Friday, October 31, 2008

Little black dress cake, part two

Here it is, folks -- the little black dress cake, a.k.a. the spiced cranberry bundt cake from Bon Appetit. I baked it last night. Unfortunately, I was a little too eager to take it out of the pan and lost a big chunk in the process. Oh, well. It gave Carl and I an excuse to do a taste test.

The verdict? Pretty good. Definitely not the best cake I've ever tasted, but worth serving to guests. And worth baking again. I was actually surprised at how easy it was to prepare the cake. The hardest part was cutting the cranberries in half. If I bake it again, I'll probably use a regular bundt cake pan rather than a silicone one (in silicone, it just takes too long to bake).

I also thought the Chinese Five Spice (sounds like a strange ingredient for cake, huh?) was a little overwhelming, so I'll probably cut that ingredient down. My one regret is that I left out the chopped almonds. I didn't have any on hand, and didn't think it was that big of a deal. After tasting the cake, though, I am convinced that the almonds are a key ingredient.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Need decorations? Try your local garage sale

My husband Carl is looking for an industrial sewing machine (he wants to make some sail covers for his San Juan 23), so we spent last Saturday morning going from garage sale to garage sale hoping we would get lucky.

We didn't find the sewing machine, but we did find some other items -- namely, a ton of Christmas decorations. Lights, ornaments, candle holders, placements, bowls, wreathes, etc, etc. I'm not in the market for this stuff, so I didn't buy anything. But if I did need a few things to make my home more festive, I think the local g-sale circuit might be the way to go (yeah, some of it was hideous -- but for the most part, the items were totally normal-looking seasonal decorations).

Buying someone else's unwanted holiday decor is green. It's also economical. And, not to sound cheesy, but garage sale shopping is fun. Carl and I have had a ton of fun over the past 10 years going to garage sales. We get up early, get coffee, listen to Car Talk on NPR and drive around the 'hood in search of, well, whatever. I totally recommend it. And if you need lights or ornaments, act fast! I think this coming weekend is going to wrap up g-sale season -- the weather just gets too gross in November, and everyone is too busy preparing for Thanksgiving.

Friday, October 24, 2008

New poll: Who is your favorite Christmas character?

Hey! We have a new poll (see the column on the right). Please cast your vote.

One guy's take on the economy, the election and holiday shopping

This afternoon I was running around town gathering up the last of the items I needed for the holiday gift guide I mentioned earlier this week. One retailer asked me why I was looking for not-so-expensive gifts this year (his store carries items under $50, but he also stocks products that cost upwards of $2K). I explained that I was trying to be conscious of the fact that people want to keep their budgets in check right now, and that because of the economic situation readers will probably be on the lookout for creative gift ideas that won't break the bank.

Now, I am sure that his reply to me had something to do with the fact that he wanted to showcase a high-priced gift. I'm sure it also had something to do with a hopeful heart (in terms of his bottom line this holiday season). But he told me he thinks concerns over holiday retail spending are overblown. After the election, he said, things will stabilize and shoppers will go nuts (just like they always do).

Does he have a point, or is this just wishful thinking? I really hope he's right, but my gut tells me that all the retail forecasters are right -- shoppers will be very fiscally conservative this year.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Two and counting

So far, I have received two holiday catalogs in the mail.

One is from Lego. Three years ago, Carl and I ordered a Christmas gift from Lego for our niece Ella and we've been receiving Lego junk mail ever since.

The other is from Samaritan's Purse. I like this one because the organization is not peddling stuff. Instead, they are promoting "40 gifts of hope for a hurting world." So instead of buying an I-Pod, you can give $250 toward the construction of a hospital in an impoverished nation. Or, for just $4, you can provide a child with a week's worth of milk. I'm also a big fan of their Operation Christmas Child program, because it is a simple and affordable way to help make Christmas brighter for kids who otherwise might not have any gifts under their (hypothetical) tree.

And speaking of trees, normally I just toss these catalogs into the recycling bin as soon as they arrive (well, I do make exceptions for catalogs from Nordstrom). This year, however, I am going to keep them so I can take a count of how many I receive. Anyone want to take a guess? I'm thinking at least 100.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Paid to shop

Holiday shopping pretty much gives me hives, so I find it just a tad ironic that I am often asked to put together gift guides for various local publications. My editor provides a shopping category, and my job is to find gifts that fall into that category. I drive around town, visit shops, talk to the managers/store owners and eventually come up with a selection of 12 perfect gifts. The idea is to make the daunting task of holiday shopping a little easier for those who pick up the gift guide.

Actually, though, I really love this task. It is way different than my own holiday shopping. I don't have to spend my money and, because I do this shopping way in advance of the holiday season, I don't have to fight crowds or listen to Silver Bells over the loudspeaker in every store.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Are the words 'Merry Christmas' offensive to you?

When I was a little girl, I had an after-school babysitter named Esther. I had lots of fun at Esther's house. She always had cool activities planned for me and the other kids she took care of, like games and craft projects, and the play room was pretty tricked out (for the early 80s, anyway).

But unbeknownst to my parents, Esther was a member of a religious group that prohibits the celebration of holidays. So when we ran into Esther at the mall during the month of December, my dad did not know that she wouldn't appreciate him wishing her a Merry Christmas. Actually, to say she didn't appreciate it is an understatement -- she really flew off the handle, and gave my dad lecture.

I can't help but wonder why the mere mention of Christmas was so offensive to her. Couldn't she just say 'thank you' and leave it at that? Or, if it was such a big deal why didn't she tell my parents about her religious views prior to the holiday season?

Obviously, this is an extreme example -- but I have heard of other people (people who don't share Esther's beliefs) who are really disgusted by the words 'Merry Christmas.' They seem to believe that by my wishing them a Merry Christmas that I am shoving my Christian views down their throat. I honestly don't get it.

I, for example, don't participate in Halloween activities. But people are always wishing me a Happy Halloween this time of year. Am I offended? No! Do I slam the door the in their face when come over to show me their three-year-old's adorable costume. Of course not! I don't even mention it, unless they ask.

Their intentions are good, and that is all that matters.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Little black dress cake

Today on Today, Al (or was it Amy??) compared this spiced cranberry bundt cake in Bon Appetit to a "little black dress." Just like a little black dress, he (or she?? OK, please tell me it was Amy) said, the cake is versatile and can multi-task through the holiday season. You can take it to an office pot luck, you can take it to your family's soiree, you can serve it at home when unexpected guests drop in (yeah, cuz I always have home-baked goodies on hand just in case the doorbell rings).

And just like that little black dress hanging upstairs in my closet, this cake looks absolutely delicious. But that is where the similarities end. With the dress, I really just have to spend one afternoon making sure it is complete (you know -- shoes, accessories, etc.). The cake, on the other hand, has to be made over and over again every time you want to serve it. Plus, little black dresses are all about ease. This recipe looks extremely complicated. Aren't we busy enough during the holiday season? Do you have time to make a spiced cranberry bundt cake from scratch, over and over again, all throughout November and December. I don't, and I don't even have kids!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Christmas-themed coffee cups are here

Check out this coffee cup. I know it is kinda blurry (I think something is up with our digital camera, because I could not get it to focus), but if you look closely you will see that it bears the image of a snowman and contains the words "peace on earth." This coffee cup is not from last year. It is from today.

Is it just me, or does the commercialization of Christmas start earlier and earlier every year?

What I want for Christmas this year

Some women want jewelry. Not me. I want a gift from the Coach store. I love almost every handbag in every Coach collection, but I've always been partial to the Patchwork collection (which reminds me, I need to break out my Holiday Patchwork from two years ago).

Honestly, though, I won't be disappointed if I don't find this under the tree this year. Christmas is not about designer handbags, and this is really no time to be blowing money on luxury items.

OK, your turn. Tell me what you want for Christmas this year (even if it is something completely out of reach).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Macy's to middle school bands: no parade for you

Sorry, kids. We know you've been practicing Jingle Bells since the first day of school, and we know your parents just spent an insane amount of money on a special parade uniform. But none of that matters to us. We're more interested in profits. So we'll be replacing you with three additional Macy's floats. Shop on!

Update: Well, it appears Macy's changed it's mind less than a day after making their misguided decision. The middle school bands will get to participate in Portland's Thanksgiving Day Parade after all.

Merry Christmas

We still have 71 one more shopping days till Christmas, and I am already starting to panic. What will I get for Carl? What will I get for my mom and my dad? Should I send cards and gifts to my editors? Am I really going to gain 10 pounds just by looking at that pumpkin cheesecake? Do I have to put up a tree?

Help! This time of year makes me crazy.