Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's that time of year again where we look back on what we did with our lives for the past 365 days, see if we actually accomplished any of our resolutions, and think about what we want to change in the upcoming year. 2013 was quite the year full of new memories, crazy adventures, and new records.  I flew over 53,500 miles, which is guaranteed the most I've ever flown in one year - of course traveling across the world to India and Nepal helped a lot.  Other travel and adventure stats include:

  • 19 US States 
  • 4 Canadian Provinces 
  • 3 Foreign Countries
  • 3 National Parks
  • 5 Mountains Skied

From an entertainment perspective, I was lucky to see some of my favorite bands live this past year and get exposed to new bands that I've now added to my favorites list - Punch Brothers and The Milk Carton Kids. One of these concerts actually led to my #1 most memorable moment of the year - meeting Marcus Mumford and having a random conversation about guitars.  It was also a great year for theater shows, seeing some great actors and actresses on Broadway stages and locally in D.C.    

As for resolutions, like all years it was a mixed bag of those accomplished and those abandoned. One of my resolutions last year was to take a photo of five interesting places.  Not surprisingly, this was the one resolution about which I was most enthusiastic because it got my imagination running and served as a catalyst for my travel planning.  Here are the final five places, some with more than one photo:

1. Ice Hotel in Quebec

2. The Taj Mahal in India

3. A view of Mount Everest from Namche Bazaar in Nepal

4. The neon sign boneyard in Las Vegas

5. The Subway at Zion National Park

Looking back on my resolutions for 2013, I wondered if I just had too many that made achieving all those goals to be impossible.  For 2014, I want to keep it simple and keep it centered around things that are meaningful or that incorporate some of my favorite things to do.  So for next year, I want to:

  • Travel to at least 1 new country, but go abroad 2 or more times
  • Photograph 5 Interesting Places - Part 2
  • 365 Photography Project: Take a photo every day for a year (follow me on Instagram!)
  • Have lunch with at least 1 Facebook friend, each month, that I have not seen in over two years even though that person lives in the DC/Baltimore region
  • Bake something new at least twice each month

So here's to finishing out one great year and to keeping the pattern going in 2014.  Happy new year everyone!

Posted on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 by Julie

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Friday, December 27, 2013

While I spent a good portion of my formative years in and around Portland, Oregon, as an adult now living on the east coast, I rarely return.  When I do, I love that even the familiar becomes an adventure.  So while on the west coast for the holidays, I made a quick 24 hour trip to P-town to run around to old haunts, try new places, and take photos while I'm at it.

Center of it all is Pioneer Courthouse Square in Downtown Portland.  Though not much to see, this is a good orientation point for deciding on your walking paths - yes downtown Portland is very walkable.  Don't miss the famous statue of the man in the rain, dressed in his ugly Christmas sweater apparently for the holidays if you're there in December.

Powells Books:  If you are a bibliophile of any magnitude, then Powell's Books is a place where you will need to allot a good chunk of time during a Portland visit! I had to stop myself after just 2 hours because my back was starting to hurt from the weight of my basket.  Housed in a 68,000 sqft building that occupies a whole city block at 10th and Burnside, you walk in the door and quickly realize you will need to take one of the complimentary maps to explore all of the new, used, and rare books available.  The bookshelves sometimes require stepladders to reach, and you'll find one in practically every aisle.  Book suggestions are numerous everywhere, identified by the folded cards on the edge of the shelves.  If you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s and 1990s, then this store ironically seems like you're living in one of those books - where each staircase leads you to a new adventure path.  Sadly, I spent the majority of my 2 hours in just one room and left the remaining rooms to be explored on a future trip.

Portland Saturday Market: What was once just a small square near the Burnside Bridge, Saturday Market is now spilling into three areas, including space along the riverfront.  On the weekend, local artisans bring their goods to this market to sell.  Great place for souvenirs!

Also, Saturday Market is conveniently located around the corner from the very popular Voodoo Doughnuts.  If you're from Washington D.C. or have visited, you might equate Voodoo with Georgetown Cupcakes - tons of hype, line around the corner, higher than average prices.  I wasn't too impressed by the doughnuts themselves, but the experience was fun!

Clockwise starting at 1 o'clock: Dirt Doughnut (yeast doughnut, vanilla frosting, Oreos), Voodoo Doll (raspberry filled yeast doughnut with chocolate and pretzel stake), Bacon Maple Bar, Diablos Rex (chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and red sprinkles), McMinnville Cream (Bavarian cream filled yeast doughnut with maple frosting), Memphis Mafia (fried dough with banana bits and cinnamon topped with chocolate and peanut butter frosting, peanuts, and chocolate chips).

The weather was a bit uncooperative (how shocking!) but I did get a few photos that I sought.  One of which is the Old Union Station sign.  What I love about Portland is that they have maintained many original buildings that reveal the charm of the city from as much as 100 years ago.  The train station exterior is a must see, but the buildings near Pioneer Courthouse Square are also interesting - I'm specifically recalling the old Meier & Frank department store building (now Macy's) that reminds me of the company's NYC Harold Square flagship store with the old escalators. 

The Pearl District is a whole new neighborhood for me because, growing up, it was not a desirable part of town.  Now the old buildings north of Burnside are occupied with newer loft-style condos, fancy townhomes, small boutique shops, bars, restaurants, and some mainstream retailers. 

Since my trip was so short, I wasn't able to get to some of my other "best of" places, unfortunately.  One of the items on my list, and probably not one that you would find on any other list, is Rimskey's Korsakoffeehouse.  Located in an old, nondescript house in an unexpected neighborhood, Rimskey's was the quirky place we liked to go to on weekends for coffee and dessert.  It was also a fun place to take people for the first time because they had three tables that have a mind of their own.  I won't say more for good reasons, but don't worry, it's a fun surprise! This may seem weird, but I would also suggest that you find a reason to use the bathroom at Rimskeys just to have that experience!  The photo below gives you a sample of what you're in for, but it doesn't do the room justice!  The coffee and desserts are decent, and it's a cash only operation, but it's all worth it for the atmosphere.

In the spring and summer, don't miss Portland's famous Rose Garden and Japanese Garden.  And for the preeminent postcard view of the city with Mt. Hood in the background, find your way to the gardens behind Pittock Mansion.

Of course, you can't be in Portland and not try one of the many craft brew pubs like McMinnamins
or Deschutes Brewery. Also, don't miss out on the food cart madness.  Permanently situated around the perimeter of several parking lots downtown, these food carts/trucks serve up good food for great prices.  As a big fan of food trucks, I was in heaven!

With some extra time and a car on your hands, Multnomah Falls is the place to go.  It's a less than 40 minute drive to see this gorgeous waterfall.  If you are inclined, you can walk to the top and get a view down the falls and into the Columbia River Gorge. 

Posted on Friday, December 27, 2013 by Julie

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

From my Ewok and me to your family and you!

Posted on Wednesday, December 25, 2013 by Julie

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Monday, December 23, 2013

It's that time of year when the weather ruins outdoor plans, and you find a great alternative is cuddling up in a comfy chair with a blanket and a good book....and I have three recommendations for you!

Must Read

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

When Louisa Clark loses her job, she must find something quickly to help support her struggling family.  She takes a short-term care giver contract with a local wealthy family whose son was in an accident and is now a quadriplegic.  Will Traynor was a very successful and very active man, who was also very popular with London's beautiful women, until a motorcycle accident took it all away.  Struggling to win him over and lift his spirits, Louisa finally understands why her contract is only 6 months long when she overhears Will's mom and sister talking about the arrangement Will made with them - when the 6 months expires, he wants to end his life.  Louisa makes it her mission to change his mind and show him that life is worth living.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Often when one book is fantastic by an author, there's a good chance that additional books he or she has written will be good.  In this case, it was better than I imagined, with a story line that was  far removed from the tragedy of Me Before You.  Well, there was still a hint of tragedy, but my thoughts were more like "how can this get any worse for her" and "should I be worried that I'm not going to get a happy ending" and "wow, I didn't expect that, but I love it!"  Thankfully, no kleenex was required. This book is a love story, multiple love stories actually, as only Jojo Moyes can write.  I won't go into details for fear of revealing too much of the plot, so you'll have to trust me.  I have to say that I also appreciated the author's subtle commentary on modern day materialism and the loss of human connection - it makes you stop and think for a bit.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I was a little worried about the story in the beginning, a flashback told from a 7 year old's perspective, but once the mysterious events started to occur and you're introduced to the three women living on a neighboring farm, you get sucked in.  I felt like this is the first time since the Harry Potter series, where I have been able to suspend belief and journey to an imaginative and thrilling world of mystique.  At around 200 pages, it's not a big commitment for such a great entertainment return.

Skip This

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Unlike my experience with Jojo Moyes, reading this book was a huge disappointment after first reading Green's incredibly moving The Fault in Our Stars.  I can't even describe the point of the book except a road trip with two friends to help one of the boys get over a recent breakup.  The plot was predictable and dragged on too long.

Posted on Monday, December 23, 2013 by Julie

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

I saw a very cute 3-D gingerbread house cookie cutter (link) and thought that would be a fun project to do with my mom at home over the holidays - with my mom being the better cookie decorator than me by far!!  We tried out a new recipe for gingerbread that was a complete failure, but fortunately my mom had some sugar cookie dough in the freezer.  So, instead of mini gingerbread houses, it's mini sugar cookie houses.  Cute results, regardless of the dough flavor, I think. 

Like most decorated cookies, the first step is to flood the cookie with the base color, and let it dry.  The decorations were created by piping on various colors of royal icing or attaching sprinkles and other accessories while the flooded areas were still wet.  The gingerbread men were conveniently leftover from another project my mom did for the holidays, but aside from being time consuming, they are not that hard to make.  Take the gingerbread man stencil below and create an array on a sheet of paper using document software (most likely MS Word).  Print it out, then lay a sheet of parchment paper over it, tack it down with tape, and trace the gingerbread man with piped royal icing.  Let it dry and add the gingerbread man details with more piped on icing.  The candy canes were piped directly on the sides of the houses, allowed to dry, then striped using a red edible ink pen.  As you can see in the photo below, the lollipops were created by piping on the base color, letting it dry a little, then using a very fine tipped (#1) piping bag of white icing to create the swirl.

The roofs of the houses were flooded in white and sprinkled with a mix of white sanding sugar and iridescent edible glitter while wet.  We also added some more piped white icing to clean up all the joints.  The bases were cut using a scalloped square cookie cutter and flooded with white.  The last stage was adding the drifts of snow to the sides of the house and dusting with sanding sugar.

Posted on Sunday, December 22, 2013 by Julie


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Here is a very simple decorated cookie for you to try!!  Make some gingerbread tree cutouts and get ready to wow the crowd.  First, you will need to get some iridescent edible glitter (try Michaels).  Flood the tree in white royal icing.  If you aren't sure what I mean by flooding, then read about the 20 second icing Sweet Sugar Belle makes - thick enough to hold a shape, easy to fill.  While the frosting is wet, subtly dust with the edible glitter.  Allow to dry a couple of hours.  Use a piping icing (again, see Sweet Sugar Belle for instructions) died brown, pipe a tree trunk.  Allow that line to dry (maybe 10 minutes), then pipe on white "branches" using a curly mustache shape, and don't forget to fill in the white tree stand.  Add white dots as well.  The final step is the red bird, should you choose to add it for a pop of color.

Posted on Saturday, December 21, 2013 by Julie

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Friday, December 20, 2013

I haven't made any major batches of holiday themed cookies this year, so I thought it was time to get baking this week!  I was inspired by a recent guest post on Sweet Sugar Belle's cookie decorating site written by Cookies with Character.  Her cookies are definitely cuter with the little birds and the larger eyes, but I think I pretty much captured the essence of the look.  These cookies were done in several stages, starting with the brown piping and flood.  Once dry, the nose was added, along with the painted pink ears and the brown hair detail.  The final step was the snow with sanding sugar crystals on top.  Cute, right??  The cookie is a simple butter cookie recipe cut into gingerbread men (though gingerbread women may work a little better).

Posted on Friday, December 20, 2013 by Julie

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

While I love cooking classes, I love free stuff with a class even more!  My preference is to browse the Sur la Table class schedule to find upcoming giveaways and, of course, make sure I like the planned menu.  The menu for the Winter Classics class was french onion soup, braised chicken with mushrooms and red wine, butternut squash gratin with ricotta and hazelnuts, and apple bread pudding with salted caramel sauce.  All four are winners in my book, so I was even happier to learn that we would receive a set of two Le Creuset Mini Cocottes as a bonus!  I opted for a sunny yellow pair - a perfect pop of color on a dinner table.  More importantly, I want to share with you my two favorite recipes from the night: the bread pudding and the gratin.  Yum!

Apple Bread Pudding with Salted Caramel Sauce                       

(8 servings)

6 large eggs
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla paste
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 Tbsp apple brandy (e.g. Calvados)
1 loaf bread (1 pound - suggest white or challah) cut into 3/4-1 inch cubes
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature

3 large green apples (e.g. Granny Smith) peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp unsalted butter

Salted Caramel Sauce
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
2 Tbsp water
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 Tbsp sea salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and position the oven rack in the bottom third of the oven.
2. Generously butter 8 ramekins or Le Creuset Mini Cocottes (or a 9x5 inch baking pan with about 3 inch sides)
3. In a large bowl, whisk to combine eggs, maple syrup, sugar, vanilla, and salt.
4. Add the milk, cream, and brandy and whisk until well combined.
5. Using a silicone spatula, stir in the bread cubes and press down until submerged into the custard
6. To prepare the apples: in a medium bowl, toss the apple slices with the cinnamon and sugar until they are evenly coated
7. Place butter into a nonstick skillet and place on the stove over moderate heat
8. When the butter has melted, swirl the pan to coat it with the melted butter and increase the stove temperature to high
9. Add the apple slices and cook, without stirring, until tender, about 2 minutes.  Gently toss the apples and cook until the apples are golden brown and cooked through yet hold their shape, approximately 5 minutes.
10. To assemble the pudding: Mix half the apple mixture into the custard mixture.  Divide the bread mixture evenly into the ramekins then arrange the remaining apple slices decoratively on top.  Spoon any remaining skillet juices over the apple slices
11. Place the ramekins onto a rimmed baking sheet and bake until puffed and an instant read thermometer reads 170 to 180 degrees, about 20-25 minutes.
12. To make the caramel sauce: While the pudding is cooking, in a medium saucepan combine the sugar, corn syrup, and 2 tablespoons of water and place on the stove over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Bring the saucepan to a boil, swirling the pan occasionally, and cook until the mixture turns a deep amber color (about 8 minutes).  Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the cream slowly, in stages.  Cook over medium heat and stir in the butter and salt.

Butternut Squash Gratin with Ricotta and Hazelnuts 

(4 servings)

1/4 cup vegetable broth, low sodium
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1 tsp minced thyme
2 tsp lemon zest
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and thinly sliced about 1/8" thick
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup fresh ricotta
1/3 cup toasted and coarsely chopped hazelnuts

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in the center
2. In a small saucepan, combine the broth, cream, and bay leaf and place on the stove over a moderate heat to simmer
3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside for the flavors to infuse
4. Place a medium skillet on the stove over medium heat and add the oil.  When shimmering, add the onions and cook, stirring often until tender, about 8 minutes.
5. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute
6. Stir in the thyme, lemon zest, and the cream mixture - remove the bay leaf and throw away!!
7. Coat a 11 x 17 inch (2 quart) gratin dish with butter and spread half the butternut squash onto the bottom of the dish, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and dot with the cheese.
8. Pour half the onion cream mixture over the squash and smooth over with a silicone spatula.
9. Repeat layering the squash, cheese, and cream mixture
10. Bake in the oven until the squash is tender, approximately 25 minutes.
11. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with toasted hazelnuts

Posted on Thursday, December 19, 2013 by Julie

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

This weekend some friends and I finally got out to tour some of the local craft breweries in the Washington D.C. area.  If you live in the region and have family coming in for the holidays, you should consider making a visit - a great reason to get you all out of the house.  Both breweries are staffed by the friendliest people, and the tasting room atmosphere was relaxed and fun.

DC Brau 

This is the first brewery to operate in Washington DC in over 56 years, after the last brewery closed in 1956.  Strongly believing in operating locally, a lot of their ingredients are sourced from farms in Virginia and Maryland, and expended grain from the brewing process is sent back to farms for livestock feed.  Lucky cows!  Their beers are tasty and have perfect political and DC references in their names, further embracing the city.  A free tour on Saturday afternoons includes four 4 oz. tastings of whatever was on tap that day.

Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Virginia

I can't believe it took me so long to take a tour of Port City, since it's just down the street from me.  The tasting room is very large and has two pouring bars plus several tables that encourage people to stay a while to enjoy the beer and conversation.  What's that you say?  Conversation??  The tours - held in the evening on Thursdays and Fridays, afternoon and early evening on Saturdays, and afternoon on Sundays - cost $9, include six 6 oz. tastings, and may get a bit on the corny side depending on the tour guide, but they are still informative and you can't fault someone for passion and enthusiasm. Oh and the beers are great, which is most important, right?

Posted on Sunday, December 15, 2013 by Julie


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I am really proud of these meringue trees because I, humbly, admit that I did NOT get them right the first time.  In fact, they were put directly in the trash, and it took me a week to build up the courage to try again, after a little bit of internet research on why my first batch were "leaking."  What I discovered was that I may have added the sugar too quickly to the eggs, so this round I paced myself.  And voila!

These meringue Christmas trees were originally inspired by Raspberri Cupcake's recent Instagram post.  I didn't use her recipe, though, opting for a more traditional meringue that uses cream of tartar as a stabilizer.  Once the meringue is prepared, it's super simple to pipe these trees on some silpat or parchment paper, using a star tip, and bake them up!

Christmas Meringue Trees

3 large egg whites (or 3 oz.) at room temperature
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 cup (or 150 grams) of very fine granulated or castor sugar (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Star shaped sprinkles

1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F
2. Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpat
3. Beat the egg whites in an electric mixer with the whisk attachment until foamy, on low-medium speed
4. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating the egg whites at medium-high speed until soft peaks form
5. Start to slowly add the sugar in, a small part at a time, and beat the eggs and sugar until very stiff peaks form and all of the sugar is dissolved (test by taking a bit of the mixture between your fingers and making sure it doesn't feel gritty)
6. Beat in the vanilla
7. Add the green food coloring gel to get the desired color
8. Prepare a piping bag with a star tip, and fill with the meringue
9. Pipe spiral trees on the cookie sheets and top with a sprinkle star
10. Place in the oven for 45 minutes - DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR!!
11. Rotate the baking sheets and bake for another 45-60 minutes.
12. Turn the oven off and test to see if the meringues pull easily off of the baking sheet, keeping them in the oven with the door slightly open.
13. Allow the meringues to dry in the oven for a few hours

Note: If you don't have fine sugar or castor sugar, you can make it yourself by putting granulated sugar in a food processor and processing it for 60 seconds.  I like buying it for the convenience.  You can order it from Amazon, if you want super convenience.  This kind of sugar is great because it dissolves a lot quicker.  With meringue, I learned, that if the sugar is not fully dissolved into the egg whites, then it will bubble out of the meringue while cooking and create this mess that ruins the look of the trees.

Posted on Tuesday, December 10, 2013 by Julie


Sunday, December 8, 2013


I look forward to eating these rolls every holiday season - starting with Thanksgiving and ending with Christmas dinner leftovers.  These are overnight rolls baked from scratch, so it's a commitment.  And it can be extremely frustrating when you wake up and the yeast failed to rise.  Fortunately, it doesn't happen often.

Overnight Rolls 
(Makes approximately 36)

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup Crisco or vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 cup boiled water
2 packages of dry yeast
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup cold water
6 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour

1. Melt butter and shortening
2. Dissolve sugar and salt in butter
3. Boil 1 cup of water and add water to the butter mixture
4. Cool water to 110 degrees, then add yeast, stirring constantly until dissolved
5. Put wet mixture in a stand mixer and add beaten eggs and 1 cup cold water - mix
6. Add the flour to the wet mixer, a little at a time
7. Place dough, covered with loose plastic wrap, in the refrigerator overnight (you can keep it in the bowl, but scrape the sides and gently shape the dough into a ball at the bottom of the bowl).  Overnight means a minimum of 6-8 hours, so the dough can be made very early in the morning for dinner, in theory.

The next morning or 3 hours before:
1. Divide dough into thirds
2. Roll each section on a well floured surface into a large circle
3. Cut the circle into 12 sections or slices
4. Roll up each section, starting from the large side (like a croissant), and place tip side down on a greased cookie sheet
5. Repeat for the rest of the dough, resulting in three cookie sheets of rolls
6. Cover the rolls with a clean towel and put in a warm place to rise for 2-3 hours.  If you used quick rising yeast, check after 1 1/2 hours.
7. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
8. Bake, one sheet at a time, for 8-10 minutes

Posted on Sunday, December 08, 2013 by Julie

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