Friday, November 23, 2012

Book Club (aka an excuse to party on a weeknight)

November 23, 2012

by Sheila
We meet once a month for book club.  There are eight of us, and we rotate hosting at each member’s home.  The person who is hosting that month is also the person who selects the book for that month.  We are open to reading just about anything that will likely provide good discussion.  Although with this group, good discussion is the standard, book or no book! It was the book, A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg that got us thinking we could do this crazy thing called blogging.  Her book is a coolection of stories and recipes that started out as a blog, and evolved into an enjoyable book. 

The other requirement of book club is that the host has to feed us and serve us wine.  Sometimes this is just heavy appetizers, and occasionally an elaborate meal (we always look forward to December at Heather’s – but no pressure).  Frequently the food has some nod to the book. For example, we made stir fry at Kathy’s when we read Shanghai Girls.  We cooked outside in the fire at my house when we read A Walk in the Woods, and we recently ate a yummy bird (I suspect chicken) and rice casserole at Ann’s after reading Unbroken. Oh, and she really went to town perparing only recipes from Molly's aforementioned book when we read A Homemade Life.  Delish!

Some of you may be thinking this sounds like a lot to do, but you only go to the trouble and expense once a year and the rest of the time you just show up and enjoy.  We take the summer off since everyone’s travel schedules get pretty hectic, and instead schedule days to “float”, which is code for having happy hour poolside. Hmm, do we see a pattern here?

We meet early “on a school night” (lots of teachers in this group) and spend the first hour snacking, having a glass of wine and getting caught up on each other’s lives.  After that we begin our discussion of the book.  The host also makes up the questions and leads the discussion. We have occasionally asked each member to come up with a question to discuss, as some of the books we select are not “typical” book club selections with questions readily available online.  Regardless, the discussion is enlightening.  Some of these women I have known for over 20 years, and I am still sometimes surprised at the differences in perspective and perception when discussing books.  This is one of the best reasons to belong to a book club.  Well, that and an excuse to get together with girlfriends and drink wine on a school night, of course. 

For last month’s meeting the host, Tami, was returning home late from Hawaii.  Jet lagged and sick, we knew she would be over-taxing herself to pull it together, so others jumped in and picked up the slack.  Edie instantly invited us to her house (and made a yummy chili which we ate outside on the patio - thanks Edie).  Ann brought dessert and I picked up a few snacks and wine to bring over. We missed Tami, but enjoyed the discussion and camaraderie that only good girlfriends can provide. This is something we all look forward to each month and I highly recommend, expanding your understanding of the world and your circle of friends. Until next month….Cheers!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

by Ann

Taking time to reflect on all of the things that there are to be grateful for is a worthwhile endeavor at all times;  this holiday reminds us of the significance of being thankful and not taking our health, family, friendships and blessings for granted. 

As Heather, Sheila and I were planning the dates of “who does what for the blog” I knew right away that one of my posts would fall on Thanksgiving, but at that point was more concerned about getting in gear for my first post – not my sixth.  Sheila sent me an email about a week ago concerned that her Thanksgiving week post might duplicate mine if she wrote about thankfulness, and my immediate response was that by all means she should write the post, knowing that whatever I ended up writing would follow up her thoughts on a different note.  Can you see that we are feeling empowered to deviate slightly from our weekly routine about what we’ll talk about daily by this week’s posts?  My guess is that holidays weeks will often stray from the original plan.  With that said, since this is Thursday, the “Furnishings day,” I will end with a simple idea for napkin rings for large gatherings.

In my opinion, the people in our lives are by far our most precious gift.  Family and friends (including co-workers) are what make each day enjoyable and a new adventure.  As you have probably read on the home page of our blog, Heather, Sheila, and I have been friends for a very long time.  You, our faithful readers, are most likely also our family and dear friends, hence your dedication to reading our blog.  (Our vision is that eventually the word will be out and our readership will be widespread.)  Even though our friends know us well, they don’t necessarily know the other two of the “Ann, Heather, and Sheila” trio, but my guess is that you are getting a feel for each of our personalities through our blog posts.  In fact, one of my dear friends who has heard me talk for many years about my good pals Sheila and Heather wrote me an email saying that prior to the blog, she thought of “Heather and Sheila interchangeably, but now sees them as two distinctly different people,” which we all certainly are.

Of the three of us, I am the most “no frills.”  I like simple, but nice.  Things don’t have to be perfect for me, which is a good thing since they rarely are.  The idea that I am sharing on this post exemplifies that idea.  Dinner at our household always means eating in the dining room, and we always light candles and use cloth napkins.  With busy work schedules, an hour at dinnertime is often the only time that my husband I have to touch bases; so if it’s a Tuesday night, the routine is to have a nice relaxing meal, even if the food is simple.

Since we use cloth napkins at all meals, over the years I have amassed numerous napkin rings, but like most accessories, now many of them are dated (read – carved wooden cats, flowers, sea creatures, and birds – yes, I have multiples of all of those, I just checked the drawer).  Don’t get me wrong – I swear that I have some classier options, but typically only in sets of four to eight.  Every now and then (Thanksgiving?) the crowd exceeds the number of rings.  What to do?  Create some theme-based, reusable attractive rings from wire-edged ribbon.  See the pic below for this year’s Thanksgiving table using a variety of fall-themed ribbons that I’ve used over the years.  If the crowd gets bigger, I add a new ribbon and embrace the “mix and match” concept, which is a critical component to the “everything does not need to be perfect” mantra that I live by.
You can see the mix and match concept -
bread plates and napkin rings vary from setting to setting.
Supplies are simple - wide wire edged ribbon (I pick up ribbon at the craft stores whenever I see it on clearance, which is often), and scissors that are ok to cut wire. 
Cut pieces 1 yard in length.
The inexpensive rings can be used to match themes, tableware, linens, or whatever you can imagine!

I truly hope that this holiday season finds you and your family well, and that you are able to enjoy being with the people who make a difference in your life!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

It's Thanksgiving Eve!

November 21, 2012

By Sheila

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year.  What's not to like about getting together with family and friends to count our blessings, eat until we (almost) explode, and then kick back while the guys do the dishes?  Let's face it, how many holidays do we have that don't involve gifts, religion, or politics?  Not that I don't like gifts, religion, or politics (well, okay, not a huge fan of politics) but you get my point.  A holiday just for pausing and being thankful.  Refreshing, isn't it?

We are hosting a dozen guests this year, and like Heather we will be dining indoors and out.  Yeah, I know you can't do that everywhere, but this is when we get to rub it in that we live in the desert. As a matter of fact, my husband won a bet with Ann one year about the temperature on Thanksgiving Day.  They bet $10 for every degree over/under 70.  This was a bet made when there may have been some wine consumption at the Sante Fe Chile & Wine Fiesta.  It was 78 degrees that year.  She probably could have weasled out of the bet based on the circumstances, but she lost and she paid.  My Mom was rather appalled that David took her money, but ....he did.  Rather gleefully, I might add! 

We'll light a fire outside when the sun goes down, and enjoy dessert on the patio.  Maybe even wear a sweater? I just hope I don't end up weighing as much as the pumpkin in the photo above.  Yikes!

Among the many things I am thankful for:

My amazing family:  my dear husband (of 32 years), my three great kids and their spouses, my loving parents, my three crazy, fun brothers and their families, and of course the three grandgirls (Camryn, Charlotte and Paige) who have added a whole new dimension of fun and love to our lives.  I think my oldest son Alec said it best as a kid; "I love you and like you!".

Great friends (you know who you are; probably the only people reading this blog) including our dear friend Tami who is fighting  cancer.  She is the toughest person I know, and has taught me a lot about embracing life, living in the moment and focusing on what is most important.  Thanks for the gift of your friendship all these years.  You amaze me Girlfriend!

This makes me appreciate my own good health, and that of my family.  I am physically fit enough to do pretty much anything I want to do, and this is a gift not to be taken lightly.

The eve before Thanksgiving, when I am going over my list yet again, always seems to be a good time for me to reflect on all of this.  In preparation for the big day, I crank up some tunes and get to work.  My husband will likely offer to pitch in at this point, saying the ever-popular "Honey, do you need any help with anything?" as if Thanksgiving feasts prepare themselves and okay, I'll let him pour us a glass of wine.  I reflect on past Thanksgivings and all that I have to look forward to in the future and say a silent prayer of thanks.  So, "Cheers" and from our home to yours, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

*Photos by Sheila taken at the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cheesecake worth dreaming about...

by Ann
Ginger is one of my all-time favorite flavors.  I share the love for this taste with my mom and a few of my closest girlfriends.  We are on the constant look-out for recipes featuring this wonderful ingredient.

For the past ten years I have been an active member of a women’s service organization that devotes its efforts to earning money to then donate to charities, most of which benefit women and families in need in our area, and to provide scholarships for high school students who share our passion for community service.  When we’re not busy with a fundraising project, we’re doing something fun, which almost always includes eating. 

A dessert reception is held for the scholarship recipients and their parents to highlight the students’ accomplishments and to congratulate them.  The club members take extra care to make this evening lovely, and typically the desserts are fabulous.  A couple of years ago one of those decadent treats was a crystallized ginger cheesecake that was so good that I had a dream about it (no kidding!) a few nights later.

One of the ingredients is a full pound of white chocolate.  I would never sit down and eat white chocolate for a treat – in fact I’m somewhat offended that it is even called chocolate, when it is certainly not!  However, as the sweet ingredient in this cake it makes the end product so rich and sinful that I am willing to give white chocolate props this one time.

I have used different types of gingersnaps for the crust which has always turned out well, but I must say that the Nyaker snaps (from Cost Plus World Market) that I raved about as dippers for the pumpkin dip in a previous post work wonderfully for this as well.

If you try this recipe you will see why it was dream-worthy.  I make it on special occasions for large gatherings because it takes a while to put it together, the ingredients are a bit spendy, and it makes a huge cake.  I have cut the recipe in half using a 6” springform pan which works well, but it takes as much time and effort to make the smaller version, so as long as I’m going to all of the work to make it….

The end product comes out looking as beautiful as any quality restaurant cheesecake, but you have to do it right to get the desired appearance and consistency.  Besides the obvious components like using fresh quality ingredients and mixing thoroughly, the key is to cook the wrapped cake in a water bath at a low temperature for a long baking time.

I use a double layer of the largest width (18” width) of aluminum foil around the springform pan and a turkey roasting pan as the vehicle for the water bath.
Pictured above is the oh-so-yummy mixture of ginger snaps, meleted butter, and powdered ginger pressed into the bottom of a springform pan double wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Yummm...  You can see how beautifully golden brown this is when it came out of the oven after baking for between 1 1/2 and 2 hours in a water bath in a turkey roaster.
See below for the recipe.  Yes, there should be a lovely photo of the finished product plated, but hey, this is only week three of the blog, and I don't have all the steps figured out quite yet -- I brought the beautiful end product (you'll have to take my word on this) to a family gathering, where it got rave reviews!

White Chocolate - Ginger Cheesecake
13 oz ginger snap cookies (about 50)
2 T sugar
1 t ground ginger
6 ½ T unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1 lb. good quality white chocolate  (Lindt, Bakers), finely chopped
4 8 oz pkgs cream cheese at room temp
¼ c sugar
4 large eggs, room temp
1 large egg yolk, room temp
1 T vanilla extract
1 t ground ginger
2/3 c minced crystallized ginger
For crust:
·         Butter 9-inch diameter spring form pan with 2 ¾ inch high sides.
·         Wrap the outside of the pan with 2 layers of heavy-duty foil.
·         Finely grind cookies, sugar, and ginger in food processor.  Add butter; blend until moist clumps form.  Press onto bottom and up sides of the pan. 
·         Chill while preparing the filling.
For filling:
·         Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 300 degrees. 
·         Stir white chocolate in top of double boiler set over hot water until chocolate melts.  Cool too lukewarm, stirring occasionally.
·         Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and sugar in large bowl until fluffy, about 3 minutes. 
·         Add eggs and yolk 1 at a time, beating just until combined after each addition. 
·         Beat in vanilla and ground ginger.
·         Gradually beat in melted white chocolate.
·         Stir in crystallized ginger
·         Transfer filling to prepared crust.
To bake:
·         Place springform pan in large roasting pan.  Pour enough hot water into roasting pan to come halfway up sides of springform pan.
·         Bake until cheesecake puffs and edges crack slightly, about 1 ½ hours
·      Transfer cake to cooling rack.  Run small knife around sides of cake to loosen.
·         Cool completely.  Remove foil from pan sides.  Chill cake overnight. 
This cake can be prepared 3 days ahead – keep covered and chilled.
When ready to serve, release sides of pan and transfer to cake platter.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving Fashion for the Table and Me

This week's schedule of blogs:
Monday - Thanksgiving Fashion for the Table and Me by Heather
Tuesday - Food by Ann
Wednesday - Thanksgiving by Sheila
Thursday - Thanksgiving by Ann
Friday - Fun by Sheila

November 19, 2012

by Heather

The house is filled with the aroma of roasting turkey parts, quartered yellow onions, celery ribs, and carrots as I do the first steps in preparing homemade stock.  Two things on my must-do list each Thanksgiving: make my own stock to use in gravy and brine at least one of the turkeys.  We generally have dueling turkeys -- Tom does one; I do the other.  At the end of the meal, an informal vote is taken as to who made the best turkey. Last year, Tom used a dry rub, I did a liquid brine, and we both inserted a mixture of butter and herbs under the skin before roasting the birds -- I think the contest ended in a tie. In addition, for added flavor, we always stuff the birds.  My recipe is usually a traditional mix of sauteed fresh mushrooms, onion, celery, sausage, and seasoned bread cubes while his is something more esoteric.  And, we always do a batch on the side for those who prefer their stuffing outside the bird.

Here are the roasted turkey parts fresh from an hour in the oven at 450 degrees. I'll use the pan juices to roast the quartered onions and cut celery and carrots for thirty minutes.  Using a disposable roasting pan is one way to cut down on the mountains of clean-up ahead of me.

Once the veggies are done roasting, they get added to the turkey parts in a stockpot with four quarts of water, fresh sage leaves, and salt and pepper. This mixture is left to simmer for two hours after which I discard the meat and veggies, and store the savory broth in the freezer until it's needed.

As the stock is simmering, I get the table ready for Thanksgiving dinner. This year, we will have 14 adults (family and friends) and two children, with another two adults joining us for dessert.  Long-time friends Rol and Susan always stop by on their way home to say hello and get a bite of Marianne's chocolate pecan pie and Ken's homemade peach cobbler a la mode.

Each person brings something for the feast.  In addition to the desserts, people are bringing side dishes and appetizers.  Tom and I provide the turkeys, the potatoes and gravy, and the stuffing.  Our beverages will include a cocktail upon arrival (one that I saw on the Today Show -- caramel-infused vodka with a shot of espresso to counteract the effects of the turkey, and/or Prosecco with pomegranate juice and fresh pom seeds), a nice Pinot Noir with dinner, and a cup of hot tea (or more wine) with the desserts.

My dining room table seats eight comfortably (well, "comfortably" might be a stretch) so I'm grateful that the forecast is for sunny skies with temps in the low 80s on Thanksgiving Day.  I'll put six of the adults at the table on the patio and the two preschoolers at their own little table.

The inside table looks like this:

The 19th century glazed pot, the candlesticks, the hurricane lantern, and the little concrete books are all from my favorite interior/garden store, "On the Veranda" (, located in the Arcadia area of the Valley of the Sun.  If you ever get the chance, please pay a visit to the store and meet the two lovely ladies who own it.  Diane and Sharron are so warm and friendly and their store is a fabulous treasure trove of  antiques and other items for your garden and your home.  Golden pumpkin candles and a battery-operated string of mercury glass pumpkins from Pottery Barn along with real pumpkins and glass-beaded vines surround the centerpiece. Glittering leaves in fall colors are suspended from the chandelier above the table.

Two burlap runners criss-cross the table and the vintage English Staffordshire plates rest on faux pewter chargers.  Real pewter stems and flatware flank each place setting.  Pears are used as place cards (cut-out card stock with a gold pin) and they perch on Pottery Barn leaf dishes.  A funny aside,  my outdoor tablescape below was particularly inviting to the local bird population:  the pesky pigeons pecked my perched pear place cards. Perhaps they were pleased with the pear nectar but I wasn't so happy with the pits left by their pecking!

The outside table:

I used a burlap drapery panel as a tablecloth (bought two panels and really thought they would look good on the windows in the family room, but not so much...), then layered a Pottery Barn (jeez, I love that store) autumn-themed runner over it with matching napkins.  Going casual here with wicker chargers, white plates, amber stems, mason jars wrapped in twine with orange-striped straws, and for a little bit of elegance, sterling silver flatware.

Now, what to wear?  I was going to wear this:

Mustard and grey fox sweater (Nordstrom), grey corduroy pants (Ann Taylor), grey scarf with mustard stars (Target), grey purse (Michael Kors), grey and gold watch (Michael Kors), suede mustard boots (old)

But the forecast for Thanksgiving is warmer than normal, and I will be slaving over a hot the 'what to wear' question is still out there.  It has to be something that's somewhat cool, easy to wear (that means loose enough for waist expansion -- it is Thanksgiving, after all!), and coordinate with comfortable shoes.  I must have something...time to shop the closet.

How are your Thanksgiving plans coming along?  Share your ideas with me, please  -- I'm always on the hunt for tablescape and fashion inspiration!