Friday, October 31, 2014

Foodstuffs & snapshots

A Kelsey & Rachel (& Rachel's mom!) tradition


Whenever Rachel comes home from New York, having a date at her parents' house for yummy eats and a movie is a must. The movie changes (this time it was "Hocus Pocus" — we only watch the best), but the eats are usually the same: A baguette, European butter, brie, herb goat cheese, and creamy Caesar salad. For dessert: Nutella and Speculoos/Biscoff cookies. And since it's fall, this time we also had apples and caramel and hot cider. Oh and Haribo peach gummies, just because those are the best. Oh, and stove top popcorn to follow dessert, because dessert makes you crave salty things. (Judge us.) Also tradition: Rachel's mom and her camera. 

Rachel's mom, Kathy, has got to be one of my favorite people — not to mention like a second mom to me. She seems to live for capturing Rachel's life and life in general on film — er, computer chip. Rachel's mom has photographic evidence of everything from our cap-and-gown college graduation day to this most recent gluttonous get-together. The photos usually aren't mantel-worthy (in truth, they're hardly blog worthy), but they're my favorites to experience.
Kathy's always snapping away — usually when Rachel and I have our mouths full of baguette. This time we got her to wait while we held up some of our favorite treats for the camera. 

In recent history, Rachel's mom makes sure to take at least one selfie, always with herself in the middle — a feat that can take some time given the framing and the fact that her camera has one of those pre-flash flash features. 

And the photo shoot doesn't end even as I'm halfway out the door! "Oh Kelsey, let me take a picture of you in your little hat!" Kathy says. "Rachel, don't you have a little hat too?" And thus it was: 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"The Nightmare Before Christmas"

A poem by Tim Burton

I love movie trivia. Mind you, I would never claim to possess a great wealth of movie trivia knowledge (unless it's "Singin' in the Rain" or "The Wizard of OZ"), but I still love it. When I'm watching a favorite movie, I find myself itching to check IMDB's trivia section. Sometimes it's even hard to wait until the movie's over. 

That's what happened when my family watched "The Nightmare Before Christmas" earlier this week, and after finally checking IMDB I learned something pretty cool. The movie was based off a poem Tim Burton wrote years ago entitled (not surprisingly) "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Burton was inspired by the changing of a shop's display & products from Halloween to Christmas and the juxtaposition of the merchandise. How's that for turning mundane observations into imaginative works of art! 

On the 2008 blue-ray version of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," there's a reading of the original poem performed by Christopher Lee (who should read everything, ever). Creative minds even set the poem to animated scenes using Burton's original concept art for the movie. It's a delight for the senses — and I was lucky enough to find it on youtube. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Halloween with the Optimist Club

Saturday morning spooks

My mom is a member of the Metro Milwaukee Optimist Club — an international organization that was founded in 1919 and aims to "bring out the best in children." Every year, the club mans a table at the Kosciuszko center's Halloween party on Milwaukee's south side. There's a costume contest for the kids, crafts, candy, and a DJ overplaying "Thriller."

I love costumes, but this year I was scrambling. I showed up all in purple and told myself I was a purple people-eater. I spotted my mom immediately when I walked into the gym; she looked like a zombie version of herself — ghoulish but adorable. "Where's Dad and Kev?" I asked. When she pointed right behind me at a tall biker dude and a basketball player drowning in his clothes & shoes and rocking an afro, I had to laugh — I hadn't even recognized them. 

As for the other costumes on display (and sadly there wasn't nearly as many kids as last year), we saw three Elsas (as in "Frozen") and a pack of Ninja Turtles — but a girl with her face painted like a Day of the Dead mask was my and Kevin's favorite. 

At the end of the party, the kids came around for trick-or-treating — which is code for us holding out boxes of candy and stickers and the kids taking one (or four) without ever saying "trick or treat" or "thank you." Honestly, not one "trick or treat" and maybe one "thank you." Maybe. Come on people! Teach your children well. So Kevin and I shouted our most exuberant "Happy Halloween!"s to each kid in an attempt to get one of them to lighten up. It didn't work.

Silent children aside, we had fun. And in a couple short months, we'll be back at the Kosciuszko Center gym for the club's breakfast with Santa. That is: crafts, candy, and a DJ overplaying "All I want for Christmas is You." I guess holidays have a pretty simple formula when you're a kid. I wish I could dress up as a Disney princess, remain perfectly silent, and have people throw candy at me!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

DIY Halloween costumes

Ideas for the last-minute & creative types

It's that time of year again! The time when people start to panic about Halloween costumes. I've rounded up some of my favorite ideas from years past — some fit for a group, others perfect for flying solo. So if you're still figuring out your costume and don't want to dress as a sexy nun (no really), just raid your closet, get a little crafty, and consider these ideas.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men

We decided to wear a color palette of browns, forest green, and cream. We knew that any of the following would work: tunics, vests, peasant tops, and leather — and we pooled our resources to make each girl's outfit work. To accessorize, we put feathers in our hair (instead of making or buying hats) and shared a cheap set of bows and arrows (purchased at a party store). In a tribute to "rob the rich to feed the poor," we filled little canvas bags (from the craft or dollar store) with coin-shaped chocolates wrapped in gold foil and passed them out to people throughout the evening.

Cindy Lou Who

I love Christmas so much that I even found a way to celebrate it on Halloween! I used the water bottle hair trick to get a 'do fit for Whoville, then raided my (and a friend's) closet for anything blatantly red, green, and festive. I wore a green skater dress, red tights, and red satin flats. For accessories: a bulbous red necklace and the must-have hair. To keep Cindy Lou's 'do in place, I had to wrap the base, top it off with a bow, and hairspray the hell out of it — but it worked like magic! I've never gotten so many compliments from strangers. Ever.  

Natural disasters 

Here's one for the creative, crafty types — especially if you and your gal pals are a force to be reckoned with. We each picked a natural disaster: earthquake, typhoon, tornado, and forest fire. There was a lot of felt, foil, construction paper, and chicken wire involved — and it was fun. I turned a blue dress into a globe, cutting continents out of green felt. I then poured flour into a pair of knee-high stockings, tied each in a knot, and clapped the flour-stuffed stockings together to create earth quake dust and rubble. Oh, and I did a lot of random shaking. Our typhoon counted on the scrapbook aisle for paper waves and sea-themed stickers. Our tornado wrapped herself in plastic, wrapping up toy cars and animals along the way. And our forest fire rocked leafy, smoky hair and plenty of ragged clothes with scorch marks. On our backs: hazard and warning signs on caution-orange felt.

The four seasons 

It ended up being just three seasons (summer sadly had to bail), but we still had fun with it. We each looked in our own closets to see what color palette we could most easily achieve. I went for Spring, wearing a pastel slip, floral tights, and pink shoes. But what really made my costume: the hair. I've got quite a collection of floral bobby pins, clips, and headbands — so I literally wore all of them at once. The butterfly clipped to my dress strap was a craft store find. Our Fall girl pinned fake leaves in her hair and wore a rust-colored dress with boots (again, the hair makes it). And our Winter wore white with sparkling faux branches in her hair, topped with a dusting of glitter — a total snow queen. If summer had been with us, she would have been a bronze goddess, wearing gold and looking fabulous.

See what you can do with a solid idea, what's in your closet, and a trip to the craft store? And I didn't even mention how, in college, my friends and I went as The Evolution of Britney Spears...

Mickey Mouse Club, Baby One More Time, Toxic, Cracked out with a baby & K-Fed.
Now that's just genius, right? Have a Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bargain buy: Wizard of Oz books

Thank you, Barnes & Noble

When my mom and I took Pippin for his latest grooming session, we stopped at Barnes & Noble to look at greeting cards like we always do. While there, we spotted the bargain books and my new favorite thing: "The Wizard of Oz: The first five novels." Oh, and my other new favorite thing: "The Emerald City of OZ: Novels six through ten." For $7.99 each. Halleluiah, praise the Great Oz!  

I inhaled the Oz books as a kid. I loved "The Wizard of Oz" movie and could never decide if I'd rather be Dorothy so I could wear the ruby slippers or Glinda so I could don that poofy skirt and travel by bubble (today I choose Glinda). I grew up watching the creepy fantasy movie "Return to Oz," based mostly on the novel "Ozma of Oz" — anyone who's seen it knows we share a special bond (the wheelers, the Deadly Desert, the queen with the hallway of heads). 


But back to the books, one of my favorite things about them was the whimsical characters and the gorgeous Art Nouveau drawings by John R. Neill. And I'm happy to report that, though not in color, the illustrations are all accounted for making this (truly) the best bargain book anthology I've seen Barnes & Noble put out in a while. Sure, they often offer classic books with beautiful covers and pages with gilded edges, but I'd rather have the pictures inside. So thank you, Barnes & Noble, for making me feel like a giddy little girl again — and for less than $20! Who says money can't buy happiness?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Baked oatmeal

Like a big, soft cookie for breakfast

For a special weekend breakfast (like our Bayfield trip), my mom's go-to is baked oatmeal. It's the kind of meal that's like a hug for your stomach and soul. It's warm, sweet, and as good as dessert — except better because you can indulge all morning long.  

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3 cups quick-cook oats
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp baking powder
1 and 1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 by 13-inch pan. Combine the above ingredients and spread evenly into the pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Serve with warm milk and a sprinkling of cinnamon. * Note: For those with a sweet tooth, you can also top with brown sugar, but I find you don't need it.

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If you're feeling adventurous, try adding fruit and/or nuts to your oatmeal and let me know how that works for you. Myself? I'm a purist when it comes to such simple pleasures as Mom's baked oatmeal. Of course, adding some chocolate chips might be an extra-special treat for any of you kids (or kids at heart) out there: breakfast straight from the cookie jar!

Monday, October 20, 2014

If you like-a me like I like-a you

"Under the bamboo tree" _Meet Me in St. Louis

My mom and I always try to watch 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis sometime in October. There's a Halloween scene in which a bunch of bratty kids light things on fire, throw flour in their neighbors' faces, and try to derail a streetcar. No really. Despite the scary kids, there are no Halloween songs — so this darling little number starring Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien will have to do. But beware! Judy's dress is plenty horrifying.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Blueberry coffee cake

A morning treat like Grandma made

When I was little and my family went up north to Bayfield every year, my grandma always made blueberry coffee cake with a brown sugar crumble topping for breakfast. With Grandma no longer with us, I took it upon myself to carry on the tradition. But when I asked my mom about the recipe, I was in for quite a shock: Grandma's coffee cake came from a box! Determined to ditch the box, I searched for a blueberry coffee cake recipe to build upon. I found a winner that, once tweaked, would make Grandma (and her box mix) proud.

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1/2 cup butter
1 and 1/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups buttermilk 
4 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 cups blueberries (I used frozen)

1 and 1/3 cups flour
1 and 1/3 cups packed brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
12 TBS butter, softened

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 x 13-inch pan. Sift together 4 cups flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

2. In a large bowl, cream together 1/2 cup butter with 1 and 1/3 cups brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla. Beat in flour mixture, alternating with buttermilk, until just combined. Stir in blueberries (it's okay if some bleed into the batter). Pour batter into prepared pan.

3. For the crumble topping: Combine 1 and 1/3 cups flour, 1 and 1/3 cups packed brown sugar, and 1 tsp cinnamon. Cut in 12 TBS butter until the mixture resembles course crumbs. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the top of the batter. Bake in preheated oven for 40 to 60 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

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When I made this coffee cake up north, we didn't have electric beaters -- so I whisked everything by hand. I was amazed at how perfect it turned out, so I can only imagine how divine the cake would be with all the proper tools on hand!

P.S. Idea for next time: Lemon zest.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bayfield, Wisconsin

Family vacation, Fall 2014

My family has been driving up to Bayfield on Lake Superior every October for as long as I can remember. Before that, my mom made the journey with her parents — that's 50+ years of Bayfield for Mama Lawler, but it never gets old. It's a relaxing long weekend filled with changing leaves, Grandma's blueberry coffee cake, naps, Scrabble, apple cider donuts, quaint Main Street shops, and plenty of quality time.

This year on our way up to Bayfield, we stopped at Black River Harbor Park. There you can walk along a stony, driftwood-covered beach, then follow wooded trails that lead to the park's five waterfalls. We took the trail to Rainbow Falls this time, and next year we hope to scope out one of the other four.

When we reached Bayfield on Friday afternoon, we checked into our Bayfield on the Lake condo and ran around like kids: four bedrooms, a loft, a foosball table — way more space than the four of us needed, but it would be the perfect place to stay with a party of ten or twelve. That night, we went out for pizza at Ethel's — a charming Italian restaurant at which, next year, I'd probably try the pasta instead of the pizza.

On Saturday morning, I made coffee cake and my mom whipped up baked oatmeal (recipes to come!). Then it was off to our first Bayfield must-see — the cemetery. My family can't be the only one that gets a kick out of exploring old cemeteries, right? (Right?!) We go not only for the spooky thrill of it, but also for the fiery tree that's always in full color at this time of year.

There are also nearby nature trails and a junk yard filled with heaps of scrap metal. We joke that it's a scene from an alien landing. We can't be the only family that's into both cemeteries and UFOs, right? (Right?!) We wrote my Uncle Bob's name in the dirt and texted him a photo saying that the aliens left a message for him (totally the norm).

On our way back to the condo, we stopped for apple cider donuts and bummed around the shops on Rittenhouse Ave (we call it "Main Street"). There's the Scandinavian boutique, boasting stacks of lace doilies, wool socks, and picture books of Scandinavian folklore — and they also have a statue of a troll out front. There's Roxanne's gift shop, which has had the same assortment of lotions and cutesy fall decor for as long as I can remember. Our favorite place to stop is Sweet Sailing, which never has fewer than twenty sorts of jams, mustards, butters, and spreads for sampling — not to mention fudge. 


That night, after a just-okay dinner at Cornucopia's Village Inn, we settled in for "Friends from Outer Space" movie night. That would be "E.T." and "The Iron Giant." Our up north movie selection is always meticulously planned. If a movie takes place at the peak of autumn, it's in. If it has a solid fall scene, it will most likely make the cut. If a movie has the right seasonal vibe, we'll consider it. We only bring along movies that aren't too heavy, somber, or scary. Comfort is our aim.

On Sunday morning, we headed to the Egg Toss Cafe. It's a darling diner with egg-ceptional breakfast. Bayfield's famous Maggie owns it; she owns everything in Bayfield. Okay, maybe not everything, but I still like to think of her as Aunt Polly in "Pollyanna," running the show. Maggie lives in a hedge-guarded mansion and owns three delicious restaurants in Bayfield (that I know of) — the Egg Toss Cafe being one of them. I must say, that biscuit breakfast sandwich was my favorite meal of the trip. 

We then burned off breakfast calories with a long walk on The Path. My family has been calling it "The Path" for as long as I can remember, but its rightful name is the Brownstone Trail. It's a gorgeous hike through the woods along Lake Superior. "When I die, toss my ashes here," said Mom. We told her she needed to be more specific, so she pointed out a spot where the trees break and there's a perfect view of the lake. That's the spot. We can't be the only family who laughs about eventual cremation, right? (Right?!) 

That night, it was off to another Maggie restaurant — simply called "Maggie's" — for dinner. It's probably the best casual eatery in Bayfield. The building is a shocking shade of pink and the inside is covered with flamingos from floor to ceiling: flamingo toys, paintings, string lights, tapestries, nick-knacks — you name it. The place is so kitsch and so tasty that I think we should just go to Maggie's for dinner three nights in a row next year. 

After dinner: Scrabble and "Big" — a total peak-fall movie. Come Monday morning, it was time once again to pile into Mom's car and head home. We always mope about going home and say that we really should stay an extra night next time. We could all use some more peak fall comfort, and Bayfield is just the place to get it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Footloose and fancy-free

"Movin' right along" _The Muppet Movie

Musicals come in all shapes and sizes — even Kermit-shaped and Fozzi-sized. When this post goes live, I'll be moving right along home from a long weekend spent with the family in Bayfield, Wisconsin. So here's a musical tribute to road trips — enjoy!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Five-spice muffins

AKA Raid-the-pantry muffins

When we decided on Friday night to go to The House on the Rock the next morning, I knew I wanted to make a smackerel of something for the two-hour road trip. I also knew I was way too lazy to run to the grocery store to buy things like pumpkin, applesauce, dried fruit, or nuts. So I made five-spice muffins with only what I had on hand. 

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2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp ginger
1 cup buttermilk (See "DIY buttermilk," below)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup dried fruit and/or nuts (optional)

2/3 cups packed brown sugar
4 TBS flour
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 TBS butter

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a muffin pan (this recipe will make about 18 muffins). Melt the butter.

2. Combine dry ingredients (you can adjust the spices to taste). Stir in buttermilk, egg, melted butter, and vanilla, mixing until just combined. If using, stir in dried fruit and/or nuts.

*DIY buttermilk: If you don't have buttermilk on hand, start by placing 1 TBS white vinegar or lemon juice into a 1 cup measuring cup. Then pour milk up to the 1 cup mark.

3. For the crumble topping: In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Cut in butter until the mixture resembles course corn meal.

4. Spoon batter into prepared muffin pan, filling each cup about 3/4 of the way, and sprinkle each cup with crumble topping. Bake at 400 degrees for 18-20 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. After 15-20 minutes, place muffins on cooling rack.

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Next time I make these muffins, I will hopefully find walnuts or pecans in the pantry. I also might try them with half white sugar and half brown sugar, just to see how that affects the taste the texture. But whatever the sugar, you gotta love a recipe where you don't even have to leave the house to make the magic happen. 

Day trips & muffins — who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The House on the Rock

Day tripping to Spring Green, Wisconsin

The House on the Rock is a trip. Not just a day trip, but also a trippy trip. It's a sprawling "house" brimming with the bizarre: royal crowns behind glass, wacky antique firearms, ceilings strung with Tiffany lamps, elaborate room-sized calliopes, a recreation of a 1900s street, a model giant squid, an Infinity Room, halls of intricate dollhouses, Japanese gardens, stairs that lead nowhere, mechanical toys, and the "World's Largest Carousel."

A glimpse of the "World's Largest Carousel."
An apothecary's display in the Streets of Yesterday.
The House is not for the claustrophobic. It's not for those with a crippling fear of dolls. It's not for those who say things like "I don't get it." The only thing to "get" at the House on the Rock is that it's a trip — a crazy ride through the mind and madness of Alex Jordan. It's also totally dreamy. 

Tiffany lamps & an indoor forest.
Stained glass galore.
Some words of wisdom from a three-time House tourist: Yes it's worth the $30 cost of admission. Yes some spots in the house are dark and dingy, but the low light adds to the mystery of the place. There is food at the House: We lunched on greasy, probably frozen pizza that totally hit the spot — but there are other options like brats, hot dogs, and sandwiches too. Make sure to get there early — the House on the Rock closes at 5:00 and it's easy to spend five solid hours there, lost in its many wonders.

Enter the hall of calliopes.

Cue "The Blue Danube."

Monday, October 6, 2014

September 2014

A few of my favorite things

Whipping up a campfire treat in the kitchen. 
Hearing the Pope's weekly address in Rome.
Climbing every mountain in Switzerland.
Making Mom's favorite meal: Curried coconut chicken
Layering up Beatty's chocolate cake.
Spending a Saturday morning at the Waukesha Farmers' Market.
Attempting homemade basil pesto — success!