautiful photos too!
 I took 425 pictures in about 30 minutes. Crazy! I think we got about 50 usable ones, regardless, the kids certainly deserved their reward - cookies and cream ice cream after the photo shoot! 

Thursday, October 13, 2011


I went to the St. Louis Zoo on Columbus day with the fam. I love how close we can get to the animals! I'm not quite so appreciative of the smell, however.
How cute is that little owl!? He was so tiny!
I didn't find this Toucan particularly cute, strange more like it. I thought it was kind of creepy cool how you could see his eyes bulging on either side of his head.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I took my two nieces out in my parent's backyard today, so I could practice taking portraits on my camera. I got about 5 usable shots out of about 50, but hey, those 5 look awesome. It was hard keeping these two curious little minds on task though, and I had to take a picture of an acorn that the littlest one found. They both were fascinated by the tiny crack in the nut!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Starry Starry Night

I have a lot of time on my hands right now. I'm finishing day 3 of my radiation treatment and have been quarantined in a room in  the basement of my parent's house. Really, the room is perfect: internet connection, TV and DVD player and plenty of books. Tonight I got a bit restless and decided to try my hand at photographing star trails. I had no idea what they were until my friend asked me about them and I started looking in to it. Star trails are essentially long photo exposures of the movement of  the rotation of the earth as evidenced by the "trails" that stars create in a still photograph. So I set my camera, but on "bulb" and set the exposure for 5 and a half minutes - more than enough time to catch the movement of the earth that we can never really feel. It was a nice way to spend the evening. Tomorrow I'll shoot for longer exposures and we'll just have to see what I get!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Nighttime Visions

At night, when I am having trouble sleeping, I do one thing: envision what I would do to my house if I had unlimited funds! ha! I am hoping that this year I will be able to re-do my kitchen and these are my inspiration photos. They have their own file folder on my computer...

Can  you see a theme? Sigh. One of these days I'll have my own itsy bitsy white kitchen!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cancer Shmancer

So. I barely know what to say. About two weeks before leaving for our trip to Spain, I visited an endocrinologist who promptly pointed out that I had "something" on my thyroid. We waited to biopsy the "something" until after our trip and I pushed it out of my mind. I had googled thyroid nodule and saw the statistic that 95% of all nodules on a thyroid are benign and assumed I would be part of that group. Well, I'm not. I found out that the results of the biopsy were positive for cancer on my way home from visiting my friend, Laura. Fast forward about 3 weeks and I am now writing this post, at home, after having my entire thyroid and several lymph-nodes removed from my neck. 

I have many things to be grateful for. (1) The cancer I have is one of the most curable forms of cancer (2) the relapse rate is very low (3) no chemo, although I will have radiation (4) my family and (5) my friends. I have been blown away over the past few days how much the people in my life care about me! I've received, flowers, cards, books, magazines, emails, texts, phone calls, etc. all asking me how I was doing and how they can help. I have to say, just hearing everyone's love and knowing that so many people are praying for me is enough. I am thankful to God for His provision and strength during this time and while the next several weeks are going to be hard, as my body depletes its stores of thyroid hormone in preparation for the radioiodine treatment, I will try to remember to be grateful again. 

So to all of my dear friends, I love you all very much and you have made this yucky situation infinitely more bearable than it would have been otherwise.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Barcelona: Day Nine

We woke up bright and early on our last day in Spain. Our intention was to spend the day in the Eixample district, but not before visiting the Joan Miro museum on the opposite side of the city. This is one of the things I love about public transportation; our detour to Montjuic did not add any significant time travel-wise to our day. The metro system is fast, easy and cheap.
After taking the funicular to the top of Montjuic (no way I was going to climb that), we arrived at the Miro museum and had a lovely time enjoying a large collection of the artist's works. I do believe that the museum houses many more of Miro's significant works, unlike the Picasso museum. Again, NO FOTOS, but were able to snap away to our hearts content at the sculptures by Miro outside the building.
Being a lover of modern art (I know that just sounds insufferable, right?), I enjoyed seeing the unexpected and Miro just has that down. From gigantic wool wall hanging, monolithic sculptures and teeny tiny paintings you never know what you are going to see from one corner to the next. It was a delightful way to spend the morning.
And then it off to another corner of the city to see the Sagrada Familia. I will be honest with you. I hate Gaudi. Yes, it is true. I have seen many photos of this work in progress and this is what I think every time I see it..."UGLY UGLY UGLY". In fact, I disliked it enough to put it on the very last day of our trip so that I could avoid it for as long as possible.
But I could not, in good conscience, skip seeing the cathedral all together as my traveler's heart would be sad that I had knowingly skipped a renowed UNESCO World Heritage Site. And I just cannot do that.
 So we went.
Here is the melty chaos in all of its glory.

Once we got to the other side, which I had never seen pictured, I kind of tilted my head and though, "hey that's kind of cool."
Instead of the typical sculptural overload you see in most cathedrals, this side of the building had refreshingly few. Instead of being overwhlemed, I was able to take in each individual tableu and understand exactly what it was depicting.
See what I mean?
And then I walked inside...
and my heart grew three sizes a la the Grinch. IT.WAS.STUNNING.
Not to sound too flippant about the beautiful Cathedrals I've visited, but really, after the first couple they all start to blend together. Not this place. I will say that I think it was the most beautiful cathedral I have ever visited. ever.

The Sagrada Familia is still under construction. While much of the interior has been completed, you can still see evidence of work that needs to be done in the incomplete stained glass windows. My father visited several years ago and when he came, it still didn't have a roof! It has come a long way.

Those windows that have been completed are  light, airy and just beautiful. Again, in contrast to the typical cathedral with it's thick panes, these glass windows allowed the light to flow right in to the building.
The staircases pictured below were incomplete and were cordoned off, but from what you can see aren't hey lovely?!

The tour of the church grounds don't stop with the cathedral. Gaudi designed a little school for the benefit of the artisan's children and it is still there, although it has now been coverted to a museum. The Sagrada Familia is financed entirely by the entry fees of the tourists who come and visit. It should be completed in about 30 years...which is exciting. It will be in my lifetime. And I will come back to see it finished. What a day that will be!
After our tour, we strolled in the park across from the cathedral and grabbed a wonderfully inexpensive lunch. As were walking by, I noticed this street with its cutie pie curved trees. I wonder how they got them to grow like that?
After lunch we made our way to see another of Antoni Gaudi's creations; Parc Guell.
Intended to be the beginning of a high income housing development, Parc Guell flopped. According to Rick Steves, none of the social elite wanted to live so far out from the city center. But as a park? A success!
Aha! Now here is some more of the Dr. Seuss-like architecture I have come to expect from Gaudi (which rhymes with gaudy).
Still, it was whimsical and sweet. Gaudi never seemed to take himself too seriously.
Parc Guell is located at ome of the highest vantage points in the Barcelona, and my goodness, you get rewarded with some spectacular views of the city. You can see all the way to the mediterranean.

Antoni Gaudi's house, which is located inside the park, is suprisingly understated. I thought it would look like a melting cupcake, but no - I thought it was charming.
The grounds are covered in these covered rocky colonades.
He intended them to become an outdoor market for the residents of the housing development.
What Caroline and I enjoyed the most, was taking in the views and resting in the shade. Up this high the breeze was cool and brisk.
I am including the photo below as an example of the non-tourist parts of town. These blog posts are full of the lovely gothic architecture of the old city, but this is how much of Barcelona looks. Simple and utiliarian.

Back in the cute part of town, we settled in for our last dinner in Barcelona, and my was it a feast!
Barcelona at dusk is just beginning to come to life. Families, dogs and friends were all about enjoying the relative coolness of the evening.
Below I make Caroline and Leanne pose inder the rmains of a Roman aqueduct.
In this particular plaza, about a 3 minutes walk from our hotel, it was also possible to see the remains of the Roman fortefied walls. It is astonishing to me sometimes to be so casually confronted by history.
After treating ouselves to some more ice cream, we headed back to our hotel to begin the long re-packing process. The next morning we had an early brekfast and headed right over to the airport to begin the long, tedious journey home. Leanne was happy that the airport police let her pack her huge knife (this was quite the drama) and I was happy that all six of my heavy ceramic plates made it home in one piece! Of course I had to hand carry them the entire time. Caroline remained smug on the way home, with her carry on and tiny mementos.
We had the time of our lives on this trip and I am so thankful I was able to spend it with my sisters!