29 January 2012

Of Lincoln Center, Noodles, and Conservatories

Well, tomorrow marks the first day of spring semester. And of course that means back to the work-eat-work-eat-rehearsal-sleep craziness. It's a mixed blessing, of course. I don't handle not having any sort of structured schedule well. I get antsy, bored, and end up playing entirely too much Skyrim. However, the semester most often brings TOO much structure and rigidity, which is equally confining.

So to make the most out of the last few days of glorious freedom, my mom and I planned a trip to spend a day up in NYC and visit my brother.

It was particularly exciting for me, since this is the first time I actually got a chance to go up and see my brother's "new" school: The Julliard School. He's been there for two years now, and it just always ended up that when my parents would go up to see him, I always had some conflict with work so that tagging along was simply impossible.

My brother is by far the most dedicated and talented person I know, and all that dedication has certainly paid off. He gets to live quite literally AT Lincoln Center. Right across the street from the Metropolitan Opera (which of course we ALWAYS have to stop and get some photos of), City Ballet, and Avery Fisher Hall (where the NY Philharmonic Plays).

Not to mention (if you'll allow me to brag for a moment) attend what is basically THE BEST school for music in the country and certainly one of the best in the world. I mean, just check out this list of notable alumni and teachers. Like, holy crap.

So needless to say, he has been busting his tushy to get there basically since he first picked up at trumpet at age 10, and he did it. And as frustrating as the constant music making could be as we grew up in this tiny house together, I'm immensely proud of him, and everything he's accomplished. So I was crazy glad that I could finally go up and see his school, where he lives, what he does, and see him perform. And while I've seen him perform literally thousands of times over the past 11 years, I must admit it was pretty damn cool to see him on a Julliard stage.

Now of course, my mom and I made some time for girly bonding while we were there, and made our usual beauty stop - Sephora - where I picked up three nail polishes that our little JC Penny Sephora here doesn't carry, and a Hello Kitty compact for my purse. But the main attraction during girly time for me was LUSH.

They're a cosmetics store/brand/company that prides themselves on totally organic and handmade products, from skincare to bath bombs to soap, shampoo, and even hair dye. We don't have one here, and ever since I developed a nail polish problem I have desperately wanted to try their Lemony Flutter Cuticle Butter - a product that basically all the nail bloggers I could find recommend hands down.

You can buy it online, but I couldn't justify paying not only $15 for a cuticle cream, but shipping too? I knew I'd get up there eventually, so I just waited. And I'm both glad and upset that I did. I'm upset because this stuff really is that amazing. I've only been using it for about 5 days now, but already I can see a difference in my cuticles (and I only use it at night too! It's a little greasy for daytime use IMHO... I'm really picky and weird about wearing lotions and touching things).

But I'm glad I waited ultimately because visiting the store itself was such a great experience. I'm just glad I'm good about sticking to my budget or else I would have walked out with one of everything.

For dinner we ate at an old stand-by: Ollie's Noodle Shop. We've eaten there countless times over the years, and because of the short time-frame my brother had to grab dinner with us, this seemed like the most logical choice since it's only a block down from Lincoln Center.

It's an easy choice, because there's something there that will satisfy all our assorted tastes. The Tofu Noodle Bowl and Sapporo were delicious, as always.

But the real highlight of the day for me was finally getting to see the school, and by golly, is it beautiful.

Lots of glass, so you have an amazing view of the city around you, and by far my favorite feature was this:

They just look like regular red curtains, right? But wait... upon closer inspection you find...

They're actually the full text of every single Shakespeare play painted on the wall outside the drama theatre. Crazy, right?

Overall, it was a delightful trip to round off winter break before the rush of the semester starts again. And now it's time to go from visiting one school back to the world of working at another!


24 January 2012

More Baking Mania...

Just some left over photos from the pre-Christmas baking mania to share with you.

My grandmother and I always get together before the holiday and spend an entire day baking kolachi for the family. 12 hours, 36 kolachi, 30 squirrels (left over kolachi dough swirled with jelly, coconut, chocolate chips and chopped nuts), and a batch of Butter Balls (Russian Tea Cookies) later, we were exhausted but pleased.

Our baking sessions are one of my favorite parts of the holiday, and I learn so much about the craft while I'm there. She's a brilliant baker, and an excellent teacher.

We're at the point now, after five or six years of this, and with her back a little worse for the wear at the age of 80, where I'm doing most of the baking myself. She perches in the chair next to where I'm working, her watchful eye on me at all times, as we chat about the past, and the present. And its those chats that I cherish and look forward to far more than anything I could possibly learn about baking.

She'll tell me stories about growing up, about life as the youngest girl in a coal mining immigrant family of 10+. The struggles, the successes (and the dresses!). How somehow, though her father died in the mines when she was young, their mother always found a way to make due. About how she met my grandfather, and the challenges they faced because he was three years younger than she. In return I'll share tales from the History Department, we'll talk about my plan for the future, how my relationship with the boyfriend is going, and in a shocking parallel--the challenges we face because he's three years younger than I.

Its these chats that I enjoy most of all--the bonding time, and the ability to share a family history. And it's all thanks to a simple dough and filling, and a family tradition that predates even my grandmother.


19 January 2012

A WIP Finally Out of Limbo

Hey... remember this? My irregular granny square afghan?

Yea, well, I just did too. Almost 3 years after starting (and finishing) all the squares for it, I finally got around to crocheting it together. While the ends aren't woven in yet, I'm pretty proud of myself. It's my first officially "completed" afghan, and I'm in love.

As of right now, it's about the size of a twin bed, and IMPOSSIBLE to photograph. So naturally, I'm toying with the idea of making it bigger and even harder to get a picture of.

See, here's the problem: I'm not happy with the edging. Not in the least bit. BUT I'm not sure what to do about it. Though you can't see in the pictures, what I've done is just gone around the thing granny-style with a couple rounds of white, and finished off with a 1 round border of green. And I don't know how to describe it other than it just looks... blah. The main body of the afghan is so interesting! But then there's just this hurried, half-baked looking border.

So I'm debating with myself what to do. It looks far too simple. But at the same time, I don't want the border to get so busy that it takes the attention away from the main squares.

So I will keep staring at it, and keep mulling the issue over. Any suggestions are welcomed with open arms, of course.

Hopefully, I will be able to come to a resolution soon so I can get it off the floor before the woofers claims it officially as her own.


18 January 2012

Soft and Chewy Gingerbread Men

And now, for new recipe number three! Boyfriend and I had a lot of fun decorating these, and as a result, they get their own post.

My brother has a thing for gingerbread. And when I say "has a thing" I really mean "loves and is super super picky about." He has been searching for the perfect soft, chewy, delicious gingerbread men for months, possibly years and is continually dissatisfied with the harder, more crispy versions that he finds in stores everywhere.

So when I spotted this Gingerbread Man recipe over at the Brown Eyed Baker with an option to make them either thin and crispy OR soft and chewy, I figured it would be a great thing to make during boyfriend and I's baking marathon before Christmas. My brother was due home from college after a grueling semester that same night, and we both thought it would be a great surprise for him to come home to soft and chewy gingerbread men!

The recipe itself turned out delicious, although they could have used a bit more spice. The fault may very well have been ours however, since the grocery store was sold out of both ground ginger AND ground cloves, so we were forced to use the bazillion year old ones that we found in the spice cabinet. They've probably lost some potency over the years.

Additionally, the dough was SUPER SUPER SUPER sticky and pretty difficult to work with, even after not just refrigerating, but freezing, using wax and parchment paper for rolling and cutting, AND after throwing in probably half a cup more flour than was called for. I suspect that it is the fault of the molasses. Next time I will try using light molasses instead of dark molasses, and maybe that'll make a difference.

Regardless of the problems, they came out delicious, and the real fun came in when we started decorating them. Neither of us was really terribly competent with the cookie icing, but we got some pretty interesting ones out of it. Above you can see our Monster From the Deep cookie, a Leela from Futurama cookie, and one of the few traditional ones.

And here's Magic Mushroom Addict Gingerbreadman.

Because of the dough stickiness, we had some mishaps when transferring the men to the cookie sheets, and so as a result we have Half Eaten Gingerbreadman, complete with pink cookie icing blood. (There may or may not be something wrong with us, apparently.)

And poor Broken Leg Gingerbreadman, all bound up in his cast.

And then there's this guy. I'm not really sure what he is, but I like him.

While the cookies were not "perfect" they seemed to get the brother seal of approval, since they were all gone within 48 hours. Let's see how they turn out next time with the recipe changes...


07 January 2012

Kristos Razdayetsya! (Christmas Ukranian Style)

As you may or may not know, I was raised Russian Orthodox, and so our family gets not one, but TWO Christmases! While the Orthodox church itself shifted from the traditional Jan. 7th to the more common Dec. 25th a long time ago, my dad's side of the family still maintains tradition. We get together to celebrate and exchange gifts in the evening on the 25th, but come the 6th and the 7th, we get together again. This time for the traditional Holy Night and Christmas Day dinners.

From a more practical point of view, traditional Russian Christmas presents an elegant solution to figuring out family stuff and scheduling amongst the two sides for the 24th and 25th, since my Mom's side does the whole Holy Night, Christmas Day Feast shebang as well. Only they're Ukranian Catholic, not Russian Orthodox, so the 6th/7th tradition is long gone on that side. With Russian Christmas, we get to spend a full Christmas with both sides, every year!

So please excuse this slight break in the baking chronicles to share some of my favorite photos from the last two days. My grandmother really has a knack for decorating, and some of the most adorable/beautiful Russian and Ukrainian style things that I felt went with the holiday perfectly.

The two of us (and my Aunt) very much share a love for Matryoshki. So much so that I made them both one for Christmas a few years back. And her little Ukrainian Dancing Girl doll used to fascinate me so much as a child, that I now have my own!

She's got some of the prettiest Matryoshki I've ever seen.

Oh, and did I mention she makes the best piroghi in the world? Because she does. Best. Ever.

So I hope everyone who still celebrates had a great Russian Christmas, and for everyone who doesn't, I still hope you had great days.

And now, back to the baking.


04 January 2012

Baking with the Boyfriend

Busy busy busy has been kind of the theme of 2011, and the days leading up to Christmas were no different. As the year progressed, and as things got busier and more hectic, I was constantly wracked with anxiety about the relationship between me and my boyfriend. I was so terrified that because we were so busy, and because we didn't get to see each other that much, that somehow that would cause things to collapse. I don't exactly have a very happy or healthy romantic past, and in my last relationship, that always seemed to be the way it would go. And unlike the way I now realize that I felt about that last relationship, I reallllllllyyyyyy realllllllyyyyyyy like this one.

So, naturally I didn't want that to happen.

But as it turns out, the happiest surprise about being in a healthy, functional, and loving relationship is that... well... it's not that hard. We like doing a lot of the same things, and even if it's not something we both enjoy, we end up enjoying it because we get to hang out. So the few days of vacation we had after school ended and before Christmas, we made the most of it. Even though they were filled with errands, chores and holiday preparation responsibilities, we tried to do a decent amount of it together. We helped each other shop for our families, and most exciting of all for me, he helped me bake! My usually solitary day long baking marathon was far more enjoyable (and more productive!) with him around to keep me talking and lend a helping (much stronger than mine) hand.

He was particularly helpful in instances where butter had to be mixed in, since with my teeny hands and non-existent upper arm strength/bad wrists, it usually takes me an eternity to get it to the consistency it's supposed to be without a mixer (our hand-held bit the bullet a few months ago and we haven't gotten around to replacing it).

We tried out three, totally new recipes this year, two of which I'll talk about in this post.

First up is a Pinterest find for Swirled Sugar Cookies. While the recipe seems to be just for regular Pillsbury type hard sugar cookies, it was the visuals that really got me. All swirly and sprinkley and pretty...

Overall, a pretty straightforward recipe, and the result tastes even better than the Pillsbury ones I loved so much as a kid. The only thing of note that we found is that it's actually much much easier to make the cookie cane if the dough hasn't been refrigerated. Ours got TOO hard after refrigeration to even bend without it just snapping. Which was kind of bizarre and may have somehow been our fault. But beyond that, easy peasy.

Ours aren't the neatest looking, mainly because the sprinkle application was kind of a difficult process... I couldn't really find a great way to do it without either messing up the cane, or getting sprinkles EVERYWHERE. The only vessel we had that would have worked were the large cookie sheets with edges and they were in the oven at the time. Additionally I probably should have refrigerated it slightly more before slicing to prevent the shape deformation from the pressure of the not-so-sharp knife I used.

The other recipe was one I found in my perusing of Tracey's Culinary Adventures . It's a great blog, and I love digging through recipes when I have 15 minutes to spare. When I stumbled upon the recipe for Eggnog Cut-Out Cookies, I knew at once it was a must-try. Both of us absolutely love eggnog, and to have cookies that taste like it? Perfect.

The recipe itself was super easy to whip up, and quite honestly a good third of the dough ended up in our stomachs before the oven was even pre-heated. The dough was SO FREAKING GOOD. Almost better than the finished cookies. Which were also SO GOOD. This is a recipe that is definitely being put in my recipe box for future and frequent use.

Some tips to remember for next time I make them (and there will most certainly be a next time): 1) Don't roll the dough too thin. They're better thicker. and 2) Remember to put the Cinnamon Sugar on top BEFORE baking.

As I mentioned earlier, we actually tried out THREE new recipes that day, but the third will have it's own post devoted to the recipe review. But, to hold you over... here's a sneak peak!


P.S. - Find me on Pinterest! Turandot23.

02 January 2012

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone out there had a happy and healthy holiday season! Here at Lunaticraft, though it's been busy, the season has been a happy one. Both sides of my family have lived in NEPA for a few generations now, so holidays can be hectic and draining as we rush from one dinner to the next, and scurry to wrap gift upon gift. The status of both my brother and I as freelance musicians also adds to the craziness, particularly on Christmas Eve as we fight to squeeze the traditional family stuff and time with our significant others in between our various mass and service gigs. It's sometimes very easy to lose sight of the fact that holidays are supposed to be for celebrating and enjoying.

This year my boyfriend had a huge hand in helping to keep me in the spirit and my annual baking marathon with my grandmother helped me transition from the high-stress situation of an unusually late finals week to true holiday mode. (Posts coming soon) In general, the main holidays have come and gone smoothly and happily, capping off a difficult, if satisfying and rewarding year.

Economically, it's been a very difficult year for me. I have my part-time teaching job, but the reality is that I get paid more in experience than actual livable wages. It will be a gigantic help when I apply to Ph.D. programs this fall, but until then, even without rent (which my parents are kind enough to not charge me), thanks to student loans it's a major struggle. I only get paid six months out of the year due to my status as contract/part-time, and despite the dozens upon dozens of applications I've put out in the past year simply cannot seem to land any supplemental income.

But somehow I made it through the holidays, with only the funds for February's upcoming car insurance payment still unaccounted for. I made a huge effort to think ahead this year, socking away as much money as possible so that I could actually afford to get decently thoughtful gifts for my family and boyfriend, and it payed off. We're a very tightly knit family, and even though we kids are all grown up, we still exchange with my aunts and uncles in the area. It felt really good to be able to hand them each something a little more than just another year of cookies or hot chocolate mix for a change. As for me, well, you can see above. All I can say is that I'm a lucky girl with an amazing, wonderful guy and a loving family who in general really gets who I am. And that's the most amazing gift of all of it.

Professionally and personally it has also been a year of challenges. Professionally, it's mainly just run of the mill growing pains as I slowly but surely learn from experience what works and what doesn't. Though challenging, this year has brought me more growth than I ever could have imagined and not one, but two successful semesters. My course evaluations, both formal and informal, were all good, and most importantly very helpful in allowing me to shape and construct future courses. I have been blessed with amazing and understanding students, and quite honestly, I learn just as much from them as they (hopefully) learn from me!

Personally, the year has been one of ups and downs, lefts and rights, but through it all I've been blessed by my super supportive and patient boyfriend. We just celebrated our one year anniversary at the end of October, and though I haven't talked about our relationship on this blog until recently for personal reasons, it's been an amazing 14 months. Living at home with your parents as a 24 year old professor can be frustrating at best, and he's been amazing about listening to me vent, and both agreeing with me when I'm right, and gently reminding me that it IS my parent's house when I'm wrong. I often feel like I'm stuck in this weird place between two worlds, and frankly it's been a big stumbling block over the past year. At work I get to be a fully independent adult, in my personal life I'm a typical 24 year old with friends and hobbies and places to go and be, but then sometimes when I walk back in the door at home it's like I've walked through a time warp and am suddenly sixteen again. Finding a balance between "I'm 24 and making all the right decisions for my future - I think I've proved myself enough to be able to run my own life" and "Our house our rules" is something that both me AND my parents have struggled with repeatedly over the past year, particularly as I started dating again for the first time since returning home from college in '08.

But we'll figure it out. And hopefully 2012 will be just as full of happiness and growth, not just for me, but for all you lovelies out there as well.

Here's to an amazing 2012.

(Photos from top to bottom: My grandmother's cat & nativity set, My grandmother's tree, My friend's tree, Gifts I received, Highlights from our own tree.)