A Merry Christmas, California Style

Merry Christmas to all of my friends and family and blog readers! I hope you are having a wonderful holiday filled with merriment.

Conservative Hubby and I are enjoying a holiday of sun, fun, and ... guess what?

The past two years, I've celebrated the holidays in our nation's lovely capitol with My Family. This year, after My Sister's cross-country move, we took the Family Celebration on the road to a new, warmer destination: Santa Monica, California.

And, for the first time ever, Conservative Hubby even came along!

So, for our Christmas Eve day, we did a few decidedly California activities.

My Father and Conservative Hubby spent part of yesterday morning hanging ten ... riding the waves ... or whatever it is cool people call surfing. My Mom, My Sister, and I enjoyed the action from the beach until about halfway through the surfing adventure when My Sister decided to join them in the water. (She's an old pro by now ... sort of.)

But more about the surfing adventure tomorrow ...

After surfing, we moseyed down to Venice Beach for lunch at a wonderful little organic ale house. And then we took a peek at the freak show that Venice Beach is known for. (It was a pretty calm day, actually.)

Conservative Hubby, of course, loved it. He said he thought he was breaking out in hives. And the crazies were commending him for his military service and his nice striped green collared shirt ... and no, Conservative Hubby is not nor ever has been in the military.

After that, we did some last-minute shopping on Santa Monica's adorable little Main Street before wrapping up the evening with our long-standing holiday tradition: chowder (which, for the past three years, has been served at My Sister's big farmhouse table).

As for today? Santa made a stop last night, so we have some stockings to explore. Then there's a brie and salmon strata in the oven calling our name. Later? Fish tacos on the beach for our Christmas Day dinner.

Not a bad way to spend the holiday, eh?

Merry Christmas!


Chocolate Peppermint Snowflake Tart

Sometimes the recipes I try are pretty good. Sometimes they're not that great. And occasionally, they're really great.

The really great recipes are the ones I mentally star, the sort of recipes I undoubtedly will come back to time and again.

I wasn't expecting this recipe, which I cut out of the newspaper one day last week, to be in the really great category.

Only it was. It is. It's on the hit list, I think.

It's a chocolate peppermint snowflake tart. The recipe, courtesy of the AP, goes a little something like this:

Crust ingredients:
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
½ cup sugar
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks

Ganache ingredients:
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 ½ teaspoons peppermint extract
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Heat the oven to 375 F. In a food processor, combine the flour, salt, cocoa powder and sugar. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture forms a dough, about 30 seconds.

Remove the dough from the processor and break off about a third of it. Set this aside.

Press the remaining dough into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Use a fork to prick the bottom of the crust all over. Freeze for 15 minutes, then bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the center of the bottom feels firm.

Meanwhile, make the snowflake cookies.

Roll out the reserved dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper to 1/8 inch thick. Move the dough to a baking sheet, including the parchment paper, then refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes.

Use 1- to 2-inch cookie cutters to cut out 8 to 10 snowflakes (of multiple sizes, if desired). If the dough becomes too soft, you may need to chill it in the refrigerator as you work. Once all of the cookies are cut, transfer them to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Bake the snowflakes for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on size of the cookies), or until firm. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet.

To make the ganache filling, in a small saucepan over medium, heat the cream until simmering. Add the chocolate and let sit off the heat for 2 minutes. Stir until smooth. Stir in the peppermint extract, then pour into the baked tart shell. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

When ready to serve, dust the snowflake cookies with powdered sugar, then arrange them on the top of the tart.

If I remember correctly (I was in a food haze when she said it), Kid Sister called the tart "Andes mints on steroids." I like this. Or perhaps it was the Girl Scouts' thin mint cookies on steroids. That might be even more fitting, with the bit of crunch the tart crust and cookies provide.

Either way, it's rich and festive and oh so yummy.


Getting Ready for the Holidays

The Christmas season hit full stride last week, when I attended five holiday parties in three days.

Then, last night, we celebrated Conservative Family Christmas at Conservative Parents' house. It was a lovely evening filled with merriment, good food, and way too many gifts.

Oh, and a roaring fire, which I was very excited about.

Although we aren't hosting any holiday get-togethers at our casa this year, I did the usual decorating.

(With Butter's help of course.)

And the penguins are back again this year to keep Butter company in the window.

It wouldn't be Christmas without them!


Appeasing the Cookie Monster

Before my annual Christmas cook-making extravaganza, I did some holiday decorating. A friendly, festive little cookie jar is among the things I set out each December.

Only this year, the little cookie jar wasn't quite as festive as in years past. In fact, when I came home from work one day I discovered he'd gotten rather demanding.

How do I know he'd gotten demanding?

Because he left me this note.

I didn't want to deal with a cranky cookie jar all month, so I obliged. I filled the cookie jar to the brim with Conservative Hubby's favorite Christmas tree cookies.

I thought this would appease the cookie jar.

Little did I realize that he'd be overtaken with a sugar high from all the sweets I left him and would go off the deep end.

Case in point: A few days later, I came home from work to find this:

Poor cookie jar lost his mind (and, apparently, his face).

Then again, I can't help but wonder if it was the cookie jar that lost his mind or some other character in my house ... perhaps the character that actually consumed all those cookies?

The world may never know ...


Peppermint Ice Cream

About that surprise I mentioned yesterday ... Remember? The one I said went along with the cookie plates we delivered last night?

It was this.

Jars of homemade ice cream.

But not just any homemade ice cream.

Jars of homemade peppermint ice cream.

Who doesn't love a festive frozen treat?

(Best of all, it was easy. All I did was add 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint flavoring to the traditional vanilla ice cream recipe I usually make. Then, in the last five minutes of ice cream-making, I dumped in a cup of crushed peppermints. Voila! Homemade peppermint ice cream.)



Tonight Conservative Hubby and I bundled up and embarked on a mini adventure that has become a tradition since we have lived in L-Town: Cookie deliveries.

We took cookie plates (plus a special surprise you'll learn about tomorrow) to many of our neighbors and a few other friends in town. (And yesterday, we took the same cookie plates to Conservative Family dinner to share the love with Conservative Mom and Dad and Kid Sister and T-Bear.)

Of course the cookie plates included the old standbys: sugar cookies, candy cane cookies, Christmas trees, peanut butter blossoms, and fudge.

But of course, as I did last year, I added a few new treats to the plates. This year, that included toffee and candy covered pretzels. Yum.

If you'd like a few treats yourself, stop on by. We have plenty of cookies left.

No, really. Please come over. Don't MAKE me eat all of these myself.



Every year, I try to make a new holiday treat to go with the old favorites.

After spotting what looked like an easy (and lovely) skillet toffee recipe on The Kitchn the other day, I decided I had to add toffee to this year's list.

I made it the other night, and I have to admit: I think it's pretty darn tasty.

Although, full disclosure: I broke it to pieces with my hands, and the chocolate was so darn soft the pieces are now littered with my fingerprints.


I promise, my hands were clean.


New Additions

Now that you've had over a week to fully digest Thanksgiving dinner and all the leftovers, I wanted to share with you a peek at a few new additions to this year's Thanksgiving table in Georgia.

By the time we hit Turkey Thursday, Conservative Family had already consumed two Thanksgiving dinners--one part of a fundraising dinner early in November, the other our annual dining experience with Q & MB and family.

So we were ready to mix it up--but just a little bit.

For starters, there was Kid Sister's new spin on her family favorite monkey bread, which you caught a glimpse of here.

Then, inspired by Pioneer Woman's domination of Bobby Flay on his Food Network show Throwdown, we decided to tackle two important recipes.

First up, Ree's Cornbread Dressing with Pancetta, Apple, and Mushrooms.

And Bobby's Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Pomegranates and Vanilla-Pecan Butter. (Yeah, Ree and and Bobby and I are on a first-name basis.)

Ooh la la. Both recipes were gooood. But don't take my word for it. Even My Mom ate and enjoyed both dishes--and she never touches stuffing and doesn't like Brussels sprouts.

Until now.


Monkey Bread

Most days, this blog could be called Cooking with Julie. Occasionally, it's Extreme Cooking with Conservative Boy.

But today we have a new guest star: Kid Sister.

In the first-ever episode of Cooking with Kid Sister, the lady of the hour is showing you to how to make her world-famous Monkey Bread.

Before I began dining with Conservative Family on Turkey Day, I hadn't ever heard of this creation called Monkey Bread.

(Although I have since learned that there are a few other people in the world who have been making this tasty treat in their families for years.)

And somehow, in the time I've become acquainted with this delicacy, it has gone from relative obscurity to mainstream appeal. Can you believe the recipe is now printed on the wrapper of bulk packages of Pillsbury biscuits during the holidays?

Kid Sister is a trendsetter. That's all I can say.

So anyway. The thing about this year's Monkey Bread is this: You won't find the recipe for it on any wrappers.

That's because this year Kid Sister got innovative.

And you're witnessing it right here.

You see, usually Monkey Bread involves little pieces of biscuit dough, of course. And lots of butter and cinnamon and sugar. But that's it. Just throw it all in a Bundt pan and bake.

But this year, stealing a page from her brother (or not), Kid Sister went EXTREME.

First, she sprinkled mini chocolate chips among the layers of dough. And then she poured a mixture of melted butter and brown sugar on top.

It was an experiment. Sometimes experiments fail.

For the record, this one wasn't a failure.

In fact, it was so delicious a fight almost broke out at the dinner table about which side should get to keep the pan of Monkey Bread by them.

It was so delicious we wondered why we even bothered with pie.

It was so delicious, I'm pretty sure Kid Sister is going to have to make the exact same recipe again next year.

And in the meantime, she really should tell Pillsbury to stop stealing her ideas.


Leaving This Face

Dear sweet Butter was particularly dear and sweet at the beginning of last week.

After Conservative Hubby was already in Georgia golfing and around the time I started packing for my travels down south, Butter put on his angel face.

He knew somehow--even before he spotted my suitcase--that he was getting left behind.

But rather than his usual mournful gaze and puppy pout, he decided to woo me with his big eyes and most serene poses.

And goodness, it almost worked. Had I not been flying, I may have scooped him up and taken him with me.

Instead, he was stuck at home all week. Lounging in the sun with his dog sitter, who no doubt lavished him with all the attention such a sweet little pooch deserves.

So don't feel sorry for him. Not this time anyway.



Remember this dress?

And this tie?

And this little piece of paper?

That's right, friends and family. At this time last year, Conservative Hubby and I were getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner and the big (er ... little) wedding.

In fact, right about this time on this day last year my mom was making last-minute alterations to my dress. She did a better job than the seamstress who did the original alterations, even with the rather unfortunate travel sewing kit she used.

This year: No alterations. Plenty of time with family. And a few memories of last year's excitement, of course.

Apple Pie

It's Thanksgiving week, and you know what that means ...

It's time to think pie. Turkey. And more pie. (Oh, and mashed potatoes too, of course. I can't ever forget those.)

To get Thanksgiving week started off right, I made an apple pie last weekend. Only it really wasn't in honor of Thanksgiving at all. I made a pie because (1) I had time, (2) I had some local apples left in the crisper I wanted to use, (3) I finally spent a Williams-Sonoma gift card and so had a lovely new pie dish and some leaf-shaped cutters I wanted to try out.

Now if that isn't enough reason to make a pie, I don't know what is!

And so I made an apple pie.

And then proceeded to not eat a single piece myself. Instead, I gave away pieces to all the (many) wonderful people in our neighborhood and in Conservative Family who helped out with Butter this week.

Don't feel sorry for me. Just because I didn't eat a piece doesn't mean I didn't have any. I'm awfully bad at removing pieces of pie from the dish, so I had my fair share of bites from what was left behind.

Besides, I think I'll have plenty more opportunities for pie-eating this week, don't you?


The Book List

Wow, I should ask for your recommendations more often. What should I wear tomorrow? What should I eat? Where should I go on vacation? Based on the responses for my reading list request, I think you'd guide me pretty well.

Well ... most of you.

I thought I'd share the master list with all of you, in case you're looking for something to read too.

I must say, there's quite a variety of books here. Something for everyone, I guess you could say. Or at least a whole lot of variety for this reader.

I can't promise I'll get to every single book on the list. There may even be a few (I bet you'll never guess which ones) that I intentionally skip. Some I just may miss because I get distracted by other things (what? me? never!). But I'll do my best. Promise.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, here are the book recommendations I received in the comments and through email.

Happy reading to me!

Lucy by Laurence Gonzales (I started reading this the other day and am enjoying it so far)
Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (and the whole series)
Room by Emma Donoghue
Deception Point by Dan Brown
Digital Fortress by Dan Brown
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Decision Points by George W. Bush
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Tower, The Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart
The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge by Patricia Duncker
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (recommended twice)
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss


Your Book Recommendations

Once upon a time I needed some new music. And so I asked you what music I should listen to.

The result was a whole list of great songs and artists, many of whom I still listen to regularly.

So now that I've cut back on the freelancing (finally!) and am only a few days away from submitting the last of my thesis revisions, I've decided to stop over-committing and to cut back on the to-do list making, even just a little bit.

(I know, I know, most of you don't believe me. I've said this sort of thing before. But I really am trying!)

I'm going to spend more time relaxing, more time hanging out, more time doing things I really love.

Like reading.

You know how infrequently in the last couple of years I've read for pleasure? Aside from cramming in as many books as I can on occasional vacations (when I'm usually still trying to cram in freelance work)? Not at all.

I'm going to change that.

But first, I need your help. What book do I need to read right now? What's at the top of your to-read or have-read list? Any genre. Any topic. Any author. Just tell me what I absolutely must read.

And then I'll do my best to tackle your recommendations.


A Halloween Bash

Last weekend, some of our friends made the trip from Des Moines for a visit. So, in honor of their presence and the fact it was the end of October, we threw our first-ever Halloween bash at our basement bar.

It was a good time, with plenty of entertaining costumes. We're talking bounty hunters, Dexter, rodeo queens, the cast of Grease, a beer bottle, a pirate, some fellow from the Swiss Alps, a referee, Joe Dirt. And that's just a random sampling of the crazy characters we had on hand.

(Even Mario and Luigi hit a Warp Zone and made an appearance.)

To go along with the costumes, we put out a few creepy decorations here and there.

Nothing too crazy ... besides, everyone has a graveyard in their basement, right?

Naturally, we served a few treats as well.

I put together a spooky little spread, including pumpkin cupcakes, brownies with Reese's peanut butter cups, caramel apple dip, and more.

And that about sums it up. We ate, we drank, we hung out around the bar. What else is there to do on a Halloween weekend Saturday night?!


The End of Living Loft-Style

I know you're heartbroken, devastated, absolutely torn apart about the title of today's post. "What?" You're crying out, no doubt. "How can this be the end?"

Alas, it is the end because I have exhausted all the photos I took of the loft to end all lofts. Plus, remember it is a loft. In the upstairs of a building in downtown Laramie. In other words, it's not a mansion people. And My Parents only need so much space.

So let's get to the last--but certainly not least--of it.

The kitchen.

And oh what a kitchen it is. Huge and open, with professional-grade appliances and, naturally, a few quirky accents.

The appliances might look black in the photos, but they're actually the color of eggplant. And, as you can see, even the cabinet inserts take an artistic bent. I may not have picked those inserts if this were my kitchen, but they look lovely and they do grow on you when you linger in the room for a while.

Besides, how could you ever complain in this big of a cooking space, with a great layout and room for pretty much every kitchen gadget known to humans?

Had I stayed longer, I would have whipped out the ice cream-maker and pasta-maker and this-maker and that-maker and used it all. But, given time constraints, I had to settle for frying bacon and making pancakes on the built-in griddle on the range. And I had to use the oven and the KitchenAid Mixer to whip up some cookies, which we enjoyed as dessert after a feast of Thai takeout in this cute little dining area.

In the kitchen, once you look past the gadgets and beautiful countertops and colorful appliances, you'll notice a number of interesting details.

Like Buddha sitting on top of the china hutch and other sculptures tucked in nooks in the cabinetry.

Like a telephone on the wall painted in crazy swirls of color.

Like a planter shaped like a woman's head on the windowsill and a Homer Simpson cookie jar that grunts next to it (you can sort of see them in the top photo, though they're awfully hard to make out).

On a side note, should you ever visit My Parents, be warned: Simpsons paraphernalia pop up in the most peculiar places. And no, it's not their personal collection. It came with the loft too.

The end.


Living Loft-Style Part V

Despite my temporary absence, the loft tour isn't quite done yet. Today we're moving on from the media room to some more intimate spaces. They include ...

... My Mom's giant dressing room

... the half bath in the hall

... and the master bedroom,

with a bed so tall My Mom needs a stool to get onto it.

And, perhaps most impressively ...

... the master bathroom.

What a luxurious (and playful) spot to bathe, eh?

(Pardon the photo quality--some snapshots were taken with My Mom's cell phone camera!)


Living Loft-Style (Part IV)

Now that I've shown you the entrance and entryway to My Parents' loft and have shared some of the loft's more colorful history with you, it's time to take a peek at more of the art- and light-filled living spaces in the loft.

First stop: the living room, which is actually two distinct spaces open to one another.

This is where My Sister's favorite mermaid table resides.

In the room, a petite fireplace and stained-glass windows mingle with colorful contemporary furniture (designed by the couple who own the space).

Occasionally, peculiar creatures appear. Like the monkey standing, ready to serve, next to one chaise.

And sometimes, even objects with seemingly normal functions, like this lamp, are anything but ordinary.

Down the hall from the living room is another space for relaxing. It's the media room.

But, naturally, even it manages to surprise.

There's the two-tiered seating area, with comfy couches for lounging while watching films. The movie posters on the walls. The fabric draped across the ceiling so the lights are never too bright, just as it should be in a movie theater.

And yes, this is a movie theater. Because besides the stadium seating there's ...

A giant screen on the wall. Massive. Hooked up to a projector and surround sound that makes the whole place shake.

It's a movie lover's dream (or, in My Dad's case, a sports lover's dream).