All that glitters

So a while back, Jenn sent me a link to a tray she found instant, swoony love with on etsy. I took a peek, and had two nearly-simultaneous thoughts:

screenshot

1.) Instant, swoony love is an unfaithful beast, and we are just going to have to make this work somehow.

2.) $98? $98?? NINETY EIGHT DOLLARS? That better be real gold. It also better smell like cookies and hand-wash my laundry for me. For $98, the snozzberries sure as hell better taste like snozzberries.

Don’t get me wrong, I am usually a huge proponent of the idea that there really isn’t too high a price to pay for The Perfect Thing, but this seriously challenged that belief system.

Out with the instant, swoony love and in with the throwing of gauntlets: surely, SURELY we could make something passably similar? You know, like, for any dollar amount UNDER $98??

After our last foray into a challenge like this, Jenn insisted on ground rules, because apparently admittedly, I cheat. So, the non-negotiables:

– start with this big, basic, under-$8 tray from ikea

– make it white and gold

– make it as cheaply as possible.

We weren’t even out of Ikea before Jenn was talking technical concerns like primer. Honestly I kind of zoned out, because I knew I had more than enough leftover chalk paint from prior projects. Primer? That’s just precious. Excuse me while I just slap down some no-fail covers-anything Old White magic.

onecoat

No need for primer here!

I was blissfully unconcerned with sparse and wibbly first coat coverage because, well, first coat. This wasn’t my first chalk paint rodeo. I’ve thrown this stuff down on some of the grossest things a thrift store run has ever produced, and it never fails me. My faith in Annie Sloan was absolute.

Until.

crackalack

UNTIL!

Here’s the thing: I am not super great at reading directions. So I didn’t really stop and read the “if you have left this can of paint sitting idle in a drawer for more than a year, do the following” that was super-clearly printed on the label. Actual instructions: flip over, shake like crazy. What I did: half-assedly stirred with a chopstick, then started painting.

So, basically, my faith in chalk paint and my faith in my ability to make new and awesomely stupid mistakes pretty much daily both escaped unscathed.

In the meantime, I had a project to salvage. So…yeah. Primer to the rescue.

primed

Sigh.

I went heavy handed, mostly due to blind panic, and partly due to beer. Also, it’s very possible that I was using spray primer and in my kitchen and with no thought what so ever to ventilation. Because I am super smart.

When it came time to gild this fume-heavy melamine lily, I ditched the straight lines entirely. My reasoning was simple: this rectangular tray was going to go onto my rectangular dining table in my rectangular dining room. Any opportunity to add a soft edge and a little swirl of curve and curl was just not to be missed.

swirl

$2 paint pen at the craft store + 30 minutes of harnessing my adolescent self, who majored in swirly doodles in high school = oh. hell. yes.

golden

Total cost: new materials, tray included, $10. Primer, paint, and brushes were already on hand. So was the beer I pounded in a panic when the paint started chipping away on me, for that matter.

Net result: instant, swoony love? Not really. But I like what I’ve got. And clearly, it likes living in my dining room, where it’s already played host to condiments and salt and pepper shakers for a family dinner and served as a catch-all for my garden planning notes.

inplace

I’m a little worried about its long-term durability, thanks to the early panic, but I’m pretty sure there was some polyurethane in the same drawer as the chalk paint. Don’t worry, I’ll remember to shake it really well before I use it.

Cake. Beer. Beercake. Believe it.

St. Patrick’s day is about the only holiday I don’t really celebrate. There’s reasons, not the least of them being – if my name hasn’t given it away, I get to be Irish 365+ days per year, and have the total lack of suntan to prove it.

Apparently, my lack of festive feeling doesn’t buy me a pass when it comes to baking. A lot of years ago, I made the mistake of bringing this amazing, truffle-y beer-soaked glory of a cake to a family boiled-meat-and-sad-cabbage dinner, and it’s been requested, demanded, and occasionally pleaded for every year since.

I don’t make it every year, or even most years, because as good as it is, it’s kind of a pest to make. No one step is particularly difficult, but there are a lot of them, and darn near all of them involve a whisk and a small sauce pan. I have a finite number of whisks and small sauce pans, so that means that there’s a lot of dish washing involved.

Cake is great. Dishes are not. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, and some years, I sacrifice cake for lazy.

This wasn’t one of those years.

previewcake

Chocolate Stout Cake
adapted from this Guinness Cake recipe

cakesupply

Part one: the cake.

Start your oven preheating to 350, then, in a small sauce pan (that’s one!) combine:

1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup Young’s double chocolate stout

Place over low heat and whisk until smooth, then remove from heat and set aside. It will smell amazing. Don’t taste it. I don’t say this because I assume anyone reading isn’t smart enough to realize that beer + unsweetened cocoa powder = disaster; I’m saying this because somehow, I always manage to talk myself into ignoring that bit of common sense. Learn from my idiocy, please.

In a small bowl, combine and set aside:

1 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together:

1/3 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar

Then add, one at a time:

2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

To the now-cooled chocolate-and-stout mixture, add:

1/3 cup low-fat buttermilk

Truth: this is my favorite step, because it’s just so pretty.

buttermilking

Add the cocoa-beer mixture and the flour mixture to the butter-egg mixture in alternation, beginning with the cocoa-beer part and ending with flour. This batter isn’t going to be pretty – that’s the buttermilk and baking soda fighting it out, and making everything odd and granular-looking in the process. Just let it happen.

I bake the cake in a 9″ round springform pan, bottom foil-covered and the whole inside greased and floured to death. I strongly recommend doing this if you can, but if you don’t have a springform pan, any 9″ pan – square or round will do. Just consider adding parchment paper to the bottom before you grease and flour, because this cake sticks like duct tape otherwise.

Regardless of your pan preferences, bake for 25-30 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the edges creep away from the sides. Cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack that’s been placed in a large baking pan or on a rimmed cookie sheet. Leave it upside-down and let it cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, move on to step two: The Goo.

In a small saucepan (that’s two!), combine:

1/4 cup stout
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir and heat until smooth, then set aside to cool. Like the original cocoa-and-stout mixture, this will smell amazing. Unlike the original mixture, it will also taste amazing. Secretly? I put a tablespoonful or two of it aside in a coffee mug. You’ll see.

Step Three: The Saucing

Once the cake and the goo are both cooled, use a fork to poke a lot of holes into the bottom of your cake, being careful not to stab all the way through. Spoon the goo over the cake bottom, a spoonful at a time, and spread each spoonful around. Stop when the cake stops absorbing the goo easily – it should probably take up 1/2 of the goo easily. Let the cake rest, then flip it carefully onto whatever you plan on serving and storing it in.

Poke holes all over the top of the cake, and pour on the rest of the goo. Don’t worry too much if it doesn’t completely absorb, but if there’s any major puddles, poke a few more fork holes into them.

Step four: Ganache is Where the Magic Happens

In a small saucepan (that’s three!), bring to a simmer:

10 ounces heavy whipping cream

Try and use the fattiest, best heavy whipping cream you can find. I buy mine in adorable glass jars from a local dairy, and this stuff is so rich that you actually have to puncture the buttery fat layer that forms on the top of it before you can shake and pour it. Also, it comes in a 12oz bottle, and at least a tablespoon of that 2oz extra needs to get added to that coffee mug we talked about earlier. Trust me.

Simmering cream is tricky. It will go from not-boiling to OH MY GOD FROTHY DISASTER pretty much instantaneously. To avert catastrophe: tiny bubbles will populate the edges and a skin has will form on top. Watch closely, and when the skin appears to be moving up and down, almost like it’s breathing, remove the cream from the stove. Then add:

10 ounces semisweet chocolate mini chips

Mix and then whisk these together until smooth. Let cool very slightly, and then spoon onto the cake top. This works best if you do it pizza-style – pour into the center, then use the back of a spoon to smooth it out toward the edges. You don’t need to add more than about 1/3 of the total amount, and even if you’re careful, some of it’s going to spill over.

ganache2

Just let it happen.

ganache

Hell, revel in it.

Pour the rest of your ganache into a sealable plastic bag, and put it into the fridge for about 30 minutes. Squeeze the bag around about every 10 of those minutes to make sure it cools evenly. Then, take the bag out, snip a small hole out of one corner, and pipe out the much-less-runny ganache around the sides of the cake, and on the top if you want to be super fancy. Try not to worry if you wind up with ganache that escapes the bag’s closure into your and. Also, don’t feel too guilty if you don’t successfully resist the temptation to pipe ganache straight into your facehole.

cake!

There’s always a point in the baking process where I’m fully frustrated that all the effort – and all the dirty dishes! – are only going to result in a flat little 1-layer 9″ cake.

That frustration dissolves with the eating; then, it’s pure love at first bite. I describe this cake as 20% beer, 80% truffle by volume, and personally, I think it’s best served at room temperature or chilled, and accompanied by coffee – which, in turn, I serve myself in that mug of chocolate-goo-and-cream I set aside earlier.

Yes. Yes I do. I make no apologies – I need the energy to tackle the mountain of saucepans and dishes awaiting me.

Happy St. Whatsit’s day!

Imbibe the Ides of March!

Julius Caesar was given dire warnings by prophets about 3/15.  I’m here to sprinkle a little doom onto your calendar.  Don’t worry, it’s going to be a lot more fun than that makes it sound.

metric

I need to start with a confessional:  I don’t share Jenn’s love of bar carts. They’re totally lost on me, like, utterly.  I don’t understand who has that much liquor on hand, or drinks it quick enough to leave it out in the open like that.

Oh.  Oh wait.  Everybody.  Got it.

Let’s be clear: I am not a teetotaler.  I can shut down a happy hour with the best of them, and all my nearest and dearest know what the undersides of their tables look like, courtesy of yours truly.  I just rarely drink at home.  There’s exceptions, of course.  Pizza and champagne nights are sacred here.  The occasional lazy Sunday mimosa fest can’t be denied.  Every once in a while, a bottle of real-sugar Mexican coke makes its way into the house, and when it does, we unleash the Krakken – rum, that is.  By and large, though, booze is for bars, and it tends to be a guest here, not a resident.

bourbon

That probably explains why, despite being a confessed aficionado of all things whiskey and bourbon, I had an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels, given to me as a housewarming gift, sitting in a cupboard four years after the last box was unpacked.

The Jack Daniels moving gift is a family joke turned tradition.  The theory is, you’ve got a new house, so you buy a bottle of Jack to celebrate.  Only, you’ve got no place to put your glass, so you get a table.  Then, you can’t really reach the glass from your seat on the floor, so you get chairs.  Now that there’s a table and chairs in the room, you can’t wander around in the dark, so you get lamps…and so on and so forth, until one lone bottle of Jack Daniels furnishes and decorates your whole house.

Naturally, breaking it open for a blog that’s heavy on the home projects and liberal with the libations just seemed like the thing to do, you know?

So for the past few years, my go-to drink in bars has been one inspired by a flip comment in a podcast that’s hallmark is basically absurdist humor. So, really, there’s no way to know if they actually intended this drink for consumption, but if they didn’t, they still stumbled on brilliance when they broadcast the Shirley Temple of Doom.

The instructions are simple:

cherrybomb

Step one, you’re going to need a shitload of cherries. Their words, not mine.

drowning

Step two, you’re going to add bourbon. Or, tonight, whiskey that technically is a bourbon despite what it calls itself. This drink is all about proportions, so all you need to do is keep pouring until the cherries are swimming.

Step three: if you happen to work near an amazing shop that sells amazing ginger beer on tap and in growlers to go, you get to go a little fancy.

gingin

Reed’s Extra Ginger will give you a similar taste; regular old ginger ale works well, too. Just top that baby up.

doooom

This is best drunk with a straw, because it guarantees you will have a cherry-spearing device on hand when all the liquor is gone. Also, honestly, as much fun as this is to drink at home, I cannot overstate how much fun it is to discombobulate bartenders by walking up and demanding something that starts with a metric shitload of cherries.

But, I mean, now that the Jack is open…and we have all these cherries…and ginger beer…huh. Looks like I might be an at-home drinker for a while after all!

Wine-E

Get it?? People say I’m not that funny, I say, they just haven’t had enough to drink!! But maybe it’s true. Regardless, it’s time for a quick and easy craft idea.

As March is clearly the month of inbibing, we have dedicated the entire month to drink-related ideas, crafts, projects, and treats. With Mardi Gras and St. Patricks Day landing in the same month as well as a certain someone’s 30th birthday, it seemed a natural fit. So without further ado….

I’m sure you’ve seen them- Wine Cork Crafts are everywhere. Google search it and you’ll see what I mean. Browse Pinterest and the options are endless.

Drink Up!

Drink Up!

While some of these ideas look really neat (hello: coffee table?) the reality is, it’s all for naught if you don’t drink wine or at least know someone who does. I am not an avid wine drinker. I prefer a beer or mixed drink to a nice Merlot or Cab, but thankfully, at least for this craft, I married a wine LOVER. Mr. Plaid (or maybe he should be re-titled Mr. Wine?) enjoys a nice glass or four of Cabernet or the occasional Merlot. But he’s mainly a red wine kind of guy. I got him a wine club membership for his birthday and he was thrilled. Wine coming in the mail? Major wife points.

Wine Delivery!

So, as with any Wine Cork Craft you’ll need to get your hands on corks. Shocker, I know. I had all the corks ever to work with and was able to be picky about the ones I used for my project. The fun part about using red wine corks is that the wine has stained one side and each cork has a different shade to it depending on the variety of wine it once protected.As I demonstrated in an earlier post, the cardboard craft letters at the local craft store are versatile and cost-effective. I purchased a large ‘E’ for less than a latte and was excited to finally put it to use. Gather your supplies and whatever you do, don’t work on the kitchen table. Wait, that’s just my house rule!

Close and lovely

Close and lovely

You’ll need an xacto knife to carefully outline and cut off the top cover of the letter, leaving the sides and backing of the letter as a frame. Ideas out there show all kinds of options, but I find that having a bit of built-in structure allows me to feel more successful. Maybe someday I could be one of those crafty DIY-ers that just can improvise and care-free her way through the day, but alas I’m not there yet.

Anyway, back to it – cut off the top part of the letter frame and pull out the pieces used to retain the letter shape. Heat up your glue gun of choice and have lots of extra sticks on hand – you’re going to need them. I found that placing a handful of corks (10-20 or so) at a time was the best use of time. Putting too many and the frame would bulge or contort if the corks didn’t fit properly. Too few and I didn’t always space out the different cork varieties like I wanted.

Place your corks in, shuffle them around as you like and then glue away. A quick project really. And by quick, I mean a few episodes of your favorite show on the DVR and a glass of that wine you’ve been drinking for the past few months and the craft is done.

Best part of any project

Best part of any project

Mounting the beast, in my case, was actually the hardest part. Despite what you might think. the corks don’t add much to the strength or structure of the letter, and if anything, the weight makes it more flimsy. Tilting it on the mantle (my first thought) wasn’t an option, but nailing it to the wall? absolutely. It only took a few (five) more nails then expected, but it is up, and it is just as I wanted it to look.

I have more corks now. So many more corks. Maybe I will try my hand at one of these ideas I found googling.

This can go in the mancave we don't have

This can go in the mancave we don’t have

Feed the birds

Feed the birds

Happy Drinking Crafting!!

-jenn

Laissez les bons temps rouller!

There’s some things in my kitchen that have, for no real reason, become irrevocably linked with certain foods.  Salads only get made in the big white bowl that was my first grown-up purchase for my first apartment.  Banana bread is never to be baked in anything other than the blue glass loaf pan.  The sangria pitcher is the sangria pitcher and the margarita pitcher is the margarita pitcher, and never the twain shall meet.

The purple Pyrex bowl serves double duty.  It’s the official mixing bowl of brownie batter, and it’s the surest sign that there’s about to be gumbo in the house.  Not for nothing, that bowl out on the counter is like a prophet of awesomeness.

veggiebowls

I’ve been making gumbo from the same recipe for so long that I don’t remember where the recipe came from originally, and don’t even refer back to the scribbled list of ingredients on the piece of oil-splattered paper shoved in the back of my 1960’s-edition Joy Of Cooking.  By and large, I make this dish from a combination of rote memory and eyeballing proportions, and trust my nose to make sure it all comes out right in the end.

I can’t promise that this is a particularly authentic recipe, but I do promise that it’s a pretty awesome recipe.

How it’s done:

Start with 2 onions – yellow, white, whichever.  Chop ’em up, and don’t worry too much about making it pretty.

Add three bell peppers.  Sometimes I’ll use all green, because for whatever arbitrary reason, they’re cheaper.  When the pretty colors go on sale, though, I like to mix it up.  Chop the peppers up, and again, don’t worry too much about making it pretty.  Honestly, you couldn’t ugly these up if you tried.

chopchop

Celery comes next.  I generally try and make sure I have about the same amount of celery as I do peppers.  Sometimes that’s 5 or 6 ribs.  Last night, it ended up being 9.  It’s possible I got slightly carried away because I like chopping celery.  Really, nothing makes you feel more like a legitimate chef like a santoku and celery stalks.

chopchop2

In a separate bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of salt, 2 or 3 bay leaves, and a generous 1/2 teaspoon each of black pepper, white pepper, thyme, oregano, and cayenne pepper.  It probably sounds like a lot of salt and a lot of heat, but trust me.  The salt is necessary, and as for the cayenne…we have fancy extra-hot 60,000 Scoville-scaled cayenne pepper in my house and heap that spoonful without a second thought.

In yet another bowl, measure out 3/4 cups of flour, and in yet another other bowl, add three heaping teaspoons of chopped garlic.

All the bowls are for a reason:  everything gets added at different times, and once you start cooking, there’s no time to pause for measuring or mixing.  That’s because step one is making a roux, and bringing it perilously close to scorching without actually letting anything get burned.

If you’ve made cream-based sauces before, you’re familiar with the roux-making process.  Sauces like that usually use butter, which has a much lower smoke point than the vegetable oil in this recipe.  That means this roux can take a bit more heat, and be cooked much darker, much more safely, than a butter-based roux.  However, it doesn’t have the nice, predictable seize-and-release that butter roux does, which makes it just as important, if not more so, to keep the whole mixture moving.

If you’ve never made a roux before, please just ignore everything I’ve said above, which probably makes the process mystical and somewhat daunting.  It isn’t.

First, heat a pan over medium heat. Much like the bowl, I have a designated gumbo pot; it’s a 5 quart dutch oven.  Any pan about that size will work, but if you have one with short, easily gripped handles, that’s the one you want to use.

Once the pan is hot, add 3/4 cup of vegetable oil. Heat it until you can see the heat shimmering on the oil’s surface, then dump in the flour.  Whisk, whisk, and keep whisking some more, keeping the whole thing moving, and paying special attention to the areas directly over the heat element on the stove.  It’s going to smell like hot oil for a while, and then kind of like popcorn.  That’s normal, and if you get nervous, you can use the roux once it hits that popcorn-scented stage, but let it go a little longer if you can.

Dark roux has the best flavor, but does the weakest job of thickening the final gumbo.  Light roux thickens like a champ, but it tends to be bland. I like to try and land somewhere between a rich caramel and a milk chocolate.

caramel

Once the roux is ready, dump the whole bowl of vegetables in on top of it.  Do it quickly, but carefully – I’ve sustained a few burns being careless at this point.  Switch from a whisk to the sturdiest wooden spoon you have, and stir and stir and stir til the vegetables are well-coated in the roux.

wegetables

Cook for 5 or 6 minutes.  Stir frequently, but not with the obsessive fervor you used during the roux-making.  Things should be smelling pretty great right now.  Be careful that you don’t drool into the pan.  Add the bowl of seasonings, and the bowl of garlic, and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, stirring frequently.

If you put your nose over the pot and suddenly have a really good idea of what heaven smells like, you’re doing great.

Add 5 cups of liquid, and stir well, washing down the sides of the pan while you’re at it.  If you’re trying go easy on the sodium, stock is going to suit you better than broth.  I use broth, myself.  Use beef, chicken, seafood, or vegetable stock or broth – it really doesn’t matter.  Mix a few together if you’ve got oddball partial cans or cartons on hand.  I usually use home made chicken stock if I have it, or store-bought beef broth if I don’t.

Bring the liquid up to a simmer; leave it there for 10 minutes or so, then add sausage or chicken.  I almost always use sausage, and vacillate between using legitimate andouille and Johnsonville beef hot links.  Honestly?  Minimal difference in the final product.  I do recommend pan-searing andouille before using it, though; it doesn’t really retain its texture well otherwise.  If you’re not interested in using sausage, chicken works well at this stage.  However you do it, just make sure you’re adding something like a pound of it.

Leave the whole mess on a simmer, stirring occasionally if you happen to be in the vicinity, for about 30 minutes, then turn off the heat and add a 1/2 teaspoon or so of file powder and a pound of peeled, tail-free, deveined shrimp.  If you don’t like shrimp, you can always just add more chicken or sausage, but I strongly recommend you seek professional help, because seriously who doesn’t like shrimp.

As soon as the shrimp is done, you’re ready to eat.  Serve over rice, and sprinkled with a more file powder.  Leave plenty of room in your bowl to mix things around in, and to justify going back for seconds.

file

Happy and blissfully literal Fat Tuesday, everyone!

On your mark…

We tend to go on binges, and these binges tend to turn into challenges. Like, we’ve recently been had fancy salads for lunch, which turned into fancy salads everyday for lunch, and we were all manner of smug and nutrient rich until we made the mistake of adding up exactly how much we’ve been spend on fancy salads every day for lunch. While we’re happy to accept the letters of thanks we will undoubtedly shortly receive for personally fixing the national economy, boy howdy did we need to cut back.

Except, because we are crazy, “cutting back” became competitive salad-making. Because of course it did. Why wouldn’t it?

The last time we hit the folie au deux skids, it was for fiddleleaf figs.

If you’ve ever picked up any home décor magazine, or perused a shelter blog, or had any contact with design porn at all, you already know that this was inevitable. On the off chance you’ve somehow escaped the craze, allow Houzz to shine a little broadleaved light into your world:

Come on. I mean, COME ON. Can you blame us for going a little crazy?

It would be nice to tell you that what happened was a calm discussion about our mutual fondness for these preposterously grand-scale houseplants. Tea was consumed, and mellow agreements to keep eyes peeled for exceptional specimens while out and about.

Instead, in the name of honesty, a nearly-perfect transcript of events:

Jenn: I need a fiddleleaf fig tree for my dining room, I think.

Shannon: LET’S RACE!

No, not race to the nearest greenhouse. Race fig trees. Competitively. As in, let’s buy plants and grow them in some kind of winner-take-all Beyond Biodome THRILL RACE.

This is probably the kind of idea that we would have gotten over in short order if it weren’t for a well-timed stop at a local mega-mart that just happened to be having a sale on house plants, and just happened to have exactly 2 fiddlehead fig plants on sale.

The universe had spoken. LET THE GAMES BEGIN.

In corner one: Pudding!

pudding in situ

Starting height:  25″, large and in charge of Shannon’s front hall!

And in the opposite corner, Omar!

Omar in situ

Starting height: 22″, dominating Jenn’s dining room!

We weren’t lucky enough to find identically-sized plants, so we’re going to have to work with inches grown and proportionate matters rather than overall size.  Beyond that, we haven’t figured out exactly what happens next. Leaf count?  Glossiness?  Who Manages To Keep Their Tree From Becoming A Very Stylish Dog Toy?

We’ll be playing it by ear.  There’s no rules here yet.  That’s because we are, as far as we know, the first competitive fig-tree racers ever.  We are pioneers!

If we’re lucky, that’ll turn out to be “pioneers” in the visionary sense, not the whole Oregon Trail Fun And Games With Dysentery thing.