Monday, November 28, 2011

This month, I returned to Georgetown's Blush 'N Brush not once, but two times!!  The first was to do a painting class that featured cherry blossoms with my friend, who was looking for a class with less straight lines than the one she took before.  Branches and petals were perfect for that!

And when I saw there was a Paint Your Pet class on the calendar, I did not hesitate to sign up!  This is the first time this class has been offered.  We sent photos of our pets to the shop two weeks before the class, so that the instructor had time to sketch the animal image on the canvas.  I chose this one!

I had no idea what I would see when I arrived at the studio.  Nor did I have any confidence that I knew the remotest thing about painting something on my own with very little instruction. When I got to class, I was given my canvas of Webster.  It was so cute!  He captured all of Webster's best features.

We received very basic instructions to first paint the background, close to the sketch outline, then start to color block the lower layers and build up from there.

The instructors wandered the floor, but you were pretty much on your own.  The hardest part was doing the detail work, the little tiny hairs around the nose and ears, the whites of the eyes, and the famous Webster long eyelashes.  But, I think I did it!  I couldn't stop smiling as I was drying it with the hairdryer, I was so proud of what I accomplished!!  I think I've finally got the hang of this painting thing now!

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 by Julie

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Sunday, November 27, 2011


1. Still hooked on Pinterest!!!  I'm getting so many ideas for my house, crafts and food -- I need more hours in the day to handle all this creativity!

2. Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson - very well written and fascinating story

3. My Breville Mini Pie Maker from Williams Sonoma

4. Eat, Live, Run blog - Great yummy recipes!  Jenna posts a couple times a week, on average.

5. Small Business Saturday with American Express - I spent the Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving exploring Old Town Alexandria and its plethora of small businesses!  I found some amazing stores that have supercute home decor and fashion, as well as visited my frequent stops - Fibre Space for some more materials for knitting projects and Pacers Running Store for a really comfy, lightweight zip up jacket.  And, since I registered BOTH of my Amex cards, I will be getting $25 for each card credited to my statements.  YEA!!

Posted on Sunday, November 27, 2011 by Julie


I love baking!!  But when baking takes only approximately 20 minutes from ingredients to my mouth....yes please?

Sometime in the past few months, I got a coupon in the mail from Williams-Sonoma, so I perused their online offerings in the baking section and stumbled upon a brilliant invention.  And I splurged!  On a MINI PIE MAKER!!  Think George Forman for pies.  I know I paid less than what is being advertised now on the website, but since I discovered this machine, I have seen similar cheaper versions from other manufacturers (Sunbeam and Babycakes) at places like Kohl's and Target. 

We were going to do the first test run on Thanksgiving, but we were so stuffed, adding mini apple pies to our stomachs was just an unfathomable and uncomfortable idea!  So, a few days later, my friend and I decided to give it a whirl.  Coincidentally, we had stumbled upon some yummy frozen peaches and sweet cherries at Wegman's earlier in the day, so we went from making just apple pies to multiple fruit pies!!

Step 1:  Prepare the Filling

With the shorter cooking times (approx. 8-10 minutes), we had to saute the fruit first to get it soft enough for the pie filling.  Slicing up the (1) Granny Smith apple into small strips and the (approx 1/2 cup) peaches into half slices, we tossed both of those fruits in a mixture of 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, pinches of nutmeg and ground cloves, and a splash of vanilla extract.  Caramelizing one fruit type at a time in a saute pan, we cooked the fruit until a knife could enter and exit easily.  For the cherries, we just sauteed them in the leftover sugar liquid from the peaches, to add a little bit of sweetness, until they were no longer frozen, then added a splash of almond extract to the bowl of cherries.

Step 2: Prepare the dough

Using one box of Pillsbury Pie Crusts, at room temperature, we simply unrolled the dough and made the bottom and top pieces using the cutting forms provided with the machine, getting enough for two pies from one roll of dough.  We rolled out the leftover dough to make a top and bottom for a 5th pie, and a bottom for a tart we decided to make out of banana slices and Nutella.  Though there probably was just enough remaining leftover dough to roll out again and make the top for a 6th complete pie, if we desired.

Step 3: Bake in the Machine

Once we had preheated the mini pie machine, we took one crust bottom, placed it over the pie mold, then used the tool that came with the machine to press the dough into the mold.  One tip we learned the hard way, once the dough makes contact with the heated plates on the machine, it gets "sticky" quick and makes it difficult to get the dough press to release the dough.  Therefore, the quicker you finish your press, the better.  Repeat bottom crust press for all four molds, as fast as possible because it's already cooking!

Fill each pie bottom with filling of choice.  We had individual fruit pies then made a medley of all three fruits for the fourth pie.  Add the top dough crust piece to the mini pies, aligning with the bottom, and close and lock the lid.  Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the pie is golden brown and the top looks cooked.  Use a small angled, heat-resistant spatula to lift the finished pies out of the machine, and cool on a rack.

It's that simple!!  Our first batch turned out a little darker than I prefer because we kept them in for the full 10 minutes.  So I suggest opening the lid at or before the 8 minute mark, then continue to watch carefully.  Get your mini pie maker today and enjoy!

Peach and Apple Mini Pies

Mixed Fruit (Peach, Apple, and Sweet Cherry) Mini Pie


Posted on Sunday, November 27, 2011 by Julie

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Chicago is a city that I called home for three years in my young adult life as a college student.  I loved the city a lot, back then, which is why I am perplexed that it took me so many years to return after graduation.  But I am glad I did!

While the motivation to return was spurred by my desire to attend homecoming to see my Northwestern Wildcats play live, I also had the challenge of creating a fun itinerary for my travel partner who had never been to Chicago, as well as one that would introduce me to parts of Chicago I had never explored or remind me of the parts of Chicago that I enjoyed the most.  As is the case with all my trips, it seems, the long weekend was jam packed with things to do and see!

On my arrival into O'Hare Airport, I opted for the convenience and the nostalgia of the "L" public train (subway and elevated) transportation to get into town.  It's only a 45 minute ride to reach the "loop" where my hotel was located, and you can not BEAT the fare - $2.25 single ride!  Compare that to maybe $30-40 for a cab and the same timeframe (with traffic).  When I was in college, I remember there was a flat $20 taxi rate for students to Evanston, but since I was usually not in a hurry, I would just take the L and pocket the difference (thanks mom and dad!).

For this trip, I chose a hotel that was convenient to the meeting points for our scheduled tours, to the central part of tourist Chicago, and to the L lines we needed, located on Wacker Drive a block from Michigan Ave.  When I walked into the room, I was greeted with this amazing view!!!

Since my friend wasn't arriving until the evening, and I had to pick up my tailgate and football tickets, I hopped on the red and purple lines to head north to Evanston and explore my old stomping grounds/campus.  For such a mish-mosh of architectural styles, Northwestern is surprisingly pretty -- ok well, it grows on you.  But really, you can't beat certain views on campus:

View of North Campus and Student Center from "Lake Fill"

South Campus Fall Foliage

University Hall on South Campus

Arch I passed through every day on my way to class

View of Chicago from the Lake Fill

OK, that's enough reminiscing...back to Chi-TOWN!

Back downtown, my friend safely arrived just in time to grab a quick bite to eat then head to the late show at Second City!  Home to some of the best improvisational comedians in the past 50+ years, Second City is one of Chicago's best attractions.  John Belushi, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Bill Murray, Shelley Long, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Steve Carell,  Steven Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, and more all got their comedy starts at this theater.  

The next day, it was time to explore downtown Chicago.  What better way to do that than on a bicycle.  We joined Bobby's Bike Hike to take the morning lakefront neighborhood tour that started out in Streeterville, between Michigan Ave. and Lake Shore Drive on the north side of the Chicago River.  Streeterville is the first section of the city built on a filled in area of Lake Michigan, expanding the city boundary line east onto the growing amount of silt at the mouth of the river and the landfill material created to make Lake Shore Drive.  There is a very interesting story of George Streeter, who tried to claim this land as his own by creating the "District of Lake Michigan" through fraud and deceit, but all he got was the lasting honor of being the neighborhood namesake, in the end.  It is now home to some of Chicago's most famous landmarks - the John Hancock building and the Water Tower shopping and residential building.

Next, we traveled north on Rush Street to view some of the mansions of the North Side - more commonly referred to as the Gold Coast -- that initiated the move of the wealthy from the South Side and includes one of the most famous pieces of real estate in Chicago:  1340 North State Parkway.  This address was given to a 70 room mansion that had a notorious swimming pool in the basement called The Grotto.  While it was built in 1899 for Dr. George Swift Isham, its most famous owner was Hugh Hefner from 1959 to 1974 and was the original Playboy Mansion.  After Hefner moved to LA permanently, the mansion was first leased then sold to the Art Institute of Chicago for $1, and it was turned into dormitories.  Now, the property has been turned into condos that sell for more than $6 million each.   

Continuing north to Lincoln Park, we wandered through the old German neighborhood and took a short break at the Lincoln Park Zoo before heading back south along the Lake Michigan beach towards Navy Pier to finish out the tour.

View from Lincoln Park Zoo

The afternoon was spent back up in Evanston to enjoy a special Second City production that was Northwestern themed, then go to Ryan Field for some tailgating and football against Penn State with fellow alums, including SNL's Seth Meyers (this year's grand marshall) and NBC News/Today Show (and my former dorm mate) reporter, Peter Alexander.

Our final day of a packed three day weekend was spent learning more about the vast array of architectural contributions along the Chicago Riverfront.  There are several architectural boat tours offered, but the original and best is the First Lady tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and presented by a very knowledgeable docent from CAF.

Chicago is a great city for architecture because its history of rebuilding afforded the opportunity for innovation through creative modern design to solve problems and meet the needs of the society at that particular time, whereas a place like New York, already dense with buildings,  had to grow and adapt through renovation or planned destruction.  Chicago is where some of the world's first skysrapers were built, and where a river was reversed to solve the city's sewage disposal and associated health epidemic issue.  It also has the highest number of renowned architects represented by one or more buildings and structures, including Frank Lloyd Wright.

Boarding the boat beneath Michigan Avenue off of the Wacker Drive side of the river, we began heading west on the Chicago River.  First building of the day was the newest addition to the Chicago skyline:  Trump International Hotel and Tower - the tallest (90 stories) structurally all-concrete building in the world.

Trump Tower

Bending on the river after State Street, we were treated to several art deco masterpieces and armchair style buildings on the south side of the river and two structures built in the 1960s on the north side: Marina City and 330 N. Wabash.

 As we approached the end of the Main Branch of the Chicago River, we saw a neat brick building and the famous Merchandise Mart.  Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the "Mart" was originally used as a distribution center for Marshall Field & Company.  It spans two city blocks and has 4 million square feet of floor space, the largest floor space area in the US at the time in 1930, until the Pentagon was built in the early 1940s with its 6.6 million square feet.  The Mart's design included several art deco features: pyramidal towers, set backs, and bands of chevrons.  The pedestals along the riverfront facade hold busts of famous merchants.

Merchandise Mart

 The highlight of the South Branch part of the cruise was, of course, the iconic Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower).  This 108 story building was completed in 1973 and held the title of the world's tallest building for 24 years, until it was surpassed by the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.  It still is the tallest freestanding structure in the US and the 2nd tallest in North America.  Designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, it was the first building to use a concept called bundled tube construction.  More on Willis Tower later...

The tour made its way back to its dock, passing by the beautiful Wrigley Building, the NBC building and, finally, turning around at the mouth of the river next to the famous Navy Pier.  I was very familiar with this particular part of the river during my college years for another reason.  It was the location for the Northwestern Crew boathouse.  Many early mornings were spent on this part of the river!

Navy Pier
Mouth of the Chicago River

After we disembarked from the First Lady, we walked a few short blocks to Millennium Park.  Opened in 2004 to celebrate the new millennium, this public park is the home for many large modern art sculpture installations.  The most popular one, for obvious reasons, is the Cloud Gate sculpture.

The final destination on this whirlwind Chicago adventure was the architecture tour highlight: the Willis Tower.  While it's breathtaking to look at from the outside, the Willis Tower also provides an opportunity to let your inner daredevil out and literally have your breath taken away.  The SkyDeck attraction is on the 103rd story of the building.  It offers spectacular 360 degree views of the Chicagoland region, especially on a clear, haze-free day.  But the long lines are for one of four skyboxes.  These thick glass boxes extend out approximately 4 feet from the side of the western facade of the building to give you an unforgettable view - 1,353 ft above Wacker Drive.  I am not a fan of heights, but I pushed myself over that mental block to step out there.  Look at the photo below for a taste of the experience.  It was a lot easier to take the photo when I was sitting on the floor of the box, looking UP at the cameraman!!!

While this was a challenging itinerary for less than three days in Chicago, I think we accomplished a ton and experienced even more.  The bike tour, as well as the boat tour, made it very easy to cover a lot of ground.  And Second City is a must do for any trip to the Windy City!  But, I feel like we probably needed another 2-3 days to really get through all of the major spots, including the museums, shopping on the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue), additional historical and architectural highlights, and the growing theater district.  And timing a trip around baseball season to see Wrigley Field in action is always a good idea!  Maybe next time....

Posted on Saturday, November 26, 2011 by Julie

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There are two times in the year that I love when it comes to food: fresh strawberry picking season and the cinnamon, nutmeg, nuttiness of holiday baking.  Always eager to learn new recipes, I signed up for a baking class down the street at my local Sur la Table store.  The cooking classes offered through this company are small, convenient, and relevant to the average home chef.

The syllabus for the Holiday Baking Basics class included:
(1) Cloverleaf Dinner Rolls (to die for when eaten right out of the oven!)

(2) Gingerbread Shortcakes (or scones) with Caramelized Apples

(3) Pumpkin Tart with Chocolate Crust and Red Wine Caramel

(4) Individual Bourbon Pecan Pies with Flaky Pie Dough

I wasn't wild about the tart and the pie, but that's just me and my taste preferences.  If it's not a big heaping pile of cinnamon and sugar coated apples filling that pie crust, I'm not likely to dive in.  The gingerbread scones, though, were amazing -- even better than my standard Starbucks Cinnamon Chip Scone.  Then the Cloverleaf Dinner Rolls drowned in butter and sprinkled with course salt before baking - whoa!!

Here are the magical recipes for my two favorites from the class...

Cloverleaf Dinner Rolls (recipe makes 9-10 rolls and requires overnight refrigeration)

1 small (5 ounce) russet potato, peeled and quartered
1 1/2 teaspoons of active dry yeast, or 1 teaspoon of instant yeast
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1/2 stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, very soft, plus more for greasing muffin tin
1/2 cup (4 ounces) warm whole milk (110 - 115 degrees)
1 large egg, room temperature
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, melted, for brushing rolls
Fleur de sel (salt), for garnish

Put the quartered potato in a small saucepan, cover with water, and set over medium heat.  Bring to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the tip of a paring knife slides in and out easily.  Drain well, reserving 1/4 cup of the cooking water.  Return the potato to the pan and mash using a potato masher or fork.  Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Warm the reserved potato water to 110 to 115 degrees and pour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Add the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar and whisk by hand to blend.  Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes, or until the yeast is activated and foamy or bubbling.   Measure 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) mashed potatoes and add to the bowl.  Add the remaining sugar, softened butter, milk, and egg and whisk by hand until well blended.  Add the flour and kosher salt and knead on low speed for 2-3 minutes, until the dough begins to come together.  It will seem sticky.  With the mixer on low, add additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.  Turn the speed on medium-low and continue to knead until the dough feels firm, dense, and springy - about 5 or 6 minutes.  Note:  This dough is soft and sticky and will not pull away from the sides completely.  Do not overknead or the starch from the potato will break down and make the dough gooey.

Lightly butter or oil a plastic tub or a large mixing bowl, scrape the dough into the tub, and lightly coat the surface of the dough with a little butter or oil.  Cover with plastic wrap or a damp lint-free cotton towel, and let the dough rise until doubled in size (45-60 min, longer if the room is cold).  If you are using a tub, be sure to mark the starting level of the dough with a pencil or piece of tape so it's easy to tell when the dough has doubled.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Press down the dough firmly to expel some of the air bubbles.  Chill, covered, for at least 2 hours and up to overnight, until the dough is very cold.

Butter the cups of a standard muffin or cupcake pan.  Cut the dough into 10 even portions (approx. 1/3 cup or 3 ounces).  Then cut each portion into 3 equal pieces.  Form each piece into a ball and nestle 3 balls into each muffin cup.  Cover the rolls loosely with plastic wrap or a damp lint-free cotton towel and let rise until almost double in size (35-45 minutes, longer in cold room).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and place a rack in the center. Brush the tops of each roll, generously, with melted butter and sprinkle lightly with fleur de sel.  Transfer rolls to preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes.  Rotate the pan and continue to bake until the rolls are golden brown and their internal temperature registers 200 degrees on an instant read thermometer, about 15-20 minutes longer.  Transfer rolls to a cooling rack and serve warm or at room temperature.

Gingerbread Shortcakes with Caramelized Apples (recipe makes 8 servings)

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) cold buttermilk
2 tablespoons light, unsulfured molasses
3 tablespoons Demerara sugar

For the apples:
6 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 cups heavy cream, whipped, for serving

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place rack in center.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a thin silicone mat.  Place the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking powder, baking soda, and salt) in the bowl of the food processor and process for 15 seconds to blend well.  Add the cold butter pieces and pulse 5 times at 1 second intervals, or until the butter is cut into medium pieces.  Pour in the buttermilk and molasses, all at once, and pulse another 20 times, or until the dough holds together in large, thick clumps.  Use a spatula to scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Gently squeeze or kneed the clumps together until they form a cohesive dough.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour and pat the dough into an 8x4 inch rectangle.  Use a chef's knife or dough scraper to cut the dough in half lengthwise and into quarters crosswise, making 8 - 2" squares.  Brush off any excess flour and space them evenly on the prepared baking sheet.  Sprinkle the Demerara sugar generously over the tops and press lightly into the surfaces.  Bake for 14-15 minutes, until firm to the touch and golden in color.  Transfer to a rack and cool for 5-10 minutes.

 To make the apples, while scones are baking, toss the apple slices with the granulated sugar and cinnamon until evenly coated.  Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  When it has melted, swirl the pan to coat it with the butter, then turn the heat to high, add half the apple slices, and spread in a single layer.  Cook, without stirring, for 2 minutes.  Gently toss or stir the apples.  Cook for 2 minutes longer, then toss or stir again.  Continue in this manner until the apples are golden brown and cooked through (the tip of a paring knife should slide easily in and out of the slices), yet still hold their shape, 8-10 minutes total.  Transfer to a large plate.  Repeat with the remaining tablespoon of butter and the rest of the apple slices.

Serve the scones split in half, with the apples spooned over the bottom half of the scone and a dollop of whipped cream on top of the apples, then the top half of the scone set slightly askew on top of the whipped cream.


There you have it!! I hope you enjoy these tasty treats as much as I did!  The great part of this class, besides gaining these recipes, was that it included parting gift of our own small pie plate to make the 5" pie shells used for the pecan pies.  BONUS!! 

Posted on Saturday, November 26, 2011 by Julie

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