Sunday, December 28, 2014

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Watching a Movie at Home

My Dell Mini was seven years old and really slowing down, taking a long time to load a webpage. It would be incredibly cranky too. "The Blue Screen of Death" appeared more and more frequently, with troubling text such as "Dumping physical memory." I would restart my computer and it always resurrected itself. Luckily, my parents gave me a laptop for Christmas before it completely died. The screen also featured white spots from accidental water damage. I had purchased a cheap no-name external hard drive in order to play DVDs once but it failed to function.

I set up my new Toshiba laptop this evening and am using it to create this post. It's nice. I also installed the external hard drive they gave me and have selected Midnight in Paris from my small collection of ten DVDs to view first, immediately after I click "Publish." I love this movie.


I look forward to watching movies, especially during winter when the days are cold and the nights are long. I already stocked microwave popcorn in my kitchen cabinet. Any film recommendations are welcome.



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A note from Santa...

I find a letter from "Santa" accompanying a lovely gift at my office door every Christmas. Read the poem I received last year here.


Dear Michelle,

I know that year twenty-fourteen
Is one like you've never seen,
I know it has had many ups and a down
And often felt like a merry-go-round.

One "up" was E [his first name here] you dated and befriended
That relationship was fun and hopefully hasn't ended.

Another "up" was your birthday trip
(Even though, I know your savings took a dip.)
But, in your mind -- and heart, experiences stay
You'll always remember croissants at the cafe'
And the art of Monet.

Start to put a little money away
Start it now; don't delay.
A whole year away can be your next vacation
Half the fun is the anticipation.

Michael's accident was a "down"
The result of a bad trip to town
A core value was exposed
Your depth of caring showed.

Another "down" was your employment hunt
No openings on the job front.
But, Michelle, this I can guarantee
Things turned out just as they should be.

This year, the time wasn't right
So for next year, set you sight
Set those goals
Grab the controls.

There's many an exciting place
And there isn't any race
So, take your time and investigate
Find a job to which you can relate.

If things work out with your new friend
That will be great; If not, it's not the end!

In twenty-fifteen,
Transition is your theme
Focus on the excitement -- everything new
So much to see, so much to do

So many jobs to explore
So many chances to open a new door
So many new places to eat.
So many new people to meet.

It's time for me to get in my sleigh,
Christmas is approaching, I can't delay.

All the kindness you do
Will come back to you,
Your Santa does pray,
In a wonderful, unexpected way.

As always, I'll watch over you
Holding you safe in all you do.
Make 2015
A year supreme!

Love,
Santa



Book Review: At Home with Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life


This review of the wonderful book At Home with Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life by Jennifer L. Scott of the blog The Daily Connoisseur is a long time coming. I pre-ordered the book, so I received it months ago, in October and devoured it right away. I actually read it twice and have revisited parts many other times. Pleased to have my own print copy on my bookshelf, I plan to revisit this incredible resource for a tip, recipe or music recommendation in the future.

This is the author's second book. Her first is entitled Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris, which I have not formally reviewed on this blog, but highly recommend and seem to mention here often.

This follow up examines the art of homemaking. It is a guide on how to become chic in daily life, particularly at home. The author advocates that this is entirely possible on any budget.

If you follow my blog, there's a big chance that you value the Italian and/or French lifestyle. A francophile may be wondering if this particular book offers anything new, something different. It does. Trust me as I am an avid read of blogs, books and articles on the French lifestyle. The tips that Jennifer offers are invaluable. This is a life-changing read.

Her book is divided into two sections. The first is basically how to get your home in order. The second (my favorite) suggests how to manage your day, further organized by morning, afternoon and evening.

Her tips for managing your home and life well are good. Furthermore, she explains how to make these routines pleasurable, down to candle scents and background music! Every moment, even a few minutes spent accomplishing the mundane activity of cleaning something, has the potential to be a celebration of life. She reminds us to be present. Life is too short not to be thoroughly enjoyed.

What I really took from this book was that a major attitude adjustment is needed in everyday life in order to become a true domestic goddess. I truly believe that life is what you make it. Having the right attitude is crucial. If you are determined to enjoy every moment and at least calmly take a difficulty one step at a time, then you very well might live life to the fullest.

The Motivated Type via Pinterest

This book has changed my life already. I have adopted many little habits. It installed her words in my head so I am reminded to put things away as soon as I am finished with them. In fact, I think of her every morning when I put my sugar canister and pot holder away immediately after sweetening my two little cups of espresso freshly brewed in a stovetop Moka. Also, even though it took time to develop the habit, I usually seat myself at my dining room table to enjoy my breakfast. I may still shoot back my espresso while standing at my kitchen counter, but leaning over my coffee table and lounging on the sofa like I used to would feel very odd now. I remember how she often times herself in doing a dreaded chore, and after setting the timer myself once or twice, I now realize that my chores take very little time to accomplish. Washing dishes, for example, is not my favorite task, but I know that half a sink full of dishes takes about three minutes to empty. Knowing this, I now hardly ever leave any dishes dirty for long. In addition, I dust my wood furniture with Pledge more often since I know that doing my whole apartment home would require 20 minutes. Dusting my entire living room including my office area plus my dining room table takes half that time. If I prepare a whole box of pasta at once, rather than a portion, lessening my tasks for future weekday nights, then that means her voice inspires me yet again. 

One of her product recommendations was epicuren's Volcanic Clay Purifying Mask which I love and find truly effective. In fact, I just started using my second tube. (It is available on Amazon.)


I think I will revisit this guide for a few more tips. For one, I'll probably check out an album she specifically recommends or at least search for a different kind of music station on Pandora. In addition, now that I have grown out my long layers and finally achieved a bob, I'm trying to grow my hair just long enough to style a sophisticated updo for special occasions. I think I also might try a chignon for which Jennifer provides step-by-step directions.

I highly recommend At Home with Madame Chic. You may want to read it before year end so that 2015 can be trรจs chic.



I plan to publish this at midnight turning into Christmas Eve, so I hope you have a very merry Christmas! My family is actually serving lasagna on Christmas Day instead of the traditional ham so you know I'm psyched!



Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Links I Love: Christmas 2014

South Philly
Conrad Benner for Visit Philadelphia via facebook.com/visitphilly

* 10 things you should know before celebrating Christmas in Germany [dw.de via facebook.com/ glitterandbow]
* my favorite Christmas ornament... [cestmoisaralouise.com]
* Countdown to Christmas- Italian Style! December 11 [theveniceexperience.blogspot.com]
* What do the Bolognesi eat at Christmas? [bolognawithlove.com]
* 20 Traditional Christmas Dishes From All Around Italy [huffingtonpost.com via facebook.com/ GirlinFlorence]
* An Insider's Guide to Enjoying NYC During the Holidays [thesimplyluxuriouslife.com]
* The Holiday Kitchen: Must Haves from Sur La Table & Nespresso [elementsofstyleblog.com]



Happy Holidays!
Merry Christmas! Buon Natale!



Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter 2014-2015 Capsule Wardrobe


Since today is the first day of winter, I wanted to share what I plan to wear this season.

15-Item Wardrobe for Winter 2014-2015:

1. white 3/4 sleeve shirt from New York & Company Outlet

2. white pintucked long sleeve shirt from Ann Taylor

3. white long sleeve Essential Shirt from The Limited

4. black long sleeve Essential Shirt from The Limited

5. black jersey cross-over 3/4-sleeve top from Boden

6. black cross-over long sleeve sweater from Ann Taylor Factory Store

7. new black v-neck long sleeve sweater by Mossimo from Target

8. new black crew-neck long sleeve sweater by Mossimo from Target

9. red cross-over long sleeve sweater from The Limited

10. dark gray scoop-neck sparkly sweater with keyhole cut-out in the back from Ann Taylor

11. dark gray pants from Ann Taylor Factory Store*

12. black curvy trouser from Ann Taylor Factory Store**

13. black straight leg classic pants by Merona from Target*

14. dark blue Petite Modern Boot Cut Jeans from Ann Taylor*

15. dark blue curvy bootcut jeans from Ann Taylor Factory Store**

* to pair with flats
** to pair with heels

That's five shirts or tops, five sweaters, and five pairs of pants or jeans, for a total of 15 core items. Even though I would love to get down to a "10-item wardrobe" a la Jennifer of The Daily Connoisseur, I think 15 may be my smallest wardrobe size of any season. "Focus on fifteen" is what Shannon Ables advocates in her new book (for both fall and winter), Choosing the Simply Luxurious Life: A Modern Woman's Guide. [This is what I am currently reading.] I also think this is dressing appropriately for the cold Maryland winter.

The only new core items purchased this season are a couple of much-needed sweaters. I'm in my 30s now, trying to be sophisticated, and so I desire ones in luxurious cashmere, like this one from Ann Taylor, but those simply were not in the budget while preparing for the season. Maybe that one will be deeply discounted the day after Christmas or during January... Anyway, I'm satisfied with the affordable ones I picked up from Target. I feel that these two new items are completely classic.


I need to replace the pair of jeans that I wear with heels as they are too big.



Extras:

I know that the vast majority of my capsule wardrobe is black and white, so the accessories and such will add the necessary pops of "color, pattern, texture, and shine" (I can still hear Stacy and Clinton (of TLC's What Not To Wear) say that four words!).

-Special Occasion Wear:

1. new black petite beaded scalloped lace over ivory pencil skirt from Ann Taylor


2. new black petite Sequin Pencil Skirt from The Limited


3. burgundy sweater with black lace top and short sleeves from Ann Taylor

4. black lace boat-neck knee-length dress with long sheer sleeves and ribbon at waist from The Limited

5. black jersey long sleeve faux-wrap knee-length dress with pin by American Living from JCPenney

I anticipate wearing my new "holiday skirts." I plan to dress in the lovely beaded lace one to dinner on Christmas Day and then the fun sequined number on New Year's Eve.

-Tees:

1. black-striped white boat-neck long sleeve nautical tee from Sweden Collection by Chance

2. black-striped white crew-neck long sleeve tee from LOFT

3. dark pink boat-neck 3/4-sleeve slubbed cotton tee from LOFT Outlet

4. burgundy boat-neck 3/4-sleeve slubbed cotton tee with button detail from LOFT

5. purple cross-over 3/4-sleeve tee by Merona from Target

6. navy cross-over 3/4-sleeve tee by Merona from Target

7. white striped dark gray boat-neck 3/4-sleeve nautical tee from H&M

8. medium gray boat-neck 3/4-sleeve slubbed cotton tee from LOFT Outlet

9. dark gray v-neck long sleeve tee by L.O.G.G. from H&M

10. black scoop-neck short sleeve tee from Ann Taylor Factory Store

11. ivory polka-dotted black henley-style long sleeve tee with button and ruffle details from LOFT

12. black scoop-neck long sleeve tee with ribbed neckline from Express

13. black v-neck long sleeve tee by L.O.G.G from H&M

-Camisoles:

1-5. 5 white (4 Everyday Camisole by Sonoma life + style from Kohl's and 1 from LOFT)

6. lacy silk cream from White House Black Market

7-8. 2 pink (1 Everyday Camisole by Sonoma life + style from Kohl's and 1 from LOFT)

9. red from LOFT

10. white polka-dotted black with lace trim from White House Black Market

11. black with lace trim from Ann Taylor Factory Store

12-13. 2 black (1 Everyday Camisole by Sonoma life + style from Kohl's and 1 from LOFT)

14. lacy silky black from White House Black Market

-Crew-neck 3/4-sleeve Cardigans:

1. black by Cherokee from Target

2. ivory from New York & Company

3. dark pink azalea from LOFT Outlet

4. black featherweight cashmere from J.Crew

The cashmere cardigan works well over sleeveless dresses and camisoles as it is pretty fitted in the sleeves and short in the torso. It is for dressing up for dates rather than for everyday. I'll own a roomier one for daily use someday...

-Scarves including bright warm colors

10 is low for me. My collection has been recently decluttered.



-Black Single-breasted Trench-style Wool Coat by JLo from Burlington Coat Factory and black gloves

-Belts

1. black skinny patent leather bow from White House Black Market

2. black/dark brown reversible from Target

3. black wide braided leather from The Limited

-Handbags, Totes, Clutches

I've been carrying my black leather tote from Nine West Outlet everyday lately, but may switch to my dark pink patent leather one by Coach soon. I usually select my black and white striped tote from Target before heading to Target or the grocery store in order to carry purchases back home.

-Jewelry

I at least wear a pair of earrings and my only watch by Anne Klein everyday. Usually, the earrings are large round cubic zirconia studs. I have recently decluttered my collection of earrings and now own only 17 pairs.

-2 Pairs of Sunglasses (brown and black)

-Bras, Panties, Pantyhose, Tights, Black Socks, 1 Pair Dark Brown Socks, Old Black Trouser Socks, 3 new Black Knee-high Trouser Socks by Merona, 6 new White Ankle Socks by Hanes

2 new packs of socks picked up at Target recently.

-Closed-toe Shoes including ballet flats, heeled boots, one pair of black pumps, and one pair of sneakers

I do not own a pair of flat boots; this is a major hole. I want this pair of nude ballet flats in "blush" (but it has been sold out of size 9 both in my store and online for months!). Plus, I still hope to make a pair of nude pumps mine. Those nude shoe options are more ideal for spring anyway. My white sneakers with dark pink stripes are not exactly white anymore, but mostly blue from all those dark wash jeans I adore. I plan to purchase (a darker pair of) sneakers prior to my next international trip (whenever that will be!).

-Pajamas including new ivory-dotted pale green flannel pants by Gilligan & O'Malley from Target



Black, white and warm colors usually made the cut for my closet this winter. Fitting since I enjoy decorating my home with red and white at Christmastime. Limited color ensures that any piece goes with everything else, creating so many different outfits.

My intention was to have a friend take pictures of me modeling a few outfits, but, unfortunately, I failed to make that happen. Perhaps I will for another post. Or at least snap a selfie on Christmas Day.

I hope you enjoyed a peak into my closet this season! Do you have a capsule wardrobe too? What piece can you hardly wait to wear this holiday season?



Sunday, December 14, 2014

Simple Pleasure Sunday: theSkimm

cappuccino and chocolate croissant at my favorite coffee shop with a Kindle book back in August

Instead of reading the newspaper at breakfast, I grab my phone and skimm. theSkimm is a service that emails you a text summary of the latest news early each morning Monday through Friday. Since I do not own a TV at the moment, this is invaluable to me. With my last phone I ditched right before my April trip to Paris, I used a news app. Each category had a tab and more often than not, I clicked on the "entertainment" section rather than actual news. Unfortunately, I became more well-versed in Kim Kardashian's life than world events. I believe it is important to know something about what's going on in order to be an informed participant in politics. So, I am happy to have found theSkimm. The authors write a short email covering domestic and international events, without any imagery. It is conversational in tone and actually explains the situation, key players and/or past history. Not completely unbiased, the authors usually end a paragraph with a funny little comment. It is set up to enable the reader to be an informed participant in real life conversations. Of course, it's social, so you can share any part of the email or the entire service on facebook and twitter.

There is a particular format each email follows. First, the subject line is some quirky little quip. Under the date, the authors briefly write a line about what they were doing while they drafted the text, which is usually linked to an event of the past day. Below this, there's a quote set in its context. There are one or two top stories next. After that, there are smaller summaries of several other stories. Towards the bottom, there's a new vocabulary term defined or possibly a book or film recommendation. Then, they usually advertise a company's giveaway. They promote themselves, but they also show appreciation and recognize Skimm'rs who spread the word and finally list subscriber's names and cities when it's his/her birthday. Many of the sections contain a link for more information.

This isn't as pleasurable as savoring a dark chocolate truffle, but I do look forward to reading it each weekday morning. I usually read it while sipping my two little cups of espresso and eating one of the pieces of the item I baked for breakfast for the week. After reading the short yet sweet email, I feel like I basically know what's going on and not left out of conversations because I knew about it before someone brought it up. I highly recommend it. To learn more: http://www.theskimm.com/



Edit: Today, December 17th is National Skimm Day. To subscribe, click here--> theSkimm.



Sunday, December 7, 2014

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Hot Chocolate from Starbucks


I love sipping hot chocolate on a cold day of winter. Today, I'm enjoying my first cup of the season. I picked it up at the Starbucks inside my Target this morning. Happy I chose the larger grande size, it was rich and delicious. It is especially important to pause and savor a simple pleasure during a hectic holiday season.




Saturday, December 6, 2014

New Recipe #3: The Cooking Continues: Cake Mix Coffee Cake


Ideally, I'd like to have homemade coffee cake as one of my options to serve when entertaining on a small scale. I think it'd be nice to accompany coffee or tea. Usually, I just keep Milano cookies around. So, in my attempt to step it up, I definitely installed a coffee cake recipe on my list of things to try (which you can read about here). I made it on Friday night.

This recipe from Favorite Family Recipes piqued my interest because it would be easier using a cake mix. Instead of following the package directions, the author adds different ingredients. Also, Erica instructs how to prepare the topping. She insists upon this dish's versatility, and in my attempt, I actually did not include the chopped walnuts even though I had them on hand, leftover from making chocolate walnut fudge for Thanksgiving. I didn't mix the topping into the batter, only laying it on top, like in this image...


Anyway, the coffee cake tastes decent, but I don't like how the finished product looks. Instead of tweaking this particular recipe, I think I'll search for another and try that. The cake was incredibly moist, but didn't rise well under the weight of the topping. Even though the toothpick came out clean, perhaps it wasn't completely done... I'm unsure.


I did get some of the topping crumbly/clumpy while stirring in the bowl, but since most of it was not, I continued to work it and it lost its form. So, I added more butter (that had not been softened by sitting out a few hours since I didn't anticipate using it, but I did briefly zap it in the microwave) which only helped a bit.


Hot out of the oven, the topping looked very wet. I try to make everything beautiful and this first attempt at coffee cake simply didn't work out. I'll do better next time.


I had fun trying something new as well as singing and dancing along to The Beatles playing from my phone. Kitchens are made for dancing too.

Any recipe suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I feel like every domestic goddess needs a coffee cake!



Monday, December 1, 2014

New Recipe #2: Behold! The Brookie. Plus, A Cooking Commitment

I pinned this delicious-looking dessert long ago. Allow me to introduce you to the brookie, as in 'brownie-cookie,' a brownie and chocolate chip cookie combination that is baked in a muffin pan...


I finally tried these, which are also known as brooksters, last Monday and they turned out pretty well! They tasted delicious, as you can imagine! Right out of the oven or a leftover microwaved for nine seconds, the chocolate chips are just melted. In order to perfect their presentation, there are a few things I would do differently the next time. I didn't have a really great baking time, so I kept opening the oven door and checking on them, and as a result, they fell a bit in the middle. Think a long time like 30 minutes or so. I will also add a little less brownie batter and cookie dough the second time around. My first time, I filled each muffin pan cup halfway with brownie batter and measured leveled-off a ice cream scoop-full of cookie dough and then rolled that into a ball. In addition, I will not use muffin liners as the brownie suck to the paper a bit. Instead, I will grease the muffin pan. 



I made 12 brookies with a bit of cookie dough left over. Since I want to make them smaller next time, I imagine that I would have a few more brookies. Brownie batter is one of the best things to eat in existence however. Come to think of it, chocolate chip cookie dough isn't bad either. Save room for the absolutely scrumptious finished product though!



Michelle's Brookies

Ingredients 

Betty Crocker Supreme Brownie Mix Original with Hershey's Chocolate Syrup Pouch
1/4 c. water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 egg

Betty Crocker Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix
1 stick (1/2 c. butter)
1 egg

Cooking spray, if desired

Instructions

1. Preheat oven between 325 and 350 degrees

2. Place a muffin liner in each cup or grease pan

3. Prepare brownie batter using package directions

4. Prepare cookie dough using package directions



5. Fill each lined or greased muffin pan cup a bit less than halfway with brownie batter

6. Bake brownies for ten minutes. Meanwhile, roll small cookie balls of equal size; think like a barely heaping tablespoon size.

7. Take brownies out and place a ball in each cup, pressing down a bit, so the brownie batter surrounds the dough



8. Bake for at least 30 minutes, checking to see if they look done at 30 minutes, adding time if needed

9. Cool for a bit and serve while still warm

Enjoy!




As soon as I tasted one, I called my mother and insisted that she come over immediately, having told her that I wanted to try making them the previous evening. Plus, I know she's a big fan of my chocolate chip cookies, especially when right out of the oven. Anyway, we settled on plans for making them as one of the desserts for our family feast on Christmas Day. I sent her home with another, plus one for my father and brother. I also shared one with each of my team of three co-workers. Everyone had rave reviews.



Usually, I like classic or quintessential things. I prefer to be known for the ultimate of something, made in the traditional way, rather than trying a twist or adding a secret ingredient to make it my own. The perfect chocolate chip cookie, for example. Sometimes, people might think that's plain or boring, but I like being famous for making a crowd-pleaser, something everyone loves, well. The ordinary made extraordinary by being the best ever tasted. Heck, even though the idea of maintaining an air of mystery appeals to me, I am much too honest and helpful to be secretive! But, I make an exception for these. Brownie and chocolate chip cookie are a match made in heaven for me! I hope that I have sufficiently conveyed their sheer awesomeness and you go and make them yourselves, my dear readers.



I used to bake recipes from scratch often throughout high school. Then, in college, it was easier and perhaps cheaper to bake from a mix in the shared hall kitchen of the dorm. This month, I've been out of college for eight years and haven't stopped using these shortcuts yet. I yearn to bake chocolate chip cookies from scratch again. Plus, I want to branch out and cook, bake and prepare recipes I have yet to attempt. More than pasta. So, I've decided to prepare 50 new recipes through the end of 2015. I am counting the two dishes I made recently, the beef and broccoli as well as these brookies. I edited my Pinterest Recipes to Try board, leaving only the other 48 intended recipes. Although, I do own a few cookbooks to rely on as well.

I am excited as there are many recipes I've included that I've been meaning to try forever. Like tomato sauce from scratch! Breakfast items too such as french toast, frittata, chocolate chip pancakes, and cranberry scones. There are a few French foods listed, such as beef bourguignon, ratatouille, flourless chocolate cake, and madeleines. I would not leave more Italian cuisine off this list including but not limited to traditional lasagna (rather than the Italian-American version we know), penne arrabbiattarisotto, and tiramisu. Having tried my hand at Chinese, I figured I would try another culture, a Mexican/Latin American dish, carne asada, which I think would go with my summertime blood orange margaritas! Honestly, this is marinated and sliced flank steak, so it is similar to the way you prepare the beef in beef and broccoli. Since I want to use the cute little crock pot my parents gave me, I kept a couple of slow cooker recipes such as minestrone soup and beef stew. Of course, with my sweet tooth, there are many desserts or parts of them like frosting. I adore coconut cake, for example. What else? Isn't this a thing of beauty?! I will share about them, so look for posts over the next 13 months.

Confetti Cake
Style Me Pretty via Pinterest