“Be Fat” is On My To Do List Today (Or How to Make a Mascarpone Cheesecake)

Some days it’s essential to scratch your ambitious to-do list and settle in with some cheesecake, a fistful of chocolate chip cookies, and a Gossip Girl marathon. Luckily, I have cookies. And cheesecake. And all kinds of Gossip Girl episodes to watch on Netflix.

See, I made a mascarpone cheesecake for my aunt last week, and she froze a slice for me.

It’s probably for the best that she only saved one slice of this monster for me.

I also made Ghirardelli chocolate chip cookies this week. So, that’s my Friday. Because? I don’t feel well. And I just need to snuggle in fleecy Betsey jammies and be useless.

So that’s what’s happening. I also added “be fat” to my to-do list so I could cross something off today.

If you aspire to be fat and indolent like me, here’s the recipe for the cheesecake. Or you could serve it at a dinner party. Either way…

Also, it’s a good thing she saved me a small slice because I only want to be fat today — not forever.

Oh, and by the way, when you make the cheesecake, you may want to tweak the recipe for the crust. You’ll notice a lot of bakers commented that they had an issue with it being too buttery. I figured that many people couldn’t be wrong, so I changed the ratio of Nilla wafers to butter. I used 80 wafers instead of 70, and 8 tablespoons of butter instead of 10. I thought it turned out well. Apparently, so did all of my aunt’s friends since they only saved me one small slice….

So, that’s all for the cheesecake situation. And the Ghirardelli chocolate chip cookies? I’ll tell you about those another time.

It’s Sorta Fred Segal-ish (Or How to Make a Baby Gift Arrangement on a Budget)

Last year I was producing a brand sponsored web series, and one of the actors’ wives had a baby while we were in production. Life Size at Fred Segal does darling arrangements, so I decided to put one together for the baby. The items included were inside jokes from the project, but you get the idea.

Obviously, the web series was car related.

So, anyway, when friends of mine recently had a baby, I stole the Fred Segal idea and assembled my own baby gift.

Here’s how I did it… just in case you want to try it yourself.

Both of the baby’s parents are Wolverines, so I decided to go with a Michigan theme. If you don’t want to use a theme, you could just go with a coherent color scheme instead. I found most of the gifts on Amazon, and I bought the box, tissue paper, and clear gift wrap at Target.

Here are the items before assembly. I’m not sure if you can tell from the photo, but the stuffed dog is wearing fleecy baby Michigan slippers because I’m a dork like that.

Albus thinks he’s helping.

I taped the box together so that the bottom of the box became a stage and the top of the box became a backdrop. I stuffed the one-sie so it would stand up on its own. Then I wrapped the boxes in tissue paper before taping the items in place.

Here it is all assembled and stuff.

Next, I covered the arrangement in plastic wrap and tied it together with ribbon from Michael’s. (I think I would use a wider ribbon next time.)

This was fun to make, and it was a lot more affordable than the Fred Segal version.

I’ve decided this is my new thing to do when people have babies. I suggest starting early and collecting cute items over a few months so you can do something really special. I was a little crunched for time on this particular project, but I was still pretty pleased with the results.

You know, as pleased as a perfectionist can be….

The Issues That Truly Divide: Manhattan versus New England Clam Chowder (Or I Like My Clams with Cream)

OK, now that some of the presidential election insanity has blown over let’s move on to other divisive issues like: Manhattan versus New England clam chowder.

Given my love of dairy and my somewhat complicated relationship with tomatoes, my choice is clear: New England in a landslide.

Last weekend, I defied mother nature and her unreasonable, unseasonable heat, and I made a pot of creamy New England clam chowder while watching football. I’ve tried countless recipes over the years and so far this is my favorite.

The recipe is below.

I have a weakness for New England clam chowder… and boys from Boston. The latter is  probably a problem.

New England Clam Chowder
Adapted from Bon Appetit

3 8-ounce bottles clam juice
1 pound potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 T unsalted butter
3 slices bacon, finely chopped
2 C chopped onions
1 1/4 C chopped celery
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
1/4 C all purpose flour
6 6 1/2-ounce cans chopped clams, drained, juices reserved
3/4 C half and half
1/2 C whipping cream
1 tsp hot pepper sauce

Bring the bottled clam juice and potatoes to boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are slightly tender, about 7 minutes, before removing the pot from the heat.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until the bacon begins to brown, about 8 minutes. Add onions, celery, garlic, and bay leaf, sautéing until the vegetables soften, about 6 minutes. Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. (Do not allow the flour to burn.)

Gradually whisk in the reserved juices from the canned clams. Add the potato and clam juice mixture, clams, whipping cream, half and half, and hot pepper sauce. Simmer for about 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently.

Season the chowder to taste with salt and pepper. This chowder can be made one day ahead and also freezes well. If you like your chowder to be thicker, try substituting heavy cream for the half and half or the whipping cream.

I Change My Tune (Or New Knowledge Puts Me in My Place)

Life is full of those moments when you realize that almost everything is a matter of perspective. Few days put this into focus like election day — particularly a presidential election day. I mean, by tomorrow morning, roughly 50% of the country will be disappointed. (You know, as long as we don’t end up with some weird 269-electoral-votes-the-House-has-to-decide craziness — or another hanging chad situation.)

Today, I was reminded of the importance of perspective in an unexpected way when I went to cast my vote.

The three volunteers checking in voters in my polling location were older gentlemen. They were all a bit slow, and one in particular was slower than the rest. He was kind of disoriented and honestly seemed a little overwhelmed, like he didn’t know what his role was in the process. This created some confusion and a slight backlog of voters waiting to cast ballots even though there were open voting booths in our precinct. If I were a deeply cynical individual I might have concluded that this inefficiency was a form of voter suppression. Since I’m not deeply cynical, and I don’t live in a hotly contested battleground state, I concluded the situation was just unnecessarily annoying.

I mean, it’s 93 degrees (AGAIN), I’m still lightheaded from donating blood yesterday, and the heat isn’t helping. I didn’t love standing around when it wasn’t necessary and I left feeling a little out of sorts myself. Speaking with my neighbor afterwards changed my tune, however.

“Was our poling place a bit of a mess this year or was it just me?” I asked him. “The guy in the middle seemed particularly confused.”

“I recognize him,” my neighbor told me. “He lives in the nursing home in our neighborhood for HIV positive patients.”

Well, shit.

That put me in my place. This guy is dying. Dying. And he’s giving up his time so that others can exercise their amendment rights. And I’m annoyed the operation isn’t a well oiled machine functioning at optimum efficiency? He’s not trying to slow down the voting process deliberately — or disenfranchise anyone. I mean, it’s even possible he could be suffering from a form of dementia that can be associated with HIV. Either way, I should just shut up about waiting for my ballot and be grateful that my biggest problem today is a little dizziness — and my own impatience.

And BTW, if my polling place wanted to go all voter suppression on us, they probably would not have allowed this guy little inside.

If Woodley had realized Spaniels had earned the right to vote, she would have been all up in the booth. She’s opinionated.

So, anyway, that was my sobering morning.

The process may have been imperfect in my precinct, but honestly? What do I have to complain about really?

Unless I’m in that 50% tomorrow morning… and even that?

It’s not life or death.

I’m a Copycat (Or How to Make Panera’s Cheddar and Broccoli Soup)

Last week I came across a copycat recipe for Panera’s cheddar and broccoli soup on a really fun blog called Yammie’s Noshery. I’m a sucker for almost anything laden with cheddar and cream, so I decided to give it a try.

The soup is pretty easy to make, and it’s quite good. I would use FAR less nutmeg next time, however. The recipe calls for 1/4 tsp but I think I would reduce it to more like 1/8 tsp or even a dash. I love nutmeg, but I often find it a bit overpowering, particularly in savory dishes. Maybe it’s just me, though.

Either way, you should give the soup a try. Since it’s back up to 93 in LA today (for.the.love.of.all.that.is.holy.please.make.it.stop), I’m freezing the rest of the soup for later in the month. I’ll probably have to do the same with the New England clam chowder I made this weekend as well. Look out for that recipe later this week because it’s amazing.

I’m sure it’s not 93 where you live like it is here, so you should make this soup.

I’m off to donate blood now. My plan to do yoga this afternoon has been scrapped due to an unfortunate collision involving a very small toe and a very big dog crate.


Let’s Show Sandy We’re Stronger Than She Is (Or How You Can Help)

Social media sites have been fascinating microcosms for the minds of my east coast friends this week. From Monday night’s Facebook cries for more Makers Mark on the Upper West Side to Instagram photos of tiny dogs dripping with water, the mood was more jovial in the beginning. When the sun came up on Tuesday and Sandy’s devastation was evident by the light of day, the collective mood on my social media platforms shifted somewhat.

One friend in New Jersey posted: “The Namaste Wagon has drowned.” (Translation, in case you don’t speak yoga teacher: “My car is filled with water.”)

By Wednesday, things were starting to get a bit desperate. “At this point I’d trade my designer handbags for a generator. It’s 60 degrees in here.”

But throughout it all, I have seen kindness and generosity displayed by my friends. “We have fresh water and heat in Williamsburg [Brooklyn]. Come by if you need a shower or a place to sleep.”

Or as one doctor friend in Manhattan put it, “Guys, stop thanking ME for all I’m doing and go buy a Con Ed [utility] worker a cup of coffee. They’re outside in this.”

Gradually, more and more are giving thanks for newly restored heat (“I love electricity so much. It is so sleek.”), asking for information about ferries, and even sharing opportunities for volunteers to carry supplies to fellow New Yorkers trapped in high rises.

And while there are reports of looting, there are some political pundits finger pointing, and there is the brewing controversy over the New York Marathon, I’m choosing to focus on the positive. And I’m looking for ways I can help.

Even though I’m on the other coast and I can’t carry supplies or offer warm water, that doesn’t mean I’m powerless. And neither are you. That’s why I made an emergency donation to the Humane Society this morning, and I made an appointment to donate blood to the Red Cross on Monday.

I made my first donation to the Humane Society in 2005. It was images of helpless animals trapped on roofs in Katrina’s horrific aftermath that turned the tide for me, and I have remained a faithful donor since then.

It’s estimated that 250,000 pets died during Hurricane Katrina. These lucky pups were rescued by a local police officer. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

This poor dog was abandoned and tied to a freeway during Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Though we have learned a lot since Katrina, and the loss of life — human or animal — is not expected to come near that of 2005, there are still many in need of our help.

This heroic rescue worker saves one of Sandy’s furry victims. Photo courtesy of Babble.

These Sandy victims are comforting each other after the storm. I think of my bubba when I see this picture and I get so sad I want to hug my dogs all day long. Doesn’t he look like Albus? Photo courtesy of American Red Cross via Babble.

The ASPCA is a wonderful organization as well, and they’re also doing a lot to benefit the animal community in need. You can read more about it here. Or make a donation here.

Whether your heart calls you to make donations to alleviate human suffering or animal suffering, both are absolutely worthy of your support.

The American Red Cross has been heralded as an incredibly efficient organization and one that brings extraordinary relief to devastated areas. Even if you cannot afford to make a monetary donation, you can help their relief efforts by donating blood. I mean, we all have that, right? Growing up, my dad donated regularly. I remember him coming home with the band-aid covered cotton ball on his arm about once a month. He may not have donated a lot of money to charities, particularly when I was young and money was tight, but he gave what he could: he gave blood. Since I’m financially backing the pups, I’m giving the people my blood. Seems fair.

If you want to read about other opportunities to help animals, the Petfinder blog has a comprehensive list here.

Menu Planning for the Free Spirited Chef (Or I Satisfy My Inner Perfectionist and My Inner Flake)

Yesterday I wrote about the power of freezing leftovers to keep yourself on a budget. Another key to the equation is organized menu planning. Now, I’m not going to pretend I have THIS totally figured out, but I have made some serious headway.

Here’s what you need to know about me first, though: I’m equal parts driven-type-A-perfectionist and swayed-by-passion-can’t-stand-feeling-controlled-free-spirit. It’s quite a vexing situation, frankly. I mean, my head and my heart are fighting with each other all day long, and it’s super confusing.

So, when I’m coming up with a budget — or a menu plan for the week — I have to satisfy both sides of my personality. This means working some flexibility into my menu and my budget without causing my financial ruin.

I usually start my menu planning process by identifying one or two recipes I want to try in the next few days. These recipes will either be inspired by something I find in Bon Appetit, a craving I’m experiencing, or even by the ingredients I have in my refrigerator that need to be used.

For me, a week doesn’t necessarily need to go from one Sunday to the next because I find that too confining. I might just do it for a three day period and then assess my food (and my money) situation from there. This leaves flexibility to account for new cravings, and I find it makes it easier to stay on budget. Plus, grocery shopping sort of satisfies my need to shop in general, so this way I get to shop a few times a week without buying shoes from Tory that I don’t really need.

Today, I’m craving clam chowder, so I started there. Before making my grocery list, I looked to see if I already had any of the ingredients I will need.

It turns out, I have celery so that was a good start.

Digging around on Pinterest and various blogs today, I also found a copycat recipe for Panera’s cheddar and broccoli soup and decided I wanted to make that as well. The upside here is that both recipes use half and half and bay leaves. I’ve found one of the keys to cutting costs is to make recipes that have overlapping ingredients.

So, step one is identifying the recipes I want to make, preferably recipes with overlapping ingredients.

Step two is to make my grocery list in preparation for hitting the store(s).

Yes, I know there are Christmas lights on my grocery list. My Snoopy Christmas notepad knows no season.

I also like to include the approximate prices for each item to make sure I’m not making too many dishes with expensive ingredients in one week. This is another key to staying on budget in the food department. Let’s call this step three.

You might have noticed I have written a “T” or an “F” next to each price on my list. This notates which store — Trader Joe’s or Food 4 Less — offers better value for the item. I also frequent a high end grocery store in my neighborhood for my deli and fresh fish purchases, but I didn’t need to make any of those this week. I never buy my staples at that store, though, because they are outrageously priced. Paying attention to the prices at various stores is another powerful budgeting tool that can make your money go further for your menu planning. Let’s call this step four.

From here, I kinda sorta let my free spirited side take over. I know I will have items left over from both recipes, and I can get creative. I could use some of the extra potatoes to make baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese because I will have all three of these items left over from making the broccoli and cheese soup as well as the clam chowder. Plus, I also have chili in my freezer in case I want to add that to the potato to make the meal heartier. This is a good option if I need to reign in my spending on food because I don’t need to buy anything new to make this meal.

If I want to splurge a bit and have enough money left in the budget to do so, I could pick up pork chops to make a sour cream and pork chop meal with rice and a side of broccoli. I always keep brown rice in my pantry, I have sour cream left over from a cheesecake I made last week, and I know I’ll have extra broccoli. (The recipe also calls for chicken broth and thyme — both of which I have on hand.)

Another factor to consider in my mid-week menu planning (or any stage in the process for that matter) are the expiration dates on various items in my refrigerator.

No rush on eating this right away. It won’t expire for a while.

Even though I don’t have to use the sour cream right away, I might want to. If the pork chop with sour cream doesn’t sound good to me in a few days, I could pick up some refried beans, grab a slab of cheese, and make bean burritos slathered with sour cream because I already have tortillas and cheese at home. So much cheese…

I usually keep at least four kinds of cheese in my refrigerator because I would die without cheese. For those of you who think cheese will kill me faster than not eating it, you are just wrong. Oh, and yes, that is cheap beer behind the cheese. It’s my football beer.

One of the last keys to my menu planning budget success is to purchase large quantities of items that do not spoil quickly, like canned tomatoes and garlic. I use garlic and tomatoes constantly, so it’s nice to know they’re always handy. They’re also cheaper in bulk.

I’m fending off vampires — and first dates — with this garlic stash.

If you’re more regimented than I am and this amount of flexibility in a menu seems way out of control for you, there are ways to apply the principles of overlapping ingredients, lists, price monitoring, and buying in bulk to help you stay on budget.

If you have other ideas I haven’t though of, let me know!!!