something sweet (and semi-simple)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016
They take some time and make a mess, but these little lovelies are always worth the effort.
I'm a baker at heart. I grew up with a mother that was mixing batter nearly every evening behind the kitchen counter. It's ingrained in me in the best sort of way. And yet, even today, I have a love-hate relationship with cut-out cookies.

It's messy. All that sticky dough. And flour. Everywhere. On the counters, on the rolling pin, on my yoga pants, for the love. And I haven't even gotten to the candy sprinkles yet.

But every time that Christmas or Valentine's Day rolls around, I find myself daydreaming of pastel frosted sugar cookies. 

And because they freeze so well and use the simplest ingredients, I can bake them as soon as the fancy strikes. In those sporadic moments of holiday preparedness.

This year, we don't have any formal Valentine's Day plans, but I am planning a big family dinner for Saturday night that naturally needs some form of sugary conclusion. Heart-shaped cookies fit the bill for wine-sipping adults and little ones alike, no?

Adapted from the classic BHG "Best Sugar Cookie" recipe...

- 2/3 cup butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 egg
- 1 tbs. cold water
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour

- Wilton white melting candies
- Food coloring

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- In a large bowl, beat butter for half a minute on medium speed. Add sugar, salt and baking powder and mix together. Add egg, water and vanilla and beat until combined.
- Slowly mix in all-purpose flour until dough takes shape.
- Flour kitchen counter surface, rolling pin and metal spatula.
- Roll dough one half at a time, til approximately 1/4 inch thick and use cookie cutters to shape dough cut-outs before placing them on a cool Airbake-brand baking sheet.
- Bake for approximately 9 minutes and let cool on sheet for 2 minutes before moving to wire cooling rack.

- Once fully cooled, melt Wilton melting candies according to package directions (one minute at 50 percent followed, followed by 30-second increments until smooth when stirred) and use food coloring to achieve desired "frosting" color.
- Use a narrow rubber spatula or butter knife to spread frosting on cookies; add sprinkles if desired.

And then? Freeze 'em for up to a month. I pop mine out a few hours before I plan to serve them and keep them at room temperature in an open platter.

It's really that simple and they're really that addictively delicious. And cute, of course, because that's nearly as important when it comes to Valentine's treats.

on repeat: a throwback playlist

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Our condo has fallen into a musical time warp. 

Lately, the sounds that have felt truest are those far, far from the Hit List. Whether I’m baking on a Tuesday evening or cleaning bathrooms on a Saturday morning, the below playlist has been on repeat, much to the chagrin of Trevor, who’s only officially complained once, so far.

But these were the beats that played on the stereo in my dad’s garage, that hummed in the background on long road trips with my parents. They’re comforting in the same way that your mother’s perfume might be, the valleys and peaks of a song you’ve heard one thousand times.

They’re the lyrics that I thought I knew really, really well and that I actually have been making up words to my entire life.

And when I’m doing my own thing, or just alone in the house, they’re filling it with the most lovely sort of lively. (An antidote to the bells and whistles of whatever ESPN show might be airing at the moment.)

I’m remembering for the first time in a while how impactful music is, having come out of a bit of a podcast cave, which stole most of my commutes (and admittedly, even my shower time) for the past year.

So here’s my goal for February. Music. More of it, and less of the other distractions. And for the person I live with and the guests that visit, perhaps a bit of variety baked in – just not quite yet.

And a side note, I’ve also awakened to the beauty that’s Amazon Prime Music. (Ummmm… how did I make it through nearly two years of membership without realizing this resource existed?) Stations like Classic Rock and The Beatles are my alternate go-tos and I love that I can save them into my own playlists with one click, as well as the fact that it’s free, naturally.

decoding the decluttering movement

Monday, February 1, 2016
A snapshot of one of our current living room shelves; we keep the go-tos at the top for easy grabbing ;)
Stuff. Stuff.

It wasn’t until I was packing up my two-bedroom, one-person condo to move into a one-bedroom, two-person home that I realized just how many “things” I had accumulated over the course of three years. Between piles of unworn clothes, stacks of books, and miscellaneous small appliances, it became glaringly obvious that all of my perceived self-control was maybe, er, nonexistent.

The excessiveness was shocking at first, and then disappointing, and then just disgusting.

What I hadn’t realized during my slow and steady compilation of crap was that all of these “things” that I dreamt would make my life easier (i.e. That “perfect” dress for the party; that “necessary” cupcake holder for the birthday girl’s treats – seriously) were actually becoming the bane of my existence. A new piece of clothing here and there meant that I was spending my Saturday organizing my closet. The odds and ends that didn’t have a proper place to be stored were lugged into the garage to move elsewhere … eventually. And slowly, all of it – all of the crap – was mounting bit by bit on top of my shoulders, creating this weighty feeling that nagged at me constantly.

A clean house was never really a clean house when there were bags of donations waiting, books needing sorting and shelving and shelves of décor needing dusting.

And it just so happened that while in the midst of this move, one of the bloggers that I’ve followed since my days in banking PR – Blonde on a Budget – was discussing the same predicament, albeit on a different level. Cait, who was willing to take extremes that make me shudder, declared a shopping ban. (If you’re interested, she’s outlined her experience in these two posts: How to Start a Shopping Ban and How to Complete a Shopping Ban.)

That was, of course, one solution.

Simultaneously sweeping that nation was also a “light” version of minimalism, found in the best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” It’s seemed as if everyone is in the mood for a bit of decluttering.

For me, well, I was looking for a bit of a Goldilocks solution, something “just the right size,” something that straddled the line between mild and radical change.

I don’t like a stark house. I like the warm, cozy vibes that come with candles and throw blankets. So, while I want to streamline the “stuff” that fills our home, I also want to keep the pretty pieces that don’t do much more than make me smile.
(I love the concept of pretty minimalism that’s talked about in this Slow Home podcast, by the way.)

Even as my wannabe-minimalist ideals evolve, here are a few tips to consider for those folks just starting to grapple with a less-stuff lifestyle…

Digitize the paper stuff. Pull the plug on the printer. The paper trail in our lives can be never ending if you don’t have a digital home for your important documents and files. I’ve used MyPBWorks for years and love the easy access but secured space for whatever I want to keep on hand.

Ditch the duplicates. You likely don’t need three soup ladles, and let’s be real. Those things jam any crowded kitchen drawer. And that iPhone 4? Go ahead and drop it into the tech donation box at your nearby big-box retailer. Simply getting rid of the outdated technology and the it-never-fit-quite-right jeans allows you to better see and select among your favorite things.

Don’t jump in the deep end. Box up all the things that you’re not 100 percent sure you can live without out, but that you also don’t want to get rid of them. Then, hide them on yourself. Put them in the farthest corner of the basement or garage and try your damndest to forget about ‘em. If you haven’t touched the box in three months, hand it over to the Salvation Army.

Nightstand necessities, including book, candle and a tiny, Greek bowl to drop jewelry and lip balm into.

a glimpse at last week's menu

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Avocado toast and Yogi's Kombucha Green Tea breakfast.

Ever since I moved downtown, feeding myself (and the other half of our household) has become a lot more fun. Living alone had loads of perks - loads - but unless I had invited company over, cooking felt like a chore. It was an activity that usually created a bit of a mess, that required not only my creative skills, but my clean-up skills, too, and nearly always, I ended up with enough food to last for several meals but rarely felt like eating the same thing over and over. And before you suggest freezing leftovers, I tried that. And I learned that re-heating a frozen meal never sounds appetizing to me... crackers and cheese for dinner, it is! 

But now! These days, we can polish off my bulk produce buys from Costco within a week. It' a whole new world, which is not to insinuate that I've become a chef overnight. But, you know, I'm giving it a solid effort when I'm not scouting out shortcuts that will make life easier. 

So this week, I'm highlighting a few of the favorites that will undoubtedly make their way into future meal planning...

Avocado Smash Toast: Whether for breakfast or a light lunch, I've been relying on this heart-healthy combo of whole grains (thanks to the toasted Ezekiel Bread) and mono-unsaturated fats of a ripe avocado - yum - mixed with a sprinkling of salt and the tiniest bit of minced garlic.

Rotisserie Chicken Salad: One of the easiest and most healthy shortcuts I've been coming back to requires the super difficult task of picking up a rotisserie-cooked chicken and bringing it home. Typically, I shred it right away. On day one, it got thrown atop a bowl of butter lettuce, with some roasted corn and hard-boiled eggs. On day two, it was heated up with a Parmesan risotto and cooked spinach. And on day three? A bit of brown rice, black beans, salsa and guacamole turned out pretty nicely as a burrito bowl.

Rotisserie chicken salads in a snap.

Chicken Sausage Pasta: Some more of that spinach went into this dish, along with diced tomatoes, a sauteed yellow onion and half a jar of store-bought marinara. We topped whole wheat noodles with the hearty blend and added a dash of Parmesan... and hot rolls. Because, you  know. Hot rolls.

Dinnertime at the kitchen stove. (Meet my feet; you'll see them a lot.)

The finished product - whole wheat noodles and a sourdough roll to call it a meal.

Homemade Tomato Soup: On Sunday morning, I made up a batch of tomato soup from a recipe that I'd pulled out of a magazine. I didn't realize until I was halfway through that I missing the immersion blender needed. Ummmm. Hello, potato smasher! (We find ways to make do 'round these parts.) While I'm sure it's a bit chunkier than intended, I loved it. We paired it with salads and sauteed-onion-and-goat-cheese turkey burgers that day, and I've brought it for lunch at work the past two days, too. Today, it gets paired with a simple salad.

Uggs are totally my lunch-prep slipper of choice.

Homemade tomato soup and side salad for a make-ahead work day lunch.
Always looking for new ideas and inspiration... send my way if you have any suggestions!

tossing the disposable lifestyle

Friday, January 22, 2016
One of my favorite totes, which I'm counting on to last a looooong time.

There's this Amish quip that I've always loved. It goes, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." And in today's highly disposable and consumer-driven society, this one statement couldn't be more relevant.

I'm closing my eyes now... pretending not to notice the array of wedding planning crap that's scattered at my feet, and visualizing the zen-like interior of a clean, Amish home. Freshly swept floors, perfectly polished solid wood furniture, spindle-back chairs hung on wall hooks or something similar that I read about or saw in some movie.

(I really don't know anything about the Amish, but they're undoubtedly onto something when it comes to the quality over quantity argument.)

This grandiose fantasy - and trust me, fantasy is IS - was triggered by an article in The Telegraph titled, "The Rise of 'Buy Me Once' Shopping.'" In it, Tara Button explains her plan to create a retail space that specializes in goods made to last a lifetime, inspired by the long lastingness of her pretty teal, Le Creuset casserole dish, made of cast iron.

It's true that a Le Creuset is a brand known for its dedication to quality, manufactured in France and having just celebrated its 90th anniversary. That sort of solidarity is rare in a world where entire, city-block-long aisles of groceries carry nothing but throw-away paper products and Ziplock bags.

When I scan my brain, I come up with two items that I'm fairly certain will still be in my home if  I'm lucky enough to live another six decades.

My salvaged and scratched - but solid - strainer.
The first is a salvaged stainless steel strainer. Solid and just weighty enough, it looks like it's decades old already - and it just so happens that it works perfectly for all of my noodle-straining, grape-washing needs. Who needs a pop-out, silicon strainer in neon green anyway?

The second item that comes to mind is a structured but soft, leather bag by Burberry. (For the love of God, I hope that thing is still on my arm given the price I paid for it.) It's an example of an investment in something that I believe is excellent quality and that can at the same time, stand the test of trends. And it makes me happy. Which means it earns double points.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that when I scan our minimalist-in-training home, smallish and not nearly as tidy as it could be, I see a lot of stuff that simply won't last the test of time. But, for every realization, there's an opportunity to draw a line in the sand.

Rather than rely on convenience or cost, whenever possible we can choose to research and invest - once - in high-quality items that will last us our entire lives.

Start small.

- Pull out your cloth napkins and then use them. Every day. Toss them in the wash with your other kitchen dish towels once a week. And there you go, a lot fewer paper napkins clogging your trash bin.

- Scour the shelves of Bed, Bath and Beyond for the steel salad spinner, rather than the plastic version that costs half the price. (Hey, coupons.)

- Skip the sales. You'll rarely find the good stuff on the clearance rack, so it's wiser to plan ahead, save up and buy a new or used version of whatever you're looking for that you can live with forever.

- Research the companies that make the products you buy. Bit by bit, more conscious consumerism shapes our homes and in turn, does good for our entire planet.

drinking your greens

Sunday, January 17, 2016
One for you and one for me.

There was a point in my life when I would wake up early every morning to press vegetables through the juicer. Not so much, these days. 

But a weekend? A glorious, snowy weekend, nearly demanding that you stay under a blanket and off the slippery roads? Well, I can definitely manage some juicing then. 

Since fresh juice options aren't plentiful downtown, I try to stock up with bulk essentials - apples, celery hearts and spinach - so that there's always something on hand to juice at home, but that can also be used for snacks and cooking. Because in reality, dragging a chair over to the tallest cupboard to pull down the actual machine can seem like a lot of work sometimes.

(Side note: If you're also in Detroit, Go! Smoothies on Clifford Street looks promising, but it's always closed on Sundays when I have the time and energy to scout out a new place ... and the new Drought shop in the Dime Building also seemed perfect, until I realized that it's all pre-bottled selections.)

My go-to recipe, which I use with this hand-me-down Sharper Image juicer: 

Five-Minute Sweet Greens

- 1 apple, any variety (or "sweetener" of your choice - carrots or pears also work)
- 1/2 celery heart (typically, five stalks, including the leafy innards)
- 4 cups baby spinach (packed tightly into the juicing column, two cups at a time)

Steps: Wash all produce. Chop apple into quarters, and run through juicer. Juice all celery stalks. Turn off juicer and pack spinach into juicing column; turn on and run for a few beats longer than normal, allowing the spinach juice to flow as you turn off the juicer switch.

Finally, carefully remove produce discards and place once more into the juicer column. "Re-juicing" allows additional nutrients to be squeezed out, and more fibrous particles to make it into your drink. 

There you have it. Simple. Healthy. And actually, pretty damn good. 

Smoothie Alternate
If you're looking for an even heartier version, simply make it a smoothie. Use a high-quality blender (like Vitamix or Blend-Tec) to whip up the above ingredients with a few ice cubes and a dash of rice milk. 

Juice prep. The outcome? Always very messy countertops.

working for the weekend

Friday, January 15, 2016
Sunday rituals: CBS Sunday Morning News and a stack of reading materials to devour

As someone who trudges into an office space Monday through Friday, with work travel frequently blurring into my weekends, I place an extremely high value on my "free" time. But let's be honest, those glorious hours when we're off of work are hardly "free."

Between rummaging through the refrigerator for dinner inspiration, running errands and squeezing in a bit of time to binge watch my current Netflix obsession, there's barely time left to sum up the energy for our closest friends, let alone broader social circles.

And more than anything, I try to avoid those commitments that you squeeze in partially out of guilt and partially because you just want so badly to enjoy the company of great people. Because when it comes down to it, anytime that I'm trying to force fun, it just doesn't work. Forced fun makes me grumpy.

But relaxed, laughter-filled, wine-and-cheese-induced fun... now that's rich. That is the sort of stuff that feeds my soul in the most satisfying way.

Last year, one of my wise friends gifted me Shauna Niequist's book Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes and it sparked the tiniest fire within me. It took that anxious "I can't cook a damn thing" attitude and turned it upside down, smacked a smile on it and patted it on the back. It taught me that what's important - people and warm, cozy food and candles and a bottle of red wine - are really all that you need. Nothing fancy. Not even matching place settings.

And with that, it all became clear. My desire not only to accept more invitations, but to extend more invitations, became not only easier - but critical. Part of slowing down in my life meant intentionally carving out precious space for family and friends and then creating a comfortable and inviting space for it.

In his TED talk, "What Makes a Good Life?," Robert Waldinger digs into data gleaned from the longest study on happiness to date. Study participants - now in their nineties - continue to prove that what matters most is not career or money, it's strong and connective relationships, and the ability to maintain and nurture them.

And for those of us who fall into the that's great but I really, really don't have the time category, I found an incredibly interesting nugget of information in the recent New York Times' article, "You Don't Need More Free Time," which politely bashes the notion that you just need an extra hour in your day. Even if you were somehow granted your existing income without having to work for it throughout the week, you would still reach your optimum well-being during the weekend, it surmises. That's because everyone yearns to experience life with others, leaving our lottery winners feeling lazy and lonely while everyone else trudges away.

Balancing the quiet and calm of time spent solo with purposeful and powerful interactions among my favorite people is my current sweet spot. It's a goal that I've set for myself, and that I'm having a blast attempting to achieve.
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