Monday, December 31, 2012

12 Days of Christmas: Day Six: The Year in Review

Since this is the last day of 2012, I thought I'd take a moment to be a little reflective about the past year. And what better way to reflect on the past year than with a bunch of links to old blog posts? So without further ado, here are the highlights from Kimber's Great Adventure 2012. (Internal linking for the win!)

1. Happy Last Year on Earth
Remember when we all thought the Mayans were going to kill us? Or something. This was my first post from this year, in which I reference that now-debunked prophecy, tell you about a delightful New York New Year's tradition, and plug a DC cupcake shop.

2. Today I learned an expensive lesson
In February I discovered some troubling news about international shipping. Take my experience as a warning, dear readers.

3. The X-Files raises a lot of questions
I wrote this back in March, and I'm still trying to make my way through all of The X-Files, so I thought I'd bring it up again. These issues continue to bother me, well into Season 4, but I can't stop watching. And to be honest, I think this post was really well-written. You may disagree, but you'd better read it again to make sure.

4. A debilitating fear of mine
In April I laid bare my soul and confessed one of my greatest fears, after spontaneous human combustion, of course. There's no defense against that!

5. My 18-Hour Journey from France to Edinburgh
Thanks to a series of wacky mishaps, a simple trip from one part of Europe to another became a noteworthy adventure. As a bonus, this post includes a video of my friend Cailey recounting my reaction to a thing.

6. "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me tooth"
In this post from July I discuss my fear of cavities. In a cruel twist of fate, I got my first filling in September. Damn you, hubris! I blame Scotland's lack of fluoridated water. I have since bought a powerful electric toothbrush and received a Waterpik for Christmas.

7. No one could say the flight was boring
On the way home from Scotland in September something awful happened to my mother. Awfully funny! I apologize for that joke. WARNING: Do not read if you have a problem reading about vomit.

8. Self-Reflection and Cheese
Because no review of my year would be complete without at least one recipe, take a minute to think back on this tutorial for homemade ricotta. I've made it many times since, and it's always a hit. Bonus Tip: If you don't like lemon-basil ricotta, you can make plain ricotta by substituting distilled white vinegar for the lemon juice. You're welcome.

9. Things "Fall Apart" (But That's a Good Thing)
This year my dear friend Joe created an awesome iPhone game, which deserves another plug. If you have an iPhone and you haven't already bought this for yourself or someone you love, you should really consider it. And then tell everyone you know to do the same.

10. IKEA 2: Return to Sanity
In this sequel to 2011's IKEA, Bringer of Madness, I return to and make peace with the popular Swedish retailer. Read about my experience and also my advice for those new to the IKEA experience.

I hope you enjoyed this retrospective, my friends. Tell me what you thought and what your favorite post of the year was in the comments section! Because you keep a list of your favorites, right?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

12 Days of Christmas: Day Five: Paint Sample Calendars

In addition to my very young nieces and nephews, I have three older nieces, aged 13, 17, and 19. As with the younger kids, I wanted to make something for Christmas that would appeal to all three of them and would be somewhat utilitarian. I found an awesome tutorial for paint sample calendars and decided to try my hand at it. So here goes.

Project #4: Paint Sample Calendar

  • Frame (Following the advice of the tutorial, I got one from IKEA named NYTTJA. They have a picture width of 11.75" by 15.75" and only cost $3.99.)
  • Poster board for mounting
  • Paint swatches
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Straight edge 
  • Wet- or dry-erase marker
  • Velcro
1. First, let's talk about paint swatches. When I started this project, I was under the impression that Lowe's would give me one of those big paint swatch books and I could just rip the strips I wanted out of it. Not so. Nowadays (at Lowe's, anyway), free paint swatches do not come in long convenient strips. They come in very inconvenient squares that you would need to individually cut to size for this project. What I did was sweet-talk the Lowe's guy into letting me borrow the book of paint swatch strips, which I then took home, chose the colors I wanted and scanned them into my computer. My boyfriend later pointed out that I could have just scanned one strip and then changed the colors on the computer. If you are computer savvy, feel free to do that. In the end it was a bit annoyed but worked fine to just scan all the colors I wanted.

2. OPTIONAL STEP: I didn't want the names of the paint colors on my swatches. I thought they would be distracting. So I used the eyedropper tool in Paint to match the paint colors and then color out the words on the swatches.

3. Cut/print swatches to size. If you use the NYTTJA frame, a 2" width for each strip works well. If you're using a different frame, keep in mind that you need seven strips to fit comfortably within your picture area so size accordingly. Since all of my strips were scanned into the computer, I just used the ruler in Word to make sure they were all 2" wide and then the lengths adjusted around that.

4. Secure swatches to poster board. I don't have pictures of this process, but what worked well for me was placing all of the strips down first with a little tape to make sure my spacing was good and then individually gluing them down while leaving the other strips in place for reference.

5. Place completed poster board in frame.

6. Since I gave this as a gift, I wanted to include the writing utensil. You can use a dry-erase marker, but I opted to go with wet-erase, like you would use on overhead projector pages. My rationale was that wet-erase stays on better and would be less likely to fade over the course of a month and the point of the pen is finer for writing on the calendar. Plus, dry-erase can be difficult to remove after a long time, and wet-erase can be cleaned with just a wet paper towel.

And that's it! I did three calendars, each in the favorite color of the niece in question. Then I filled in January to get them started. Needless to say, they loved them. Or at least pretended to.

12 Days of Christmas: Day Four: Brownies in a Jar

I've been wanting to do this for a couple of years, and this crafty Christmas seemed like a good time.

Project #3: Brownies in a Jar

Mixes in a jar really appeal to me for some reason. They combine the craftiness of scratch-made food with the ease of store-bought mixes. The idea, if you've never seen it, is that you put all of the dry ingredients for a given recipe in a jar, measured out and usually layered in a decorative way. Then you give it as a gift, along with instructions for adding wet ingredients and cooking. It's like giving them brownies, except the jars keep longer and the receiver gets to share the glory of making something delicious. 

Ok, so brownies in a jar. 

  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup dutched cocoa (I used Hershey's Special Dark)
  • 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup peanut butter chips
  • 1/2 cup mini semi-sweet chips
1. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. 

2. Layer ingredients in a quart-size jar in the following order: sugar, cocoa, flour mixture, peanut butter chips, and semi-sweet chips. Tap the jar a bit after each layer to allow the layer to settle. By the time you get to the chips, you might have to push everything down a bit to make it all fit. 

3. Attach a label with the following instructions and give as a gift. 
  • Heat oven to 350 F.
  • In a large bowl, mix 1/2 cup (1 stick) of melted and cooled butter and 2 eggs, lightly beaten, with the contents of the jar.
  • Pour into greased 8x8 baking pan.
  • Bake for 35 minutes. 
Here are some labels I made if you don't want to write all that out:

Friday, December 28, 2012

12 Days of Christmas: Day Three: Homemade Play-Dough

I spent a lot of time over the past few weeks agonizing over what to get my youngest nieces and nephews for Christmas. There are four of them between the ages of 1 1/2 and 5. I wanted something I could make that would be appropriate for all of them and, let's be honest, wouldn't cost a lot of money. Which led me to...

Project #2: Homemade Play-Dough

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • food coloring
1. Mix dry ingredients (flour, salt, cream of tartar) in a 2-quart saucepan.

2. Add water and oil and heat over medium-low, stirring constantly.

3. As you stir, the mixture will start to solidify. When you notice it starting to thicken, add food coloring and mix in. It's much easier to add at that stage than waiting until it's totally cooked.

4. Keep stirring. Your arm may start to tire, but within a few minutes the mixture will thicken and start to pull away from the sides of the saucepan. You'll know it's done when it has become a blob of play-dough! It'll be easy to get out of the pan because the dough will want to stick to itself.

5. Set aside to let it cool and then store in an airtight container or plastic Ziplock bag. 

This recipe yields about 2 cups of play-dough. I made four batches, each in a different color, and then divided each batch into four half-cup servings.

Here are the things that were great about this:
  • It was fast.
  • It was easy.
  • It wasn't expensive.
  • The kids loved it. 
  • The play-dough is non-toxic. 
  • I can now make replacement dough for Cranium. 
  • You get to play with play-dough!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

12 Days of Christmas: Day Two: Photo Tile Coasters

This Christmas I decided to go the frugal route and make most of my presents. So for the next few days, I'm going to post tutorials for my many gift projects. Happy Crafting!

Project #1: Photo Tile Coasters

  • 4" x 4" ceramic tiles
  • Modge Podge
  • Paintbrush
  • Scissors
  • Printed photos
  • Clear acrylic spray paint
  • Cork lining
1. Go to Lowe's, Home Depot, or wherever fine tiles are sold. Okay, not necessarily "fine." I got the cheapest tiles I could get. In retrospect, perhaps I should've paid a little more and gotten smooth ones instead of the textured tiles I ended up with, but I'll address that a little later.

2.Choose which photos you would like to turn into coasters. Re-size them to be the same size and shape as your tiles, in this case 4 in. by 4 in. square.

3. Print. You can use regular computer paper or something fancier if you want. I went with a slightly thicker stock but nothing too special. I also discovered that fading the color of the pictures before printing resulted in less color bleeding in the Modge Podge step. Feel free to play around with it. I did four test coasters before I finally got it right.

4. Cut out your pictures. I cut them slightly smaller than the face of the tiles to avoid having paper stick out over the edges.

5. Modge Podge time! Using a paintbrush, put a thin layer of Modge Podge on the surface of the tile. Before it has time to dry, place your picture atop the Modge Podge and smooth out any air bubbles. This is where the texture of the tiles became a bit of a problem. Working around the grooves in the surface made it difficult to remove the bubbles without messing up the slightly damp paper. However, the resulting texture did look neat, so just follow your heart. But if I were to do this again I would probably choose smooth tiles.

6. Once the picture is placed and the air bubbles are gone, paint a layer of Modge Podge over the entire surface of the picture and around the edges of the tile to ensure it is completely sealed. This is the stage at which I observed bleeding of the colors. Work quickly and don't brush more than you have to to completely cover the picture in Modge Podge. Or maybe you like the bleeding colors effect. In that case, have at it. Again, a test coaster may be in order.

[A word of advice: If you do mess up on your Modge Podging, miss some air bubbles, or you just don't like how the color looks, let the tile dry completely before removing the picture. If you try to rinse off wet Modge Podge it will be sticky and difficult. If you let it dry first, you will be able to peel off the photo fairly easily.]

7. Make sure the Modge Podge has completely covered the picture, sealing it to the tile, and let dry completely. Spray with clear acrylic paint for final sealing and waterproofing and to give the coasters a bit of shine. (You can get matte spray paint if you don't want the shine.) The Modge Podge is itself a sealant, but I do recommend this step as sort of a precautionary measure. You don't want to find later that the Modge Podge is letting in some water.

8. The last step is to affix something to the bottom of your tiles so that they don't mess up your furniture. You can use cork, felt, or even little rubber dots. I went with some cork lining I found at the hobby store because it was thin and already had adhesive attached. All I had to do was cut it to a little smaller than the tiles, peel off the backing, and stick it on.

And that's it! I made sixteen tiles, which ended up being a day-long project, partly because of my trials and errors. But it was worth it for a lovely (and functional!) keepsake that my family members loved.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

12 Days of Christmas: Day One: Some Clarification

Just so we're clear, the Twelve Days of Christmas are NOT the twelve days leading up to Christmas. They are, in fact, the twelve days after Christmas, ending on January 6, which is celebrated on the Christian calendar as Epiphany. Epiphany, for those who don't know, is a Christian feast day commemorating the visitation by the Wise Men of the baby Jesus.

Ok, so now that we're all on the same page, I will begin my "12 Days of Christmas" series of blog posts. It's my gift to you. For the next eleven days I will post something every day, ultimately devolving into meaningless nonsense as I try to consistently produce interesting content. So enjoy that!

For this first day, I'm lobbing myself a softball and just posting this funny recording in honor of that most repetitive of Christmas carols...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Adventures in Housewifery: Getting Wax Out of Clothes

Today I learned an amazing household cleaning trick. So amazing that I want to share it with the World! I had lit a candle for some air-freshening and ambience somehow managed to pour wax all over my pants. Don't ask how; I don't want to talk about it. Anyway, here I am with wax all over my only really good pair of black pants, and I know enough about wax stains to know that throwing it in the laundry would not be a good idea.

So I turn to my trusty Google and ask it how to remove wax from clothing. And voilà! Amazing trick!
  1. Get an iron. 
  2. Get some paper towels. 
  3. Place paper towels over waxy places. 
  4. Iron. 
  5. The wax will re-melt and be absorbed by the paper towels. 
And that's it! Wax removed! So easy someone with a rudimentary understanding of ironing could do it. Just make sure to completely cover the wax with paper towel before you start ironing so as not to melt the wax further into the fabric. I hope you all spill wax everywhere sometime soon so you can try this out. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Recommendation: Truth/Ideals

Perennial favorite of the blog, Julie Slonecki, released a new album last month that is shaping up to be my favorite album of the year. Truth/Ideals marks a new level of excellence in Slonecki's already impressive oeuvre. As usual, she blends really catchy melodies with beautiful harmonies, imaginative guitar riffs, and insightful lyrics, but this third album pushes the limits of genre, blending Slonecki's trademark folk sound with elements of hip hop, electronica, and rock to create something that is surprising in both its cohesion and its production value. The quality of Slonecki's work makes the fact that she produces it herself all the more impressive. 

Slonecki has spent the last couple of years gigging in Charleston, SC, building a following and making a name for herself, as well as collaborating with other musicians who have helped to shape her exciting new direction. There was recently a great article about her the Charleston City Paper. Check out it to read what Slonecki herself has to say about the album.  

It's hard for me to pick a favorite track on this album because they're all so good. I love the bluesy sound of "Lay Me in the River," the upbeat pop vibe of "Garden Gnome," and singing along to "Erase." But you need to listen to it and decide which is your favorite. 

You can find Truth/Ideals on Julie Slonecki's website

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Spam! Courtesy of Cailey

It's been awhile since I've had a good spam email, but thankfully, my friend Cailey is on the case and sent me this beauty today. Most of the email is pretty boring and appears to be related to insurance, but the first bit is pure gold and almost makes me want to reply.
From: Prophet Ogidiga
First off, if someone named "Prophet Ogidiga emails you with a subject line like "CONTACT ME NOW," doesn't that kind of make you want to know what they have to say? This person is a prophet! They might hold your life in the balance! And then you open the email, and yes, I do need a powerful spell caster.

The next bit of the email is not in English. At first I thought it was Latin and, therefore, the beginnings of a powerful spell. You know, to show what Prophet Ogidiga can do. But alas, it was just Spanish with an English translation below. And, as I said, it was about insurance coverage, but I have to wonder if they mean real insurance or the kind of insurance that you can only get when you've enlisted the services of a powerful spell caster. The double indemnity clause in that contract must be amazing. 

#1 Google Images result for "powerful spell caster"
Thanks, Cailey, for your excellent contribution. And, dear readers, if you would like to review some of my awesome past emails, check out the links below:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Heathrow Airport makes life difficult

Several times in my life, I have had the grave misfortune of catching a connecting flight through Heathrow Airport. I did not enjoy those experiences. I am specifically thinking of a time back in 2010 when I studied abroad in Ireland (back when I started this blog. Nostalgia!). Let me tell you about that horrible experience now:

The first time I landed in Heathrow it was only to change plans so that I could go to Shannon, Ireland. But whenever you land at an airport having just come from another country, they make you go through some kind of Customs check-point. Having just spent 7 hours sleeping, or as I like to call it, "recovering from the 48 hours I didn't sleep because I had just come home from Korea," I was not not at my most alert. I joined the Customs line with my fellow passengers and, noticing, that it was not moving particularly quickly, pulled out a book and started reading in the line. So absorbed was I by the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and, later, chatting with a fellow queuer, that it wasn't until I got to the Customs agent that I realized I was in the WRONG LINE. I was then directed to an out-of-the-way corner of the room, where one tiny sign indicated where to go for connecting flights. Thanks, Heathrow. It would have been great to know that AN HOUR AGO when I first got into the wrong line. Lucky for me, I had a long layover, so I wasn't totally screwed by the lack of clear instructions. 

The same cannot be said for the next time I darkened Heathrow's doorstep. 

At the end of my lovely month in Ireland, I had to return home through Heathrow. Getting home was kind of a big deal for because I was returning the week of my graduation from college. The memory of the line kerfuffle still fresh in my mind, I set out hoping not to find myself in similar circumstances again. Not until I reached Heathrow, however, was I informed that my United flight to the US was being operated by Continental Airlines in a different terminal. The next step was then to get to the correct terminal for Continental. However, unlike other airports that have one tram that goes back and forth between the terminals, Heathrow's tram system is like a full-on train station, including multiple platforms and the possibility that if you accidentally board the wrong train you will find yourself in downtown London before you can do a damn thing about it. Thankfully, that didn't happen to me, but you can see how this process could become time-consuming and frustrating.

While I didn't accidentally go to London, I did board the wrong train, ending up in Terminal 4, rather than Terminal 5, and ultimately wasting far too much time correcting the mistake. The real icing on the cake was that, this time, I did almost miss my connecting flight. When I finally arrived at Continental check-in (because, oh yeah, they didn't check me in all the way to the US when I started this trip in Shannon), I was told the flight was closed and I would have to buy a ticket for another flight. At that point, I almost had a breakdown. As many of my friends can attest, few things stress me more than traveling complications. Or just traveling in general. I refused to ride the bus in Edinburgh for a long time because not knowing when to get off made me so anxious. It was only after I downloaded an app for it that I finally felt comfortable enough to ride. (This message brought to you by the Apple App Store.)

Anyway, as I was saying, my flight was closed, I wasn't checked in, I was told I have to go the booking counter to book a new flight, and I was on the verge of tears. So I went to the booking counter, and as the woman there was looking for new flights for me, I happened to mention that my stuff was already checked through to Tampa. These were, apparently, the magic words, because she said, "Oh, then we need to get you on that flight!" Then she hustled me back over to the check-in counter, where she made someone call the plane to tell them I'm coming, get me checked in, and take me to the security line. AND when I was waiting in the line, who did I see going through security? Gordon Ramsey!! So I guess it worked out all right in the end. I made my flight, and the Continental plane was totally baller. But I could've saved a whole lot of time and heartache if Heathrow weren't such a terrible airport.

So in conclusion and in summary, fly through Gatwick.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

IKEA 2: Return to Sanity

A long time ago, I wrote about my nightmarish inaugural trip to IKEA. It was a dark time for me, and it almost turned me off from the Swedish retailer forever. But more than a year has passed, and things've changed. I've changed. Maybe IKEA's changed a little too. And I feel I must return to this topic so that we can all have a little closure.

As I may have mentioned,* I spent a good part of the past year in Europe: Home of IKEA. Living in a residence hall, it wasn't long before some of my fellow residents proposed a trip to our local home store for some inexpensive dorm accoutrements. I was, in a word, hesitant. My last visit to IKEA was not something that I cared to repeat, but in the spirit of fostering new friendships and overcoming obstacles, I agreed to go. It also helped that I was accompanied by a group of people who both knew and liked IKEA, as opposed to my parents, who were as clueless and uncomfortable as I.

Two things made my experience that day not only bearable to downright enjoyable.

Number one:
Crowds. Or lack thereof. The Tampa IKEA was swarming with people. I believe I referred to them as "the mindless hoard." Whether because this IKEA was more local, less new, or just less novel to the Scottish, it was not terribly crowded, so I was able to take my time and not feel quite as overwhelmed by the simple experience of walking around a store.

Number two:
MEATBALLS. There may have been other things that made that day good, but--- nope, meatballs. All the meatballs. I had heard IKEA had good meatballs, but ohmygod meatballs.** I don't know what makes these things so good. Yes I do. Gravy. Also lingonberry jam, which is just so so Swedish, but absolutely essential. My whole trip to that store was given purpose when I tasted those delicious balls of meat. I'm not kidding you when I say that I have since returned to IKEA just for the meatballs. Sometimes I get other stuff too, but usually not. I would brave all manners of hell just to have those waiting for me after checkout. My big mistake that first time was bypassing the food stand that sold them.

With lingonberry drink!
Oh, also, IKEA has one of the most comfortable chairs I've ever owned. By now a staple of dorm rooms everywhere, the POÄNG chair is so much greater than you would ever think it could be.

Ultimate comfort
Add the footrest, and this is my definition of luxury. The day I get a new one of these (I had to leave mine in Scotland) is the day I feel whole again.

So there you have it, dear readers. I have made a 180 with regards to the IKEA store. It really does have its merits.

Like all these straws! 
Or these many lamps! 
This weird fork? 
This part still makes me kind of nervous.

But for those of you who have still never gone or, like me, had a terrible first experience and haven't gone back, here are a few tips:
  1. Go with someone who knows what they're doing.
  2. Go in with a game plan. Check the website before you go so you know what you want. Browsing is possible in IKEA, but it's totally overwhelming if you're not acclimated to it. 
  3. Eat some goddamned meatballs. If you don't love those things, you can GTFO. I kid, I kid. You don't have to love the meatballs just because I do. But at least try them. 
They might change your life. 

*Once or twice
**Have I typed the word "meatballs" enough yet?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dublin: Part 2: History Day

Bet you never thought there would be a "Part 2" in my series of Dublin posts, did you? If you're interested in reviewing, here is the Preface and Part 1. Now I will tell you about the nerdy, nerdy way I spent St. Patrick's Day this year.

My comrades and I spent a large portion of the day learning about Dublin's history and trying (most unsuccessfully) to avoid crowds. We started off by heading to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a very old illuminated manuscript of the Gospels of the New Testament. It was created c. 800 by Celtic monks, and it was, obviously, all done by hand, which is truly amazing. The exhibit is about the creation of the book, going into detail about how the inks would have been made, who likely worked on it, how long it would have taken, and other things of that ilk. And while that may sound stuffy, it really is incredible and totally worth checking out. In this day and age we take easy, machine-aided work for granted, so it's important to be reminded of a time when painstaking craftsmanship was the only way to do things. It's mind-blowing what they were able to achieve and that those achievements have remained intact to this day.

At the end of the exhibit, you get to see some pages of the Book itself, which they turn every so often, so if you go more than once, you're likely to see different pages. Admission to the Book of Kells usually costs around €8 for students, but for St. Paddy's Day, it was free! And because everyone else in the city was pretty focused on stumbling blindly through the streets, the exhibit was almost empty, so we got plenty of time to press our faces up to the glass and take it in. You are never allowed to photograph the Book of Kells, so here is a picture I got off Wikipedia of one of its more famous pages:

Next we went to the National Museum of Ireland primarily to see the bog bodies! The bog bodies, if you've never heard of them, are the mummified corpses of people from hundreds, even thousands, of years ago who were murdered and then thrown into Irish bogs. The lack of air in the swampy land preserved the bodies so well that, when they were found, they still had skin, hair, and clothing. A few even still had the contents of their stomachs, allowing scientists to analyze their final meal! These things are as creepy as they sound, and just as cool. I saw them a couple of years ago and almost passed out; mostly because of the terrible ways most of these people were murdered. But they are so fascinating to look at. I don't have any pictures of the bodies because a. they are kind of gross and b. I felt like it was sort of disrespectful to photograph the dead, but they're worth a look if you ever get the chance. Or if you want to read this Wikipedia page.

Making our way through Dublin was an ordeal that day. The streets were packed with people who didn't even seem to be going anywhere, just wandering in a (presumably) drunken stupor. If ever I've understood the plight of the salmon, it was trying to walk around Temple Bar.

Despite the difficulty, we made it to the historic district and Christ Church Cathedral. As you can read on Wikipedia, Christ Church is the older of Dublin's two medieval cathedrals. It was founded c. 1030, but it still looks amazing today. In addition to its fabulous architecture and beautiful stained glass, Christ Church has some very cool underground vaults with an exhibition about the history of the church.

On our way back to the hotel, we stumbled upon Dublinia, a super-fun interactive museum about the various stages of Dublin's history, from the Viking era to the present day. Unfortunately, we arrived there about an hour before closing, so we didn't get to spend as much time as I would have liked. We were also sharing our experience with a group of very obnoxious Spanish men, who impeded my ability to play dress-up. I still managed a few good costumes, though.

As you can see, Dublinia had all kinds of awesome. It also had this fake man, sitting on a facsimile of a medieval toilet: 

And so, after a lovely day of learning about Dublin's history (and medieval plumbing), we ate dinner and shared a few drinks in honor of St. Patrick. Sláinte!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Halloween Party Recipe Roundup

I just wrote a long and thoughtful post about the Halloween party I threw last Saturday, and then Blogger decided to delete it. So instead I will cut to the chase and post recipes for my two favorite dishes from that party.

Mozzarella-Stuffed Meatballs

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • mozzarella string cheese
  • olive oil
  • 2 jars tomato sauce

  1. Combine everything except cheese, oil, and sauce in a bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands. It's very satisfying. And gross.
  2. Form mixture into 1.5" to 2" balls.
  3. Cut string cheese into cubes. Put one cheese cube inside each meatball, and then reform meat to seal it in.
  4. Heat some olive oil in a large skillet. I used cast iron. For flavor!
  5. Brown meatballs on all sides in the oil, taking care not to horribly disfigure yourself from oil burns.
  6. Set aside browned meatballs, and pour tomato sauce into the skillet and bring to a simmer.
  7. Add meatballs back into the sauce, cover, and let simmer until cooked through (about 30 minutes).
  8. Enjoy delicious meatballs.
As you can see in my photographic representation of the final dish, I used tons of sauce. You can probably used less, but the sauce was really good, so the more the merrier. Also, some the cheese managed to escape its meaty prison, but as the old saying goes, "Cheese tastes delicious, whether inside meatballs or out." You know that old saying, right?

Butternut Squash Pie

  • 1 (or 2) unbaked and chilled pie shell(s)
  • 1/2 cup pureed butternut squash, about the yield of a small to medium squash
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 evaporated milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves
  • a dash of pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp melted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Cooking the squash:
  1. Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise. The squash is tough and does not wish to be rent asunder, so be careful not to injure yourself trying to divide this thing. Take it slow and easy.
  2. Remove seeds, and then place squash halves facedown on a cooking pan lined with greased foil, to facilitate cleanup, as the cooked squash will tend to stick. 
  3. Pour 1/2 cup water into the bottom of the pan, cover loosely, then cook at 400°F for about 55 minutes, or until squash is tender. 
  4. Scoop cooked squash out of its skin and puree with an immersion blender (or your preferred method of squash squashing). 
  5. Set aside 1/2 cup of pureed squash. Save the rest for eating with some butter and salt, maybe. 
Assembling the pie:
  1. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. 
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine squash and brown sugar and beat with an electric mixer until combined. 
  3. Add eggs, evaporated milk, spices, salt, flour, butter, and vanilla, and beat until well blended. Note that all the spice proportions can be modified based on your tastes, but trust me when I say this pie was hella good the way I made it. 
  4. Pour filling into pie shell. I ended up having enough filling for two 9-inch shells, so I made two not-entirely-full pies. If you have a bigger shell you might be able to use all your filling on one pie, but since the shells usually come in sets of two, I recommend just making two pies. 
  5. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until filling is set. After 35 minutes, I checked the pies and put crust protectors around the edges to keep the crusts from burning. If you don't have the fancy silicon crust protectors my dad bought, you can fashion some out of tin foil. Just be careful not to burn yourself on hot pie. 
  6. When filling is set, remove from oven, allow to cool, then enjoy some pie. 

These pies were fantastic. I decided to make them because I was once told you could substitute butternut squash for pumpkin in a pumpkin pie recipe, and that fact intrigued me. Making pumpkin pie from scratch was an odious ordeal that I never intend to repeat. Fresh pumpkin is not worth the trouble when canned pumpkin tastes just as good. It's all about the spices, anyway. But the butternut squash was easy to cook, and it really tasted excellent.

So there you go, dear readers, maybe try out these recipes at a holiday party. You won't be disappointed!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Recommendation: Haggis

So as I may have mentioned, I just spent a year in Scotland, and I'm pretty sure it's a crime to spend that long in that country without trying haggis. Actually, I'm going to go as far as to say that it's a crime to spend any length of time in Scotland without trying haggis. Haggis is like their national food. It is number one of the list of things that are quintessentially Scottish. And here's the thing: it's great. If you don't know what haggis is, maybe it's best I don't tell you, but what I want to get across in this post is that "what it is" is not really important. What is important is that it's food, it's safe, it's delicious, and it's not at all what you would expect. 

Ok, to put it bluntly, haggis is the throwaway parts of the sheep minced with oatmeal, onion, and spices, and then cooked in a broth for several hours. Traditionally it was cooked inside a sheep's stomach lining, but nowadays it's generally just cooked inside sausage casing, which is appropriate, because I tend to describe haggis as being similar to sausage without the casing. It is usually served with "neeps and tatties," which are turnips and potatoes, mashed and sometimes mixed together. Then atop it all must be poured whisky sauce, a gravy made from Scotch whisky. 

People "fear" haggis for a number of reasons, most of them based on the "what haggis is" issue. But the simple truth of haggis is that if no one told you what it was, you would likely never know. Because of the mincing, the structure of the various sheep parts is indeterminate, and the addition of all the spices changes the flavor completely. Add in the neeps, tatties, and whisky sauce and what remains is a fantastic pile of flavor. Yes, I call it a pile because I heartily recommend just mixing it all together and going to town. 

I've had a number of different haggises (haggi?), and they were all wonderful. I've also had haggis in a number of different forms, including fried haggis balls and a haggis burger, both of which were also delicious. Below you will find two examples of some traditional haggis that I ate. The one with the entire gravy boat full of whisky sauce was better, for obvious reasons. 

So in conclusion and in summary, if you ever go to Scotland, eat some haggis. At least take a bite. It won't kill you, and you may discover something you enjoy. Which is pretty much my philosophy on all foods: at least give it a try; you might like it. And if you don't, I'm sorry. Drink some water and go find a deep-fried Mars bar.