Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Milwaukee Rep presents "An Evening with Groucho"

A night of improv & comedy in the Stackner Cabaret

Here's a simple conversation-starter for parties and first dates: Marx Brothers or Stooges? Really the only wrong answer is "Who?" But, to me, the rightest answer is the Marx Brothers. The humor is a brilliant mix of slapstick and smart. One minute you're in stitches because Harpo's speaking in honks, the next you have to think about what just came out of Groucho's mouth before you can laugh at it; I find he's usually into the next joke by the time I've registered the last. 

Groucho Marx is such a comic icon, I was unsure at first how I felt about the Milwaukee Repertory Theater bringing in An Evening with Groucho. Do I want to pay to see someone impersonate greatness? What's the point? Well since gifting Dad An Evening with Groucho for his birthday (an outing that included the whole of my immediate family), I can now tell you the point without reserve. 

It starts by appreciating the brilliance of writer and actor Frank Ferrante. The New York Times called him "the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx's material." Morrie Ryskin, co-writer of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera, called Ferrante "the only actor aside from Groucho who delivered my lines as they were intended." 

And get this: Ferrante was even discovered as a drama student at the University of Southern California by Groucho's own son, who cast him to play his father in an off-Broadway show. Ferrante took that show to London's West End, where he was nominated for an Olivier Award for Comedy Performance of the Year. He has played Groucho over 2,500 times in more than 400 cities worldwide. 

Going into the evening with this knowledge in my back pocket, I was floored. In awe. Simply amazed at how this man could give such an animated performance for decades on end. It's incredible! And I feel sincerely honored to have spent an evening not only with Groucho, but with Frank Ferrante. 

An Evening with Groucho is playing through May 28th at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Info and tickets at

*Photo courtesy of Frank Ferrante Productions. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Spinach & artichoke enchiladas

Homemade sauce + vegetarian filling

There are few recipes that make me say with absolute confidence that A.) everyone will flip out over how yummy this is, B.) you will be thrilled to eat the leftovers a week straight (should there be any), and C.) it's really, truly easy to make. Well heaven bless Kate, of Cookie & Kate, because her recipes usually check off all of these boxes — and her enchiladas have quickly become a new favorite. 

If you like spinach and artichoke dip, or if you just like enchiladas, I promise this is the kind of recipe that'll leave you licking the plate. The amounts below make a pan of six large enchiladas, and you really only need one per person (they're filling) so you can feed a party of six, no problem. Or you can enjoy the leftovers for the next week; Adam and I did and loved every minute of it. 

As for the ease, you make your own enchilada sauce, which means measuring some spices and opening some cans. Easy. You can make the sauce the night before, then whip up the enchilada filling, bake these bad boys, and have dinner on the table in no time. Serve with some smashed avocado and sour cream. Yummy sounds soon to follow. 

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3 TBS olive oil
3 TBS whole wheat or all-purpose flour
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp oregano 
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cinnamon
2 TBS tomato paste
2 cups vegetable broth
1 tsp apple cider or distilled white vinegar 
black pepper, to taste

2 TBS olive oil 
1 cup chopped red onion 
1/4 tsp salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 14-oz. can artichokes, chopped 
1 4-oz. can diced green chiles (I used mild)
12 oz. baby spinach (see Spinach Note, below)
1 15-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup sour cream
additional salt & pepper, to taste
6 8-inch whole wheat tortillas
1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese 
homemade enchilada sauce (above)
chopped fresh cilantro, for serving 
avocado & lime juice, for serving 

* Spinach Note: When you buy spinach, check out the ounces on the package. A big tub of spinach will be about 10 ounces; I used an entire tub, plus a couple more heaping handfuls in this recipe. It looks like a lot, even too much — but it wilts like crazy. Trust me! 

1. To make the sauce: Measure the flour and spices into a small bowl. Measure tomato paste and vegetable broth. Place all these near the stove (having everything ready before you start cooking is key!). 

2. In a medium-sized pot, heat 3 TBS oil until shimmering. Pour in the flour and spice mixture, whisking constantly. Cook 1 minute until fragrant and deepened in color. Whisk in the tomato paste, then slowly pour in the broth while whisking constantly to remove any lumps. 

3. Bring the sauce to a simmer, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer, whisking often, for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat once the sauce has thickened a bit (it will thicken more as it cools), and whisk in vinegar and black pepper to taste. Set the sauce aside. 

4. To make the enchiladas: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9 by 13-inch pan. 

5. In a large skillet, warm 2 TBS oil until shimmering. Add chopped onion and 1/4 tsp salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook about 30 seconds. 

5. Add the drained, chopped artichokes and green chiles to the skillet. Add a few handfuls of spinach (I tore the spinach into slightly smaller pieces as I added it to the skillet). Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then mix until the spinach is wilted. Continue adding handfuls of spinach, sprinkling with salt and pepper as you go and stirring frequently, until all of the spinach has been added. Cook until all the spinach is wilted and most of the excess moisture has evaporated from the pan.

6. Remove from heat and stir in the drained black beans and sour cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. *Note: I found that sprinkling in salt and pepper while adding the spinach resulted in a perfectly-seasoned mixture, but taste-test it to see.

7. Pour 1/2 cup enchilada sauce into the prepared pan and evenly coat the bottom. To assemble, spoon 1/2 cup of spinach/artichoke mixture into the center of a tortilla. Snugly wrap the tortilla, and place it seam-side-down against the edge of the pan. Repeat for a total of 6 enchiladas in the pan. Drizzle with remaining sauce, leaving the edges of the enchiladas bare. Sprinkle shredded cheese on top.

8. Bake uncovered for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving. To serve: Sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Serve with sour cream and chopped or mashed avocado mixed with some red onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt & pepper. 

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I love that these are not only delicious, but there's also hardly any "bad" stuff in here. There's 1/4 cup sour cream in the entire enchilada filing, and 1 cup of cheese spread over the entire pan. Whole wheat tortillas sound like a bad idea, but you really can't tell in the recipe — it's amazing! These enchiladas hit that sweet spot of flavor, ease, and lightened-up. They are, in a word, magic. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

3 Breakfast treats for Mother's Day

Recipes for Mom's sweet tooth

When cooking on a holiday, the easier the better. On Mother's Day, I somehow feel even more compelled to make it all look like a breeze — like, "Look Ma! You raised an expert meal planner and wizard in the kitchen who makes minimal mess with delicious results — now aren't you proud?!" Plus, my mom is just awesome and deserves a day where people make her tasty treats while she sits with her feet up.

Because my mom has a sweet tooth, I'm sharing three sweet breakfast recipes today — all tried and true and sure to elicit lots of yummy sounds from Mom. I haven't decided yet which will land on the Lawler family breakfast table this Sunday, but I know I can't go wrong with any of these babies. 

Cinnamon sugar muffins
Have you heard of a duffin? A donut-muffin? The internet was making similar cinnamon sugar muffins before the duffin was born! I know because I found the recipe years ago and they've been my mom's favorite ever since. The muffin batter comes together quickly and in one bowl. After they're baked, the hot muffins are dipped in melted butter and a cinnamon-sugar mix, giving them a sort of faux-fried exterior. I think they're best fresh from the oven, but you can also make them the day before and reheat in the microwave for about 15 seconds, as they're best served warm. 

Dutch baby pancake
A giant pancake, baked in a skillet in the oven. The batter for this one also comes together in one bowl, and the result is plenty impressive. Start by heating your skillet in the oven, then pour in the batter and return the skillet to the oven. The batter will creep up the sides of the pan and puff up beautifully. This pancake serves a family of four perfectly, but you could eke out more servings if you had other goodies on the side. Serve with powdered sugar, and lemon and wait for the applause to roll in. 

Pancakes with blueberry-lemon sauce 
Make your Mother's Day pancakes something special with this scrumptious blueberry-lemon sauce. Blueberry and lemon are MFEO (made for each other), and the nice thing about this sauce is that you can make it ahead of time and just warm it on Sunday morning. I used it to top the Pioneer Woman's blueberry pancakes, but you could use it on any pancake recipe really. The flavors are so wonderful, fans of berries and lemon will inevitably fawn over this sauce.

Tips for minimal mess: Anything you can make ahead, do. If you can't make ahead, measure ahead. Measure out the dry ingredients for muffins or pancakes and store in a ziplock bag until you're ready to get cookin'. It's amazing how much mess that eliminates and time it saves.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Favorite picture books

Ducklings, ideas, gardeners & Gaston 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm a sucker for illustrations. I shared some of my favorite children's picture books on the blog not too long ago, and today I've got four more that I'm currently loving. 

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio & illustrator Christian Robinson
This darling book keeps popping up — on boutique store shelves, on blogs I read. The illustrations are so darn cute, and the story is just as adorable. It's about Gaston, a bulldog puppy in a family of poodles. Of course, in the end, everyone learns that being part of a family is about love, not looks. 

Love Is by Diane Adams & illustrator Claire Keane
This one I stumbled upon at a local card shop and quickly read from cover to cover. The drawings remind me of a Disney animator's sketches, full of joyful energy and movement. It's the story of a little girl raising a duckling, who eventually leaves the nest. It's a lesson in the good and gritty parts of care-giving — from sleeping snugly to messy bath times — as well as the act of letting go.

What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada & illustrator Mae Besom
Like Oh! The Places You'll Go — but different in tone — What Do You Do With an Idea? is a book to encourage folks young and old to go for it. Have an idea? Nurture it! The moral of this story is that any one of us can have an idea that will change the world. 

The Night Gardener by Terry Fan & illustrator Eric Fan
When I saw this book perched on a Barnes & Noble shelf, I couldn't pass up the illustrations. The story and pictures combined remind me a bit of a Chris Van Allsburg work: gorgeous full-page drawings in an often-monotone color palette paired with a dreamlike story. In The Night Gardener, a boy awakens to find the tree outside his bedroom window has been sculpted overnight into a wise old owl. With each new morning, a new topiary appears in town, bringing color and life to an otherwise dull place. 

There will always, always be more picture books worth sharing. I've already started a list for my third installment of favorites, so get excited! In the mean time, feel free to share your favorite picture books in the comments. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Jane Eyre"

An artistic spin on a classic costume drama

I first encountered Charlotte Bronte's spirited herione as a child. It was probably some mid-nineties BBC miniseries my mom made me watch, which seemed like a good idea until the crazy lady in the attic showed up. Scarred is a strong word, but there it is. Point is, I never much cared for Jane Eyre. Her story is one of a poorly-treated orphan girl who grows up to become a governess in a great, mysterious house. A passionate romance blooms, but Jane's hopes are threatened when her master's dark secrets are revealed.

Love story or not, it's all a little creepy for my tastes. So I avoided Jane until very recently, when the Milwaukee Rep welcomed me back into her world — a world filled with more romance and redemption than I'd remembered. Still, that eerie sense of foreboding certainly outweighs any lightness in Jane's story, and the production on stage now at the Milwaukee Rep seeks to truly immerse us in that uneasy feeling — and succeeds. 

The show comes from the Shared Experience Theatre Company in the U.K., and though the hoop skirts and corsets remain, the set is entirely modern. The ominous Red Room, contemporary choreography, pulsing drum beats — it's an arty take. One that I warned my friends and Bronte purists about before their trip to the Rep. Some of those purists came away feeling like they saw Jane with new eyes; others felt the sleek set, choreographed movements, and sensory mood-setting were a bit of a distraction. 

For my part, I thoroughly enjoyed the imaginative spin and modern tendencies. Director KJ Sanchez explains that if the stage was set with Victorian furniture, they'd be moving it on and off with every scene change, of which there are countless. A streamlined set allows not only for artistic interpretation, but for more time spent in the story, rather than in scene changes.

One of my favorite creative choices in this Jane Eyre was the connection drawn between Jane and Bertha, the aforementioned crazy lady in the attic. The enchanting Rin Allen plays Bertha, as well as a physical manifestation of Jane's inner passions. Although Jane, played exquisitely by Margaret Ivey, learns to remain emotionally buttoned-up in order to survive Victorian England, Allen's ever-present foil offers a constant glimpse into our heroine's true nature. 

It's a lot for your senses to take in. I found my eyes darting around the stage many times to make sure I wasn't missing any little piece of this ever-moving work of art. Some might find that distracting, but I found it exciting — not art for art's sake, but a thoughtfully-crafted piece of theater where every movement, sound, and design choice are motivated by the story and serve a purpose. 

While much of the kudos to this production goes to the artistic vision of playwright Polly Teale and the Creative Team, like any other work staged at the Milwaukee Rep, the acting was equally superb. A personal favorite of mine was Rebecca Hirota as Jane's young pupil, Adele — a precocious, cartoonish, giddy little princess that drew lots of laughter from the audience.

I already gave a shout out to Margaret Ivey as Jane, but she deserves a second mention and round of applause. She deftly maneuvers between a woman fighting and succumbing to her passions. Those passions are directed at Mr. Rochester, played expertly by Michael Sharon who, I'm told, perfectly captures the moody, arrogant, but utterly passionate and swoon-worthy hero from Bronte's book. 

My purist friends were totally enamored with Sharon's performance, so as you see, there really is something for everybody in this Jane Eyre. If you're a traditionalist, look for those stripped down moments and stand-out performances — you will find them. But you'd do well to check the bulk of your expectations at the door, as this production is sure to upend them, whether you like it or not. But with an open mind and eye for the artistic, I dare say you'll like it very much indeed. 

Jane Eyre is playing Now through May 21st at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Information and tickets at

Friday, April 28, 2017

A dreamy birthday weekend in NYC

Thirty, you are magic 

Ahhh thirty. After spending this milestone birthday in New York with some of my best gals, my body is still catching up on sleep and adjusting to a diet that doesn't include daily pizza and cocktails. As for my heart, it's still feeling mighty full of love and gratitude for my dear friends who went out of their way to share in a most unforgettable weekend. Here are some of the highlights.

For lunch on my birthday, we bopped to Alice's Tea Cup. Actually, there was nothing bop-ish about it. Public transportation was feeling Mercury in retrograde (have you seen that one Seinfeld?), and we waited for a table for what felt like forever. 

But I have to say, sipping three types of scrumptious tea and savoring fresh-baked scones with clotted cream and berry jam in a sunlit upper room melted any hard feelings toward that morning's frustrating logistics. Oh the power of a good tea party! 

I'd never been to a museum in New York, so it was time to check one off the bucket list. The Met has a pay-what-you-can policy, which is nice (though I just saw a headline saying that policy might change for non-New Yorkers). The place is overwhelming in its vastness, architectural beauty, and the works on display. We certainly did not have enough time to enjoy it thoroughly — you'd need days, really. But we took a spin around the Egyptian wing (it just goes on and on!), and I tried to slow down for my favorite impressionists. 

What I didn't realize before going in was the variety of art housed at the Met. Airy, marble halls filled with statues and architectural wonders — even entire Parisian hotel rooms lifted from their homes and preserved for New York's viewing pleasure. It's astounding, and I'm kicking myself for not doing more research before our visit. Luckily, there's always next time. I plan to park myself in the American Wing with its Narnia lamppost and just take it in for a while.

On my birthday night, my sweet friends unveiled one of New York's signature treats: a Milk Bar birthday cake. The funfetti naked cake scrawled with "Kelsey, you are magic" in chocolate letters was truly delightful — and tasted just as delish. 

After cake, it was off to Beauty Bar, where there was far too much dancing and drinking to bother with blog-worthy photos. 

With the weather a little dreary, we browsed Chelsea Market (milk shakes and Japanese tacos!) and Artists & Fleas — an artist, designer, and vintage market. 

The gorgeous wearables were certainly tempting, and none more than these Star Wars pendants. Drool.

For $20, you can get your aura read. We have our friend Rachelle to thank for cluing us into this bizarre experience. First, you go to Magic Jewelry in Chinatown and get your picture taken on a special aura-reading camera. Once the photo develops and your aura is revealed, the resident aura specialist tells you what it means. 

She might tell you you're a workaholic, care too much about money or people, overthink, or have a lucky future — or she might ask you if you're on your period, as happened to one of our group. No, she wasn't on her period, but the aura guru was getting some very strong menstrual vibes. We left a little flabbergasted and proceeded to ask google for more answers, but all in all it was a fun experience. 

A piano bar in the West Village where everyone crowds around and sings show tunes — and only show tunes. Is this Heaven? No, it's Marie's Crisis. Shout out to my friend Rachel for knowing just what a birthday girl wants. We sang songs from Rent, Wicked, Oklahoma, Chicago (oh yes, oh yes, oh yes they both...), Les Mis, and plenty of others that I didn't know the words to. 

It's safe to say we all have a crush on the adorably charismatic piano-playing superstar, Michael James Roy. Here, take my money. There was a girl sitting at the bar who, we overheard, had been to Marie's Crisis three nights in one week. We laughed — but really I don't blame her. It's giving Disney World a run for its money in the "Happiest Place on Earth" department. 

Wandering home from a delicious brunch, Rachel told me a bit about her Brooklyn neighborhood, Carroll Gardens. She said there's a cat whose owner lets it roam the streets by day, and the cat has come to be known as the Mayor of Carroll Gardens. Rachel was lamenting the fact that though she'd heard of the elusive creature, she'd never seen it. 

Well not five minutes later, a cat crossed our path and lay down on the sunny sidewalk. We approached, checked its tag, and sure enough — "Petro, Neighborhood Cat." A passerby confirmed that Petro was indeed the Mayor. There's something strange about how the cat seemingly manifested from our conversation — like the universe conspired to put him in our world. Makes me wonder what else the universe has up its sleeve for the year ahead.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Chocolate almond cake

Julia Child's Reine de Saba

I've had Julia's cake on my must-try list for years now and finally had my Julie & Julia moment a couple weeks ago. While you might want to go at this cake with a couple of spoons, please don't. The making of it is a process. There's separating of eggs and stiff peaks and ground almonds involved. It's not difficult, but it takes a little time and love — and it's worth it. I love the almond flavor in this cake and the dense, fudgy texture. It's downright dreamy! 

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8 TBS unsalted butter at room temp, plus more for pan
1/2 cup cake flour, plus more for pan
4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 TBS freshly-brewed coffee or rum (I used coffee)
2/3 cup sugar, plus 1 TBS sugar
3 eggs, separated
pinch of salt
1/3 cup ground almonds (I used a mini food processor)
1/4 tsp almond extract 
8-inch cake pan (I used 9-inch, but 8 would be best!)
Parchment paper

2 oz. semisweet chocolate
2 TBS freshly-brewed coffee or rum (I used coffee)
6 TBS unsalted butter, at room temp
sliced almonds for garnish

1. To make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour the cake pan. Cut a piece of parchment paper and place in the bottom of the pan. 

2. Melt the chocolate and coffee/rum together in the microwave, heating in 30-second increments and stirring until smooth. 

3. Grind almonds in food processor until you have 1/3 cup (or buy ground almonds and measure 1/3 cup).

4. In a large bowl, beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat until well blended. 

5. In another large bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form. Sprinkle with 1 TBS sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. 

6. With a rubber spatula, mix the melted chocolate into the butter/sugar mixture. Stir in the ground almonds and almond extract. Stir in one quarter of the beaten egg whites to lighten the batter. Continuing folding in a quarter of the egg whites at a time, alternating with sifted flour. Repeat until incorporated, but do not over work! 

7. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake about 25 minutes, or until the edges are set and the center is still moist. Place on cooling rack for 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge and flip the cake onto the rack. Cool completely before frosting (I let it cool overnight).

8. To make the frosting: Fill a large bowl with ice water. Melt the chocolate and coffee/rum together in a medium-sized bowl in the microwave, heating in 30-second increments and stirring until smooth. Beat in butter. Set the bowl into the ice bath and beat until the mixture has cooled to a spreading consistency. Remove from ice bath and frost the cake. Garnish with sliced almonds. 

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I mentioned above that I used a 9-inch cake pan, though the recipe called for an 8-inch pan. Either way, this isn't a ginormous cake, but I imagine the 8-inch pan would yield a slightly taller, cuter cake. My 9-inch cake seemed rather flat and measly, though it looked miles better after frosting and tasted wonderful. This cake would be ideal for a group of eight or ten chocolate lovers — especially those in search of a Julie & Julia moment.