Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I am Sherlocked

But it's okay because my husband is too.

Yeah, so last weekend I went to Tysons Corner to pick up a new chambray tunic and black riding boots. I'd do another fashion post, but you've probably seen enough chambray, leggings and riding boots to last you through the summer at this point. And that Zara scarf. If you read any fashion blogs, you know what I mean.

Besides, Sherlock is much more interesting than, well, everything.

Anyway, while I was at the mall, Doug got bored and started looking through our Netflix queue, stumbling upon Sherlock, which I'd put there based on a recommendation several months ago since we both love British television. He's a Doctor Who fan. I love mysteries. Speaking of which, why are British mysteries so much better than American ones? About 20 minutes into any Castle episode, I can already tell you who did it and how. A series like Inspector Lewis? Keeps me guessing right up until the last minute.

Enter Sherlock. The series stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Martin Freeman (Dr. John Watson). Martin Freeman was well-known to us already since he plays Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. I had never heard of Cumberbatch, but he's apparently been all over the place recently: the latest Star Trek, 12 Years a Slave and something called August: Osage County, which is coming out soon. The series is written by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, who are currently also in charge of the Doctor Who franchise.

How do I describe the magnificence of this show? It's basically Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's version, but brought to life on screen and updated. That doesn't begin to tell the story of why it's so compelling. That story must start with the chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch. Early in the series, Watson assists Sherlock by providing appropriate emotional reactions and Sherlock cures Watson's psychosomatic limp. It's a match made in heaven. They may not exactly finish each other's sentences, but this is bromance at its finest.

Oh, and in case it isn't already clear, this is a contemporary update. The famous infamous Woman, Irene Adler, here is a dominatrix. Sherlock prefers to text. Watson blogs. Social media is almost its own character. It's that organically incorporated.

Then there's the snappy dialogue, which is almost compulsory in any drama these days, but isn't always done well (cough, Supernatural, cough). Here, it is done exceptionally well, especially when Andrew Scott comes in as Moriarty and the real banter with Cumberbatch's Sherlock starts.

There are only two seasons and a total of six episodes thus far. The various stars' filming schedules have made the timing of producing a new season complicated, but series 3 is finally coming out in the US on January 19th on PBS. It's scheduled to air right after Downton Abbey. So go on, catch up! And then come back here and curse me for introducing you to the series, only to make you wait until January to see how the series 2 cliffhanger works out.

I'll wait. In the meantime, you can find me teaching Chester how to hit the deck when I say, "Vatican Cameos." He's almost got it.

All photos courtesy of BBC.

Don't forget to enter the UncommonGoods giveaway from yesterday if you missed it on the blog! Lots of great geeky gift ideas there too!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

UncommonGoods Gift Guide and Giveaway

Think about all the people you love and give gifts to during the holiday season. Don't they all pretty much have everything they need and just about everything they want? A few years ago, I made the decision that instead of hitting up the mall, I would choose gifts sourced from local shops, vintage items, pieces by independent designers and handmade items: presents that put cash back into the local economy or help designers, makers and small businesses thrive. Plus it's a great way to find totally unique gifts.

UncommonGoods is a good example of the type of business I like to support come gift-giving time. Not only do they have unique gift ideas for just about anyone, they feature handmade items, independent designers, and they give a portion of their profit back to one of a selected group of charities. Great, right? So to get you started with your gift-hunting, I've picked out a few options from their site for foodies, design lovers and cocktail aficionados from their holiday gift collection: Even better? I'm giving away a $50 gift card to pick out something for yourself at the bottom of this post!

1. Salts of the World Test Tube Set - $40 - On a whim, I recently picked up some smoked sea salt and it totally changed the way I use salt in the kitchen. I now have six different ones that I use regularly. Try out a bunch of different flavors and textures all at once, including a smoked sea salt from Denmark, in this sampler set.
2. Micro-Green Kits - $8-$40 - Doug and I live in a two-bedroom condo and we don't have a yard. So this micro-green kit would be perfect for the open shelving in our kitchen. Fresh pea greens for my omelet? Yes, please!
3. Reclaimed Wood Cookbook Stand - $115 - I love the weathered industrial vibe of this cookbook stand.
4. Soup and Sandwich Ceramic Tray Duo - $30 for a set of two - Just last week I dumped soup on the dog while trying to balance a bowl and a plate full of crackers. Honestly, this soup and sandwich set is genius. Chester thinks so too.

1. Felted Peacock Ornament - $14 - Going to an ornament exchange? This one is handmade by Kyrgyz artisans. And it's hot pink.
2. Satellite Bowl - $50 - Designed in 1999 by Architect Carlo Contin, this handy bowl folds up when not in use.
3. Birdie Mini Dish - $22 - I first discovered Richmond ceramics artist Tasha McKelvey at the American Craft Council craft show in Baltimore a few years ago so I was super pleased to see her pop up here at UncommonGoods.
4. Moss Terrarium Bottle - $38 - Terrariums have been in style for a couple of years now and I've always wanted one, but had no idea how to go about creating them. This little kit takes out all the guesswork.

1. Molecular Mixology Kit - Mojito Set - $30 - An adult chemistry set. How fun! It's like GoldieBlox for grown women. Here are some more gift ideas for women from UncommonGoods.
2. Whiskey Stones Gift Set - $20-$58 - Ever get to the bottom of a cocktail glass and find that the last three sips are almost totally water? Not good. Here's the solution: freeze these soapstone cubes, let them stand in your drink for five minutes and the temperature will be perfect, all without ice.
3. Wooden Martini Glasses - $100 for a set of two - You may have noticed that I'm a sucker for anything walnut. Especially when it comes bearing drinks. Try DJ's Sidecar in these.
4. Southern Bourbon Stout Beer Brewing Set - $45 - Bourbon. Stout. Two of my favorite flavors in one tidy little home-brewing package. The man in your life will LOVE this.

See something you like? UncommonGoods has also given me the chance to give one lucky reader a $50 gift card to pick out something of your choosing. Just use the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Disclosure: This is a post sponsored by UncommonGoods, who approached me to write about their holiday gift offerings. However, out of all the companies that have approached me, this is the first time I've said yes. So don't fear that this will become a sponsored-all-the-time blog. I will never agree to sponsored posts from companies than I don't like, admire and think you will enjoy too. Though I was paid to produce this post, all content, ideas and picks are mine.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Handmade Holiday Guest Post on Persia Lou

Today I'm sharing a little holiday gift-giving cookie package over at Persia Lou, a great blog covering food, crafts and home decor, for Alexis's Handmade Holiday series. Over the years, I've found that most people love getting homemade cookies as gifts, plus it gives me an easy go-to offering when we need something to bring to holiday parties. With a little bit of dressy packaging, any host or hostess will love getting cookies for guests or for later after the guests go home.

Head on over to Persia Lou and see the full post!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Marathon Holiday Cookie Baking

I freely admit that I have a baking problem. I love trying new recipes. I love the planning process and shopping for ingredients. It's an obsession. However, one can't just go baking eight varieties of cookies on a weekly basis. I think even my husband's co-workers would be cookied-out eventually. This is why I love Christmas.

I didn't double any recipes for this post so ordinarily there are two more varieties and double the quantity.

Not only are copious cookies fun to make, it streamlines my holiday season quite a lot. While this might seem like a lot of cookies, by the end of season, I always feel like I could have made a few more. Between holiday get-togethers at our house, potlucks at work and church and casual gift-giving, I’ve found that picking a theme and sticking with it makes the holidays a lot easier than when I've tried to shop for neighbors, co-workers and church friends in addition to making a new dish for every social event. So I just bake a ton of cookies and use them for everything. Especially since after eight years of marathon holiday cookie baking, I’ve learned a few tricks.

1. Pick your recipes carefully with a mix of both easy and more interesting choices.

Whether you have a collection of family recipes or you just collect cookie recipes during the year on a Pinterest board like this one, decide up front which recipes you want to use. Since some cookies have multiple steps and can even take multiple days of preparation (like macarons), this will help you plan not only your shopping list, but also help out when it’s time to start baking. Over the years I have amassed a collection of must-make cookies and I always add two more varieties so I can try out something new or include a trendy flavor combination. Consider texture, shape and color in addition to flavor or you might end up with an entire plate full of round, beige cookies.

2. Buy ingredients when they’re on sale.

My grocery store runs three-month long promotions so what’s on sale during Thanksgiving is still on sale in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but if your grocery store has the more common weekly sales, consider picking up your baking ingredients during your Thanksgiving shopping. Flour, sugar, butter, vanilla and other basics might be up to 50% off during a sale. Preparing a list early will also give you time to find more exotic ingredients like black cocoa powder or unusual extracts you might need.

3. Clean the kitchen top to bottom and clear a large space.

Know that you’re probably going to use every bowl, measuring cup, measuring spoon and appliance in your kitchen. It’s much easier to get started if they’re all clean to start with and you have an empty sink. You also need a large space to put the finished cookies and to have space for decorating, if that’s your thing. If you’re lucky enough to have a kitchen island or kitchen table, that might do the trick, but I put a vinyl tablecloth on the dining room table and use that since it’s a great space to spread out.

4. Consider having a mixing day and a baking day.

My plan usually involves upwards of 48 dozen cookies, which can make for a pretty exhausting day if I try to do it all at once since the whole process takes about eight hours. A lot of cookie dough requires refrigeration prior to baking so being able to just stash everything in the fridge overnight makes it all more of a no-brainer instead of trying to time chilling timing along with baking time. The only exception I make is for meringues, which are great for using up leftover egg whites, but need to baked right away. It also helps with dishes since the bowls and measuring cups are dirty on a different day from cookie trays, cookie cutters and rolling pins and mats.

5. Storing treats

It you do one marathon baking session at the beginning of the holiday season, you'll need to store cookies for whatever comes up. Luckily, most cookies freeze well. The best method is to cool completely, then put all the varieties separately in heavy-duty freezer bags. When you need to access your stash, just pull out the number of cookies you need and let them come to room temperature on the counter, uncovered on a wire rack, for a couple of hours prior to packaging. Don't use a plate or put plastic wrap over them or they might defrost soggy.

6. Package your treats.

Whether you're planning on giving cookies as gifts or bringing them to a party, the traditional cookie tray is almost never the best way to go. With strong flavors like gingerbread and peppermint, even one day under plastic makes all the cookies taste the same. I like to wrap individual types in plastic wrap first whether I intend to decorate them further or not. Check out my guest post on Persia Lou this week for how I made the cookie packets above or take a look at this post from last year on cookie exchange gift packaging.

Do you do any holiday baking? Have you picked up and tips or tricks over the years? Add yours in the comments below!

Friday, November 8, 2013

An Immoderate, Homemade and Frankly Crazy Thanksgiving

Graphic via Frou Frou & Frills

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I suppose that's odd. Most people choose Christmas, right? It's not like Christmas isn't nice: I like presents as much as the next girl. But Thanksgiving is both social and food-centric. It's a lot less about the stuff than it is about the who and how. Plus it appeals to my desire for complete and total immoderation. I can follow all my baser instincts into the territory of making two pies, enough food for at least a dozen people and bourbon in everything.

So even though we have roughly 20 days until the big event, I've already started my planning. After prepping half a dozen Thanksgivings before I even graduated college (yes, 6 in 4 years--my roommate was Canadian so we celebrated both) and at least a turkey a year since then, I've got the whole thing down to a science.

First of all, if you haven't ordered your turkey, it might be too late. These days, I get mine from Holy Cow Delivery. They're humanely raised on a farm in western Virginia so I feel good about buying from them. And they taste freaking fantastic. I had to put the order in two weeks ago, but if you can sweet-talk a farmer or a butcher to procuring something similar for you, do it. Whole Foods also carries marvelous turkeys, but in my experience, they were more expensive than buying direct.

Next, you need a menu. Here's mine in the form of a Pinterest board: roast turkey, andouille sausage cornbread dressing, homemade green bean casserole (no canned soup here), biscuits, mashed potatoes and bourbon vanilla cranberry sauce. I think one of our guests is bringing sweet potatoes and I may ask someone else to bring a salad. I'll also have various appetizers, most notably deviled eggs, mixed nuts and black olives for snacking. The actual Thanksgiving cooking isn't always perfectly predictable, but with snacks and libations, no one will notice if dinner is a bit late. Finally, I'm not a huge fan of traditional Thanksgiving desserts, but I love Mexican chocolate pie so that's what I'll be making. I think a guest may bring pecan pie, but if not, I'll make a pumpkin or apple for those who prefer a more traditional take.

I often do shopping in several shifts, both because it spreads out the expense and because it gives me several shots at remembering everything. I'll get all the canned and freezer-worthy goods this week, the baking ingredients and alcohol next week and the produce and dairy the following week. I refuse to enter a grocery store the week of Thanksgiving. It's just too much of a madhouse.

Finally, now is the time to nail down the guest list. We've invited everyone we need to invite and gotten replies from everyone, but if you don't have your guest list together yet, it's best to get that fixed before you finalize your menu. If people want to know what to bring, ask if they have a specialty or family favorite. I always try to fit those in when I can, especially during a holiday when some might be missing family. Almost everyone has one thing they do well, but if not, you can always use more beer, wine and pre-dinner snacks.

I'll continue my Thanksgiving planning as we get closer and I'll have a few more planning posts for anyone else who likes to go for all-out homemade entertaining. It's not easy or simple, but frankly, I love it and think the people I love are worth it.

Do you do anything special for Thanksgiving?
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