Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Happy 30th Birthday Shea!

The makings of a non-surprise party

My friends and I tried to throw our dear friend Shea a surprise party for her 30th birthday. Too bad she's way too perceptive! Though the shock-factor didn't pan out, the party was a success, and while I could gush about our radiant birthday girl or our hostess's perfect backyard (oh could I ever!), I'd rather let the pictures talk. 

The Theme
It started when we found out Shea shares a birthday with JFK. Obviously that meant throwing a Kennedy garden party! In my friend Erin's backyard, we had champagne punch, lots of flowers nestled here and there, and of course a cut-out card of JFK.

The Food
With the punch, we dined on cucumber sandwiches, orzo salad, a big bowl of fruit, curry chicken salad, and a cheese and charcuterie plate. Friends, take note of the crowd favorite aged cheddar cheese — Prairie Breeze. Wisconsinites can find it at Metro Market.

The People
Friends from high school, three of Shea's four siblings, and a handful of cousins came out to celebrate 30 years of Shea. Luckily Erin's backyard has a lovely fence which she strung with garden lights — a perfect background, even if we don't all take a perfect photo. 

Fun & Games
We had two party games — the "Who Am I?" game (which I'm sure goes by many other names) and a "So You Think You Know Shea" game. "Who Am I?" is where everyone has a post-it on their forehead with a famous person or fictional character and has to ask questions to guess who they are. We also added to the rulebook — like, down a glass of punch if you ask a stupid question. It was a hoot!

For "So You Think You Know Shea," we made a list of very important questions about the birthday girl: What was her first date with her husband? True or False — Shea has been to a Neil Diamond concert. What is Shea's favorite Backstreet Boy song — bonus point for naming her favorite Backstreet boy. The list goes on. There was also a photo portion: What is Shea thinking in each of these five photos? What would Shea pick from this brunch menu? Then we asked Shea for her answers on the spot — points awarded if yours was the same as hers. 

Shea's birthday kicked off a year of 30th birthdays in my group of friends. It's a brave new frontier, but if her birthday party was any indication of the good times in store... 30 years old? Bring it on! 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hubbard Park Beer Garden

A tree-lined oasis for beer on the Milwaukee River

I'm lucky enough to live just a stone's throw from two Milwaukee beer gardens — one is Estabrook Park and the other is Hubbard Park. There's no doubt that Estabrook is the more popular destination. It's much larger, has lots more seating, and sits beside an open field perfect for playing kids and bounding dogs (so many dogs!). But when all is said and done, Hubbard is my pick for best Milwaukee beer garden. 

While the bustle of Estabrook is exciting if you're in the right mood, I love the peaceful feeling of Hubbard. From the parking lot, you'll venture through a hobbit-y tunnel to reach the beer garden itself. Emerging from the tunnel, you'll spy a lovely view of the Milwaukee River and a lodge on the hill — the beer garden is behind it. 

Nestled within a cluster of towering, leafy trees, it really is a little oasis. The shade is always welcome in the heat of summer, and I'm personally a sucker for the rustling foliage overhead (the greenery isn't in full summer bloom yet in these photos). Compared to the buzz of Estabrook, Hubbard Park is perfectly serene. It's also much smaller, but we never have trouble snagging a picnic table. 

At the far end of the beer garden lies Hubbard Park Lodge — a space for rent. When we were enjoying a Point Root Beer and Munich pretzel last weekend, there was a wedding reception at the Lodge. They certainly had a beautiful day for it! But back to the pretzel...

It was good. These jumbo pretzels usually are. What it typically comes down to is the dipping sauce. This pretzel came with a beer cheese sauce and a German mustard. Both good, though I've yet to encounter a pretzel dipping sauce that can rival the $3 cheese spread at Estabrook Park — so in that edible way, Estabrook wins.

Cheese spread or not, I would still pick the Hubbard Park Beer Garden over Estabrook. The overall vibe of the place and its people is just more my style. You know — that quaint and charming factor. I can't wait to go back! Though I also hope to try other beer gardens in the Milwaukee area this summer and report on how they measure up. Do you have a favorite that's not Hubbard or Estabrook? Sound off!  

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Fiddle Fest at Anodyne Coffee

Weekly(ish) live music in Walker's Point

When you tell people you saw live music at Anodyne on a Friday night, the reaction is usually something like "Isn't that a coffee shop?" It is indeed, but they also have a nice-sized beer list and host live music on the regular. This past Friday was Fiddle Fest — a trio of bands each featuring the fiddle. The groups were in the swing jazz, bluegrass, and Irish folk style — all fantastic. 

I loved the ambiance and crowd a Anodyne that night. There was a range of ages in the audience with most folks sitting or standing around and a cluster of couples partner-dancing in front of the stage. It was a really nice change of pace from loud bars with their obnoxious music and overworked bartenders. I also loved how easy it was to switch from Riverwest Stein to one of my favorite coffee drinks: a My Buddy cappuccino. I don't think the place stays open past midnight, but you know what? These days that's just fine by me.

Check out Anodyne's list of upcoming live musical performances. There are lots that sound worth the small ticket price! If I can make it back for another night at Anodyne in the near-ish future, that would be a total delight. Maybe see you there?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Alice (in Wonderland)

The Milwaukee Ballet goes down the rabbit hole

This past weekend, the Milwaukee Ballet performed Alice (in Wonderland) with choreography by Septime Webre and music by Michael Pierce. I'm only sorry I didn't see it sooner so I could tell everyone how marvelous it is. I so wish that Milwaukee could have had more than just one weekend with Alice. But if critic and popular opinion have any sway, my guess is this joyous, dazzling version of Lewis Carroll's story will stand the test of time. So see it someday.

The ballet opens with a scene of Alice at home with her family. If you read the synopsis in your program (which you should always do for a ballet!), you'll learn that the choreographer wanted to set the stage with Alice's kooky relations who later become the characters she meets in Wonderland. Her ferocious mother is the Queen of Hearts, her submissive father the King, etc. Lewis Carroll himself even makes an appearance, later becoming the Mad Hatter. How clever!

From the moment the curtain rises, the costumes, staging, and sets cast their spell. I read another reviewer say that the overall effect was like a pop art painting come to life, and I couldn't agree more. The dancers were always positioned just-so, the lighting and colors beyond vibrant. The costuming was gorgeously rich with such exquisite detail that it's hard to name a favorite — though the simple whimsy of playing card tutus might top my list. Many costumes also had transformative elements, like white roses suddenly unfurled into red and a growing Alice whose skirt balloons like a circus tent.

Always the choreography and staging play off the inventive costuming to bring Alice's story to life. I loved the scene where Alice finds herself in a hall of doors — a rainbow of doors each manned by a different Milwaukee Ballet dancer. When Alice follows orders to "Drink Me" and swells to ten times her normal size, the doors and their dancers shrink to kids from the Milwaukee Ballet School manning child-sized doors. Even I, for the briefest moment, marveled at the scene before realizing — of course! — that the fully-grown dancers had been replaced with little ballerinas-in-training. 

The seemingly magical effects were so seamlessly performed, it truly was wonder to behold. I heard people saying "I love it!" out loud behind me and audibly sighing. Even I let a quiet "That's awesome..." escape — I couldn't help myself! This show invites you to fall head over heels into your imagination for one magical night. There's so much I still want to gush about: The beautifully contorting caterpillar (lots of gasps from the audience!) who later transforms into butterfly, the pink flamingos with their beaked hats and playfully pretty choreography, the fierce Queen of Hearts who, with one sharp swipe of her hand, commands "Off with their head!" 

There were groans from folks around me as the curtain fell, as if to say "Please don't let it be over!" While I dreaded the magic ending, I also couldn't wait to stand up and cheer. The moment the curtain hit the stage, the entire theater was up on its feet, whooping and thundering with furious applause. If the Milwaukee Ballet stages Alice again someday, you can bet I'll be eagerly bounding down the rabbit hole again — and hopefully I've convinced some of you to come with me.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Farm Girl Art & Antiques

A south side shop for shabby-chic country décor 

A friend of mine said that Farm Girl Art & Antiques was too "country" for her. While country isn't my style, it can sometimes be synonymous with shabby-chic, which I do like. I figured it was worth a gander, so I stopped at the National Ave antique shop this past weekend.

It certainly is more than a little bit country. Most items look rather worn, with weathered paint and a lived-in feel. You'll definitely want to venture into Farm Girl with a discerning eye. If you take the time to really look, you'll discover bookcases of mason jars, gilded mirrors, retro kitchen goodies, and some charming furniture.

Overall, Farm Girl probably won't be a regular stop on my Milwaukee antique hunts — the majority was just too shabby or cutesy-country for my tastes. But it's absolutely worth checking out so you can decide for yourself. There's certainly no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore, and who knows — you just might find a hidden gem! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Coconut cream pie

Pecan & graham cracker crust + toasted coconut topping

If coconut cream pie is your jam, you've got to try this one. I took the coconut custard from Add a Pinch, the crust from this turtle sundae pie, and topped it all with lightly sweetened whipped cream and toasted coconut. The flavors are really incredible together. Maybe every pie should have a pecan/graham cracker crust. It's magic.

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2 cups pecans, toasted
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 + 1/8 cup sugar
1 stick (8 TBS) butter, melted

1/2 cup flaked sweetened coconut

1 and 1/2 cups coconut milk (I used Silk Coconut Milk – original)
1 and 1/2 cups half-and-half
5 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
4 TBS cornstarch
1 TBS butter
1/4 tsp salt
1 and 1/2 cups flaked sweetened coconut
1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla

1 pint whipping cream
2 TBS sugar
1/2 to 3/4 tsp vanilla

1. For the crust: To toast the pecans, place them in a skillet over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Once pecans become fragrant, remove from heat immediately so they don't burn.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the pecans until finely chopped (nearly ground). Mix pulsed pecans, graham cracker crumbs, and sugar in a bowl. Stir in melted butter. Press mixture into a pie dish. Bake at 350 for 12 minutes. If crust puffs up while baking, press it down with the back of a spoon.

3. For the toasted coconut topping: Spread flaked coconut evenly on a baking sheet and bake for 6 to 12 minutes. Check it a couple times throughout and give it a stir if needed.

*Note: If you're using a previously-opened bag of coconut, it might be rather dry already and therefore will toast very quickly. If you use a fresh bag of flaked coconut, the coconut will be moist enough to toast more slowly and evenly. I recommend making sure your flaked coconut is plenty moist. I burnt two batches using old coconut before opening a new bag — that did the trick!

4. For the coconut custard filling: Combine coconut milk and half-and-half in a bowl or extra-large measuring cup. Add egg yolks and whisk until combined and a bit frothy. 

5. Add sugar and cornstarch to a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Whisk egg and milk mixture once more, then slowly add it to the sugar and cornstarch mixture, whisking constantly. 

6. Bring custard mixture to a boil, whisking almost constantly (you can take short breaks). Switch to a rubber spatula or wooden spoon and continue to stir while boiling for one minute. 

*Note: Bringing the mixture to a boil over medium-low heat will take some time — about 15 to 20 minutes. But it's worth it to not burn the custard. For most of that time, it will be very liquid-y. Near the end, the consistency will suddenly change to a wonderful pudding-like creaminess — then you know you're getting close! 

7. Remove from heat and stir in butter, flaked coconut, vanilla, and salt. Pour custard into prepared pie crust. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in the fridge for at least 40 minutes, or overnight. 

8. For the whipped cream topping: In a large mixing bowl, combine heavy whipping cream and 2 TBS sugar. With an electric mixer, beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla and beat until just combined. 

9. Spoon whipped cream over the custard filling (if you think it's too much, don't use all of it — I had some leftover). Store in the fridge until ready to serve. Just before serving, top with toasted coconut. 

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Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days, though it's at risk of getting a little watery as cream pies will. Still delicious. And anyway, if you're feeding enough hungry people, I'll bet you won't have any pie leftover anyway — it's just too tasty! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Luv Unlimited

A quirky shop for clothing, records & gifts in Bay View

I've walked past Luv Unlimited lots of times. I've ogled the windows with their funky mannequins and wacky retro vibe, always curious what waited inside. This past weekend, I finally stopped in. The place is right across the street from Hi-Fi Café, so hitting both in one swoop is a great way to get your daily dose of the awesomely kitsch.

Luv Unlimited is pretty big as far as Milwaukee vintage and resale clothing stores go. There are several racks of clothes for both men and women, including shoes and accessories. You'll also find new items, like patterned knee-high socks and seriously fab sunglasses, which I'll get to in a bit. The jewelry is worth a peek as well — lots of vintage baubles. All vintage earrings have been given new gold- or silver-plated backs for your hypoallergenic wearing pleasure.

In addition to wearables, Luv Unlimited boasts a selection of incense and records, so the place smells and sounds pretty great. I didn't thumb through the many records, but I did notice a Neil Diamond one sitting out front and center — surely a sign of other awesomeness.

Then there's the general décor, which is like a disco-fabulous grandma's basement. The folks who work there are also fabulous, as they helped me navigate their glass case of bomb-ass $10 sunglasses for a good 15 minutes straight. And yes, you heard me: Bomb-ass sunnies all for $10. Seriously, if you're the type who can rock those edgy, dramatic, in-your-face-fierce shades, you don't want to miss the selection at Luv Unlimited. For price and style, it can't be beat! 

Friday, May 13, 2016

One hour in Charleston

Well, 1.5 hours

Last week, on our way back from a trip to see Adam's family, the two of us spent roughly 1.5 hours in Charleston before catching our plane. We'd been to Charleston on a day trip once before, about three years ago. It was a cool, overcast day — not ideal. On that day, we had one destination in mind: the Trip Advisor-praised Glazed Gourmet Donuts

We bummed around town, grabbed lunch at some sports bar (what we were thinking?!), then made our way over to Glazed — it was about 3:30. The place closed at 3:00. Why — why?! This time we were determined to make it, and we did so just in the nick of time. Basically Adam slowed the car to a crawl and I leapt out — this was about 2:45. We'd mentally prepared ourselves for there to not even be any donuts left, but luckily there were a few. Naturally I took one of each to go. 

There was a simple raised donut with chocolate icing, a raised chocolate-brownie-butterscotch one with a dollop of butterscotch pudding in the middle, and a maple bacon apple fritter. Let me tell you: The raised dough alone was divine. The chocolate icing though? Let's just say I like our supermarket icing better (blasphemy I'm sure!). But that apple fritter is the stuff of dreams. Holy moly. 

Adam and I capped off our donuts with some southern eats at Hominy Grill. It had good reviews online and was conveniently open all afternoon. Most of the other restaurants and cafés I looked into were open for lunch, until 2:00 or 3:00, then closed and opened again for dinner around 5:00. "Who knew Charleston took siestas," Adam said. 

But we were perfectly thrilled with Hominy. It's in a pleasant building with a brick and ivy-covered courtyard and a farmhouse feel inside. Simple and charming. The menu of southern favorites was exactly what we wanted before heading back home. Adam went for the Chicken Country Captain: Sautéed chicken smothered in a tomato curry sauce with currants and toasted almonds over jasmine rice. It was really tasty and I kept going back for extra bites. 

I went for a two-piece fried chicken plate with a side of macaroni and cheese and a buttermilk biscuit. Scrumptious! Adam and I also shared a basket of jalapeño hush puppies — light and airy with sweet sorghum butter that took them over the edge into to-die-for territory. 

Friends, have you been to Charleston for longer than 1.5 hours? Longer than a day trip? Tell me what you loved! Food? Hotels? Streets to explore? All info will be stockpiled for a future get-away.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Brunch at Story Hill BKC

A scrumptious spot for Milwaukee brunching

The week before my family went to Story Hill BKC for my brother's birthday brunch, I'd been there for lunch for the first time ever. I got the steak sandwich and swooned, so I was eager to come back for weekend brunch. Did my quick return to Story Hill pay off? You bet! 

There was a wait even at 9:30 AM, but we sipped locally-brewed Valentine coffee while we waited (they'll add it to your tab later). When we were seated, we found our waiter was a pretty exceptional fellow — friendly, knowledgeable, and funny. In fact, our waiter from lunch the previous week was also memorable, as was a waitress Adam and I had months back when we went to Story Hill for dinner. Seems like a trend of great service — 10 points to Story Hill BKC!

Anyway, this time our waiter was full of great suggestions, somehow talking us into sharing house-made cinnamon rolls (something my Dad would normally object to). We split two between the six in our party and didn't need more than that — just a smackerel. Though the cinnamon rolls might not keep me up at night, they did hit the spot.

For our breakfast entrées, I went with the frittata: local eggs, hickory bacon, house-dried tomatoes, aged cheddar, and shredded potatoes, all topped with a baby kale salad. It was good, but I'd try something different next time. Turns out all those eggs and potatoes baked together can be just a little dry for my tastes, but that's just me. I ate half and took the other half home, topping it with a dollop of sour cream and salsa for breakfast the next morning. Yum.

Others at our table raved about the Crep-urrito (breakfast burrito fixings wrapped in a crepe) and a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich du jour. My mom, a great lover of Eggs Benedict, went for the Eggs Benedict of the day — it had brie and bacon and some sort of jam and she says it was the best Eggs Benedict she's ever had. The woman's had a lot of Eggs Benedict in her day, so this is high praise.

The sweet tooth in our party got the Berries, Banana, and Cream Crepe, which is just what it sounds like. The cream is like runny vanilla custard deliciousness, and if you ignore the berries, it tastes like banana cream pie. Like I said when I got the strawberry waffle at Wolf Peach, I'm not big on berries with my brunch foods — bananas and cream on the other hand... Major yum. This was one delicious crepe.

Would I go back to Story Hill BKC for brunch again? In a heartbeat. I'm dying to further explore this menu. There's a Breakfast Bread Pudding (recommended by our wonderful waiter) that's calling my name: rustic bread, custard, cream cheese, cinnamon sugar, whipped cream, streusel, and rum maple syrup. Sounds like heaven. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

3 Floral artists I love

Michelle Morin, Vikki Chu, and Olaf Hajek

In celebration of May flowers, here are three artists whose floral artwork I'm currently loving. The styles are all illustrative and blooming with intricate detail. Some are soft and pretty, others wild and whimsical — something for every flower-lover's taste! 

#1 Michelle Morin
Michelle Morin hails from the New Hampshire seacoast. She's worked for years in the horticultural field, so she's intimately acquainted with plants and wildlife. I love the complex layers of her wildflower scenes, where you'll usually find a bird or two hiding in the brush. 

Below: Night Garden with Herons, Meadow, Tree Peony, Protea and Herons

#2 Vikki Chu
Vikki Chu's watercolor and ink illustrations capture a variety of subjects — cityscapes, Indian motifs, animal wildlife. But many of her pieces focus on florals and plant life. I love her nuanced shades of color and her seemingly infinite botanical patterns. Vikki also does illustrations for books — one called Meaningful Bouquets highlighting the meaning behind various flowers. 

Below: Autumn, Luck, Violet, Floral Detail

#3 Olaf Hajek
German artist Olaf Hajek might be my favorite. Like, my heart skips a beat just scrolling through his website. It's like diving into a fantastical dreamworld of magical realism — though the pieces below are a bit less so, compared to his other out-there works. Count on me to share more of Olaf's work another time. I'm completely enamored! 

Below: Flowers, Poster for EDEN, and two gorgeous unknowns