Favorite Songs of 2011

Nuclear Seasons: Charli xcx

I haven't ranked these songs, but "Nuclear Seasons" is pretty far up there for me this year. British electro-pop sensation Charli xcx nails this one with a dark late 80s sound reminiscent of the days when good, strange music could only be found through someone who knew someone who was on college radio.

CharliXCX - Nuclear Seasons by charlixcx

Hey Sparrow: Peaking Lights

Slow and wispy, this is a little like "Heart & Soul" played on a kalimba--there's a nice plinky, repetitive thing going on. Breathy background music.

Hey Sparrow by Peaking Lights

Better Off Without You: Summer Camp

This song makes me laugh. It has the boppy throwback sound that seems to be going around (like the Dum dum girls). Also it's a breakup celebration song. I'm so happy you're gone! Stop calling! Tee hee.

Summer Camp - Better Off Without You by Webzine Obstacle

Thankless Thing: Wild Beasts

This is mostly on my list because I love Wild Beasts and their forays into the falsetto-sphere. This song is quite mellow for my taste, but also gorgeous and pretty irresistible. Find them on Facebook!

Wild Beasts - Thankless Thing by DominoRecordCo

Yellow Missing Signs: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

I posted about this on Facebook and it was pointed out to me that it seems to be about justice for serial murder victims. Which is not a bad thing, but I'd only been listening to the music, some excellent raw synth pop straight out of 1985.

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - Yellow Missing Signs by Polyvinyl Records

100 Other Lovers: DeVotchKa

DeVotchKa have a lovely happy gypsy-ish sound. Apparently they came to fame on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. This song is quietly propulsive.

DeVotchKa - 100 Other Lovers by antirecords

Beat and the Pulse: Austra

Toronto's Katie Stelmanis seems just amazing. Super-talented, the unplugged piano sessions released in the fall prove she can make awesome electro-pop without even needing the electro. This song is another big 2011 favorite.

Austra - Beat And The Pulse by bluepumpkin aka antennica

Bunhill Fields: Amor de Dias

Bunhill Fields is a London cemetery for dissenters apparently. The song seems appropriately pensive and atmospheric, with the occasional sweeping cello and piano statement. It's lovely pop.

Amor De Días - "Bunhill Fields" by OctopusWindmill

Don't Stop: The Dodos

These two guys worked with Neko Case on their album, though this song is just them. And it's great! They have some interesting percussion things going on... drumsticks? Don't Stop has a lot of layers and noise and energy, appropriate for the name.

The Dodos 'Don't Stop' by Wichita Recordings

Let's Go: Mike & Cody

Every best-songs list has to have a big club banger, right? This song makes me want to jump up and down and drink gin & tonics made fluorescent by the club black lights. Let's Go!!

Let's Go! by mikeandcody

Christmas Playlist

Maybe I get kind of fanatical about Christmas music. I'll admit it. Growing up, our rule was that Christmas music could be played from after Thanksgiving dinner until the end of Christmas Day. Such a short window makes Christmas music extra special. Nowadays I impose this rule with gusto, listening almost exclusively to Christmas music all month long until other family members start making remarks. My favorites change with the years--here are some I'm enjoying now!

Corelli's Christmas concerto. It's only about 15 minutes long and instrumental, but sounds totally like Christmas to me. Just look for Corelli's Concerto Grosso in G minor Op. 6/8 on your average baroque mixtape.

Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols. I like the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers version found on their Angels on High CD. The rest of the CD is great too.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio. What a classic. This year I also bought the piano music to learn.

Klingende Weihnacht. My father spent time in Germany in the 60s and I think this record came out of that experience. It has been part of my Christmases as long as I can remember, and the sound of the little German children singing ROCKS my every December.

Noels Celtiques: Celtic Christmas Music from Brittany, Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde. This album is so beautiful it sometimes makes me cry. The northern tippy-top part of France has Scottish connections, and they can be heard in these transfiguring songs that sometimes include bagpipes.

Christmas with the Rat Pack. Frank, Dean-o and Sammy take turns belting 'em out on this swinging collection.

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz. John Coltrane Quartet, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn, Dinah Washington... in a word: awesomesauce. Jimmy Smith's drawbar organ version of "Jingle Bells" is a total treat.

Christmas Album, Nat "King" Cole. This guy's voice is like buttah. A perennial favorite.

A Very Siúcra Christmas. This is a recent find at a used CD store, apparently from around 2002. A folky-Celtic trio, Siúcra is quickly growing on us as a new Christmas staple. There are some new Christmas songs I've never heard before, like the "Cherry Tree Carol" that makes new sense of the miracle plays I had to read in college. (Why DID the baby have cherries in his hand at the end of the play? This song answers the question.) The talented lead singer Beth Leachman got an adorable Vows wedding writeup in the NYT in 2009: click here to read.

Baroque Christmas Music. I found this at the library. The name about says it all. My cup of tea.

The Little Drummer Boy, by the Harry Simeone Chorale. Let me just say that "The Little Drummer Boy" is the most hideous Christmas song ever, in my opinion. However this gospel-like album of medleys (that sounds terrible, but it's good!) gets really rollicking in places!

Tell me what Christmas music you like! You don't even have to be Christian to have a favorite song or two. Heck, I'm some sort of witchy pagan sun-worshiper myself.

Holiday Crafts

I'm always trying to simplify Christmas, I don't know why. I should probably just accept its complexities! One great year was when my mom and I didn't get a tree, but strung lights on the coffee table and put our gifts beneath that. Craziness! These days, with children and an extended family, I'm still trying to make things easy yet special. Last year my equation was that each person would get: one homemade thing, one purchased thing (modestly priced), and food. I collected ideas from blogs and my ancient stash of abandoned projects. Here are a few examples of DIY gifts from last year. I've been waiting since then to share them!

Project: Stuffed Ornaments
Sometime in the early 80s someone gave me fabric that had Christmas toys printed on it. You were supposed to cut them out and sew them together with ribbon to make cute stuffed ornaments. Fast forward about 30 years to when I rediscovered this fabric with my sewing stuff. Santa brought two for each child--stuffed toys are excellent stocking stuffers!

Project: Boxer Shorts
Is it too much information to share that I make all of a certain person's underwear for him from a worn and loved Butterick boxers pattern? The best part about homemade boxers is the mad fabric choices that are possible. One year I made boxers with adorable otters on them floating in a sea of blue. Another time I made boxers sporting multicolored jalapeños. Here, please note one pair has an idyllic village pattern with little houses and copses scattered about.

Project: Painted Spoons
Design Mom inspired me to encourage our older child to make her own presents for family members. One of our first (hopefully of many) projects was to paint these spoons with spots and stripes. We left the stirring part of the spoon plain so nobody would have to eat paint. We also sealed the painted section with a coat of non-toxic clear stuff. (I will have to dig around to figure out what it was called...)

Project: Road Rug
I'm not sure if I like how this turned out. It is just some traffic fabric from the quilting store that I backed with plain blue cloth and sewed together. Cool, except with our hardwood floors it slides around and is really hard to play on. But it could be a good roll-up road to use outside or where there's carpeting.

Project: Porcelain Pens
I am most proud of this one. I got the basic idea from Design Mom, who explains how to make monogrammed mugs using porcelain markers from Michael's and plain white china from the thrift store. I made my own trip to Michael's and sure enough, found these neat markers that are like thin sharpies for ceramic. The best part is: everything is totally adjustable and erasable until it's how you want it, then you bake it briefly to set.

For this mug for Grandpa, we decided to add his grandchildren's hands as part of the design. First I traced the hands and cut them out.

I taped the hand stencils to the mug.

We traced around them with black porcelain pen.

Here's the basic tracing. I may have been the main handler of the porcelain pens up until this point.

Then I handed the pens over to Miss Monkey, who did her own decorating (with some help when requested).

All three grandparent gifts. If you like the ancient Greek egg-and-dart motif on the bottom of the slim vase, I take all the credit.

Project: Embroidered Tea Towel
This was also a satisfying project, many many years in the making. I got these tea towels to embroider when I was about 10, and did not finish them until my second maternity leave.

Project: Homebrew

I posted a photo essay about this early in the year -- great gift for some special uncles.

Project: Baked Goods
We packed up a bunch of lovingly recycled Christmas tins with a selection of holiday treats baked by 3 generations of ladies, me being the middle generation. (Thanks mom!) We made:
  • lebkuchen
  • fruitcake
  • shortbread
  • my signature oatmeal coconut chocolate chip cookie recipe

Thanks for reading! I have some more ideas for this year, though not being on maternity leave I will not be as prolific this time. What are your fave DIY gifts to make--or receive?

Butternut bake: Savory holiday side

This Butternut Cranberry Bake that I blogged about back in 2008 would be a great side dish for a family holiday meal. This recipe always reminds me of the K2 lunch spot in Kendall Square, Cambridge, which had a version in their salad bar circa Fall 2000. It was so yummy that I experimented at home until I figured out a pretty good replica. Here are some new things I've learned about this recipe.

The recipe is a simple affair of cutting up and rinsing a big handful of cranberries,
then sautéeing in a bunch of butter with half an onion or so.

One thing is that if you don't have brown sugar or brown rice syrup, maple syrup will also do very nicely. Just pour it on over the cubed squash before stirring in the sautéed onion mixture.

Arrange a small cubed butternut squash in a baking dish with some sprigs of thyme
and water that goes about halfway up the squash pieces.

Another thing is that very small children love this, but larger ones may not. Our kindergartner who hates "mixed up food" thought this was completely revolting. She does not care that it tastes like delicious squash candy!

Cover and bake for about 40 minutes, stirring halfway through.

The best brownie mix?

At my new job, unlike my old job, there is no coffee cart that comes by at 2:10 every afternoon to sell gigantic and perfect chocolate-chip cookies for 75¢. So I bring brownies to make up for it. Making brownies at home has turned out to be a cool mother-daughter activity on Sunday afternoons--it's not hard for a kindergartener to help crack an egg, measure and pour oil and water, stir it all together and scrape into a baking pan. Here are some tasting notes I scribbled on torn box-fronts in search of the perfect brownie mix.

Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownies, 13x9 family size
Touted as "extra thick and fudgy!" these did not deliver.
"Not very chocolatey or chewy. Plain."

Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie mix
Has "Chocolate chips in the mix." This was "very moist & fudgy.
Good. Maybe too moist--got clumpy."

Pillsbury Dark Chocolate 13x9 Family Size
"Dark color & moist texture, but not very chocolate-y tasting"

Betty Crocker Ultimate Fudge (8x8 only)
with "Hershey's Fudge Pouch & Melt Away Chips"
"Wow, very dense & moist & chocolate-y. Not cake-y. Almost like underdone but not--just moist!" It appears that I liked these, but they were actually so rich & sweet they became a chore to eat. They were still around the following week, and we took a break from brownie-baking for a few more weeks just to recover.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Supreme (8x8 only)
"Chocolate Syrup pouch included"
By this point I was wary of add-ins like a pouch or chips, but I think this mix is a winner! "Chewy, chocolate-y, but not too much of either. Could be the one?!"

Are you a brownie-holic? What's your favorite recipe? Do you believe in from-the-box, or insist on from-scratch? Any secrets? I have a friend who places walnut halves on top of the batter before baking for the total illusion of homemade. Yum.

Braised Turkey

Look at that gravy. It sparkles.

With the days getting darker (read this good post about it at Door Number 8), the evenings are getting really long. It seems natural to make the best of things by cooking up nice Sunday dinners. Here's another one where we actually invited guests over—first time in a long time! The main dish: braised turkey. This happened earlier in November, but since it's Turkey Day I'd like to share it now!

Personal trivia: I had never cooked my own turkey before this.
My whole life, female relatives have
always done all turkey cooking.
For my first turkey dinner I even bought a roasting pan!

The idea of braising a turkey is from a Cook's Illustrated recipe that, for a CI recipe, was actually quite doable and simple. The basic premise is that you brine the turkey (of course! It's Cook's Illustrated!) and then chop it into 3 main pieces, then cook it in flavorful liquid for a couple of hours until it's completely moist and tender.

I like when there's a secret ingredient that makes a recipe go from pretty good to amazing, and this recipe definitely had one. Dried porcini mushrooms. $49 a pound. This selection cost less than $2 though.

These get mixed with a mirepoix on the bottom of the roasting pan, then the turkey is browned in a hot oven.

Here's the bird basted and ready for browning. One of my favorite parts was getting to butcher (as in "cut up") the turkey the night before--cutting off the wings, carefully carving off the drumsticks so I don't 1. miss the chef's oysters and 2. injure myself. I made a slow-cooker stock with the pieces I cut off, plus giblets. I used to love dissecting things in anatomy class. Sorry Alicia Silverstone.

After browning, the recipe says to add wine and chicken broth for the braising, cover, and turn the oven down for 2 hours.

Another fabulous part of this recipe was the amazing gravy. Here's where the power of the porcini really blossomed forth. It was savory, and because I bothered to strain it, also silken.

The braising liquid, strained and ready to gravy-fy.

The gravy hardly needed any salt either. (The turkey probably contributed enough, since I rubbed it with salt the night before in lieu of brining. Why? It was self-basting, and the recipe said that's what I should do.)

To serve I cut dark meat and breast meat onto a platter, and gave the drumsticks to the people who like that sort of thing. Since it was 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, I was trying to ignore the usual conventions, and served with roasted fingerling potatoes and buttered kale. No stuffing, no cranberry sauce. Our guests brought an amazing bread.

Do you always roast turkey, or have you tried other methods? I've heard of the mysterious deep-fried turkey, but I don't know anybody who's invested in the equipment. I'd eat it though!

I started using Pinterest

This is all your fault ACB! I do find Pinterest quite soothing actually. It's social, but I can show instead of telling. Nice relief for a professional tell-er. I also found that "liking" things makes a whole new board/list for me, without me having to actually repin and claim these things as my "own." If that makes sense. Anyway, join up! Follow me or someone cool! It's fun! I'm at http://pinterest.com/profkitty/

(Mom, Pinterest is like an online bulletin board where you can "pin" just about any image that you find on the Internet. Then you can go admire your collection of pins, and look at other people's too. It's kind of like the wall of postcards taped over my bed in college, except easier to look at.)

New England Boiled Dinner

I bought a big head of cabbage at the farmer's market and a bunch of little potatoes at the coop, planning on a dinner party. But the week turned out to be too busy for guests, so the cabbage and potatoes were still around. I was thinking of making my milk-braised pork chops or maybe frikadellen, and ran these ideas by my life-partner. Basically, tell me what kind of pork you want. His response was "My favorite kind of pork is... corned beef."

Oh no. I don't think I like corned beef. But I figured it would be easy. I could throw it in the slow cooker. What is it called when you put potatoes, corned beef, and cabbage in a slow cooker? Oh. It's called New England Boiled Dinner.

Here's part of my problem with corned beef. It is funny looking. It has a lurid reddish color that doesn't go away when it's cooked. It has disturbing fatty bits and quivering connective stuff. It looks like it should be inside of something alive, not glistening on my counter. The guy at Price Chopper kindly halved a $19 piece of corned beef so I didn't have to deal with a gigantic piece, just a big piece.

So I plopped this in the slow cooker with the cabbage, 2 large chopped carrots and about 5 potatoes. It was already past noon, so I cranked it to "high." I also added a bay leaf, about 10 peppercorns, and enough water to cover the meat so it could really braise.

Six hours later it was done. I only had to intervene once, to push the cabbage down into the liquid so it could get all properly floppy.

To serve, I spooned out all the vegetables, then put the corned beef on its own plate. LOOK AT THIS. This is what I'm talking about with the weird grossness of corned beef. What is that tripey bit???

I bravely scraped off the fat and gaggy stuff, then sliced what remained. It started to look normal. Even edible.

So we ate it. And guess what, New England Boiled Dinner is really good! This truly is a boiled dinner, nothing else was needed except maybe mustard. One kid loved the meat the best, the other only wanted to eat the potatoes.

For dessert we had a half-recipe of yummy apple crisp, liberally squirted with whipped cream.

I'm not from New England, but I guess this is a regular thing that people's moms make, kind of an eye-roller of a dish like meatloaf. But I recommend it! Have you ever had it or made it?