All of Us!

All of Us!
Finally! All together with enough time to spare (??) to capture a picture of all six of us in the same spot, same time. Now this is a precious photo! I tried to get one last year for our Christmas card and didn't succeed. So when I had the chance I threw out the lasso and rounded everyone up (at my niece's graduation party) to grab a couple snapshots. My oldest son, Casey, and his girlfriend Nika are on the left; and my youngest son, Brady, and his girlfriend Jenne on the right; that leaves Bob and I in the center. (Bob is the one who doesn't look very happy about having his picture taken!!)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Biggest Apple I've Ever Seen -- Day Un (1)

Holy Cow! Did I not tell you about my trip to New York. How can that be? It was the center of my universe for weeks – before and after. Naughty, naughty, naughty. Well, let’s not make that trip and its sensational sights be all for naught. Let me share some of those wonderful events with you now. I have to grab my notes (and go back into some of the blogs I started back in October about this trip but never finished). So time to get them done and out so you can see and hear about it. Here we go -- It's Day One of My Big Adventure, 10-11-11.

Up, Up and Away
. First off, remember me telling you this was my first airplane trip. Well, Tuesday morning brought anxiety before we even hit the tarmac. Nika and I hopped a cab to O’Hare, picking us up at the corner by their apartment. A nice gentleman who, one pressed for conversation, joined in. The one thing he did say that stuck in my mind was “this is the worst I have ever seen traffic” – oh, no!! Oh, yes! He quipped he thought it was all because this was the first business day after a holiday. Monday was Columbus Day and apparently they celebrate that more in Chicago than they do in Madison. Traffic was knee-deep and slowing down every second. The minute we thought we were out of it, back in the thick of it again. Thinking that we were leaving in plenty of time (by Nika’s “watch” as she has driven Casey to the airport many mornings to catch his flights to New York), we hailed the cab at 6:15 a.m., hoping to be at the airport by 7:00. Our flight was leaving at 8:30. Finally breaking through the traffic jams, our trusty driver pulled in and let us off at 8:00. Scramble, we did. And me with all my suitcases! (Evil look from Nika!). I still needed to stop at the bathroom (too much coffee was drank on the ride there), get some water for my cup (to ward off getting dehydrated which pushes me into a low), get some orange juice (to stop a low in case I go into one) and get through — security. Yes, as I mentioned before, my real anxiety was getting through security with my insulin, needles, etc., etc. I had everything packed so it was easily accessible to be pulled out and explained. Needless to say, that went fine. My two suitcases went bye-bye and off on a run we went. I found a bathroom and Nika grabbed our two carry-ons and was off to find me some water and orange juice. I quickly came out of the bathroom but couldn’t find Nika. I ran around looking more for my red bag carry-on instead of her. Ultimately, she found me. She had already deposited our bags with the airport ticket-taker (smart move, Nika! She, of course, travels more than I do!). In through the tunnel we went to board the plane. The last to arrive! Whew! Got our seats and settled in. [Yes, that is Nika in the picture up above making faces at me when I am trying to take her picture!]

Next worry was airsickness. Nope, skip that – next worry was passing out. Once we got into our seats, the overwhelming heat in the plane was almost forcing me into a low. I quickly grabbed my water to make sure I was hydrated and our traveling companion in the third aisle seat assured me it would soon be cold. Once the plane started up and the A/C kicked in, she was right. I hastily unpacked my camera so I could take pictures of us taking off and the sights below and the clouds. Nika made a point of showing me where my air bag was in case I felt the urge to dispel some of my breakfast around the airplane.

I was filled with the sense of adventure and having been awake since about 4:00 a.m., it was hard to subdue that feeling. My motor mouth started and I know all Nika wanted at that point was peace and quiet so she could sleep. (She will admittedly tell you she is not a morning person). She impulsively pulled out the headphones. I have since found out that in the “Air Travel Etiquette Book” this is a sign to the person next to you to “shut up.” Haha! No one hands you this book, some things you just have to learn. I mean I already knew about the Golden Rule #1 – never say the word b-o-m-b; never, never, never. Not talking about a Hail Mary pass, a cocktail, or a project that fell apart. Never, never, never. So that wasn’t hard – it was already ingrained in my brain, because I didn’t want TSA throwing me in an airport cell for being a suspected terrorist or something. Nevertheless, I was to still able to keep myself busy by taking pictures of tiny little hills and trees below, the layout of the land, the clouds, and even snuck a few in of Nika (to her dismay -- again see her picture, above). [The second picture above is when we were leaving Chicago O'Hare and I snapped a few of Chi-Town from up above.] I read a little and then she wanted to play with my IPAD. Now this is when she began to get giddy from lack of sleep. She took my IPad and started to take pictures of herself with the photobooth. This app can distort your face, expressions, etc., and can be quite comical to play with. It occupied Nika’s time. I spent some time messing around with my laptop in between taking pictures.

Landing in the Big Apple. Then out of the blue, things seemed to be getting a bit closer and the pilot said we would soon be beginning our descent. I could feel my stomach making leaps – not from the descent but for the thrill of what was in store for me the next few days. A little kid in a candy store wouldn’t even come close to what I was feeling! [The picture to the left is of the Statue of Liberty as we were flying into New York. She looks like a grand old gal from even high in the sky.]

Once we hit the airport, we grabbed our bags and set out to get a cab. [Nika got me back and snagged a picture of me standing in line for the cab as proof that I took may bags along -- yes, those are all my red bags. At least I was able to readily identify my bags. Color coordinated--even on a trip! Nika's one bag is the pink carry on. And see the next picture below -- it is called tit-for-tat. I snatched a picture of Nika standing in line behind me. She was boxed in, so she couldn't run from the camera! Hello, pretty girl!]

My Big Adventure Starts to Kick Into High Gear. In the cab and heading to our hotel, we unfortunately hit a snag – caught in a traffic jam in one of the tunnels (I think it was the New Jersey tunnel). Darn! No good views here. After a few frantic phone calls from Casey (as we were supposed to be meeting up with some of his coworkers to go out to lunch), we finally made it to the hotel. Casey popped in just in time to get us up to the room, dump off our stuff and out into the streets of New York we went.

Lunch at Frankie & Johnnie's. We were meeting his co-workers at a place Ron (co-worker) picked out called Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse. My kind of place, too. I absolutely loved the architecture of the inside of the building. [See picture to the left of us at F&J's. You can even see in the mirror the waiter taking our picture.] As many may know, Frankie & Johnnie has been the longest running show on Broadway, and this restaurant is also one of the city’s oldest continued dining establishment, having first opened as a speakeasy in 1926. Ron noted that this was also at one time the home of late actor Douglas Fairbanks. I did a little extra reading on this establishment and found that legend has it that to gain access to the original speakeasy, patrons knocked on the unmarked door and used the password “Frankie” when a small peephole was opened. If it was business as usual, a confirmation reply of “Johnnie” was heard and admittance was gained. Hence, the Frankie & Johnnie moniker. And now you know the rest of the story. Following the repeal of prohibition, the restaurant became a steakhouse and an institution famous for its steaks and chops. Gotta love a place with lots and lots of history. It almost wanted to quietly utter the word “Frankie” to see if I would receive a ghostly reply. If you ever make it out to New York City, you have to schedule a visit there. Big kudos to Ron for being such a fine host!

After devouring a delicious lunch of burgers and fries, we all sauntered up the street a few blocks to their office building. While the others went back to their respective offices, Casey took Nika and I on a tour. Nika had been there before, but this was my first time, so he had to introduce everyone to Momma. Here I was introduced to Casey’s creative world at the office. His office buddies were super fantastic people.

Planning Strategy Session. After that, Nika and I strolled back to our room where we unpacked, rested for a moment and then tried to do some planning for the coming days. When we our master laid out, I hooked us up with tickets for the Grey Line tour and we mapped out our days.

Times Square Here We Come. With that completed, Casey returned after work and we headed out to Times Square do some sightseeing and shopping. [Picture to the left is Casey and I in Times Square.] Nika was looking for a dress to wear to the play the next night, so we headed to Forever 21. I had always avoided the store before, because, well frankly, pushing 21 was a little hard for me to pass! Haha! But I quickly found out that is not necessarily true. I bought a shirt and sweater and a couple pairs of shoes. 21, huh! Maybe I can be 21 Forever.

We also took a little stroll through the famous Times Square Toys R Us. I wanted to ride the three-story high Ferris wheel, but couldn’t get anyone else to join me. Since I didn’t want to look the senile, old Momma, I opted to stay off it, too. Instead, we headed to the other side of the ferris wheel to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory store. Mmmmm, mmmmm! Lots of chocolates there. Nika, having a sweet tooth, made Casey buy her some chocolates and I decided to do the same for Bob. (I was just hoping that they would survive the rest of the week and the trip home before some little mouse --me-- would start nibbling on them!)

Where's Waldo & the Dancing "Wanna-Be Cowboy." Next, we roamed around some more taking in the sights and sounds and faces of Times Square. Outside Forever 21 we crossed the street to other side so we could see ourselves up there on the big screen plectron in front of God and everyone. That was neat, so I took pictures of us on the screen.

[Picture to the left is the close-up shot of us sitting across the street from the plectron where the camera picked us up. The next picture is the "far away" version, what we liked to call sort of a "Where's Waldo" type of pic. Can you find us?]

Right behind where we were sitting was an insanely funny guy who thought he could dance along with the girl in the advertisement on the plectron (that was for real on the plectron in an advertisement) so he jiggled and swayed to the loud music. Quite hilarious! [See the picture to the right. Remember, this is October and he is half-naked. Kind of funny how he was shaking his arms so to the music that in this pic, it looks like he has none. And no, this was not the naked cowboy -- just a poor imitation of it.]

It's 10:30 -- Time to Eat. Following that we headed over to (attempt) to eat supper at the Hard Rock Café but it was a 40-minute wait and it was now getting to a point after walking (and shopping) for four hours and so many blocks, that I soon needed to eat. We shopped a bit at the Hard Rock and then sauntered over to Planet Hollywood. The wait there was much shorter, and since it was already getting to be around 10:30 p.m., it was definitely time to eat. (Not in terms of NY time, though. People out there eat late and go out late). This supper time was beginning to crouch in on my usual bed time. [See the picture below of Casey and Nika eating at Planet Hollywood.]

Day 1 Winding Down. Again, we enjoyed great food and what more could you ask for. A safe trip, time with my family, I was having the time of my life. We arrived back at our hotel room around 12:30 a.m., Casey headed right to bed since he had to work again the next day. Nika was tiring out also, and so was I. At least I thought, I was. Instead of heading underneath the covers though, I pulled out my laptop and started downloading my pictures. Once downloaded, I quickly started transferring them over to my Facebook page. I had told family at home that I would try to keep them up-to-date daily and I wanted to make good on my word. When the last of that was done, it was after 1:30, so it was definitely time for me to hit the hay. (And, remember, we were now an hour ahead of time from what I was used to, so come morning, that was going to be a shocker, too.)

So much for Day 1 of My Big Adventure. Stay tuned for Shari Hits the Big Apple – Day Deux.

Heavenly, Luscious -- And Taking It Up Two More Notches

Aplogies First: Wow, do I dare say that it has been four months since I posted last! Wow! Time goes by so fast and it seemed like last Fall and the beginning of Winter just sped away somewhere. Not that I don’t know where it went; it is just that I don’t know how it went by so fast.

Needless to say, though, it isn’t like I haven’t started blogs, because I have. It is just finishing them is what I have to apologize about. But, I couldn’t let this last “thing” go by without blogging about it.

Onto The Main Event: Today we are talking cheesecakes, people! One of my favorite subjects. They are a little more tedious to make but in the end, so satisfying.

We had a “little” family gathering this past weekend on Sunday which I decided to prepare a couple cheesecakes for. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a "little" gathering, just a bunch of women (the O’Connor women, aunts, cousins, in-laws) getting together for their 1st Annual SnS (Soup ‘n Salad) Luncheon. What a party! What a great idea his cousin Mary Jean had! Outstanding soups, transcendent salads, out-of-this world breads, excellent refreshments, and, just a little dessert to finish it off.

Since I have so many cookbooks, saved recipes plus my own personal cookbooks (and lots of recipes to add to each of them yet -- and yes, before you say it, I do have my favorites indexed), digging up something new is always fun but can sometimes be time-consuming, aggravating (because my stomach growls while I look through my recipes), but so satisfying when I find just the right one. Actually, when I find the right one, sometimes I'm so excited, I usually find it hard to wait to get making it.

And this time I did. We are talking Heavenly Chocolate Cheesecake. However, I decided that the cheesecake alone was not quite appeasing enough. I decided to add a Raspberry Coulis and top it off with some Chantilly Cream.

Coulis? What the heck is a coulis? I’m glad you asked. A coulis (pronounced koo-lee) is made by pureeing something – often a fruit or vegetable – until it is liquid enough to serve as a sauce. Good-quality frozen berries make delicious coulis (in this case that is what I went with). Pastry chefs or schooled and sophisticated restaurant chefs often store fruit coulis in a squeeze bottle so they can easily squirt the sauce in a pattern on a dessert or the plate, pool it onto plates, or add a few droplets to garnish another sauce. Now you know – if you are in a restaurant and you see some of that pureed sauce dribbled on your plate or dessert, you can say with confidence and impress others when you speak that foreign language – culinary – by uttering the word “coulis.”

Cream of the Crop: Next, what’s up with the fancy name on the cream? Chantilly cream, or crème chantilly, to use the French word and again impress your friends, is simply sweetened whipped cream flavored with vanilla (or sometimes brandy). Here in the United States, we take the sweetened part for granted when we refer to whipped cream, although, of course, unsweetened whipped cream is used to give volume and flavor to a number of savory recipes. There are those who will tell you Chantilly cream is a lightly whipped cream (that is to say, not stiff and heading towards butter), but there are those who will disagree with this assertion. Chantilly cream is often piped into decorative shapes. In this case, I took a slice of the cheesecake, ladled some raspberry coulis over that and then used my Pampered Chef Easy Accent Decorator and using the largest tip piped a dollop onto the top. It might be onto the top of the dessert, but this was just enough to take the whole thing slightly “over the top!”

No Cake Like a Cheesecake: The cheesecake by itself is just plain yummy! But as I said, adding the little extras made it magnificent. Now tell me, who can’t resist the urge to take a small piece of Heaven every once in awhile? If you do like me, I just work harder on the treadmill for the sins I just committed or am about to commit when sitting down with this dessert. It makes it all worthwhile.

And without further ado, let me share these recipes with you. I promise – you will love them as much as I do, and, hey, if you make it for a holiday, outing, gathering, etc., you are sharing it with someone else (so the devil isn’t tempting you to eat the whole darn thing by yourself)!!

•18 Oreo cookies, finely crushed (I put mine in the food processer – works faster)(about 1-1/2 cups)
•2 Tbsp. butter, melted
•3 pkgs. (8 oz. each) cream cheese (I used Neufchâtel which has less fat and calories)
•3/4 cup sugar
•1 tsp. vanilla
•1 pkg. (8 squares) Semi-Sweet chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
•3 eggs

Mix the crushed cookies and butter; press firmly onto the bottom of a greased 9-in springfoam pan.
BEAT cream cheese, sugar and vanilla on medium speed until well blended.
ADD melted chocolate; mix well. Add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing on low speed after each addition just until blended. Pour over crust.
BAKE at 325◦F for 55 minutes to 1 hour or until center is almost set. Run knife or metal spatula around side of pan to loosen cake; cool before removing side of pan. Refrigerate 4 hours or overnight.

•1 lb. fresh or frozen raspberries
•3/4 to 1 cup sugar
•1-2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice or bottled lemon juice like RealLemon
(Makes about 2 cups)

COMBINE the raspberries, 3/4 cup of sugar and 1 Tbsp. of the lemon juice in a sauce pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. (Don’t worry if you use frozen, they will thaw fast in the pan). Simmer until the sugar has dissolved, about 10 minutes. Taste the mixture and, if necessary, add more sugar. Continue to heat until any additional sugar is dissolved.
STRAIN the coulis through a fine-mesh sieve (or a fine-mesh strainer) to eliminate any seeds.
ADJUST the flavor by adding additional lemon juice if necessary. The coulis can be served warm or cold; it will thicken slightly when stored in the refrigerator, and keeps for up to 10 days.

•1 cup heavy cream, chilled (yes, that would be whipping cream)
•1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar (or to some “powdered sugar”)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
(Makes about 2 cups)

CHILL a stainless-steel bowl and the beaters. (I used the balloon whisk on my mixer).
POUR the cream into the chilled bowl and whip on medium speed until thickened, about 3 minutes. Increase the speed to high and gradually add the confectioner’s sugar while whipping. Add the vanilla extract and continue to whip until the cream has the desired peak according to its intended use. Soft peaks are good for dolloping cream (taking a spoon and plunking it on there), while firmer peaks are better if the cream is to be piped, used for topping, or folded into another mixture.

Getting Whipped Into Shape: Now here is the biggy, the one instruction you need to make sure you follow carefully: WARNING! WARNING!! (haha!) If your cream starts to turn slightly yellow while you are whipping, it is close to being over-whipped and turning into butter. If that happens, don’t say that I didn’t warn you – but if that does happen, simply fold in a small amount of the unwhipped cream, if you have it, to rescue the texture. Okay, students, if you take one thing away from this, it should be – keep it white!

Whipping to the Desired thickness: Always test your cream when you are whipping. Increase the speed to high and keep whipping the cream until it holds, soft , medium or firm peaks. In this case, we want slightly firm peaks – not stiff. Cream whipped to firm peaks is best for piping. Again, cream should not be whipped to stiff peaks, since it can easily turn into butter.

For the best results when whipping cream remember these simple instructions: (1) Make sure you chill the bowl, the beaters and the cream. Place the bowl and beaters in the freezer if need be, but they can also be put in the refrigerator for a couple hours prior to whipping. (2) Add your sugar gradually. Confectioner’s and superfine sugars dissolve more quickly than granulated (which is what we commonly use in baking, etc.) so you are always best to use confectioner’s. (3) Don’t overbeat the cream – remember we are making Chantilly Cream not butter. (Not that I couldn’t eat butter on just about anything but it just wouldn’t look too pretty on this dessert).

And, Last But Not Least . . .the last thing to remember, after you have plated up your dessert, gently grab your fork, eye up this resplendent creation you have composed and forewarn your taste buds that they are about to meet up with something they might just start begging for a little more often.

Oh, yah, it is that good!