Sunday, January 29, 2012

52 Week Photo Project [Week 4]

Alas, poor Yorick!

This week's Paint the Moon theme is "sparkle." I just so happen to own a glitter-covered skull that I thought would fit the theme. Of course, I suspect there are all sorts of tricks to capturing sparkly stuff in low light that I don't know. At least I got a chance to play around with my Bokeh Masters Kit.

52 Week Project Photo Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions PSE

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Triple-Layer Coffee Cream & Ganache Brownies

Today's post is brought to you by a special guest blogger. That's right; I've asked our foster dog to write a post explaining why I felt I deserved these decadent three-layer brownies after putting up with him for a week. These brownies covered with coffee frosting and a thick layer of ganache almost make up for the trauma.

Hi, this is Major. What an exciting week I've had with my foster family! Yes, I like to overuse exclamation points just like my foster mommy. I'm not entirely sure why she's is huddled in the corner with a pan of brownies and a fork but I would like to tell you about all of the fun things I've been up to since I moved in:

1) Tore up a pillow case and attempted to impregnate the pillow

2) Tore open a blanket and ravaged the stuffing

3) Destroyed a rubber chicken dressed as a prostitute bunny

4) Ate foster daddy's Prickle toy he's had for 15 years

5) Pulled down the curtain rod in the living room

6) Took several walks with foster mommy where I displayed that I am not at all leash trained and that, despite the fact that she outweighs me by about 90 pounds, I can pull her along the sidewalk at my own pace. Also timed my bathroom break in a neighbor's yard so I hunkered down just as they were coming out of their house. I am just that talented.

7) Played fetch with sticks and tennis balls

8) Stuck my head into the shower so I could watch foster daddy shower, then licked his ankles when he got out (what? is that weird?)

9) Chased cats. Had a few altercations where they expressed their displeasure with me with the use of claws and lots of hissing. What did I do wrong? It's as if they're instinctively driven to hate me or something.

10) Got lots of new toys & treats. Ate most of them (in both categories).

11) Learned that the couch is for people and the chair is for doggies

12) Almost learned to stop jumping on people when they're standing up, but I get too excited sometimes and forget

13) Cleaned the floor for foster mommy when she dropped a pan of bacon

14) Stole a bag of foster mommy's Pfeffernusse cookies from the kitchen and brought them to foster daddy upstairs. (I don't know, he seemed like he needed them.)

15) Got barked at by the neighbor's tiny, pathetic excuse for a dog

16) Learned to sleep quietly through the night in my crate

17) Licked and nibbled everything in sight

18) Learned to use a spiral staircase (after days of having to be carried down the stairs by foster mommy and daddy)

19) Prevented foster mommy from working out unless I'm passed out asleep on another floor of the house. All that jumping around and waving of her arms is obviously an invitation to me to play and bite, right? Besides, she's already skinny enough so clearly doesn't need to exercise.

20) Helped foster mommy take pictures for her blog. Her pictures were lacking a certain je ne sais quoi until I inserted my furry face into the frame.

21) Tried to steal a neighbor's trash can lid and drag it home with me

22) Did a little interior decorating by moving the draft stopper to the dining room, moved the dustpan brush to the living room, and moved the cats' newest toy upstairs. Really helped the feng shui of the place.

23) Gave foster mommy a 2" bruise on her thigh when I got too excited and thought we were doing attack dog training. I sunk my teeth in but fortunately didn't break the skin. Next time she should probably wear one of those padded suits. Silly girl!

24) Made friends with this adorable little creature that I found under the back deck He's not much of a conversationalist but he's fun to play fetch with.

So there you have it! Only three more weeks to go with my foster family but I'm hoping to accomplish a lot more in the time to come. Until my next blog post you can entertain yourself by making some of these brownies for yourself because it doesn't look as if foster mommy's going to share hers.

Coffee Cream Brownies
Recipe adapted from Crustabakes

For the brownies:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 ounces chopped chocolate (I used semisweet)
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda

For the coffee filling:
2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2 tsp instant coffee granules
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 cups confectioner’s sugar

For the ganache:
1 cup ( 6 ounces ) chocolate chips (I used bittersweet)
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

1. In a microwave or small saucepan, melt butter and chocolate. Stir until smooth. Cool slightly. In a small bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Stir in chocolate mixture. Combine flour and baking soda, gradually add to the chocolate mixture.

2. Spread into a greased 8 inch square baking pan. Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

3. For the filling, heat cream in the microwave for about 15 seconds or until lukewarm. Add coffee granules and stir until the coffee is dissolved. Using a mixer, beat butter and confectioners sugar until combined. Beat in coffee mixture until combined. Increase speed to medium-high and and beat until light and fluffy. Spread over brownies. Put pan in the refrigerator while you make the ganache.

4. In a small saucepan, combine chips and cream. Cook and stir over very low heat until chocolate is melted and mixture is thickened. Cool slightly. Carefully spread over filling. Let stand for 30 minutes or until glaze is set. Cut into squares. Store in refrigerator.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

52 Week Photo Project [Week 3]

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

I so need to buy myself more shoes. I only own one pair of real heels so I had to work with what I got.

This week's Paint the Moon theme is "white space." I had so much success with the "overexposed" theme last year that I wanted to tie the two together. And, uh, I wanted to do something a little different from the perfect photos of cute kids that seem to dominate the Paint the Moon Flickr group. I think we can agree this is pretty much the polar opposite of showing off one's adorable offspring. I so don't fit in there but I'm going to plow on with the project for my own sake, not because I think I'll ever get recognition there.

52 Week Project Photo Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions PSE

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pseudo Churro Cupcakes

I've been feeling uninspired when it comes to baking now that I and my waistline are trying to recover from the holidays. But with a book club meeting last Monday I knew I had to come up with something. The book we were discussing, The Night Circus, is full of beautiful, evocative language describing the magical circus that mysteriously appears and only opens its doors at dusk, bringing with it exotic sights, sounds, and smells that waft through the night air. One of the treats they serve is described as layers of pastry with cinnamon and sugar (described much better than I just did, of course), which got me thinking that I should try to whip up something with those flavors. But between coping with a puppy in the house and the sugar detox I'm currently going through I couldn't convince myself to go all out with these cupcakes. I considered adding a filling, dulce de leche, perhaps, or cinnamon strudel, but instead opted to keep it simple. I settled on cinnamon maple cake studded with some of King Arthur Flour's tiny cinnamon chips, cinnamon cream cheese frosting, and a little surprise on top in the form of fried tortilla strips sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

Churros came up almost right away when I was searching for cinnamon sugar dessert ideas and one quick Google search later I found I wasn't the first person to want to incorporate that idea into a cupcake. Not so sure I accomplished that as, other than having the same flavors, these don't really qualify as churro-like. I toyed with the idea of actually making mini churros as toppers but wrote it off as too time consuming. Why did no one tell me a puppy would take up so much of my time and energy?! I kid, I kid. Instead I took the idea for something in the same vein but much easier from The Curvy Carrot. It still involved frying, which is something I hate to do, but I wanted to try something to step it up. In fact, this brings the total number of times I have fried food at home to three. Yes, I am revoking my Southerner membership card as we speak.

While these cupcakes didn't knock anyone's socks off, especially those accustomed to my usual over-the-top fare, everyone went home happy. I may have previously set the bar too high for myself. Still, this is a nice, simple fallback for those times when you're feeling too lazy to tackle a fancy cupcake recipe. You really can't screw anything up with this recipe and the toppers made for a fun, crunchy treat.

Pseudo Churro Cupcakes
Recipe adapted from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 eggs
1 tsp maple extract
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup King Arthur Flour cinnamon chips

1) Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a cupcake pan with 12 paper liners.
2) In a small bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.
3) In a large bowl, whisk together brown sugar, granulated sugar, butter, and eggs until smooth. Whisk in maple extract. Alternately whisk in flour mixture and milk, making three additions of flour and two of milk, beating just until combined. Fold in cinnamon chips.
4) Scoop batter into prepared pan. Baked 20-25 minutes or until golden brown and tops of cupcakes spring back when lightly touched. Let cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely on rack.

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
Recipe adapted from 125 Best Cupcake Recipes

4 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
2 1/4 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract

1) In a bowl using an electric mixer on medium high speed, beat together cream cheese, butter, and salt until creamy. With mixer on low speed, beat in confectioner's sugar 1/2 cup at a time. Add cinnamon and vanilla and mix until combined, then increase speed to medium high and beat until light and fluffy. Pipe onto cooled cupcakes.

Fried Tortilla Topping
Recipe from The Curvy Carrot

One 8-inch flour tortilla, cut into 1/2-inch wide strips about 2"-3" long
Oil, for frying (I used canola)
Mixture of ground cinnamon and granulated sugar, mixed to your liking of desired sweetness

1) In a deep frying pan, heat the oil (about 3/4-inch in depth) on medium heat until very hot.***I tested this by putting in a small piece of tortilla to make sure it would fry.
2) Fry only a few of the tortilla strips at a time, turning them with tongs until lightly browned on both sides (about 5-10 seconds on each side).
3) Place the strips on paper towel, and, while they are still warm, sprinkle both sides generously with the cinnamon-sugar combination.
4) Repeat with the remaining tortilla strips.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

52 Week Photo Project [Week 2]

This week's Paint the Moon theme is "open." I'd originally planned to do something involving a book (super original, I know) but then yesterday we had a little change around here that fit the theme perfectly. We've opened our home and our hearts to a foster dog. I'm still not convinced this is a good idea as two out of our three cats seem petrified but I'm hoping they'll adjust.

Major's a rambunctious lab and terrier mix who's still got a lot of puppy in him at only seven months. But he's a real sweetheart and adorable to boot. It's fun having a dog in the house and a walking partner who can keep up with my pace. Even if we have to stop for frequent bathroom breaks in the neighbors' yards along the way. Mostly for his sake, of course.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Favorite Books of 2011

I doubt anyone actually noticed but at some point during 2011 I slipped a little list into my sidebar to keep track of books I read throughout the year. This was mostly for my own benefit as, ever the efficient German American, I like lists and being able to look back and see what I was reading a year ago. Since reading is such a big part of my life I can often look back and see where I was as a person based on what I was reading at the time. Sometimes it's my life that directs my book selection; sometimes it's the book that molds my life.

Note that these aren't all books published in 2011, just books I read during the year.

My Life in France
by Julia Child

I started the year off with a book I'm kicking myself for not reading sooner: My Life in France. I of course knew of Julia from reruns of her cooking show on PBS as I was growing up and my mother's own amused recollections of certain episodes, but this book shows how much more there was to her than just cooking. Her enthusiasm for life, her ability to roll with the punches and make the best out of every situation, and her spirit of adventure all shine through in this gem of a book. She was truly a marvel and a great role model for anyone looking to squeeze as much out of life as possible.

by Emma Donoghue

I follow a few literary prizes to get book recommendations and The Man Booker prize is one I rely on a lot. I carefully go through the list and read reviews and descriptions of each nominee before deciding to read one, and even with those precautions I occasionally wind up with an unenjoyable read. Happy to say that Room did not fall into that category. The basic premise is something we've recently seen in the news: a woman is abducted, held captive for years, and impregnated by her captor. What Donoghue does with that setup is clever, unexpected in many ways, and well thought out. Through her choice of narrator and her focus on the victims Donoghue takes a disturbing subject and keeps it from turning into something tawdry and exploitative. I'm avoiding describing the plot in too much detail as I think it's one of those books that's best to encounter without any prior information. I later had my book club read this and everyone came away feeling impressed by the book.

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

2011 was the year I finally caught up to the rest of the world and read The Hunger Games. I'd been hearing people recommend them for over a year but dragged my feet for fear it was another Twilight-like series, i.e., popular without merit. Of course, once I broke down (partially based on hearing recommendations from friends with verified good taste in books) I couldn't stop until I'd torn through the entire series. It's one of the rare series I wouldn't mind re-reading and I find myself eagerly awaiting the movie along with what seems like everyone else in the world.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

Another book I can't wait to see as a movie is We Need to Talk About Kevin. A subtly creepy book that, like Room, takes a unique angle on the sort of thing we see in the news all too often.

The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood

As I write this post I'm seeing a trend. It seemed to be a year of catching up on books I should have read long ago. The Handmaid's Tale is another of those modern classics that turns up on "best of" lists all the time but I managed to ignore until last year. It actually wasn't the first of Atwood's books I'd encountered. I was introduced to Oryx and Crake as a book club read and loved her style of dystopian fiction informed by Atwood's knowledge about our current world, both its science and its society. They are two very different books and, despite The Handmaid's Tale's notoriety, I found I enjoyed Oryx and Crake a little more. Which isn't to say that The Handmaid's Tale isn't worth your time, just that you should read them both. As with any good dystopian novel it's easy to see how our world could end up in such a state with the path that we're currently on. Atwood is a brilliant writer and excels in creating these potential future societies in a way that makes them believable and chilling.

A Novel Bookstore
by Laurence Cossee

A Novel Bookstore, translated from the original French, tries to be a bit like The Elegance of the Hedgehog but never quite succeeds. It was an enjoyable enough read for me as a bibliophile but some of the plot fell short. The premise is great: a bookstore is opened in Paris that promises to only sell "good" books. That is, books that teach us, enlighten us, enchant us, and, most importantly, move us.

"We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please. We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the ‘Go on, I need it for July, and in September we’ll give you a proper launch and sell 100,000 copies, it’s in the bag’ variety. We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels."
-A Novel Bookstore

The proprietors of the shop are ordinary people struggling with various issues in life who retreat to books for comfort. Who can't relate to that at times? What I got out of this was how far behind my reading education is as I'd only read a handful of the books they included in the store. I kept notes as I read and later discovered that the publisher has a website up listing many more "good" books.

A Frozen Woman
by Annie Ernaux

That list led directly to my next book selection: A Frozen Woman. I'm not usually so bold in my proclamations but I will say that I loved this book. That said, I can see how this could be a divisive book, that many readers wouldn't "get" it. I think one's enjoyment of the novel is dependent on where the reader is in life and she he/she has experienced. Heck, it might not be a book for men at all as the mind of a women is already such a strange and complicated place beyond their comprehension. And this particular woman makes some decisions and reacts to life in ways not every woman can sympathize with. Still, I have a hard time imagining that anyone but the most sheltered woman wouldn't find at least one passage, one stage of the character's life that she can relate to. It's a deeply emotional book full of the resentment and apathy that life can force upon us. Honestly, it's the sort of book that the twenty-year-old version of me wouldn't have liked. Amazing how living life a little more opens up a whole new world of understanding.

The Magicians and The Magician King
by Lev Grossman

I heard The Magicians described as Harry Potter for adults, and while we won't even get into the issue of how Harry Potter is for all ages and has many dark themes, I have to agree that The Magicians seems a little more... mature. Perhaps because it's more explicit about things like sex and jealousy, perhaps because the characters are a little less lovable and affable, but the connection to Harry Potter will always be made because it too takes place at a school for, you guessed it, magicians. This particular school is for college-aged magicians and while there are elements of other-worldly things much of the book is about the struggles any kid would face at that age. It's less fantastical than your average book full of wizards and spells. It may not be a perfect book as even the main character started to irk me by the end, but both this and its sequel, The Magician King, are worth a read if you're into that genre. In fact, I found my opinion of the first book improved upon reading the sequel as I saw how certain plot points in the first set up the story in the sequel.

by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

What an interesting idea to present a biography of physicist Richard Feynman in a graphic novel format. If you or anyone in your life is unfamiliar with the genius that was Feynman and his unique way of looking at and explaining the world this would be a great place to start. He's long been a fascinating person to me between his role in the Challenger explosion inquiry and his work on the Manhattan Project so it was nice to learn a little more about him in this easy-to-read format.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

I wanted to love this book so much. It's right up my alley what with a WWII subplot, the sort of characters you'd see in a circus sideshow, and funky vintage photos interspersed throughout of the peculiar children displaying their various peculiarities. My favorite scenes were the ones that took place at the school, encountering new peculiar inhabitants and learning their stories. The overall plot of the book, however, was a little dull and lacked in creativity. I also felt as if I was reading a YA book, which is usually not the case with the YA books I choose to read. This one felt simplistic, as if the language and story were deliberately dumbed down for that audience. Disappointing because I couldn't help comparing it to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is also written for children/young adults but manages to do so in a way that elevates the reader, whatever his/her age. That said, I hope the author's writing improves in subsequent novels as I like what he was trying to do.

The Night Circus
by Emily Morgenstern

Ended the year with a bang by reading our book club's latest selection. Now this is a book that sets up a fantastical, magical world and populates it with interesting characters and a compelling story. Reminds me a bit of The Prestige as two talented magicians battle it out but there are unique elements to The Night Circus that let it stand on its own. It's the kind of book that sucks the reader into its world, a world infinitely more interesting than our own. I don't even know how to describe the plot, which just means that you'll have to read it for yourself to figure it all out. A lovely, lovely book!

How about you? Read anything interesting lately?

Books read in 2011:

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

• My Life in France

• Salem Brownstone

• Dead End Gene Pool

• Room

• Bespelling Jane Austen

• The Hunger Games

• Catching Fire

• Lullabies for Little Criminals

• Mockingjay

• Zombie Raccoons & Killer Bunnies

• The Beach

• The Handmaid's Tale

• Out Stealing Horses

• The Gates

• My Last Supper

• A Novel Bookstore

• A Frozen Woman

• A Scattering

• The Magicians

• I Capture the Castle

• The Woman in White

• Vanilla Ride

• Infected

• The Psychopath Test

• We Need to Talk About Kevin

• Through Black Spruce

• Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

• Spiced

• How Hard Can it Be?

• Jane and the Canterbury Tale

• The Magician King

• The Hare with Amber Eyes

• A Jane Austen Education

• Packing for Mars

• The Sea

• Feynman

• The Night Circus

Thursday, January 5, 2012

52 Week Photo Project [Week 1]

I am officially back in business! As you may have noticed, my photography adventures have been rather sporadic and sparse since the blissful day when I completed my 365 project. Now, I'm not big on making resolutions or huge goals for myself at the start of the year as I think I'm pretty disciplined and in tune with what needs to be fixed in my life throughout the year. Still, there's something nice about starting a new project with the new year. I've decided to join in the 52 week photography challenge at Paint the Moon. She'll have weekly themes to guide us and a Flickr group to share our pictures. I'm excited to have another project to work on and am looking forward to joining another photography community even though I can already tell I'm outclassed by many others in the group.

Feel free to join in yourself! Fifty-two photos for the year should be much more doable and less of a strain than 365.

This week we've been given two themes to choose from, "sharing" or "natural." I chose "natural," as in my fluffy 100% cotton towel and the strange figure in the background, presumably posing au natural. :)

52 Week Project Photo Paint the Moon Photoshop Actions PSE

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Photo A Day [Days 395-396] - New York City Edition

Day 395

The famous Radio City Music Hall. Didn't actually see a show there on this trip but I've done plenty of the Christmas shows in the past. To be honest, I'd much rather see a play than a singing/dancing extravaganza. Which is exactly what I did. Although tickets were pricey I treated my family to a viewing of the drool-worthy Alan Rickman in Seminar, which proved to be fun for the whole family. Well, that might only hold true if your family's as weird and highbrow as mine. *adjusts monocle*

Day 396

A stolen moment captured on camera. Two lovers embrace while a zebra looks on disapprovingly. A serial killer lurches into frame. You can only imagine what happens next. My camera will never tell...

Our hotel was conveniently located just half a block off of 5th Avenue, the shopping mecca of NYC. While most of the stores were beyond my budget it did make for some nice photo opportunities. The best part is, we were able to sneak out of the hotel at night once the stores were shut and the crowds were gone so I could take photos of the impressive window displays at Bergdorf Goodman. This is but a sampling of the oddities they had to offer:

This last shot was such a lucky one, snapped just before we got on the bus to return home. While waiting for the bus to arrive I started to look around to see what photography mischief I could get up to and the perfect New York scene presented itself. Goodbye, New York! For now.