12.31.2010

2010: The Year in Musical Review

In addition to holiday cheer, one of my favorite things about the end of the year is all the countdowns of the best musical acts, albums, and songs introduced in the last 12 months. I love to revisit not-so-old favorites and reminisce about the musical joy that the previous year brought with it. For a while, I worried that 2010 would produce some pretty measly "Best-of" lists. I guess I have a tendency to get in musical funks and this year was largely defined by such lows for me; I'd find myself listening to the same old tired songs again and again, completely unable to find anything new to spark my interest.

I was about to give up on compiling my own musical wrap-up list this year when an email from NPR caught my eye. It featured a piece on "The 5 Artists You Should Have Known in 2010." Though only one of the groups included on this list really resonated with me, it got me thinking about some of the other albums and songs that moved me this year, even if only for a week or two until I completely exhausted the CD and had to find something else to listen to on my drive to work. So instead of doing music that was strictly produced in the year 2010, I've decided to include mostly recent releases, as well as some discoveries that I made in the past 12 months that defined my year musically. Enjoy and I hope you find something that you like!

1. The Head and the Heart - Though this group is the one that I discovered most recently, they were my great find on NPR's list that inspired this very list. This video of their live performance of "Lost in My Mind" just struck a chord with me that I couldn't ignore. The Seattle-based band formed about a year ago after meeting at an open-mic night, and they've enjoyed a fast rise to the top since with mentions on NPR and KEXP 90.3 FM among others. Though this song begins with just vocals and a single guitar, it sneaks up and takes hold of you as the violin, piano, and percussion join in. With just one listen, I think it will become pretty obvious why this folk-pop-Americana outfit is making such great waves in so short a period of time. Extolled as a folksy version of the Beatles, The Head and the Heart are enjoying great success and their self-released album "Down in the Valley"



2. Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs "God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise" - I've always liked Ray LaMontagne but this year's release was my favorite album of his by far. Backed by the Pariah Dogs, LaMontagne's sound is a bit more varied and full this time around. From the funk-influenced "Repo Man" to folksy ballads such as "Like Rock & Roll and Radio," this album showcases LaMontagne's range in style. The first single off the album "Beg Steal or Borrow" is a bit more traditional for Ray, but delve into the album's beautiful love songs and foot-tapping bluesy tunes, and you'll find there's more to Ray than you thought you knew.



3. Brandi Carlile "Give Up the Ghost" - Though Carlile's latest release actually came out in 2009, I had to add it to this year's list because I truly fell in love with the album this past summer. For a few weeks, I was playing "That Year," a heartfelt ballad about coming to terms with a friends' suicide, on endless repeat (and Mike was about ready to delete this song from my iTunes library). When I finally got around to listening to the rest of the album, I finally realized what the big deal is when it comes to this girl. Carlile is a pretty big name in terms of female indie/alternative artists, but I was slow to join the bandwagon. "Give Up the Ghost" provides ample evidence Carlile's talent as a vocalist as well as a songwriter. I was fortunate enough to see her on her tour this fall and was blown away. Performing from her own catalogue as well as classics from the Beatles, Johnny Cash, and even Alphaville's "Forever Young," Carlile and her band put on one of the most entertaining shows I've ever attended. Though I think "Give Up the Ghost" stands up on it's own, seeing Brandi live this year secured her a spot on my 2010 list.



4. Mumford & Sons "Sigh No More" - Mumford & Sons are one of those bands that's been under the radar for the past few years but, finally, seems to be getting the recognition and acclaim they've long been due. I heard their single "Little Lion Man" on the radio earlier this year and enjoyed it but soon grew tired of hearing it replayed over and over on college radio. When I finally got around to picking up a copy of their album "Sigh No More," I guess I realized why their single was all over independent radio playlists. Though I generally like their first single, the majority of the songs that complete the album are even stronger. For strangers to Mumford & Sons, I generally describe their sound as a novel mix of celtic and bluegrass instrumentation, with dramatic compositions and delightful harmonizing. The title track "Sigh No More" is one of the best examples of the sweeping character of most of their songs - it begins with a chorus of voices and limited instrumentation but grows in pace and volume as it progresses, until finally erupting in a climactic instrumental and lyrical reflection on love. I honestly don't feel that my words do any justice to these guys so please, listen for yourself.



5. James Morrison "Songs for You, Truths for Me" - Okay, so this album actually came out in 2008. I knew that I'd heard "Precious Love" many a time before but mostly as background to holiday commercials or heard over the Muzak playing in the mall. Morrison's album, though more of a pop collection, is deserving of a real thorough listen rather than the half-hearted airplay it's given in the pet shop (yes, I did hear a Morrison tune at Petsmart while filling out paperwork to adopt my kitten Digby). Hailing from the UK, Morrison has released two albums with this one being his most recent. It did well on the charts in Britain when it came out two years ago but somehow I missed the memo. Though it's a bit more sugar-coated then usually fits my taste, Morrison's still got some substance behind his pop tunes, as well as a little soul. "Nothing Ever Hurt Like You" is more of a groovy R&B tune on the pains of love, while the album closes with "Love is Hard," another meditation on the agony of love though this time in the form of a solo acoustic ballad. My favorite song on the whole album, however, is "If You Don't Wanna Love Me," a low-tempo soul tune that contains some of the most romantic notions I've heard in recent pop music. Whenever Morrison belts out "you can't push me too far/there's no space in my heart/where I don't wanna love you," I melt a little inside. I guess I just can't resist the relentless male,  persistently trying to make things right and treat his lady right.



6. The Tallest Man on Earth - Swedish folk-rocker Kristian Matsson, known on stage as The Tallest Man on Earth, released two albums in 2010 - an LP entitled "The Wild Hunt" and an EP "Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird." Though I haven't heard anything from the latter, I've got to say I love the title. But I can speak to his full-length release and it's wonderfulness. I find his music reminiscent of early Bob Dylan; all Matsson's got to support his songs is a warble in his voice and a guitar around his neck - and he does alright. Though I find that his style is fairly constant as the album contains little variation in sound from song to song, the lyrical content makes the album (once again kind of like Dylan).



7. Laura Gibson "Beasts of Seasons" - Another 2009 release that I've been a little late in listening to. I think part of the problem was too many Laura's in my music library - Laura Gibson, Laura Marling, Laura Veirs. Gibson is my favorite Laura by far but I wasn't familiar enough with any of their music a few months ago to keep them all straight. Anyway, Laura Gibson. Her muted folksy sound is the perfect complement to her strong and confident voice; the subtle instrumentals allow her vocals and lyrics to really shine. "Beasts of Seasons" is an extremely cohesive album, though sometimes too much so as Gibson's songs can begin to sound fairly similar in style, pace, and general tone when listened to in one sitting. Nonetheless I really enjoy her sound - I often listen to her music when the days grow short and I'm creating something, whether on my blog, in the kitchen, or by hand. Her music is truly beautiful and her talent hard to deny, though I will admit that I hope to see Gibson push her limits with the next release.



8. Dylan LeBlanc - Another late find, but a great one! I actually discovered Dylan LeBlanc's music while blog-hopping. Kelly Ann from The Flowerchild Dwelling raved about LeBlanc's music, in particular his song "Emma Hartley." I had barely even finished my first listen-through when I automatically set it to repeat and listened again and again and again. I can't honestly say that I'm familiar with very much about this artist - I don't know where he hails from, if he's released an album, or even the names of many of his other songs (though a little help from the Google machine would surely help me learn more). But I can say in good faith that he's a talented musician worth listening to for any fans of folksy/indie artists. And I do know that he's released a single entitled "If Time Was For Wasting" (because the YouTube description for the official video told me so). Keep your eyes out for this young guy!



There were plenty of other great songs and albums out this year - I definitely don't maintain that this is a comprehensive list by any means. Jonsi (frontman to Sigur Ros) released his first solo effort "Go" to delighted fans who were far from disappointed (including myself!). And The Arcade Fire's 2010 release "The Suburbs" cannot go unacknowledged - it soared to the top of the charts and made unprecedented strides for independent musical artists, though I can't say I'm a huge fan of the group myself. The National's latest release "High Violet" delivered more of their particular and reliable sound to fans who have come to expect much from the Cincinnati natives. I was especially fond of their first single "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and would highly recommend giving their album a good long listen. For further reading on The Year 2010 in Musical Review, be sure to check out NPR Music (usually a pretty reliable source for quality musical acts) and your local independent radio station (if you need to adopt an indie station, visit the website for one of my favorites - 89.7 WTMD).

***I also came across this really interesting year-end list on The Huffington Post. Click here to see the "7 Things I Learned About Food in 2010" list from Slow Food USA Program Manager Jerusha Klemperer. I feel particularly excited and optimistic about the very first thing listed: The intersection of food, culture and class is a conversation we might finally be ready to have.

12.30.2010

Almost No-Bake Pumpkin Cream Pie

I found this recipe on Joy the Baker's site and thought it the perfect way to finish off my last can of pumpkin puree. And as I always try to prolong the pumpkin season through the end of the holidays, I thought it was just about time for a pumpkin pie.

I didn't have all the cream cheese that the recipe called for, so I just added a bit more butter, as well as a little bit of brown sugar and some cinnamon to supplement the warm pumpkin flavors. I pretty much did my own thing loosely based upon the original recipe with what few ingredients I had - I used my estimation skills and made constant adjustments based on tastings rather like how a cook would do and definitely not a baker. Still the outcome was still extremely delicious and fairly similar to what the more stringent of recipe-followers would likely have produced. I also think the no-bake aspect allowed me a little more room for experimentation than if this thing had to go through the oven.

My only major recommendation is to skip the maple in the cream cheese. I hate maple, but if you're partial, go for it. If not, I'd substitute the syrup with some whipped cream cheese when making the whipped cream topping. It will surely be a delicious and flavorful way to finish off the pie sans-maple.

The other great thing about this pie is that, in addition to being super simple, it's not strictly seasonal. I could definitely see myself whipping this up in the spring or summer as a cool sweet treat. As long as you know where to find canned pumpkin, you should be able to find the rest of the ingredients with no problem the whole year through. I guess I'd compare it to an apple pie sundae - definitely great when apples are in their prime come the fall but a delicious staple the rest of the year too.

Visit Joy the Baker here for the full, original recipe. Enjoy! And sorry I don't have any photos of this delicious pie... Blogger and my computer seem to be teaming up against me today!

12.28.2010

South of the Border, West of the Sun

At the urging of many of my literary friends, I finally got around to reading Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore a few months ago. I'd come across a few Murakami quotes that really got to me so I imagined that I would find something to cherish in his most famed novel - and I definitely did. I highly recommend reading Kafka, but I recently picked up South of the Border, West of the Sun and I'm not sure if I'd place this before or after Murakami's other work.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is a love story, though untraditional, dark, and maybe even naive in its origins. Hajime long imagined that his childhood friend Shimamoto, the only other only child he had ever met at the time, was his true love. Though they parted ways come junior-high, he still thought of her often through various romantic relationships and even during his marriage. When Shimamoto appears in Hajime's successful and secure life, he can't help but question how content he thought he felt, who he should spend his future with, and what sacrifices he should, or even could, make for love. This novel is not a touching and romantic love story, but rather a realistic look at what happens when we hold on to childhood fantasies, when we question everything we thought we knew, when people from the past haunt our present.

I don't have too much more to say by way of synopsis except that I highly recommend you read this one for yourself. It has been described as one of Murakami's most haunting works and I would definitely agree it is such. Though not a necessarily dark novel, there is less levity in this work than Kafka and a bit more of the grittiness of reality that we don't often like to face or admit to. And while the characters maybe be labeled as romantics, the novel as a whole is far from your typical romance. Still South of the Border abounds in picturesque imagery with a hint of mystery that makes the novel easy and enjoyable to devour. At just over 200 pages, it's a relatively quick read and quite the page turner, though it is also full of the substance, intelligence, and wisdom readers have come to expect from Murakami.

Even if you're not in the mood to confront the sometimes fatalistic realities of love, I highly recommend any of Murakami's works. Though this and Kafka on the Shore are among my favorite books of any genre by any author, I've yet to meet a single piece of fiction from Murakami that I haven't loved.

12.26.2010

Christmas 2010 - Snapshots from My Celebration

I hope everyone had a delightful Christmas! Mine was full of good company and too much food - just the way I like my holidays! Here are a few snapshots I took yesterday. 


                 





12.24.2010

Merry Christmas!

Keeping an Eye Out for Santa


Merry Christmas Eve to you and yours! I hope that everyone has a happy and safe holiday surrounded by the ones they love most. I plan to spend tomorrow visiting with my lovely fiance Mike, my parents, my sisters, my soon-to-be-in-laws, my cat, my dog, and a whole host of cousins, aunts and uncles. And of course I will be cooking some delicious stuffing to devour later this evening. All in all, the perfect recipe for a delightful Christmas in my book!


What are your plans for Christmas? Wherever you find yourself, don't forget to give generously, eat well, and stay warm tomorrow! Merry Christmas!


***In addition to a warm holiday greeting, this post is also an entry to GiveawayBlogs.com “ 2010 Holiday Photo Contest” sponsored by UPrinting.com. So if you like my photo (entitled "Keeping an Eye Out for Santa") 0r just want to spread a little holiday cheer, please leave a comment to let me (and the judges!) know! Thanks and Merry Christmas!

12.23.2010

Best Stove-Top Stuffing


Stuffing is probably my favorite thing about both Thanksgiving and Christmas... It's just the ultimate in comfort food because of it's hearty flavors and carb-heavy nature. But it seems to be one of those dishes that, though a classic, is easy to screw up. I don't think there is really as much room to experiment with stuffing as some magazines seem to think around the holiday season - sure you can add a new ingredient here or there but keep the celery, carrots, onion, and bread please. Maybe a touch of mushroom, some cranberries, or chopped apple, but I don't want cabbage in my stuffing and nothing can be substituted for bread.

Oddly enough, when I was little I never liked stuffing. As I've said, stuffing is a great comfort food and full of nostalgia for me - maybe I just didn't need food to partake in such comfort and joy as a child. I'm just glad that I've finally discovered the wonders of stuffing and have perfected a recipe that no one can beat. I use most of the staples, but I do add a bit of apple for some natural sweetness. Other than that, this is pretty traditional as far as stuffing in the Keller family goes. I don't even go all out with fancy crusty breads because I actually prefer the way sandwich breads get more soft and chewy. So if you want to stick to basics for your holiday stuffing, give this recipe a try!

Best Stove-Top Stuffing

Ingredients
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 large carrot, chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 2 apples (I use Honeycrisp), chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp rosemary
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 1/2 tsp sage
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • Bread (I used about 15 toasted slices of a thin whole wheat sandwich bread - just make sure to use about 20 oz of day-old or toasted bread), toasted and chopped
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In large soup pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery and lightly salt. Let cook until soft and fragrant, about 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Add apples and garlic. Cook another 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Add rosemary, thyme, sage, and cinnamon, stirring until all ingredients are fully coated with seasonings.
4. Add the bread pieces and mix with vegetables. Allow to toast 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Add vegetable stock about 1/2 cup at a time. Mix after each addition and add until stuffing reaches desired consistency.
6. Season with salt and pepper and enjoy!


12.22.2010

Mr. and Mrs. Globe Trot

I love the holidays. I get nostalgic for this time of year nearly as soon as it's over, when I know that I'll have a few more bleak months of winter to get through without the anticipation of Christmas day or the brightness of holiday lights and family gatherings to warm up the cold winter nights. I try to infuse the Christmas spirit into my life the whole year round. Though I don't go overboard, if I get the urge I might check out a few Christmas craft books from the library mid-summer to get a headstart on handmade decorations, or I'll flip through old holiday photos while listening to some Bing Crosby to remind myself of all I have to look forward to next December.

So, needless to say, I was overjoyed when I saw these photos of the Vienna Christmas Market on Mr and Mrs Globe Trot's blog. The couple has a blog devoted to their international travels as newlyweds and they have captured some really beautiful scenes from a diverse array of locales. They recently had two posts from the Vienna Christmas Market, one of the market during the day and another post for photos of the market at night. Their images are brimming with all the nostalgia of Christmas, complete from the twinkle of Christmas lights to the joy of gifts bought direct from the artisans who created them. Despite the obviously cold temperatures (everyone is bundled up and going for the warm drinks), there is a feeling of warmth in these series because the photos are able to capture so completely the joy of the festivities. Here are a few of my favorite shots but please stop by their blog to see the full collection of images. They represent, to me, everything Christmas should be. I guess I need to find a way to make it to Vienna next year so I can immerse myself in this holiday tradition!








*Obviously all of these photos belong to Mr and Mrs Globe Trot, Julia and Yuriy, themselves!

12.21.2010

Grateful on the Winter Solstice

I'm crazy about the fall, but I don't mind winter as much as most. True, it gets a little bleak come February, but the snow is my friend - it gets me out of work (if I'm lucky), offers me an opportunity to wear scarves and bundles of clothing, and it reminds me of childhood snow days filled with crazy outdoor gear, sledding, and hot chocolate.

The hazy months of summer, characterized by nothing other then indomitable humidity and high heat, are insufferable to me as the last weeks of a pregnancy, heavy with discomfort and the anticipation of an imminent release, but so accustomed to the conditions that it becomes hard to believe change is imminent. And then all of a sudden, I find that fall is upon me. The humidity has broken, the temperatures have lowered (sometimes only to rise again), the leaves are putting on a brilliant and colorful display, pumpkin chai is back in season, and the holidays are very nearly here.

I try to soak up as much of the delicious fall season as I can, however it always seems to slip by me so quickly. I anxiously await the changing of the leaves and then one day find the trees adorned in radiant reds and yellows, but completely naked the next. As much as I want to embrace everything about this most favorite of seasons, it rushes out from under me, the days slipping through my fingers once my October birthday and Halloween have passed. Then I immerse myself in holiday cheer, which people are so eager to celebrate months ahead in anticipatory pleasure and unbelievably quick to put to an abrupt end come December 26th.

I guess I just wish the seasons were spread a bit more. Winter would be so much more warm and bright were Christmas set back a month. People wouldn't be complaining about retail stores setting up holiday displays before Halloween is over, because it really would be ludicrous to set up for a holiday four months in advance (as opposed to two or three). And Thanksgiving would get the full spotlight it truly deserves, rather than being overshadowed by it's closest neighbor. Then winter wouldn't be so unbearable, a good one-third of it spent in preparations and good cheer, rather than a mere four days. Oh, the world would be a more just place if I controlled the calendar.

But I don't, so we find ourselves in a deluge of holidays, thrust upon us by time and commercial interests, leaving us empty and cold for the remainder of the winter season.

This meditation on the seasons isn't meant to downplay the one which is upon us or to make winter feel bad for itself. I would rather like to celebrate the coming of winter today and shine a light upon something a bit more serious than the humorous prospect of me as arranger of the world's calendar. This season is one brought in with a sweep of generosity and joy, later marked by bleakness, darkness, and bitter cold. Lucky for us, we have warm homes to return to, filled with things to distract ourselves from the harsh season raging outside our window (yes, I'm assuming all of these things about my readers but, as I've said in previous posts, I think it's a safe assumption that anyone with internet access who takes the time to read a silly blog like my own it probably relatively secure in their ability to provide themselves with shelter.) But for plenty of people without homes, this is the time of year most dreaded, the one when people are more scarce, their generosity as bleak as the weather, and the nights infinitely more harsh to spend outside.

Since December 21st is the first day of this most difficult season for the homeless, as well as the longest night of the year, many communities across the nation take the opportunity today to remember those homeless who we have lost because of lack of shelter, food, medical care, and a whole host of other disadvantages. Further, these memorial events serve to increase awareness, sympathy, knowledge, and concern about our less-fortunate counterparts in the cities and towns where we live.

For anyone local to the Baltimore area, the SHARP (Stopping Homelessness and Reducing Poverty) Coalition will be hosting a public memorial tonight from 5:30 to 6:30 pm at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater. For those of you in other areas, please visit the National Health Care for the Homeless Council's resource page to learn more about Homeless Memorial Day and to find an event in your community.

One of my favorite things about fall is Thanksgiving because it is a holiday purely devoted to generosity, gratitude, and kindness. Unfortunately I think that most people look upon it as a day of gluttony, but there are a wonderful few who display unparalleled generosity on this day, serving dinners for the homeless, instead of gathering around a table with their family in their own warm home, or participating in charity events at soup kitchens and the like. Part of the reason I wish to re-arrange the holiday season is because I fear that Christmas is so heavy and full upon us come mid-November that we are more concerned about getting to bed at a decent hour so we can awake at an ungodly one to go shopping for Christmas presents the day after Thanksgiving. I'm guilty as anyone of rushing the holiday season, but I also absolutely love the very premise of Thanksgiving, not so much the history but the legacy the holiday holds of giving thanks, appreciating the gifts you have, and demonstrating gratitude. Most of all, I love how this message manifests itself in the charity and kindness of many people who have not allowed black Friday or 3,000 calorie dinners to cloud their view of November's largest holiday.

But Thanksgiving has passed and Christmas is almost upon us, so instead, I'll put it to you this way. Embody some of the holiday spirit, especially now when people are gathering to memorialize those who lost their lives because they did not have shelter, but also after Christmas is over. Allow yourself to be taken with benevolence and extend the season in both your thoughts and actions. Even if you don't make it to a memorial tonight, take a moment or two to think about the issue, to share it with others, to give some thought to those that no one else thought of before it was too late. And when you find yourself complaining of the cold, worried about your heating bills, or saddened by the short winter days, think about how very fortunate you are to have respite from the chill, to be in a position to heat your home, to be able to alleviate that darkness with the warmth and love of friends and family.

12.19.2010

Seen In and Around Baltimore

Born and bred in Baltimore, I've got quite an attachment to this small but most charming of cities. Growing up just outside the city limits, my childhood memories consist of Orioles games, visiting the National Aquarium, field trips to the Science Center, and of course, crabs. But as I grew up, I found that the city kept up with my constantly evolving interests. In high school, I discovered Soundgarden, the most delightful haven for music fiends located in the heart of Fell's Point. Then came the Charles Theater, an independent movie theater in the artsy Charles Village district. When I became an undeniable foodie, restaurants popped up all over the city calling my name, then art museums and galleries, thrift shops, coffeehouses, and more until I realized that this city has got something for any interest I may ever wish to pursue.

Each neighborhood is this petite metropolitan center has its own charm, lending the city at large an undeniable small-town feel. From streets lined with unprepossessing rowhomes to prestigious universities, thriving independent cultural hotspots and an endless array of street festivals all throughout the year, I just want to throw my arms around this city and give it a great big bear hug as thanks for all that it offers me. In the summer, you've got ArtScape, the largest free art festival in the country. But come December, nothing could better prepare you for the upcoming holiday season than a drive down 34th Street in Hampden to see all the houses decked out in Christmas lights. As I've already stressed, the arts play a huge role in this city but so do the parks and outdoor spaces, the harbor and seafood. I've always maintained that Baltimore's small sizes lends itself to greater accessibility, but it's not too small that it leaves its natives wanting for culture or entertainment or outlets for any of their potential interests.

I'm not trying to encourage you to move to, or even visit, Baltimore. In fact, part of what I like about this city is that we're sort of an underdog, the kind of place that gets easily passed over and most people don't consider particularly special. Like finding a hidden gem, it isn't until you really explore the city that you learn of it's true treasures. So, if anything, I'm an advocate for taking the advice of the locals if you make it to my neck of the woods. Sure, the main tourist attractions at the Inner Harbor are nice, if you're into frequenting the kinds of shops and restaurants that could be found in any major consumer-driven residential area. I expect you'd much more enjoy your experience if you explore the cobblestone streets of Fell's Point, the nightlife in Federal Hill, the one-of-a-kind shops of Hampden, the free shopping at Baltimore Free Store and The Book Thing, or the entertainment offerings through the entire city. I guess more than anything I want others to recognize that Baltimore has a lot to offer by way of charm. All too often I feel that this city's offerings are over-looked, and though I'm reaping the benefits of our less than overwhelming population growth, I also don't want outsiders to look down upon this delightfully adorable, artistic, and unique city with a personality all it's own and an endless number of neighborhoods to be constantly explored.

Anyway, the real reason for this post is to showcase a few photos of this great city that I've taken on various trips throughout the area over the past year. Hopefully you'll enjoy these snapshots of Baltimore life and overlook some of the things that make people fear this great city (no it's not really like The Wire around here!).

Though technically not within the Baltimore City limits
this shot of my street during the winter 2009-2010 snow storms
is still just a block away from the city and provides a pretty
accurate picture of what city life felt like during those few weeks.
Please note the lawn chairs set out as parking space holders.

Camden Yards, one of the most beautiful ballparks in the nation.

The Yard nestled right next to the Warehouse 

Natty Boh and UTZ Potato Chips, two Baltimore specialties

Lanterns over Charles St.

Gated windows of an otherwise lovely brick building

Rowhome door with personality

Fall sunlight

I know the photo isn't great but even our Department of Public
Works building is charming... don't you think?

Sunset over the Harbor. A great place to be any
day of the year.

12.17.2010

Christmas Cookie Countdown #8: Classic Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies


I originally intended to make Hazelnut Cookies as part of my Christmas cookie countdown. But I seem to have misplaced my nutcracker and Mike thinks that I try to make fancy cookies too often anyway. So I decided to end this Christmas cookie extravaganza with some good old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies. This recipe is the one my mom, sisters, and I have used for years and it's never failed us. These are, by far, my very favorite chocolate chip cookies - both to make and to eat.

This recipe was torn out of a magazine and so weathered that I'm surprised it lasted us as long as it did - in fact, we sadly lost it this year. My mother, however, saved the day as she is prone to doing. She said the recipe is basically the same as the traditional Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe with a few tiny adaptations (more oats, less flour, and I always add extra chocolate chips!). So I went to my trusty Nestle chocolate chip package, stuck to the recipe posted there except for a few minor changes, and was relieved to remove from my oven the same delicious chocolate chip cookies my family has been enjoying for years. So here's my slightly adapted Toll House recipe. And if you still have a hankering for Hazelnut Cookies, try out this simple 4-ingredient recipe from Gourmet, but don't forget to track down a handy nutcracker first!


Classic Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookie Recipe
slightly adapted from Nestle Toll House

Ingredients
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup rolled oats
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Combine flour, oats, baking soda, and salt in medium sized bowl.
3. Using a stand- and handheld mixer, combine butter, sugars, and vanilla. 
4. Add eggs, mixing well after each addition.
5. Gradually add flour mixture until fully incorporated.
6. Stir is chocolate chips.
7. Shape rounded tablespoons of dough onto ungreased baking sheets. 
8. Cook for 9-11 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Enjoy!

12.16.2010

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Though you may not be privy to this fact if you don't know me personally, my fiance Mike is actually a very talented aspiring stand-up comedian. Though he generally tries to stay away from topical humor (after all, why devote yourself to perfecting a joke that you know will grow stale when no longer relevant), he has a holiday-oriented joke that got me thinking about the American way. The idea actually came from his friend Mark who commented on the Christmas carol "Do You Hear What I Hear?" - in particular the lines "A child, a child/Shivers in the cold/Let us bring him silver and gold." The joke is essentially about how an American must have written this song because what the kid really needs is a blanket, not to have money thrown at him.

But that's how most Americans tend to deal with issues of need. Rather than drawing up sustainable and lasting solutions to problems, we often simply increase funding in the hopes of curbing them. But if we take a critical look at this approach, we'll recognize that such efforts will ultimately fail. After all, how many benefit concerts have raised how many millions of dollars for a variety of causes, from fighting world hunger to the treatment of certain diseases to stemming poverty, that are all still dominant social problems? Despite our best efforts at fund- and awareness-raising, many of these issues won't be contained simply by giving away thousands of millions of dollars away.

It all stems down to the age-old saying. "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." By simply buying food for the hungry or giving money to the poor, we may provide them with some semblance of comfort, safety, health, and support. But these conditions of relative security will always be temporary. If we really want to help, we need to find ways to help these people understand how to consistently feed themselves, how to generate a steady source of income to stay off the streets, how to lead healthy lifestyles and guard against disease. Charitable monies can only go so far in solving a problem, for they are temporary solutions to permanent problems. At some point, the money will run out, the problem will grow, the people in need will find themselves debilitated by the charitable crutch upon which they have come to depend.

So what can be done? Even in this time of relative economic insecurity, plenty of Americans have enough disposable income to donate to charity and they chose to do so to varying degrees. And sometimes, that money does help to establish long-term stability for people in need. Charitable giving is a great thing, especially in a society largely fueled by a "time is money" frame of mind. Few Americans have time to spare to travel to a foreign nation and teach natives the basics of sustainable agriculture, to provide comprehensive job-training and support to the unemployed, or to develop strategies for successfully controlling addiction and mental illness, two of the major forces that keep America's homeless on the streets. So for reasons as simple as a lack of time, knowledge, or skills, many people send off checks to charitable organizations, often without really researching the group in question's financial breakdown, overarching methodology, or day-to-day strategies to realize change. The benefactors behind many charitable donations simply don't know where their money is ultimately going.

I'm just as guilty as most. I find myself hard-pressed for time and unable to do the important research before giving. I give money to the homeless and food to the hungry without offering equally fundamental support in the form of imparted knowledge or referrals to available services. I'm not saying that you or I should feel compelled to pull over the next time we see a homeless person and give him or her a lecture on the basics of finding a job or a home. In fact, I imagine that to do so would be insulting and ultimately ineffective - who are we to consider ourselves experts, to presume that we know their struggle and the path necessary to overcoming it. A more obtainable goal is to simply spread knowledge as much as possible. When I was in high school, I volunteered with a student-run community service organization that focused primarily on the homeless population in Baltimore. Mostly this constituted volunteering in inner-city shelters, but one particularly significant idea I gained from this group was the idea of a resources card - a small piece of paper with a list of shelters, soup kitchens and other services, along with their phone numbers and addresses, to give to homeless individuals.

Many people make the argument that so many of the homeless whom they encounter on the streets have drug problems so it wouldn't be fruitful to give them money that would likely be spent on a drug-binge. Though I like to believe in the best of people, that some just come by inexplicably unfair hard times or have extenuating circumstances outside of their control that bring them to their homeless state, I admit that their is a good chance the drugs play a role in many of the homeless' homelessness. So I guess the resources card is an effective means of fighting such excuses while proposing more sustainable and productive solutions to problems. Rather than giving someone whatever change you've got in your pocket, give them a card full of information they can use to find a shelter for the night, a warm meal for breakfast, and maybe the assistance necessary to getting back on their feet. It won't yield an immediate solution and it will still be met with some resistance - after all, what can you provide by way of service referrals for the illiterate? Nonetheless, it's one small step toward solving a problem rather than throwing money at it. Because those seemingly small things - a bed, a meal - are actually of the utmost necessity; if your most basic needs aren't being met, how can you expect to work a job, support a family, help yourself?

But the resources card is just one method of addressing a larger problem that can't be solved with one simple step or even in our generation's lifetime. In Baltimore, as in countless other cities, there are innumerable organizations doing what they can to help those who aren't in a position to help themselves by providing shelter, food, job training, addiction counseling, mental health analysis, and a multitude of other services. But their efforts are often restricted by short staffing, insubstantial funding, limited resources, and countless people in need. The supply simply can't meet the demand.

And this is where charitable people with disposable income, and time, can come into play. Sure, large efforts like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Amnesty International, and the Sierra Club are in need of funding like any charitable non-profit and they do good work. But they reach mass audiences and have the standing to support larger fundraising efforts. While plenty of people send their money off to the Wilderness Society in return for a "Free Gift" in the form of a stuffed endangered species animal, I'm willing to bet that a larger portion of that donation would go to the cause truly driving an organization if it's smaller, a grassroots group working on the front lines in our own cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Donations should still be given with caution - thorough research is the best way to intimately know where you're money is going. But sometimes it's the smallest organizations with the greatest need that have the capacity to make a larger impact. A charitable donation of $100 is relatively nothing to large national and international agencies, such as the American Red Cross, but it could make all the difference for your local shelter that's reaching out to individuals on the streets.

There are many large charities doing wonderful work out there, and your donations are definitely worthwhile when rightfully given. And there are now websites out there to help ensure your donations will be effectively used, including Charity Navigator, a site dedicated to providing information about the financial health of charities so you can be a more informed giver and the American Institute of Philanthropy's Top-Rated Charities List which grades organizations based on statistics such as how much of their budget goes to projects rather than reserves and whether or not they disclose their financial information. Rather than urging you to shun the large guys, I'm just hoping to shed some light on the more rank-and-file work being done in your community that is often overlooked. By simply generating a Google search of "homeless shelter Baltimore," I was instantly connected with an endless number of organizations working in my own city to counter homelessness, and these were just the shelters.

Sometimes donating money in an effort to support solutions to social problems is our best option. But sometimes that money isn't as effectively used as we would hope; volunteering our time, even if just for a few hours once a year, can prove infinitely more valuable. Other times, vast financial need exists in worthy places that too often slip under the radar. With the new year coming up, plenty of organizations are begging for end of the year contributions and the generosity of the holiday spirit is in the air. So if you find yourself hoping to help out, whether as a volunteer, a charitable donor, or otherwise, I encourage you to spend a few minutes' time on research to ensure that the goodness of your intentions can be maximized. We need lasting solutions to problems, programs that encourage sustainability, knowledge, and self-sufficiency, not monetary expenditures that are about as useful as a bandaid over a cavernous flesh wound.

If you want to give, do so critically and wisely. If you want to help, think outside the box to create lasting solutions, not temporary palliatives. If you want to offer your support, ensure that it's going to a place defined by honesty and transparency.

12.15.2010

No Phone

 Just the other day, I lost one of my most prized possessions: a $20 antique silver ring that I've worn pretty much every single moment since I first bought it about two and a half years ago. I was torn up and tore my house apart in my search for the ring, going over every last step I took since the time when I imagined it had slipped off. Luckily my search lasted just a little over 24 hours, but it was a painful 24 at that. I don't know why I'm so attached to the ring or why it felt like the loss of something so much bigger, but now I cherish it in an entirely new way.

So I find it a bit laughable that I am so much less distraught over the loss of my iPhone. I didn't actually loose it - I'm not that absentminded - but it has died, I think irreparably so. I loved this phone mostly because of my very neurotic nature. I loved having my music and camera in one place, the world wide web at my fingertips, and most of all, the limitless notepad where I stored all the books I wanted to find at the library, music I planned on listening to, gift ideas, directions, potential topics for blog posts, and oh so much more that I think I have irretrievably lost.

But oddly enough, I feel enlightened, unburdened, carefree. Maybe a portion of my lack of distress is simple due to the fact that phones are replaceable. I doubt I'd replace this one with another iPhone for I'm much too poor to do that. But I almost wish I didn't have to replace my phone and could, instead, exist with simply internet access and a landline (though I don't have the latter so I guess this plan doesn't work out so well). But it's impossible to deny the fact that, sadly enough, I need some kind of telephone in order to communicate with the world. I walk dogs part time and my boss likes me to text her before I head out in the mornings so she knows that I'm covered for the day. I need to be on call for my other part time job because I work with kids and if they get out of school early or if something happens at the Community Center where I work, my boss needs to be able to get in touch with me quickly so I can adjust my schedule. Working with other people just makes it impossible to stay as isolated as I sometimes want. Even socially I imagine there would be repercussions. So many people just don't want to take the time to make a phone call these days, especially when a quick and easy text message will suffice. So for the person who may not be dying to talk to me, the fact that getting in touch with me would require picking up the phone and calling a landline could simply end our correspondence - that would just be too much effort. Which makes me feel bad about myself, but also about the ways that we communicate now and the changing shape of relationships.

On the one hand, I love constant connectivity because I can get in touch with someone at virtually any minute I think of it. If I want to let me fiance know I'll be home late, or if I see a funny reference to an inside joke with a friend, I can get my point across in a matter of seconds and connect with that other person. This is a blessing and a curse, and I guess the benefit of such connectivity doesn't always outweigh the downside.

I find myself constantly frustrated by people who don't pay attention to me because they're attached to their phones. There's a reason we have nicknames for these new forms of technology such as "Crackberry" and I have witnessed such addictions first-hand. Even people I know with not-so-"smart" phones are oftentimes constantly texting and missing the happenings before their very eyes. I'm not always so innocent because there have been times when my hurry to return a text or my fear of forgetting something before making a note of it on my phone have removed me more than was necessary from the present moment. And sadly this has almost become acceptable behavior which most people get away with scot-free. I'm a big fan of multitasking and I always wish there were more hours in a day to get to all the things I want to do, however there is a line that we are dangerously close to crossing with no hope of a return. It is simply impossible to multitask when it comes to conversations, relationships, and communication in general. Have you ever tried to carry on two conversations at once? In doing so, both parties are bound to get less than your full attention which is both rude and alienating. And that's my rant about the abundance of cellular phones and the danger of such plentitude - our relationships and conversations will suffer as we grow increasingly distant from those who we interact with face to face.

I know that people need to get in touch with me somehow for practical reasons, so I'll find a replacement. But I already spend too much of my time worrying about things other than the present moment, I don't need some new-fangled technology to add yet another distraction. So I think I'll be just fine with Mike's recycled flip phone - a Motorola model that I had some 5 years ago. I don't need to always be able to figure out what the name of the song on the radio is before it ends or to text people immediately once the urge to do so strikes or to have email capabilities at all times - smart phones really aren't necessary for my lifestyle. And I love that I had so much fun setting up my "old-fashioned" cell phone. Sure, I can't send or receive photos on it and I've lost the ability to get online, but I was just as excited (maybe even more so) to choose my settings, wallpaper, and ringtones for this phone as I would have been for a brand-spanking-new model. It's the simple things that do it for me. So, after relishing a few brief moments of phonelessness and soaking up every last vibration-free second, I'm back in the world of the hyper-connected. I've got an aged but reliable phone and, though the iPhone and I had a good run together, I'm perfectly content with reverting back to my roots. Who really needs an app for everything anyway?

Red Velvet Hot Cocoa


Red Velvet Hot Cocoa. Need I say more?

I saw the title for this recipe on Une-Deux Senses and knew I had to make this holiday drink. Then I saw the photos of the hot cocoa and knew there was no way I would not try this holiday drink as soon as possible. I quickly ran out to get all the necessary ingredients and fixed up two Red Velvet Hot Cocoas for myself and Mike that night. And then two more for me and my friend Autumn the next night. And then some for my family that weekend. And so now I've decided I have to share it with you. I wish I could take credit for this, but at the least I guess I can take credit for introducing you to yet another delightful way to indulge in red velvet - in hot cocoa form! Just be forewarned - this is a really rich and chocolatey drink and you can definitely use something other than whole milk if you want to go a bit less decadent and a bit more healthy! But if you'd prefer to go all out, it's a delicious and indulgent treat!


Red Velvet Hot Cocoa with Cream Cheese Whipped Cream
Original Recipes Retrieved from Une-Deux Senses


Ingredients
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 - 4 Tbsp whipped cream cheese, room temperature
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • Dash of water
  • 3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 tsp. red food coloring paste

Directions


1. Combine heavy cream and 1/4 cup of sugar in a standing mixer and whisk 3 to 4 minutes, just before peaks form.
2. Add cream cheese and whisk another two minutes. Taste and add more sugar or cream cheese as desired but be careful not to over-whip!
3. In a medium saucepan, warm the milk over medium high heat. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar, water and chocolate chips and stir constantly.
4. When the chocolate chips are almost melted, add the food coloring paste and continue to stir until the chips are completely melted.
5. Serve in mugs with a dollop of cream cheese whipped cream on top. Enjoy!

12.13.2010

Raising the Peaceable Kingdom

When I first picked up Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's Raising the Peaceable Kingdom, I really had no intentions of writing about it, especially not here. I mostly was drawn in by the book's tagline "What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Tolerance and Friendship." As of late, I've been an even more staunch animal-lover than usual, so this appealed to newly invigorated animal sensibility. With this book Masson essentially documents his journey of socializing seven animals from five different species to uncover truths about love, friendship, hatred, and the inborn nature of these deeply felt sentiments.

Masson attempted to bring into his household 5 different species of animals in as close a period of time as possible so they could grow together and, hopefully, forge relationships as deep as those of soul-mates. With two rats, a bunny, two chickens, a dog, and a kitten, along with his home's two mature cats, Masson and his family were consumed with feeding, walking, entertaining, cleaning up after, observing, and learning from and about their new pet friends.

The majority of Peaceable Kingdom is spent in chronicle of advances and observations made, friendships forged, barriers crossed, and lessons learned about these varied creatures. Though entertaining at times, some of the passages grew a bit tired; I continually heard about conflicts between the adult cats and the rats, about the kitten's unparalleled and good-natured disposition, the rabbit's preference for solitude, and the chickens' various demonstrations of love and trust of their owner and perceived protector. However it seemed that many of these accounts were repeated over and over again in different words. At least the book clocks in at a relatively short 170-some pages so it stands as a quick and easy read, allowing me a bit of forgiveness to Masson for his reiterations of already-established animal personalities.

Even when I had reached the last formal pages of the book, I wasn't really sold. Mostly I felt content about having nearly reached the end and grateful for the few new insights into animal nature and behavior provided within the book's pages. With the epilogue, however, Masson finally brought his project full circle, back to the insights into human nature that had set this story in motion and had so intrigued me when I first came across the book. Masson takes no time at all to lay claim to what he feels to be the greatest distinction between humans and all other animals: "Humans are the only animal to engage in wars, genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity."

All too often when humans are colloquially compared to animals, they are analogized to the wildly, beastly nature of undomesticated creatures. When we use the phrase that someone "behaves like an animal," what are we really saying? To whom are we really making a comparison? Surely not with any animal I know. True, I'm mostly accustomed to spending my time with domesticated animals, but even the wild ones I come across in my hikes, travels, and even everyday activities in settings from rural to urban rarely display the sort of deep-seated animosity, ruthlessness, and gratuitous hatred that inhabits the hearts and minds of humans. As suggested by Masson, our assessment of animals, most specifically when utilized in comparison to the worst of human nature, seems to be entirely inaccurate.

Sure hunting, killing, and territoriality are common to the animal kingdom but only in the context of need. For animals, there is no mass murder within or across species, whether motivated by differences real or imagined, pure cruelty, or hatred. Rather, we primarily see animals take one another's lives in the name of food. Ultimately predator-prey relationships can explain nearly any and all of the deaths incurred to animals by animals, for the only reason they have to kill is to feed themselves or their pack.

Humans, on the other hand, have an outrageously and shamefully heinous history of killing with motivations much less fundamental, integral, and honest. Masson points out how many of the tyrants behind acts of genocide conceptualized the people they aimed to make extinct as animals, as belonging to another species. The reason that humans are able to wreak such mass destruction on animals is, as Masson wisely notes, the underlying "assumption that humans are always and everywhere entitled to eliminate any animal species they choose." The self-serving human attitude that this world and all of its inhabitants are here for the taking perpetuates travesties not only across the species boundary but also among those of our own kind.

Within the epilogue of Peaceable Kingdom, Masson makes a heartfelt observation about our incomprehensible capacity for hatred on grounds imaginary, exaggerated, and unjustified. Following a brief review of the mass murders, genocides, exterminations, and massacres of the twentieth century, Masson contemplates those most simple incidents of dislike on an individual level, such as the way people from different regions of the very same country, or even the very same city, could house such deep hatred of one another for reasons invisible to the outsider, and even the sparing parties themselves. For animals outside the human race, such incidences and emotions are virtually unknown. Mice aren't born with an innate hatred of cats, they don't even learn to hate cats, but rather they fear them as only prey could fear a most dangerous predator. In the wild, animals don't harbor murderous intents but instead follow their hunting instincts when hunger strikes, and in most cases, only then.

Another interesting point included within the final pages of Masson's work: Much national symbology exalts predatory animals (think eagles, bears, lions) but in reality, these animals don't wage war the way we do, they don't kill with merciless and savage intentions. As Americans, we have so much pride in the bald eagle. Why don't we mirror more of the majesty, honor, and beauty that this raptor embodies, rather than mistakenly manifest his predatory instincts in needless war and unwarranted cruelty?

Far too many of the ways we conceptualize violence, cruelty, hatred, and more are wrongly associated with animals. I'm having trouble writing this without resorting to synonyms that harken to wrongful characterizations of undomesticated animals - savage, wild, beastly. Sure, a lion could act in a savage and brutal manner when stalking its prey, but the killing is out of necessity and not spite. "Inhumane" is a more apt word to describe much of the hatred and cruelty that people from history and in the present demonstrate. Rather than comparing our wrongful thoughts and actions to the beasts, we need to conceptualize them as sub-human, as in opposition to humanity. I'd like to believe that our history of hatred is the result of a mistakenly learned behavior, a turn humanity took for the worse somewhere along the line, rather than an inborn capacity for depravity. I'd like to believe that, like other animals of all species, our actions are not meant to be motivated by loathing, animosity or cruel and baseless intentions.

If seven animals spanning five different species in a home on the beach in New Zealand can achieve such peace, such friendship, even soulmate-status as Masson's kitten and rabbit ultimately did, what can the human race say for itself? How can we justify our history of inhumane actions and continue to erroneously believe we are better than other species of animals when we are unable to achieve such simple things as peace and kindness which Masson has demonstrated are attainable in merely a year in the animal community?

I think Masson's point was best made by the example of his two-year-old son. He compares the ability of small children and animals to feel compassion without thought, hesitation, or equivocation. When out to eat at a sushi restaurant, two-year-old Manu asked what type of sushi a certain roll was and his mother told him it was cooked chicken sushi. Given Manu's fondness for the chickens living in his home on account of his father's peaceable kingdom project, Manu strictly declared he would not eat his friends. Even as a toddler, Manu decided to become a vegetarian after he made the connection between his love for two members of another species and the food on his plate. This isn't a plea to stop eating meat - though I've dabbled in vegetarianism, I have done so for reasons other than animal cruelty, for there are ways to eat meat that don't require ruthless slaughtering, inhumane conditions, and miserable lives for the animals before they reach your plate. Rather, I'm hoping to emphasize the connection that Manu made at a sushi restaurant and the point that his father hoped to explicate with this book. Manu knew those two chickens as people, he didn't view them as another species, and he had yet to share in the feeling many humans have that other species are theirs to do with entirely as they please. Masson's son demonstrated the peaceable, compassionate, and thoughtful nature that, I would like to believe, is ultimately innate in all human beings. But it's interesting to note that he didn't just demonstrate this love and feeling for another human, he felt it for an animal of an entirely separate species. So maybe it is only by channeling the innocent and pure love, kindness, benevolence, and friendship of a toddler that we can hope to overcome the strength of hatred, the terror of genocide, the heartlessness of humanity.

The animal kingdom is not full of brutal beasts and killing-machines as some humans are wont to believe. In fact, these phrases more aptly describe certain examples of human behavior than that of wild animals. I'm not saying all, or even most, humans are evil beings. I know plenty of people whose lives and work are defined by compassion, kindness, selflessness. I do feel that there are been gross atrocities committed at the hand of men to inflict uncalled for pain and suffering upon other men - and I feel that we have to do what we can to right these wrongs. Though we can't make up for the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, or any of the other devastating actions, big or small, that have damaged the human race, we can set a new track for the future. By exercising generosity and understanding, by recognizing the cavernous need plaguing our neighbors near and far, by not turning a blind eye or rushing to feelings of indifference or hatred, we can help erase the face of our brutal human past in order to create a more gentle and promising world, not unlike the world in which Masson's seven animal friends existed. Through Masson's critical eye on the misconceptions and realities of the animal and human worlds, I hope that we, as humans, will attempt to create a more peaceable kingdom come by the example of animal nature, a nature in which humans have a large share.

12.12.2010

Martha Stewart Craft of the Day

I'm a self-professed Martha Stewart junkie. Whenever I'm in a craft funk, I turn to her website, her books and her magazines for the inspiration to keep creating. Around the holidays (and often months before anyone else eve begins to think about Christmas), I'm surfing Martha's site for holiday ideas and taking advantage of the fact that her holiday books are all in stock at the library... although not for long once I've ransacked the shelves. Though I know plenty of people have their beef with Martha, and I don't really blame them, I also think she's an extremely talented woman who has built an empire out of domesticity and crafting.

A small part of the feminist inside of me hates that she has further entrenched and capitalized upon grossly traditional female roles as housekeeper, cook, etc. On the other hand, she has turned these oft-despised at-home tasks on their head, taking advantage of any and all opportunities to introduce another degree of artistry into the home. My feelings toward Martha Stewart and all that she represents are dueling inside of me - I love nearly everything about what she does and how she does it. She is a master of domestic beautification, the culinary arts, fine crafting, and extravagant planning, among an infinite number of other skills. But is she making us women succumb to the notion that our greatest ambitions in life should be seated at the home, in the kitchen, cleaning, cooking, and decorating?

I digress... this post isn't supposed to be about my ambivalence toward what Martha Stewart represents, but rather about her innovation and some of the ways in which she makes her ideas so accessible to the common crafter. I get emails from both Martha Stewart and Martha Stewart Weddings on a regular basis with seasonal craft and event ideas. All you need to do is visit the Martha Stewart website (or the Martha Stewart Weddings website) and sign up for the Craft of the Day newsletter.  Featuring everything from elegant decorating tips for the holidays to kid-friendly crafts and handmade gift ideas, these emails provide me with an abundance of projects to try and file away and always keep me thinking creatively and craftily.

I don't think this little campaign for team Martha is really a revelation to any of my readers - I'm sure everyone knows who she is and can, at the very least, appreciate her creative genius. More than anything, I hope that this little post helps inspire further creativity among the blogosphere and gives credit where credit is due. I know there are plenty of times where I feel like I get locked into the same sort of creative mode and can't break out, whether I'm constantly sewing or find myself unable to disengage from paper crafting. Whenever I need to find some new ideas or take on another type of project, Martha is my go-to resource and never once have she and her team failed me.

So if you find yourself in a creative rut, you're looking for some holiday inspiration, DIY wedding ideas, or you're simply in the mood to take on a new project, I'm going to advocate looking to Martha first. I've been searching through books, blogs, and magazines, but still have yet to find any source that so consistently churns out marvelous ideas and ceaseless inspiration as the Martha Stewart name.

And to prove my point, here are a few of my favorites from Martha's holiday archive.

Teacup Candles - Yeah, I know I've blogged about this idea before (I actually thought of it myself before I saw it on Martha's website), but it's such a great gift and a really wonderful way to add a bit more homemade ambience to your place!

Light Bright Artwork - I think this decorating idea is so fun and doesn't have to be limited to the holidays! It could be transformed to be seasonally appropriate, whether it be Christmas, the Fourth of July, or just a year-round decorating element!

Paper Doily Wreath - I was never much into wreaths until I delved into Martha's collection and all the possibilities were revealed to me! Gone are the days of your mother's craft fair wreaths! I used to think wreaths were largely decorated according to the country home look, but Martha has wreaths for all seasons with styles from modern to classic to outdoorsy to eclectic - and they're so easy to make yourself!

Christmas Tree Place Cards - A festive way to seat guests at a holiday table! Using objects found in nature, this place setting is full of the scents and sights of the season, low-cost, and so simple.

Cookie Cutter Ornaments - Sure, cookie cutters are a staple of your holiday traditions, but have you ever thought to decorate with them? This is a great way to personalize the adornments on your holiday tree. Using family photographs and colorful paper as backing, these ornaments are unique and a great way to reuse worn-out cookie decorating tools.

Recycled Paper Gift Wrap - This woman can make even a newspaper-wrapped gift look good. By combining reused papers of a given color scheme, this recycled gift wrapping looks as festive as it is eco-friendly.

12.10.2010

Christmas Cookie Countdown #7: Molasses Ginger Cookies


Nothing screams Christmas better than some molasses gingerbread cookies. These are a slight deviation from the traditional gingerbread cookie, but they have become pretty traditional around the holidays in my house because they're just that delicious (and I only started making them last Christmas!). Chewy with a subtle kick of ginger and coated in sugar, these are the perfect cookies to satisfy your sweet tooth after a savory holiday meal. And they're super-simple to make! Plus, the dough can be made a day ahead of time and popped in the fridge until you're ready to bake, making them even more friendly at this time of year when your schedule is more hectic than ever!

I usually halve the dough because 5 cups of sugar just intimidates me - that's going to yield way too big a batch for me to resist! But either way you go is fine... I do like to halve the recipe and go generous on the spices to ensure I've got big flavor though. For the original high-yield recipe (which actually was an adaptation of a Martha Stewart recipe), click on the link but for my slightly doctored and significantly smaller recipe (still clocking in at over 4 dozen cookies!), just scroll down!

Chewy Molasses Ginger Cookies
adapted from Food for Poems



Ingredients
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Zest of one orange
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Turbinado or demerara sugar for coating in
Directions

1. In large bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar.
2. Add eggs and stir until blended.
3. Add molasses, vanilla, and orange zest, stirring to incorporate.
4. Sift together flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and salt. Add to wet ingredients.
5. Chill dough for at least one hour or overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare baking sheets with cooking spray or parchment paper.
7. Form dough into teaspoon-sized balls with your hands (it's definitely easier if you wet your hands - this is a sticky dough!). Roll in sugar and arrange on cookie sheet - these cookies need their space so be careful not to crowd your baking sheet!
8. Cook 14-18 minutes, until faintly brown at the edges and just set in the middle. Enjoy!

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