This place

Walking around the woods along the Spokane River on one of the warmest days of the year, we headed into some shadows and instantly felt cold, as though we had entered a cave. The smell of the pine needles in the brisk air transported me back to that one time I went camping, back in junior high, in Oregon. It was the first time I'd ever slept in a tent, the first time I felt so saturated with nature. I have never been a particularly outdoorsy type, but it's in those moments that I feel I could just remain where I am for a spell, inhaling deeply like some hippie, communing with every living thing around me. It's beautiful around here. I love these outdoors.


One month later...

This has been the strangest way to begin a year. We thought we'd be headed one way, and it turns out that perhaps, very likely, we will be heading down a completely different path. It's been exciting and stressful, and I've been a bundle of nerves and ambivalence due to our sudden entrance into the world of real estate as we move toward purchasing a house. I'll probably spend more time writing about it once we're on the other side of it. For now, suffice it to say that great comfort was found in my old familiar Boise neighborhood last weekend, where I took a too-short trip to celebrate Mom's birthday, talk to my dad for hours about grown-up things like escrow accounts and calculated risks, and relax around the table with family.

Dad and I teamed up to make the birthday cake, using recipes found in his old Betty Crocker cookbook from his bachelor days: black midnight cake and white mountain frosting. He insisted on using the old Hamilton Beach mixer that I remember using as a kid, the one he knows (as opposed to the newer Kitchenaid). He prepared the cake (rich chocolate) and I made the frosting, which is apparently very similar to seven-minute frosting. This was the first time I've ever used a candy thermometer for such an endeavor, and it was surprisingly fun. I might go so far as to say that this my new favorite way to top a cake. So light, fluffy and pretty.

We carried it across the street to my brother's house for the sweet little dinner party. Thanks to my niece Sarrah for picking up the camera to capture some fun moments.


January slog

January is a month in which I feel inspiration trying to make its way out from a heavy fog. As I type this, sunshine is touching my ankles, which is more than I can say for this time last year. Nevertheless, I'm finding myself without aim for this post, so I'm going to take a cue from a few of my favorite bloggers and share a LIST! Partially made of LINKS! It's the lazy person's way to blog and a good way to make me feel like I'm actually doing, making, reading, feeling, eating, etc., because, well, I am.

Winter fruit compote from the slow cooker

Reading: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I unofficially joined this reading challenge, and this fits into the category of "book I've been meaning to read." I'm loving Stegner's style so far and how he sets the stage with a curmudgeonly, physically disabled narrator who is writing a book about his family. I'm a sucker for generational novels, and cranky grandpas, so this just right.

Watching: Where to begin? We're checking out as many Oscar nominees as we can (or care to). I've been carrying out a slow-going Dustin Hoffman film fest since Christmas break (more on that in a future post, probably). Also, we binge-watched "Transparent" over the course of about a week (because that's what you're supposed to do, right?). What can I say about Jeffrey Tambor except that I am absolutely in awe. With the caveat that there is a lot of nudity and sex and potential for discomfort for the average primetime viewer, this is the first show in a long time that has infiltrated my thoughts. I think about it often over the course of a day. What is love, acceptance, gender, family, when it comes right down to it? What really matters in relating with each other? 

Eating: A few weeks ago, I went over to a friend's house and we made pie crusts. Tons of pie crusts. They are all in my freezer now, so if you have a sweet or savory pie filling suggestion, please send it along. In the meantime, I've been satisfying my sweet tooth with a winter fruit compote. This is unlike me to like a fruit compote, but this one is quite good, especially with some plain yogurt and sliced almonds. I posted the recipe over here. Also, SOUP. I am eating soup all the time for lunch lately. Turns out it's easy to make on a Sunday afternoon, it's cheap, it lasts all week, and I don't even get tired of it. I made this one (tomato and chickpea) two weeks ago, this one (carrot, cannellini and coriander) last week, and this week I'm enjoying a lentil and sweet potato soup. 

Making: In my last post I mentioned that one thing I wanted to do this year is to sew with knit fabric. On Sunday, I successfully finished a really fun smocky thing! It's Burda pattern 7645, view A. I've been wearing leggings with a frequency that would make my 13-year-old self squirm, but my 32-year-old self, who happens to be wearing leggings right now feels okay about the fact that the top meets my stringent length requirements (i.e., covers my butt). It looks really cute with a thin belt. It will be great for spring. I'll ask my photographer to snap a photo of me in an easy-breezy pose, like the models on the pattern, so you can see for yourself. 

Writing: I've already noticed an improvement in my handwriting (a new year's resolution), not to mention my mental clarity, through my effort to keep better notes about life. Much as I love my online notes on Evernote and Wunderlist and boards on Pinterest, there is something that will always appeal to me in physically writing things down. I have a daily combo of writing in my Line A Day (at the end of each day) and a bullet journal (throughout the day). And then I read this article in The Atlantic, which highlights what I've long known since starting a blog all those years ago - that there is value in documenting ordinary moments. It's fascinating and you should read it. I was also featured on my friend Cara's blog, sharing a story that continues to challenge me. It was really fun to read and respond to readers' notes! Cara does an incredible job of building community online. She's inspiring.

Listening: While I've felt like I'm falling so out of the loop when it comes to music lately, podcasts are making me feel like I'm in the know about everything else. I just added "Invisibilia" to my weekly listening mix, which is a new one from the NPR folks. The first episode was all about mental health - which I thought would be a total snoozefest, but I was riveted. I'm also enjoying a podcast called "Reply All," which is a "show about the internet." Others in weekly rotation, in case you're looking for new stuff to listen to: Dinner Party Download, Pop Culture Happy Hour, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment, The Splendid Table, Death Sex & Money, Spilled Milk, You Must Remember This, To The Best of Our Knowledge, and This American Life.


A new year

Here we are, at the end of my two-week vacation, and here's a small sampling of what I have to show for it. 

A few weeks ago, Joel came home with a surprise bottle of Calvados, not knowing that I had also purchased a surprise bottle of Laird's Apple Brandy - the stuff you have to order all the way from New York City. 'Twas the season to indulge in these things that often start off as gift ideas for the other person but are clearly meant to be shared.

I know that photos like the one above are not entirely appetizing under harsh lighting, but if you're looking for a delicious chicken katsu curry recipe, take my word for it, this is indeed one. I was hoping to cook more interesting stuff like this over the last two weeks, but this was just one of a few dishes that wasn't leftovers of some bigger, tried-and-true dish (rouladen, roast, prime rib...I ate more red meat in two weeks than I'd eaten all year).

 Are you catching a theme here? It's always about what I ate/drank. I did try a new cookie recipe this Christmas - an America's Test Kitchen recipe for real ginger gingersnaps, which calls for browned butter and pepper and everything you'd ever want in a gingersnap, including the extreme snappiness that calls for hot tea.

We were on our own on Christmas Eve. We watched "Home Alone" for the first time in ages. It's such a snarky comedy - and I couldn't believe what a jerk Kevin was to his parents, or how dumb those burglars were to not look before they took a single step. And yet, the musical theme always makes me a little teary-eyed. The night before we watched "Adventures in Babysitting" - a classic I had never seen. We were truly on a roll.
Yesterday (Jan. 2) we celebrated our second full year with this cat. I love remembering the day we got her and the tiny "meows" she made as she explored each new area of the house, and how excited I felt when she found little spots to curl up and sleep. Then there was the moment when we realized that cats are little terrors in the night who knock things over and howl, who walk across your legs when you're in the middle of a wonderful dream. Alas, she's a cat. But she is kind of the best.

And now we are in a new year. Despite the crazy way we celebrated it - leaving a casino a few dollars poorer, but just in time to catch the fireworks rain over downtown - it feels like the most anticlimactic start to a new year I've ever experienced, and I think it is partly because I started some good new habits at various points last year to counteract the bad ones that kept creeping in. Nevertheless, it should be no surprise to you, after viewing the display of food and drink above, that I'm looking forward to leaner months with more tea and fewer cookies. I'm devoted to writing more things by hand, spending far less time on my personal Facebook account (usually just on Fridays, for about 10 minutes) and far more time on at-home daily routines (I'm a sucker for things like this) and getting better at my job. I borrowed a friend's copy of Zero Waste Home and am trying to incorporate a few of her practices in my ongoing quest to consume less. (I'm also really glad to have people around me who are good at this.) I want to travel more this year (like every year) and already have a few trips in mind. I hope to have more people in my home this year for impromptu drinks or dinner or dessert or tea. I have oodles of craft projects in mind, and am venturing into sewing clothes with knit fabrics instead of stiff cotton ones. In summary, those who know me know that my 2015 resolutions are pretty standard Liz fare. Either way, I'm bound and determined to make something out of them. Cheers to this bountiful year!


Winter solstice

It was in the 50s today. December 21. This will be the longest night of the year, but today was the first time we even had a chance to enjoy the day. Sunny, sunny, sunny, after days of rain.



Mantle lights

Tiny tree lights

Give this cat an ironing board and a wet garment of clothing and she's set for days

Host/hostess gift

She guards the bathroom door

Stone Fence

Waiting for food to hit ground
I get up in the dark, I come home in the dark. I don't know what this house looks like in daylight except for on the weekends. I am grateful for the winter solstice because I know the days grow longer after its passing.

A few years ago, I read a book called The Geography of Bliss, about which countries' "happiness quotient" are highest. I will forever remember its depiction of Iceland, one of the happiest places, though during the winter, it gets about 4 hours of daylight. The author described a place in which community was formed through a sort of shared survival mentality. They gathered together, they drank, they got through it. And their lives seemed to be better for it. I think about that a lot.

This is the time of year for game nights and drinking, in other words. Which is what we are doing. And it's the time for brandy. Calvados, in this case. It's warm and apple-y. That Stone Fence pictured above is a drink I highly recommend. It's a shot or so of Calvados, topped with hard cider and some ice.

If you find yourself feeling down in the dumps in the darkness, find either a St. Bernard with a cask of brandy, or a good friend with a bottle in one hand and a deck of cards in the other, and cozy up and settle in. We can do this. A few more days and we're on the better side of winter.


On nurturing your favorite cook and/or baker this Christmas

When I got my first apartment after college, I bought a handful of things for the kitchen, probably from an aisle or two at Target: measuring spoons and cups, a dish-drying rack, some kitchen towels. Nearly everything else was covered by gifts and hand-me-downs. For someone who's never had a wedding registry, I've cleaned up quite well over the years, thanks to the loving folks in my life who know how much time I enjoy in the kitchen.

Perhaps you're already done with your shopping, but just in case you're out of ideas, here are a few things that I highly recommend for cooks - from the newbies to the ones who seem to have everything.

Little somethings
  1. Measuring spoons. Most people already have a set, but having two sets can be a lifesaver from time to time. Plus, they come in all sorts of fun designs, like these, these and these ones
  2. Pan scraper. Because new and seasoned cooks alike get stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan. The best ones are the size of a credit card and are just as flexible, but I've learned they're not easy to find unless you go to the right kitchen store (we stocked up at a store in Petaluma, Calif., knowing we might not find them elsewhere). They are also a dream for scraping out dough remnants from your mixing bowl. If you don't know the difference, a hard plastic square variety still works great.
  3. Paring knife. Another item it doesn't hurt to have a few of. I like the ones that come with their own plastic sheath, making it easy to stash in a lunch bag.
  4. Cookie and biscuit cutters. People like me don't need much of a reason to make cookies, but the opportunity to use fun cookie cutters is a compelling incentive.
  5. Poach pods. I'm lousy when it comes to poaching eggs the traditional way, so these silicone wonders changed my breakfast life. You simply simmer some water in a pan, crack an egg into each pod, float them on the water, cover the pan, and in 6-7 minutes you have a perfectly poached, English-muffin sized egg. It's really fun.
Joel uses the microplane for fresh nutmeg topping on our adult drinks
Solid gifts
  1. Microplane. Your life is made instantly easier and fancier in owning one of these. I use it almost every time I cook for mincing ginger and garlic, zesting citrus fruits and grating nutmeg and really hard cheese. 
  2. Baking stone. Those who are serious about good pizza and crusty loaves, and who don't happen to have a wood-burning pizza oven, shouldn't attempt either without a baking stone.
  3. French Press or Aeropress. I don't like taking up space on my counter with coffee machines, which is one reason I've loved my French press for so long, plus it makes really good coffee for one or two people. After developing a post-dinner espresso habit, however, the Aeropress came into our lives, and none to soon. We love it so much, it even comes on vacation with us. It's lightweight, stashable, simple, and makes a mean cup of coffee and espresso-like sips. 
  4. Whirley Pop: I am normally not an advocate for single-purpose appliances like these, but for people like me who make a lot of popcorn and like having a seasoned pot for it, the Whirley Pop brings much joy. Include a bag of Tiny But Mighty heirloom popcorn for extra loveliness. 
  5. A cutting block with a good chef's knife. Don't underestimate the power of one good knife on a sturdy surface. 
  6. Pasta maker. It took me awhile to drum up the courage to make pasta, but after my first successful try (after a major fail), I was hooked. I started off with an Imperia, before I got my Kitchenaid attachment (even more fun to use), which came with two attachments for spaghetti and fettuccine noodles. Once you know how to make pasta, I say, you're set for life.

Cookbooks: The basics
  1. The New Best Recipe cookbook (or any big book from Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen). This was a gift to myself right after college, after one of my friends used it for a recipe for calzones with perfect results. Years later, I still use this regularly for basic recipes and guiding principles, and its recipe for molasses spice cookies. There are no photos, which I think is important because it makes you read their detailed instructions carefully. 
  2. The Art of Simple Food. Alice Waters is a wonderful teacher in showing us how to prepare food in a way that celebrates what it is, without all the fancy nonsense.
  3. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I love venturing into this beauty of a book whenever I want to tackle something new. Turns out that it's not all that difficult. 
Once you know how to do it, you can bake these babies anywhere. These were made at Mom and Dad's.

Cookbooks for expanding horizons
  1. Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. This book, along with Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal, has made me a much more confident cook because it's taught me principles of cooking. No longer do I need a recipe for a vinaigrette, beef stock or bread dough because I know the ideal ratio and key ingredients for making them. This breeds much creativity in cooking, too; people might think you're a real whiz kid.
  2. Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. A great companion gift with the baking stone. There is no easier way to make your dinner more luxurious than by pulling a crackling round of bread from the oven. Thanks to this book, you'll usually find a bucket of dough in my fridge, ready to parse out over a couple weeks' time for loaves and pizza crust.
  3. Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. There's a good variety of beautiful and approachable recipes in here. I make Deb's recipe for granola regularly.

An old trick on cold winter nights - soup on the stove, bread under the broiler, hands near all elements.
Pièce de résistance gifts
  1. Pots and pans. This was my parents' Christmas gift to me when I was a senior in college. It made me feel like I'd arrived. I still love the set. It was from Macy's (Belgique brand) and it came with a stock pot, a large, medium and small sauce pan, a 10-inch skillet, and a steamer pot that fit on the large saucepan. I use them all.
  2. Stand mixer. I was shocked when I received my Kitchenaid for Christmas. I was totally fine with the handheld mixer I had, but having the ability to machine-knead dough and whip egg whites while I readied other ingredients changed everything for me. And they come in such pretty colors.
  3. Food processor. Another thing I didn't realize how much I'd love until I had one. I love mine for pasta dough, pie crust, big batches of well-whipped hummus, and pureeing nuts.
  4. French or Dutch oven. My 5-quart red Le Creuset gets a lot of love. Everything I make in it looks so much more thoughtful, expertly assembled and delicious. And it just cooks things better, I'm convinced.
  5. Cuisinart griddle/grill/panini press combo: I have fallen in love with this thing. I use it to grill meat, smash panini and fry pancakes. It's versatile and easy to clean, and I learned you can also buy waffle plates for it (!!).