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Our decorated gingerbread men, snowflakes and more.
Today we decorated ginger cookies. It's not a traditional gingerbread recipe so the cookies are softer and bake up puffy. They lose their defined edges but are pleasantly plump! I make these cookies as drop cookies throughout the year with just a sprinkle of sugar on top. I think they taste even better with just the sugar, but decorating is always fun!
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The dry ingredients spiced with great color from the ground ginger and cinnamon.
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Recipe uses canola oil, not butter.
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Thick molasses pours easily from the measuring cup that held the oil.
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Liquid ingredients just before adding the flour mixture.
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After adding the flour, the dough becomes quite dense. This is a double batch.
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Divide the dough and flatten into discs. Refrigerate for easier rolling and cutting.
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Rolling on parchment paper makes for easy clean up!
These ginger cookies are based on NYC's Magnolia Bakery's Iced Ginger Cookie, though I have adapted them slightly by reducing the amount of oil. When I follow their recipe, I feel like I can literally taste the oil and there's even an oily texture. Reducing the oil makes the cookie a tad firmer but it remains moist.

Franny & Jordan believe that when you come home from school, the house should smell of fresh-baked cookies. I try to oblige when I can, and I love this recipe because they are optimal for spur-of-the-moment baking since there's no butter that has to be softened the night before. Although I tend to fret about the future, I'm not very good about actually planning and organizing the small things. I often bring out a stick of butter, but then don't have time to bake with it. I've always envied the moms who can conceive a week's worth of meals, shop and prep those dinners on the weekends, and then enjoy easier weeknights after being at work all day. And I've always wished to live within walking distance of a produce and meat market so I wouldn't have to plan anything at all. These simple cookies are just right when you're craving a fresh-baked dessert but didn't know you'd have time to bake!

It's the holiday season so I took some time off work and had the luxury to make the  dough last night. We invited Franny & Jordan's friend, Elle, to our house to bake and decorate. 
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Snipping the corner of a zipper lock bag makes for an easy pastry bag. The bigger the snip, the wider the piping.
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Franny decorates a house.
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My gingerbread gal boasts a bodice.

Ginger Cookie, slightly adapted from Magnolia Bakery
yield: about 4 dozen gingersnap size cookies, or 12 gingerbread men

Equipment
stand mixer
large bowl for dry ingredients
measuring cups, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons
spatula
plastic wrap
spring-action melon baller (if making round cookies)
rolling pin & cookie cutters (if making shaped cookies)

Dry Ingredients
2C flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients
1/2C canola oil
1C sugar**
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
*Magnolia Bakery recipe uses 3/4 cup canola oil
**If you don't ice the cookies, then sprinkle with additional sugar (about 2-3T). Course sugar gives a nice texture and gives it sparkle

Procedure for cookie dough
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
2. Combine dry ingredients in a big bowl & set aside
3. In a mixer bowl, beat together oil and sugar
4. Add egg & combine
5. Add molasses & beat well*
6. On low, gradually add the dry ingredients. Use a spatula to incorporate any dry bits stuck to the bottom
7. If making drop cookies, cover the mixer bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes or overnight. Or seal in an air tight container and bake off a few cookies each night for a week.
8. If you want gingersnap-size cookies, use a melon baller to portion the dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet (or ungreased cookie sheet)
9. With your finger, lightly depress the cookies to flatten slightly for more uniform cooking
10. Sprinkle lightly with sugar
11. Bake for 9-1/2 to 10 minutes for a slightly chewy interior & crusty exterior.**
12. Cool on baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, and then transfer to a baking rack to cool

Alternate directions for cookie-cutter cookies:
7b. If making cookie-cutter cookies, plop half the dough onto plastic wrap and flatten into a thick disk. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.
8b. Lightly flour your rolling surface (parchment paper, cutting board (not used for vegetables or meat) or kitchen counter) and rolling pin
9b. Remove plastic wrap and roll dough to 1/4" thick
10b. Use cookie cutters and place cookies on cookie sheet with at least 2" in between cookies
11b. Combine dough scraps into a ball, and re-refrigerate. Combine with scraps from 2nd disk and roll again
12b. Bake for 7-1/2 minutes
13b. Cool on baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, and then transfer to a baking rack to cool

*Be sure to use the same measuring cup for the molasses as you used to measure the oil. The canola will slick the glass and the sticky molasses will easily pour completely from the cup.
**For a crisp cookie, flatten the cookie more before baking. Or for chewier cookies, adjust baking time or make cookies larger.

Icing Equipment
medium bowl
medium metal spoon for stirring
measuring spoons
citrus reamer & mesh strainer

Icing Ingredients (not from Magnolia Bakery)
1C powdered sugar
2T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
warm water, if needed
I love the slight tartness from the lemon juice. It keeps the cookies from getting too sweet.

Procedure for Icing
1. Mix powdered sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until smooth. 
2. Add small amounts of warm water, if needed, to achieve proper consistency. If using as "glue" for adding candy to cookies or piping from a bag, keep it thicker. If drizzling, make thinner.
Most recipes recommend sifting the powdered sugar, but I find that this step isn't really necessary if you stir it enough—one less thing to wash!
3. Be sure cookies are completely cool before icing
 
 
For Dave's 50th birthday, we went to see Mary Roach, a science writer and humorist who has written such books as Stiff, Bonk, and most recently, Gulp, speak as part of the City Arts & Lecture series at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco. It was an entertaining evening, and Roach is a great storyteller as she recounted funny anecdotes from her research. The Q & A portion was surprisingly interesting and absent were the typical gooey praise for the speaker. Through Roach's answers of a few different questions, she spoke about her own insecurities, self-criticism and general worry that her writing won't be good enough, clear enough, funny enough. But what struck me is how her insecurities became motivators. What makes one person's low self-esteem productive, and for another person, their low self-esteem creates paralysis? It seems like at the root of both people is fear—fear of being insignificant, fear of failure, fear of being judged. Roach commented that she only shares the drafts of her book with her trusted editor, because anyone else's feedback might cause her to abandon the whole project. That sounds like a lot of self-doubt for a best-selling author, and I don't believe that she was just being self-effacing. So how do her fears manifest in book after book, while for me and others I know, that fear results in not pursuing our goals?

One possibility may be that success could be a defensive posture to counter shame and lack of self-worth. But why does the insecure productive person's desire override their fear? Does their need for attention trump their worry about judgement? For others, those feelings of worthlessness compound on top of each other and create nothing but regret. 
What are the qualitative differences between the insecure person who has found success and the insecure person who is stuck?
On television, reality show and celebrity interview after interview, low self-esteem and narcissism rear their ugly heads time and time again. I understand that fame attracts those qualities—the need for attention from your director or your audience offers reassurance and belonging—I realize that this is a gross overstatement, but for argument's sake, is that need for affirmation so great that it suppresses the fear of rejection? Shouldn't that kind of lack of confidence cause these stars to crawl up into a ball and hide, instead of pursuing their goals with such dedication? This is such a mystery to me. It's something that I need to unlock. I want to perform. I want to have the resiliency to go to auditions, to network and to slough off rejection, all the while building skills to help me get cast the next time. But it feels all too much for me, at least at this point in time. My love of performing does not trump these feelings of doubt. And the very fact that they don't, makes me question myself even more.

I've always thought that content people are the individuals who have healthy self-esteem, who feel uncertainty but move through those uncomfortable stages until they travel to the other side and complete their tasks. But listening to Mary Roach last week made me realize that many of these seemingly successful people are filled with more than just a little healthy self-doubt. How does she manage her apprehension to keep working, researching and writing? 
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Birthday boy with his girls at Smitten in SF.
How does one person's youth filled with lack of stability, financial insecurity and unloving relationships motivate them to become competent and wealthy, while for another, it just reemphasizes scarcity and keeps them down?

How does one person have enough belief in themselves to see their ideas through, while another lets the world pass them by?

How does one person decide they are an authority on a subject and become a professor, a mechanic, a surgeon?

At the heart of the situation, I think that we attempt to raise our children, to teach our students, to help our friends, our family, ourselves, to listen to our feelings (whether they are filled with fear, joy or something in between) and to have the emotional tools to act upon our needs. We try to not judge others and to not judge ourselves. We strive for empathy and to open ourselves to experience. And hopefully that is an easier thing to learn when you are a young person who has not lived through damaging relationships and disappointments. Maybe our children will be more resilient to those harmful situations and will gain strength from them instead of having their spirits crushed. But what of the folks who have been deflated. How do they aspire to their potential?

My real question is: What are the qualitative differences between the insecure person who is productive and the insecure person who is stuck? I feel that this is fertile ground for exploration and some answers could open a new path of inquiry for me to follow in my own efforts to release my uncertainty and embrace my aspirations. I know that not many folks read this blog (as I've been too shy to widely publicize my nascent writing) but if you have thoughts on this subject or know someone who might, please make comments below, pass the question along, or drop me a line!
 
 
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Franny & Jordan looking elegant on the new Bay Bridge bike path.
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AT-AT walker-inspired cranes at the Port of Oakland visible from beneath the old bridge girders.
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The old and the new temporarily converge at Treasure Island.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed the warm fall weather and explored the new Bay Bridge Trail that recently opened along the East span of the Oakland - San Francisco Bay Bridge. The path is open to pedestrians and bicycles, and there were a fair number of both walkers and cyclists out that day. We parked on Burma Road (off Maritime street) where there is a makeshift parking lot that sits at the start of the path. It's quite a slog (about 1.5 miles) as you walk along the approach and along the toll plaza before finally sloping upwards to where the old bridge becomes visible. It's farther still before the new tower anchoring the suspension cables gloriously comes into view. It's interesting to see the old bridge, something I've traveled over since I was a child, vacant and dark and dangerous due to its seismic instability. Alongside is now a pristine, architectural beauty; all crisp lines and curves, and on this particularly gorgeous and clear afternoon, the bridge and bay evoked the Mediterranean with azure skies and contrasting white wash.

Biking would allow you to zoom by the under-the-freeway parts and get to the new in a third of the time. But then you might miss the lazy conversations, taking photos, singing and craning your neck to admire the top of the tower and the stunning span. All in all, it's about 7 miles round trip from the Maritime lot.

Walking across bridges is one of my favorite things to do. The Golden Gate Bridge is wild and windy at the mouth of the Pacific, and the Brooklyn Bridge, traveling towards Manhattan, offers such gorgeous views. I love the sense of suspension over the water. The feeling is thrilling, but there is also a sense of security because a bridge is anchored by land masses on both sides. Bridges combine ingenuity, beauty and are literal representations of connection. Walking across such architectural behemoths offers both a synchronicity with nature and an undaunted flaunting of her forces. 
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Grateful to be surrounded by love and more love.
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Walking towards home and looking forward to crepes and frozen yogurt!
 
 
Today is Franny and Jordan's 14th birthday. We started the morning off with candy-in-their-shoes. Franny requested Fran's Chocolates salted caramels, dark chocolate truffles from Chocolatier Blue, See's Candies scotchmallows, Smarties, and I threw in a small bar of Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Choolate from Chocolove, and See's Candies peppermint twists. Jordan requested lemon drops (the good kind, i.e. not from the drugstore. I made a special trip to Sweet Dreams on College avenue in the Elmwood district of Berkeley, and while I was there, I picked up a bag of my fave, swedish fish! Jordan's right; the quality of bulk candy from a real candy store is so much tastier). Other requests were See's Candies dark almond clusters, scotchmallows, loads of Smarties, and I added Chocolove's Raspberries in Dark Chocolate, a flavor combo that Jordan really enjoys.
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Franny looks divine in this retro style dress. My bad photo doesn't capture the color well.
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Jordan looks splendid in this colorful harlequin pattern, but the dress is just too big on the top. Back it goes.
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That's one happy girl wearing a wrapping paper hat and wielding an axe—an item from her wish list!
Franny asked me to make the Rich Chocolate Tart from the recent issue of Cook's Illustrated for their birthday cake. It's proving to be completely challenging! I'm writing as I go because the recipe calls for many breaks where you refrigerate the dough before it's rolled, after it's rolled, and on and on. I think it's highly unlikely that this thing is going to come out anything like it looks in the the photo. Even after watching the free video on the Cook's Illustrated website, my dough did not come together like expected. Although the recipe did not specify, I think ice cold butter is needed. One can see that if I were writing a professional cooking blog, I'd make a recipe dozens of time before trying to document with photos and tips! Alas, it's my small kitchen, below par instruments and my inexperience bringing this recipe to you. But that's also the point of my blog, to help me remember details of a recipe, to test if it's too complicated and not worth the effort to make again, and just fun for me to do. So here goes. It's a good way to spend my Saturday since Franny and Jordan are at school in rehearsal all day anyway!
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The dough didn't come together as a ball after adding the egg mixture to the dry ingredients. My guess is the butter got too warm.
ARGH! I hate recipes that require so many special pieces of equipment. Not having a tart pan with a removable bottom is proving to be a real problem. What I have is a pastry ring (a metal ring w/ no bottom) so the ring and dough are sitting directly on a sheet pan sprayed with non-stick spray (another ARGH! I realized that I accidentally bought Pam Baking which includes flour in the spray. I was wondering why the spray function was so damn hard to press and then sprayed with such force). The recipe calls to freeze the tart shell for 25 minutes right before baking. I threw the whole sheet pan in the freezer since the sheet pan is functioning as the bottom of my crust, but then afterwards realized that the sheet pan is now ice cold and the temperature in my pre-heated oven will drop considerably. I basically said, "screw it!" and it's baking now and I have no idea how much more time may be required for it to cook, nor if I will lose the nice golden brown color due to my pan mishaps. I suppose I should have used aluminum foil as a liner for the pastry ring...doh! So I'm scrapping the photos, the details, the equipment list, etc. The recipe should be up on the Cook's Illustrated site for a few months before they make it inaccessible for non-subscribers. Send me a comment or an email if you really want the recipe and I'll see what I can do. Here's the link: Rich Chocolate Tart, from Cooks Illustrated, November & December 2013 issue

Another ARGH! butter is oozing out beneath the pastry ring while it's baking in the oven, and I don't have it on a rimmed sheet pan so hopefully it's not going to gush all over the oven! This is actually getting to be pretty hilarious. Now I'm off to make the filling...
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Given all the hardships that proceeded this step, this looks pretty good. Now to cool, three hours to set in the refrigerator, and then glaze.
Making the filling proved to be simple—thank goodness—but I had so much leftover. The recipe calls for an 11" tart pan, and I was forced to use a 9" pastry ring, but unexpectedly, I didn't have any left-over dough. Obviously I did not roll the dough thin enough. I saved the filling and if it's delicious, I'll try the tart shell recipe again tomorrow (if I dare!) or maybe will make a pie crust using Dave's recipe.
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Franny with the final product.
We're too full to try the tart now, but I'm not waiting to post. Happy birthday to my babies! 
 
 
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Self-portrait: At the "Rest & Relax" center at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, Korea.

I'm enjoying a nine hour lay-over at Incheon International airport in Seoul, Korea. Who would ever think lay-over and enjoy would be in the same sentence! Sure I'd rather be on my way home, but if one has to spend long hours in an airport, then Incheon is the place to be.

Fast WiFi, free lounge chairs in a quiet zone where I was actually able to sleep this morning (I departed Koror, Palau, at 2:55AM this morning), decent and reasonably priced food (I had tempura udon but forgot to photograph it) for about nine bucks, 110 volt charging stations, drinking fountains that are clearly marked as purified drinking water, every designer store conceivable (if you're into that), and finally a cultural center where you can do arts and crafts while listening to live music. Whoa--this place rocks. Korean Air has also been exemplary with efficient boarding and courteous in-flight service. They don't wake you up during mealtimes! The economy class seats seem way more spacious than normal Anerican carriers, too.

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Korean Traditional Cultural Experience in the departures area where I got todo arts and crafts.
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Making a print of a traditional roof tile with lotus design by stamping with an ink-soaked cotton tool .
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Hand-painted a Dancheong Bokjumeoni (a good luck charm) using bright colors that exemplify how traditional wood buildings were decorated. This was a very relaxing activity!

I board in an hour. Land in SFO in twelve and hopefully will be awake enough to pick up my babies when 5PM rolls around. They have callbacks for the school play--break a leg! I'll try to post about Palau this weekend!

 
 
I'm off to Palau, a chain of islands in Micronesia, east of the Philippines and northeast of Indonesia. The time difference is 16 hours from California, and it will take me about a day to travel there. I leave on Saturday and will be gone fourteen days from my family. For weeks, I've felt tinges of, "What was I thinking?!" and pangs of homesickness, before I've even left, for the cozy comforts that I share with Franny and Jordan and the joy I feel when I hear their lovely voices chattering away. At this point in my life, I'm used to traveling with the girls and Dave. They are my home away from home, and they make being on the road just like bringing your nest along with you. When Dave and I used to travel together before the girls were born, we would think of ourselves as a snail, carrying our home on our backs. Marilyn, my mother-in-law, has a saying that, "No matter where you are, there you are." I think she means that there is always that one familiar thing—yourself—to rely on among all the unknown.

There is something about traveling to the opposite side of the Earth and the remoteness of Palau that makes this two week trip feel so much further and more daunting (and likely will make the experience so much richer once I'm there). Luckily, I will be with two friends, who I met on a trip years ago, as well as Ron, the group's trip leader, who is also a friend. When I arrive, Ron will be there to meet me, and I will stay a few nights with his family, and sleep in his son's room which I imagine to have the familiar feel of toys and more toys. All of these people will add to my enjoyment and keep my tendency to feel lonely at bay.

The flying portion of any of my trips combines a pleasant amount of anonymity that can be liberating but can also be a source for melancholy. When I was young, my parents and I hardly went anywhere, and so when I was older and began to travel more, I loved the feeling of airports. People were going places, there was adventure and romance, and I was one of many who were participating in this global arena. Now, the sheen has worn away and the plane ride is just tiresome, and I get a bit squirrelly and claustrophobic. Oh, how I long to have access to a portkey or some floo powder!

With a journey, there is more self-sufficiency, a simpler life where everything you need is in one perfectly packed bag. It's a design challenge to find and fit all the essentials, an opportunity for perfectionism overkill, for analyzing and predicting numerous possible scenarios. But what of the spontaneity and surrender to the unknown adventure? Maybe that heightened state can only be achieved once you have brought your luggage and all its contents into sublime balance prior to your trip. One would think that were true, given that I had nearly finished packing a week early, and have had a running list for about a month now! Seriously though, there is a liberation in not being weighed down by your possessions, the clutter of your daily life. Each time Dave and I return from a trip to Europe, we attempt to extend the Scandinavian design sensibility into our home, all clean lines and open space, or the carefree Mediterranean style of good food and long conversation. It's a way of life that we aspire to but can be difficult to maintain within the drudgery of daily America, with its longer work hours for less time off, and the emphasis on ownership and individualism rather than community and experience.

Traveling holds so much allure for me, and as my trip nears, I am getting excited. There are new adventures, new friends, new tastes and smells, tangible experiences that are multi-faceted and sear into your memory like nothing else. Travel holds the mystique of reinvention, an opportunity to be at your brightest, the chance to leave behind your mundane or neurotic routine and instead to be open and ready to savor. A foreign place can be tiring and taxing and can often push us nearly beyond our limits. But while we explore—while we embrace our wanderlust—we are more flexible, more able to squeeze and stretch. It's partially due to the newness of the situation, but mostly about attitude. While on a trip, there are
 instances when we are scared, exhausted, disappointed, ill, confused—all manner of emotional conditions that we normally try to avoid—and yet, when we are able to push through these hardships, to prevail, it is in those moments that we grow. It is here in this space where our minds and hearts expand. It is here where you realize that you are you, no matter where you are. It was not this better self that exists only while traveling, but it is you, your essence, and we can tap that source of energy even at home. So travel is practice; an opportunity to dip into that well of strength and hope and to rekindle within ourselves that breadth and depth that is within us.
 
 
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Fake food of my fake food, needle felted by Jordan
Today is my birthday. Coincidentally it is also my Free Friday so I'm enjoying a very lovely leisurely day. We began with candy in my shoes, fresh-baked muffins and presents. I received the most wonderful and thoughtful gifts—and so many! An artfully designed wiFi speaker from soundfreaq. The girls and I are listening to Yo-Yo Ma while I write. The new Cooks Illustrated compendium, The Science of Good Cooking, to further my culinary explorations; a gorgeous newly release boxed set of The Complete Sherlock Holmes—stunning cover art and wood block prints throughout—which Jordan has all ready dived into; and the most charming and delightful handcrafted gifts from the girls. 

I am so impressed with the girls ability to do things, to make things, to conceive and execute. Franny knitted a scarf—oh, how I love the colors and stripes!—using two new stitches that she learned while watching YouTube videos. She has a fantastic spatial sense and an ability to self-teach and tackle new concepts. Franny also made me a darling beanie, with a peaked top that resembles the stem of an acorn, that she knit using circular needles, alternating normal and vertical stitches, and all made without a pattern. 
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Fresh blueberry muffins baked by Franny
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Needle felted gnome that we named Toady. He's adorabubble which is beyond adorable.
Jordan ripened her needle felting skills by making a gnome (so tubby & cute!) and fake food fruit. She led me out to the dining room with eyes closed for a surprise reveal of handmade green apples, yellow pears, orange and twin cherries arranged to match the cover art of my blog. It amazes me that she can sit with a blob of wool, to then transform it into the very thing she imagined.

Franny and Jordan are an inspiration to me. They can be shy to talk to a sales clerk at a store, but they are fearless when it comes to devoting their energy to a project. Verbal acuity will happen as they mature; their curiosity and enthusiasm seem innate. The mission will be to foster that passion and creativity throughout their lives.
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With my Bear, and wearing the hand-knitted scarf she made me
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The celebrations started yesterday at work with a beautifully moist layer cake baked by Carole.
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Gorgeous bouquet!
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Tin Cup Serenade at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden's Redwood Grove Thursday Summer Concert Series, with the girls and Caryn
My past birthdays have been fun, melancholic, hectic, full of expectation, but always a time of contemplation. As the start of my new year begins, I find myself in an unusual (but getting more common) sweet spot of laid back reflection. It's been a tough year due to relationship problems that Dave and I face, but it is has also been a year filled with good growing pains. I've stretched these past months in ways that I've wanted to for the longest time. My blog currently offers a creative play space that is easier to attain than juggling schedules for rehearsals or expensive glass blowing classes. I've enjoyed my attempts to try new recipes. My blogging serves as a jumping off point for remembering the past, the preservation of new experiences, and therapeutic as I develop as a parent, partner and individual. 

What are my goals for the new year? Should I have specific objectives? Maybe the golden ticket would be to not set forth a series of intentions but to let each day unfold. But I think that's a bit far-reaching, after all, I called my sweet spot, "laid back reflection." I will always like to plan, I will always enjoy puzzling over meaning. Dave shared with me a beautiful essay,What's on Your Mind? by Joyce Dyer. Dyer speaks to her jumbled thinking patterns and how it feeds her imagination. 
For too long, I’ve mistrusted this mind of mine. I let conventional organization rush in too soon, and I chased away the reflection and associative chaos particular to the way I think — traits I’ve begun to honor now. 

-Joyce Dyer, What's on Your Mind?
I do believe that the act of self-acceptance, albeit difficult for some of us, does cultivate creativity. It's our individual approaches, our zebra stripes if you will, that make our voices unique. So why not acknowledge those quirks instead of trying to eradicate them. Possibly by embracing that my mind likes to mull things over, I might be able to continue my beneficial contemplativeness while letting go of the more debilitating aspects of scrutiny and rumination. Would that allow me to sense more intuitively, to be more in the moment? By accepting the way my mind works, could I lose the exhaustive commentary of self-judgement, and allow life to unfold with a balance of awareness and joy? Self-acceptance also fosters connection; a kindness towards yourself engenders a reciprocal loop of generosity and receptivity to the larger world. So let's start the year not with an agenda, but trust ourselves to know what we feel, to act upon those sensations and to allow our lives to be enriched with love.
 
 
Danny MacAskill is a professional street trials rider (think parkour on a bike), and his latest Imaginate creation finds him pedaling through an enormous play land filled with giant everyday toys where he rides, hops and tumbles on, over and across. I've always dreamed of playing in an environment like this where I could be tiny Alice among jumbo-sized objects. If only there were enormous red-capped and white-spotted toadstools, wooden spools of thread doubling as tables, and other huge, but still adorable, fake food; now that would be my ultimate play space!

Check it out. It's amazing! And be sure to view through the credits to watch the outtakes.
 
 
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Upside down sundae with Judy's homemade caramel and chocolate sauces and oven toasted almonds
We just returned from a long weekend at our friend's Tahoe cabin for our fourth year in a row. It's always a wonderful visit full of delicious food, swimming in the lake, kayaking, chatting, and one of my favorite activities, admiring the bats at dusk while they swoop through the pine trees—such a magical sight. Our friend, Judy, is an amazing cook, baker and executor of well-planned and plentiful meals. While I worked on the beginning of this post, the kitchen was filled with the savory aroma of Judy sautéing shallots!
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The view from our room!
Judy and I took advantage of our time together to practice making her favorite caramel sauce (the recipe that I attempted to make and failed at a month ago). We had some concerns about how the butter, (Strauss' European organic salted butter) which was different than her normal brand, and the high altitude might affect the results. It was a little touch and go with the sauce behaving a bit differently at first, but Judy tamed it into submission and made a gloriously smooth caramel sauce. 

I'm still not sure what I did wrong when I tried to make this recipe previously at home by myself. I ended up with an awful light brown liquid with solidified chunks! I thought the problem might have been that I used too big of a saucepan (4-1/2 quart size) and that caused the mixture to heat too quickly, but then up at Tahoe, Judy used a pot about the same size. I think it must just take practice, and I intend to try again on my own this weekend.
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The supplies: sugar, heavy cream, vanilla and an old penny, in this case, an old Euro cent. More on that later!
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Adding the sugar to the melted butter.
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Butter and sugar coming together
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It was at this point where we were a bit concerned because the butter was separating from the sugar. Judy kept stirring and stirring, and it eventually came together.
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Use the color of an old penny to help judge if the sugar has browned enough. Other indicators are the smell, and when it starts to slightly smoke, it's getting close.
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Even after all the stirring, the sauce was slick with separated fat/oil from the butter, but we pushed on. Notice the color becoming more reddish-brown.
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Remove from heat, and add the heavy cream; watch out the mixture can flare up!
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Bubbly and frothy! Keep stirring!
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The finished sauce incorporated just fine and continued to darken as we stirred out the lumps.
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Notice the lighter (tastes more sweet) color of the jar on the left compared to today's batch (the two right jars). That dark red-brown color is achieved by cooking the mixture longer before adding the cream and creates a more complex, intense, burnt caramel flavor.
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Judy reaps the benefits of her work and gets to lick the spoon!
Rich Caramel Sauce, from David Lebovitz's Room for Dessert
Yield:  about 1-1/2 cups

Equipment
heavy saucepan, large enough so that when you add the cream, it doesn't overflow
wooden spoon
measuring cup & measuring spoons
glass canning jar(s)

Ingredients
8T (1 stick) salted butter
1C sugar
1C heavy cream
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Procedure
1. Melt the butter in a clean, dry saucepan. This is important because impurities will cause the sugar crystals to re-bond.
2. Add sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
3. Keep stirring as the mixture begins to carmelize and turn an amber color.
4. Use the old copper penny as a guide for the color of the caramel. It's important to let the mixture reach a deep reddish-brown color to achieve a more intense flavor. If it's too light, it will just taste sweet. 
5. As the mixture begins to smoke, it's getting really close. Watch it very carefully. David Lebovitz recommends using an All-Clad saucepan because the light stainless steel contrasts with the caramel and makes it easier to judge the color (Hint, hint. Birthday or Christmas gift, anyone?)
6. Instead of a candy thermometer, use your senses—visually, I think of Crayola crayon's burnt sienna, and the smell should be the moment right before it's just about to burn.
7. Remove from heat and add heavy cream. Stand back! It will foam up vigorously.
8. Stir continuously until smooth and creamy. This could take awhile.
9. Add vanilla.
10. Poor into glass jars (small canning jars or recycled jam jars are perfect) and cover. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
11. Rewarm before serving in the microwave at 15-second intervals, or over a double boiler

Notes: 
*Give this recipe your undivided attention. The mixture is hot and volatile. It can go from almost perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds.
*Judy adjusted the heat throughout, going from medium-low, to medium, to brief moments with no heat to control the rate of carmelization.
 
 
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Homemade fleur de sel caramels
Early in our relationship, Dave practiced what he believed to be a Danish tradition where on your birthday, you received candy in your shoes. I loved this idea and reciprocated on his birthday. Dave believed this was part of his Danish heritage, a vague memory from his youth, but we later learned from his mom that no such practice existed. In actuality, Danes just eat a lot of chocolate, and his memory was of his German neighbor's family receiving whole nuts (not chocolates) which were rolled down the hallway by, I think, Santa on Christmas eve. No shoes in sight. This multicultural mash-up has become a wonderful and totally unique-to-our family custom where you receive candy in your shoes on the morning of your birthday. The night before, you place your shoes (or fuzzy slippers) near your bedside, and after you fall asleep, your family fills them with candy. When you wake up, before presents or breakfast, you dive in and eat decadent and fancily packaged chocolates, old standby's like See's Candies, and drugstore favorites like Smarties or Swedish Fish. More recently, the tradition also includes salted caramels. Each year we try new artisanal interpretations, but I always come back to my favorites: the dark chocolate, gray salt caramels from Fran's Chocolates, based in Seattle, WA. 

On my last Free Friday, Franny and I gave Barefoot Contessa's Fleur de Sel Caramels a try. These were easier to make than I expected. My attempt a couple of month's ago to make caramel sauce was a total flop so I was unsure how these would go. These are delicious—maybe a bit too sweet for me, but next time, I think I can remedy that by browning the caramel longer before adding the cream. Also, these are considerably less sticky sweet when eaten straight from the refrigerator. 

How do these homemade caramels compare to Fran's Chocolates? They aren't quite as good—I enjoy the addition of the dark chocolate and the smoother consistency of Fran's—but they are really quite delicious, and I think if I keep practicing, these sea salt caramels will make a great holiday gift.
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Line an 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper that drapes over the edge of two sides to aid in the removal of the cooled caramel. Brush paper with a thin coating of vegetable oil, which helps too.
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Franny uses the mortar & pestle to break the salt into finer crystals.
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Combine water, light corn syrup and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
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Keep swirling (not stirring) the sugar mixture.
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After about five minutes, the sugar mixture is turning light brown. It's important to watch the sugar carefully, as it can go from perfect to burnt easily.
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This gorgeous tawny color was achieved after about 10 minutes. I added the cream at this point, but next time, I'm waiting longer for a darker caramel color resulting in, hopefully, even more depth of flavor.
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Add the cream mixture slowly to avoid the sugar mixture from bubbling out of the pot.
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Stir with a wooden spoon and insert a candy thermometer. Remove from heat when the temperature reaches 248 degrees. The mixture will continue to get darker.
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Poor into prepared pan and chill for about an hour in the refrigerator.
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Franny after a successful removal of the slab of caramel from the pan.
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Cut the square in half, then roll each half length-wise.
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Sprinkle generously with fleur de sel. For same size pieces, cut log in half, then by repeated halves to desired size. Brush the blade of your knife with vegetable oil to prevent the caramel from sticking.
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Pre-cut parchment paper and wrap individual pieces. Twist the ends in opposite directions to form an old-fashioned wrapper. Store in an air-tight container and refrigerate. I think they taste best when served cold.
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These pieces are each 1/8 of a log. I think they could easily be cut smaller as the caramels are very rich.
Fleur de Sel Caramels, from Barefoot Contessa: How Easy is That?
Yield:  About 16 large, or 32 bite-size caramels

Equipment
8" square baking pan
heavy & deep saucepan (I used my 2-1/2 quart, 6" wide by 4" deep Calphalon saucepan)*
small saucepan
parchment paper
pastry brush
wooden spoon
kitchen knife
candy thermometer
cutting board
*sauce pan size is important. Using too big of a pot will cause the sugar to cook too quickly and makes the consistency gritty.

Ingredients
vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5T unsalted butter
1 tsp fleur de sel (French sea salt), plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Procedure
1. Line the square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving the paper longer on two sides so it drapes over the edge. This aids in the removal of the sticky caramel from the pan.
2. Brush the paper lightly with vegetable oil
3. In the deep saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water, sugar & corn syrup and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Do not stir, but instead swirl the pan. Keep an eye on the mixture as it can burn easily.
4. In the small saucepan, bring the cream, butter and 1 tsp of fleur de sel to a simmer over medium heat. Once combined, set aside.
5. When the sugar mixture has a dark amber color (see photos above, approx. 10-12 minutes), remove from heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. It will bubble up (violently if you pour the cream mixture too fast) so be careful not to burn yourself, but it is fun potion-making-like to see it froth up.
6. Add vanilla and stir with a wooden spoon over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Insert the candy thermometer and monitor regularly. It will continue to darken.
7. When the mixture reaches 248 degrees (candy thermometers call this "firm ball"), very gently pour this VERY hot mixture into the prepared pan.
8. Refrigerate for about an hour or until firm.
9. Cut parchment paper into 4" x 5" squares to use for individual caramel wrappers. Set aside.
10. Once caramel is cold (it will be easier to remove from pan in one piece), use the parchment paper handles to lift the caramel (you might need to pry a little) onto the cutting board.
11. Cut the square of caramel in half with a sharp knife.
12. Start with one of the sheets of caramel and roll lengthwise into a tight 8-inch-long log. If the caramel is not malleable enough, wait a minute for it to soften at room temperature. 
13. Repeat with second piece.
14. Sprinkle both logs with fleur de sel.
15. Trim the ends (and sample!). If it's too sticky, brush vegetable oil on the knife for easier cutting.
16. Cut each log into 8 pieces. The easiest way to do this is to cut the log in half, then in half again, then each smaller segment in half once more. Repeat with second log. If you want smaller pieces, cut log once in half, and then approximate smaller, equal slices.
17. To wrap each caramel, place in a piece of parchment, fold to cover, and twist the ends.
18. Store in the refrigerator in an air-tight container and serve the caramels chilled.

After refrigerating, the fleur de sel crystals may dissolve or become transparent, but they still taste great. You can always re-sprinkle with a bit more fleur de sel after plating on a serving dish. Serve chilled for best flavor.