Friday, November 30, 2012

One of the best times to go to New York City, in my opinion, is during the holiday season right after Thanksgiving.  The air is crisp, the buildings and stores are decked out with over-the-top Christmas decor, the crowds are skating at Rockefeller Center or the Wollman Rink at Central Park.  People are smiling, children are wishing for everything at F.A.O. Schwartz, cabbies are honking less (well, maybe), Rockettes are's just amazing!  I love the traditions and the anticipation of what the talented designers will reveal in the windows of the old department stores the day after Thanksgiving. 

I headed up to the city for the rest of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to absorb the atmosphere and to see a few Broadway shows.  My plan was to drive up there on Friday, shop all day on Saturday, and catch my shows in the evenings.  I stayed up at the Shoreham Hotel on 55th to be closer to the midtown shopping and Central Park (because I brought my dog with me).  Really good location, and I was surprised to find a massage chair in my room when I opened the door.  I may have spent more time in my room than I planned! 

Between Saks 5th Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Macy's, and Bloomingdales, I have to say that Macy's wins for the cutest holiday windows.  Their theme celebrated the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and had a very adorable window of a German Chriskindlmarkt with a nutcracker seller and candy seller.  I'll be honest with you, for as much time as I've spent in NYC, I had never been inside the flagship Macy's department store in Herald Square. I headed upstairs to the Christmas Store on one of the top floors, and I was shocked and amazed to find that they retained some of the original wooden escalators included in the 1902 design - in fact, Macy's was the first store in the world to employ this "modern" convenience.  In researching the escalators, I also found two other fun trivia facts about the old store: (1) it was named the world's largest store in 1924 and (2) Macy's co-owners, Isidor and Ida Straus, died tragically on the Titanic. Of course, no shopping trip to NYC is complete without some time spent in SoHo, and since I was already halfway there, I finished out my shop-til-you drop day (where I surprisingly didn't buy much) down there where I found some very cute Kate Spade mittens that were made for me!

For my dose of Broadway shows, I opted for a play and a musical.  Friday night was spent in the company of Paul Rudd and friends as they shared the story of a God-adoring couple that just moved to Florida to open the first of a chain of gospel-themed hotels, a neighbor recovering from a tragic auto accident that took his fiancée and half his face, and a pest control man who survived as a kid in Nazi Germany but lost his parents and the little girl his family was hiding from the Nazis.  It's always fascinating to see an actor, like Paul Rudd, who is more known for his comedic roles, play a more serious role.  His charm and wit still played a part in his portrayal of the very religious man who is dealt a pretty rotten hand in life.  Sometimes after shows, if I have time, I wait with others by the stage door to see the actors.  I have to say that Paul Rudd was one of the nicest, most genuinely humble actor I've met.  And he's very good looking!  

For Saturday night, I finally got the chance to see the infamous Matthew Broderick on stage.  His co-star, Kelli O'Hara, I had already seen a few years ago in The Pajama Game.  I'll be honest, I was really disappointed with this show.  The music was comprised of classic Gershwin tunes, and it seemed like they tried to simply write a script around the music to make them into a logical plot.  Unfortunately, it didn't work. And I'm convinced the actors agree because in many of the scenes, it felt like they were just "calling it in" and even laughing at how ridiculous their lines were!  Oh well, it looked amazing on paper.

And now what should I see for the next NYC trip....

Posted on Friday, November 30, 2012 by Julie


Friday, November 23, 2012

I was going to write individual posts for these pies, but I couldn't get good photos of the pumpkin and chocolate guinness pies. I'm not sure what happened, but when I cut into them, they just did not set up overnight.  The plating yesterday ended up going something like this:  cut one side, cut the other side, stick the pie knife under to lift it out, pie oozes back onto the pie plate.  But the deep dish berry pie was amazing (yesterday and today)!!!  Pumpkin pie and chocolate guinness pie will have to be eaten with a spoon out of the leftovers tupperware.  Oh well, every baker has their disasters, and making five different pies in one day just increased my odds.  Maybe you'll have better luck than me!

Now that I've told the story, here are the other three pies I made for Thanksgiving this year (click the links for the websites with the recipes):

1. Deep Dish Berry Pie (from Sprinklebakes)
This is a recipe for a sour cream crust pie that is made in a springform pan.  I have to admit, I was a little nervous for that moment when you release the side of the pan, thinking about all the potential weaknesses in the crust, but it came out great! Who doesn't like 2-3 inches of yummy berries.  I used a bag each of frozen strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, then added some fresh cranberries to the mix.

2. Pumpkin Cream Pie (from Martha Stewart)
Like I said, I have no idea what went wrong with this pie.  Somehow there was too much moisture, and it never got to set up. Maybe making so many pies isn't a good idea because you misread the ingredients?

3. Sweet and Salty Guinness Chocolate Pie with Beer Marshmallow Meringue (from Sprinklebakes)
This sounded too interesting to pass up!  While it was originally intended as a pie for St. Patrick's Day, with the Guinness flavor, I thought it would be appreciated by some of the people attending Thanksgiving because they are self-titled beer aficionados.  I have a suspicion on what went wrong with this recipe.  I think I added too much of the Guinness reduction to the marshmallow.  I was doing a lot of math on this recipe because I ran out of regular 9" pie plates and was forced to use a little 5" mini pie plate for this recipe.  While it looked awful out of the plate, it didn't taste bad.  If I had a better appreciation for the taste of stout beer, I may have even liked it.     

Posted on Friday, November 23, 2012 by Julie

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Who doesn't like apple pie?  There are so many ways to prepare an apple pie, and for Thanksgiving this year, I decided to forgo the normal double-crust pie for the buttery, nutty, sugary deliciousness of a crumble top.  This is a recipe given to me by my mom in book she made of her favorite recipes and dishes/baked goods that I grew up on.   I wish you could see this book because it's beautiful with hand drawn images of the dish or ingredients in the dish.  (she's an amazing artist!)


For the crumble:
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 cup butter, cold and cut into small pieces
1 cup chopped pecans

For the pie:
1 Pillsbury Pie Crust
3 lbs. Granny Smith apples
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp flour
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1. Prepare the crumble topping.  Cut the butter into dry ingredients until it forms small balls (crumbles).  Use a food processor to facilitate the process.

2. Fit pie crust into a 9" pie pan, crimping edge against pie pan, and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

3. Peel and thinly cut apples.  Toss with the lemon juice.

4. In a separate bowl, combine sugar, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Toss with the apples, then place apples in thin layers inside the prepared crust.  Sprinkle topping over apples.

5. Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees, then turn down the oven to 350 degrees and continue baking for an additional 40 minutes.  If edges are starting to brown too much, cover loosely with foil.

6. Cool at least 45 minutes before serving.  Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Posted on Thursday, November 22, 2012 by Julie

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I've never made a pecan pie before because I'm not one who gravitates toward the taste of pecan, but it was a requested favorite of my friends coming to Thanksgiving dinner, so I thought I'd give it a try.

The recipe I selected was from Martha Stewart.  I was surprised at how easy and quick this pie turned out!

Here are the directions from her website:

  • Ingredients
  • 1/2 recipe Basic Pie Dough, rolled out and fitted into a 9-inch pie plate (I cheated and used the pre-made Pillsbury Pie Crust because they always turn out great and it's one less mess)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/3 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups pecan halves
  • Lightly sweetened whipped cream, for serving (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees, with rack set in lowest position.
  2. Using kitchen shears or a paring knife, trim dough to a 1-inch overhang. With floured fingers, fold overhang under itself to form a rim; pinch between thumb and forefinger to form a uniform edge around rim of pie plate. Crimp with fingertips. Transfer dough-lined pie plate to refrigerator.
  3. Make filling: In a large bowl, whisk eggs, corn syrup, sugars, butter, vanilla, and salt until smooth; mix in pecans. Pour mixture into chilled pie crust; place pie plate on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until filling jiggles slightly in the center when gently shaken, 50 to 60 minutes.
  4. Cool pie completely in plate, 5 to 6 hours. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.

Posted on Thursday, November 22, 2012 by Julie

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
It may have taken a little while for this book to really capture my attention, maybe 100 pages or so, but once I hit that "point," the black and white text became a drug and I just could not get enough.  Two days later, I am still feeling the loss of the magic created by this story, ironically about magic!  It has everything you want in a novel - suspense, mystery, forbidden love, historical setting - and yet takes it to a new level of freshness through its whimsy, maintaining the fine balance of not too much romance or not too much unbelievable nonsense.  
While reading many of the chapters, especially later in the book,  I could envision the scene perfectly for how it could be portrayed in film.  The author's ability to generate characters to which you form a deep attachment and invest emotion, as well as her talent for creating imagery that sets your imagination free to just relax and let her do all the work for you is refreshing.
This book has been, unrightfully, compared to the Twilight series because many fans have latched on to it and spread its popularity via fan forums.  The maturity of the storyline and complexity of the characters, in my opinion, generate a sophistication beyond comparison with that simple, young adult vampire series.  There is, equally, no comparison to be made with another popular book set in a circus, Water For Elephants - a story that appears more "watered down" and unimaginative when put next to The Night Circus.
This book was recommended by a friend who also suggested Jenny Lawson's "Let's Pretend This Never Happened" that had me crying with laughter.  I'm going to have to get together with her soon and drag some more book ideas from her because she's 2 for 2 now!

Posted on Wednesday, November 21, 2012 by Julie


I have been a fan of car racing since a friend took me to my first race when I was 18 years old.  And if you've read some prior posts, you'll know that not only do I like watching races, but I like to drive the cars as well, having already taken some laps in both a NASCAR and an Indy Car and having learned some off-road skills at rally car school.  I love the whine of the cars (well, not NASCAR so much), the firesuits and helmets that make the drivers look like the Bic pen logo, the thrill of the starting lap when the cars bunch up going into the first turn, the chasing and the passing with gutsy maneuvers, etc.

When we heard that the Formula 1 circuit would include a race in Austin this year, my friend marked her calendar for the date when tickets went on sale.  We had both attended our first Formula 1 event last year in Montreal, but while the first two days had great weather, Sunday's race day was wet and cold.  We actually missed the race itself due to a rain delay with an unknown restart time and an evening flight departure we would miss if we stayed.  With a race in Texas, we figured we had a much better chance of the weather cooperating in November.
Since this blog is basically a diary of my life experiences, and I enjoy trying new things so they tend to be very positive, it makes me sad that this post is going to be a record of one of the worst experiences I've ever had going to a race.  Let's just say the major lesson to be learned is to NEVER go to an inaugural event ever!  Most often times, and as was the case last weekend, there are too many loose ends - construction and planning - that really detract from the experience.  And since Formula 1 tickets do not come cheap - ours were $320 for a three-day ticket (and that was not even close to the most expensive seats), in addition to the cost of airfare, a car rental, and a hotel with a minimum 4 night stay and prices 3x the normal daily rate - to be let down so much is extremely frustrating and a deterrent to future race outings.

So here's the story (and I hope this reaches the organizers of the race somehow so people don't have to endure a similar experience next year):

Track Construction:

The evidence of poor planning and time management during the construction of the facility was blatantly obvious:
1. The ground was still settling and took all of the recently laid (and dying) sod with it, causing some seriously dangerous walking conditions in some spots.
2. Instead of building permanent restrooms, the decision was made for only port-a-potties and not even the nice trailer kind with flushing features.  More money to the bottom line for the owners!
3. The organizers encouraged everyone to park in certain spots away from the track and take a 25 minute shuttle to the track, but did not explain that the shuttle stop onsite was still almost a mile walk from the track gates.  You certainly could not have any physical restrictions and come to this race.  How they passed an American with Disabilities Act inspection is beyond me!  

Crowd Management:

1. There were three ways to get around to the other side of the 3.4 mile track:  (1) take a tram/train that went about 5 mph, which was replaced by shuttle buses on Sunday that were overcrowded and only picked up maybe 8 people at each stop; (2) walk around the exterior of the track; or, (3) go over the ONE path that had TWO bridge overpasses at Turn 3 and Turn 15, both of which were not large enough to handle the quantity of people moving from one place to the other in between or after racing sessions.  The bridge issue was bad on Friday with only 50,000 people in attendance.  We avoided it on Sunday with 125,000 people in attendence!!  Plus, they had raised lighting on the floor of the bridges on the side, tripping people (i.e. me) who were unaware of their existence.  Very dangerous!
2. Again, encouraging people to use the shuttles, the line after the race on Sunday was unbelievable - probably at least a 1/4 mile long and 5 people wide. The taxi line was not as long, but since each taxi was only taking - let's say - 3 people on average, the wait was the same.  We got on the shuttle only after an hour because at just the right time they opened up three extra crowd corrals, essentially letting us jump the queue a little.  But this line was AFTER the hour it took us to get from our seats on the other side of the track to the shuttle path.  It took us over 2.5 hours after the race to get back to our hotel!

Food and Drink:

1. The organizers took the cheap route and decided to not invest in building actual concession stands, opting to utilize the popular food trucks from Austin. These food trucks are not used to handling the volumes of people wanting something, scratch that, anything to eat.  It took us an hour to get through the line and to wait for the 1 or 2 cooks inside the truck to prepare the order.  Fortunately, we ordered when we did because 5 minutes later, they were out of chicken for their tacos, and it was early in the lunch period too!  And this was on Friday where, again, only 50,000 people were in attendance!
2. Drinks also had a long line.  And the only concessions being sold, very infrequently, in the stands that I observed, were canned beers.  On a hot day, the last thing you want to do is wait in line for a bottle of water!

1. There was only 1 tent selling merchandise related specifically to the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.  I heard one person say it took about 2 hours to get to the front of the crowd and purchase items.  We gave up after 10 minutes.
2. Team merchandise trailers shared the long line problem, albeit shorter than the solo race merchandise tent, and they were poorly stocked - running out of the most popular items early in the weekend.  In addition, the prices were extremely inflated!  I found a a jacket that I liked online for approximately $170 (translated from Euros), selling at the event for $290.  I didn't end up buying it in either case.  I know Formula 1 is stereotyped as the "rich man" elite racing series, but come on!  A lot of people were stretching their budgets to come to this race since they can't afford to go to all of the other events around the world.  It was such an example of greed exploiting a situation.  Of course, while the economist in me was somewhat temporarily fascinated by the scene, it still seemed criminal, in my book.  Greedy, greedy, greedy!
3. With the extremely inflated prices, one other observation was that most, if not all, of the merchandise trailers were only taking cash for purchases under $200!!!  Who carries that amount of cash on their body?

I'm sure there's a lot more points to make, but my mind has blocked those details out as part of the recovery process from the weekend.

Best part of the weekend?  Capturing this amazing photo of the viewing tower (of course, to go up it you had to pay - I think - $35....uhhh, no!)
As for the racing experience itself, it was actually quite boring because there were not a lot of big moves save for the moment when Hamilton passed Vettel in Turn 12 for the lead.  We did have a good view from our seats in Turn 5 of the Turn 3-4-5 chicane sequence, the hard breaking before Turn 12 at the end of an overtaking zone where drivers can use their Drag Reduction System (DRS), and a turn sequence modeled on the Hockenheim "stadium section" that allows for some aggressive passing.  We didn't spend the whole weekend in our seats, though.  We watched the Porche and the Ferrari races from the top of Turn 1, where we could see the race start and the crowded jockeying for position in the tight hairpin turn at the peak of the climb.  We also spent some of the practice and qualifying time at Turn 19 near the end of the circuit where we saw a lot of drivers taking too much speed into the turn and finding themselves off course or off line, especially during qualifying.  Of course, we had selfish reasons for claiming a spot on that corner, as well, because it didn't require us to deal with the mess of crossing the two footbridges to the other side of the track!

Here are some photos from the weekend, including our side trip down to San Antonio to see the Alamo and have dinner on the famous Riverwalk, where I had what had to have been the world's largest margarita!
View from Turn 5 of Turns 12-15
Austin Fan Fest - less of a music festival, more of a sponsor expo
Team Red Bull tent
Start of the Porsche Race
Turn 1 chaos!
Who needs a bumper anyway?
Start of the Ferrari race
A cleaner Turn 1 on Lap 1 for the Ferraris
Drivers Parade in classic American cars
Sebastian Vettel
Jockeying for position on Lap 1
Alanzo in his Ferrari
Best Action Shot
And now for the non-racing part, after the Friday practice we drove the short 1.25 hour drive down to San Antonio for a change of scenery.  I had never seen the Alamo before, and like most experiences seeing for the first time something you've only read about and seen in pictures in books or on the internet, it was a lot smaller than you would think!  One block from the Alamo site is an entrance to the Riverwalk, a below street level canal system with Venetian inspired bridges, restaurants, and shops.
See the Alamo.  Remember seeing the Alamo.  Remember the Alamo.
The Grounds of the Alamo where Santa Ana's troops fought the Texans
At the Riverwalk, you have the option of taking a boat tour for $8.25 each
San Antonio Riverwalk
Here it is - a 60 oz. frozen margarita at Cafe Ole on the Riverwalk in San Antonio.  I bought it just to see how big it would be.  Didn't make it through more than half, not because of the alcohol because it was quite week but because my stomach couldn't take anymore.  Salsa bowl and silverware added for scale.
A fun bar we went to in Austin is called the Handlebar, and it's themed entirely on crazy mustaches.  We were greeted by this handsome devil at the door.  Of course, with it being Movember, this Rollie Fingers (who by the way was signing autographs there that day) wannabe was only the beginning of the night's visual journey of facial hair.

Posted on Wednesday, November 21, 2012 by Julie


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I tried out three new cookie recipes this month that I think you should check out!  Just click on the cookie name below the photo to get to the original recipe website.  Enjoy!
Chocolate Chip Biskoff Cookies
If you have not tried the delicious biscoff spread, you don't know what you're missing!  Think of it as spreadable gingerbread cookies.  The Dutch and Belgians often call it speculoos and use it on top of waffles - another use you should definitely try! I got my jar of Biskoff at Wegman's, but I have heard people have found it at World Market and Trader Joe's has their own version of this cookie butter. 
Chocolate peanut butter chip cookies
I don't know why it's taken me so long to make a chocolate peanut butter cookie, especially when I adhere strictly to the chocolate only goes well with nuts, not fruit, taste philosophy.  I will admit that these cookies came out a little chewier than I had hoped, but the flavor combo was still there.
Whenever I go to a training class at work, where they have a catered lunch, the first thing I look for is the ONE cookies and cream cookie on the platter.  Now, I no longer have to wait for my next training class because I can have as many as I want.  This recipe could not be any easier!  It's a must try!

Posted on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 by Julie

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Last summer, I threw a baby shower for a little boy with a space/alien theme.  Now, with the opportunity to throw one for a little girl, I got to go all out in the girliness department - butterflies and flowers all the way.

First project was preparing the decor.  I had seen some giant tissue paper flowers on Pinterest a few weeks ago and fell in love. Probably because they reminded me of an Anthropologie window display, and I love Anthropologie windows.  Actually making the flowers didn't take a whole lot of effort once I started, but collecting the supplies was a little tricky.  The hardest items to obtain were the right colors of tissue paper.  I ended up buying peach and olive tissue paper from Papermart online.  Then instead of the stucco wire, I bought the more conveniently located chicken wire from Home Depot.  I'm not sure what they meant in the instructions about covering the wire in tape because I bought paper carton tape, but it wasn't sticking, so instead I wrapped the chicken wire in brown packing paper.  Key to the whole project was the spray glue - made the tissue paper application a lot faster!  Look at the inspiration photo and my version:
With the large decor out of the way, I decided to put my floral design classes to work and create my own bouquets.  Collecting various flowers from the grocery store, Whole Foods, and whatever I was missing from a florist, I was really pleased with the results.  I embellished the arrangements with paper butterflies made using the Martha Stewart monarch butterfly punch and some wire.
Arrangements of "leftovers"

And now on to the food.  For the lunch, I kept things simple:

  • Cucumber hummus cups
  • Pita sandwiches - vegetarian with Boursin cheese spread and turkey with colby jack cheese
  • Mini quiches (from the freezer section - only thing not homemade)
  • Roasted butternut squash salad with escarole, pears, gorgonzola cheese, dried cherries, bacon, and a dijon balsamic dressing.
  • Mini caprese salads
For my favorite part, dessert, I attempted to make an individual ombre layer cake that I saw on Pinterest.  I'm not terrific when it comes to cake making or decorating (cupcakes are my thing), so I liked these cakes in particular because their beauty came from having the layers exposed, meaning I didn't have to frost the cake.  Yes please!  It ended up being a time intensive process only because I had to make four different cakes for each of the colors, then cut out the circle shapes.  I was a little disappointed because my lack of cake experience became obvious when the baked cakes came out too thin, so I had to use the brown bottom of the cake to stabilize the cutout shape.  Next time I know to put two boxes of cake mix where it says to use one. Taking the butterfly punches I had leftover from the decor, I wove them onto a toothpick for an accent.
For other sweet treats, I made sugar cookies, cookies and cream cookies, and seasonal cranberry curd with walnut shortbread crust bars.  And for drinks, there's nothing pinker than pink lemonade!  Plus passionfruit mimosas for those who wanted a little something extra.  

 And finally, the complete spread:

Posted on Sunday, November 11, 2012 by Julie

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