Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Basil pesto

Sure beats the jarred stuff!

When we were at the Waukesha Farmers' Market, we bought three leafy bunches of basil for $6. It was like purchasing a small bush. But that's just about how much basil you need to make your own pesto. 

I've always loved pesto, probably since Noodles made it easy to come by with their Pesto Cavatappi. But then my bosom friend Rachelle got in the habit of feeding us her mom's homemade pesto sauce, and the store-bought stuff has never held the same appeal. Sure, I still eat it (gladly), but I've always wanted to try my hand at making it from scratch. Thank you, farmers' market, for giving me this chance!

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2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, combine basil, garlic, and pine nuts. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Add oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. (*Note: If you're not using the sauce immediately, add only 1/2 cup of oil. Just before using, add remaining oil.) Transfer pesto to a mixing boil and stir in cheese.  

*Note on toasting pine nuts: Place nuts in a shallow frying pan and stir over medium heat for a few minutes. Heat until golden and fragrant, but watch them carefully; pine nuts go from golden to burnt in no-time.

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Basil pesto sauce
1-lb. box pasta (I used cavatappi) 
1/4 to 1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan (plus more to taste)
salt and pepper and/or garlic salt to taste
olive oil
handful of basil leaves (optional)  

1. Cook pasta according to the package directions. Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine sun dried tomatoes with a drizzle of olive oil and pulse until finely chopped. If adding extra basil leaves, give them a coarse chop. 

2. Heat pesto sauce in a large pan. Just before mixing in cooked pasta, slowly stir in heavy cream. Add pasta and toss to coast. Add chopped sun dried tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, cheese, and garlic salt & pepper to taste. Just before serving, toss in chopped basil and top with more cheese and garlic salt if desired.

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Usually I'm not the biggest fan of sun dried tomatoes and their concentrated super-sweetness and chewy texture, but pulsing them in the food processor took care of that. As for the cheese, you can substitute Parmesan throughout, but make sure it's the good stuff — the quality of ingredients makes all the difference here. 

Speaking of quality ingredients: I must say that my farmers' market basil didn't look as pristine and green as the stuff I've bought in the grocery store. There were some (well, more like plenty of) brown spots — but Google told me that was okay. While you wouldn't want to use spotty basil as a garnish (it's just not very pretty), it's totally fine when processed in pesto. And it was!

Monday, September 29, 2014

It brings back the sound of music so tender

"Begin the Beguine" _Broadway Melody of 1940

For some Monday morning inspiration, here are tap dancing greats Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. They filmed this scene in one take!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Waukesha farmers market

Spend Saturday morning out west


Drivers of Southeast Wisconsin agree that Waukesha is a black hole. But downtown Waukesha is pretty darn cute. And on Saturday mornings from 8:00 until 12:00, you can enjoy this cuteness at the Waukesha Farmers' Market. There you'll find irresistible bouquets of flowers going for $4-10 (seriously!) and tents heaped with fresh produce. There's also honey, jam, jewelry, antiques, and live music. So visit the Wakesha Farmers' Market, running through October 25th, to stock up on fresh goodies and enjoy Waukesha in all its cuteness.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Beatty's chocolate cake

Layer up a chocolate lover's dream

Let them eat cake — with a cup of coffee poured into the batter! Yes, coffee cake just got literal. And it's amazing. You'll never search for another chocolate cake recipe ever, ever again. So the cake sinks a bit in the middle, but when you layer it and frost it who can tell? So the original recipe is from Ina Garten and she uses extra-large eggs because why? Nobody knows. But these are two of the smallest quibbles in the history of chocolate cake, so let's not dilly-dally any longer.

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1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder (Ghirardelli or bust!)
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 to 1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 extra large eggs OR 2 large eggs + 1 egg white, at room temp.
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

6 oz. good semi-sweet chocolate (Ghirardelli or bust!)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temp.
1 extra-large egg yolk OR 1 TBS + 1 tsp egg yolk, at room temp.
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 and 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar
(See "Coffee note" below)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans. 

2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Whisk until combined. 

3. In a medium bowl, combine buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Whisk until combined. With an electric mixer on low, slowly beat the wet ingredients into the dry. Add the coffee and mix until just combined. *Note: Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as you go. The batter will look very watery once you add the coffee, but it's supposed to look like that!

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake at 350 degrees for 25-40 minutes. Allow to cool in the pans for about 30 minutes, then turn onto a cooling rack to cool completely. *Note: I used 9-in. pans, checked them at 25 minutes, and they were done. In the original recipe, Ina used 8-in. pans and recommended baking for 35-40 minutes. I recommend checking the cake after 25 minutes. If it needs more baking time, stick it back in the oven and check it every 5–7 minutes until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

5. For the frosting: In a microwave or on a stove-top, heat the chocolate and stir until melted and smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature or let it rest in the fridge while you get the other ingredients together. 

6. In a large bowl, beat the room temperature butter on medium-high speed until it's light yellow and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating about 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to low, and gradually sift in powdered sugar. Beat at a medium speed, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed, until smooth and creamy. Add melted chocolate and beat until just combined. Spread immediately on the cooled cake. 

*Coffee note: The original recipe also calls for 1 TBS coffee grounds to be added to the frosting. I choose to omit the coffee here so that the cake has a true chocolate, rather than chocolate-coffee, taste. But add the coffee grounds if you like! Either way, DO NOT omit the cup of coffee from the batter. It's what makes the magic happen, and it doesn't even add a coffee taste so much as enhances the richness of the chocolate.

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The last time I made this cake I doubled the frosting, but it made way too much. I will definitely stick with the original amount of suggested frosting from now on. If you feel like there's not enough  to cover the sides of the cake, then frost only the top and middle and leave the edges naked. Naked cakes are all the rage, and this chocolate cake is so good there's really no need to slather it in frosting — no matter how delicious it is.

Monday, September 22, 2014

If'n you would say "I do"

"Barn dance" _Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

This Thursday morning, I'm off to Tennessee for a girls weekend in the Smoky Mountains. There'll be backwoods, Dollywood, a cabin with scenic views, a porch with a hot tub -- the works!

"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" is the closest I could come to a country musical, save for maybe "Annie Get Your Gun" -- though I think of Annie Oakley as Western more so than country. Anyway, the dancing here is amazing, and this scene has often been hailed as one of the greatest dance sequences in the history of film.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Curried coconut chicken

Mom's favorite meal

This really is my mom's favorite. In fact, it's been her birthday dinner wish since I started making it a few years back. I always pair it with creamy coconut rice, so if you're a coconut lover this is one to try! Not a fan of coconut? The flavor isn't overpowering in the chicken itself, and you can serve it with plain basmati rice.

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* Note: Makes about 6–7 servings
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-in. pieces
1/2 a yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 TBS vegetable oil
2 14-oz. cans coconut milk
2 14-oz. cans stewed tomatoes, drained a bit and roughly chopped
2 8-oz. cans tomato sauce
2 TBS curry powder
1 TBS sugar, plus more to taste 
salt and pepper to taste
fresh cilantro for garnish, if desired
*Note: I've tweaked the original recipe and doubled the sauce. Doubling the sauce is an absolute must! 

1. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. 

2. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, stir together oil and curry powder and cook for two minutes. Stir in onions and garlic, and cook for one minute more. Add chicken pieces, tossing to coat with the oil, curry, onion, and garlic mixture. Reduce heat to medium, and cook for 7–10 minutes or until the chicken isn't pink.

3. Pour coconut milk, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and sugar into the pan, and stir to combine. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally for 30–40 minutes. Add more sugar and spices to taste. Serve with coconut rice (recipe below) and garnish with cilantro if desired.

WARNING: Your house will smell like curry for days. You're welcome.

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Basmati rice
Coconut milk

Figure out how much rice you need to feed your party. You'll want about one 14-oz. can of coconut milk for every cup of rice. Combine rice and coconut milk in a pot and stir to combine, then cook as directed (about 25 minutes). Add a dash of salt and sugar to taste.

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Notes on coconut milk: I usually go for regular canned coconut milk (Thai Kitchen) — not light. I figure we don't have this meal all that often, so I might as well go for it with full-fat milk (sorry, not sorry!). But if you're into the whole light thing, use half regular and half light. I've done this in the past and it works. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

When in Rome: Travel tips

What to do, see, & skip

I've been a typical tourist in Rome three times now. Here are some DOs and DON'Ts I've picked up along the way. 

DO --> 

Do tour the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica. And if you're able to hear the Pope's address, do it!

Do go inside the Forum. The first two times I visited Rome we just walked by, thinking it wouldn't be worth the cost of admission. But there's so much to explore in the Forum — ruins, gardens, hidden alcoves & tunnels — and venturing inside is totally worthwhile. You can buy a combined ticket for both the Forum and Colosseum — but I didn't find the inside of the Colosseum as exciting. Maybe that's just because I'm not that into gladiators. (I hated that movie.)

Do visit places like the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain (but make sure it's not under construction!), Spanish Steps, and open spaces such as Piazza Navona. These sites are open to the public, full of photo-ops, and you're free to hang out as long as you like!

Do explore Rome at night; walk around the city and bask in the glow of illuminated monuments. The crowds will have dwindled, the vibe is romantic, and you'll probably end up like Adam, saying things like "Rome: The city of love!" (Which is not a real tagline.)

Do walk the Trastevere neighborhood along the banks of the Tiber. A good place to start is near the Garibali and Sisto bridges, aiming for the Piazza Santa Maria. Meander through narrow, cobblestone streets and take in the buzz of sidewalk restaurants and bars. It's an enchanting walk during the day, and at night it comes alive with vendors and performers — a bit touristy, but vibrant and fun.

Do try the best gelato in Rome. On your way to Trastevere, walk across the Garibaldi bridge and you'll run right into a charming gelateria. I'm not saying it's the only place to get "the best" gelato, but based on our experience there really is such a thing as mediocre and amazing gelato. So do go to Antica Gelateria del Viale, (established in 1896!). Insanely tasty. (For how to avoid mediocre gelato, scroll down to the DON'Ts!)

Do savor the best coffee in Rome at Sant'Eustachio near the Pantheon. The cappuccino was, in my very humble opinion, out-of-this-world delish. So rich and creamy. Sugar dispensers are stationed here and there so you can add sweetness to your liking.

Do keep an eye out for fresh fruit stands selling slices of coconut.

Do download the Molto Bene app. It gives you key phrases with an audio file for each, so practicing pronunciation couldn't be easier. The app is free, but if you're serious about learning Italian you can pay for more advanced features and lessons.

DON'T -->

Don't trust TripAdvisor reviews when it comes to restaurants. Adam's mom (with the very best and sweetest of intentions) made dinner reservations for us at what, according to TripAdvisor, were the best ristorantes in Rome. Sadly, they were not that. In one case, the food was rather salty and none of us were blown away. (And why are we in Rome if not to be blown away by the food?) The other place we tried had a menu that was entirely too bizarre: pigeon, sweetbreads, roast potato & black garlic ice cream. No thank you.

What we learned for next time: Ask the locals, walk around, read the menu posted outside each restaurant door, and find a spot where there's something everyone in your party is excited to try. With seemingly dozens of restaurants on every block, finding a place that agrees with everyone should be a breeze!

Don't plan to see St. Peter's and the Colosseum in the same day. On my first trip to Rome, it felt like we walked for days on end. Now I realize that's because we didn't tackle the city and its sites in a very logical way. If you go, break the city down into clusters of manageable walking distance. Approach it this way instead of trying to see everything in one swoop, and Rome is a very walkable city.

Don't settle for mediocre gelato. Before this trip to Rome, I read that you can spot tourist trap gelato by its bright colors, so avoid any places where the pistachio or mint is unnaturally green. Also, in the future I would avoid any gelaterias where there's a brand name plastered above each flavor. I assume this is the equivalent to going to an ice cream shop in the USA that looks quaint but serves Blue Bunny. No thank you! And while this Nutella gelato sounded like the best idea, it was like eating a scoop of hot fudge. Way too rich. So when it comes to gelato, proceed with caution.

**These DOs and DON'Ts are in no way exhaustive and are based solely on my own personal experiences. When in Rome, you do you. Ciao!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Travel bug

Highlights from Switzerland & Roma


Last night, Adam and I got back from a European vacation to see his family in Switzerland and spend four nights all together in Rome. I'll share more details, photos, and my personal takeaways later this week. But for now, here are some iPhone camera highlights.

On the way to La Tour de Peilz, Adam jumped every time an oncoming train zipped by.
When in Rome, we did lots of sight-seeing and the weather was hot perfection.
Lessons in maturity: Gorgeous fountain or peeing statue?

We stayed in a most quaint apartment and had a rustic lunch every day.

It took 5 people & 5 minutes just to open the apartment door.

Mrs. Buettner rocked the best camera of us all.

We heard the Pope's weekly address and fought the crowds to see inside St. Peter's.

We made it back to La Tour de Peilz and enjoyed walks along the lake.

This little girl ran up to me and gave me a Hello Kitty necklace. (I gave it back.)

Adam's poor dog had to wear a cone because a bigger dog bit his ear. Sad & comical.

I woke up early to enjoy a sunrise from the balcony of the Buettner apartment.

We hiked along the Bisse du Torrent-neuf.

"Climb Every Mountain" has been in my head ever since.

'Til you find your dream

"Climb every mountain" _The Sound of Music

America, there's no place like home. But I'm still reveling in my European vacation — particularly a Swiss hike along the Bisse du Torrent-neuf. Naturally, this was the soundtrack in my head throughout the entire 3-hour journey. (No one is surprised.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

When in Rome, reblog!

Spaghetti carbonara

Remember that time I made spaghetti carbonara that was so seriously scrumptious it made my Mom let out an angry "Mmmm," as if to say "How DARE you be this delicious?" Well hopefully by the time this post goes live I will have given off the same angry "Mmmm" in Roma. After all, there are really only two things to do in Rome: tour churches and eat everything in sight.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I fall in love too fast

"I fall in love too easily" _Anchors Aweigh

Knowing I'm going to be in Rome this Monday, I thought it only right to share a little tune sung by everyone's favorite Italian crooner.

Friday, September 5, 2014

What to pack?

I'd be lost without this list!

Why is it that we always underestimate the time it takes to do things like pack for a trip? And how do I always convince myself that picking out a week's worth of outfits will be a breeze? It never is. Thankfully, this packing list always comes to my rescue, reminding do/to bring those things that I often overlook due to my reoccurring delusions that packing is no big deal. 

Right click and select "view image" to enlarge and print!
Of course, some of the items on the list are outdated (music and player) or don't apply to me (tuxedo). But I still cross them off the list; it's a great sense of accomplishment in a sea of outlet adapters, too many dresses, liquids in plastic bags, and three scarves because what if it's not 80 degrees as predicted? As my flight leaves this evening, you might think I'm in trouble. But as long as I have my packing list all checked off — and as long as the suitcase closes at the end of it all — I'll be feeling pretty good. Next stop: Europe! À bientôt mes amis!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

S'more pie

Like a campfire in your kitchen

Ahhh s'mores... Always love at first bite. And I love that I can taste that trio of chocolate, graham, and toasted mallow any time of year thanks to this s'more pie. As far as pie is concerned, this one is insanely easy. You can make it even easier by using a pre-made graham cracker crust, but I prefer to make my own.

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1 and 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 12 crackers)
6 TBS butter, melted (unsalted if you have it, otherwise salted)
2 TBS sugar

1 cup heavy cream
8 oz. semisweet chocolate, choppped
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups mini marshmallows

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. To make the crust: Combine graham cracker crumbs, butter, and sugar. Mix well and press evenly into the bottom and sides of a 9-in. pie plate. Bake for 10 minutes until firm, then set aside to cool.

2. To make the filling: Bring cream to a boil on the stove. Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl and pour hot cream on top. Let stand a few minutes, then stir until smooth. Whisk in eggs and vanilla until smooth. Pour into crust and bake until set, about 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.

3. Just before serving, preheat broiler to High. Spread marshmallows evenly over the top of the pie. Broil until toasted, about 20 to 30 seconds, keeping a watchful eye to prevent scorching.

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As my brother mumbled through a mouthful of pie: "You can make this all the time." It might be cliché to say, but this really is a dessert that will have people clamoring for s'more! 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Hey there, Rio! Hey there, Rio Grande!

"Colorado my home" _The Unsinkable Molly Brown

For the next six-or-so weeks, my friend Rachel will be hiking the Colorado Trail. In honor of that feat, here's an ode to Colorado, powerfully performed by Harve Presnell. Too bad he can't sing, huh?

August 2014

A few of my favorite things

A Sunday stroll on the Milwaukee Riverwalk.

Day tripping in Chicago.

Lunching with curry couscous salad.

Friday night session at County Clare.

Nerding out at a Ravinia showing of "The Return of the King."

Layering a lemon chiffon cake.

Saying good-bye to Robin Williams.
(Not a favorite, but certainly defining.) 

Chowing down at Indiafest.

Making Reese's peanut butter cup taste-alikes.

A pre-Irish Fest party with Scythian at Tosa Tonight.

Loving a McBob's Reuben sandwich at Milwaukee Irish Fest.

Mixing up The Big Salad.