Saturday, April 26, 2008

Look who stole the show

For me, a perfect Saturday consists of exactly what made up today:
beautiful weather,
good food,
no major responsibilities,
no time constraints
wonderful friends.

I met up with Al, Amy and Alex today. We were able to have lunch in the same spot and with the same people (+ 1), where we celebrated Amy's pregnancy last year. Come to think of it, Alex was there last year. He was just hiding.

We filled up alfresco style, on pizza, veggies, pasta and pureed peas. Three guesses at which one was Alex's. He was fantastically well behaved - and not just through lunch...through strolling, and shopping, and snacking. What lucky parents are Amy and Al. Though, they certainly deserve it.

Another thing I felt they deserved was a box of macarons. You know how sometimes people will write entire books breaking apart some movie or poem and then you wonder if the creator had ever meant for people to spend so much time analyzing it? Thus were Amy and Al sophisticatedly sampling those macarons.
"Cleanse your palate before your next bite, Al!!"
"You really get the flavor near the end."

I just meant for them to be eaten and enjoyed! But if people find pleasure in noting the subtlety of the green tea - then by all means...

The highlight of the day was definitely seeing how big Alex is getting. I hadn't seen him in 4 months - that's half his life!! What a fun little character he's becoming. The sideways glances he was giving us all afternoon were hilarious and so much like both Amy and Al, it just killed me! I guess you can tell who definitely stole the show today. I mean heck, he's even stealing the show here on my blog! This entry was originally named "A perfect Saturday" until I realized where the entry was going.

A few of the best Alex faces of the afternoon

In an attempt to trick his mommy and daddy into bringing him to come visit us more often, I told them to keep their macaron box - and whenever they bring it to my house next, I'll fill it for them. I'll even try out some of their suggested flavors. And I'll take it as a compliment that they kept with Amy's theme of suggesting I put crack in my baking; they helped me come up with a name for my pretend bakery: Lisa's Crackaroons! I can see folks lined up around the corner now.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gifts made by hand

And with that...the last knit handbag has been gifted!! Whew! Those handbags are a lot of work! And it's actually the non-knitting that takes the longest. Funny how these handbags all began as knitting projects but in reality they're totally "craft" projects. I need knitting needles, yarn, a tapestry needle, a dowel, a saw, a pencil sharpener, paint, polyurethane, fabric, interfacing, thread AND MORE to make one! You'll perhaps notice that Ali's purse is the same as Liz's purse but in a different color. I made the pink flower (the classy corsage from The Knitter's Bible: Knitted Accessories) a while back. It's a pretty tedious little flower though, so instead of making another - Ali got my original.

Ali particularly asked for "an off color" for the lining that didn't match her requested pink flower on the outside. Hence the bright green lining! She didn't know I was making this for her (I don't think) but I asked her long ago "if I were to make you a purse, what colors would you like?" and quickly tucked her answer away in my mind.

I forgot to take pictures of the purse after hand-stitching in the lining
so you have to look at all my cute pink pins

Here's a photo I took of all three bags! Liz, Angela and Ali -- all in my living room at the same time!

I also gave Ali one of my knit Hello Kitty washcloths. If I know anyone who loves HK it's Ali. If there's anyone I thought of when I first knit this washcloth, it's Ali. If I had anyone in mind when I bought lavender cotton yarn to make one, it's Ali. So Ali finally got her Hello Kitty washcloth.

Ali also got a box of my (what else?) French macarons. SO many birthdays in April... and all girls! Girls get girlie French macarons from me! I'm still fully admitting that I'm crazy. I made three batches last night...

{Quickly becoming favorites from my "fans"} Green tea; pistachio; pecan praline with dulce de leche

I love these little boxes that allow the macarons to peek through the front!

I hope Ali liked her gifts! This year has been a very satisfying one for me since I'm able to hand-make all my friends' birthday gifts - especially post surgery. In fact, we were asked to state a non-work related, 'personal win' during a meeting in the office today. And after wracking my brain - I decided that was my personal win: "I've been hand-making all my friends' birthday gifts this month... and there have been a lot!" A couple coworkers quickly joked that their birthdays were coming up soon too. ;)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spring thoughts on a cool day

It's April. The 22nd to be exact. And while I LOVE fall, winter, cold, rain, snow, sweaters, hot chocolate, down blankies and roaring fires... it seems it should be warmer than 60°, brighter than cloudy, and less violent than blustery, in the middle of a California afternoon. And certainly it has been in the past few weeks - today is just a fluke.

In fact, as I walked into my house the other day I spotted this little guy hiding behind some leaves on my entryway rosebush. The bush itself is covered with buds but he was the first one to peek out!

Another sign that it should be warmer than it is... strawberries. STRAWBERRIES. They're everywhere right now! Markets, blogs, menus... Oh I love strawberries. I love the smell, I love the color, I love the taste. And though it may not be so refined - doesn't peanut butter go well with strawberries? Strawberry preserves to be exact?

Voilà - in continuing with my utter macaron obsession: peanut butter and {strawberry} jelly macarons!!

Ground peanuts in the cookie and a dab of peanut butter in the filling... perfection! Thanks to MyLinh who came up with this flavor idea! It's YUMMERS.

On a completely random side note - my parents are on their way to Paris right now. Dad's first time, Mom's second. "Wanna come?" they asked. Oh why must there be work?! I'm so jealous - especially as the cancer that is French macaron-obsession grows and morphs within me. I sent them with a long list of Ladurée and Pierre Hermé addresses and hours and told them they had to eat as many as they could for me. Maybe if I'm lucky they'll think of me the day before they fly home and buy a box. *fingers crossed* Something to look forward to on my next trip I suppose... Until then, you (and I) can gaze upon a photo au Tour Eiffel I took on a trip in 2005.

Having a few girls over for dinner tonight. Who doesn't love a home cooked meal with friends on a random weekday? There will be soufflés and macarons so I suppose au revoir is in order. :)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

All {creative} work and very little play...

... generates a whole lotta stuff!!

It's been a BUSY weekend for me! But I DO have a lot to show for it. Well, pictures at least. When that which is being produced is food - it doesn't stick around very long to "show". I suppose that's a good thing and a testament to my success with a particular recipe.

I'd been wanting to try soufflés for quite a while. It was up there on my list of potential "scary" items to bake, yet I knew I wanted to try someday. Perhaps because back in high school, I started building my baking repertoire with mastering the lemon meringue pie (random, I know) I seem to have a knack for the often tricky art of dealing with egg whites. Foamy, soft peaks, medium peaks, stiff peaks, glossy, firm, dry -- true baking success for all, once you can figure out what it means to beat egg whites to each of these degrees. That's when these "scary" items become not-so-impossible. Soufflés, macarons, meringues, sponge cakes... so far so good for me! Yay!!!!! So I tried this Grand Marnier soufflé recipe a couple weeks ago when I had Mom and Dad over for dinner (they're getting ready to go to France so we dined on fillet mignon, red wine reduction, French wine and soufflés!) They turned out so well and prepped up so quickly that I wanted to try again to make sure it wasn't just beginner's luck. I did another batch Friday night and they were beautiful - but boy do they drop fast! Look at them in the oven above... I quickly donned thick rubber gloves, grabbed one out of the pan, rushed it to my [already set up] "photo studio" and snapped. And it had already fallen to the top left picture!

The cutest thing I've heard in a while though, was Connie who said "ssshhhh be quiet next time and maybe they won't fall!" I suppose it's one strategy ;)

But before there were soufflés, there were macarons. In every sense of the sentence! Anyone who follows my blog knows I've gone ape-merde over making macarons lately. After some true failures last week I was even more fired up to make more since there's no way I'm letting eggs, nuts and sugar beat ME down!! Plus I finally tracked down some rose syrup at a local Middle Eastern grocery store to try what Deb claims is her favorite flavor. So more macarons it was!! This is the fullest my macaron cookie tin has ever been!! Connie stopped by to sample and got what I think was a very nice "macaron-tasting". Week-old green tea, week-old vanilla bean with salted caramel, rose, lemon, pecan praline with dulce de leche, almond with salted caramel... Her vote was the salted caramel. I think overall that comes in a very close second behind my quite successful pistachio!

I had the salted caramel, lemon curd and dulce de leche left over from other trials, so I made some small batches to use these up. Then I tried my hand at the rose macarons by keeping the cookie plain (but pink) and making up a rose buttercream.

lots of almonds to grind; sprinkled with ground pecan praline; cooling pretty macarons

I don't know whether I don't like rose macarons or I don't like MY rose macarons. But I'm about to throw this batch out. I think it's my rose syrup so I might try a batch with rose water instead to keep it a subtler flavor. The true test is to have Deb try them but so far no one has liked them (including Mom - who threw hers away!)

rose, lemon, salted caramel; pecan praline with dulce de leche; rose and lemon

And finally... I made napkins. I hinted that I may do this when exclaiming about the amazing Amy Butler fabrics I came across recently. And napkins I certainly made. These were fun and easy - and didn't involve whipping eggs! Just in time too 'cuz I used my last egg making the Friday night soufflés!

home-sewn napkins!

Even squeezed in time for a double date and "fun on the town", Saturday night!
What a productive weekend! Yet all I have to show for it is pictures, cute napkins and perhaps 5 extra pounds!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My girls are getting gifts!

I revealed the first of my recent knitting in this post here. All my knitting has been under wraps lately since it's mostly being done as gifts for people! But I was able to give away another gift to Liz in Napa this past weekend! I'm really proud of this purse because it is 100% my own design. Okay I guess I have to give Ruth some credit because I used a lot of her instructions for her cabled clutch and adapted it to give this bag a "handle". Used some of my Amy Butler fabrics to make the super cute lining. Pinned a brooch on the front. Sewed on my designer label ;) and voilà!

The purses are a lot of work but it's so worth it to see people enjoy them so much. Liz told me she loved her purse and totally appreciates the amount of time and energy that went into it. She's such a sweetheart that it was totally worth it.

I obsessively did a little more macaron tests Friday afternoon too and packaged some up for our friends on behalf of Liz's birthday on Saturday. I don't know what happened this time though - the only thing I can find to blame it on was the heat (my kitchen was almost 80° because of the warm day outside) but I had a lot of failures. Roughly half the batch was sticking to the mat (using either a Silpat or parchment paper) and overly fragile, while the other half of the batch seemed fine. I have no idea what was going on, but that's the most angry I've ever been at cookies before - lemme tell you! There was even some cursing going on. How can one curse at cute little cookies? I think I've lost my mind. After retelling the story though, I now have a plethora of "failed cookie eating" volunteers...

The picture above should very quickly spell out my new flavor tests for you.

I apologize for the bad color - I took the photo pretty late at night and had to do some Photoshopping to brighten the colors a bit. You'll notice various versions of similar flavors there - cuz I ended up doing 2 batches of some after my previously mentioned curse session with partially failed batches. I even tried a raspberry that didn't make the cut at all whatsoever. We'll be back at the drawing board with that one. Let's just say - attempting to color macarons with pureed raspberry (trying to avoid food coloring) didn't work the way I planned it to. Perhaps using food coloring isn't quite cheating... I'll definitely be trying again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Great friends in wine country

This past weekend was one of the best I've had in a while. I met a bunch of friends in Napa on Saturday morning for wine tasting and all sorts of other fun that lasted through Sunday afternoon. It was Liz's birthday and Kevin was the PERFECT hubby planning this amazing trip for some of her closest friends to help her celebrate. I think we all live for each others' birthdays these days since we just don't go out like we used to 5-10 years ago. Birthdays seem to be the only times we really get together anymore. I know this will only get harder and harder as we get older so I'm really trying to cherish these times. This past weekend was certainly one worth cherishing...

We all [responsibly!] climbed aboard a shuttle which took us through 4 different wineries Liz had chosen for our group. Kev & Liz even handed out little notebooks and pens so that we could take notes about our wines! (Mysteriously most books had lots of notes at 10:30am and not very many by 3pm).

Family Vineyards - a private tasting arranged for us; Cuvaison Estate Wines - picnic time!

V. Sattui Winery - always crowded, but ever faithful; Grgich Hills Estate - our final tasting

Wine tasting was so much fun and our "hoity-toity picnic" was fantastic. We rounded out the afternoon with some splashing in the pool followed by appetizers and beverages back at our hotel. The weather was perfect by the evening ; holding steady somewhere in the low 70's. We topped off the night with Liz's birthday dinner at Uva's Trattoria in downtown Napa. It was as if fun, friends and well, fluids in one form or another was never-ending throughout the entire day!

Sunday was Liz's actual birthday, yet oddly enough saw one of my requests being granted: a trip to check out the macarons at Bouchon! "Je vous ai dit que je suis obsédée"; I told you that I'm obsessed.

My perhaps delirious, friends (it was 90° that day) told me they liked MY macarons better! While that was incredibly flattering - I actually have to agree that even though I was impressed with the cookie structure... I.... gasp... thought they were a tad bit dry and liked the flavor of mine better. *may Thomas Keller not hunt me down* Chocolate, vanilla, caramel, pistachio and hazelnut - all filled with a butter-cream or ganache of some type. They were not mini size and we couldn't even finish our 5. But that just meant that we could enjoy them back at home too. Oh yah, we also had them throw in a chocolat bouchon too since we WERE at Bouchon. I was so busy sampling $3 macarons that I forgot to try it but heard it was tasty!

I suppose a trip to Napa is not complete (at least for a couple of Foodies present *ahem*) without a drive or stroll by The French Laundry. Sneaking into the garden and catching glimpses of chefs whisking past the windows made me want to eat here again. But I suppose I'll have to start filling my piggy bank at a double-time rate since the price has about doubled since my last visit...

Napa was great. Friends were better. Stepping more than a day away from "life" to hold a glass of wine in my hand, eat great food and laugh with my favorite people - makes these times some of the absolute best.