Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fall In - Introduction

So excited we are entering my favorite season. Autumn leaves and comfy sweaters can usually make up for the fact that it is getting increasingly darker when I leave the office at 5pm. I'm looking forward to some fun posts this month including:
   - Carving pumpkins (Bob's a bit of an expert)
   - Halloween decor (think more harvest and less skulls and spiders)
   - Apple, Squash and Pumpkin recipes (the Long Grove Apple Fest is next weekend!)
   - Costume ideas that do not involve short shorts (sorry fellas, I'm all about the layers if I have to be walking around outside on October 31)

I will kick Autumn off with a fantastic cookie recipe that I got from my brother-in-law. A perfect fall treat. Go ahead and make two batches, your co-workers will thank you.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookie

24 servings
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 egg
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda (dissolved in 1 tsp milk)

1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 375.

Mix pumpkin, sugar, oil and egg in medium bowl. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon in large bowl. Add pumpkin mixture along with soda and milk mixture. Mix in chocolate chips and vanilla. Drop tablespoon sized dollops onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Room by Room - The Guest Bedroom

It has been awhile since an apartment update and I must admit this guest room still has a few loose ends! However, as I started snapping pictures I realized how long one post would get so I think I'll still have plenty to talk about when the room is Done with a capital "D."

I had come from a studio apartment, albeit a very large studio in which my bed occupied a space reserved for a dining room table, creating a "bedroom-ish" (bonus: I could reach my arm out to microwave something if the need would have ever arose). Therefore, having actual bedrooms plural was enough to put a permanent smile on my face. Finally, guests would have an option other than my couch to camp out on.

As with the rest of the apartment, the owners had painted colors we loved and left the drapes. Hence the bold red and goldie curtains that helped us define the color scheme.

If you are looking at my first photo and thinking "are those twin beds?" you are correct. Bob inherited them with the bedding from his uncle's guest room and, after initial balking, I came around on the idea of them in the second bedroom. Inspiration came from a photo spread in a Domino showcasing some adorable twin bed pairings (see below). Plus, it is nice not to force non-couples to share my not-quite-queen size IKEA Malm. We saw some budget savings with not having to spring for all new bedding at this time, but I would love to cover the small accent pillows to lighten up the beds. Any ideas on fabrics?

How do we save some money while decorating the apartment? Craigslist furniture hunting! Of course, this method works best when one actually reads and measures the dimensions listed for the furniture. Bob and I were drawn to a $35 Mersman end table we thought we could use as a nightstand. All it needs is a fresh coat of spray paint. However, when we got it in, we realized it stuck out about half the length of the beds. Big Oops. So, we turned it sideways (who needs a drawer anyways?), and plan to paint the "front" slightly different and add a faux knob. Plus, it spreads the beds apart a bit further giving more room for this sheepskin rug from IKEA. Credit with giving me the idea to pick one of these up. I'm not sure why IKEA has it listed at $40 as it was closer to $20. Thinking of upgrading to a larger one for this room and moving this little guy to our closet. A nice treat for our feet in the mornings.

As I am sure many second bedrooms do, ours also acts as our office. The blond wood desk was actually built by one of Bob's relatives. To make it fit against this wall we had to close off one of the french doors. This has not been a problem, although our guests are missing out on being able to swing both doors open with a flourish, ready to start their mornings. 2 filing drawers house - what else - our files, and my printer sits atop them. A red Pottery Barn tray holds post-its, pens and a giant paper clip that seems to breed Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons. We got our land line through Magic Jack, of which the jury is still out on. Though incredibly cheap, it requires an internet connection so if our computer hibernates or if we lose the wireless we don't have the phone. Hmm. . .

The theme of the room is "Vintage Travel" and there are touches throughout:

- gave us our 27x40 "headboards" of Nice and Japan while these two 20x28 frames hang above the desk.

- A bookshelf contains globes, all of our travel books, and a few key photos from past trips. If you want a fun read, check out No Touch Monkey, a travel essay collection that will either make you want to jump on a plane tomorrow or never leave your house after hearing some of the author's stories.

- In a post about puzzles I mentioned we would be attaching one to the wall in our guest bedroom and you can see Rome represented here - stuck on with Command Mounting Strips.

- Piano music from the movie "San Francisco" is framed and perched on a nightstand holding coffee table books, A CD alarm clock with CDs and the card deck 52 Adventures in Chicago which begs to be flipped through.

- A metal road sign straight from England leans against a wall.

Cue the Oprah-like voice over: "Guests of Lydia and Bob stay in a fabulous travel-themed guest room and receive such amenities as Fiji water and endless candies on the nightstand, all the travel sized toiletries you could ask for, full use of an in-room office and - let's face it - some pretty great company."

Monday, September 21, 2009

"I Could Make That" - Wine Cabinet

You got a sneak peek at our Wine Cabinet when I wrote about the Dining Room so I'm back to share what we did to turn a simple bathroom cabinet from Target into a mini bar.

The main issue with this re-imagining was the depth of the cabinet. Meant for towels and toiletries, not for corkscrews and chianti, the door would not close if a wine bottle was laid on its side. The back of the cabinet was attached with small nails so it was easy to remove. We cut a couple pieces of wood from Home Depot to fit and nailed the frame together. However, before gluing the frame to the back we realized we should have listened to the old adage of "measure twice, cut once." It was thisclose, but the door still would not shut properly.

One more layer of wood was glued to the first frame and then we used wood glue to snap the new and improved back into place. After giving the frame some time to gel with heavy books on the corners, it was all set. Note that the shelf holding the glasses does not go all the way to the back of the cabinet because of the extension. We'll need to be careful how far the stemware goes back or else get even craftier and add an extra part to the shelf.

Although the wood frame is not very visible based on the location of the cabinet, I plan to spray paint the whole thing in the coming weeks. Just have to wait for a trip to the suburbs - did you know there is a city ordinance banning the sale of spray paint in the city of Chicago? Although I am sure I could tag with the best of them, I will use it only for goofy projects like this - I swear Mr. Daley!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Making Memorable Cards

What can you do with all of the items in this photo?

Make a personalized celebrity story for someone!

The first card I made was for my sister’s 24th birthday on September 11, 2002. There were lots of ads for the new show “24” in my Entertainment Weekly so I decided to write a story that involved Kiefer Sutherland trying to locate my sister who went missing because she did not want to make a big deal of her birthday. He enlisted the help of Jennifer Aniston and Jimmy Fallon who found her after an exhausting cross-country search. They let her know they all wanted to help her celebrate and that they had arranged a special concert with P.Diddy.

The stories end up being about 10 index card sized pages, front and back. No real rules other than a cast list at the start and a special surprise concert given by P.Diddy at the end of each one. I punch two holes in each of the pages to bind the book together with dental floss. I could use ribbon but it gets a bit thick and hard to turn the pages. I suppose I could invest in string, but dental floss is handy enough (and is oh so minty fresh). I've accidentally put a hole through my writing before, so I typically put the pictures nearest to the binding side. I’ve done about 20 cards over the years for friends and family, so they are definitely an intermittent endeavor and aren't cranked out consistently.I start by flipping through my old magazines to see what pictures stand out. Usually a cast of 3 will need 6-7 pictures of each and, of course, the obligatory P.Diddy cameo at the end. The celebrity photos sometimes help me build out the story - one starred Jared Leto for the sheer fact that I found a picture of him eating corn on the cob and just had to use it! “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us!” in US Weekly provides some great action shots. On the other hand, if I have the story in my head already then it’s the more difficult search for photos that match the text. Hence, this latest card starred Beyonce and Liam Neeson because they are the only celebrities I could find talking on the phone! There are usually some inside jokes or personal touches for the recipient peppered throughout.Storylines are about as simple and absurd as I can make them – like Keira Knightly trying to thwart a surprise birthday party put on by Steve Martin and Kristin Davis (whom I wrote as a married couple, then about a month later I saw a rumor they had started dating, eerie!). I also tend to write the first thing that comes into my head which can make for some interesting dialogue and even more interesting penmanship while my hand tries to catch up to my mind. I think my favorite line was from something called the “Pitt-Jolie Family News Hour” when Brad Pitt says, “Sports coming up after the break. Maddox on Maddux: my six year old Cambodian son will discuss Greg Maddux’s move to the Dodgers.”

Since I have all the materials on hand, the cards don't cost me anything except time. Each one takes 2 to 4 hours, with the photo search being the most time-consuming. However, I am always happy with the results and I hope the recipients are too!

PS. I do a six month purge of my entertainment magazines so as not to have a room full of mags to search through. A 14-year subscription to Entertainment Weekly could get a bit unwieldy otherwise. However, home magazines like Domino and Real Simple stay tucked away in magazine filers for periodic inspiration!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"I Could Make That" - Tub Decor

I went on an Amazon shopping spree recently that included the decorating book, The Nest. The book contains endless inspiration, including the above photo. We had started looking around for a candle display for master bath jacuzzi tub, but in the back of my head I knew we could get a bit more creative. Also, try as I might, I'm still not a huge candle person. I'm coming around, but am always afraid the house is going to burn down. So, when I saw this stand filled with luxurious soaps and bath accessories, I thought, "I could make that!" First step was googling "soap stand" but I didn't get too far with that one. Then I realized it sort of resembled a cake stand and I could just buy one of those. With prices of $30 and up on cake stands, my next thought was "maybe I could make a cake stand. . ." A couple searches later and I had my answer. Props to this blog for giving me the best how-to tutorial.

Inspired by the IKEA Hacker blog, I started with the short Skimmer candlestick (this candlestick) and a Smarta pie plate similar to this (can't find the exact one online). I wanted to paint the stand purple to match our master bath decor, so rather than buy a whole container, I took red paint and blue paint I already had and mixed them together. A couple coats later, it was starting to come together. . .
I bought Gorilla Glue at Blick (a day later seeing it for a dollar cheaper at Home Depot - d'oh!) and applied a thin layer on the top of the candlestick. Adhere to the instructions when it says "thin layer" - it expands while drying and could easily get out of control. I centered the candlestick on the pie plate by using a ruler to measure radius all the way around and weighted it down with a couple books. The Gorilla Glue said wait one hour for it to dry, but I left it overnight to be on the safe side. After painting the glue that expanded past the candlestick with some of my leftover purple it was all set for the bathroom.

World Market was having a bath and body sale so I stocked up on lavender, lilac, honey and vanilla soaps. Adding pretty jars of bath salts and bubble bath along with a couple loofah accessories rounded out the display.

Added benefit: the bathroom smells great thanks to the open soaps!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hosting Book Club - The Food

We hold book club in the evenings, usually lasting 2 1/2 to 3 hours, so providing a little nosh is key. After all, we need something other than wine for dinner! I picked out a few easy appetizers I knew I could make between getting home from work at 5:45 and the 7:30 start time. I was able to make the blue cheese spread the night before as it could be chilled before serving. This definitely helped my prep timeline and I would always suggest picking out at least one appetizer that you can make ahead of time. Likewise, if you have a chance earlier in the week before your get-together, make sure all the dishes you need are cleaned and ready to go.

Blue Cheese Spread
8oz block cream cheese
1/2 cup (2oz) blue cheese crumbles
1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce

2 Tbs chopped onion
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup dried cranberries

Place cream cheese in a bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until creamy. Add blue cheese and next 3 ingredients; stir well. Spoon into serving dish. Combine pecans and cranberries; sprinkle over cheese mixture. Serve immediately, or cover and chill until ready to serve. I served this with bagel chips, baguette slices and apples.

I like to make Quiche Lorraine for take-to-work lunches, but about a year ago my swiss/bacon/onion standard got a face lift thanks to an awesome recipe from Cooking Light. No need to mess with pastry crust - these guys stay together perfectly on their own! For these two-bite quiches, I took the same recipe I usually use a 9" pie plate for and split the batter up into for a 24 hole mini-muffin pan. The original recipe calls for smoked turkey ham which I have yet to find at the store, so I stick with ham proper.

Crustless Ham and Spinach Quiche
Cooking Spray
3/4 cup (4oz) cubed ham
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (3oz) shredded Swiss cheese, divided
1 cup fresh baby spinach leaves (chopped if making mini-quiches)
1 cup fat-free cottage cheese
1/2 cup evaporated fat-free milk
1/4 cup (1oz) shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese
2 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (about 2 1/4oz)
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350°. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add ham, onion, and pepper to pan; sauté 4 minutes or until ham is lightly browned. Sprinkle 1/4 cup shredded Swiss cheese in a 9-inch pie plate or mini-muffin pan coated with cooking spray. Top with ham mixture. Combine remaining 1/2 cup Swiss cheese, spinach, and next 5 ingredients (through egg whites) in a large bowl; stir with a whisk. Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour and baking powder in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add flour mixture to egg mixture, stirring with a whisk until blended. Pour egg mixture over ham mixture. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in center of quiche comes out clean.

TBM Bites 
It doesn't get much better than Caprese salads. I made some bite-sized TBMs by scooping out the insides of cherry tomatoes and stuffing in a piece of mozzerella and a sliver of basil from my herb garden. A little balsamic drizzled over the top and voila. After taking this picture I realized I should have used a different serving plate rather than have red on red. . . . rookie mistake, Lyd.

Because of my exotic book choice of Interpreter of Maladies, I wanted to attempt to add some Indian flavors to my appetizers. Never having made Indian food before, I decided to start with an find that sounded quite manageable: Gulab Jamun, an Indian dessert of spongy milky balls soaked in a rose scented syrup. I looked past the fact that the shapes of my dessert did not resemble balls in the least and overall was very happy with how they turned out. I also learned of a few new foodie items such as Ghee, Rose Water and Cardamom. I decided to leave out the almonds, raisins and pistachios just to uncomplicate the recipe a bit, but might try them for next time.

Gulab Jamun

20 servings
1 1/2 cups dry milk powder
3 Tbs all-purpose flour
2 Tbs ghee (clarified butter), melted
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup warm milk
1 Tbs chopped almonds (optional)
1 Tbs chopped pistachio nuts (optional)
1 Tbs golden raisins (optional)

1 pinch ground cardamom
1 quart vegetable oil for deep frying

 1 1/4 cups white sugar
7 fluid oz water
1 tsp rose water

1 pinch ground cardamom

In a large bowl, stir together the milk powder, flour, baking powder, and cardamom. Stir in the almonds, pistachios and golden raisins. Mix in the melted ghee, then pour in the milk a bit at a time, and continue to mix until well blended. Cover and let rest for at least 20 minutes.

In a large skillet, stir together the sugar, water, rose water and a pinch of cardamom. Bring to a boil, and simmer for just a minute. Set aside. Fill a large heavy skillet halfway with oil. Heat over medium heat for at least 5 minutes. Knead the dough, and form into about 20 small balls. Reduce the heat of the oil to low, and fry the balls in one or two batches. After about 2 minutes, they will start to float, and expand to twice their original size, but the color will not change much. After the jamun float, increase the heat to medium, and turn them frequently until light golden. Remove from the oil to paper towels using a slotted spoon, and allow to cool. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool slightly. Place the balls into the skillet with the syrup. Simmer over medium heat for about a minute or longer if you really want the syrups to absorb, squeezing them gently to soak up the syrup. Serve immediately, or chill.

Proving that all recipes have their shortcuts, one of the reviewers on made an interesting note: she replaced the flour and baking powder with 1/2 cup bisquick.

So now I can proudly say I've made Indian food (I'll just glaze over the fact that it was a relatively easy dessert). What should I tackle next?

Reading is FUNdamental

It was my turn to host Book Club this week, always a fun time getting together with those girls. I joined my co-worker's Book Club about 3 years ago and really enjoy the way the club works. We meet about every six weeks with one member choosing to host.  This person picks the book and emails the selection and date of the next meeting out to everyone. The meeting is at the host's house or somewhere convenient to her. She puts on the spread and supplies the drinks (read all about my appetizers here). What I like about this scenario is the intimacy of meeting at someone's house rather than at a restaurant or book store coffee shop where distractions run high.

Unless you have an established timeframe - like you only meet on Mondays - using a
Doodle scheduling tool helps plan for the best date for all. This tool is extremely helpful when it comes to scheduling conference calls for work - especially when my committee members are located in Argentina, California, London and Chicago. I've also been using Doodle to plan happy hours, brunches, movie nights and more. Get on the bandwagon and soon enough you too can "Do a Doodle."

Having between 10 and 12 people in the club ensures that your turn to host is not going to come up every couple months and you can choose the time of year that works best for you. A larger book club also ensures that even with the inevitable conflicts folks will have there will still be a good sized group available. I actually had a small group this time around because of some unexpected conflicts.

My favorite part of Book Club? We actually talk about the book! Isn't that the cliche? The gals set clubs up and then just end up drinking wine and gossiping all night? Well, there is definitely wine involved, and the discussion usually starts and ends with catching up, but the majority of the time is spent discussing the latest read. The host usually has discussion questions or interesting trivia about the book available to drive the conversation. This group has even had authors local to Chicago stop by to chat about the book!

It's a great group of ladies and the club has seen marriages, babies, new relationships, new jobs, new homes and more! Christmas time brings an ornament exchange and mamas-to-be gets a basketful of our favorite children's books (an idea I updated for
my sister's baby shower). I think I need to start buying Fox in Socks in bulk!

Interested in being part of a book club, but not sure where to start?

- Local bookstores may have information about regular meetings. For example, those in Lincoln Square should check out The Book Cellar.  I'll admit, I'm a Borders addict, but nothing beats an independent bookstore - especially one that has a liquor license!
 - Query your co-workers, invite friends through facebook or send out an e-vite to see who would be interested in starting one up with you.
- Go long distance: pick out a book with a friend or two across country, provide a deadline to read it by and discuss over phone or email. Take turns picking books from different genres.
- If an established deadline is too much for your busy plate, work your latest reading endeavors into conversation with a friend you talk to regularly. Because of our busy schedules (it's amazing how far away two floors up can seem), I catch up with a co-worker probably only about once a month in the hallway or on the phone/email, but we always make it a point to ask what we've been reading lately. It's a great way to get recommendations and hear about new books.

A few of our more popular Book Club picks:

Loving Frank - historical fiction about Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress. Delicious scandal that is almost too crazy to be true.
Moloka'i - you'll learn more about the leper colonies of Hawaii than you ever thought you could know.
The Book Thief - Set in WWII, it follows a little girl in Nazi Germany trying to make sense of it all. Narrated by someone surprising, it's hard to believe this book is found in the Young Adult section (you know, right next to Twilight).
The Glass Castle - When you read this author's account of her childhood, you'll want to hug your parents for providing you with the basics.
The Other Boleyn Girl - this was the first book I read with the group and definitely a hit. Deception, affairs and back-stabbing sisters - it's like Melrose Place with royalty.

Since I hosted this month, it was also my turn to pick the book.  I chose Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. It has been sitting on my shelf for a few months and I had been looking forward to reading it. I love Indian Novels and read her second book, The Namesake. It is a collection of short stories and a very short collection at that. Really interesting stories that seemed true to life, some a bit depressing, but you can find the humor when you start looking.

Time to start reading!