Friday, April 20, 2012

As I'm right smack dab in the middle of a a whirlwind travel experience this month to New Orleans, Italy, and Seattle (twice), I thought it would be fun to share 5 things that I think make travel a lot easier!

1. Space Saver Bags - Not only do they allow you to make more room in your bag, but they serve two additional great purposes:  keeps cleans and dirties separate and keeps the bugs out (in certain countries).

2. Noise Canceling Headphones - they are a little bulky when you're short on space, and they take a little while to get used to, but it's amazing how well they dull the static airplane noise.  I grabbed an affordable pair at the airport Brookstone store, but you can find them all over the place with a wide price range - Bose being on the higher end.
3. An inflatable neck pillow - for the long flights, a comfy fleece neck pillow that inflates to the perfect size for your preference.  The pocket flap helps to keep the deflated and folded pillow neat and tidy.  I used a Samsonite in this example, but the one I actually use is Eagle Creek.

4. An all-in-one international plug adapter - no loose parts to lose!

5. Tamron AF 18-270mm f/2.5-6.3 lens - a good all-in-one, lightweight DSLR lens is required for any travel adventure.  Depending on my trip destination, I often carry 2-3 lenses, but if space is limited or my carry-on is getting heavy, I know I can use a lens like this in any photographic situation that arises.  The Tamron lens is a relatively affordable solution, but an alternative is the Nikon 28-300mm f3.6-5.8.  I'm currently getting to know this lens after having found one at a small photography store in Virginia when it is out of stock everywhere else and online due to manufacturing problems at Nikon.     

Posted on Friday, April 20, 2012 by Julie

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Over the past year, I've had the pleasure of going to New Orleans twice.  While, of course, the time to go would really should be Mardi Gras, after experiencing the chaos of Pamplona last summer, I think I'm going to postpone a Mardi Gras adventure until I've fully recovered!

In lieu of the typical heavy drinking, my adventures in New Orleans involved a lot of touring, walking, eating, shopping, tasting of traditional NOLA beverages, and enjoyment of street jazz.  The second visit, just last weekend coincided with the annual French Quarter Festival.  This is considered the locals' festival, as most of the crowds come from around the New Orleans area, as opposed to the more popular Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.


1. Voodoo Tour
A trip to New Orleans would not be complete without embracing its strange history, including the continuing practice of voodoo by the locals.  For our trip, we chose to go on Bloody Mary's Voodoo Tour that covered the French Quarter, Treme, and St. Louis Cemeteries #1 and #2, where can leave an offering at the tomb of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, stop by Nicolas Cage's ridiculous Masonic pyramid-shaped tomb he built for his future resting place, and make an actual voodoo doll to take home while visiting cemetery #2.

2. New Orleans Cocktail Tour
The Original Cocktail Walking Tour not only provides you with a chance to sample some of the city's popular drinks while learning about their histories, but it serves as a good way to get and understanding of the layout of the French Quarter.  During the tour, you stop at the famous absynthe house in Pirate's Alley, the Court of Two Sisters for a traditional Bayou Bash, and several other historic bars to sample Sazeracs, Pimm's Cup, Bourbon Street favorites: Hurricanes and Grenades, and several others.

3. Ghost and Vampire Tour
Several people suggested that I take one of the many ghost tours offered every night.  I opted to go on the tour offered by French Quarter Phantoms because it was rated #1 on Trip Advisor.  On this tour, you learn about the haunting of several French Quarter homes, a history of murder on Ursuline Street, and stop at the historic building where Interview with a Vampire was filmed.  Honestly, I was a little disappointed and underwhelmed.  There were not a lot of ghost stories, and the guide was there more for entertaining the crowd with her witty jokes than with the stories.  It is also a bit offputting that the tour starts in a bar, and takes a break at the same bar at the halfway point, which made me think they were more interested in you patronizing that bar.  Maybe that was my problem, I wasn't drunk enough to enjoy the tour.

4. Bourbon Street
What can be said about Bourbon Street.  Drink deals everywhere.  That familiar smell of layers and layers of stale beer on the floor of a college fraternity house.  Favorable open container alcohol consumption laws.  People with cauldrons of mixed drinks hanging from a chain around their neck. An opportunity to finally wear that t-shirt that has some sexual reference on the front - keeping it classy!

5. Cafe du Monde

A trip to New Orleans is not complete without a yummy beignet in your belly.  Suffer the line and wait for this powdered sugar-topped deliciousness!  Trust me, the line looks long, but the staff is super efficient in getting people in and out.  Add a cafe du lait to complete your order, and you're set!

6. Garden District
This neighborhood, just a short streetcar ride away from the French Quarter, is a dream for any photographer who loves charming southern homes.  Also a great place for some good shopping at small businesses!

7. French Quarter Festival
I stumbled upon this annual event this year when I made plans to visit an artist who was doing a live painting expo the same weekend.  From what I was told and what I've read, this is a celebration of local music by the locals.  Three streets - Bourbon, Royal, and Chartres - have multiple stages with hourly performances starting at 11am, along with the mainstage at Jackson Square and several more stages along the waterfront.  People head into the Big Easy every day of the festival with their portable chairs and set up early for a day of good jazz music.  Did I mention the festival is completely free?  In Jackson Square, popular restaurants and food vendors set up tents to feed the masses with New Orleans speacialties - po' boys, crawfish, shrimp, etc.  And, of course, there were drink specials everywhere.  I would expect nothing less from NOLA.  The festival kicks off on a Thursday and runs for four days.  I never thought I was a person who liked jazz, but I can give nothing but praise for the variety of performances I saw on the streets.  My favorite performance was actually not one of the scheduled groups, but rather a brass band comprised of local young men that succeeded in creating a fantastically fun big band sound with just a few instruments, and man could that trumpet player play!!!  What a great atmosphere - a must experience event!


Posted on Wednesday, April 18, 2012 by Julie

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

My friend and I shared a girls night out at the LivingSocial headquarters at 918 F. St. in D.C. learning about chocolate and making dark chocolate raspberry ganache lollipops with a chocolatier from D.C.'s popular chocolate restaurant, CoCo Sala.

For the first half of the class, we learned how to properly taste and appreciate chocolate.  Starting with the white chocolate, called Ivoire, we took the pastille and snapped it in half to observe how easily it breaks.  Next, we took one half and rubbed it between our thumb and finger to smell the chocolate's aroma.  Finally, actually tasting the chocolate was done in several ways: letting the piece melt in your mouth, chewing, using different parts of your tongue, pairing the chocolate with an appropriate sparkling wine or champagne, and even emulsifying the chocolate in your mouth with the sparking wine to create a ganache base in your mouth!  The white chocolate was paired with a dry Perrier Jouet Grand Brut to balance the sweetness and butteriness of the chocolate.  With the Jivara 40% milk chocolate, we sampled a sparkling rosé pairing, the Marquis de la Tour Remy Pannier.  For the third combination, we had a Manjari 65% dark chocolate with a sparkling chianti, Banfi Rosa Regale.  Surprisingly, the sparking chianti was very sweet, bringing out the dark cherry flavors of the chocolate.  When finished with the official pairings, we played around to find the combinations that appealed to us the most.

Before tasting the wine and chocolate, the instructor walked us through the chocolate production process.  She first explained the varieties of chocolate plants, where chocolate is grown in the world, the composition of the three main types of chocolate, and cocoa solids vs. cocoa butters and their uses.  Then she described production of chocolate itself, from mixing, pressing, and conching to stabilization using soya lecithin.  Now that were were thoroughly educated, it was time to make some goodies.

To create the dark chocolate raspberry lollipops,we first had to create a ganache.  A ganache is simply an emulsion of chocolate and a liquid, generally cream but also fruit purees or milks.  For this treat, we used:

4.5oz. Manjari 65% dark chocolate
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup raspberry purée
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 tsp honey

First, the cream, raspberry, and honey was brought to a light boil on low-med heat, making sure not to scald the milk.  The hot mixture was then poured in the heat resistant container (think tupperware) with the dark chocolate pastilles, and then the two components were stirred until well blended.  The hot ganache has to cool to a temperature where it can except the butter, so this free time allowed us a chance to continue to sample our sparkling wine and chocolate samples.  As the ganache cooled, we observed some fat separation, but were reassured that once the butter was blended in using a hand blender, it would all cream together as desired.  Once the ganache was complete, we had to let it cool further in order to get it to a temperature where it would not melt the tempered chocolate squares that were to be the outer layers of the lollipop.  Using a piping bag to apply the ganache to the back of the decorative squares, we then sprinkled some goodies (mini whoppers, crispies, and chocolate nibs) on the ganache, placed a lollipop stick down the center, covered both in another strip of ganache, then layered the other decorative square on top.  Pretty simple for such a decadent treat!

Posted on Thursday, April 05, 2012 by Julie

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Monday, April 2, 2012

I know I've mentioned my love of Pinterest in several previous posts before, but it just keeps growing and getting better.  I mean, where else can you have an central location for ideas and recipes that provide you with a month's worth of breakfast dishes for every meal?  Yes, I DO have a board devoted solely to breakfast foods!

Having a new house to decorate has also kept me glued to Pinterest over the past few months for inspiration.  I can say for sure that there are at least three different designs, for now, in my house that are directly attributed to a pinned photo or idea. I also couldn't keep Pinterest away from my recent housewarming party either -- most of the recipes I used for food, even the cupcakes, are on my "mini food" board.

My point is that sometimes, all people can benefit from a little bit of inspiration every once in awhile, or more often in my case.  And I love it when I am able to take a vision, twist it up so that it better suits my style, and make it happen.  Such a feeling of accomplishment!!


Idea #1: Painted Furniture

I saw this yellow table (left) on Pinterest and was obsessed.  I searched second hand and consignment shops, and unfinished furniture stores, in the area and was surprised at how much the furniture I found, especially considering the amount of work that would be required to get it to this finished state, cost - very expensive relative to new and complete furniture.  Searching on Target's website, I found a console table on clearance that had just enough decorative detailing to give a suggestion of the original photo.  Additional decor used to complete the design include: framed artistic street maps of LA, San Francisco, New York City, and Paris; a ceramic umbrella stand in the shape of black riding boots from Z Gallerie; a ceramic "bag" vase and pears from a local home decor store; a wire basket from Pottery Barn; and a white framed etched glass tray from Target. 

Idea #2: Chalkboard Art

The End Result - My Chalkboard Art

I saw this idea of chalkboard walls on several Pinterest boards, but I didn't like the thought of all the dust from using real chalk nor the idea of actually painting the wall with chalkboard paint.  Instead, I thought a nice framed chalkboard would be perfect, and my friend pointed out the existence of chalkboard erasable ink to add a pop of color to my black and white kitchen.  I ordered the ideal size board, 60"x30", to fit the space from Billy Boards.  After planning the layout -- using quotes I saw on Pinterest, some favorite recipes, and a few silly drawings -- it took about 3 hours to get it all together and looking good, then lots of fractions math to get it perfectly hung on the wall, and chalkboard art!


Idea #3: Cupcake Liners as Decoration

Speaking of pops of color, I saw these two photos on Pinterest that demonstrate a clever way to store your unused cupcake liners, rather than keeping them in the bulky original containers.  To inspire me to bake more, and to add something fun to my counter, I got the glass jar from Target and the cupcake liners from Michael's, Sur la Table, Target, and from my own leftover stash.  Love it!

Idea #4: Housewarming Party Cupcakes

 I saw these cupcakes and fell in love!  I knew I had to attempt to recreate them ASAP!

They ended up being a little harder than I thought, but not bad for my first try.  Since this was more about the decorating than the actual cupcake, I cheated and got the boxed cake mix and can of frosting.  The frosting, after applying to the cupcake top, was gently rolled in a plate of green sparkle sprinkles, then I used a knife to slowly make a hole, the "bite," in the sprinkles.  The seeds are chocolate sprinkle jimmies, the stem a piece of pretzel, and the leaves were made from melted green candy molds from Michael's that were piped on a piece of parchment paper using a leaf tip.

And, finally, one design idea all my own...take that Pinterest!

Owl vase from Z Gallerie, flowers from Target, lamp from Restoration Hardware, sideboard from Crate and Barrel.


Posted on Monday, April 02, 2012 by Julie

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

In the current issue of the Washingtonian magazine, they highlight 61 Hidden Gems of D.C., one of which was Rebounderz Trampoline Gym in Sterling, Virginia.  This arena just opened in July 2011 and has become a hit for kids and adults alike.

My friends and I, searching for something fun and different to do on a Sunday afternoon, decided to give it a try.  If you haven't bounced on a trampoline in awhile, be prepared to sweat!  It was quite the workout!  And I was very glad we opted for the 30 minute package (for $10) instead of the hour jump time choice.

The setup is an array of maybe 28 individual trampolines and some vertical, angled trampolines on the sides you can use as well.  As long as there is not another person on a neighboring trampoline, you can bounce from one to the next, or just stick to one and attempt some tricks.  I think the fanciest trick I was able to sort of pull off was a cheerleading toe touch jump.  There is also a foam pit at the end you can use to practice your flipping techniques as well.  All in all, not a bad way to get in your cardio for the day.  And now I can add one more item to the list of new experiences I've tried!!

Next time I need to bring the good camera to get better action shots!

Posted on Sunday, April 01, 2012 by Julie


The best part of Spring in Washington D.C. is its grand introduction by the beautiful pale pink cherry blossoms along the tidal basin and river on Hanes Point.  There's a reason why tens of thousands of tourists and locals fight the crowds and heavy traffic to get a glimpse of nature's perfection.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates these blossoms that were given to Washington D.C. in 1912 by Japan.  This year, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary celebration that began on March 20th.  Typically, you can expect the festival to always start around the third week in March, with peak blooms arriving around a week later.  You can get the official schedule for expected bloom times from the National Park Service and its Chief Horticulturalist.

The blooms are measured in five stages:
  1. Green Color in Buds: Mid to late February – Early March
  2. Florets Visible: Early to Mid March, Avg. 16-21 days to Peak Bloom
  3. Extension of Florets: Avg. 12-17 days to Peak Bloom
  4. Peduncle Elongation: Avg. 5-10 days to Peak Bloom (Frost Critical)
  5. Puffy White: Avg. 4-6 days to Peak Bloom

Photographers - amateur and professional alike - love to come to the tidal basin to capture the delicate flowers at their most beautiful.  Crowds along the pathways, unfortunately, can get very thick; therefore, the best time is to come early when you can not only find parking but take advantage of the softer morning light.  By coming early, I mean 5am does not seem unreasonable!  If you don't come early, also be warned that increased crowds and closed roads equals guaranteed terrible traffic!

Another great visual spectacle during the annual event is the Kite Festival.  Bring your own kite or have your children make a kite and fly them with other kite enthusiasts on the National Mall.  Unfortunately, I didn't make it to the event this year, but heard that there was a fantastic turn out!

Posted on Sunday, April 01, 2012 by Julie

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