Winter Spice Cake

Paying heed to my sweet tooth, I have been going through our various cookbooks looking for a slightly healthy recipe. Sweets and healthy usually don't coincide, but I gave it a try with an applesauce based recipe for Spice Cake from the old Joy of Cooking, one of the staples for every household cookbook collection. Since my body doesn't let me enjoy eggs, this applesauce recipe works wonderfully - instead of an egg just add another tsp of baking powder.

This is definately a spice cake with cloves and cinnamon - I think a good cinnamon really turns this cake into something wonderful (we like to use Penzy's). The first time I made it, I wanted a bit of color- so I added about 1/4 cup of jimmies (called sprinkles for the southerners) and it really made the cakes beautiful with a confetti of color, although there was a bit of a stale taste from using old jimmies. The second time I added dried currents and mini baking m&m's; I think that was a bit much, next time I will add one or the other. But what ever you do, you really can't go wrong with this flavorful cake (My fav. is to cook them in mini-bunt pans, Mark got me the loveliest mini-flower-bunts for christmas, we enjoy one every night!)

Posted by Laura @ 12:59 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Winter Coat Arrival

The weather remains cold here, and yesterday brought a good 3 inches of snow. Thankfully, yesterday also brought a new, warm 3-in-1 Wildcat Parka from L.L.Bean. Yay! It has a removable fleece layer and is supposed to keep me warm to -20 degrees Farenheight, and does not turn to cardboard as did my last coat. With my facemask from REI and hat and gloves and boots, I stand a good chance of surviving another Wisconsin Winter.

Also a new winter apparel arrival is Laura's new fleece pillbox hat. We saw a few this weekend at REI for a rather high $25 (some in the ever-fashionable leopard print :) ), so Laura gave it a go on the sewing machine once we got home. Her dark green tartan hat now provides stretchy-warm comfort on the walks to and from the bus stations; yay sewing machine!

Posted by Mark @ 9:16 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Pot Roast and Gaming with the Settles

Last night, we spent the eveing with our friends the Settles, Burr and Natalie. They cooked a melt-in-your-mouth pot roast, marinated with chardonay and onions, and we provided an olive and feta salad as well as some milk bread. Yum!

Our first game was Carcassonne, a game where you build up a landscape piece by piece. It's really cool just to watch the rivers, cities and roads take shape with everyone working toward different goals. You place your player tokens (we call them "dudes") as either farmers, knights, thieves or monks, with different points given for completing their habitats. This was lots of fun, and Laura's farmer crew sealed the deal, with Natalie a close second, nearly completing the biggest city on record.

Second on our docket was 221B Baker Street, which we had picked up for $1 at St. Vincent De Paul's. It's very similar to Clue, where you must solve a mysterious murder, but with more clues sitting at different locations, as well as being able to block your opponents from seeing certain clues. The movement by rolling the dice can cause some players to be left behind, and it's a very quiet, introspective game, since you're writing down all the clues and piecing everything together. Burr solved the puzzle in the nick of time, explaining to us all how the taxidermist was murdered on a cold winter day.

We finished off the night with the bloody Guillotine, a card game version of the French Revolution. Nobles are lined up to lose their heads, and you get points depending on how unpopular that noble is. You can change the ordering of the cards in hopes of gathering higher scoring nobles. It goes pretty quickly with the heads flying by, and requires less strategy than the previous games. And we never even got to play Settlers with their new expansion pack, but that's for another night of games.

Posted by Mark @ 8:42 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Cross Country Skiing on Odana Trails

Winter weather brings a host of new snow activities, and one we hadn't tried yet was Cross Country Skiing, supposedly a great cardiovascular workout. We first took a trip to our local REI to rent some equipment. The full compliment of skis, polls and boots came to about $8 a day, with rental for three days. They were all waxed up and ready to go, and now so were we.

We ended up going to Odana Trails. It was a long trail around a golf course, ranked easy. We were suprised by the distance, and the one-way rule, forcing us to continue until we were finished, and by that time we were exhausted. Some people were crusing along, skiing up the hills like they were on ice skates, while we just stood there and shook our fists. :) If it snows again on a weekend, I think we'll make another attempt around the course and see if we can improve our times.

Posted by Mark @ 8:40 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Soup and Salad

Nothing is better on cold winter days than soup. We've been alternating between our favorite Mushroom Potato Soup and our new favorite Beef Barley Soup. This soup brings back memories of my uncle Ernie making this soup after my grandmother's funeral when I was in junior high, and it has always been great comfort food. We found a great recipe in the How To Make Soup book from The Cook's Illustrated Library and have been cooking it for the past month. Thyme seems to be a key ingredient in soups, that and to cook the vegetables first before adding all the broth so they are sauted instead of boiled when you simmer the soup. This little book will definately never leave our shelf.

On the side, we've been eating salads with Wish-Bone dressings. Laura chose the italian and I'm using thousand island, and after looking at the nutritional facts for many dressings, we went with the "Just 2 Good" and "Fat Free" varieties. I've never really tried thousand island before, but I like the ranch/tomato mixture. And on rare occasion, we have a side dish of butter beans, my most favorite bean. I'm not sure what makes them different from other beans, but they taste less mealy.

Posted by Mark @ 3:03 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Flake Out Festival

We'd planned on driving to Chicago to visit a Macy's Dept store, but found out late last night that there was no Macy's in Chicago, only 4 hours away in Minneapolis. So, we instead took a trip to the Wisconsin Dells, which was having their annual Flake Out Festival. We saw about 20 teams working on making huge snow sculptures (our favorites were the "Horton hears a Who" and "Ok, Let's try that again") and we saw an ice carving of a penquin on a sled appear before our eyes. It felt like we were in the movie Groundhog Day with all the outdoor snow activities.

To warm up, we stopped in for pizza at the MooseJaw Pizza and Brewing Company, a restaurant with a wide selection of food and drinks, very north-woodsy. We really liked the log-cabin interior, and seeing all the taxidermied animals on the wall made us happy we didn't order any meat. We also managed to pick up another pint glass to add to our brewpub collection.

After a nice nap in the afternoon, it was time for dinner with our friend Beth and some of her friends. Beth braved the kitchen and made some wonderful kabobs, some spiced in curry, others in mint and rosemary, all tasting excellent. We brought over some Frog's Eye Salad and some fresh bread. Dinner was followed by a rousing game of Pictionary, something we hadn't played in years, and we found ourselves sketching out words like "free", "train", "marriage" and "charades" with varying degrees of hilarity and success. We should play pictionary more often.

Posted by Mark @ 3:02 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

The Elegant Universe and Elegant Dining

This week I got a very special belated-Christmas present in the mail from Mark. It is the three part NOVA special of The Elegant Universe on DVD. PBS had repeatedly played the Elegant Universe last Fall, but it seemed that I was always catching the end of the special. It is spectacular! and really explains high level string theory physics concepts in a straight forward way (with amazing graphics that really help to bring the ideas to reality). The only thing we didn't really enjoy was the ever present repetition of main ideas and topics- after the third time we really did get the point.

We also treated ourselves to eating out at LuLu's. What made the restrant trip especially enjoyable was that we choose different dishes from our standard usuals. There is nothing usual about LuLu's food with all of the wonderful spices, but we were in for a nice treat. I had a nice dish of grilled chicken (something about winter makes me want what I can't make at home) and Mark had a lovely lamb stew that literally fell apart it was so tender. Earlier in the week we satisfied our craving for Qdoba where Mark enjoyed a gigantic rice and grilled chicken burrito while I had 3 onion-free soft tacos with grilled chicken. Sometimes there is nothing quite so enjoyable as eating out!

Posted by Laura @ 3:01 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Macaroni Lasagna and Tandoori Chicken

This week I decided that it would be nice to make Lasagna. With the impulse I went to the store, but forgot the lasagna noodles. In lieu of the standard noodles I used some whole wheat macaroni and loved the effect. Mark said it reminded him of our earlier pasta bake dishes, but since the noodles are already cooked when you put the dish in the oven, it takes half the time to bake. I think we have both been converted to this easier to serve and eat lasagna!

Mark had been talking about the desire to make Tandoori Chicken, a recipe we found in Fine Cooking, for over a week, but since we got back from vacation we have been very busy. The most time consuming part of this dish is the marination. Since we don't have access to a grill, we just cooked our dish on the stove and greatly enjoyed the product! The spices all combine into a nice curryish dish. Next time we'll remember to close the door to the bedroom since the odor is rather strong.

Posted by Laura @ 3:00 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Comic Book Movies

This weekend we finally picked up two movies we'd been anxious to see, both based on comic books. Not always a successful medium to translate to film, we were curious how these would turn out. First was Underworld, and we'd say a little bloody, but not too bad. The plot was nice and complex, with werewolves being the slaves of the vampires with a Romeo - Juliet love story thrown in the mix. The special features on the stunts were really cool; they give you a whole new perspective on a film to see the strings behind the scenes. While the music was raucous and loud (I'm glad we didn't see it in a theater) we would recommend it if you want a fun movie. We both had nightmares about vampires the following night, though, so watch out.

Our second choice, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, was unfortunately bad. It was the first movie Laura had seen with Sean Connery that she didn't like. We couldn't decide what could be changed to make it better, but narrowed it to the director, music, special effects and script writer; the actors and designers can stay. When we watched the deleted scenes we saw that a good portion of the character development was removed, interesting, since it was already a short movie. So, even with Connery leading the cast, this movie tanked pretty quickly.

Posted by Mark @ 3:50 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

A Week of Marination

There was a strong need this week for a bit of comfort food and easy cooking. So I started the week with the ever yummy mushroom and potato soup with leeks. Last time we found out that adding the milk to each portion just before serving will help the soup keep longer.

After all of the rich holiday food, we both wanted something light for dinner. While in our local SAMS, I couldn't pass up tilapia a light white fish. The gentleman who checked us out was full of wonderful ideas on how to marinate the fillets to remove the fishy flavor. So I marinated three fillets in a salted milk bath and cooked them for 20 minutes in the oven at 350. Served with my first attempt at the amazingly flavored and deceptively simple rice pilaf, it was a dinner that we will definately have again (which is good since we have 7 fillets left).

Sometimes I just crave a good steak. I am a happy carnivore that enjoys my steak tender but cooked all the way through. I had a piece of steak in the freezer whose partner was tough. Now I pitty the dogs with a rubber steak, flavored like steak. Just because it was rubbery it still tasted good, but it just wasn't palitable. So on my second chance, I soaked its buddy in equal parts of worcestershire and soy sauce with a 1/4 cup of lime juice for an hour. Then I pan seared and cooked the steak with all of the good juices on low. It made the best main dish for a Friday night dinner!

Posted by Laura @ 3:49 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Madison, Home

"There is no place like home. There is no place like home." This famous line from The Wizard of OZ never felt more true than when we were done with our whirlwind trips this winter break. We both love our family dearly, but the traveling does tend to wear on one's nerves after a bit, especially after 2 and 1/2 weeks.

Mark and I both enjoy driving trips, perhaps I do more since I tend to get nauseous in turbulance. Our way home was smooth with a little snow in Kentucky. We celebrated our 6th month aniversary with a great dinner from the Cracker Barrel near the Illinois/Indiana border, and crashing in our own cozy bed.

Amazingly Mark went to work the next day - I wish I had that kind of stamina - and I rested, relaxed, and put away our many wonderful gifts. Our friend Beth was kind enough to take care of my multitude of plants while we were gone and did a great job! This time before we left we decided to clean the apartment and I hope we can do so every time because it made coming home so much more enjoyable.

Since we're back in town, we had the urge to visit one of our favorite old haunts, the local B&N. This time we had a wonderful gift certificate from Mark's Uncle Ernie and were able to splurge on many new books and our coveted Alias: Season 1 DVD collection. To follow up our spending spree, we went next door to get the first Dido CD - somewhere during our engagement the CD was misplaced- as a belated aniversary present.

With so many new and wonderful books, we purchased another bookcase, bringing the total to 7 now. This week we also made a nice large donation to Goodwill and packed up many of our summer clothing and housewares for storage. Out of all of our trips this last break, I came to the decision to try and collect our families traditions. There are so many wonderful traditions that are passed down from generation to generation that really make the holidays special ... sounds like another blog entry :)

Posted by Laura @ 3:49 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Christmas and Bridge

We celebrated the Rich Christmas this afternoon, complete with a large Honey Baked Ham for lunch, with scalloped potatoes and corn as some of my favorite sides. The ham was very tender and sugary-sweet that it needed no other spices to make it perfect. Sarah's Mom and our Uncle Ernie were able to be here for the day as well, so much of the day was spend talking and sharing stories.

Ernie taught us three-player bridge, a game he came developed with my grandparents. It seems closer to actual bridge than Need a Fourth?, another three person bridge variant. Laura and I have been meaning to delve into bridge for some time now, but the opportunities always seem to slip away into other projects. Hopefully this semester will be different. (I found the cards image on the right from an article on randomness and shuffling.) Here are the rules we learned for his variation:

Deal each player 13 cards as usual, and also deal out the dummy hand. Each player gets to see three distinct cards from the dummy's hand, while the remaining four are turn face up in their proper suits. Each player then places their three dummy cards face down in the appropriate suit pile in their correct order above or below the visible cards. This will give each player a view of over half the dummy hand, as well as a good feel for the distribution and placement of the unseen cards. Bidding takes place as usual, however, it is advisable to bid as high as you think you can make it, so you're not stuck playing 1S when you should be in 4S. We didn't go over how to score, but I assume it is like normal bridge. It will be fun to explore this new game.

Posted by Mark @ 3:45 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Gastronomic Delights of Gastonia, NC

Our last leg of the journey, we travelled today to visit to Charlotte, NC to see Matt, Sarah and Will. Even though we last saw Will about a month ago, he already looks so much older, steady on his feet, almost making complete sentences. Soon he'll be reading all of his books and then, watch out. :) They're expecting another child in March, so we look forward to another rambunctious and active nephew soon.

Tonight, we ate dinner at Milano's, a fine Italian spot in Gastonia, a nearby city with many good restaurant choices. It was very kid-friendly, with many tables containing toddlers, and they were very helpful in accomodating Will. Sarah says their baby-on-the-way loves Italian food, so they eat there often. A few of us sampled and loved the Chicken Parmesan smothered in spicy tomato sauce, while others had the Chicken Alfredo, a rich creamy sauce, much better than the thin oily sauce from some other restaurants. And their garlic bread tasted divine.

We all tried to save room for dessert at Tony's Ice Cream, voted #4 in the Charlotte area in 2002. To our surprize, their small cup of ice cream was as huge as a softball. Laura and I split a Cherry Cheesecake cup, while the rest of the family munched on Chocolate Chip or Mint. It was very creamy and a great treat.

Posted by Mark @ 10:44 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Crafts from the Woodshed

Today was one of my Dad's rare vacation days, so we spent most of our time working together in the woodshop making two frames for some prints we picked up at the Art Fair on the Square this summer, one called Pads by Bruce Peeso. They have unique dimensions, 6x8 and 22x8, not normally found in stores, and we used some black walnut from Grandpa's supply. They turned out better than expected, and they brought out the deep browns in both of the prints.

We also crafted a paper towel holder for our kitchen, and I learned of Grandpa's secret for cutting a circle with a radial-arm saw. What you're realing doing is cutting tangents to the curve until you've cut the curve itself. First, drill a hole through the center of your block of wood, and then screw it into another piece of scrap word, making sure the top will rotate. Then measure your radius and line it up with the blade of the saw. Now you can make cuts with the saw and turn your block of wood until you've made enough tangents for a rough outline of the circle, kind of like those machines at the deli that make slices of meat. Finally, move the saw out and just spin the piece of wood until the full circle is cut, and you're finished. As long as your project requires a hole in the middle of the circle, it's perfect.

Laura was busy learning how to make trivets from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Knots and Ropework. She perfected the Long Mat Knot, one that can be extended as long as you want by following the pattern. You can never have too many potholders. Laura also cooked with Mom for the trip to NC tomorrow, making some Vegi-tales inspired sugar cookies and Mom's famous Mint Brownies, each batch tasting better than the next. :)

Posted by Mark @ 3:43 PM CDT [Permanent URL]