DIY Macro Photo Studio

Don’t get me wrong–I *love* our new apartment. But it does have this one problem: it faces north, so we get absolutely no natural light in the house, and not even on the balcony. Oddly enough, there are two skylights…in the bathrooms. Why they did not put them, oh, I don’t know, in the kitchen or the living room, I will never know. But suffice it to say that photography here has been a real challenge. I may resort to taking pictures in the bathroom one of these days!

So, given this situation, I was ever more determined to make this easy and cheap little macro photo studio (I often joke with Eric that my 365 project might also be titled “Mostly Macro”!)

Eric sent me the link to the original post from Strobist a few months ago, and I finally got around to making it yesterday. It is awesome!

All you need is a cardboard box no smaller than 12×12 (Mine is 14.5×14.5), some tissue paper, a box cutter, tape, and some poster board. Since we have tons of boxes from moving, this project cost me about…$4.

Here are the steps, as illustrated by the pictures. First cut off the flaps from the top and bottom of the box, leaving the two on the sides for lighting control. Then cut large windows out of three sides of the box.

Tape tissue paper over these windows, and trim a poster board to fit inside the box. Tape it in towards the top of the back wall of your box. Voila!

Then you can position lamps on either side of the box, and on top, if you like, and shoot away! The poster board gives you a nice sweeping background, and you can use any color you like. This handy fellow even made a youtube video showing you how to do it. Enjoy!

Incidentally, these little pumpkins, my first subject, are actually called Wee-B-Little. I thought it was a joke when I saw that on their sticker, but that is the real name of this variety–could it be any cuter?!

Birthday Dinner

For my birthday Eric took me out to dinner at La Grande Orange. It’s a lovely little place that is, get this, inside a restored train station. Hard to resist, for someone as obsessed with early train travel as I am 🙂 Actually, Eric and I had an awesome dinner at their sister restaurant next door, The Luggage Room, back in July when we were here looking for an apartment, so I knew it was going to be good!

I loved the cute citrus fruits on the menu.

And their lovely patio!

I wanted to get all dressed up, so I wore this beautiful dress that I got from a clothing swap party last year and had never worn before. I adore shiny things, so the tiny beadwork mesmerizes me:) I think I am going to break this dress out for the next five dressy events I attend!

I bought the earrings on my birthday shopping trip (yay!), and these are my classic Nine West heels. I wish I could wear this dress every day!

Grown-Up Birthday Cake: Lemon Pine Nut Torte

One of the best things about a birthday is, of course, the cake! I love layer cakes as much as the next girl, but when it’s just Eric and I, I like to bake cakes in my springform pan–it adds a touch of elegance to a single-layer cake!

One of our dear friends gave us Dorie Greenspan‘s Baking: From My Home to Yours as a wedding gift, and I love it! Eric has come home from work on more than one occasion to find me curled up with it in our thinking chair;) When I saw her recipe for Swedish Visiting Cake, I knew it would be the perfect thing for my birthday.

I used pine nuts instead of almonds for the topping, and they paired so nicely with the lemon! I omitted almond extract, but otherwise I left the recipe unchanged because Dorie is a genius (Incidentally, her Baking with Dorie App just came out, and if I had an iAnything, I would get it!)

One of her awesome pointers is to work the lemon zest into the sugar before you add anything else; this way, the sugar is infused with the flavor: amazing! I will be trying my hand at some different infusions soon!

This cake is also incredibly quick to make: just a few minutes to put it together, and about half an hour in the oven. This was very good, since I did not have much afternoon left to bake it and get ready for dinner!

The cake is perfectly moist and sweet, with the zing of lemon and the richness of the pine nuts: the perfect birthday cake for a grown-up (if that is what I am!)

Lemon Pine Nut Torte
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan‘s recipe in Baking: From My Home to Yours

1 c sugar (plus a bit more for topping)
Zest of one lemon
2 large eggs
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup flour
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/8 cup pine nuts (or more, if you like!)

-Heat oven to 350 degrees F, and butter a 9″ springform pan (you could also a use a cast-iron skillet, cake pan, or pie pan–whatever you have handy!)
-Pour the sugar into a medium bowl and work the lemon zest into it with your fingers until the sugar is moist and smells like lemon heaven.
-Whisk in the eggs one at a time until well blended.
-Whisk in the salt and vanilla.
-Switch to a spatula to mix in the flour and then the melted butter.
-Pour batter into pan and scatter the pine nuts over the top, along with a little sugar.
-Bake for 25-30 minutes (mine needed the full 30, but I srated checking it at 25), until the top and sides are golden brown.
-Let cool for 5 minutes, and then scrape the sides of the pan with a knife before you release the spring.
-If it’s your birthday, cut yourself a slice, stick a candle in it, and make a wish!

Birthday Dress

I’m a firm believer that everyone should get to wear their favorite color for their birthday, so I, of course, broke out the purple (with a shiny belt to boot!)

My awesome aunt Ellen gave me this dress over the summer, and I love wearing it on warm days (I practically lived in it while we were moving!) The little ruffle at the bottom makes it fun!

The yellow necklace is there for a pop of color, and my heels are old classics–my mom and I bought them on the eve of my PhD exams, and they’ve been solid ever since.  This side twist is a style I’ve been playing with the past few days–anything to get my hair off my neck! I kind of like the look of a floral arrangement it gives, especially with this little pearl clip.

Happily, I finished editing a chapter yesterday (yesss!), so today I am taking the day off for baking, shopping, a few fun projects, and a birthday dinner with Eric. The perfect day! 🙂

The Pantry

I’ve always liked the idea of a well-stocked kitchen. When I’d come home for Christmas, I’d always be amazed that my parents just happened to have a can of diced tomatoes, some dried black beans, and all the couscous you could ever want. What a revelation! I’ve never had a kitchen that really accomodates that kind of storage, but I am making the best of it!

One of the things I’ve always imagined in the perfect kitchen is a display of dry goods in Mason jars: so elegant, so useful! Until now, I didn’t really have a place for them, but in our new kitchen we have this nice window from the kitchen to the living room, and I knew that was where the jars should live.

Eric and I found some solid half gallon jars at the hardware store for a totally reasonable price, and I set about filling mine up! Here is my beloved quinoa and white beans, brown rice and red lentils! I still have a few jars to fill (black beans and chickpeas, I am looking for you!), but for now these are serving us well, and reminding me when I need to stock up on things. My love for beans and grains knows no bounds–this afternoon I left the store with couscous, quinoa, and Israeli couscous, and thought, “Ah, now I can make it through the week!” I am just glad I am addicted to something that is pretty affordable, and pretty good for you:)

Kitchen Garden

I was so hoping that Eric and I would find a place with at least a balcony, so we could plant some herbs, and we did! Hurray! Now that the house is at least in moderately functional order, I set out to get some plants today.

I went a little crazy at the nursery and bought tons of plants: parsley, cilantro, basil, oregano, thyme, mint, sage, rosemary, green onions…I am excited to see them grow (if I can keep them alive!) and not to have to buy herbs anymore (here’s hoping!)

I have always wanted to have at least an herb garden, in part because my parents have such a lovely backyard full of them, and it’s always so nice to just run out there and trim some things for dinner. I actually used the thyme and the oregano tonight as a topping for my fresh focaccia: yum!

High Belting

I have this strange ability to remember my dreams with deep clarity. It’s a blessing and a curse, depending on what kind of dream you have–I’ve spent plenty of mornings in a funk trying to forget the images that danced across my brain while I was sleeping, but every now and again, you get a real gem. Sometimes I’ve dreamed up the solutions to complicated work problems, sometimes, like last night, actually, I dream up a lovely holiday with my grandparents, who are no longer here on earth, and every now and again I even dream that I can fly (I always try flapping my arms when I wake up, but, alas, no lift-off yet!)

And sometimes my dreams present me with exciting ideas that would probably never occur to me in my waking hours. A few nights ago I had such a dream, in which I was wearing a dress with a belt fastened not at my waist but just under my arms. I woke up excited to give it a try, and after a bit of experimenting, I like this first ensemble that puts the idea to use.

It seems like a perfect way to give a pop of color to a dress that is already fitted and doesn’t need a belt. This red polka dot dress, which I *adore*, was actually one of my first DIY projects. I found it at my most beloved thrift ftore, and it was wayyyy too big for me, so I put it on my homemade mannequin (more on this later!), pinned it, and took it in until it fit me. Voila! I’m excited to try high belting with some of my other dresses and blouses–if you give it a try, let me know how it turns out!

How to Organize Your Earrings

I have a fair amount of what I lovingly refer to as “bling.” I adore the bright colors and charm of my jewelry, and how it can really make an outfit or just brighten my day! Since we moved, I have been taking the opportunity to re-think how all this said bling is arranged. While my necklaces and bracelets were in some kind of order (more on this later), my earrings always kind of looked like this:

A big blob of beauty, but not very useful when you are looking for the second earring in a pair, or even trying to see what you have. At the risk of sounding like one of those unintentionally hilarious informercials that make up problems for their products to solve (I resisted the urge to start this post with the phrase: “Ladies! Are you tired of your earrings looking like this?! Well, I have the solution for you!”), I do kind of have a solution, and, best of all, it will not cost you four easy installments of $39.99, but will actually cost you more like about $10 or less. Yes!

So, let’s get started! What do you need? First, some ordinary wire cloth from the hardware store. (Before I found this stuff, I was thinking of using peg board, but wire cloth is much easier to use, especially if you are hanging studs, because of its larger openings.) I got mine at Orchard Supply Hardware for $10, and most hardware stores will have it, usually with the building supplies, wrapped up in neat little rolls.

You can also get wire cloth in just about every size and length imaginable through McMaster Carr, and they also have awesomely fast shipping. I chose a roll with medium-small openings at a length of five feet, and it was pretty much perfect for me, but you can adjust based on how much bling you have.

Next, you’ll need a hammer, some nails, and some good sturdy gloves, since the wire cloth can have sharp edges that would injure your pretty hands.

Put on your gloves, unroll the wire cloth, and lay it out flat with some heavy books on top to straighten out the curves. Russian literature will always do the trick!

When it’s sufficiently flat (I let mine rest for half an hour or so), put your gloves back on, pick it up, and nail it to the wall in the top corners, along the sides, and at the bottom. That’s it–you’re all done!

Now just put your earrings up however you like! Studs will also stay up easily, since they fit right into the corners. You could also hang bracelets or necklaces on it, or anything that has a clasp! I hope you have fun taking your pile of earrings from this:

To this!

Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho

I’ve been waiting all summer for good tomatoes, and they are finally here! We went a little crazy at the farmer’s market this week, and as a result we have mostly been eating tomatoes since then, but I am not complaining!

I knew the first thing I wanted to make with them was this incredible gazpacho that my best friend and matron of honor made for our bridesmaids’ luncheon back in June. It was steaming hot in Memphis, and my dear friend, being the classy and intelligent lady that she is, designed a menu of all cold dishes. We could not have been happier to see this soup on the table, and, oh my goodness, it is insanely delicious. Insanely.

It’s also really simple to make, not requiring you to turn on the stove or the oven, which would introduce more heat into your house and make you melt like a popsicle. All it requires is some chopping and chilling, and voila!

As with most soups, this one just gets better and better as the days go by, since all the flavors have more time to blend. I am going to be really sorry when it is gone!

Eric and I were lucky enough to score an awesome deal on some patio furniture this weekend, and this was the first meal we had outside. Even though I thought we’d left the rain behind in the Bay area, the sky turned green and then orange and purple, a cool breeze picked up, and soon we were in the midst of a real summer rainstorm. It was incredibly beautiful, and delightful to watch from under the roof of our balcony. A perfect summer dinner!

Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho
Adapted ever so slightly from my best friend’s recipe

6 ripe heirloom tomatoes, chopped
1 green bell pepper,  finely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 large cucumbers, peeled and finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c fresh dill, chopped

-Mix all of the chopped vegetables together in a large bowl. Make sure the juice from the tomatoes makes it into the bowl.
-Whisk together the lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and stir into the vegetable bowl.
-Pureé about half of the mixture in a food processor or blender. Pour it back into the bowl, stir in the chopped dill, cover, and refrigerate for at least one hour.
-When serving, top with a sprig of fresh dill, and enjoy!

Labor Day Love

I’ve always loved Labor Day and appreciated the break it brings to a busy fall–who doesn’t? This year Eric and I spent most of the day working on various things around the house, but it’s all worth it to be moving further in the direction of unpacked and settled in our new place.

We took a break this afternoon to walk over to Caltech, where he took these photos in the warm sunshine. It’s not quite the beach, but it was a beautiful interlude to a busy day! I put my hair up in a high bun, which I haven’t done in ages, simply because it seemed like the best thing to do in the heat, and I put on this sweet key necklace that my cousin gave me ages ago.

I have long referred to this blouse, acquired so long ago I can’t even remember which thrift store it’s from, as my teacher shirt. The ruffles make me feel kind of authoritative in a 70s Spanish class sort of way. The belt is from the beloved Bargain Barn, and I actually found these shorts at Sears! They are almost the only ones I own, so they have been getting a lot of use in this steamy weather!

I do love Labor Day, but the love in the title of this post also refers to the photography session, because when your husband will spend 20 minutes kneeling in the grass during a heat wave taking your picture, and actually *enjoy* it, that is love. 🙂

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