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Boozy Baking

It’s snowing in Dayton.  The view from my living room window is like living inside a snow globe.  It’s glorious, and weather like this makes me want to throw on my cozy pajamas and put my KitchenAid mixer to good use.  Even though I ate my weight in sweets over the holidays, there is nothing I’d rather do more on a snowy afternoon than bake cookies.

As I was scouring through my ratty old binder of recipes, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was working for a large catering company.  We were winding down from a busy holiday season, exhausted and elated.   A large group of us headed out to a bar to throw back a few beers, and exchange banquet serving battle stories.  One of the cooks and I got to talking about some of our favorite cookies.  I was a few beers deep and we were ranking our favorites slurring at each other “SNICKERDOODLES, NO WAY MAN, THE ONES WITH THE HERSHEY’S ON TOP – THOSE ARE THE BEST!”  My buddy then told me his favorite: peanut butter cookies – always a classic.  He had the best recipe and it was only 3 ingredients.  I was incredulous and told him I had to go home and give these 3 ingredient cookies a whirl.  I paid my tab, grabbed my coat, and I stumbled home.  This is about the time where I should tell people that I do not condone the act of drinking and baking.  But I was on a mission:  drunk as a skunk or not – these cookies needed to be made.

The rest of the night is a bit of a blur.  The good news is, I didn’t wake up to a smoke filled house or the fire department banging down my door.  In other good news:  Drunk Tess left sober Tess the nicest gift to wake up to: delicious peanut butter cookies.  Thinking back on that night with a sigh of relief that no one was harmed during the production of these cookies, I decided to make them again, sober this time, and they are just as delicious sans hangover.  As I was waiting the 6-8 minutes for the cookies to come together, I thought about booze and baking.  On the one hand, a terrible idea, but what if instead of consuming booze before baking, I started putting together recipes that were inspired by booze?

Thus begins the first part of my new series on Ciao Vella called Boozy Baking.  Each month, I will have a new original recipe based on some of my favorite cocktails.  As we well know: chances are, not every baked good will be a winner, but we are going to have (responsible) fun trying!  I’m looking forward to next month’s first original Boozy Baking recipe, and in the meantime here is the ever-famous 3 ingredient peanut butter cookie recipe.  Looking for the perfect wine to pair with these simple sweets?  Try a port from Kopke! Ciao!

Ingredients:

1 cup sugar

1 cup peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)  img_6356

1 egg

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

In mixer, combine all 3 ingredients

Shape into small balls and place on lined baking sheet

Score tops of cookies in a lattice shape with fork

Bake 6-8 minutes
(Makes 12 small cookies)

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Traditions Worth Holding Onto

Around the holidays people are very tied to their traditions.  My New Year’s Eve tradition has typically been serving semi-formally dressed couples prix fixe menus all night, sweating profusely as I get my ass kicked around a restaurant, chugging as much to drink as I can after my shift (thank you Chambong for making the process easier and more enjoyable), and then going home around 3 a.m. with the spins.   As you could imagine, I find much relief when the eve is over and a new year has begun.  This day I find myself at a bottomless mimosa brunch with friends, then a calm and comforting meal at my parent’s house.

Traditions are good.  Even if life is crazy and everything around you has changed, a tradition is something you can hold on to, it’s reliable.  I like to think of holiday traditions as a warm pillow to rest your head, and out of all of the holidays, New Year’s day is my warmest pillow.  

My mother is German and my Father is Italian, but due to Germany’s not so proud history, and because Italians are typically louder and pushier people, we embrace our Italian heritage to the max.

We start our first dinner in the New Year with a lentil and pancetta soup by Marcella Hazan, the Italian grandma you wish you had.  Her book “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” is the closest thing that my family owns to a bible.  The soup is soul satisfying; salty and savory, complex in it’s flavors and textures, and as I mentioned above, there is pancetta in it, so really, what else do you need in life?

In the Italian tradition, people consume lentils on the New Year as a sign of wealth and prosperity for the year to come.  The lentils, small and circular, represent coins and eating them prepares you for the year ahead with hope of a little extra clink in your pockets.  And who couldn’t use a little bit of that?

This tradition is as pure as it comes: sitting around a table with my favorite people in the world, eating a humble soup dish, tearing apart crusty bread to ensure every bit is savored, and we state our intentions for the new year.  No need to hope for fame or fortune, on this day, we hope just to cling on to each other a little longer.
Happy New Year to you all, I look forward to eating and drinking with you in 2017.  Ciao, Cheers, Salute, or as my family says:  Cent Anni!

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Mia Famiglia
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The Pressure to Party

Around the exact time I turned 30, I also became a grumpy old curmudgeon who doesn’t want to go out in public.  The idea of standing around a crowded bar on NYE, waiving my credit card at a bartender, trying desperately to get a vodka soda, sounds like the worst time I could possibly have.  Instead I’m much more interested in staying in, eating and drinking with my friends; preferably whilst wearing some stretchy pants.  At a certain age, hosting a NYE party sounds like a lot more fun than being out until 3 a.m., searching for a cab in heels and no jacket.

You don’t always have to be the hostess (or host) with the mostess.  People put a lot of pressure on themselves to make everything perfect, but sometimes that mounting pressure for party perfection takes away from the fun of it all.  If you keep a few of these party fundamentals in mind, you are guaranteed to ring in 2017 in style and comfort!

  • Have a plan

I never would have described myself as a person who was very structured, but somewhere in my career of planning parties (and pissing off a bride or two,) I learned that the best thing you can do for yourself is make a whole bunch of to-do lists.  Here’s my party planning timeline:

  • 1 Month – 2 Weeks out: I create a private Pinterest board where I pin ideas of what to serve, get inspiration for tablescapes, and decorative ideas.
  • 2 weeks out:  I finalize the menu.
  • 1 week out:  I change my mind on a few things, then I really finalize the menu.
  • 5 days out: I write out my grocery list.  Even in my every day life, I make grocery lists like a crazy person; breaking down my list into sections so I don’t miss anything.  It sounds super anal, but it is so helpful.  There is nothing worse than getting home and realizing you forgot a key ingredient!
  • 1-2 days out:  Go grocery shopping and write out your prep list.  I have a prep list for the food I make, the flowers I arrange, and for the cleaning that needs to get done.
  • Day of:  I make myself another to-do list so that I stay on task and don’t forget anything at the last minute.  I like to put this “day-of” list in chronological order.  
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My to-do list 1 day before the party, before it got splattered with bacon grease

I know it seems silly, like you’re micro-managing yourself, but the less you have to think on the fly, and the more organized you are, the more likely it is that you can actually enjoy yourself at the party.   My holiday party last year, people showed up 30 minutes early and I was running around my house like a crazy person.  If I had planned ahead a little better, the early arrivers wouldn’t have thrown me off quite so much.  (Although seriously, a little guest etiquette: SHOW UP 15 MINUTES LATE PEOPLE! I cannot stress this enough.)

  • Know your audience, and have enough food and drink to make them happy

More is more in this case.  It’s always better to have too much food, or too much to drink then have to run out mid-party for a bottle of wine, or – god forbid – have to order a pizza!  Is it the worst thing in the world if your fridge is stocked with beer for the next month?  No.  Seriously, no one ever complained about having too much booze in their house.  There are rules for how much food and drink to prepare at a party.  Pinterest is a really good resource for this: type in “drinks per guest” and a bunch of charming infographics will pop up for you to use as a guide.  My suggestion is to also know your audience.  My friends, for example, are a bunch of restaurant industry folks, which means that they can really put back the booze (hence why we are friends), so I have to plan for more than 1.5 drinks per person.  I also know that most of my friends will drink champagne (again, friends for a reason), therefore I have a few bottles of back-up red and white wine, a few 6-packs of beer, but mostly my fridge is stocked with sparkling.  

The same goes for food.  Know your audience.  Have a few vegetarian friends?  Make sure they aren’t only nibbling on hummus.  Is your party 50 percent male?  You need more food then you thought was humanly possible to consume.  This year I planned a holiday brunch, so I provided my guests with eggs and muffins which were really yummy, but not everyone likes breakfast food, so it was important for me to have my go-to garlic pizzas and a beautiful cheese board.  I made way too much food, but I didn’t kill myself doing it.  I picked dishes that were relatively simple.  Most of the food I could prep a day ahead of time, and didn’t require any maintenance during the party, so I could chat up my guests and freely drink from the punch bowl.

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Photos courtesy of Marysa Marderosian

 

  • Have a back-up plan

Have you ever been to a party that comes to a creeping halt?  It’s awkward.  If you’re amongst friends, chances are this won’t happen so long as the music is good and drinks are flowing. But every once in a while I’ve looked around a party I’ve thrown and thought:  oh no, people are bored.  THIS IS A CODE RED ALERT, time to bring out the Bop-It.  (Gilmore Girls reference, anyone?)  But seriously, you better have something in your back pocket to keep your friends entertained.  I truly believe this is why Cards Against Humanity was created.  It’s always good to have something interactive readily available.  This is another instance where you should know your audience.  Will your friends want to sing Karaoke?  Great, fire it up!  Play cards?  Do it!  My friends, as I mentioned before, like to drink; and if you’re still reading my blog, chances are, so do you.  When my party starts to hit a lull, I have a very trusty tool I like to break out, and it’s called The Chambong.  The Chambong is a device for the rapid and enhanced experience of sparking/ champagne consumption.  It’s for sure one of my favorite things to do, it’s silly, funny, and it loosens people up.  It is a conversation starter and a party starter; now they have these awesome packs of 5 acrylic Chambongs, so you can get a group to do it together.   This is exactly how I rang in my 30th birthday, with one group Chambong after the other.  It was classy AF.  Also, they now offer Chambong Light Stand, which adds a little cheesy, silly ambiance to a party.  As you’re planning your NYE party, I think there’s no better way to get people feeling festive than to line up a few bongs of champs, kiss the cutie standing next to you, and Chambong on.  

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  • Remember that it’s a party and not a job interview, have fun, get silly.  

It seems like a basic rule, but it’s easy to get caught up in re-stocking the crudite.  When you’re the host, there’s a million things you could be doing, but don’t forget that you threw the party to have fun in the first place.  Don’t spend the entire party cleaning up, or babysitting your guests.  If properly planned, everyone has a drink in hand and you’ve got a good playlist queued up, then the rest should work itself out.  Let everyone get a little lit up, and if they’re all bored, then bust out the Chambong – problem solved!

I hope everyone has a very happy and safe holiday season!

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Baking: The Art of Failure and Perfect Mistakes

We learn in life that you can’t be good at everything.  If you can sing, you can’t necessarily dance.  You can paint, but you can’t sculpt.  And in many cases:  you can cook, but you can’t bake.   There are a few (annoying) people out there who can do both perfectly, but chances are your skill set lies more heavily with one than the other.  I, for example, make a much better cook than I do a baker.  I love to bake, or rather I love baked goods, but the reality of the matter is that baking is a science, it’s all about measurements and ratios, and that shit just doesn’t work with me.  I am a wing it kind of gal, which is what I like about cooking:  a little dash here, a pinch there and you’ve got yourself a meal.  One of my favorite things to do is metaphorically throw things at a wall, and see what sticks.   That’s just not an option with baking, everything must be precise.  But I try, with some successes and many a failure.  The first time I ever made my (now perfected) banana bread, I forgot to add baking soda in all together…it was not pretty.  However, as I bake, that old adage sticks in my brain, something about failure being the true markings over a person’s character.  If you fall down, or you burn your crust, you get back up and try again.

It was with that mentality that one of my favorite recipes was born.  It really wasn’t that big of a screw up, I’m just being dramatic (shocking, I know) but I sort of screwed the pooch with a cookie recipe last year.  The cookies were supposed to come out looking like this:  img_6094

But instead they turned out like a big blog of one giant cookie. Frustrated with myself, I opened up the trash can and was ready to shovel the cookies inside it when I stopped.  These were perfectly delicious cookies, they just looked a little crazy.   I was sure I could salvage them somehow, and before my mind even knew what I was doing, my hands went to work.  Thus was born my recipe for “The Perfect Mistake.”  Also known as that thing my parents call me.

The cookie recipe is from a blog called Handmade Charlotte.  These are probably the most delicious chocolate sugar cookies ever.  They are crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, perfectly rich and sinfully delicious (especially with a latte!)  The key to making these extra delicious is to cream the butter forever.  Seriously, I don’t think you can over cream it, but again, I’m not a baker, so definitely don’t trust my judgement.

One you’ve baked the cookies to her specifications, set aside about 5 or 6 of your uglier ducklings.  Wait for them to cool down slightly, (enough that your fingers don’t get burned) so that they are malleable.  In a greased pie tin, mush the cookies down with your hands until they form an even crust.  It may not look pretty, but it will taste delicious.  Once you have a sufficient pie crust, pop that puppy in the freezer for about 30 minutes.  

When the crust is nice and cool, scoop out a pint of your favorite ice cream for the tastiest homemade ice cream pie.  I live for mint chocolate chip ice cream, and in my humble opinion, nobody does it better than Talenti Gelato with their Mediterranean Mint.  Honestly, any ice cream would be killer with the chocolate cookie crust, but I am just a sucker for this ice cream.  Also, their containers are the bomb, and make the best tupperware ever because the top screws on.  It’s the little things in life, ok?

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Anyways – back to the subject.  So, you scoop out the entire contents of the most delicious ice cream your heart desires, take a final baked cookie, crumble, and sprinkle it on top.  If you’re feeling festive, like me, you can use a cookie cutter to add fun shapes and decorations.  It’s your recipe, it’s your mistake: do with it what you want.

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I’m Dreaming of a White (Or Red, or Rosé) Christmas: a Holiday Hostess Wine Guide

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It’s that time of year where your social calendar fills up with office parties, drinks with friends, and other social gatherings.  Emily Post will always tell you to never show up to a party empty handed.  Giving a hostess gift is just good manners, but it doesn’t have to be stressful.  If you search the internet there are tons of websites prompting ideas for unique hostess presents, but I think there’s really no point in sniffing every single candle at Yankee Candles to pick the right one for your friend…it is literally not worth the headache.  Everyone likes booze, and there is no such thing as having too many bottles of vino hanging around at a party.  So be a good friend this holiday season: bring a bottle of wine, show up 15 minutes after the party starts…oh, and look fantastic.

Here are some of my favorite wines to gift this year for any budget:

$10 – $20 Wines:

Toso Cava

Cava is the new champagne.  It hails from Spain, while the flavor profiles are often very similar, cava tends to be a little lower in price.  This particular bottle of sparkling has tons of crisp, bright flavors for the right price!

Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier

Pine Ridge is a recognizable name that is sure to impress, and the varietals are a departure from the norm, which will set your gift apart from the others.  The Chenin Blanc and Viognier blend goes great with food, and is it a sure-fire party pleaser!

Petite Petite Syrah

This is one of the first red wines that I fell in love with.  It’s an 85% Petit Syrah blend that offers a full bodied red with low tannins, rich flavor, and lingering finish.  And while I know you’re not supposed to judge a wine by it’s label, but this one is pretty great and is sure to stand out!

Alma Negra Brut Rosé

I can’t say enough good things about all of the Alma Negra wines.  Their red blend is jammy and delicious, but their brut rosé stands out as the perfect celebratory gift.  The flavors are to die for:  fresh strawberry, tart raspberry, and who doesn’t love pink bubbles in their glass?!

$30 – $50 wines:

Rombauer Chardonnay

Rombauer is another known name, and brings a certain cache when it comes to hostess gifts.  

Your friend who is a chardonnay lover is going to find that this wine hits every note: peach and melon, vanilla and toasted nuts.  It’s a classic California, buttery chardonnay.  

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs

This is probably my favorite champagne.  We drank this at our wedding, (see photo of the classiest bride below) and it’s my favorite special occasion bottle of bubbles.  The flavors of crisp green apple shine, it’s dry and vibrant.  This wine absolutely stands up to some of the more popular champagne names, and offers an incredible product at an even better value.

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Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon

Is there anything better than a big, bold, California cab?  Especially in the winter, this wine warms your soul.  You can taste every bit of the California soil in this wine, and I love it:  eucalyptus, menthol, cedar, and dark fruits.  This wine is made in the famous Stags Leap District, and will make a memorable and very special holiday hostess gift.

$75 – $100 wines:

Taittinger Champagne

If you show up to a party with a bottle of Taittinger, well then, the party has really begun.  This champagne is so rich and creamy.  Unlike the fruitiness of the Schramsberg,  Taittinger wine delivers flavors of vanilla and brioche, it’s earthy and robust.  It’s delicious and fancy, which is exactly why champagne is my drink of choice.

Jarvis Cabernet Franc

Jarvis is a famous name amongst wine lovers, and the person who gets this wine as a gift will probably love you forever.  This wine is deep and oaky, with dark red fruits and hints of baking spice.  The richness is sure to make anyone’s holiday merry and bright, and you’ll be a permanent fixture on the gift receiver’s “nice list

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You Eat, I Eat, Jack

It finally happened, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premiered and I, like so many others, waited with bated breath.  Just like the Girls themselves, I knew that no binge watching TV session could possibly take place without copious snacks in tow.   They couldn’t be just any old snacks,  these snacks must be Gilmore approved, or “Lorelaied.”  So, I went through the wonderful and sometimes painstaking task of re-watching all 153 episodes to stir up some Sookie-style food inspiration.   It would’ve been very easy to take inspiration from the Master Carry-Out Orderer herself and call out for pizza and Chinese food, but instead I decided to cook up some wonderful treats that are sprinkled throughout the season.

The series begins with Lorelai begging for coffee, and my mornings are often quite similar.  As once described in the show, “I’ll drink it, shoot it, eat it, snort it.  Whatevimg_5956er form it’s in.”  I personally take my coffee with just a little bit of milk, but given that I was binging the day after Thanksgiving and it’s officially acceptable to start celebrating Christmas, I opted to try the famous Westin’s Candy Cane coffee.  I had plans to heat up some milk on the stove with a hint of peppermint extract, but as I was browsing through Whole Foods I noticed a product by SO Delicious called Mint Chocolate Coconut Milk and I thought to myself “Hey!  This looks just disgusting enough to be good!”…But it wasn’t.  It was disgusting, but Westin’s coffee didn’t sound that great either.  In fairness, the coconut milk itself wasn’t bad, but mixed with the coffee, it was less than savory. Instead I went back to old faithful, and drank my coffee the way god intended, with no striped candy flavor involved.

For breakfast we made Rory’s going-off-to-college meal of choice:  Sausage, wrapped in a pancake, tied with a piece of bacon.  First of all…it was delicious.  Second of all…it was ridiculous.  Here’s how it went down:

For the pancakes, I used Martha Stewart’s Buttermilk Pancake recipe because buttermilk makes everything better.  I also added a little bit of lemon zest to the batter; brightens it up and gives me the illusion of health.  I poured the pancake batter into the pan in long strips for optimum rolling, and not too much bulk.  I selected some delicious turkey sausage links from Whole Foods, gave them a nice sear in a cast iron skillet, then once cooked through I cut them in quarters, lengthwise, (or hot dog style, if you can remember back to elementary school.)  For the bacon, I chose a nice, thick cut, peppered bacon and baked them in the oven at 375 degrees for 12 minutes.  The bacon was nice and crispy, but not too crispy; I still had to tie it in a knot, after all!

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Once all the components were prepared, it was time to get rolling.   Rolling the pancakes around the bacon was easy enough.  Tying the bacon was a ridiculous task, and wasn’t all that successful.  When Luke prepped this breakfast for Rory, I would imagine he had the foresight to buy toothpicks ahead of time…me, not so much.  All in all, the meal was messy and absurd, but absolutely delicious.  The perfect, not at all practical, Gilmore inspired breakfast to go!

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Ridiculous looking, delicious tasting!

The heavy breakfast sent me into a food coma somewhere around the 3rd episode.  The extremely lengthy and unnecessary musical number during Summer didn’t help either.  (Seriously, what the hell was that?!)  Somewhere around the appropriate lunch time, I fell into a deep sleep where I too got confused about the Real Paul Anka and the dog Paul Anka….that was a doozy.  

Tim woke me up around 3:00 p.m., I suspect the maple syrup high had worn off.  I woke up, had another cup of coffee and screamed “Good Morning Vietnam” in my best Paris Gellar voice.  It was time to get back to cookin!

For my late lunch/early dinner, I chose to make Pasta a la Sookie, which is just “rich people” mac and cheese.  In season 4, Episode 3 titled “The Hobbit, the sofa, and Digger Stiles”  Lorelai and Sookie cater a kids’ birthday party, but Sookie doesn’t exactly know how to cater to kids.  Instead of making kid friendly mac and cheese, she makes one with a jalapeno and Chipotle cream sauce.  In spite of it being an unappetizing green color for the kids, it sounded divine – so I decided to give it a whirl.

Mac and Cheese with a Jalapeno Chipotle Cream Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound dry shell shaped pasta
  • 3 tbsp. Unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp. Flour
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 4 cups shredded cheese
  • 4 jalapenos, seeded
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup cilantro, plus garnish
  • ¼ cup bread crumbs (optional)

For chipotle sauce:

  • 1 tbsp. Brown Sugar
  • 1 tbsp. Chipotle Pepper
  • ½  tbsp. Cumin
  • ½  tbsp. Mustard powder
  • ½ tbsp. Paprika
  • ½ tbsp. Salt
  • Bring salted water to boil, add pasta and cook to specifications on box
  • In the meantime, combine chipotle dry ingredients in bowl,  and set aside.
  • Seed jalapenos and combine, jalapeno, olive oil and cilantro in blender.  Pulse until broken down into medium sized chunks
  • Once pasta is cooked, drain and set aside
  • In medium sized saucepan add butter and flour, whisk until combined
  • Whisk in chipotle dry ingredients until just combined
  • Whisk in broth, cream, milk, and water.  Let simmer, but not boil.
  • Add in cheese blend and stir until smooth consistency
  • Stir in jalapeno blended sauce until combined.
  • In large bowl, add pasta and pour cheese mixture.  Stir well.
  • Grease a casserole dish, or other baking dish.  (remember that time I told you how I use my Le Creuset for everything…this would be yet another instance.)
  • Sprinkle bread crumbs on top
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes
  • Top with Cilantro to garnish

Unlike Sookie’s dish, mine didn’t turn out green.  I think I would’ve had to use about 6 more jalapenos for that, in which case it would’ve been way too spicy.  Instead you have a img_5961
deep yellow baked mac and cheese with a vegetal spice from the peppers and a deep smoky spice from the chipotle blend.  It was rich and ooey and gooey and spicy in all the right ways, and totally not appropriate for kids…just how I like!

Feeling full yet?  I certainly was.  I had made it to the final Fall episode, and around the time Lorelai was “doing” Wild,  (I am totally the book too, btw) I was ready to whip up the fourth and final course, and yes, I considered coffee a course.

I journeyed back in my (invisible) rickshaw to Rory and Lorelai’s (imaginary) trip to Asia and enjoyed some delicious dessert sushi.  

I must admit, I was skeptical about how some of the flavors Lorelai proposed would work together.   Butterfinger, Junior Mint, Chocolate Chip, and Jujubes…?  No, just no.  Forget about the fact that I couldn’t even find jujubes in the stores, there is no way that butterfingers and junior mints work together.  I wasn’t brave enough to find out, but I did try the other two combinations mentioned in the show.  img_5960The first,  Tootsie Roll, marshmallow, Twizzler sushi…it was interesting to say the least.  I picked cherry pull and peel Twizzlers because neither Tim nor I like the strawberry flavor.  So, I rolled out the Tootsie Roll with a rolling pin, and laid the marshmallow on, carefully wrapping the tootsie roll around the little clouds.   Then wrapped the Twizzlers around that.  It was…interesting…definitely chewy.  The Tootsie roll flavor was prominent and I wasn’t a fan…Tim ate the rest.  That’s what he’s here for.  

Next we tried the Oreo, Red Hot Sashimi.  This I liked.  It was spicy and sweet, chocolatey   and crunchy.  The combination was delightful , I highly recommend.  You simply twist off the top part of the Oreo and place a few red hots on top – it was yummy and low maintenance.  I considered, just for a second making a pie crust out of the unused Oreo Tops, (think Sookie’s muffin bottom pie)  but I think it’s safe to say that I ate more than my fair share that day.

That does it folks, four courses of binge-worthy snacks to go with our binge watching.  We laughed, we cried, we cried some more, but unlike Rory – the only thing I ended up pregnant with, was a food baby!

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Six Superficial Things I am Thankful For: A Gift Guide

It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is here already.  It’s a time to take stock of the wonderful things that we are all lucky enough to have in life.  It’s also a great time to do a few of my favorite things: eat, drink, and shop!  I have never personally participated in Black Friday shopping, in part because I’ve heard it involves pushing and shoving, but mostly because it requires getting up early, and I’m a gal who likes my sleep.  I much prefer Small Business Saturdays, and Cyber Monday (shopping in your underwear – sign me up!)

All the holiday shopping excitement is not meant to overshadow the true meaning of Thanksgiving,  but who wants to read about how lucky I am to have such a wonderful and supportive husband, great family, good friends, my health…blah blah blah?!  Instead, this week’s Ciao Vella installment will list the Six Superficial Things I am thankful for this year, and perhaps it will help you find the perfect present for a person in your life that YOU are thankful for.  Here is my holiday gift guide:

Coffee

In my life, coffee is absolutely essential.  Coffee helps me do the thinking, and the writing, and the being nice to people.  But coffee is not just fuel; like a good wine, I think it should be sniffed, and savored.  (Yes, I am that freak in the coffee shop saying “ooo, don’t you smell the blueberry.”  Feel free to judge me.)  Tim really turned me onto coimg_5840ffee.  He is a former barista, and can pick up on the nuance of flavor.  When we make coffee at home it’s like walking into a mad scientists’ lab with scales and beakers.   We are also lucky enough to live right down the street from one of the coolest coffee shops that roasts their own beans, Press.

If you’re thinking about a gift for the coffee drinker in your life, consider stopping at Press and picking up a pound of their own Wood Burl Coffee, or another piece of their awesome merchandise.  If you’re not a Daytonian, then there are a lot of great coffee shops around the country where you can buy a coffee subscription.  Last year, we were traveling through Denver and Tim absolutely flipped for a place called Boxcar Coffee.   After our trip, I purchased Tim a 3-month coffee subscription, where we got a pound of their coffee every month delivered right to our door.   It was the gift that kept on giving…and I selfishly reaped the benefits!

Red Lipstick

Red lipstick is a classic, it always looks good and automatically upgrades an ensemble.  I’ve also found that it’s a solution to all of life’s problems.  Bad hair day?  Red lipstick!  Feeling grumpy?  Red lipstick!  Fat and bloated?  Red lipstick!  I’ve tried a lot of lipsticks and have found that no two lipsticks are created equal.  You might find the perfect hue, but it seeps into those ever present lines around your mouth.  Or you find the right creamy texture, but the red is just not right.  My two favorite red lipstick brands are:  

ModelCo. Party Proof Lipsticks – My perfect red shade is called Red Velvet – but any and all of their available colors are perfection, from a pouty pink, to a matte nude.   These lipsticks are rich and creamy, it moisturizes your lips, never cakes or clumps, and stays on all day.  

TonyMoly Tony Tint Delight – My favorite shade is #2 Red.  This is a lip stain that goes on light as a feather and lasts.  This was my favorite lipstick when I was a bartender because I was talking all night long, tasting drinks, and sweating – yet when I looked in the mirror after a 10 hour shift, my lipstick was in perfect shape with nary a smudge in sight.  

Bathrobe

I live in my bathrobe.  The minute I walk in the door after a long day of work, it goes on.  I’ve never been one for pants, I’m sure many girls can relate.  I have a bathrobe for every season and there is nothing I love more than snuggling up in a cozy bathrobe, with a big ole glass of red wine (that’ll come later on the list), during the chilly winter months.  

This year, there is only one thing on my Christmas list – who am I kidding, my Christmas list is really really long – let me clarify: the thing I want THE MOST is an Ugg Bathrobe.  I’ve gone into stores, stroked the soft material, stared longingly, subtly hinted (ha!) to Tim, and coveted this one bathrobe.   It has pockets for God’s sake.  It’s lined with the softest fleece, it’s the perfect length, without too much bulky material, and I’ve got to have it…and I bettcha one of your loved ones has to have it too.

Wine – and the glass it goes in

We already know my love of champagne, and I don’t think I need to explain why wines of all kinds are the best way to ring in the holiday season.   A bottle of wine makes the perfect hostess gift (which I’ll cover next month,) but the importance of the wine glass is not to be overlooked.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you realize you’re turning into your mother?  Well, mine happened recently while Tim and I were trying to decide where to go out for dinner.  He threw out a suggestion and I replied:  “No, I don’t want to go there, they have really bad wine glasses.”  “I married my mother-in-law.” He replied dryly.   Ok, so it’s a little high maintenance to rule out a restaurant over their glassware, but I think my mom is onto something.  Wine glasses serve a purpose, not just to hold the liquid, but to enhance the experience.   I’m sorry, but you simply can’t properly sniff the bouquet of a zinfandel out of a cheap wine glass from Walmart – you just can’t!!!!img_3998


As a wedding gift one of our friends got us a set of
Riedel Vinum XL wine glasses.  They are as big as your face, no joke: one glass holds an entire bottle.   They are the best wine glasses ever and I don’t think I could possibly drink from anything else.  It’s like decanting a single glass, there is so much room to swirl and spin – just watch your pour – 6 ounces looks like nothing!  It’s the perfect gift for the oenophile on your list!

Le Creuset

I don’t know what more I can say other than since purchasing my Le Creuset dutch oven, I haven’t used another pan.  I’m not exaggerating.  I use it for everything, I fry eggs in it, I make soups, I make pasta, I caramelize onions…I fold my laundry it in, I do my taxes in it…it holds me at night.  Ok – I’ve gotten off track.  

It is legitimately the most versatile cooking vessel I own, and my life is better for it.  They are a little pricey, but I’m not sure there is any better way to show you love someone than to gift them a Le Creuset dutch oven.   The colors are beautiful and classic, and the gift will last a lifetime.  I could go on forever…I could write mine a sonnet…I’m going to stop now before I start weeping.

Fur Coat or Vest

Last year at Christmas,  my mother gave me one of my grandmother’s minks.  It’s a stunning snow white color, three quarter length sleeves, and her initials carefully stitched on the inside.  It was one of the most special, thoughtful, and fabulous gifts I have ever been given.  I found myself opening up our coat closet in the middle of a summer heat wave willing snow to fall, just so I could wear this beautiful fur.  I don’t expect everyone to give the gift of a family heirloom this year, but luckily fur is in, (and always will be – sorry PETA) and there are tons of great faux fur coat options available today.  

A fur coat or vest is the best way to stay warm and add a little glamour to an outfit.  The Oasis Animal Print coat from ASOS is a great everyday winter coat, since leopard print can and should definitely be a staple in any glamour gal’s wardrobe.  Perhaps you want something slightly more understated, in which case a faux fur vest in a neutral color is the way to go.   This faux from Hinge is the perfect versatile and cozy fur.  

So there you have it, Six Superfluous and Superficial things that I am thankful for this year.  I hope everyone has a very happy and safe holiday, and remember, try to be nice when shoving your neighbor at Target!

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Colonel Mustard, in the Kitchen, with a Beer

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Studies have shown that a person’s taste buds change every 5 to 7 years, which explains why one day I woke up and suddenly thought that brussel sprouts were the best thing I have ever tasted.  This also explains why in the past few years I discovered the joy and wonder of mustard.  When I was little I thought mustard was disgusting; bright yellow and tangy, I couldn’t understand why anyone would dredge their burger with something so repulsive.  Ketchup was King, and it wasn’t going anywhere.  

That was until I spent a summer studying in Paris.  I was having lunch at an outdoor cafe, the waiter dropped off my food and said in the stereotypical superior way; “Let me guess, you’d like some Ketchup with your fries.”  I nodded, embarrassed and I SWEAR he muttered “Stupid Americannnnes” as he presented the red bottle of Heinz to the table.  As I smacked the sides of the bottle and the ketchup glopped onto my plate, I looked around me and noticed the effortlessly chic Parisians eating their frites with a fork, not a bit of ketchup in sight.   Being the Francophile that I am, I immediately put down the ketchup, stopped the snooty waiter, and asked for a bottle of the finest Dijon.  If mustard meant that I was cool, sophisticated, and could possibly pass for a Frenchie, then mustard was to become my new thing.  My love and adoration for mustard has stayed, in spite of my bitter realization that I am never going to be as fabulous as the ladies of Paris, no matter how hard I try.

Mustard is magical, it makes incredible salad dressings, marinades, and dips.  But it also has healing properties, it helps with inflammation, and even promotes hair growth.  The ancient Egyptians would bring mustard seeds to the tomb, as it was considered a symbol of good fortune.  If it’s good enough for King Tut, amiright?!

My fridge is normally stocked with at least a few kinds of mustard, a good dijon, a nice spicy brown mustard, and yes even the bright yellow ballpark mustard (it’s cheap, but damn it’s delicious.)  I’ve been on a quest for the best mustard out there, so I decided to gather up as many stone ground, brown mustards as possible and rate them until a clear winner was found.  I went to a speciality grocery store known to many South West Ohioans as a foodie (ugh, I hate that word) paradise:  Jungle Jim’s.  I scoured their condiment section, and selected 8 out of about 300 mustards.  Last night, with the help of Tim and two of my close (and well-palated) friends, we went through the painstaking task of tasting, and tasting, and tasting each mustard in the noble quest of selecting the best stone ground mustard out there.

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We got real serious about it, I created a rating system based on four categories:  Flavor, Heat Level, Spreadability, and Overall Appeal, and judged them all on a scale from 1-5.  I made soft pretzels (which I will never do again), we drank a few delicious wheat beers*, and we sat in judgement, which is basically my favorite thing to do.  I could make it an Olympic sport.

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I’m not sure if the beer is to blame, or if the mustards we were judging were all just too good, but we couldn’t pick just one winner.  Our reigning champs are….drumroll please:  Inglehoffer Original Stone Ground Mustard, and Brucken Dusseldorf Mustard.

The Inglehoffer was nice and seedy, an appropriate heat level with the right amount of tang, and a great depth of flavor, scored fives across the board (except for Tim, who is very keen on giving ½ points…is that a guy thing?)  This mustard would make a kick ass marinade.  

The Brucken was HOT…I mean, really hot, but it really complimented the doughy pretzel and my mouth watered just thinking pairing it with a brat.  My friend Marysa said it was hot, but in a sexy way, which totally makes sense to me.

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So, I’ll admit, our scoring wasn’t an exact science, but it was fun, and now my fridge is stocked with mustards to use every which way…I am currently googling a mustard marinade for pork chops, and how to pack mustard seeds into a sarcophagus.

*We enjoyed Rhinegeist’s Hugh Hefe Hefeweizen, and Troegs DreamWeaver wheat beer.  These beers were the perfect pairing for the spicy, tangy mustards and doughy sweet soft pretzels.   These are both light enough that they don’t overpower the mustard, but can still stand up to the kick.  Plus, neither of them have the overwhelming taste of banana!

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Keep on Hoping

You won’t often find my political opinion on here.  Snarky and self deprecating are sort of my thing, but times like this, one must take pause from all the snark.  

Yesterday was a big election, one for the books, one with much at stake, and one that I, along with many others, took very seriously.  In the hours before the votes were counted, and all the wine was consumed, I found myself day-dreaming.  I was dreaming about that glass ceiling shattering, I was dreaming about my 10 year old niece, Jasmine, learning about this historic night in school and truly believing that she could do absolutely anything.  

20 years ago, when I was Jasmine’s age, my best friend and I would hang out in her basement and play, like so many little girls.  But Shannon and I weren’t playing wedding or happy housewives.  Shannon and I were forming clubs like TKOE (Take Kare of Our Earth…ok, so we couldn’t spell,) pretending to be directors making great plays, or editors of major magazines, and even playing president.  Shannon would pretend to be the first female president, and I would pretend to be her right-hand gal.  Last night before the polls closed, I texted Shannon (who may very well still be our first female president…seriously, she’s pretty badass) and recalled the way that we used to play, as hopeful and empowered young ladies.  We spent the rest of the night texting as we began to realize that our dreams, and the dreams of the little girls that we used to be, slipped away.  

Then we cried…and cried.  I cried myself to sleep.  Seriously, I haven’t done that since I found out that N’Sync wouldn’t be putting out another album.  This morning I woke up feeling despondent.  It still doesn’t feel real.  All that progress we have made over the last hundred years feels like it has slipped away completely, and I felt completely lost.  As I was waiting in line at the drive-through of a certain coffee shop, a quote from one of my favorite movies came into my head: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing.  And no good thing ever dies.”  It pulled me out of my slump momentarily as more and more cars pulled in behind me, needing caffeine and perhaps an emotional pick-me-up too.  With those beautiful words ringing in my ear, I decided to pass along the hope.  I paid for the woman’s coffee behind me, maybe she supported Trump, maybe she didn’t vote at all, or maybe she was feeling just like me.  And maybe buying her coffee encouraged her to buy the person’s coffee behind her, and so on and so on.  Maybe not…but I feel hopeful that I at least made her day a little better.  It made me think, these next 4 years will be a challenge, and maybe they will be a nightmare, but I promised myself this morning as I took my first sip of joe, that I will not lose hope.  I hope you all can do the same.

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Election Night Nervous Eating

Election night is upon us and as a child raised to enjoy the democratic process, and as an adult who is always looking for an excuse to part-ay, I am thinking about having some friends over to watch history be made…or watch the world end, either one.

I love love love to entertain.   The whole reason we got this apartment is because it has a big open kitchen with an island, that is perfect for having friends over.  I am not the kind of gal who opens up a package of sharp cheddar and calls it a day.   No no, there is a spread involved, my friends.  I typically change up menus depending on the season, but there are two standards that I serve for any soiree.  The first is warmed up brie (yes, it’s as simple as it sounds.  If you can punch a ballot, you can heat up some brie.)  The second is my mom’s famous garlic pizza.  These make for the perfect, nervous eating, snacks.  

Here are your step by steps for the extremely simple, crowd pleasing bites.

Warm Brie:

Ingredients:

  • Brie (duh) – the entire wheel.  I like La Bonne Vie – well priced, nice taste.
  • Honey
  • Seasonal fruits or nuts
  • Crackers

Preparation:

  • Preheat oven to 350
  • Line small cookie sheet with parchment paper, set brie on paper
  • Place in oven for 5-7 minutes (keep a watchful eye!  You can reduce or add time depending on how gooey you want the cheese.)
  • Once cheese is melted and bubbly, drizzle with honey, and top with whatever seasonal fruits and/or nuts you’d prefer

I love to use pears, raspberries, blueberries or almonds for my topping.   This is a great opportunity to play with what’s around during the season and always keeps it interesting.   On some occasions I’ve pretended that I was bouji and got some fancy crackers, but I always go back to Wheat Thins.  I love Wheat Thins.  Specifically the Reduced Fat Wheat Thins.  Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about them.  They are sturdy, delicious, and if I ever get trapped on a deserted island, I want a box of Reduced Fat Wheat Thins with me.  

Ok – now onto the piece de resistance… the Garlic Pizzas

Ingredients:Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

  • Frozen bread dough or pre-made pizza crust
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tsp Garlic powder
  • 2 tsp Dry oregano
  • 2 tbs Ricotta
  • 2 tbs pesto
  • 1 cup Italian cheese blend

Preparation:

  • Preheat oven to 425
  • Grease a rimmed cookie sheet
  • Spread defrosted dough onto cookie sheet
  • Spread minced garlic with hands across dough
  • Sprinkle garlic powder and oregano
  • With spatula spread ricotta and pesto
  • Sprinkle cheese blend across dough, cover from end to end
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes, until dough is golden brown

This is so easy and so versatile, you can seriously put any toppings you want on the pizza.  Don’t be afraid to get creative – however do be afraid to kiss anyone for the next 2 days.  Seriously, it is loaded with garlic.  One of the best things about this pizza is that you can make it ahead of time, cover with saran wrap and pop it in the oven right before guests come over.

So there you have it – some delightful dishes, ones that I plan to serve on election night and probably for every party I ever throw until the end of time….which might be next week, depending on the results.

Oh, and don’t forget to vote.