Best Advent Calendars of 2018

Over the weekend we ran into Target for a few basics and were shocked to be greeted with an overwhelming amount Christmas. Peppermint everything!  Artificial Trees!  Stocking-stuffer end caps!  Honestly, it was all too much for me.  I’m not, strictly speaking, much of a holidays person.  I think most holiday decor is clutter.  I don’t feel bad about not being ready for the holidays, it’s only the second week in November.  That being said, I’ve noticed an interesting trend online lately:  Advent calendars for literally everything.  Growing up, we never had an advent calendar, so it isn’t a tradition I feel really strongly about.  Typically I think these calendars have chocolate candies inside, but I found calendars for basically everything but.  I do think that it’s a neat way to try out a new brand because you are essentially paying for 25 samples of their products.  Here’s a round up of some of coolest ones I found: 

Food: 

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Bonne Maman 

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Ginvent Calendar 

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Coffee

Beauty: 

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Net-A-Porter 25 Days of Beauty 

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Jo Malone 

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Kiehl’s 

Miscellaneous: 

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Lego 

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Diptyque 

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H&M Jewelry 

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Socks

Apple Tart

Apple Tart 

Recently I made an apple tart that I really liked.  It wasn’t too sweet and the thin layer of apples made for a great balance of crust and filling.  Another reason why I like the tart format is because it is less indulgent than a piece of pie, because there is a little less crust and filling.  Aside from the time it takes to peel the apples, the tart came together very quickly.  This is a pretty adaptable recipe so if you want it more or less sweet, feel free to adjust the amount of sugar.

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Ingredients 

Crust

1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp. Sugar
1 tsp. Salt
1/2 c butter (1 stick), cubed
1/4 c cold water

Filling

4-5 Granny Smith or other Tart Apples, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tbl of brown sugar
1 tbl of butter, cut in pieces
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt

Topping

4 tbl butter, cubbed
3/4 c flour
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. Cinnamon
1/4 tsp. Flakey sea salt
Method 

Start with the crust.  I cube the butter first, then, put it in a bowl and stick it in the freezer while I measure out the other ingredients.  It won’t freeze while it hangs out there for a few minutes, but it will stay nicely chilled.  Next, mix the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl.  Add the butter and either with your hands, a mixer, a pastry blender, a food processor, etc.  incorporate the butter until the mixture is course, but some pea-sized pieces of butter remain.  Add the water and mix until it holds together.  Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and pop it into the fridge for about an hour to chill.

In the same bowl that I use to make the crust, I will start to make the topping.  The topping recipe is pretty… open to interpretation.  The key elements are flour, brown sugar, butter, and salt, but I add to the crumble until it looks, feels, and tastes right. Sometimes I add oatmeal, different spices (maybe some cardamom, or cloves?), nuts, etc. In this case, I think walnuts work really well. The end result is sort of like wet sand.  If it’s too wet, add flour, and if it’s too floury, add butter.  I use a similar method to the pie crust – first add all the dry ingredients and mix well, then incorporate the butter.  Once a good consistency and taste is achieved, cover the bowl and pop it in the fridge.

Peeling and prepping the apples is probably the most time consuming task.  I really think it is worth it to put effort into slicing the apples into reasonably equal pieces and arranging them in the tart, even though it will be covered with topping.  After peeling the apples, I cut 1/4” slices.  I piled all the slices into a bowl and doused them with brown sugar, pieces of butter, cinnamon, and a tiny pinch of salt.  After stirring to incorporate, I let the apples macerate for at least 30 minute, stirring occasionally.

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Finally, it’s time to assemble the pie.  Start by pre-heating the oven to 350F.  Roll out the dough into a disc about two inches larger than the pan.  Then, roll it back onto the rolling pin and slowly unfurl it over the pan.  I gently lift the overhang and use my fingers to make sure the dough is nestled in the fluted edges of the pan, and finish by trimming the excess. Arrange the apples.  I think of the tart like the face of a clock and start by putting a few at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock and then filling in the gaps.  Repeat with the inner circle.  This also makes it really easy to cut and serve.  Drizzle the apples with the juices left from maceration and add crumble topping.  Bakes at 350F for 45-55 minutes.

 

Helpful Tools: 

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Baking Mat, Oven Thermometer, Tart Pan.

November Shopping List

November Shopping List

Cardamom & Black Tea Soap, Wash Cloth, A313, Canon Camera, Make Lip And Cheek Stick, Cashmere Crewneck, Everlane Bag, Trench Coat, Earl Grey Tea

My picks for this month are a little scattered.  I know that phones have really great cameras built in, but I still love using a real camera.  Most of the photos I take for my blog are done with a Canon G16 or Rebel DSLR.  I also like to take a camera with me when I travel.  Anyway, rather than upgrade my phone this year, I’d rather upgrade my camera.  They last longer than a phone and take better pictures.  I love the classic look of the Canon G9X Mark II.  I’m also considering a Fujifilm X100F.

I recently ordered A313, a French retinol product.  I’m still trying it out and plan to write a review soon.  My beauty regime has grown simpler over time.  I like products like this lip and cheek stick by Make.  Anymore, I only wear a little boy brow from Glossier, mascara, a cream blush, and Smith’s Rosebud Salve.  I like products that can be applied without a brush because it makes for easy touch-ups on the go.

This month I’m only looking to add a few things to my closet.  I want to pick up a basic cashmere crew neck in charcoal and upgrade my old trench coat.  I’m curious about this new bag from Everlane.  I like that it holds as much as a tote but is worn as a crossbody.

Book Club

Book Club

Right now I’m itching to read The Library Book by Susan Orlean.  I absolutely love libraries and can’t wait to read her book about the 1986 fire that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books in the Los Angeles Public Library.

This year, I’ve been trying to read more fiction.  I’m always more interested in reading non-fiction and have to force myself to pick out novels.  But, I never regret reading fiction once I’m actually into the book.  I recently heard an interview with Gary Shteyngart that made me curious about his latest book, Lake Success.  It’s a story about a someone with a seemingly perfect life losing it all.  Here is the podcast episode, which also includes a great interview with Lisa Brennan-Jobs, daughter of Steve Jobs.

 

Cooking with My Paris Kitchen

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Some of my favorite recipes have come from David Lebovitz’s blog, but truthfully I have never cracked open one of his many books.  I love the writing on his blog, and the food is always excellent.  His Tomato Tart is my favorite way to use the best-of-summer tomatoes.  David also has great Instagram stories.  I love seeing the messy honesty of his recipe testing, antiquing, and exploring.  

I read his cookbook cover to cover, because My Paris Kitchen is much more than lists of ingredients and instructions.  His stories about traditions, dinner parties, lessons learned, and his life in France make the book worth reading, even without the recipes.  After studying French during high school and college and doing a study abroad, France has had a special place in my heart.  Lebovitz’s anecdotes about French culture brought back a lot of my special memories.  My Paris Kitchen is worth reading, even if you don’t plan on cooking any of the recipes.  

The cooking is a little advanced with a lot of specialty ingredients, but Lebovitz encourages readers to used their judgement and focus on intuition and senses rather than precisely following exact details.  Which I did, liberally.  It took me a while to pick the recipes I wanted to cook, but ultimately I ended up going for recipes that included ingredients I already had on hand to cut down on the shopping I’d have to do.  

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The Israeil Couscous has become a fast favorite for us, but I did have to make two major substitutions.  While I always have plenty of lemons on hand, I have never preserved one.  Rather than letting a lemon brine in salt for a week, I just used zest and extra salt.  I’m sure it’s not as complex of a flavor, but it was still delicious.  Next, I substituted walnuts for pistachios.  Honestly, I just wasn’t going to shell any amount of pistachios, and I already had walnuts on hand.  I am curious to try the recipe as Lebovitz intended, but I hope he would be proud of my ingenuity.  And it turned out great.  I have already made the salad again.  I like to make it on a day off and bring it to work for lunch.  

The chocolate mousse recipe has often been hailed as one of Lebovitz’s best.  He recently demonstrated the recipe on Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street.  During my time in France, I remember buying cups of Mousse au Chocolat from the grocery store.  It was stocked near the yogurt in little plastic cups.  It’s one of my favorite desserts and only takes a few ingredients.  Honestly I don’t know why I never made it before.  The hardest part is waiting for the mousse to set (it needs to sit for eight hours).  Lebovitz’s version is way better than anything found in a plastic cup. 

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I have never made dry caramel before, and it was a little nerve wrecking.  It took two tires to get it right, but the payoff was worth it.  The caramel and salted butter made the chocolate mousse so much more interesting than it would have been as just a chocolate one.  The mousse is so light in texture but extremely rich — an intense and delicious dessert.  Eating the mousse was so indulgent, it was like eating chocolate frosting.  Because it is so rich, a little goes a long way.  We divided it into six portions but should have done eight.

 

I found that the recipes in My Paris Kitchen are better suited to special occasions and weekend projects than everyday cooking.  Many of the recipes required specialty ingredients that would take some effort to hunt down.  The food is also very indulgent -lots of fat, butter, cream, meat, cheese, etc – not foods I want to eat every day.  Lebovitz tells a story with each recipe that compels the reader to try it out, no matter how complicated or expensive or caloric it might be.  

Spooky Streaming 

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When I first started going out with Rob, I had barely seen any horror movies.  We spent our first October together watching the classics: The Thing, Alien, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Halloween, etc.  Now, every year at this time, we watch horror films new and old.  Here are some of the best ones we’ve streamed on Netflix this October. 

Continue reading “Spooky Streaming “

October Shopping List

Some of my finds for this month:

October Shopping List

Public Goods Gift Set, Emerald Top, Black Booties, Cognac Mules, Black Turtleneck, Essie Nail Polish, Amber Glass Bottles, Black Serving Utensils, Bird Tray, Hello Notecards, Cognac Leather Wallet, Black Lantern, Wooden Cutting Board, Candle, Graphic Pillow Cover, Natural Blanket, Notebook, Reusable Bag

In my closet, I’ve added a few rich seasonal colors in classic pieces.  My clothing is heavily informed by timeless classics.  I usually dress in neutrals, but buy a piece or two for the season, like this emerald top from H&M.  For fall, I think a classic black ankle boot works with everything.  I am living in these mules from Madewell, because they are easy to kick on and dress up or down.  I’m obsessed with the leather wallet from Sézane, I love the color and simple design.
Our apartment is pretty minimal and modern, but I like warming it up for the season with natural elements like the wooden cutting board and the natural throw blanket.  I also like black accents to catch the eye, like these black serving utensils and the black lantern.  The lantern reminds me of the ones I saw outside restaurants in Stockholm at night.  I think simple things like changing out toss pillows and small accents make the apartment feel seasonal, but don’t hit you over the head with it.

I decant our soap into these amber glass bottles, I love eliminating branded packaging whenever possible. I am curious to try Public Goods, an online company that offers personal care and home products in minimalist packaging.  The products are clean (environmentally friendly and non-toxic).  With a subscription to Public Goods the products are very affordable.  It’s a brand I’m curious to try.

Chicken Soup

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Every one I know seems to be under the weather right now, making it the perfect time to make a pot of chicken soup.  The beginning of fall signals the beginning of soup season in my kitchen.  A big batch of soup is easy to make and lasts all week.  This chicken soup recipe is great because feels light, but is very filling.  Soup is also very customizable and adaptable.  Some variations I’ve tried are leaving out the noodles or potatoes to cut carbs, and swapping the chicken stock for veggie stock and omitting the chicken to make it vegetarian.

I take a few short cuts to make this recipe easy.  First I pre-chip mirepoix and freeze it in advance.  Whenever I want soup, I just take some out of the freezer.  This really cuts down on the labor.  You can also purchase pre-chopped mirepoix, but it’s usually a little pricy.  I also use store bought chicken stock (I like to have a few boxes on hand in the pantry).  I have never made my own stock, but maybe someday I will.  I use a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket.  I have poached chicken breasts before for this recipe and it works really well, but rotisserie chicken is usually more cost-effective and makes for easier prep.  This recipe makes a lot of soup, which I like because it can be frozen for later or shared. Packing up some of this soup into a beautiful Weck Jar and picking up a baguette from a local bakery would be a great gesture to a sick friend.  
Chicken Soup

2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil, or 1 tablespoon of each
2 trimmed leeks (I like the package you can get at Trader Joe’s), sliced
1 bunch of fresh thyme
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
2 quarts chicken stock
4 small or 2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in one-inch pieces
1/2 lb small noodles
1 rotisserie chicken or poached chicken breast, shredded
Salt and Pepper

Start by chopping and prepping all the ingredients so when it’s time to cook everything is ready.  Add the butter or olive oil to a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the mirepoix (onion, celery, and carrot) and leeks to the pot and cook until soft.  Season with salt, pepper and thyme.  Once the onions are translucent and the carrots and celery give a little, add the stock, potatoes and noodles.  Bring everything to a boil and then turn the heat down and simmer until the potatoes are cooked (usually takes at least 25 minutes).  Add the shredded chicken and season with additional salt, pepper and thyme.  Let the soup cool and transfer it to containers to refrigerate or freeze.  When reheating a portion of soup, I like to add 1/2 cup of water because the stock tends to get absorbed by the chicken, noodles and vegetables.  

October Book Club

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I’m currently reading Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover.  Westover grew up in rural Idaho and never attended school, but managed to end up with a Phd.  After listening to interviews with her on The New York Times Book Review Podcast and Fresh Air, I felt compelled to read her story.

Next on my list is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.  I’ve read Jane Eyre, but never Wuthering Heights.  I though the gothic themes in the novel would be perfect for fall.  I also love reading the classics of British literature, especially at this time of year, because it reminds me of being in school.

Cooking from Magnolia Table

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On a recent trip to the library, I spotted Magnolia Table: a collection of recipes for gathering on the best-seller shelf.  The cookbook is a recent project from Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s Fixer Upper.  I love to unwind by watching a few episodes, and I am always amazed by how Joanna and her husband, Chip, spin old shacks into gold in Waco, Texas.  The couple has expanded their brand, Magnolia, beyond flipping houses.  Besides all their business ventures, they have published a few books, including Magnolia Table.

After flipping through the pages, I found that most of the food in this book is opposite to what I cook day to day.  Jo’s recipes are her takes on classic southern food. I tend to cook meals that are lighter and more vegetable-forward.  She advocates for shortcuts, like opting for store-bought pie crust and chicken stock.  The raspberry-chipotle pork tenderloin recipe simply calls for marinating the pork in Fischer & Weiser’s Raspberry Chipotle Sauce.  I was a little disappointed, hoping to find a recipe for an original sauce.

The handful of recipes that connect to Jo’s heritage surprised me the most.  She shares just a few recipes passed down from her family, and those are the ones I wanted to cook.  In her recipe for Syrian donuts, she included a photo of the original version, typed up by her grandfather before he passed away, which I thought was so sweet. 

  There were two recipes that I wanted to cook. The first recipe in the book is for buttermilk biscuits, something I happen to make regularly.  She wrote that she tweaked her biscuit recipe every Sunday until they were just right.  Her pride in this recipe made me eager to make the biscuits myself.  I also decided I’d try out her mother’s bulgogi, a type of Korean barbecue. She said that while growing up, her mom mostly cooked American food but learned traditional Korean dishes later in life. Bulgogi is something I wouldn’t have made if I saw the recipe on a website, but the story of her mom learning to cook from her Korean friends compelled me to try it.  

The bulgogi was easier to prepare than I thought.  The recipe calls for slicing, marinating, and grilling beef.  It is served on a bed of rice with a cucumber-kimchi salad on the side.  I decided to make a few adjustments to be practical.  Because I’m just cooking for two, I made about a third of what the recipe called for (it calls for 4-5 pounds of beef tenderloin). I also used a cheaper cut of meat.  The kimchi salad calls for gochugaru, a Korean chili flake (I had to google that).  While I probably could have picked some up from a Korean market (there are a few in Pittsburgh), I decided just to use regular chili flakes I had on hand.

The marinade was simple to put together, and I already had all the ingredients in the house (soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, green onions… all pretty basic).  The recipe called for three cups of sugar, and I felt a little guilty putting so much in.  When it came time to cook up the beef slices, I used a cast-iron skillet because we don’t have a grill. This worked out really well except for my first few slices, which burned because the heat was too high and all the sugar caramelized too quickly.  The flavor was excellent – sweet and salty and earthy.  The spicy and crunchy cucumber-kimchi salad paired well with the rich beef slices.  It also reheats very well and would be great for batch-cooking or meal prep.

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The biscuits, on the other hand, were not as successful as the bulgogi.  I followed the recipe to the letter, but my first batch fell flat.  They lacked the fluffy texture I expect in a biscuit.  She calls for a lot of butter and buttermilk, which I think added too much liquid to the dough. She brushes them with both egg and buttermilk, which made the biscuits taste too eggy and left a sickly yellow film on top. 

I made a second batch, omitting the egg wash and using the cubed butter method instead of the grated butter method.  I also used about 20 percent less buttermilk than the original recipe calls for.  Joanna’s dough contains an egg, giving the final product a more cake-like crumb than I want from a biscuit.  The second batch did come out better, but even after a few adjustments, I’ve made way better biscuits (specifically using the recipe from Dining In, Alison Roman’s cookbook).  I prefer a lighter, saltier biscuit with a better rise, something that looks more like a snowball than a hockey puck in shape.

 

I’m not the right audience for this cookbook.   Magnolia Table delivers crowd-pleasing dishes that make more sense for a big family than someone like me, who only ever prepares weeknight dinners for two.  While I like to have leftovers, I had to cut both the recipes I tried in half or more (most of them serve 6-8 people, and some serve more like 12-14).  It is, after all, a collection of recipes for gathering and not a collection of recipes for an urban couple. While the food didn’t click with me, I did enjoy reading about her history and how cooking has connected the generations of her family.  

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