Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday in Photos

This last Monday, I went to Melanie's house in Beacon for a photo shoot. We were there to shoot some projects from Heather Ross's upcoming book, Heather Ross Prints. But while we were there, Melanie let me use her Nikon to document the day (look out for the official "behind the scenes" look at the photo shoot on the STC Craft blog next week.) In the meantime, as I was perusing the photos I took, I couldn't help but see some as companions. Though I'm no graphic designer, making mood boards is one of my favorite things. So in this blog post, I present to you some pairings, courtesy of Melanie's house-and-camera, and Heather Ross Prints.

In the photo above, I love how the pink of the Tab soda can and the beadwork on Karen's moccasins matches the pinks in Heather's tablecloth, and how both photos are filled with that perfect grassy green.

Melanie had these old-fashioned sock blockers hanging on the back of her office door. Looped over them were a garland of flowers, not unlike these actual flowers that were growing in her garden.

Heather sent us a package with just about every piece of fabric in her line, but she also included this intriguing Pantone-printed fabric swatch from Spoonflower. I very much enjoy finding the perfect Pantone match to all of the colors that appear in Melanie's neighbor's garden.

And finally, the whimsical: Heather's pincushions and Melanie's dog, Molly. Each of them adorable.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Giant Flowers, Small Potatoes

Friends, I come to you with dirty fingernails and a full heart today. As I mentioned in a completely ridiculous Facebook post yesterday, not only has my Big Rainbow tomato plant--my favorite of all the heirlooms, of course--decide to die, but my dear friend Nicole has decided to move back to L.A. (And here is the ridiculous part): Brooklyn will be less juicy and delicious without both.

And yes, when I'm sad I think in fruit-related metaphors. It's sort of my thing.

And so I found myself a bit confused and--I won't lie--slightly annoyed when I went outside this morning and discovered these gigantic pink cheerful flowers. Every year, right around this time, they bloom in our neighbor's yard, and none of us has any idea what they are. But each year, they seem to grow out from nothing and are suddenly there, a big pink reminder that August has nearly arrived.
Today, they were a shock to my mood. There I was, all ready to stand before the Big Rainbow tomato plant and mourn its lost potential, followed by a walk to work where I would imagine Nicole packing up her car (which she was doing at that very moment) and driving toward the city limits. But no, this was the day that the giant pink flowers decided to arrive. I think they knew I was sulking.

Or maybe they bloomed days ago and I've been too busy sulking to notice. (But for the love of Pete, how could someone not notice such a large, pink flower? I guess that's more of a philosophical question than a real one.)
And so I stopped and counted my blessings, of which there are many.
And then, feeling lucky, I suppose, I got out my trowel and dug around in the potato bucket for a minute. (I know, that was sort of a jerky transition...giant flower to potato?) The plant has started dying back over the last month, which I guess means that the potatoes are, um, ready. So I sunk my trowel deep into the dirt, and boom, hit something solid yet decidedly not rock hard. I scooped aside some dirt and there it was.
A potato.

The moral of the story is this: Blessings come in funny packages. And today, I was comforted by a great big bunch of gigantic pink flowers and a single tiny potato. I take them as signs of forward movement, for me, for Nicole, and even for Big Rainbow, which will probably go in the compost pile, generating next season's new life.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Vermont...In Pictures

This last weekend, Robb and I decided to get all romantic and adult-like and go to Vermont. A place we had never been! Adventure! We have always spoken of Vermont in an off-hand way, saying things like "When we leave the city some day and buy our farm in Vermont," without actually knowing what Vermont even looks like. And so we went! Here are a few things that we learned while there:
-The cheeses are kick-ass, every last one of them
-Every square inch is covered in greenery and lakes
-There are horse flies that look like wasps and are really annoying
-Comfortable shoes are a popular choice for the ladies
-For men, shirts are optional
-Maple syrup abounds, but covered bridges were not on every corner, as I had imagined
-Bars close at 11

We started our weekend in Brattleboro, an old town that we picked off the map and chose solely based on the art deco movie theater that was showing Harry Potter (which, mind you, we went to see on our 1-year wedding anniversary). Before the movie, we went out and had a lovely dinner which included this amazing salad: giant cubes of yellow and red watermelon and feta, drizzled with olive oil and paired with arugula and fennel. Amazing! 
We also got to open our card from Kurt that he gave to us on our wedding day with clear instructions not to open for a year. I particularly like the giant "Nope" over the envelope opening.
Brattleboro is a little bit of a new-agey town, so they had lots of great shops geared toward yogis and meditation practices and an ample selection of saris. This one shop we went into was selling old Bollywood posters (so cool!) as well as these wooden block stamps for printing fabric. (And they had this handy photo showing somebody hand-printing fabric, which was helpful. Can you believe how exact his prints are?)
After antiquing and other sorts of shopping and slow walking that made Robb exclaim "God, we are old," we packed up the car and headed west to go camping. (That is where we discovered the not-hornet flies!)
All along the drive were these gorgeous wild flower/weeds, and they reminded me SO MUCH of Heather Ross's fabric. She grew up in Vermont and it was so cool to see how much her childhood surroundings have influenced her fabric.
When I got back to town, I wrote to Heather and told her about the bright white spray flowers and the yellow globey ones and the shorter purple ones, and of course she knew what I meant, informing me that "Those white flowers are Queen Anne's Lace, which are part of the carrot / hemlock family. If you look very closely at them there is a single tiny flower in the middle of that white lacy spray that is the color of dried blood. They are named for Anne Boleyn, who favored big flat lacy white colors, upon which she shed a great deal of blood, eventually." Heather then immediately followed this information by telling me that she loves cheese. It made sense in context, I swear.
At night, while we were camping, Robb and I sat around the fire and talked about how we were probably going to run out of firewood and maybe we should go get some more firewood, but maybe it would be a better idea if we just enjoyed the fire while it lasts. We finally decided to go on a little night hike around the campground and pillaged wood abandoned by other campers, bringing back half-smoldered logs to our fire ring. On the way, I shone my flashlight on things and took these photos. They made me feel very creative. (And I swear, I was not on any hallucinogens.)
The next day we went to a lake...we don't know which one. There are so many in Vermont! We blew up our new handy-dandy twin air mattress and floated about for awhile. It was about as perfect as it gets. We also ate a lot of Vermont cheese. Which adds to the perfection.
And then we decided to go to a farm and pick berries. Yes, this is another activity that Robb identified as "things old people do," but I argued that it's also, in general, something that "white people do." And it turns out I was right!
And so we were given plastic coffee canisters--in blue for blueberries and red for raspberries--with straps so that you can wear them around your body like a real berry-picking nerd, and we were told to drive up the hill to the raspberry patch and avoid the "agitated hornets nest" near the tree. Great.
Turns out that picking berries is totally awesome! Just look at how much fun Robb is having!
And in case you were wondering, this is what a raspberry looks like before you pick it.
And this is what a raspberry looks like after. And then you eat it.

But really, I just liked to take glamorous hilltop photos of myself while Robb does all the work behind me.

And that, my friends, is why it's been over a week since my last post.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Individual Ice Cream Cakes with Homemade Magic Shell

I really could have just stopped typing after writing the title of this post. The title and the recipe for the homemade Magic Shell is all you really need to know, right? Well, I can't help myself...I could wax poetic about the magic and mystery of these cupcakes for the rest of my life. So it is with great enthusiasm that I present to you my latest brainchild: Individual Ice Cream Cakes with Homemade Magic Shell.

(I had to say it again.)

This last weekend, Robb and I hosted an engagement barbecue for two very dear friends, Jess and Ryan. And though an engagement party is usually a grown-up classed-up occasion, we thought Jess and Ryan would enjoy a different approach. So instead we opted for burgers and pinatas in addition to  champagne. Since Ryan has a sweet tooth, I knew I needed to do some kind of dessert. And so it was pure kismet when, two weeks ago, my sister reminded me about the ice cream cake I had made her for her birthday about ten years ago. That cake was highly experimental and involved a 9" cake pan with a thin cake on the bottom, a layer of fresh sliced strawberries, and ice cream packed tightly into the top part of the cake pan. I then doused the whole thing with Magic Shell--I believe it was a very thorough, very thick coating. I recall, for some reason, that it had some problems. Like the frozen strawberries were hard as rocks, or the Magic Shell was tough to cut through, and a "piece" came out of the pan more like a clump. But the concept...I knew there was something there. So ten years later, I decided to try it again in a more manageable cupcake format.

I started with the cake layer, of course. And because we were making a lot of other food for this barbecue and I didn't have a ton of time, I opted to go the Betty Crocker box-cake route (which is always bafflingly tasty if not slightly skanky). I also used prepackaged ice cream, though someday I plan to make these entirely from scratch: homemade cake, homemade ice cream AND homemade Magic Shell. For now, I will just enjoy the irony that the Magic Shell was the only thing in this dessert that I made "from scratch."

I used silver cupcake liners, assuming that the metal would help keep the ice cream cool. Also, I assumed paper would turn to mush after the ice cream began to melt in the heat of a July afternoon. Right? I filled each cup with between 1/8 and 1/4 cup of batter and baked 'em up.

Once the cakes had cooled, I grabbed my two favorite flavors of ice cream--mint chip and coffee chip--and started quickly scooping ice cream on top of each cupcake. I experimented with two strategies: pressing the ice cream down flat so there was a perfect seal between cake and ice cream, and doing more rounded scoops that I sort of firmly pressed into the cake whilst keeping the scoop shape. Aesthetically, I wound up preferring the latter, plus when you pour on the Magic Shell, it sort of drips down into the gaps between the ice cream and cake, filling in those empty spots and making hard little rivulets of crunchy yumminess. However you do it, you'll need to work fast, because, well, ice cream melts. If the ice cream gets too soft, put the carton and the cupcakes back in the freezer and let them harden up again, otherwise it will be hard to get that perfect little scoop shape.

My original intent was NOT to make Magic Shell from scratch. In fact, I only thought of it because it turns out that my local supermarket doesn't carry Magic Shell, but I had already baked my cupcakes and I was hell bent on the concept. So after some Internet sleuthing, I found what turned out to be the recipe. Ready? Here it is:

1 1/4 cups chocolate chips (or any kind of chocolate you like)
1/2 cup coconut oil

Melt them together in the microwave for about a minute, stir until smooth, and drizzle over ice cream.

That's it! Magic, right? I had always thought that Magic Shell was some sort of chemically produced slightly sinister confection, but the concept is really soo so so so simple: coconut oil is liquid when it's heated and hardens up when it's cold. So if you combine the coconut oil and chocolate when they're warm, then pour them over something cold, whamo, it hardens up. SO COOL. Terrifyingly, the same concept would work with butter or crisco or even lard--any kind of fat that hardens up at room temp or colder--but, um, I'm gonna stick to coconut oil for now.


The Magic Shell sauce is actually very thin, perfect for drizzling on in its trademark rivulets.

And then almost immediately the chocolate begins to seize up (in the photo above you can see the transformation before your very eyes!)


And then, finally, they get their perfectly shellacked finish.

They were treated with an enthusiastic reception at the barbecue! I didn't try one before the party, so I had the pure pleasure of watching people grab them off of the tray as I passed it around and start chomping into them.

For me, the beauty is when you pull away the wrapper and examine the cupcake's cross-section. Something about that cakey bottom, the about-to-start-melting ice cream layer, and glistening hardened chocolate, each layer fluted around the edges by the pleated cupcake liner. It is in that moment that you get a rush (could it be adrenaline?) when you realize, my God, I have to start eating this fast, for you know that it's at its very best when the ice cream is cold and the Magic Shell is crisp.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Beers, Boats, and Tunics

Last weekend, my dear friend, Morgan, who lives in a lake house, was kind enough to invite all of her hooligan friends (myself included) to come spend the 4th of July with her family. She lives in Peekskill, just a quick 90 minutes outside of Manhattan. (Fun piece of trivia: Peekskill is the town where The Facts of Life was supposed to take place! I have sort of a fantasy--which I spoke to Morgan about this weekend--of opening up a bakery in Peekskill called Edna's Edibles, though I am unsure if the locals will A) get the joke, or B) want to run me out of town with torches. Also, I'm not that great of a baker [see previous post.]) Anywho, there were six of us and a large 130 pound dog named Biscuit who piled into a car fit for only five people. That is how determined we all were to get the hell out of Manhattan and onto the lake!
This is Biscuit, in case you were wondering! And also Julie!, who got a tummy ache later from drinking too many sugary malt-liquor beverages.
This is pretty much how the day was spent: Get in your bathing suit and climb onto something that floats. If your inflatable thing has a cozy, attempt to keep your beer from tipping out of it. Dry off, get a fresh beer, repeat. 
Chris, Shana, and Tessa...don't their tattoos all look nice together? 
In this photo, above, we have a combination of floating things: one is the "pod," which Chris snagged, and the girls are reclining on the little sailboat that they called Son of Deck, since, when tied up to the dock, it was basically just an extension of the deck. Since none of them knew how to hoist the sails, they somehow convinced Chris to tow them out to the middle of the lake via kicking and paddling on his pod. He then left them out there to die. Well, that is, until Shana took matters into her own hands by diving into the water and swimming back toward land, towing the boat behind her with a rope. Tessa, who is seen here holding a paddle, was useless. But we love her!
And finally, because I was wearing my tunic and had my lakey mermaid hair going on, I insisted that Robb take a photo of me wearing my Alabama Studio Style tunic--my most beloved hand-stitched garment that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Here it is on on an actual body! Mine, in fact! And though it looks like I'm wearing an obscenely short dress, I assure you that there are shorts on under there. No really, I wouldn't just walk around in front of my friends in an uber-short tunic. I promise.
After a round of s'mores, we watched the sun set, our idyllic day of pastoral fun times having come to an end. And really, it looked just like this, all pinks and blues. We huddled on the dock, some of us sleepy, some a little tipsy, and some a bit nostalgic for summers past. All together, we watched the neighbors shoot off fireworks over the lake. And then we piled back into the car, cramming our behinds into the back seat, and sang stupid songs (I don't even think the radio was on), just as though we were coming back from camp. And actually, I guess that you could say we were.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fireworks & Hamburger Cakes

When I was a teenager, 4th of July was my favorite holiday. The hot weather, the fireworks, warm nights spent out on our quiet street in Thousand Oaks. So quiet, in fact, that on summer nights, me and my friends used to lay down in the middle of the street and look at the stars, which were easy to spot on our hill, away from bright city lights. At some point in my late teens, me and my friends began planning car rallies--which are, essentially, elaborate scavenger hunts that we would set up all over town--on the night before 4th of July, and people would fill their cars with friends and drive from point to point, hunting for clues. At one stop, you might have to dig around a playground until you found the next clue taped to the underside of a swing. At other stops, you might be greeted by one of the planners, who would make someone in your car draw a picture of a pirate. My favorite was the time we made it so you couldn't get your next clue until you gave our friend's mom, Mrs. Reisser, a cigarette. So if no one in your car smoked, you had to go buy a pack and circle back around! We were so very mean. The winning car of the rally always won something really terrible--like, a bunch of stuff from someone's junk drawer, or maybe a mug from Denny's. But the loser always won what we called The Hamburger Cake, which was a prepared cake that you could buy at Albertson's that was made in the shape of a giant hamburger with frostinged-on beef, lettuce, and ketchup. Alongside the cake, of course, were golden cakey fries and a dollop of ketchup-colored frosting to dip them in.

And so it was in a moment of 4th of July nostalgia and passion that I decided to make these cookies. I saw them a few days ago--Martha Stewart's Fireworks Cookies--and I thought to myself, now there's something that I could really make look terrible. As much as I knew I should not attempt to make these cookies, I couldn't help myself. You see, we're going to Morgan's lake house tomorrow, and she's an old friend from back in the car rally days. And, well, there's a little piece of me that enjoys taking something that Martha Stewart perfected and photographed beautifully, and giving it the old Liana spin (i.e., effing it the eff up.)

And so I rolled up my sleeves and made the sugar cookie dough, recalling as I started to roll it out that I don't even really like sugar cookies. I mean, I'd rather have a chocolate chip cookie any day of the week! But still, I carried on, reminding myself that no one ever wanted to eat the hamburger cake. It's more about making a spectacle than making something delicious.

As I manhandled the frosting and coerced it into pastry bags, I also recalled that I don't have much patience for frosting things. And so I hurriedly squeezed out my frosting and ran my toothpick through the concentric circles, and sort of counted the seconds until it was all over. When the cookies were all frosted, however,  I looked at them all together and decided that I LOVE them. They're not so much "patriotic" or "firework-esque" as they are groovy psychedelic hippie cookies, with flower and spiderweb motifs. Totally fine by me. God bless America...these cookies are ridiculous.

In honor of the hamburger cake (i.e., making something weird out of a confection), I used the leftover dough to sculpt what started out as a pig, and then turned into a bear, but eventually became a sheep, all precariously held together with icing that gooped in drips and drabs on its way to becoming hardened.

But I love him all the same. Perhaps we will come up with a game tomorrow at the lake where the pig/bear/sheep will be the last place prize?

And finally, because it's July!!, I thought it was high time to give you a wee garden update. The pole beans and snap peas are my favorite new arrivals. Each morning I go outside hunting for them. They grow inches each day, I swear! And the more you pick them, the more they grow. I spend quite a bit of time internally debating whether each one is long enough to pick, if I should let it grow just a bit longer, or if it's better to get it off the vine. And once I do, what shall I cook? Are there any recipes that only call for six pole beans?

The tomatoes are at my favorite point in their growth--vibrant healthy green with rich and earthy smells that cling to your skin, eau de tomato. And best of all, the plants aren't yet out of control. They're tall--about up to my waist--but aren't yet falling over onto each other, weighed down with fruit, twelve plants turned into a singular mass of unruly tomato monster. It happens every year, and you'll see it this August, but for now, I'm enjoying these little yellow flowers and petite green tomatoes. They're perky, right?

Last and decidedly weirdest, the cucumbers. They have started their awkward climb to pickledom. The plant produces these big yellow flowers, and then the cucumber starts to emerge from behind the flower, literally pushing it away from the plant on its tip. I think this is the most ridiculous looking life-form in the garden. It's like if Pinocchio not only had a long nose, but a giant flower on the end. Or it's like  some sort of sexy get-up, like a cabaret dancer wearing pasties...but just on one boob. And yet, and yet! When the cucumber is all grown in a few weeks and I'm eating it on my sandwich, I'll no longer be thinking it's so ridiculous. Though, now that I've said that thing about pasties, I might be thinking about bad.

Either which way, happy summer everyone. Thanks for reading along with my summertime nostalgia and my present revery. May you all find your equivalent of fireworks, hamburger cakes, lake swims, and warm evenings.