Baking!

My house is full of delicious smells tonight.  Mostly, pumpkin and cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves.  I saw this recipe for Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bars at Bake at 350 a few days ago and knew that tonight would be a great opportunity to bake.  I’m visiting some very worthy taste testers tomorrow and can’t wait to see what everyone says about them.  I only got into pumpkin and chocolate a few years ago.  Great combination.  That recipe calls for one cup of canned pumpkin which then left me with about 1/3 of the can left.  What to do?  Make pumpkin Gooey Butter cookies!

Gooey butter cake is a classic St. Louis recipe and the cookie version is a fan favorite.  I figured adding some pumpkin could only make them better, right?  Judging my the pumpkin-y, butter-y aroma coming from my oven, I’m going to go ahead and call it a success.

Pictures and taste tester reviews to follow…

UPDATE:  Hmmm…so I sure did forget to take pictures.  Sorry friends.  I do have reviews.  The pumpkin chocolate chip bars got excellent reviews!!  Alex’s dad and my brother in law both loved them.  And pumpkin gooey butter cookies were a hit.  I recommend them both!  Delicious!

Gratitude.

The I’m thankful for post…it just has to be done. 

* I’m grateful for my apartment.  I love it.  I love that I feel at home.  I was so close to missing out on this one and things all fell into place.  I spent much of this year in places that didn’t feel like I belonged in them – my house with Colin or the apartment in Chicago – they just didn’t fit no matter how hard I tried.  I love my apartment, the space, the fact that it’s all mine and that my bedroom is the perfect color blue.

* I’m grateful I got my furry baby Quinn back.  It was a very nice thing for Colin to do and it’s so nice to know that I’m talking to something besides the walls.

* I’m grateful for the tv show Greek.  It’s my newest obsession and the campus kids keep me company.  Which I suppose makes me grateful for Hulu and Netflix on demand also.

* I’m grateful to be employed.  Being unemployed is one thing when you choose to not work.  When you wish you were working, unemployment is just terrible.  I’m thrilled to be back at work in an area I enjoy (training) that is presenting new challenges (opening a new casino).

* I’m grateful for the YMCA.  As I mentioned before, it makes a really nice “third place”.  And I’m grateful that there really is an “app” for everything, as I have a 5K training app on my phone that is helping me become a better runner. 

* I’m so grateful for the friends who listened to me be an absolute crazy person this year.  I’m grateful that phase is coming to an end and I hope they’ll let me be there for them in 2010.

* I’m grateful for the leader of my fat camp (weight watchers) meetings who provided me with a mantra to use whenever I feel like eating a pint of ice cream for dinner.  “That’s ridiculous.  Do you see how that’s ridiculous?”  That’s all it took to help put some of my eating habits in perspective.

* I’m grateful for it being so close to 2010.  Can’t wait for some New Year’s Resolutions.

* I’m grateful for this blog.  It started almost as a favor to Cyndi, a way she could keep track of what I was up to, and it became something I look forward to doing.  I have enjoyed reading so many others’ details of their lives and have liked knowing that a few people out there are reading about mine.  I had a tarot card reading back in August (just for fun) and she had told me she really liked writing for me…I like it for me also.  In fact, I just bought two new books that I hope cultivate my writing style…The 3a.m. Ephiphany and Will Write for Food.  Like to write, LOVE food, perhaps that is something I should be looking into.

* Grateful that in 11 1/2 hours I’ll be watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade which I just love.

Have a beautiful Thanksgiving.  Be grateful. 
Sarah

Bahston and Hahvahd

That’s me mimicking the accent…get it?

Let me tell you about my time in Boston…

I went to visit my friend Alex, with whom I’ve been friends since high school.  We also did lots of community theatre together, the pinnacle of which was our production of “1776″ in 2002.  It was really good.  We’ve been pals a long time and I was glad to see him and his wife Sandy, in Boston.

I arrived late Tuesday afternoon and that night we went to a pub to play trivia.  They play fairly regularly and it was a lot of fun.  It was a different trivia format than I’m used to and it required more strategy than other games I’ve played.  Highlights of our game were that I knew Greg Kinnear was the first Talk Soup Host on E!, that the largest cattle farm is in Australia, and that Albert Finney was the original Scrooge and Daddy Warbucks.  Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I ended up talking myself out of that last answer and we put down someone else.  Darn it Albert Finney!!

 Wednesday was Freedom Trail day.  The Freedom Trail walks you past all the big ticket historical sites in Boston.  (Interesting side note is that Alex said he had a conversation with someone doing research on the original Freedom Trail – over time certain businesses have lobbied for the trail to go by their front door.)  I love the Freedom Trail.  I love self paced walking tours, I really love walking as a method of transportation.  I love to look at stuff and people and store windows and menus hanging outside restaurants.  I have been to Boston four times and each time I have walked the Freedom Trail.  I embrace tourism.

The trail takes you past several cemetaries and I was more interested in those on this trip.  I really wanted to see the gravestones of Paul Revere and Sam Adams and other historic figures.  And I did.  The old cemetaries are so full of history and stories.  I liked walking through them.  I also loved the North End, which is Boston’s Italian neighborhood.  Sadly I never got the chance to eat in that neighborhood.  I’ll be back just for a Boston eating tour, as I never got a lobster either.  I did get a cupcake in the North End and just stared at all the other amazing pastries in the shops.  The Charlestowne neighborhood that bordered Bunker Hill was also really beautiful.  It was full of charming brick row houses and I think I would like to live there.

 

After we completed the complete trail, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up some groceries for dinner.  I convinced him to let me make he and Sandy dinner.  I thought it was a nice offer as a guest, Alex couldn’t believe he lost that argument.  Cooking is what I’m good at – this is what I do!!  I made Chicken Saltimbocca and my spinach orzo.  Yum.  Seriously, if you’re looking for a simple and impressive dish – I can’t recommend this one enough.

Thursday we took a trip to Plymouth Rock.  I don’t know what kind of history class I attended or textbook I read to led me to believe that Plymouth Rock was some kind of giant rock outcropping or cliff that the Mayflower landed upon, was tied to, and that the pilgrims stepped off onto – but I did.  I can’t begin to describe my shock and disappointment at what it actually is.  It’s like this – have you ever been to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower in Italy?  Pisa is a tourist trap, if that tower weren’t leaning, no one would go there.  Once you’re there, you take pictures with the tower, pretend to hold it up, buy a souvenier replica of the tower and then you leave.  Plymouth Rock is America’s Pisa.  It’s a boulder the size of my coffee table that has been dropped and concreted back together, sitting under a portico.  It was just so underwhelming.  I hate to dis on our country’s first landmark and all…but there you have it.  We also visited the Mayflower II which was a replica of the original ship and that was cool.  It was also full of costumed people pretending they were the original voyagers and I do love some themes and costumes.  Plymouth redeemed itself with the best Turkey Sandwich I’ve ever eaten. (So good I even capitalized it – see that!?)  Sadly, I do not remember the name of the cafe.  Sad for you – it had turkey, a slice of stuffing, some cranberry chutney – it was Thanksgiving on a roll.  A yummy, crusty, delicious roll.

Thursday night we saw a play called “Reckless”.  A new kind of Christmas fable.  It was dark and absurd and really funny at times.  The lead actress is remarkably talented.   It was great to see a straight play, instead of all the musicals that I see more regularly.  Afterwards there was a bar next door where we got a drink.  This was a neighborhood of Boston I had never seen before, called the South End.  Another neighborhood I loved!  I really see a future for myself in Boston, don’t I?  A number of neighborhoods I loved, fresh seafood, and the chance to live out all of my Ally McBeal fantasies!

Friday was Harvard.  When I was 18 and first visited Alex, I thought it would be fun to buy a Harvard Crew Team shirt and wear it back at my school and tell people my boyfriend went to Harvard.  I didn’t buy the shirt that time.  Don’t remember why not.  I would not forget the shirt this time.  Although, it sounds a little ridiculous at 30…so I bought a women’s Harvard Crew shirt and plan on telling people that I went to Harvard.  =)  Much more mature, yes?  Harvard is just so beautiful to me.  You can feel the history and the importance and the pretentiousness.  The halls of the music building that we walked through had crown molding and wainscoating…my Illinois state school did not have any of that.  I felt like speaking in hushed tones while on the campus.  I can’t really explain what I felt looking at the kids who are students there – jealous?  Inferior? sad for them and their student loans? wonder if they felt pressure to be amazing because they go to Harvard?  do they appreciate it?  do they take it for granted?  what do they want to be?

Friday night was my last night in town and Alex and his friend Al and I went out to dinner (Sandy had a rehearsal).  We went to dinner at Sportello, which means “counter” in Italian.  The restaurant was very white and bright and set up with two U shaped counters that everyone sat at.  It was inventive and new.  The food was delicious – an Italian cheese fondue and risotto with quail were what I had.  If I ever go back, I would get what Al had, which was a light and fluffy gnocchi with a cream sauce that wasn’t overly heavy or salty.  It was a great dish.  Afterwards we walked downstairs to a bar called Drink, owned by the same woman who owns Sportello.  Drink is ultra-hip.  Dim, amber light and old, clear scotch bottles filled with water along the back.  There are about 6 drinks on the menu and a small selection of bottled beer, everything else is custom “designed” by the bartenders.  You have a conversation with them about what you like to drink, what flavors you like and they concoct something for you.  It was pretty groovy.  I had a gingerbeer drink and then a grapefruit and champagne cocktail.  Both delicious.  Watching them mix drinks was the best part – the bartenders are so exact and they don’t pour to get you drunk, they pour so you enjoy your drink.

I headed back to St. Louis Saturday morning.  I had a long layover in Philadelphia and had my first official cheesesteak.  It was sooo bad for me, but soooo good.

And there you have it – a very successful vacation.  If you’d like to read Alex’s version of this trip - go here.  A nice counterpoint.

Walking history lessons, or, My trip to Rhode Island and Boston

What a week!  It’s been a while since I was on an actual vacation.  I know I’ve had extended periods of unemployment – not the same as vacation.  Thanks to some amazing New England friends who helped make it possible, I spent a lovely week exploring Providence, Newport and Boston.  Here is your picture heavy recap:

AMY
The Amy part of the vacation was first.  I first met Amy when she came through a program I taught at Harrah’s called Excellence in Supervision.  She was a Casino Cage supervisor and made such an impression on me that when I had the chance to hire her a year later, I jumped at it.  She is always fun and confident and quirky and accepting.  She is full of grace.  Not long after I moved to Louisiana, Amy got engaged and then moved to Germany with her Air Force husband Chris.  I never made it over to visit her there, and it’s my loss as I heard some really funny stories about their time in Germany.

Amy and Chris live in a beautiful house in Newport, Rhode Island.  Here we are on the deck.  Their house is high on a hill in the subdivision so it has unrestricted views of the water.

Some highlights of our visit include our dinner the first night at the Clark Cooke House (which I would love to link to for you, but the link appears to be broken).  While ordering New England lobster was high on my priority list, the side dishes on the roasted chicken dish looked too good to pass up.  Dinner was extraordinary.  The whipped sweet potatoes had a deep caramel flavor from what I’m told was “lots” of brown sugar by the waitress.  Sauteed spinach and a slice of stuffing completed an excellent meal.
Newport, RI is very cute.  Amy told me it’s packed with tourists in the summer.  We had beautiful weather without all the crowds.  We walked through a giant lobster holding…shack is the wrong word.  Piles of live lobsters in giant holding tanks.  Oh to be close to so much fresh seafood!
After our afternoon exploring Newport, we ran some errands and then we made Pumpkin Penne for dinner and my favorite chocolate chip peanut butter cookies for dessert.  Amy had read about my trying this dish a month or so ago and told me she thought it sounded great and I was eager to have it again.  Amy also had me sit down and watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.  I love Neil Patrick Harris so much and it’s really pretty shameful that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing this yet.  As expected, I enjoyed the show and downloaded the music to my ipod that night.  It’s super catchy.  I highly recommend investing 45 minutes in this campy episode if you enjoy musical comedies at all.
On our last day together we went to the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnston and Wales University.   This museum had been featured in a guide book I read prior to the trip and Amy was game for a visit.  She had not been there before, in fact had not heard of the place.  I had some concern that we would get there and it would be two rooms full of old wooden spoons.  I was so pleasantly surprised to find an interesting and very hands on museum that covered modern chefs, baking challenges, diner history, recipes contributed by former Presidents, county fairs and Asian influence in today’s cuisine.  It was only after we got in and discovered that it was a lot of fun that Amy also admitted she had reservations about how lame it could have been.  We had a blast playing skee-ball in the county fair area and posing with a variety of cut outs.
Yes.  This is me with Mr. Potato Head.
One of the display cakes made for a pastry challenge.
 

Amy chats it up with Emeril.  BAM!
I set out after the museum and a trip to a dive-y diner called OV’s on Amtrak bound for Boston.
And as much as I want to tell you all about it right now, I underestimated my sleepiness level at this moment.  So, stay tuned for the Boston portion of the adventure which I’ll post tomorrow night. I leave you with this last picture of Ralphie, Amy’s super adorable and very friendly dog.  Ralphie was a great companion while I was visiting, making me feel very welcome by sitting in my lap and letting me play with one of his many stuffed animals.

I may already be a winner


Fun news was waiting for me in my inbox when I got home from the Y tonight.  I won a Starbucks themed giveaway from This Minneapolis Life!  It’s full of the following goodies:

-$5 Starbucks gift card.
-Starbucks Doubleshot® Energy+Coffee product coupon.
-Stealth Switch™, the “world’s first desktop cloaking device.” StealthSwitch™ uses patent pending technology to instantly and completely hide applications with a press of the footswitch. The applications are not just are not just minimized, they are made invisible. Just imagine the possibilities…
-A Starbucks Doubleshot® Energy+Coffee branded white board

I like to think this is good karma for rejoining the Y.  =)  Thanks Minneapolis Life!

 

The third place

The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, is on record saying he believes their popularity was due to the successful marketing campaign that sold Starbucks as “the third place.”  Consumers were looking for someplace between home and work where they could relax and indulge a little.  I’ve heard the Harrah’s CEO, Gary Loveman, talk about this concept also, stating that loyal casino guests find that the casino is their “third place.”  A successful “third place” is one that meets the needs of a consumer, so they are as different as the individual. 

Today I rejoined the Y.  With daylight savings time and the dark creeping about at 5pm it’s not realistic to go running through the park.  I find that once I get home after work I don’t want to work out, I just want to veg.  If I can go straight to the Y, I’ll make the most of it.  I don’t even mind running on a treadmill when there’s people all over.  There’s a different vibe at at the Y than other gyms I’ve belonged to.  It really does feel like a community, a place where all kinds of people get together to meet different needs – kid classes and adult swim and food drives.  I don’t have to talk to anyone to feel like I belong. 

It’s good to have a third place.

Go here to read an interview with Howard Schultz.

The Price of Happiness, or, Who Do You Love?

A word before you proceed.  Writing posts after I’ve taken my sleeping pills leads to wordy and often disconnected thoughts.  I feel I have some coherent points, lets see if I can get them across before this kicks in big time.  =)

 

I am hooked on the tv show Greek.  Not hooked like, “Can’t wait to see the new episode next week and want to chat about it,” but hooked like I’ve been watching it nearly non stop in my down time on hulu.  (Hulu is a real treasure for a gal without cable)  I’ve developed a huge crush on one of the characters and am pretty engrossed in their (yes, fictional, I know) lives.  I should be picking up one of the three books on my nightstand.  I am not.  I’m watching Greek.  I am living vicariously through Greek.

I do this.  I get in these obsessive cycles with tv shows.  Some cases in point (case in points?):

  • It started with Sports Night.  It was the first tv show on DVD I ever received, one Christmas, probably 6 or 7 years ago.  It was kind of a sad time, Dad was gone and I was going through a break up.  I holed myself up in my big comfy red arm chair and watched the entire two seasons in about two and a half days.  I don’t think I showered during those days.  I only remember getting up twice for food – once was macaroni and cheese, once was graham crackers and a container of icing.  I was so emotionally invested in this story and these people.  I refer to that weekend as my Sports Night journey. I wrote what I refer to as the Sports Night epiphany which was a plan for my future.  It was kind of an intense weekend.  
  • Colin indulged this behavior and he and I went full force into Friends, LOST and The West Wing.  He and I would devour entire DVD’s of these shows in one evening.  We owned Friends, so we could go through those fast as we were willing.  It’s a really nice memory actually.  We had just moved to Louisiana and we started season one in September and finished season 10 by New Years Eve.  It was a project of sorts.  We had Netflixed LOST and West Wing and on more than one occasion I’d get so frustrated that we didn’t have the next dvd waiting that I threatened to go out and buy whatever season we were on at Best Buy.  I’m bad at patient.   I’m bad at not knowing what happens next.  I like neat, tidy endings.
  • My next major obsession became Grey’s Anatomy.  A show I never watched until the summer of 2008.  It didn’t sound like it was for me.  I thought it would be like ER, and I was kind of over ER.  Then in late spring of 2008, I was back in St. Louis in the house Colin and I had bought.  He was still living in Louisiana.  Once again I was a gal without cable, and on top of all of this I was pretty depressed because I was alone, unemployed and pretty sure my marriage was broken.  One night at Target I saw Season One of Grey’s Anatomy for $9.99.  I thought this would bring me hours of entertainment which is something I was searching for.  I didn’t like spending money since we still had two mortgages and I wasn’t pulling in any money.  I got sucked in to the show immediately.  My sisters loaned me season two on DVD, I ended up buying season three and illegally downloading season four.  I was speaking about these people like they were my pals.  My sister would call and I would use someting Izzie did as a reference for advice, “You know Izzie and Meredith had to deal with something like that – this is what they did.”  I was also making Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip cookies by the batch and then eating them all with tall glasses of milk during this phase.  To this day if I smell that cookie baking I hear the theme song, and vice versa.  Either one of them will send my mind right back to that red couch.  Ahhh, sensory memories.

And now Greek.  I get sucked into these fictional worlds with fictional people and their fictional problems.  This is exactly how I’ve become a girl with a fairy tale complex.  The line between fiction and reality is blurry for me.  The problem lies in that I’m more than content to hang out with these “people” rather than getting out of my apartment, sitting among actual people that I could have actual interactions with.

I promise, there’s a reason I shared this rather embarassing quirk.  Bear with me if you will.

After I thought the writing on the wall was clear that Colin and I needed to separate, I doubted the decision 29 times a day.  Many times the doubt came from fear.  A lot of the fear was about losing status and stuff.  I rationally know that a wine fridge won’t make me happy.  But remembering what a pain in the neck trying to get the wine fridge into my car was, in fact it’s how the stain on my passenger seat came to be, and remembering how we filled it with wines that we tasted in Napa, knowing that we were on the Shafer mailing list which is fairly exclusive – those memories were attached to that wine fridge.  The platters that I couldn’t leave were full of cookies at the Christmas cookie exchange I hosted in our beautiful house in Louisiana.  The tv we bought with wedding money from my grandparents.  The kitchen that had been full of our friends and family.  I was attached to these things and to the lifestyle.  With the help of a good shrink I could identify that since it was so hard to create emotional attachments to my husband at this time, I was creating emotional attachments to the stuff.  I was assured it was normal.  I was given the assignment of creating attachments to people and experiences to break free.

I accepted the challenge of breaking the emotional ties with my stuff and moved to Chicago where I thought I would be partaking of many real life attachments with real life people and places.  It didn’t go exactly as I planned and what I ended up with was an emotional attachment to food as I drifted back into fictional worlds.  (Is there any doubt I was the girl who completely stalked boys she had a crush on back in high school and college?  I wish I could turn this obsessive personality towards something good.  Which is kind of the point of this post.  Getting there.  Remember, I’m writing under the influence of Lunesta.)  So now I’m finding comfort in food and cooking and still hiding away from the world.

Which brings me to tonight.  I’m trying to embrace healthier living at the age of 30.  Get all of these aspects of my addictive personality under control.  Use the power for good, and not for evil.  Take charge.  You get the picture.

I decided to make an inspiration board.  Pictures, images, words, thoughts, doodles, goals, glitter, and more on a piece of poster board hung in my bedroom that I see every day and can be added to over time.  My cousin Anna and I had something like this when we lived together.  It was this giant 4×8 piece of foam core that we covered in great quotes, magazine articles, pictures…it was kind of a masterpiece of girl power.  I like to be crafty and I like to look to something for daily motivation.  Inspiration Board sounded like a great idea.  I started browsing through my old magazines looking for stuff to cut out that spoke to me.  I ran across an article that talked about the real price of happiness.  It suggested making a list of five things that make you happy and list the real cost of them, e.g. Talking with a friend on the phone – FREE!  The moral of the exercise is to make you see that the things that bring you actual happiness may not be things tht cost money at all.  Knowing that was the goal, I brainstormed about things that make me happy.  The first two things that came to mind were: Ally McBeal on dvd (which JUST came out after YEARS of waiting for it) and crab legs.

**heaves large sigh**

So much work to do. 

This is my assignment now.  Five things that make me happy.  And in my case they have to be things that don’t allow me to retreat into a fictional land or a carton of ice cream.  What makes me happy?  And how much would it take?  Effort?  Money?  Cooperation with others?  Perhaps I can give myself two handicap answers.  One will be *Great food and wine, including cooking, baking, drinking and dining out.  Another: * Film and television.  Now I only need to come up with three.  Three things that make me happy. 

Maybe if I recall some of my happiest memories – working for or visitng Disney World, painting sets for Hawthorne and especially the summer of the 1776 production, large scale musical theatre, the times I’ve laughed, the times I’ve traveled to visit friends, anytime I feel helpful and useful and appreciated for it, working for Talent Development when it was full of rock stars, and having my cat purr at my feet.  I love to dance in this one particular gazebo at Tower Grove park in the middle of my walks through the park.  Rollerblading along the lake in Chicago made me happy.  Playing board games with groups of friends. 

I am going to need to work on cleaning up the list.  What about you?  What makes you happy, and what does it cost?  I wonder what my imaginary friends in the land of Greek would say….kidding, kidding. 

For making it through these thoughts with me – I offer you the recipe for the amazing cookies I made during the Grey’s phase.  And if I haven’t already, remind me to tell you the story about me and Season four – the season I procured by downloading them in a way I’m pretty sure is not recommended or sanctioned.  Sometimes, what makes me happy is my ability to laugh at myself.  I can be really entertaining, even if I’m the only one I’m entertaining.  I used to be a lot of fun.  Sometimes I see glimpses of that girl.  Next time I see her I’ll tell her to get on this list making.  I digress…the cookies!

::photo taken from http://www.kraftfoods.com::

Peanut Butter Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk cookies, courtesy of Kraft Foods.

1 cup flour
1 cup  old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp.  CALUMET Baking Powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup  (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup  firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter
1   egg
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla
6 squares  BAKER’S Semi-Sweet Chocolate, coarsely chopped

Make It


PREHEAT oven to 375°F. Mix flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder and salt; set aside. Beat butter, sugars and peanut butter in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla; mix well. Gradually add flour mixture, mixing until well blended after each addition. Stir in chocolate.
DROP heaping tablespoonfuls of dough, 2 inches apart, onto ungreased baking sheets.
BAKE 10 to 12 min. or until lightly browned. Cool 1 min.; remove from baking sheets to wire racks. Cool completely.