Archive for November, 2008

Thanksgiving Hotlines To The Rescue!

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Phone courtesy of
tj scenes on flickr.

I’m sure that some of you have started preparing the great Thanksgiving meal today – either that, or you’re en route home to help someone else prepare it. Wonktheplank and I are already back in Oregon to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, and today my mother and I are going to be making pies; she’ll be making the apple, and I’ll be tackling the pumpkin.

If you’re at all nervous about the task ahead of you, you’re in luck – corporate America has come to the rescue! Big companies have set up a series of Thanksgiving hotlines that offer advice to panicked cooks about everything from turkey to soggy pie crusts. Below is my compilation of hotlines that you can reach out to in the midst of a cooking crisis.

Thanksgiving Hotlines:

Butterball Turkey Talk-Line®
Tips on all things turkey.
Phone: 1-800-Butterball.
Email: talkline@butterball.com

The Martha Stewart Thanksgiving Hotline
Martha Stewart is here to answer all your Thanksgiving questions.
Phone: 866-675-6675 between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET.
Email: radio@marthastewart.com

King Arther Flour Baker’s Hotline
King Arther Flour produces excellent, high quality flour, and I expect that this hotline will offer similarly high-quality baking advice.
Phone: (802) 649-3717.

Crisco® Pie Hotline
This one is kind of cool, even though I would never make a pie crust with all Crisco (but a couple tablespoons mixed in with the butter are excellent for creating a crisp, flaky texture). Call the Crisco® Pie Hotline with all your pie questions.
Phone: (877) FOR-PIE-TIPS.

OceanSpray Consumer Hotline
Is making cranberry sauce all that hard? You just put your cranberries, sugar and other seasonings into a pot and let them all cook away. Still, if you encounter any cranberry conundrums, the OceanSpray Consumer Hotline is here to help.
Phone: (800) 662-3263 (toll free). Weekdays, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. EST.

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Your Irrational Financial Behaviors, Unmasked

Pretty Money

Money - surprisingly difficult to spend (rationally).

Photo courtesy of richseattle via flickr.

Despite all the finance articles that lay out the science of investing in a dry and logical manner, personal spending remains an emotional and messy fair.

A number of books have hit the market recently, which explain how, when it comes to money, people throw logic out the window. Instead, they rely on irrational “hunches” that make little sense.

Witness books like Predictably Irrational, which is an in-depth study of how your spending is based on unconscious urges that have little to do with your best financial interests. The Paradox of Choice, another book in the field of behavioral economics, delves deep into the rather idiotic psychology of your spending decisions, explaining, for instance, why a $45 bottle of wine seems like a deal if it’s the second-cheapest bottle on a wine list, but not if it’s the most expensive.

Books like these have become even more timely in light of the recession, which is like one giant laboratory experiment on how, when it comes to money, our choices just don’t make a whole lot of sense.

The New York Times published an article last week that is all about how our spending choices don’t exactly stand up to the harsh light of day. Times reporter Penelope Green interviews a bunch of consumers, eager to cut back on their spending, but going about it in a way that doesn’t actually save them any dough. One woman in the article valiantly gives up the $15 tomato soup that she buys each week, only to splurge on $500 dog beds. Another woman switches grocery stores to get cheaper cauliflower, only to pick up items that she could have found cheaper in another store.

Are your cheeks burning right about now? Because mine are. I’ve definitely done all or more of the things described in this article — cut back in one area, only to spend much more in another, gone to the “cheaper” grocery store and then picked up a bunch of items that were cheaper in another store, given up small luxuries only to turn around and indulge in one big purchase.

Given that many of us are trying to really trim our household budgets, how exactly do you save money? Or are we all just doomed to be virtuous at one store, and then cancel it out with a spree in another?

I actually took a class last winter that delved into these issues, where we read the book Your Money or Your Life, and I learned a simple way to figure out what you’re spending. It’s a foolproof method that’s guaranteed to expose the areas where you may be spending more or less on a regular basis.

Write down everything you spend. Whether it’s in a spreadsheet or in a notebook, writing down everything that you spend, from a $1 cup of coffee to a $1000 mattress, is going to force you to face the reality of where exactly your money is going. While my documentation of my spending habits has waxed and waned since the class has ended, I’ve found that it’s much, much more difficult to fool myself into false economies when I’m keeping track of everything.

But, of course, that’s just one way to try to fight the tide of irrational urges that guide a lot of people’s spending. There are, I’m sure, many other methods that don’t involve spreadsheets. And you can bet that in the next six months, as the economy continues to wither, we will hear about every possible system in the personal finance columns in our nation’s newspapers.

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Top Chef: Since When Does Whole Foods Stock Ostrich Eggs?

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The Top Chefs on the streets of Manhattan.

This episode of Top Chef (“Show Your Craft”) was more interesting than last week’s, as the chefs started to falter from their first episode high. Thank goodness. Everyone did way too well in the first challenge, and I was rather relived that we were back to a much more standard Top Chef format (i.e., some doing really well, and some doing really poorly).

The episode starts off with shots of the Top Chefs wearily making breakfast in their apartment. We see some clips of an interview with Ariane, who almost got kicked off last episode, but managed to stay because Mr. Patrick just didn’t learn enough in his Cuisines of Asia class. Ariane says she deserves to stay in the competition because of her experience, making her sound like Hillary Clinton around the Iowa caucuses. Methinks this does not bode well.

The chefs finish up with breakfast, and they depart for the day (but not before they show another porn shot of My Beloved Couch. My God I want that couch).

The chefs gather in the kitchen for the Quickfire challenge, which, you’ll be happy to know, is just as gimmicky as the last Quickfire challenge where they had to peel apples (in The Big Apple. Get it? But no, really, do you get it?). This challenge is a hot dog challenge (because NYC is known for its hot dogs. Get it? But no, really, do you get it?).

Bad Hot Dog Decisions

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Obama Pie, My Oh My

My good friends over at Superheroes For Democracy have done a remarkable feat that fuses baking and politics. Behold, Ripley’s Obama Pie:

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This pie is for change!

I am in awe of this totally awesome creation. I love her use of the blueberries and raspberries for color, and the lovely pastry cut-outs to create the famous logo. You can find out how she did it over at Superheroes (oh, and learn about other cool political things too). I think I like even more than my Obama cupcakes.

Thank you, Superheroes, for the inpsiring pic!

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What’s Your Recession Meal?

baked macaroni with lotsa cheese
Macaroni and cheese recession comfort food, courtesy of Chewy Chua on flickr.

This New York Times article is one of many chronicling new consumer spending habits (or lack thereof) in the recession. While I had little sympathy for the people profiled in the piece who can no longer splurge on $2000 handbags lest it seem in poor taste, I was very interested when the article talked about the paring-down that’s taking place in the restaurant industry.

The article quotes Bobby Flay on how some restaurants are moving away from extravagant and highly technical menu items (think the “molecular gastronomists” on Top Chef), and towards traditional comfort foods (think The Joy of Cooking):

Not to take anything away from chefs who specialize in edible paper, pea shoots and fennel pollen,” Mr. Flay said, “but I think classic American dishes with substance are what people will grasp onto.”

The Times suggests that roast chicken may be a popular menu item, given the national feeling that we need to scale back, live simply, and get back to what’s really important in life. And for me, roast chicken definitely sums up the new American ethic: it’s a filling, cost-effective dish that feels homey and comforting.

Since the recession’s hit, I’ve been drawn to filling and economical staples—I’ve been making lots of bean soups, vegetable chiles, and chicken soup with rice. WonkthePlank has been clamoring for me to make more macaroni and cheese, a classic comfort food—although depending on the kind of cheese you buy it’s not exactly economical. Other possible recession menu items I could think of are the return of the casserole, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, tomato soup, and ramen noodles. 

This article also made me curious about how the recession has affected your own kitchens. Have you changed your cooking habits? Are there any comfort foods that you think are due for a recession-related comeback? And if you were putting comfort foods on your personal restaurant menu, what would you choose?

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Pumpkin Cupcakes for Your Thanksgiving Feast

Pumpkin Cupcakes

Pumpkin Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting. A new Thanksgiving tradition?

Every October magazines start piling up at my door, with their predictable, if entertaining, stories about how to put a new “spin” on Thanksgiving dinner. These publications have countless suggestions, from new ways to cook your turkey (newsflash—brining is out!), hundreds of interpretations of the traditional sides, and, of course, endless variations on pumpkin-themed desserts.

So, in this time-honored Thanksgiving tradition of food writing, I have my own spin on the Thanksgiving dessert. For those of you who don’t like pumpkin pie, yes, they do exist—what about pumpkin cupcakes?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of pumpkin pie. But for those of you who want to incorporate the cupcake trend into your Thanksgiving tradition, or are just in the mood for a nice fall cupcake recipe, then these cupcakes take the cake.

I used this Martha Stewart recipe (which follows) for the cake itself, because it was one of the few pumpkin cupcake recipes I could find that used butter, rather than oil, for the fat. I was worried that the butter would make these turn out too dense, but no worries—these beauties have a perfect cake-like, tender crumb, and the pumpkin flavor and spices are really wonderful.

My coworker suggested making a maple frosting to go with the pumpkin cake, since she had had the same pairing at Georgetown Cupcake and said it was to die for. I had a hard time finding a maple frosting recipe that didn’t call for maple extract (I try to avoid artificial flavorings when possible, especially when I know they’ll set me back $5 for one recipe), and finally settled on this one (this recipe also follows). I liked the frosting—the cream cheese cuts down on the sweetness. But I now understand why all those other recipes called for maple extract—the maple flavor was definitely faint.

Still, even if these beauties were imperfect, these were still one of my most successful cupcake attempts. I really can’t say enough how much I loved the pumpkin cake—how it was moist without being too heavy, fragrant without being too sweet. I guess that Eddie is right, Martha really does only hire the best.

Recipes galore!

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Top Chef: Apple Highs, Ethnic Cooking Lows, and Really Blatant Commercialism

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The Top Chefs Are Back! On A Ferry!

Top Chef is back! It’s back! And this time, it’s in New York City. Is anyone else kind of surprised that this is the first time that Top Chef has hit up the Big Apple? I mean, not to sniff at Miami or anything, but isn’t NYC the center of the food universe, at least in the United States?

It was kind of shocking to see a whole new crop of contestants after I got so used to the people from season four—and it was even more unsettling that they were all vaguely reminiscent of contestants from other seasons. Daniel, the straight-talking dude from Long Island, has the look and feel of Howie from Top Chef Miami. Patrick, the young, fresh-faced and hopelessly inexperienced culinary student, reminded me of Candice, the young, fresh-faced and hopelessly inexperienced culinary student from Top Chef San Francisco.

But what we’re really all dying to know is, who will be this Season’s Stephen Aspiriano, who is by far the best crazy ego-maniac villain this franchise has ever produced? Who will end up annoying the crap out of all the other contestants, while constantly talking up the superiority of his or her kitchen skills?

Well, we don’t really find out this episode, although the producers seem to think that it’s going to be Giant Finn Stefan (I’ll reserve judgment until later in the season, thank you very much). In fact, the episode is so busy trying to establish characters for all the different contestants that everything is kind of a big blur. It’s difficult to keep everyone’s names and faces straight (17 contestants!), let alone what their personalities and cooking skills are like.  
Quickfires, Pluck, and Blatant Commercialism

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Thanksgiving Reading For Your Peace of Mind

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Thanksgiving Meal, courtesy of
xybermatthew on flickr.

Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, which means that food sites and publications have been churning out recipes, full-fledged feature pieces, and all-inclusive guides to this great American meal. These articles are supposed to be helpful, but they make cooking Thanksgiving dinner out to be a Herculean task on the scale of nuclear disarmament.

I’ve only made the Thanksgiving feast once during my first winter in Washington, and I can say from experience that you don’t have to have gone to culinary school to whip up some stuffing. I didn’t have any vacation time that year, and I couldn’t make it home for the big day. Instead, friends came down from New York, Nonnka came over from Georgetown, and we celebrated Thanksgiving orphan-style. It turned out to be one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever. And even I, an untested Thanksgiving novice, was able to make the meal—turkey, stuffing, and all.

Was it a lot of work? My God, yes. But was any of it really beyond the skill level of basic cook? Hell no. The hardest part was getting the timing right, and I think that’s something you have to learn from doing it over and over again.

So stop looking at those scary Gourmet Menu Guides that call for you to make a billion starters from scratch, and put down the Bon Appetite Complete Guide to Thanksgiving Kitchen Tools (the only tools you need are a good sharp knife and some pots and pans).

Instead, I’ve dug through the deluge of Thanksgiving articles to find something to really be thankful for: peace of mind. These articles will calm your soul, they will soothe your worried Thanksgiving consciousness, and they will let you know that you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a nice meal.

Simplifying the Turkey, Well-Priced Menus, and Holiday Wines on the Cheap

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Fall-Themed Wedding Cake

Kate's Wedding Cake 1

A Fall-Themed Wedding Cake, complete with little pumpkins!

Wonktheplank and I have had a windfall of weddings to attend in the past few weeks, which means that I’ve been sizing up my fair share of wedding cakes. It’s been an interesting little cake-journey, and has given me some ideas about different types of cakes that I’d like to try out in the future (which is possible now that the ModernDomestic Presidential Cookie Bake-Off is over. My goodness did that take up a lot of baking time and stamina!).

Last week, we attended a really beautiful wedding of WonkthePlank’s cousin, which took place in an old mansion outside of Philadelphia. The mansion was stunning, the food was stunning and, of course, the cake was just breathtaking.

Katie's Wedding Cake 2

Another view of the cake, which was on display in the mansion's sunroom, where they had the ceremony.

The wedding was fall-themed (which makes sense, since it took place in early November), and the cake was appropriately festive and autumnal. I especially like the little pumpkin and leaf details, which contrasted beautifully against the chocolate frosting.

Kate's Cake Detail 2

Those leaves look good enough to eat. And they were.

I couldn’t figure out if the cake was oil-based or butter-based; most of the butter cakes that I’ve had tend to be very solid, whereas this cake was extremely light and fluffy. I think the chocolate frosting was a buttercream made with powdered sugar; it was sweet and light, with a rich chocolate flavor. The best part of the cake was the peanut-butter filling — I don’t know if it was a peanut butter mousse or a peanut butter frosting, but whatever it was it was delicious.

Kate's Cake - Destroyed

A cake layer, after the slicing has begun. I think they used big straws as supports for the layers—you can just make out the tops of the straws in the photo.

As we left the wedding they handed out slices of the wedding cake to the departing guest. I think we were supposed to save the slices for home or something, but WonkthePlank and I ended up devouring at the hotel bar later that night. Which only goes to show that it was some really, really good cake.

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Do You Buy Generic?

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Really generic peas, courtesy of rstinnette on flickr.

Our ever-souring economy has raised a crop of articles about how “frugality” is now hip, from this New York Times piece on Recessionista-chic, to a USA Today piece on how to pinch pennies at the grocery store. In fact, Jezebel had a great post about how lot of the money-saving “tips” in articles like these are really things that normal people with normal incomes do all the time (don’t buy that $100 beauty cream! Go to a consignment store once in a while!) because, um, we’re not millionaires.

So far, one of the more interesting pieces I’ve found is this Wall Street Journal article about how more and more people are buying generic. Apparently, these hard economic times are uprooting people’s brand loyalties—even their deep brand loyalties (like laundry detergent).

Is it just me, or was anyone else surprised that buying generics is a new shopping habit? Maybe it’s because I read too much marketing news (or, I’m really not meeting my earning potential), but I almost always try to buy generics when I can. I’m a big fan of Giant-brand plastic bags, generic sparking water, generic all-purpose cleaners, and generic oatmeal.

Granted, there are some things that I won’t skimp on, like my face products (yes, those CVS-brand face cleansers are $3 cheaper than the Neutrogena stuff, but I will spend the extra $3 rather than risk a horrible break-out), and WonkthePlank has drawn the line at generic Cheerios (only the real thing will do). But Generic Rice Krispies? Bring it on. Generic Bathroom Cleanser? You betcha. Generic bar soap? Oh my God yes.

While some generics don’t fly (I still remember getting a horrible welt under my eye from some generic acne-cleanser my mother once bought me from Costco), I like the feeling that, when I’m buying a generic, I’m paying for the product rather than the snappy logo on the front of the box. I mean, God only knows how much of the cost of Quaker Oatmeal is paying for their advertising campaigns. So I think that buying generic doesn’t only have to be smart shopping in a recession—it can be smart shopping for any economic conditions.

What about you? Is there anything that you buy generic? Some things you won’t compromise on?

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