Archive for January 2009


Let the Vacation Begin

January 29th, 2009 — 2:47pm

1I’m heading to New Orleans with friends tomorrow morning for a long weekend (staying through Monday). Plans include eating great seafood and Cajun food, running the Mardi Gras half-marathon, attending a Mardi Gras parade (Mardi Gras isn’t until Feb. 29, but New Orleans is already gearing up), eating beignets and drinking Chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde, and taking in New Orleans from a whole new perspective.

My first trip to New Orleans was just over a year ago for a wedding, and I definitely loved taking in the unique cultural flavor of New Orleans. This time, however, I’m excited to experience things from a local’s perspective, and to be there with great friends. It should definitely be a fun-filled weekend.

After New Orleans and a few days back at work next week, I’ll be heading to Austin, Texas with my parents to visit my brother for a week. I’ve been working a lot of long hours lately and was somewhat dreading a particularly busy day at work today when my friend Karen made a great point. She said, “you should calculate how many days you’ll actually be at work the next few weeks. That should make you better.” Very true. I feel much better. It’s vacation time.

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Magnolia Bakery’s Red Velvet Cupcakes

January 29th, 2009 — 9:42am

january-0133Last night I attended a potluck dinner and decided to try my hand at a recipe I found online for Magnolia Bakery’s Red Velvet Cupcakes with Creamy Vanilla Frosting. I’ve always been intrigued by Red Velvet cakes, and often wondered what makes them such a distinctive and vibrant hue of red (I learned the secret is rather unexciting—loads of red food coloring and cocoa).

Apparently red velvet cake is a Southern tradition that enjoyed it’s peak popularity in the 1950’s, but has recently experienced a resurgence, supposedy due to the cake’s cameo appearance in the 1998 movie Steel Magnolias, as well as it’s February 2007 selection for Oprah’s O List of favorite things and resulting celebrity craze. The recipe I chose was from Magnolia’s Bakery, which is a popular Greenwhich Village bakery that specializes in Southern baked goods. The red velvet cupcake has been their top selling item since the bakery opened in 1996

I enjoyed making these cupcakes but was honestly flabbergasted by the amount of red food coloring required—6 tablespoons. I thought, surely that can’t be right. And I certainly didn’t have that much red food coloring on hand, so I had to make an emergency trip to the grocery store mid-recipe and purchase three small vials of food coloring (and food coloring, I also learned, particularly in mass quantities, ain’t cheap). And as you can probably imagine, it was a very messy recipe, and my red finger prints are still turning up in various locations throughout the kitchen.

But the resulting cupcakes were quite delicious. I particularly enjoyed the vanilla flavored butter-cream frosting, subtle cocoa flavored cupcakes, and the attention-grabbing white on red—a dessert that, quite simply, demands attention. I’d make these again and I think they’re the perfect Valentine’s Day treat (which is why I decided to make them now, so I could share my results with you just in time.) I’d probably use cupcake liners next time, and I think the frosting would look much prettier if were piped on using a pastry bag (unfortunately, I didn’t have time to experiment). Other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing. Enjoy, and prepare to get a little messy.

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2016 Olympic Cycling Hub?

January 28th, 2009 — 12:30pm

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UW-Madison News: “If Chicago wins its bid to host the 2016 Olympics, the Madison area and UW-Madison would be the hub of cycling events.

Gov. Jim Doyle and Olympic organizers announced that the Madison area would be the venue for road racing and mountain biking events if Chicago lands the Olympic bid.

‘Not only is Madison a great place to live, it’s the nation’s premier area for bike riding,’ Doyle says. ‘I am pleased the Chicago 2016 committee has chosen Madison to be its cycling hub and can’t wait for people around the world to discover our beautiful region.'” Read more at http://www.news.wisc.edu/16192. CHICAGO 2016.

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Inka Heritage

January 27th, 2009 — 3:05pm

inkaheritage_jsI had dinner with friends last night at Inka Heritage as part of Madison’s Restaurant Week. Participating restaurants offer a three-course meal for $25 (drinks not included). There’s three options to choose from for each course. It was a fantastic dinner, and Inka Heritage is now among my Madison favorites. Every part of the experience was excellent—the food, service, atmosphere, etc. The flavors were amazing and the portions were also impressive (although I still managed to polish off every last morsel.) It was one of my best Restaurant Week experiences to date, and I’ll definitely be heading back to Inka Heritage. Following are the options I chose. Read ’em and weep:

Appetizer: Causa Marinera
Crushed potato touched with yellow hot chili pepper stuffed with a mix of crab with sea food and our homemade golf sauce

Entree: Pescado Inka Heritage
A full-flavored lightly fried fish fillet, stuffed with crab sauce, gratinated with Parmesan cheese and white sauce, topped with grilled shrimp, served with white rice and garnished with fresh pieces of avocado and peruvian corn

Dessert: Crema Volteada
Delicious flan prepared “a bano maria” and glazed with caramel

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My Craft “Studio”

January 27th, 2009 — 1:46pm

january-0094I’ve always loved making crafts. My mom got me hooked at a very young age and now I’m one with a glue gun and a frequent shopper at Michael’s. I love attempting to bring life back  to random found objects and other “junk.” Crafts are also a great way to relax, unleash your creative spirit and youth, and they make for perfectly thoughtful, personalized gifts.

Late last summer, wanting a more permanent craft area where I could also properly spread out, I created a “craft studio” with two 6′ tables in my basement. It’s been a work in progress, but I think it’s finally coming together nicely. My parents bought me a great florescent light to hang above my tables, and my roommate helped me get everything set up. I covered both tables with sheets of brown paper and have attempted to organize my projects in small receptacles and boxes. Granted it’s still a typical dungeon-y basement, but it serves me well.

So now that I have the space, I’m hoping I’ll finally be able to dive into some of the projects I’ve been putting off. Lately, I’ve been working on a lot of bottle cap magnets, and am trying some new projects with tiles, pictures, and varnish (perhaps coasters or wall hangings?). I’m also hoping to finally assemble some of the tiered dessert trays I’ve been putting off for months, and maybe some of the DIY projects at Design *Sponge. Here are some additional pictures from my “studio.”

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Beef Empanadas

January 26th, 2009 — 2:53pm

january-038As I mentioned in the previous post, my culinary challenge this past weekend was to make Empanadas. I used the dough recipe detailed in the last post (or you could, of course, make things much simpler and just buy frozen empanada dough), and the following recipe for Beef Empanadas that I found on epicurious.com, that was originally featured in the September 2007 issue of Gourmet. The recipe makes ten empanadas, and I had several with a glass of wine, which made for a perfect small dinner. The flavor of the pastries and filling was amazing, and very unique. I look forward to experimenting with other varieties of empanada recipes.

The exquisitely fragrant beefy filling in our take on these classic Central and South American pastries draws on a number of influences—Chilean, Puerto Rican, and Argentinean. Traditionally eaten as street food, empanadas are ideal for snacking on the go but are just as satisfying to sit down to for a simple dinner.

Beef Empanadas
2 hard boiled eggs
½ medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. dried oregano
¾ pound ground beef chuck
2 tbsp. raisins
1 ½ tbsp. chopped pimiento-stuffed olives
1 (14 oz) can whole tomatoes in juice, drained, reserving 2 tbsp. juice, and chopped

Cut each egg crosswise into 10 thin slices. Cook onion in olive oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened. Add garlic, cumin, and oregano and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in beef and cook, breaking up lumps with a fork, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Add raisins, olives, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and tomatoes with reserved juice, then cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced but mixture is still moist, about 5 minutes. Spread on a plate to cool.january-0222

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F with rack in middle.

Lay a large sheet of plastic wrap on a dampened work surface (to help keep plastic in place), then roll out an empanada disk on plastic wrap to measure about 6 inches. Place 3 tablespoons meat mixture on disk and top with 2 slices of egg. Moisten edges of disk with water and fold over to form a semicircle, then crimp with a fork. Make more empanadas in same manner.

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Heat ¾ inch vegetable oil in a deep 12-inch skillet over medium heat until it registers 360 degrees F on thermometer. Fry empanadas, 2 or 3 at a time, turning once, until crisp and golden, 4 to 6 minutes per batch. (I used a fryer, which made things very quick and easy.)

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Transfer to a shallow baking pan and keep warm in oven. Return oil to 360 degrees F between batches.

Empanadas can be brushed with oil and baked on an oiled baking sheet in a 425 degree F oven until golden, about 10 minutes. (They will not be as crisp as fried empanadas).

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Empanada Dough

January 26th, 2009 — 2:15pm

empanadas20para20freirThe most significant of my weekend culinary adventures was making homemade Empanadas, a stuffed pastry that originated in Spain. I found two recipes at epicurious.com—one for dough and the other for beef empadadas, which I essentially meshed into one recipe. Following is the dough recipe I used that was originally featured in Gourmet in October 2004. The dough had excellent flavor, but I’d probably double the recipe next time to give myself a little more to work with. Also, I learned afterwards that it’s easiest to roll out the dough and cut out small discs (3-6″) with a cookie cutter or coffee can.

Empanadas Dough
2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice water
1 tbsp. distilled white vinegar

Stir flour with salt into a large bowl and blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal with some (roughly pea-size) butter lumps. Beat together egg, water, and vinegar in a small bowl with a fork. Add to flour mixture, stirring with fork until just incorporated. Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and gather together, then knead gently with heel of your hand once or twice, just enough to bring dough together. Form dough into a flat rectangle and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, at least 1 hour. Dough can be chilled up to 6 hours.

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See Jane Work

January 26th, 2009 — 1:44pm

I recently came across a great Web site called See Jane Work that touts itself as “The Destination for Office Style + Organization.” The site offers stylish and functional office accessories ranging from portfolios and notebooks, to totes and calendars. Apparently “Jane” is a fictional character “who embodies everything working women are todayexpert organizers and multi-taskers who can lead the staff meeting, make the contract revisions, and schedule the vet appointment, all before we’ve had our second cup of coffee.” Superwomen, that we are. Flattery will get you everywhere.

The prices are a little higher than what you’d find at your standard office supply store (go figure), and I certainly understand the hesitation to spend any amount of money on office supplies when most offices provide endless amounts of pens, highlighters, and legal pads for the taking, but this stuff is undeniably fun. And if you’re anything like me, you want your office to be comfortable, and just a tad stylish, considering it’s a small space where you spend ungodly amounts of time. Sigh. I purchased the pencil holder (pictured above, left) for just $6. It’s a very small item that adds a touch of style and makes me smile. If nothing else, the site provides great eye candy and inspiration for organization freaks like myself.

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Souper Bowl XIII

January 25th, 2009 — 7:14pm

Watching football is not my thing. Eating soup with friends and supporting a great cause is more like it. I first attended Madison’s annual “Souper Bowl” a few years ago with my friend Lauren. I was quite amazed by the whole production—it’s a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity at which your donation of $15 gets you (in addition to the pleasure of knowing that you’re donating to a worthwhile cause!) a handcrafted ceramic soup bowl (there’s literally hundreds to choose from), soup, bread, salad, dessert, and live entertainment. There’s also a silent auction, aka “pro bowl”, for beatiful bowls donated by local artists.

What I didn’t know then is the storied history behind the Souper Bowl. Apparently, thirteen years ago, several students at West High School came to their art teacher, Don Hunt, with the idea of making ceramic bowls to sell soup as a fundraiser for the UW-Madison chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Don dedicated an immense amount of time and talent to, what quickly became, an annual event that raises nearly $25,000 every year. Sadly, Don passed away in August, after a 14-month battle with brain cancer. Don obviously left an amazing legacy, touched the lives of many students, and created an ongoing event that gives back to the community in tremendous ways.

Souper Bowl XIII
January 31, 2009, 3-8 p.m.
Madison West High School (30 Ash Street)

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Margo’s Mac and Cheese

January 25th, 2009 — 4:24pm

january-0081The latest cover of Real Simple magazine features a close-up of a heaping, mouth-watering scoop of Macaroni and Cheese. I’ve found that staring at the picture is hypnotic—instantly, I crave mac and cheese. And interestingly, the current “top search” at realsimple.com is “Macaroni and Cheese,” so clearly, I’m not alone. As the majority of readership hibernates in the dead of winter, it seems like a stroke of editorial genius to highlight the ultimate comfort food on the cover of February’s issue. (Sadly, I can’t find a link to the picture, so hopefully my pictures will suffice in making you crave mac and cheese, too.)

I was inspired to break out one of my old favorite recipes for mac and cheese, which I affectionately refer to as “Margo’s Mac and Cheese” (I think it has a nice ring to it), as I received it from a colleage named Margo after I begged for the recipe following a party a few years ago at which she served it as the main dish. It’s simple, it’s creamy, it’s comfort and bliss.

Margo’s Mac and Cheese
1 cup chopped onion
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
1 cup milk
1 can (1-2 cups) beef, chicken, or veggie stock
2 cup shredded cheese (I used sharp cheddar)
1 lb. pasta
1 bag frozen broccoli (optional)

Saute onions in butter until transparent. Add flour. Stir constantly. Slowly add milk and broth. Mix until thick. Add cheese and season to taste. Add to approximately 1 lb. cooked pasta (I also add a bag of frozen broccoli while cooking pasta).

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