26 September 2011

taking a hiatus (officially)

You may always be wondering if I'm on hiatus, since my updates are so sporadic, but I'm telling you right now, I'm officially taking a blog sabbatical until further notice. That further notice may be a new project, it may be the restart of this blog. I just know it doesn't have a spot in my brain right now. So, until I see you again - take care.

-Nicole

16 August 2011

how to really taste a rainbow

Guys, I'm crazy. I decided to make a rainbow cake. But not just a six layer rainbow cake, a 19 layer rainbow cake.

It all started about a year and a half ago, when I saw this image online:
(via Darius A Monsef IV)
My dear friend Nic had an impending 28th birthday, and I thought this would be super fun to make. Turns out we didn't get around to celebrating his 28th birthday, since he was swamped in post-doctoral work and I was house hunting. But I knew I couldn't just forget about an epic rainbow cake, so I filed it away in my mental to-do list.

This year for Nic's 29th birthday, I scheduled a dinner party, invited friends, and set out to make a ginormous rainbow cake. I thought 29 layers would be fun, but decided I'd wait and see how it worked out. All the cakes I had seen had been stacked up long-ways, and I really thought it would be much more glorious to see a vertical tower of rainbow cake. I pinned the following images as inspiration:
(rough edges rainbow cake and 30th birthday rainbow cake)

(pink ombre cake and rainbow cake)
Without much planning, I started making some rainbow colored cake layers. I have three 8" cake pans, so I decided I would just make up a batch of cake batter, divvy out equal amounts of batter into smaller bowls and start mixing colors. I baked 3 layers at a time, let them cool for about 10 minutes, then transferred to a cooling rack and started again.

A few hours and a trip to the store later, I had 19 layers and guests arriving in 2 hours. I decided to stop baking and start frosting. Luckily, I had a batch of raspberry Swiss meringue buttercream in the freezer, so I only had to make two batches of lemon SMB (Sweetapolita has the best tutorial in the world!). I started stacking, and couldn't be bothered with things like stabilizing skewers - I just stacked and frosted, stacked and frosted. I had just enough frosting for all the middle layers and one coat on the exterior. So I guess I also couldn't be bothered to go to the store for more butter and eggs with friends arriving in 30 minutes...



12" tall, at least 10 pounds heavy, and topped with rainbow candles, we celebrated a dear friend in an epic, epic way:
 



*Please credit me if you share these images on the interwebs. Thanks!

15 August 2011

How do you bike?

Personally, I prefer to Bike Fancy.
Photo: martha williams/bikefancy.com

I've been following Martha Williams' blog since it started in November of 2010. I think my little bike is pretty snazzy, and I'm always just wearing what I wear when I ride (no special gear). I've really hoped to be able to meet Martha and find my way on to her blog since it started. On my way home Friday, I stopped by my favorite butcher shop to grab some sausage for dinner, thus altering my typical route. As I was stopped at a light, Miss Martha pulled up beside me and asked if she could take my photo. I immediately knew who she was and was delighted. Check out my feature on her blog, but also the other lovely folks looking good on bikes at Bike Fancy.  

03 August 2011

garage update

July ended with a much less shameful garage and back yard. We're making progress...



We're searching for a new (used) door. There will be 2 more light fixtures like the one you see in the right hand corner of the garage. I need to paint the window trim green. There are boards waiting to be made into a deck/patio...

11 June 2011

{green} renovations

Summer has arrived in Chicago. Don and I have been working on making the outside of our house a little more livable, too. The sad parkway and front yard were the first to get some attention. (No one wants a house that screams "I was an unloved foreclosure!") They are almost respectable now.

In the parkway, we have a wonderful elm tree that provides a ton of shade when the leaves are full. (It also blocks our view of a heinous billboard - BONUS!) Below that tree, we had a mud pit. So we planted some hostas and lily of the valley pips, and added mulch. My hope is that they will just start to spread out and I won't have to do much in the future. No one likes a high maintenance parkway.

Our parkway - don't you love that boulder? Just waiting for those hostas to fill out...

Our front yard had 'minimal' landscaping. There are 3 dated evergreen bushes right in front of the house. Eventually we'll tear those out and put in some tall grasses and flowery things. But they're staying until we've got the time and funds to replace them. I thought those shrubs were the extent of our front yard landscape until we had tulips pop through the ground in March! (Our sweet next door neighbor got tired of our yard looking so crappy when the house was empty that she planted tulips a couple years ago!) My dream is to eventually have no grass in the front, possibly in the entire yard, so we've started to fill in with some plants. Now we just need to get rid of the dandelions and find a way to make that 'grass' look a little less sad until it's replaced.

so far we've got hostas, dead tulips, coral bells, butterfly bush, salvia, purple fountain grass, and some kind of japanese shrub. everything else is "inherited"
And that brings us around to the back. We grill almost every night in the summer, so a hospitable back yard is very important to us. The existing yard was anything but - ugly garage, gnarly mulberry tree/bush combo that the neighborhood birds used for a toilet, weird weed patches. Even with all that still needs to be done inside, we agreed the back needed improvements, incrementally of course.

TAAADDDDDDAAAAAAA!!! An alternately appropriate title  for this post would be "yard of shame." You can see the remnants of the mulberry tree. Bush removal pending... Also, don't be jealous if your neighbor doesn't drive a mystery machine!

View towards the house. Embarrassing. 

See, we originally planned to expand the garage and rebuild the roof of it. That is proving cost-prohibitive at the moment. So until we really need more garage/wood shop space, the foot print stays the same. Making the garage into a functional wood shop is now the priority, so that all the tools can be set up to tackle other projects. This means new sheathing, wrap and siding, and possibly some new doors/windows, and definitely appropriate power. Along with garage recladding, we decided we're going to build a wood patio deck in front of the garage, with a few planter boxes, and get our hands on an oak rain barrel. Hopefully by sometime in July, we'll at least have a place to sit and eat.

(And hopefully, the amazing Nicole Balch of Making It Lovely will select our sad pitiful garage to be in the top 10 for her Social Space Makeover Contest! These two architects need a little boost to help make our back yard awesome! We'd make a great before and after feature, plus I'm good at spending money when it's not actually mine!!!)

A panorama. Doesn't get any prettier in multiple views...

10 June 2011

an undesirable pallet...


Is it just me? Does anyone else cringe when they see pallets used as furniture? No, just me, the girl who had a toothpick sized splinter surgically removed from her 4-year-old thigh? I guess it's just not my aesthetic.

There's so much on the interwebs right now about this 'green and fun' design trend. Green? Really? Pretty sure those things are just as chemical laden as railroad ties. Just because you're repurposing something doesn't mean it's enviro-friendly...

courtesy design finch, who outlines the pros and cons of pallet upcycling

But maybe I'm missing something. Lots of trusted sources are singing the praises of pallet furnishings...

09 June 2011

have a seat

My craft pantry is the most finished room in the house, and I have yet to really use it... I call it the Craft Pantry because not only is it my dedicated sewing/art space, but it also has open shelves that hold cake stands, vases, platters, ingredients, etc. It is my happy little girly space. Here is a progress shot of it, along with the curtain fabric that inspired the color:




There are really just a couple of things left to be done in there: hang the curtain, hang the ironing board rack & magnet boards, organize my stuff, find a better flooring solution (although my free carpet square samples from work are nice, no?), swap the light, and eventually make the trim less weird (that's a whole house issue). I also need a rolly chair, so I can be a zippy little crafter. Don suggested I need an Eames Aluminum Management Group Leather Chair, in white leather:


But at $1500 (pre trade discount, but still), it's just way too expensive. So I was doing some window shopping on the internets, and came up with the following alternatives:

At $149, Ikea's Skruvsta is one of the most economical options, and it also comes in white:




Ikea also makes the Patrik Chair, available in a charcoal or red. $199 is still very much in the budget, I think.



Crate and Barrel has a couple of options. The Folio is nice and minimal, but a little too steep at $399:



And the Ripple is a pretty direct Eames knock off, and not bad for $299 (obviously the proportions are way not as nice, but that's why Eames is $1500...)


But, I hate to buy a knock off...
Crate and Barrel's hipper, younger sister CB2 has a great option in Bubble; $199:


Ikea and CB2 seem like the most likely candidates. Looks like I've got some sitting to do. Readers - do any of you have any of these chairs? Thoughts? Complaints? Do share!

19 May 2011

holy blogging absence (and a s'mores tart)

Oh hi guys... I guess I didn't realize it had been so long since my last post! Sorry about that. No excuses, really. Just busy living and not blogging about it. (Also, I temporarily lost the camera cord, so I hadn't uploaded photos or used the mac mini in, like, forever.)

Anywho. Did I ever tell you about the S'mores Tart? It's something I sort of invented after I was left with a crapload of ganache (from an inside-out German chocolate cake - also delish). I had already been making my own graham crackers and graham crust with Smitten Kitchen's graham cracker recipe (my new fav to eat raw, since there are no eggs!). So I realized that I had some graham dough and some ganache and both of those things obviously needed to get together. The logical next step was to make some marshmallowy topping, toast that sucker, and dig in. Plus I bought a torch that I had yet to use. (I freaking love torching desserts. You have no idea.) Since it is a perfect summer dessert, why not share now!?



Graham Crust
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen (who adapted it from someone else)

2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (375 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour (a swap of 1/2 cup with whole wheat flour or 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour works well here, too)
1 cup (176 grams) dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt (4 grams)
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces or 100 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
1/3 cup (114 grams) mild-flavored honey, such as clover
5 tablespoons (77 grams) milk, full-fat is best
2 tablespoons (27 grams) pure vanilla extract

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Pulse or mix on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off on and off, or mix on low, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal.

In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, milk, and vanilla extract. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off a few times or mix on low until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky. Lay out a large piece of plastic wrap and dust it lightly with flour, then turn the dough out onto it and pat it into a rectangle about 1-inch thick. Wrap it, then chill it until firm, about 2 hours or overnight.

Butter and flour or spray a removable bottom tart pan, and preheat your oven to 350°F.  

Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a round large enough for your tart pan, about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be sticky, so flour as necessary. Place dough into tart pan (I mostly had to smoosh mine in, so don't worry if it's not Martha Stewart perfect). Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes in the fridge or 15 to 20 minutes in the freezer. Poke some holes into the bottom of the dough, or use some pie weights. Bake the crust about 20 minutes, until barely firm to the touch.

Use the left over dough for graham crackers, as illustrated in the link. Or eat it. 

Ganache Filling
I used this recipe from Martha Stewart. It makes enough for about 3-4 smores tarts....

1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
2 1/2 cups heavy cream

Chop chocolate finely and place in large heat-proof bowl.

Bring cream to a boil over medium-high heat; pour directly over chopped chocolate. Allow to sit 10 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to gently stir chocolate and cream until well combined and smooth. Let sit at room temperature until cooled and just thickened, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Stick it in the fridge, and after a few hours (or days in my case) it will be about the perfect consistency for schmearing into a graham tart shell. So, schmear in to your cooled tart shell. Chill this until you are ready to spread the marshmallow topping on top, so it doesn't get melty.

Marshmallow Topping
You could commit pastry blasphemy and just buy some marshmallow fluff, but you know that kind of thing does NOT enter my house anymore... So I adapted this recipe from, again, Smitten Kitchen. (Yes, I know that's a S'mores pie, but my tart is a bit different.)

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin (from a 1/4-oz package)
1/2 cup cold water
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup agave syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Vegetable oil for greasing 

Sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup cold water in a large deep heatproof bowl and let stand until softened, about 1 minute.


Stir together sugar, agave syrup, a pinch of salt, and remaining 1/4 cup water in cleaned 1- to 1 1/4-quart heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then boil until thermometer registers 260°F, about 6 minutes.

Begin beating water and gelatin mixture with an electric mixer at medium speed, then carefully pour in hot syrup in a slow stream, beating (avoid beaters and side of bowl). When all of syrup is added, increase speed to high and continue beating until mixture is tripled in volume and very thick, about 5 minutes. Add vanilla and beat until combined, then immediately spoon topping onto center of pie filling; it will slowly spread to cover top of pie. Chill, uncovered, 1 hour, then cover loosely with lightly oiled plastic wrap (oiled side down) and chill 3 hours more.

Once it has been chilled, whip out your torch and brown that 'mallow! Or I guess slide it under the broiler, but torching it is sooooo much cooler.

20 March 2011

Dear Kraft, Nabisco, Pepperidge Farms...

My feelings towards you can best be expressed by the words of Irving Berlin's hit song from the 1946 Broadway musical, "Annie Get Your Gun":


I made my own Cheez-its. That's right. My very own, whole wheat, homemade, non-hydrolized or hydrogenized or lectin-ed cheese crackers. And they're delicious. As per usual, I was inspired by the amazing Deb of Smitten Kitchen. I swear we share at least part of the same brain.




I modified her recipe only slightly:

6 oz coarsely grated sharp cheddar
4 tbsp butter
3/4 cup King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour
1/2 tsp garlic salt

Preheat oven to 350. Combine everything in a food processor until the dough forms a ball, about 2 minutes. Wrap up and refrigerate for about 30-45 minutes (or 4 days if your week turns out to be as crazy as mine was). Roll out on lightly floured surface to about 1/8" thick. Cut squares, goldfish shapes, whatever you like. Bake for 12-15 minutes until barely browned at the edges. Transfer to cooling racks. Eat!



I cut mine out with a crinkle roller and then poked a hole in the center, to remind me of those tasty cheese foodstuffs crackers. They are ridiculous. I foresee the need to make them at least once a week...



(I've also made graham crackers and marshmallows from scratch thanks to Smitten Kitchen... Share those photos with you soon? I hope to make the pop tarts soon, too. This recipe is precisely why I suggested a make your store bought favorite for this month's Easy Bake cOven challenge!)

28 February 2011

cake on the brain

Have you heard of Coco Cake? Coco Cake is a boutique cupcake bakery in Vancouver, and I just find their creations so delightful. They make beautifully minimal cupcakes, as well as super fun cakes.








I especially like this hamburger cake, which looks like a much tastier version of the hamburger cake that I picked out for my 15th birthday (too much fondant!). So fun!



all images via Coco Cakes' blog

25 January 2011

change of scenery

Every time we lay down in bed we have to stare up at this hideous light:
















These gaudy things are all over our house. Which I guess I wouldn't hate so much if A] I hadn't gone to design school and B] my parents hadn't installed them in our suburban split-level ranch in the 90's... (can't wait for my dad to call me a snob in the comments...)

Today, I just ordered a beautiful Artemis ceiling fan. This will be our new view:


















Shipping in 2-3 days! I'm so excited.








04 January 2011

The plan

Before I post any more photos, I thought I'd post some floor plans to let you get to know the bungalow. Our house has 3 floors in total. The ground, or first floor, is raised up half a story above grade. There's a full basement, as well as an attic. The latter two floors were somewhat finished by the previous owners. I say somewhat, because it was done so poorly and we'll end up ripping most of it out due to poor construction/bad choices. 

 

Anyway, some things to note in the existing, or 'before' plan:
  • The ridiculously small foyer, and closet with a window inside of it... We eliminated the closet to make a much more gracious (and typical) entry.
  • Bedroom 2 - Now has no closet, so you're probably thinking, "well that wasn't so smart..." You  might also notice that you access the 2' wide stair to the attic through this bedroom. (There are so many code violations in that last sentence.) The future plan (think phase 2) is to build a real and code compliant stair to all levels, and turn bedroom 2 into more of an office or den.
  • Giant AC unit sticking through dining room wall - This unit was ancient, hideous, a huge energy waster and filthy. The brick above the opening was also compromised as a previous owner didn't provide any kind of lintel above the opening... That sucker was gone in a hurry!
  • Previous kitchen layout - Not only did those cheap cheap cheap oak cabinets and ugly laminate counters make me itchy, the layout was just stupid. I hate corner sinks with a passion. You'll also notice the dishwasher that you could not possibly load while standing at the sink, the giant side of the refrigerator that would greet you as you walked in to the kitchen, and the general waste of space on the north side of the room...
  • The porch room - A totally unnecessary vestibule to enter a little back room...

Here's the plan showing our first round of modifications to make the space livable for us (aka, Phase 1):

  • Expanded foyer - Don will be building a lovely little bench where we will sit to take off all our winter gear. A row of coat hooks will hang above the bench, and we'll have a few cubbies for mail and what-nots. I'm really excited to have a formal 'landing strip' so all our gear isn't strewn about.
  • New radiators - We had to replace all the radiators in the house as the old ones were all cracked. More on that later, but I am glad that the new ones are much more narrow than the old ones. 
  • Bath - We're living with what's there for now (except that hideous fake oak medicine cabinet. sick.), but did add a cabinet on the wall opposite the sink for extra storage. If you're wondering what that rectangular bit of space to the west of the tub is - it's a bench... A completely useless and sloped totally the wrong direction bench...  Or perhaps you noticed that the door and toilet have an, err, awkward relationship... (Not to mention the fact that when you're in the dining room you can see the toilet - gross!) This room will eventually be gutted. I want to eliminate the brick chimney that runs the height of the house (the boiler vents through it), but I don't yet have Don convinced it's worth the money...
  • Kitchen!!! - I am so excited to finally have a brand new kitchen designed to my specification. We used that little porch room vestibule to make a fridge niche (and larger closet and shelving niche) to get the fridge out of the middle of the kitchen. This allowed us to make a much more generous L-shaped cabinetry layout. We bought all the cabinets from Ikea and I am loving them! The eastern most portion of cabinets is a 12" deep, 84" tall pantry cabinet. Because of the big existing window (which I did not want to alter), a 24" deep cabinet wouldn't work, so the tall and narrow pantry was a good solution. In the next month or two, we'll be adding an island. I want an open stainless steel restaurant style table, Don wants base cabinets... More on the kitchen later.
  • Bedroom 1 closet - We're using this as our bedroom for now, and while the little walk-in closet was nice, it could certainly stand to be bigger for the both of us to share. Thanks to my little fridge niche idea, this was easy to do. I'm currently mudding and taping the drywall in here and we should have a functioning closet by the weekend. 
  • Craft Pantry!!! - My very own sewing and crafty space! The sewing machine will have a permanent home, and I won't have to share my storage with tools or the blow up mattress or suitcases or the printer or anything but my lovely domestic objects! The north wall will have a desktop with some drawers below and shelving above. That little shelving niche on the west side will have floor to ceiling shelves for my vases, paper goods, perhaps some baking items, etc. This room is my own little girly heaven! Notice the proximity to my oven. If you want to imagine my ideal Sunday, it involves baking pastry and sewing while wearing my pajamas and not going outside all day. If you call me this spring and I don't answer, it's probably because I am doing just that.
The next phases will involve building a real garage to house Don's woodshop, cleaning up the laundry area in the basement (yum, lead paint), building that real stair case, and finishing out the attic to house a master suite and another bedroom. In the meantime, we're finishing up the drywall work, getting organized and making plans. I'll also be stripping and restoring trim and doors... Stay tuned!

P.S. Whew - that was a long post! But now you have an idea of what I've been up to and why I haven't had time to blog!

03 January 2011

Happy New Year!

I hope your holidays were lovely. Ours went a little something like this:

Thanksgiving - hosted in our house! This was the big goal pushing us to work so hard throughout October and November, and we pulled it off! Don built a table from two sheets of drywall secured to sawhorses with metal studs. My mother was in town, and 8 of our close friends brought food and chairs to celebrate with us. The kitchen was assembled in time to actually use my new oven, and Don worked his butt off finishing up some things before everyone came over, and while my mom and I finished packing on Friday. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, thanks to my mom and our dear friend Nic, we moved everything in!

[The kitchen on the night before Thanksgiving]
[Our empty apartment after we moved everything and cleaned. Miss it and our landlords!]


Complicated Christmas - a little celebration we have with our friend Nic before we head to Kansas every year (3rd annual in 2010!). It involves dishes with really long names, too much wine, and hilarity. One of my favorite holiday traditions. 

[Our new, large Christmas tree - purchased on Ebay in August when we realized we'd need a much larger tree for our much larger space!]

Christmas - the usual marathon between parents' and grandparents' houses. We got lots of great loot for the house, and enjoyed our limited time with family. But I will say, if I never spend 24 hours in car in a 5 day period again, it will be too soon!

[In the dining room, looking towards the living room. Never mind the half-finished masonry and plaster infill behind the Christmas tree...]

New Year's Eve - we had a casual celebration with a couple of friends, and spent the weekend working on finishing up a few house projects. We took advantage of the Container Store's Elfa shelving sale and purchased the parts we need for our bedroom closet and craft pantry storage. I started mudding and taping the closet and shelving niche.

We don't have internet at home yet, but I'll try to post some more hearty updates full of photos and nuggets of remodeling info soon. We've accomplished so much in a relatively short time - all that work, paired with me switching back to my old job (!) has left little spare time for the blog.