Valentine’s Dinner

When you think about it, spending Valentine’s Day with your parents is pretty special. They are the first people who ever loved you, and, if you’re lucky, they’re the people who taught you how to love. I’m so grateful to be able to say that that is the case for me: not only have my parents always shown me unconditional love, but they also love each other, so much. They are a joy and an inspiration, and Eric and I hope to have a marriage as wonderful as theirs. So, all that said, it was a pretty great day. And I have to tell you, it commenced being great the moment my eyes opened, and I inhaled the glorious scent of fresh coffee. Since I make my coffee myself, and Eric is an OJ man, I probably haven’t experienced this in close to a year. Oh my goodness, it is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and it’s definitely a bond I share with both of my parents. Sometime around this afternoon, I started looking forward to tomorrow morning’s cup. It’s one of my greatest luxuries (and, thankfully, an affordable one!).

In the morning my dad brought in some roses for his girls, and then my mom and I proceeded to have a ridiculously awesome day, hitting some of my favorite spots in the city (more on that soon). When dad came home from work, we shared dinner and several delicious desserts. I made Heidi Swanson‘s miso-curry squash and kale salad (recipe and post coming soon!). I made it last week for Eric, and I loved it so much that it was the first thing on my list to make for my parents.

My dad and I had some wonderful wine with dinner. It came from a box. I know. But it’s so good! Believe me, it has 94 points! It’s the equivalent of four bottles of wine and only costs $18, and the bag inside compresses as you drain it, so the wine isn’t exposed to air. I will definitely be picking some of this up when I get home!

For dessert we had, get this: chocolate pasta. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Mom cooked some raspberries in port, and I whipped some cream with vanilla. It was totally decadent. I might have some for breakfast tomorrow!

And we also had these sweet heart cookies from John’s Pantry, which is a great little neighborhood spice shop and bakery. Yum! It was such a special dinner and such a special day. Wherever you were, and whatever you were doing, I hope your day was full of love.

Just the Three of Us

Yesterday I flew out of LAX and touched down in the land of the Delta blues, AKA, home. I’m so excited to have this week to spend with my parents, especially since I didn’t get to see them at Christmas. The weather is kind of nasty here, cold and rainy with some sleet on the side, but mom had a big pot of soup ready for us when we got home from the airport, along with a fresh-baked loaf of bread. It was heavenly. Since it was so chilly, mom suggested that we eat dinner in front of the fire, and she set up this cozy spread for us. It’s the little things like this, and there are too many millions of them to count, that make me love coming home. There are always bright colors, the smell of books, and the deep and powerful knowledge that I am loved. I’m more grateful than words can say.

Fudgy Cocoa Walnut Brownies

Who doesn’t love chocolate for Valentine’s Day? I asked Eric what he wanted for the holiday of love, and chocolate was his unhesitating reply! I am actually going to be away this week, visiting my family, but at least I am leaving these brownies for him.

I haven’t made brownies in years, since I’m a cake girl at heart, but last week I had a serious craving for them. Following Alice Medrich’s lead, I used Dutch process cocoa for these, and it makes for a satisfyingly crunchy top with a wonderfully gooey center. The best of both worlds.

And because I am nothing if not consistent, I added a hearty handful of walnuts. A little extra crunch is always a good thing.

Valentine’s Day has never been a big favorite of mine, mostly because I am in accord with the many people who prefer to express their love every day instead of on just one day, but I do take it as an opportunity to be grateful for all that I have: first and foremost, my incredible husband, who is also my best friend, confidante, and partner in crime. Wherever this Valentine’s Day finds you, I hope you have lots to be grateful for too. And also chocolate.

Fudgy Cocoa Walnut Brownies
Recipe from Alice Medrich‘s Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate

10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cold large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup walnut pieces

-Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8 baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.
-Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot.
-Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.
-Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.
-Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

Roasted Vegetables and Israeli Couscous in Meyer Lemon Thyme Vinaigrette

My three main food groups are definitely vegetables, beans, and grains. I love trying new permutations of them, while happily recalling the endless tree diagrams of my childhood education (and, of course, with regular forays into the areas of dairy and dessert!) This past weekend at the grocery store, I threw a bunch of things into my cart and figured I’d work out a meal when I got home. This dish is one of the things I came up with, but I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. Eric took one bite of it, grinned, and declared it delicious and highly blog-worthy, before I’d even asked him what he thought of it. I love him. So, without further ado, here it is!

I love Israeli couscous, a larger cousin to the regular kind, and it goes so well with tomatoes. It cooks just like pasta (and, in fact, it is a type of pasta), so just ten minutes or so of boiling will finish it, and then you can just drain it and serve.

I borrowed Ottolenghi’s vegetable roasting times from his delicious tart, putting the sweet potato in first, and then adding the zucchini, which cooks much faster. Genius!

For the vinaigrette, I juiced one Meyer lemon and then added an equal amount of olive oil, about 1/4 cup. Then I seasoned it with tons of fresh thyme, salt and pepper. I mixed all the ingredients together, and it was ready to serve. I’m so glad it was a hit!

Roasted Vegetables and Israeli Couscous in Meyer Lemon Thyme Vinaigrette

16 oz. Israeli couscous
2 sweet potatoes, cubed
3 zucchini, cubed
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Juice of one Meyer lemon (or a regular lemon)
1/4 c olive oil
1/4 fresh chopped thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

(As a side note, these were the vegetables that I happened to have on hand, but many others would be great here as well, such as eggplant or cauliflower.)

-Heat oven to 450 degrees. Roast cubed sweet potatoes for 12 minutes. Add cubed zucchini and roast for 12 more minutes. Set aside.
-Boil Israeli couscous in water until tender, about ten minutes. Drain and set aside.
-In a large bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper to taste.  Add the Israeli couscous and roasted vegetables, topping with sliced tomatoes. Stir well, so that the vinaigrette coats them. Serve warm.

A Moment from Our Wedding Day

I haven’t written about our wedding here yet, maybe because I have so much to say about it! It was such a beautiful day, made all the sweeter by the wonderful people who came to share it with us. There were some stressful moments here and there, as there always are at weddings, but the day was just magical, and I am so happy that we had it all captured by the incredible Amy Dale. She is seriously the best, and she is as kind as she is talented. Eric and I are just now getting around to going through all of the pictures to pick the ones we’ll put in our album. So many happy memories! Last night we turned on our reception playlist while we clicked through hundreds of gorgeous images, stopping every now and then to dance to some of our favorite songs. The picture above is one of the very last ones taken that day, after the ceremony, the reception, and the final photo shoots. I love it not only because it is beautiful, but because our hands clasped together illustrate what we were thinking at that moment: “We did it! We’re a team!”
I’ll post more pictures from the wedding soon, but I just had to share this little moment from our special day.
(Photo Credit: http://www.amydalephotography.com/)

Braided Bead Necklace

Since we got back from Aspen, I’ve had my hands full with all kinds of things, and I was bummed that I hadn’t gotten to any of the projects I had planned to do. I spent several days feeling bummed that I was feeling bummed, and then, magically, a breakthrough moment came to me, and I was back in action. I’ve found that the best way around a creative block is to just make something, although that always seems like the hardest possible thing to do at the time. It’s definitely much easier said than done, and I rely on grace to carry me through those times. Thankfully, it never fails me, and then I’m back to making all the little things I make. It doesn’t even matter if they are good are not, since the pleasure is in the making itself.  I don’t know that I have any great wisdom about creative blocks, except that they happen to all of us, and that it helps to be as compassionate toward yourself as you can, and to gently set about doing something very small that seems do-able until you find yourself on the other side of it. This necklace, which had been taking shape in my mind for a long time, brought me back to the sheer pleasure of putting things together with my hands. I’m so grateful for that.

I bought these tiny and shiny (!) beads months ago at the fabric store, and I got the idea that I could string several strands of them and then braid them for a thicker look. It came together just as I’d hoped.

This necklace was very simple to make, and I loved the feel of the beads in my hands. I first measured and cut a long strand of thread, and then I looped and tied it onto a necklace hook, so that each side of the thread coming from the hook was even. I then used my beading needle to string beads on both sides of the thread, tying off the ends, and tying them together.

I did this two more times, ending up with six individual strands, or three doubled strands. I liked the combination of red and blue, and I decided to make the colors slightly imbalanced, but you could use any color scheme that strikes your fancy!

Once I had all the strands completed, I braided them and tied them together at the end before looping then through the other hook. That’s it! I love how this necklace came out, and my biggest problem at the moment is that now I want to make one million more of them, in every possible color scheme! That should keep me busy for a while. Happy beading!

Meyer Lemon Pecan Bundt Cake

You will of course recall those glorious Meyer lemons I was exulting over last week. Here is the first thing I made with them: Meyer lemon pecan bundt cake. I am nothing if not a dutiful blogger, so I can assure you, having just had a slice or two, that it keeps well and even improves after baking.

I love the way this cake is not overly sweet and has a decidedly sharp tang. I always go a bit crazy with lemon in cakes, but in this case it creates a nice balance, the zest lending an almost savory note.

The pecans come very close to stealing the show, though. I had some leftover from the Texas Sheet Cake we made for Eric’s dad’s birthday (I’ve never seen a cake disappear so quickly!), so I threw them in on a whim, and I think it’s an inspired pairing. I can’t really take any credit for that, though. Good job, flavors!

This cake is definitely a keeper, which is a good thing, because I’ve still got some lemons left, and the owner of the tree tells me that it still has hundreds of lemons. Oh, happy day!

Meyer Lemon Pecan Bundt Cake

4 eggs
1 1/2 c sugar
1/2 c butter, softened
2 c flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c milk
1/3 c juice of Meyer lemons (3 lemons)
Zest of 3 Meyer lemons
1 c pecans (The lemon zest and pecans could be lightened if you like a more subtle flavor)

-Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour the inside of a Bundt pan.
-Zest and juice the lemons.
-Combine the eggs and sugar and beat in the butter gradually until the mixture is creamy.
-Add the flour, baking powder, salt, and milk, and beat to combine.
-Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and beat to combine. Add the pecans.
-Pour into the Bundt pan and bake for approximately 50-55 minutes at 350 degrees F. (When a toothpick comes out clean and the outer edges of the cake are pulling away slightly from the sides of the pan, it is ready.)
-Let cool for at least 30 minutes, and then loosen the edges with a  spatula before turning out onto a cooling rack or serving plate.
-I served the cake as it is, but you could also dust it with powdered sugar or add a simple lemon glaze (just lemon juice and powdered sugar). Enjoy!

Channeling Nanny

My grandmother, who was lovingly called Nanny by all of us kids, was an amazing lady. She was smart as a whip, a wizard in the kitchen, and she’d enfold you in hugs that made the rest of the world disappear. She passed away just after her 50th wedding anniversary, when I was 16, but she left us so many wonderful ways to remember her. One of them is the family history she put together with my grandfather: family trees, stories of life decades ago, and lots and lots of pictures. My sweet cousin updated the book recently, so it has been much on my mind, but especially this one picture of her from half a century ago. She is so lovely.

Last week I found this dress at the thrift store, and it immediately made me think of her. The stripes and the gorgeous shade of green were beguiling enough for a $3 splurge, but mostly I just couldn’t stop imagining that this was a dress my Nanny might have worn when she was young.

I love the unusual buttons and the way they file off to one side of the dress, slightly asymmetrically.

The belt is another thrift store find, from years ago, I think. My belt collection is rather out of control, but, then again, I am not very good at resisting shiny things. Especially when they only cost a dollar!

These are my birthday earrings from this past year, another great find. Every dress can use a touch of purple.

These heels are Nine West, and I found them in the giveaway pile at Eric’s old apartment. That apartment was so good to me! So I suppose this whole outfit is thrifted. I think Nanny would have approved.

A Few Happy Things

These Friday posts are kind of turning into spaces of weeklong retrospective and reflection, and I think I’m a fan of that. Here are a few little things that make me happy this week. I went to a knitting group meeting and met tons of awesome ladies. It was so lovely, and I can’t wait to get to know them all better. To top it off, one of them brought a huge cache of Meyer lemons for us, so I took a bag full of them home with me. My (muffin!) cup overflows! This small of act of kindness was the cherry on top of an already wonderful evening. I have already baked a Meyer lemon pecan bundt cake (recipe coming soon!) and I am plotting all the things I’ll do next: Meyer lemon tart, Meyer lemon curd, preserved Meyer lemons, Meyer lemon lavender madeleines…Any other ideas?

I have more buttons that I know what to do with, and this makes me happy. Yesterday I spread them out to admire them (well, this is actually only about one third of them). They are so bright and beautiful, and I have about a thousand project ideas for them. Hurray! Also, although I did not arrange it this way on purpose, the buttons are kind of laid out in the shape of a heart. Pretty!

My mom and dad gave me this adorable owl mug for Christmas, and yesterday I filled it to the brim with my favorite tea, Earl Grey, with a splash of milk. My love for coffee knows no bounds, but tea is just as wonderful in its own subtle way, especially when it ushers in an indulgent afternoon pause from the hustle and bustle of the day. Each of these pictures represents a tiny moment in my week for which I’m so grateful. There are more of them than I could ever fit here, but their abundance just makes me treasure them all the more.

Making Madagascar Vanilla Extract

First things first: this is my first post written on my new computer! Hurray! No more browser freezing when I open more than one tab, no more waiting endlessly for the computer to register what I’ve typed in the search bar, and no more pesky one-finger scrolling! That’s right, friends, I’ve got my hands on a shiny Mac (I mean, literally, it is shiny): thank you, sweet husband, for passing it on to me! Now, on to what I did yesterday, making vanilla extract!

Those of us who bake go through it pretty fast, and it’s not exactly cheap, but making your own can be very economical. All you need are some vanilla beans, vodka (or bourbon), a jar, and some time. There are lots of different types of vanilla beans, but the ones I bought are Madagascar. Yum! To get started, cut a slit down each bean, stopping a half inch or so before the bottom, so the two pieces remain connected. The tiny little black dots you’ll see on your fingers hold all the delicious flavor. Your hands are going to smell awesome for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

Then put the beans into a jar and cover with one cup of vodka (or bourbon, if you like). My reaction to bourbon (“It tastes like my grandmother!”) always elicits laughter, so I’m sticking to vodka. We actually bought this bottle of Tito’s for vanilla-making purposes (Vodka doesn’t taste like my grandmother, but neither does it really taste like…anything), but I don’t think you have to have a fancy kind. My cousin swears by Tito’s, so I’m hoping I may get some other use out of it as well!

So, your work is done! Seal your jar and keep it in a cool and dark place for about two months. The vanilla won’t ever go bad, and you can keep adding beans and vodka as you deplete your supply. The most fun part is watching the color deepen over time. I just made mine yesterday, and the color has already changed a bit. Give it a shake every now and again, and you’ll see the development in progress. A fun science project for the kitchen types!

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