Friday, December 31, 2010

French Toast Cupcakes With Browned Butter Frosting

If I'm not mistaken, we've finally reached the end of the posts about my holiday baking. I'll admit that I went a little overboard, as I seem to do every year, but I get so excited to have a captive audience when my family visits that I want to spoil them. Now excuse me while I go into a sugar coma and, once recovered from that, spend the rest of my life working off these calories.

When my Spekulatius cupcake recipe made a paltry nine cupcakes I knew I had to scramble and come up with more cupcakes for my family. While a ratio of four people to nine cupcakes might seem fine to you, rest assured that in my family such a dire situation could result in bloodshed. I handed my little brother my trusty copy of 125 Best Cupcake Recipes and told him to pick one. My kitchen's pretty well stocked so when he landed on the French toast cupcakes I knew I already had everything on hand to whip up a batch.

I'd made these before and have always gotten positive reviews, so if you're looking for another universally popular flavor here's a good choice. The maple and cinnamon flavors shine through nicely. Topped with my new favorite, browned butter frosting, these were a hit with my family. My mom nicely decorated them for me using some festive sprinkles. She's enough like me that she went for the minimalist look with a few red balls and one tiny Christmas tree on each. So nice to have some help in the kitchen!

French Toast Cupcakes
Recipe from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes by Julie Hasson

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted then cooled
2 eggs
1 tsp. maple extract
1/2 c. whole milk

1) Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tin with 12 baking liners.
2) Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a mixing bowl.
3) In a large bowl, whisk together butter, sugar, and eggs until combined; add maple extract.
4) Alternate between whisking in flour mixture and milk into your liquid mixture. Make 3 additions of flour and 2 of milk. Beat until smooth.
5) Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 20-25 minutes until golden brown and tops spring back when lightly touched. Cool cupcakes for 10 minutes, remove from pan and allow to cool completely before frosting.

Browned Butter Frosting
Recipe adapted from The Sister's Cafe

1/3 cup unsalted butter
3 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2+ Tb heavy cream

1) Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking, stirring constantly and watching closely, until butter just starts to turn golden (4 to 6 minutes). Butter will get foamy and bubble and you will see black flecks start to form toward the end. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature.
2) Beat butter and powdered sugar with an electric mixer until combined. Add vanilla and gradually add cream until frosting reaches the desired consistency. Pipe onto cooled cupcakes.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Photo A Day [Day 123]

This photo's not in keeping with this week's theme but it was too cute to not share. The cats snuck outside when I had the door open to take a different picture so I snapped this one of Bunsen encountering the snow with trepidation. He was quite alarmed by the unexpected cold sensation on his paws.

German Spekulatius Cupcakes

All mine! My preciousssssssss

Every year my mom and I treat ourselves to an order of fresh lebkuchen imported from Germany. Pricey? Hell yes. But oh so worth it to hang on to a little of our German heritage and celebrate Christmas in style. I always make sure my selection includes a box of my favorites: Spekulatius, a flat, crisp spiced cookie baked with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, and white pepper. The bottom is lined with slivered almonds for a hint of flavor and some added crunch. Not surprisingly, there are popular Dutch and Belgian versions that go by the names Speculaas and Speculoos. You can even get them here in the States, sometimes advertised as windmill cookies due to their design.

A few months back I won a jar of a product new to the US that incorporates all of the delicious elements of my beloved Spekulatius in a spreadable concoction similar to Nutella. It's called Tamarin Speculoos Spread and features a slightly freaky-looking monkey on the jar. No idea what that has to do with the product itself but I'm almost positive that no monkeys were harmed in the making of it. While I'm not sure how popular this will prove to be on our side of the Atlantic I have hope for it since I remember the dark days of my youth when no one had heard of Nutella and it was difficult to find. And now look at how popular it's become. The Tamarin spread is a nice alternative to peanut butter and I'll admit that I've taken to eating it straight from the jar with a spoon. The best way to describe it is as if they took a spiced cookie, mashed it up, and waved a magic wand to turn it into a paste. I suspect one of the Keebler elves defected and is now working at the Tamarin manufacturing plant.

While brainstorming cupcake ideas for my family this Christmas my mind immediately went to Spekulatius and the gears started churning as to how I could turn that into a cupcake. Inspired by this cupcake I decided to come up with my own spice blend to be baked into the cake, fill each cupcake with some of the Tamarin spread, and top the cupcakes with an almond browned butter frosting for a triple dose of Spekulatius flavor.

My only complaint about the recipe I chose from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes is that it only produced nine cupcakes. I have no idea how that happened since other than omitting the raisins and adding in my spice blend I made no other changes to the recipe that promised to yield 12. Next time I'll probably double the recipe to make a proper amount. The cupcakes are delicious and a nice alternative to the cookie even if they don't taste exactly like the original. The spices are there, the filling is surprising and rich, and the hint of almond in the frosting rounds it out nicely. This is probably one I'll incorporate into our holiday traditions from now on.

Spekulatius Cupcakes
Recipe adapted from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes by Julie Hasson

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp fancy molasses
1 egg
2 tsp candied orange peel, finely chopped
2/3 cup buttermilk
Tamarin Speculoos Spread for filling

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Line a muffin pan with 9 paper liners.
2) In a small bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper, ginger, cardamom, and salt.
3) In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together sugar and butter until well combined. Add molasses and egg, beating well. Stir in the orange peel. Alternately beat in flour mixture and buttermilk, making three additions of flour mixture and two of buttermilk, beating until smooth.
4) Scoop batter into prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven 20 to 25 minutes or until tops of cupcakes spring back when lightly touched. Let cool in pan on rack 10 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely on rack.
5) Once cool, using the cone method fill each cupcake with a small amount of Tamarin spread, approximately one teaspoon per cupcake.

Browned Butter Frosting
Recipe adapted from The Sister's Cafe

1/3 cup unsalted butter
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp almond extract
2+ tablespoons heavy cream

1) Melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking, stirring constantly and watching closely, until butter just starts to turn golden (4 to 6 minutes). Butter will get foamy and bubble and you will see black flecks start to form toward the end. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature (this will take a while).
2) Beat butter and powdered sugar with an electric mixer until combined. Add almond and gradually add cream until frosting reaches the desired consistency. Pipe generously onto cooled cupcakes.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Photo A Day [Days 121 & 122]

I was feeling lazy so I just took this one from the back deck:

Day 121

Day 122

"Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?"
"I'm not sure that man needs the help."
-Calvin & Hobbes

Theme: Silhouette

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Snickers Fudge

I scribbled the recipe down years ago after seeing it on some talk show and it's been a feature of our family Christmas for the better part of ten years. My little brother demands a fresh batch every year and I'm only too happy to oblige. It wouldn't be Christmas without our traditional tray of the stuff. All of the flavors of a Snickers bar are there but somehow they taste fresher, smoother, and better in this version. It's easy to make, produces enough to feed a crowd, and tastes divine.

My only change to the recipe is one I thought of last year after spending what felt like ages hacking away at the finished product trying to liberate the pieces from the pan. My first step is to line the pan with enough parchment paper to cover the bottom, sides, and jut over the top edges so I can lift the entire block of fudge out and cut it on a cutting board. Still not the easiest cutting process but it's easier to get leverage and I don't have to worry about scratching up my baking pan.

Next time you want to impress a crowd give this winner a try!

Snickers Fudge

Bottom Layer:
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1/4 cup butterscotch chips
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan; stir over low heat until melted and smooth. Line the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13 pan with parchment paper leaving some extra over the edge. Spread chocolate onto the bottom of the pan. Refrigerate until set.

1/4 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup evaporated milk
1 1/2 cups marshmallow creme/marshmallow fluff
1/4 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups chopped salted peanuts

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sugar and milk. Bring to a boil; boil and stir for 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in the marshmallow creme, peanut butter and vanilla extract. Add peanuts. Spread over first layer. Refrigerate until set.

Caramel Layer:
1 14 ounce package caramels
1/4 cup whipping cream

Combine caramels and cream in a saucepan; stir over low heat until melted and smooth. Spread over the filling. Refrigerate until set.

Top Layer:
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1/4 cup butterscotch chips
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

In a saucepan, combine chips and peanut butter; stir over low heat until melted and smooth. Pour over the caramel layer. Refrigerate for at least one hour.

Lift entire piece of fudge out of the pan using the parcdment paper. Remove paper and place fudge onto a large cutting board. Cut into 1-inch squares. Store in the refrigerator.


Monday, December 27, 2010

A Photo A Day [Day 120]

I have a snow day from work, which should cheer me up if I didn't have to spend most of it shoveling. Not to complain too much but I hate snow. Anything that causes me extra work, makes it difficult and dangerous to drive, and forces me to use up one of my precious personal days at work irks me. I'm convinced that any adult who claims to love the stuff must have servants to shovel the snow, not have to be at work at 8:00 AM, and not worry about the deductible for any snow-related car accidents they might have. That said, it does give me an opportunity to relive some of the best memories of my childhood: reading Calvin and Hobbes. Today the only thing that kept me going as I shoveled was the thought that I'd get to recreate one of my favorite strips in my own front yard. Of course, in typical fashion, I managed to screw it up and rendered it useless. Since I'm sure you can't tell what's going on I'll first share the original comic strip so you can understand what I was trying to stage:

And now my version:

My husband thought the ice cream scooper was a hair dryer. :( At least I tried.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Photo A Day - Holiday Cheer [Days 116 - 119]

An annual Christmas tradition around here is the devouring of an entire pan of Snickers fudge. Here's my brother eating his portion, which happens to be about half of the 9" x 13" pan.

Day 116

Played around with inverting the colors on this picture and now I'm wishing I had a white Christmas tree. These are my Bumble slippers worn for special occasions like Christmas. One of my cats is terrified of them and backs away in fear whenever he sees them on my feet.

Day 117

Day 118

'Tis the season for stupid snow that cuts my family's visit short and causes my mother-in-law to get into an accident and wind up in the hospital on Christmas Day. Still, I'm trying to find something good about the end of the holidays by sprucing up my car a bit.

Day 119

This week's theme: holiday spirit

Boston Cream Pie Cheesecake

I have committed an unspeakable crime against my bathroom scale: I have made a Boston Cream Pie Cheesecake. As if eating a big slice of cheesecake twice the recommended serving size isn't bad enough I just had to go and layer it with pastry cream, sponge cake, and chocolate topping. Where has all of my sense gone? I blame the holidays. Somehow I'm able to excuse this calorie-laden indulgence simply by saying, "It's the holidays." That's what the holidays are for, right?

When I saw the recipe over at Moogie & Pap I was instantly smitten and determined to make it for myself. Then I scrolled down and saw the instructions. And kept scrolling, scrolling, and scrolled some more because they are incredibly long. Understandable since each distinct layer has to be made separately but it was enough to put me off the idea until I realized that the Christmas presents I got for my family this year mostly stink so I should make up for it with an awe-inspiring dessert. Even so I went back and forth considering how much of my scarce Christmas prep time it would take and it wasn't until I walked out of the grocery store with more cream cheese than I typically use in a year that I was sure I'd make it.

Unfortunately this is not a story of dessert triumph. You'd think that with a recipe like that it would turn out to be the most heavenly dessert ever invented by man but no. It was not to be. While the baking process went smoothly aside from the numerous dishes that needed to be washed the end result was less than stunning. I'm not even talking about the fact that the cake layer shrunk up so much that it's noticeably smaller than the bottom two layers. We all know I'm not concerned about aesthetics as long as my dessert is tasty. Unfortunately, it somehow went wrong during the freezing process and while the cheesecake, cake, and chocolate topping are delicious the pastry cream developed an off-putting texture once thawed. It's edible when eaten with a large dose of the other layers but I chose to remove as much of it as I could before eating my slice. Incredibly disappointing considering how excited I was by the concept and how delicious the individual elements tasted before freezing.

I wish I knew where I went wrong so I could make sure to never repeat the mistake. Perhaps I cooked the pastry cream too long, perhaps I didn't wrap it tightly enough before freezing. Who knows? All I know is that the dessert that was supposed to wow everyone turned out to be useless. Boo. Good thing it's Christmas so I had about five other desserts on hand as backup.

Boston Cream Pie Cheesecake
Recipe adapted from Moogie & Pap

Ingredients for the Cheesecake Layer:
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 & 1/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 extra-large eggs
2/3 cup heavy or whipping cream

Ingredients for the Pastry Cream:
1 & 1/4 cups milk (use whole, not 2% or skim)
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 extra-large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 to 2 drops yellow food coloring, (optional)

Ingredients for the Sponge Cake (1 layer):
1/2 cup sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 extra-large eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure lemon extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Ingredients for the Chocolate Topping:
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream

To Finish:
Whipped Cream, optional

1. Early in the day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and generously butter the bottom and sides of one 9-inch springform pan and one 9-inch round layer cake pan. Wrap the outside of the springform (but not the cake pan) with aluminum foil, covering the bottom and extending all the way up the sides. Very important: Line the bottom of the cake pan (but not the springform) with parchment or waxed paper (don't let the paper come up the sides).

2. Put one package of the cream cheese, 1/3 cup of sugar, and the cornstarch in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on low until creamy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl a couple of times. Blend in the remaining cream cheese, one package at a time, scraping down the bowl after each. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat in the remaining 1 cup sugar, then the vanilla. Blend in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after adding each. Beat in the cream just until it's completely blended. Be careful not to overmix!

3. Gently spoon the batter into the foil-wrapped springform and place it in a large shallow pan containing hot water that comes about 1 inch up the sides of the springform. Bake the cake at 350 degrees until the edges are light golden brown and the top is slightly golden tan, about 1 & 1/4 hours. Remove the cake from the water bath, transfer to a wire rack, and cool in the pan for 2 hours, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate (while still in the pan) until it's completely cold, about 4 hours.

4. While the cheesecake is baking, make the pastry cream. Heat the milk, cream, and butter together in a large saucepan over medium-high heat just until it bubbles around the edge, stirring until the butter has melted and is incorporated. Remove from the heat. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch together in a large bowl with a mixer on high until the mixture thickens and turns light yellow, about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and beat in about 1 cup of the hot cream mixture. Return this to the saucepan, stirring constantly over medium heat until the mixture thickens and comes to a full boil (watch carefully as this will take only about a couple of minutes). Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and food coloring. Immediately transfer to a medium-size bowl (this stops the cooking), place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream (this prevents a skin from forming), and refrigerate until cold and set, at least 2 hours.

5. While the pastry cream chills, make the sponge cake. Check that the oven is preheated to 350 degrees and that the water bath has been removed. In a small bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl with an electric mixer on high for 3 minutes. While the mixer is still running, slowly add 1/4 cup of the sugar and continue beating until thick, light yellow ribbons form in the bowl, about 5 minutes more. Beat in the extracts. Sift the flour mixture over the batter and stir it in by hand, just until no white flecks are visible. Blend in the melted butter.

6. Put the egg whites and cream of tartar in a clean medium-size bowl and , with clean, dry beaters, beat with the mixer on high until frothy. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form (the whites will stand up and look glossy, not dry). Fold about one-third of the whites into the batter, then the remaining whites. Don't worry if you still see a few white specks -- they'll disappear during baking. Gently spread out the batter over the bottom of the single cake pan and bake until golden (not wet or sticky) and the center springs back when lightly touched, about, 15 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then turn out onto the rack and gently peel off the paper liner. Let the cake cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

7. When the cheesecake and sponge cake are cold and the pastry cream has set, assemble the cake. Keep the cheesecake in the springform and gently spread the pastry cream over it, using a rubber spatula (avoid stirring the cream at this stage, as you might break its gel). Place the sponge cake, top side up, on the pastry cream. Press down gently. Cover the cake (still in the pan) with plastic wrap and freeze overnight.

8. To make the chocolate topping, put the chocolate and corn syrup in a small bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate and stir until smooth. Cool slightly before glazing the cake. Take the cake out of the freezer and, using a long, marrow metal spatula, quickly spread the fudge over the top while it's still in the pan. Using the tip of a pointed knife, push a few drips over the edge of the cake. This gives the cake a finished look. Return the pan to the freezer until the chocolate has set (do not cover), about 30 minutes.

9. (Optional) Fill a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip (#2) with the whipped cream. Pipe a white web on top of the cake, making thin lines 3/8 inch apart (don't worry if the lines are a little wavy, as that's a nice homemade touch). Return the cake to the freezer until the web has set, about 30 minutes more.

10. To serve, let the cake stand at room temperature for 10 minutes, then release and remove the ring of the springform, leaving the cake on the bottom of the pan. Place on a serving plate and refrigerate until ready to serve (this cake takes about 2 hours in the refrigerator to thaw enough to easily slice). Use a sharp straight-edge knife to cut it. Refrigerate any leftover cake or wrap and freeze for up to 1 month.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Cupcake Is A Work Of Art

No, that's not evidence of an inflated ego, although I think some of my cupcakes come pretty close to being divine. What I mean is that one of my cupcake creations has literally become art, soon to be available for sale on Etsy! I was approached last week by Lisa from The Lunch Box Project where she turns delicious food into art. She's currently doing a project where she's making 16 cupcake illustrations that will eventually be compiled onto a poster. The prints will also be sold individually. Of course I was thrilled and honored that she wanted to include my Sweet Coconut Tea Cupcakes, the ones that won the Sweetest Kitchen's Mystery Box competition a few months back. After checking out Lisa's Etsy shop I was even more excited to see what she'd come up with for mine since her style is just great. Good thing she's such a prolific artist because I didn't have to wait long to see it. I now present to you my cupcake, officially a work of art:

Thanks to Lisa for this wonderful opportunity and for including me in such a fun project!

Season's Eatings!

I am going to risk alienating all of my followers by diverging sharply from the cheery, festive holiday posts out there on other, more respectable blogs. As cute as I find those more traditional holiday crafts and free printables you're all nicely offering, we all know that my heart truly lies with the scary, creepy, and morbid. Which is why I just had to share these spiffy zombie holiday printables out there for the 0.000001% of you out there like me.

We'll kick it off with something completely sacrilegious sure to horrify half of you: a zombie nativity scene. This is so offensive that the site originally hosting it took it down but clever little zombie lovers out there have mercifully preserved it for the rest of us. You can download the PDF here.

The rest of the downloads come from a site promoting the book Rise Again: A Zombie Thriller by Ben Tripp. You can find more fun downloads including alternate book covers, a zombie half mask, and iPhone wallpapers here. My favorites are the holiday ones including these holiday cards:

Mom always said that it's rude to not send Christmas cards out to the extended family.

They bill these are ornaments or gift tags but I'm seeing the makings of a Christmas garland here.

These gift tags make me sad that I've already wrapped and delivered most of my presents this year. I'll just have to print some out and save then with my Christmas goodies to use next year.

Of course, I wish I'd discovered all of this sooner so I would have had time to get everything cut out and up to decorate my home for the holidays in a way that truly suits me. Oh well, it's never too early to start planning for next Christmas. Assuming the zombie apocalypse doesn't occur and wipe us all out before then.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Photo A Day [Days 114 & 115]

I'm now on track with this week's theme: holiday spirit. I'm so ready for Christmas that I'm only too happy to take holiday-themed pics. I've got my Christmas dinner menu planned, groceries bought, presents under the tree, and my family visiting. What more could I want?

Around here everyone gets into the holiday spirit, including the creepy Halloween critters:

Day 114

I received a lovely flower arrangement as a Christmas gift at work today. I love the simplicity of the red and white color combination.

Day 115

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bakerella's Oreo Truffles

The other day my husband was surfing the web when I heard him exclaim, "Oreo truffles! Ooh, those look good!" It's rare that he gets excited about any food other than pizza so I had to go check it out to see what sort of gourmet delicacy he was drooling over. Turns out they are the exact same truffles I've made for him in the past, which he's conveniently forgotten about so I get no credit for my hard work. Since Christmas is all about giving (and traffic and the grocery store running out of those crucial Christmas dinner ingredients) I made a last-minute addition to my Christmas preparations and decided to make him some to refresh his memory. It's an old idea but a goodie: Oreos pulverized and mixed with cream cheese, rolled into bite-sized morsels, and dunked in white chocolate bark. Simple and aside from the tedious process of rolling each truffle not too involved. I've made these and the popular cake balls from Bakerella's site several times in the past and although my decorations are never anywhere near as intricate as hers they're still delicious. These are perfect for those of you who aren't bakers but want to give a homemade treat.

Oreo Truffles
Recipe from Bakerella

1 package Oreo cookies (use cookie including the cream center)
1 8 oz. package cream cheese (softened)
White chocolate bark

1. Finely crush cookies in a food processor and by hand if necessary. Stir in softened cream cheese. Use the back of a large spoon to help mash the two together.
2. Roll the mixture into 1″ balls and place on wax paper covered cookie sheet. Pop into the refrigerator while you melt the chocolate bark.
3. Melt chocolate bark as directed on the package and then dip balls into chocolate, tap off extra and set aside on wax paper covered cookie sheet to dry. If desired, sprinkle with Christmas sprinkles.
4. Once dry, remove from wax paper and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Unless you eat them all before it gets to that stage.


Great Books I Missed in 2010

When I started this blog I hoped that in addition to the million other topics covered I'd also discuss books. Yet that seems to have not happened even once. This is partially because I'm never confident enough in my opinions to give a proper review and definitively tell you that you will or will not like a particular book and partially because this blog has sucked away a lot of the free time I used to spend reading. Books are my first and most enduring passion in life so rest assured that any time I'm not spending cooking, cleaning, crafting, or on the computer is spent with a book in hand. If there were a book-related profession that didn't involve dealing with the public and following in my mother's footsteps (she's a librarian) I might have been more tempted to go to college and pursue an actual career. Instead, while my peers were slaving away at university I was lounging around at home educating myself through whatever books struck my fancy.

I'm not sure that I want to muddle up this blog any further since with each new hobby I throw in the mix I worry that I run the risk of alienating even more readers. I won't promise/threaten that this will become a regular feature but while perusing the Guardian's list of the best books of 2010 I was suddenly compelled to quit my job, move to a remote island with a great public library system, and devote the rest of my days to reading the books on the list. No idea how I would fund this life of leisure but I got little butterflies of excitement in my tummy as I added almost every book to my to-read list. I was so excited I just had to share the list with someone.

Shockingly, I haven't read a single book from the list, which is unusual for me since I get most of my book news from their site and the ever entertaining Bookslut. Since getting into crafting and baking and starting my own blog I realize I've spent less time keeping up with that news so I haven't kept an eye on what's been published and acclaimed in the past year.

I hope to do better next year but will need to play catch up with the books from 2010's list first. I'm especially looking forward to reading:

  • Surface Detail: "Iain M. Banks returns to the world of the Culture after 10 years, with an examination of the idea of hell. The real and the virtual intertwine as an indentured slave, Lededje Y'breq, escapes from her master and sets off in search of revenge."

  • Visitation: "Jenny Erpenbeck examines the calamities of 20th-century Europe with this story of a grand house by a lake in Brandenburg, a short novel which paints nuanced portraits of the people who pass through as the calamitous 20th century rolls by."

  • In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut: "Shortlisted for the Booker prize, despite question marks over whether A Strange Room is really a work of fiction, this is the story of a young man's travels through Greece, India, and Africa, telling of the people he meets as each trip ends in disaster."

  • Lights Out in Wonderland: A Novel: "The 2003 Booker winner, DBC Pierre, keeps up his bad-boy image with this drug-fueled satire of contemporary decadence. Gabriel Brockwell's double pledge - to take his own life, but not until after a final bacchanalian blowout - sets him on course for an odyssey of consumption which takes him from London to Tokyo and beyond." I remember getting caught up in his previous novel, Vernon God Little, so I'm especially looking forward to this read.

  • Hitch-22: A Memoir: "Christopher Hithchens charts his intellectual development in a memoir which reveals the contradictions at the heart of the UK's greatest contemporary controversialist. The staging posts - boarding school, Oxbord, London, and New York - are all well known, but the sharp wit and vigor of this memoir makes his recent diagnosis with cancer of the throat all the more distressing."

  • Skippy Dies: "Paul Murray's 672-page second novel, which was longlisted for the Booke rprize, began as a short story. This tragic comedy set in a Dublin boarding school is set in motion by the death of Daniel 'Skippy' Juster, who dies in the opening chapter during a doughnut-eating race with his friend Ruprecht Van Doren." Sounds very strange, which only makes it all the more intriguing to me.

  • Room: "Emma Donoghue, an Irish writer who lives in Canada, tells the story of a five-year-old boy, Jack, who has been imprisoned with his mother in a tiny room - 11 ft by 11 ft - for his whole life. Told in his voice as he learns of a world outside his small prison, the book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize."

  • The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss: "In this memoir, the potter Edmund de Waal goes in search of the story behind the 264 miniature Japanese carvings, or netsuke, which he has inherited from his great-uncle Iggie. He uncovers a story of loss which opens in 1870s Paris and charts the convulsions of the 20th century." I've seen this listed on a few "best of" lists so I'm sure it's a winner.

Be sure to check out the list for yourself since there are many more that look just as good as the ones I highlighted. Apparently it was a great year for books, not that I noticed since I was still catching up on good books from previous years.

A Photo A Day [113]

Day 113

This week's theme is "holiday spirit," which I was ready to participate in until I saw how stunning the sky and moon looked on my drive home yesterday. Of course, by the time I made it home, went inside and retrieved my camera, and got back outside the moon was in the process of being covered up by clouds. I only got three pictures, one extremely blurry, before it was completely obscured. Oh well. It's not exactly the shot I wanted but it captures a little of the beauty I got to enjoy all the way home. You know, while I should have been focusing on the road.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Photo A Day [Days 109-112]

I'm most proud of this one because not only did it turn out beautifully with a perfect little lens flare from the sun, but I also suffered dutifully for my art. It was freezing cold that day and getting out of my warm car that close to the water meant adding a blustering and frigid wind to the mix. I could hardly hold the camera still as gusts of wind came up and it was almost painful to keep my eyes open but it was all worth it.

Day 109

Not sure this counts as lens flare but it's a neat shot I captured while cruising around checking out Christmas light displays.

Day 110

While trying to get a photo of some lens flare Punky had to insert herself into the shot. I liked this one the best despite the lack of lens flare.

Day 111

Managed to capture that lens flare for the last day of the theme. Can't wait to try something new next week as this week's been a bear.

Day 112

This week's theme: lens flare

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Perfect-Fit Sleep Shorts From One Yard Wonders

I'm breaking my vow to not post anyone's Christmas presents on my blog until after the holidays for two reasons: 1) so I can qualify for Finny Knits' sew along where this month's challenge is to make anything from One Yard Wonders, and 2) because I'm impatient and eager to bask in the praise that is sure to come as soon as I reveal what I made. Plus I'm not convinced that any of my real life friends read my blog so I think I'm safe.

I'd bought some cutesy unicorn fabric at Jo-Ann the first time I spotted it on the shelf because unicorn fabric is extremely difficult to come by. I have a friend who, despite the ravages of age and the obvious decline in the state of our nation, has managed to maintain her childlike innocence and adores things like unicorns, dragons, and fairies. Start singing any Disney song around her and she'll immediately chime in with the rest of the song. Heck, if you don't stop her she might continue to sing every song from the movie. I'd had my eye out for unicorn fabric for ages and was starting to wonder how difficult it would be to draw horns on some horse fabric when I spotted Jo-Ann's offering. Yes, the colors are bright, bordering on neon and yes, it's clearly designed for a child but it had unicorns on it and that was good enough for me. Hopefully good enough for her too. After that it was just a matter of figuring out what I'd make for my friend using the silly fabric. I settled on the sleep shorts from One Yard Wonders so she wouldn't necessarily have to wear/use the ridiculous fabric in public.

The good: The shorts sewed up pretty quickly; in less than one afternoon I had the completed item and that includes the dreaded process of cutting out the fabric. Aside from fabric the only other supply required was some 1/2 elastic. You do have to draft your own pattern but the directions walk you through it with a helpful diagram. Only two simple pattern pieces are needed.

The bad: The pattern is customizable based on your measurements, which is nice in theory but makes it difficult to sew as a gift. Fortunately my friend is about my size so I know that if it fits me it'll be OK on her but I would have appreciated a little guidance and perhaps some sample measurements for small, medium, and large shorts. I also had a hard time coming up with the measurements for the rise. I loosely based them off of some other lounge shorts I own but because those are a little on the short side I tried to add a few inches to those measurements to cut back on the hoochy factor. Not sure I got it perfectly right as there's some poofed out fabric below the waistline after I took it in with the elastic. I don't know if that's because the pattern doesn't take curves into account or if I did something wrong with my measurements, but I was afraid that if I made the hips any smaller they might not fit. I guess a little loose is always better than too tight. I also might try using wider elastic and adding a drawstring next time as a wide waistline seems to flatter me the best, but those are just personal preferences. Honestly, I'll probably forgo this pattern altogether the next time I want to make sleep shorts since I own a Simplicity pattern for the same thing. I was just too lazy to dig it out and cut out the pattern pieces but it might be worth going with a standard pattern next time to ensure proper fit.

Since it's being given as a gift I decided to go all out and pair it with a top to create a pajama set. I found a blue t-shirt at Target that perfectly matches the blue unicorn's mane and tail and appliqued a green unicorn onto it to complete the set. Despite my qualms about the fit I do think it makes a nice gift and if it's the only pattern you have on hand you can make it work. Plus it's probably easier to make for yourself so you can model them and adjust the seams and measurements accordingly.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Photo A Day and a Terrifying Encounter With Another Human Being

Day 108

Today's story exemplifies why I prefer to take most of my pictures in the privacy of my own home even though I'm rapidly running out of interesting things to shoot. I finally got up the nerve to leave the house and take a photograph in a public place and what happened? I was approached by the store's manager to ask what I was doing. Turns out the place was recently robbed so she thought I was either with the insurance company or scouting it out for another robbery. I did a piss poor job of explaining myself, mumbling something about a photography project and stopped just short of launching into a lengthy explanation of lens flare. To top it off I even referred to the Santa I was photographing as a snowman. Twice. That's how flustered I was. I'm so glad that at least one of the photos I took before she scared me off turned out to be usable. At least now, assuming I ever get the nerve up to photograph in public again, I've had some practice at how *not* to act when someone dares speak to me. Silly me.

I'm not sure if the editing I did on the photo has actually improved it but as it looked rather plain initially I added a little focal zoom thanks to Picnik, focusing in on Santa and his reindeer. Or are they snowmen?

Theme: lens flare

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Photo A Day [Days 106 & 107]

This week's theme is lens flare, a tricky one for those of us in the midst of a dreary winter where the sun rarely peeks out and when it does we're usually stuck at work. Good thing I discovered that lens flare can also be created at night and I just so happened to get two prime examples while out and out in the evening. The first is of a completely uncompelling subject: the parking lot at a gas station. The second is from my late-night trip to Target in the freezing cold. It's very considerate of them to stay open until midnight during the holidays as I didn't get out of there until well after 10:00 PM. Let's just say I'm a bit behind on my shopping this year and appreciated a chance to shop without a crowd. Any day I don't encounter five to ten shopping carts blocking the aisles of a store with oblivious shoppers unwilling to move is a good day in NJ.

Day 106

Day 107

A Very Grinchy Christmas

I never thought I'd admit this on a public forum but you'd figure it out from the rest of this post anyway. So here goes. I watch Glee. Not only that but I like it. Anyone who knows me in real life would have to wonder why a show like that would appeal to me. Except for the always wonderful snarkiness of Sue there's nothing about the show that has any bearing on my real life. In fact, I typically hate musicals with the exception of Rocky Horror Picture Show and that's likely due solely to the pleasure of seeing Tim Curry in fishnets. You can't get more unrealistic than having characters burst into song in the middle of a crowded street with no reaction from passersby or, even worse, the crowd joining in some perfectly choreographed dance routine they couldn't possibly have put together in the ten seconds since they met. And don't even get me started on popular music. I usually can't stand to listen to the radio because most of the songs that become hits irritate the heck out of me. The lyrics are simplistic and meaningless and the songs uninspired. Yet somehow Glee makes those songs work. Dare I say they even make them entertaining? Glee manages to take everything I hate and turns it into an unmissable show I eagerly tune in to every week.

Last week's Christmas episode was no exception with a selection of Christmas pop songs I'd ordinarily skip past on the radio including the creepy "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which seemed to me like a prelude to a rape charge the first time I heard it. But it was almost sweet and not at all pervy when performed on the show. Their take on How the Grinch Stole Christmas with Sue as the Grinch was alone worth the price of admission, but what really stuck out to me was a little speech Will Schuester gave to the kids. Straight out of a melodramatic Lifetime special but it perfectly summed up how I've been feeling lately about the holidays:

"The first Christmas you remember having is the greatest day of your life. Your family’s all together, there are loads of presents, cookies. The magic is alive and well. But before you know it, you grow up. Work and school and girlfriends take over and Christmas becomes more of an obligation, a reminder of what’s lost instead of what’s possible. And all of the trees and the presents and even the mistletoe can’t change that. And then when you get to my age… you’re so desperate to get that magic back, you’d do anything to be able to feel how you did that first Christmas."

I've been struggling with feeling all of the obligations and stress of Christmas without any of the magic. It's the one time of year I most want to reject the trappings of adulthood and have no responsibilities other than to eat, drink, and be merry. That is, of course, impossible because unless I plan a menu, go grocery shopping, and take the time to cook something, making sure to clean up and do the dishes after, there will be nothing to eat or drink.

This year I'm trying to scale things way back in an effort to ease the stress. I've got the tree up but that's about it. I'm opting to not put up my miniature British-themed tree. Instead I plonked a bauble-covered tree-shaped tower in its usual place to bring a little festive cheer to our bedroom. I'm not even bothering to unpack half of the Santas and Christmasy knick-knacks since every available surface in our house is already covered with stuff. I stuck a wreath on the front door and that's the extent of my outside decorating. I'm not sending Christmas cards this year because I lost my address book a month ago and it still hasn't miraculously turned up. I'm feeling better about the looming holiday because of those cut backs but don't think my apparent sang-froid indicates that I'm living in a stress free zone. I still feel incredibly guilty about skimping on the usual traditions this year but I think it's the only way I can cope and enjoy the holiday. Hopefully my friends and family will understand.

That said, I'm not a total Grinch. I've still got my radio tuned to the 24/7 Christmas song station and feel ridiculously cheery when I drive past people's Christmas light displays or visit the holiday section in a store. Never fear; there's hope for me and the holidays yet!