Saturday, November 29, 2014

As we head into the holiday season, here is a perfect gift to give to coworkers, friends, neighbors, and family.  These chocolate almond toffee pieces are a family tradition in my house, and though they take a fair amount of time to prepare, the recipe can be repeated (not doubled) to yield more and the toffee can be frozen for future gifting.  The key to success with this recipe is using good ingredients - good butter and good chocolate!  Since the steps are all important, I've added some photos to better explain the process.

Chocolate Almond Toffee

  • 2 3/4 cups blanched almonds (the grocery store or Trader Joes sells these in bags already prepared and slivered - don't get the sliced almonds, it must be slivered.  Also Trader Joes may even sell them pre-toasted, so look for that.)
  • 1 Tbsp butter (salted or unsalted, for greasing the pan)
  • 1 cup salted butter
  • 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 Tbsp light corn syrup
  • 3 Tbsp water
  • 10 oz semi-sweet chocolate
  • Candy thermometer
These ingredients will yield half of a baking sheet of toffee.  If you want more, you will need to repeat the recipe.  A half sheet will get you at least 4 gift bags of toffee.

1. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper for 10 minutes at 375 degrees.
2. When cool, take 2 cups of the almonds and coarsely chop them (if you bought the slivered bag of almonds, you can choose to leave them that size or halve them).
3. Finely chop the remaining 3/4 cup of toasted almonds by hand or with a food processor, and set aside for after the chocolate step.
4. Butter a jellyroll baking sheet and set aside.

5. In a saucepan, combine the 1 cup butter, sugar, light corn syrup, and water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium.
6. Using a candy thermometer on the side of the saucepan, continually stir the mixture until the liquid reaches 300 degrees.  This is going to take at least 15-20 minutes, so be prepared!  You must get the liquid to this temperature because that is a "hard crack" state, and anything less will be a "soft crack" state and too chewy.
7. When the mixture reaches 300 degrees, remove from the heat immediately to a heatproof surface and quickly stir in the 2 cups of coarsely chopped almonds.  The toffee hardens fast, so you need to get through the next step while it is still pliable.

8. Pour the toffee onto the buttered jellyroll sheet, and spread until it covers half of the sheet.  It should be at least 1/4" thick.

9. Let the toffee cool at room temperature for over an hour.  When the toffee is cool to the touch, gently lift it up off the sheet and transfer it to a piece of parchment paper, which can then be placed back onto the baking sheet.
10. Carefully melt half of the chocolate (5 oz.) in a glass dish in the microwave, then immediately spread on one side of the toffee.

11. Sprinkle the finely chopped nuts on the chocolate while it is still hot.
12. Let the chocolate set on the one side for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate for another 30 minutes.

13. When the chocolate is hard, flip the toffee over and repeat Steps 10-12 except leave it in the refrigerator at least an hour to set.
14. After the completed toffee has been thoroughly chilled, bring it out of the refrigerator and break it with your hands into pieces about 1 1/2 to 2 inches big.  There is no perfect way to break this toffee, so just have fun and sneak a few of the tiny pieces that don't make the cut into your mouth.  Yum!

For gifts, wrap 8-10 toffee pieces in a cellophane bag and tie with a festive ribbon.

Posted on Saturday, November 29, 2014 by Julie


Friday, November 28, 2014

This cake, to quote my mom, is"buttery, coconutty, sweet goodness in my mouth!"  With a simple butter cake recipe and caramelized sugar/toasted coconut topping, this is a quick, no-fail treat.  The recipe I use is one that was passed down from my great grandmother, so I wasn't surprised when I did a little research on the origin of the name and saw the cake referred to as an "old fashioned" dessert many times.  The best explanation I found for its history was that is was devised in the 1940s when cakes were still made from scratch, so simplicity was preferred.

Lazy Daisy Cake


For the cake:
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla 
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

For the topping:
  • 5 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 7 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 3 Tbsp milk
  • 1 3/4 cup flaked coconut

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat to a boil: 1/2 cup milk and 1 Tbsp unsalted butter.  Cool slightly.
  3. Butter an 8" square baking pan.
  4. Beat 2 eggs with an electric mixer for 5 minutes until thick and pale yellow.
  5. Gradually add the sugar and vanilla to the eggs.
  6. In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, and salt.
  7. Gradually add dry mixture to the egg mixture.
  8. Pour in warm milk and beat the batter well.  Batter will be thin.
  9. Spoon into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.
  10. While the cake is baking, prepare topping.
  11. Start by melting the butter (try a glass dish in the microwave).
  12. Melt the brown sugar into the butter, stirring continually.
  13. Add milk to the sugar/butter mixture.
  14. Stir in the coconut.
  15. When the cake is finished baking, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature to broil.
  16. Spread coconut topping over the top of the cake while it is still in the pan.
  17. When the oven is heated to broil, caramelize the sugar and toast the coconut carefully - watching it until it turns light brown and bubbly.  (consider watching it with the oven door open)
  18. Allow to cool in the pan.  The cake can be cut and served from the pan, or use a board to flip it out before flipping it back upright onto a platter or cake stand.

Posted on Friday, November 28, 2014 by Julie

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Friday, November 21, 2014

I've been trying to write a post on Cincinnati for the past couple of years because I travel there at least one time a year to visit family.  For some reason, however, I never get the photos I want to express the history and interesting sites.  I finally just said, forget it and post what you've got!  So, here are some images that show how just how charming and quaint a big city can be.

When I travel, I always seek out the historic buildings.  In Cincinnati, a great place to start is Historic Fourth Street - both the east and west districts.  Here you will find remnants of Cincinnati's Central Business District from as early as 1860.  It's not hard to close your eyes and picture everyone as they were 100-150 years ago, shopping and going to work, and it reminds you to appreciate the preservation efforts that have allowed these buildings to remain and speak to our enormously vast history.  They are true architectural treasures.

Look at the details on the former Gidding-Jenny department store above.  This building, located at 10-12 West Fourth Street, was built in 1883 and Rookwood Tile covers the facade, depicting colorful fruit, flowers, and faces.  This building has special significance to me because my grandmother purchased her wedding dress at J.M Gidding & Co. after the war was over before traveling out to meet my grandfather in California.

Historical exterior elements have also been saved at the former Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, a 15-story, neo-Renaissance building built in 1927.  It is now a luxury apartment building.

At 49 East Fourth Street is the former Dixie Terminal, the end of the old streetcar line.  The building was completed in 1921 and housed an arcade of shops in addition to the terminal.  The exterior is decorated with Rookwood tiles inlaid in the entrance arch and around the entry doors.

Over the Rhine is another historic district that is the center of Cincinnati's beer history.  Cincinnati's OTR once was the largest German-American neighborhood in America, as many of the city's mid-19th century immigrants and their descendants lived here.  Not surprisingly, the German tradition of brewing lagers transferred over, expanding the small beer industry in town that was established by English settlers.  By 1860, there were 36 breweries in the city and 17 of those resided in the OTR district - including the big four: Jackson Brewery, J.G. John & Sons Brewery, Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, and John Kauffman Brewing Company.  Other popular Cincinnati brewers were John Hauck, Lion and Hudepohl, and two breweries from across the river: Wiedemann and Bavarian.  Sadly, prohibition, the Great Depression, and the rise of the national commercial giants like Anheuser-Busch and Miller spelled the demise of the Cincinnati beer industry.  Fortunately, with the recent rise of craft brewers, Cincinnati is reviving its brewing history and bringing back old labels, such as Christian Moerlein, Hudepohl, Burger, and Little Kings.  There is even an Over the Rhine Brewery Tour that takes you on a walk around the neighborhood and into the remaining historic brewery buildings and their underground tunnels.  If you want more information on the history of the OTR brewing industry, check out this article I found.

The OTR neighborhood is also home of the famous Findlay Market, which is the oldest continuously operating farmer's market in Ohio and the only original public building still open in town.  Other historic buildings in the area mostly date back to 1860-1900.  The neighborhood today is still in transition after years of falling into disrepair.  Not all of the streets are safe, so be aware of your environment as you are driving or walking around.

One other historic building I wanted to point out is the Literary Club of Cincinnati, located at 500 East Fourth Street.  The club was founded in 1849 and is the oldest literary club in existence.  It has hosted many famous authors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Robert Frost.  In addition to authors, other speakers including U.S. Presidents have presented.  The current home for the club is a building from 1820 that the club has occupied since 1930.

Of course, I can't write a post on Cincinnati without mentioning two of its food-related gems:  Dewey's Pizza and Graeter's Ice Cream

Cincinnati has many more historic districts that I hope to visit the next time I'm in town.

Posted on Friday, November 21, 2014 by Julie


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Must Read

I know I have gushed about how much I love Jojo Moyes in other posts, but please trust me when I say that every book I read is equally if not more captivating.  In The Last Letter from Your Lover, Moyes presents a complicated marriage of a wealthy couple in the 1960s by starting with the wife's car accident and resulting short-term amnesia.  Slowly, her memory returns when she finds hidden love letters to her around the house, which eventually force her husband to reveal the truth of the accident. Or did he really tell her the truth?  Fast forward 50 years, and a reporter happens to find some of the letters in the newspaper archive, leading her to investigate who these people were and what happened.

Lazy Weekend

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I have read one other book by Rainbow Rowell, Attachments, and really liked her story concept and easy writing style.  This particular book, while categorized as young adult, was still very enjoyable for this adult. It focuses on a young writer, who has gained popularity on the internet posting fan fiction for a Harry Potter-esque book series, and her experience surviving as a freshman in college.  A cute read!  

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

I like Garth Stein as a writer, even if he makes me cry, and I expected this book to be another "Must Read" recommendation.  The story was good, but it wasn't something I couldn't put down.  The plot is centered on the mystery of a large estate in North Seattle that has been owned by a family that pioneered the Northwest timber industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I love Amy Poehler, so reading her autobiography was a no brainer.  While not as laugh-out-loud funny as Tina Fey's Bossypants, there were some very entertaining chapters.

Skip This

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I am a fan of Lena Dunham's HBO show, "Girls," and I expected to equally enjoy her book, but I think this is a case where perhaps the book was written a little too early.  Yes, she has definitely achieved a lot of success in a short amount of time, for which I admire her, but sometimes the stories get better with age.  And, while I don't mind the gutsy choices she makes for her characters in her show, I kind of found the real life stories she chose to tell in her book to be a little too extreme and crass.  I feel like instead of promoting her intelligence and vision, she opted for the shock value that made the book seem imbalanced and, not surprisingly, offensive to some readers.

Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014 by Julie

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Last weekend, I was up in New York City and did something I have never done on previous visits - visit the Museum of Modern Art, or MOMA as it's more commonly known.  Normally, I shy away from modern art museums because I lack the capacity to appreciate the more abstract works associated with the art category, like Jackson Pollack paint splatters or canvases simply painted white and framed.  And don't even get me started on the Robert Gober exhibit that is currently on display through January 2015 at MOMA.  The whole floor devoted to Gober, to me, was an insult to all people with even a small amount of creativity.  While disappointed with some of the art on display, fortunately I was surprised to find that the permanent collection at MOMA encompasses some of my favorite artists to offset the weird ones.  

Who doesn't love Monet?  MOMA gives visitors the opportunity to view three of Monet's large water lily panels without the expense of having to fly over to Paris and see the more famous Nymphéas panel collection in the Musée de l'Orangerie.  

The museum is also home to one of Vincent van Gogh's most recognized paintings, Starry Night, as well as other van Gogh works.

There are also several selections from Georges-Pierre Seurat and his pointillism technique of using small color dots to create an image.

In the surrealism section, I was saddened to find only one René Magritte painting.  It was on display with pieces from Salvador Dali and his melting clocks, Giorgio de Chirico and his playful perspectives, Picasso paintings and sculptures, and a cute Paul Gauguin that I had never seen before - "Still Life with Three Puppies.

And a trip to MOMA is not complete without seeing Andy Warhol's famous Campbell Soup array and Marilyn Monroe.

MOMA currently has two great exhibitions on display running through the early part of 2015 that I enjoyed as well:  Henri Matisse's cut-outs collection and Toulouse-Lautrec's prints and posters.

Here's a helpful travel hint for you if you're interested in visiting MOMA:  On the first weekend of every month, if you are a Bank of America customer, you can show your ID and BofA card to the special ticket counter and receive free admission to MOMA.  This is part of their Museums on Us program, and MOMA is one of 150 museums participating nationwide.  Considering that the normal admission price for an adult is $25, this is a great deal!

Of course, I didn't spend all my time wandering around MOMA while in New York.  If you've seen my other posts on NYC, you shouldn't me surprised to learn that I also took in a few Broadway shows. First up, a play about putting on a Broadway play, called It's Only A Play, and its cast filled with big name stars.  Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane are together on stage again, as a playwright and his best friend waiting for the opening night reviews.  Stockard Channing plays the troubled, aging former Hollywood star trying to make a comeback on the stage.  Megan Mullally is the same ditzy rich woman character she played while on Will and Grace, now a producer of the show.  And Rupert Grint tries to escape his Harry Potter character by portraying a colorful director.  Overall, it was an entertaining production, but I feel like a lot of the jokes will be lost on people who are not intimate with Broadway gossip, personalities, and history.

Next up, I caught one of the early previews of Hugh Jackman's new play, The River.  Here's a case where the actors are very good, but the play is just boring.  The theater is one of the smallest I've been to in New York, and the seating was in a horseshoe around the stage, so at least you can easily see Hugh gut an actual fish on stage from any seat in the house.  

After the show, the cast all comes out to sign autographs - including Jackman.  It's fortunate that the theater is located north of the main Times Square group of theaters because there is less of a chaotic scene after the show.  I remember seeing Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in a play before, and the scene outside the theater was a madhouse!  This time, Hugh actually took the time to casually sign everyone's playbill and talk to people.  I even snuck a photo, when photos with Hugh technically were not permitted.

Finally, I also went to see the new musical written by Sting, The Last Ship.  The story is two-fold. First, it is set in a blue collar shipyard town in England, and the workers have just been told that their company is moving production to Asia.  At the prospect of losing their jobs, the workers band together in protest and symbolically build one last ship that is somehow funded by the local church.  The second theme starts as a love story between two teenagers.  The boy, facing a life of having to work in the shipyard like his dad, decides to leave and promises to come back for the girl.  Fifteen years later, the boy, now a man, returns after his father dies to an unforgiving girl, now a woman.  As a fan of love stories, I had hoped that the flame would be rekindled and the love story would be the primary focus of the show, but it actually takes a back seat to the drearier subject of the closing of the shipyard.  I like Sting's music, but I don't love it, so combined with the storyline, I wasn't overly impressed by this production.  

Posted on Sunday, November 09, 2014 by Julie

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Saturday, November 1, 2014


I have read and re-read every book by Kristan Higgins.  While some I favor some over others based on the characters or the plot - or even the dog - I am always compelled to finish every one the same night I start it. The appeal of Kristan's stories is in the strong relationships, the less than perfect characters, the vivid descriptions of small New England towns, and the perfect combination of the girl with the dog who makes mistakes but finally gets her happy ending.  These books aren't going to change your world, but they are guaranteed to entertain you, make you laugh, warm your heart, and spark your imagination.  Who doesn't want that?

When I saw that Kristan was going on a tour for her latest book, In Your Dreams - the 4th book in the series set in the vineyards of New York's Fingerlakes region) - I thought this would be a great opportunity to meet the woman who has made me smile with her consistently great storytelling.   It was a manageable crowd, and Kristan was gracious enough to walk around and converse with everyone before doing a quick reading from the book and signing copies.

The bookstore allowed dogs, so I brought my shih tzu along in the hopes that maybe he would inspire Kristan to write him into one of her future books!  Here's to hoping...with that snaggletooth of his, he should definitely be a candidate!

Posted on Saturday, November 01, 2014 by Julie

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