Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year in Review: 2014

Bryce Canyon

January: A rocky start. Cancelled flights, a minor car accident, and a fall down the stairs. Alternatively, a birthday, a brand new camera, a trip to Utah, and a weekend in Washington, D.C.

New England Winter
New Paltz

February: An anniversary celebration with James in the Hudson River Valley, an enormous snow storm, and a family reunion.

Trieste
Venice

March: Midterm hell followed by a week and a half of bliss -- spring break with Chamber Singers in Italy.

Senior Ball

April: Reality panic, Senior Ball, soaking up the last minutes of undergraduate life.

Smith Graduation
Ivy Day

May: I put on robes and a funny hat and turned into a graduate instead of the witch I've always wanted to be (James did, too). We said goodbye to our friends and schools and roadtripped home.

Summer on Lake Michigan
Summer Fires

June: A few understated Mittenland adventures. Days at the beach and fires at night.

Remembering Aunt Laura
Downtown Salt Lake
Summer in Utah

July: The toughest month. We lost Laura. I spent some time with James in Utah getting perspective.

Grandpa's 80th
K+R Wedding

August: My grandfather turned 80, and Kristen got married.

Bike Rides on River Trail

September: A month of clean eating and living as we usually do.

Solo Halloween
Another Wedding

October: Another wedding, Art Prize, and a cinnamon bun dream actualized for Halloween.

Wine Tasting
Thanksgiving

November: A somewhat difficult Thanksgiving followed by a fantastic wine tasting.

December: As yet uneventful and therefore under photographed. I've been quiet here lately but I won't be for long, I promise!

As the summary probably demonstrates, it's been a tough year for me. Maybe the toughest year yet. I've discussed some of the reasons why here; some I've chosen to keep to myself. Looking back, I have regrets -- the way I have handled events in my life this year isn't a good reflection of who I am or who I want to be, and I wish that weren't the case.

Nevertheless, 2014 had it's moments, as the photographs above also demonstrate, and if what goes up must come down, then the reverse must also be true. I have high hopes for 2015, and it's looking up already.

2014, it's been real. You piled on an awful lot of awful. Thanks for showing me I could carry it; next time I'll try to do it with more grace.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Last Minute Christmas DIY Guide

I'm broke and I like to make things. Every year we have bloggers publishing lists of cool things to give people for the holidays, but if you're in the same boat as me, DIYs and food are the way to go. Here are some of the things I'd like to give this year:
  • Hot chocolate mix and marshmallows can't go wrong, especially if they're both homemade.
  • I don't think I'll be doing this for anyone this year, but I think any traveler would really appreciate one of these embroidered maps
  • Memento boxes are another cool idea, especially if you traveled with the person in question (you could fill it with pictures/trinkets from the trip, if you've thought through it enough in advance).
  • At least a couple people on my list will end up with various iterations of these. The sarcastic kind, probably, because that's how I roll.
  • And it might seem kind of obvious, but I plan to print out some of the photos I've taken and frame them for certain friends and relatives. It seems like fewer and fewer people are bothering with this lately, but it can be a really thoughtful gift.
So, there are some ideas for you. Go nuts! Some other, less thought-through options include make-your-own bubble tea kits, hand knit infinity scarves, and handmade jewelry, but you might need a little more talent/speed for most of those than I currently have.

I might be a little sporadic with the posting over the next few weeks. I'm working a lot, and as the title of this post should suggest, I am waaaaay behind on Christmas. I have half a gift for one person, and that's it. Things should pick up a little more regularly in 2015. Until then, I'll see you when I see you, and have a wonderful holiday season in the meantime!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tying Scarves: The Holiday Bow

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

So this knot is a little more complicated and delicate, and it doesn't do all that much for keeping my neck warm, but I love to wear it at this time of year. I take a big, heavy scarf in a bright color (see what I worked with below) and feel super festive.

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

Here's how:

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

To start, bring the scarf over your neck in a single layer, with one side about 30% longer than the other. This is the side that will become your bow.

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

Fold the bottom foot or so of the long end back up.

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

Do that again (the top of the folds should be about even with your collar bone now).

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

Hold the folded section in the middle.

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

Use the other end of the scarf to secure it, wrapping around the middle of the folds twice. (Make sure to always bring the end up into the middle of the circle formed by the scarf, as you see below. Otherwise the whole thing will fall apart!)

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

Let the end of the scarf hang forward as the tail of the bow, and rearrange the loops. Set at a jaunty angle and/or apply sparkles to everything, and set off to a holiday party!

Holiday Bow Scarf Knot

(Oh, and thanks to my cousin, who taught me the Holiday Bow last year in exchange for learning the Celtic Knot. Love you!)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Inspirational (and otherwise) Watercolors

As previously mentioned, I've been getting into watercolors. At one point I had the basics (and even some of the more advanced techniques) down. You see, despite showing little artistic promise, I somehow ended up taking a couple years of extracurricular art classes as a kid. Unfortunately, I have forgotten pretty much everything I learned. Fortunately, I still have all the supplies I got in those days, so it's easy to dabble, and dabble I have.

You'll have seen inspirational watercolors all over the internet; they seem to be the new mega-twee decorative tool. Personally, I've never been a big fan of decorating with words. A wall decal that says "Just Breath" really doesn't do it for me (and not just because it's spelled wrong), nor do I find "Dance like nobody's watching" written in calligraphy all that inspiring. Bulletin boards are my one exception to this rule, mostly because I look at the one above my desk on a daily basis, and I like to see something there that makes me want to forge ahead.

Inspirational Watercolors
Inspirational Watercolors
Inspirational Watercolors

These are a few of the phrases and reminders that have helped me kick my butt into gear recently, and I see no reason why they shouldn't be aesthetically pleasing. However, I also see no reason why my use of watercolor should be universally inspiring and pure of heart, which is why I felt really clever to have created the following pieces:

Sarcastic Watercolors
Sarcastic Watercolors

Credit for these quotes goes to Lucille Bluth (Arrested Development) and Tracy Jordan (30 Rock), respectively. I love them because they look generic at first blush, and when you look closer, it's a universal reaction of "What the hell?"

I'm still learning and working out the kinks of the new pastime, but I'm relatively proud of what I've produced so far.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Wine Tasting Party

We had a wine expert resident for the weekend after Thanksgiving, and decided to take advantage of that to host a wine tasting. There are many different schools of thought on how best to do this, so I won't pretend this is the be-all, end-all of wine tasting methods, but this is what we did:

Between us and our guests, we hosted a total of ten people. We asked each family/couple attending to bring 1-2 bottles of wine (I'll give more specifics on that in a minute), and bring an appetizer to pass. We supplied a few bottles of our own and a few appetizers -- pate and a cheese plate. (Side note: have you ever tried Winter Gouda? It's filled with pepper and nutmeg and it is my new favorite cheese. Try it!)

Cheese Plate Wine Tasting
Appetizers Wine Tasting

We were careful not to serve anything too strong before the tasting, to preserve the palette.

For the tasting itself, we served only the finest wines.

Bota Box Wine Tasting

(That's a joke, obviously!)

We put out water (for sipping and for rinsing out glasses between wines), a couple bowls of coffee beans (good for resetting the nose), and pretzel bites (to cleanse the palette). We provided each setting with a pencil and a worksheet for describing the wines -- not everyone used this as extensively as I did, but we had a number of wine amateurs in the group (myself included) and I found the categories on the worksheet extremely helpful in learning how to taste and what to taste for.

Wine Tasting Table Setting

We considered having a tasting of a specific variety of grape, but since most of our guests knew very little about wine, we decided instead to do a "Wines from Around the World" theme. We assigned each collection of guests a region of the world and asked them to bring either their favorite wine from that area, or something interesting they had never tried before. Here's what we ended up with (and the order in which we drank them -- whites, then reds, dry to sweet):

Wine Tasting

Whites:
Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand to represent the South Pacific
Ruppertsberger Riesling from Germany to represent Europe
Santa Julia Pinot Grigio from Argentina to represent South America
Reds:
Nouveau Beaujolais-Villages from France to represent Europe
A Heritage Blend of Red Grapes from New York to represent North America
Casillero del Diablo Malbec from Chile to represent South America
A Red Zinfandel from New York to represent North America

Both of the North American wines were made by my uncle (the wine expert), who helped a lot in leading the tasting and telling us what to look for. I don't often enjoy reds, but I always love his -- they're dry, but very smooth and easy to drink. I liked all the wines, but my favorites were the Cupcake and my uncle's Heritage Blend.

Wine Tasting Table Setting

We finished off the night with a collection of desserts. I was already about two glasses in at that point, and we were about to play spoons, so taking pictures of them completely slipped my mind, but the Strawberry Mousse Cups were the prettiest, and you saw them last week! We set them out with slivers of pie and cheesecake leftover from Thanksgiving and a bowl of cream puffs.

I highly recommend throwing a wine tasting, especially if you have a friend or two who knows what they're doing. Even if you're going in blind and leaderless, it would be fun! We think next time we might narrow the parameters a little bit so we can appreciate the subtleties in a certain variety of grape, but this was a great way to test the waters. I can now define and identify things like tannin and legs!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tying Scarves: The Basic Wrap

Continuing my series on Tying Scarves, I have one to show you which seems so obvious and simple I debated whether or not to publish it. However, I'm embarrassed by how long it took me to figure it out, and I figure it's very possible that other people would have the same problems I did. Maybe I suck at spatial awareness, but trust me, the wrap below baffled me until 2013, so I'm going to divert attention with some general scarf information for a second.

Basic Scarf Wrap

I owe pretty much all of them to other people. The one I'm wearing today came to me from India via a good friend who studied abroad there, and several others have also been gifts, but most came from my grandmother, who had literally hundreds of scarves and shawls when she died several years ago. My aunts and cousins and I each wore one at her memorial, and took plenty of others home to our individual wardrobes. She loved those shawls, and now we all love them, too. They are the most timeless and practical of accessories.

On to the knot! This one is a basic, no-nonsense, voluminous thing that works well with almost any dimensions (though I prefer long, wide, and rectangular). It is the warmest of the warm due to its ability to trap air around your head and neck.

Basic Scarf Wrap

Start by figuring out which side of the scarf you want to face outwards -- most scarves have a front and a back -- and grab diagonal corners with the side you want exposed downwards, or facing away from you.

Basic Scarf Wrap

Exchange the corners behind your head and pull to secure a loose circle around your neck.

Basic Scarf Wrap

Adjust and rearrange at will, and you're ready to go!

Basic Scarf Wrap

Enjoy and stay warm! I'll be back next week with a more festive (and more complicated) knot!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Strawberry Mousse in Chocolate Cups

Recent circumstances required me to make some kind of berry mousse to deposit in chocolate cups for an after dinner treat. Initially excited about the idea, my enthusiasm paled when I actually started looking for a recipe. I have never had such a rough time -- we're talking recipes with really awful typos (tablespoon instead of teaspoon); recipes that fail to mention some of their ingredients in the instructions -- eventually I had to wing it. The first attempt went . . . really badly. It tasted great but it was basically a strawberry sauce. So I tried again, and achieved success: the perfect consistency, and creamy without sacrificing a punchy strawberry flavor. It's exactly what we hoped for, and now I'm publishing it, because I figure the internet deserves at least one strawberry mousse recipe that won't fail big time.

Strawberry Mousse Recipe

We put the mousse into chocolate cups we bought at a local bakery. They are a seasonal item you may be able to find at the grocery store, but we didn't have any luck with that this year. It's also possible to make them yourself, but I didn't feel like going through that hassle. If chocolate cups aren't your thing, other cool serving options include champagne flutes, interesting shot glasses, or just an enormous serving dish.

Chocolate Cups
Strawberry Mousse Recipe

Strawberry Mousse
Serves 6 to 10+, depending on portion sizes
Ingredients:
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons powdered unflavored gelatin
1 cup of pureed strawberries (from about half a pound; I used fresh but frozen should also work)
1/2 cup of powdered sugar
1 cup of whipping cream
2 teaspoons berry liqueur (I used Chambord)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Chocolate shavings, for garnish

Notes:
Pour the lemon juice into a small sauce pan over low heat and add the gelatin, stirring constantly until it dissolves completely. Remove from heat.

Puree the strawberries using a food processor or blender*. With the motor running, slowly blend the lemon juice and gelatin mixture into the strawberries. Add the powdered sugar and blend again to mix thoroughly.

Pour the strawberry gelatin into another bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour, until the mixture is set.

Using a hand mixer or a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the cream along with the liqueur and vanilla. When stiff peaks form, add the strawberry gelatin and mix on low speed until just combined. Stir a few times by hand to make sure the mixture is uniform.

Spoon the mousse into whatever you'd like to serve it in, sprinkle with the shavings of chocolate if desired, and chill until it's time for dessert.

*If you have something against seeds, you will want to strain the puree through a sieve to get rid of them at this point. We find strawberry seeds inoffensive, so we didn't bother, but I thought I'd mention it for those who do.

Strawberry Mousse Recipe

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Centerpiece
Thanksgiving Centerpiece

So, under normal circumstances, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. This year it was a little rough. Laura's absence (and its aftermath) has left a big hole in our family, and I was dealing with a personal crisis to boot, so this Thanksgiving often felt a little more like a struggle than a celebration. Nevertheless, we had delicious food and a gorgeous table. It looked and tasted beautiful even if in other respects it paled next to former years.

Thanksgiving Tablescape
Thanksgiving Table Setting

We wanted to bring in plenty of color to the table, so we used blue wine glasses, gold in the remaining settings and linens, and the place cards I DIYed last week. We served appetizers of apple gruyere crostini, and for dinner, all the traditional elements (turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, creamed corn, mashed potatoes, and gravy) as well as a few less-traditional items: massaged kale salad and our family's famous squash biscuits, cut this year to look like little pumpkins.

Thanksgiving Squash BiscuitsThanksgiving Pumpkin Pie

Dessert was pie, obviously. I eat one slice of pumpkin pie a year, always on Thanksgiving, and it always looks like this (I don't like pumpkin pie that much). If that nauseates you, don't worry. It looks a little gross to me now, too, but I can guarantee I'll crave it again in roughly eleven months.

Irish Cream in a Chocolate Mug

We rounded out the night with some Irish Cream in these beautiful little edible chocolate mugs! They're about the size of a shot glass and so adorable, we couldn't resist them.

So, here is to giving thanks and making the rest of the holiday season the best it can be. Now that it's December I really need to get a move on for Christmas!