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Archive for February, 2011

Party favors: When I provide them, I want them to be fun, unusual and–preferably–edible. Jordan almonds are…fine. Personalized M&Ms, potentially quite entertaining. Homemade truffles packaged to match the color scheme and theme of the party? Now we’re talking!

For the Queen of Hearts party, we began with these adorable little boxes from the Hortense B. Hewitt Co.. We were impressed by how well they were made. They fold into shape easily and squarely and they’re incredibly cute.

Party favors: Some assembly required!

Each box comes with a precut length of ribbon with a little hole in the lid to feed the ribbon through. And–somebody was thinking!–the tip of the ribbon is lightly and invisibly reinforced so it doesn’t unravel when you feed it through the little hole. The result: packages that don’t lose their ribbons.

Because this party has an Alice in Wonderland theme, we created little tags for each box that say “Eat Me.”

I’ve tried a number of truffle recipes over the years. You know what? They’re all good. And they are all easy. Easy! Good bittersweet chocolate, good cocoa and cream. That’s all it takes. You don’t need a candy thermometer; you don’t need to worry about tempering your chocolate or any of those daunting other candy-making techniques.

Here’s the recipe I used this time around. So far, it’s my favorite. It came from Gourmet magazine, about three years ago.

11 ounces bittersweet chocolate (56% cacao), divided
2/3 cup heavy cream
cocoa powder for dusting
Any additional flavorings that catch your fancy

Finely chop eight ounces of the chocolate and put in a bowl.
Bring heavy cream to a boil in a small heavy saucepan. Pour the cream over the chocolate, mashing any big pieces with a wooden spoon. Then carefully stir until the ganache is smooth.
Let stand at room temperature until thick enough to hold a shape, about one hour. Drop teaspoonsful on parchment-lined baking sheets, rounding them a little if you like them tidy like that. I personally don’t care–I think the irregular shape looks more truffle-like. If you’re in a hurry, freeze them until firm, about 15 minutes, or refrigerate them for an hour or two while you take care of other chores.

Melt the other three ounces of chocolate and smear some on your hand. Gently rub each chilled truffle to coat lightly with chocolate. The secret to a delicate coating of chocolate is to roll each truffle in a smear of melted chocolate in your hand. (The original directions suggest wearing a surgical glove, and I can see that it would make it easier and tidier to do it that way. On the other hand, I enjoyed licking my fingers when I was done.)

I can pretty much guarantee that nibbling either side of these "mushrooms" will make you larger. Happier, too!

Toss the truffles in unsweetened cocoa powder so they look like their namesakes, freshly dug from the earth. Shake the truffles in a sieve to eliminate excess cacao. Store them in the refrigerator.

I made two batches, for a total of about 50 truffles. I added grated orange zest to one bowl of cocoa and a teaspoon or so of espresso powder to another bowl of cocoa, and tossed half of the truffles in one bowl or the other. It gave them just a hint of additional flavor.

Hazel’s Saturday morning expedition to the Los Angeles flower mart yielded black-and-white polka dot candy papers for the truffles. I stacked two truffles in each little favor box, separated by a flattened polka dot paper. (I realized as I was tidying up after the party that some guests didn’t know there were two truffles in those boxes; a few people ate the top truffle and didn’t discover the one underneath. Hah! More for me!)

Laurie

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When I first started using a computer (a 286 Compaq – yikes, it was pokey!), I latched onto Microsoft Publisher, which is definitely not the industry standard. Now there are lots of programs for creating cards and manipulating photos. I like Publisher because, well, I won’t have to learn another program, but mostly because it is fun and relatively simple. Not without grief, but not bad. I know that doesn’t sound like a resounding endorsement but I like it.

So when it came time for me to build the invitations, that’s what I used. Laurie and I chatted for several weeks deciding exactly what we needed the invite to say. We had already emailed a “Save the date” alert for Laurel’s party, so we had time to be creative. Since we had planned on a game night, we felt it was perfect to include the invitation as part of the game. Hence the Alice collage.

I opted to line the Tenniel prints next to each other in squares or rectangles and surround them with a border of hearts and another black line cutting border. I then hit “Select all” and copied them onto a page, making them “4 up”. That gave me a playing card look on my page four times. It took a bit of aligning but finally it looked perfect enough to print. I was happy with the results and proceeded on to the invitation side.

This is how the actual invitation looked before all that cutting and laminating

While I would have loved to use both sides of one paper, no amount of manipulating would make it happen, so I ended up printing the invite side exactly as I had done the collage side. Then I trimmed them into individual cards, used double-sided tape to assemble them into a two-sided card, and took them over to Staples, where, for less than $10, I had 25 of them laminated together. I trimmed them when I got home to make them look like the playing cards they were modeled after. Fun!

But that was just the invitation/scavenger hunt card. The packaging added a special note, and I’ll talk about that next!

Hazel

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By Mel

Though this Queen of Hearts/Alice in Wonderland party was Laurel’s birthday party, it was not actually held on her birthday–so in a sense, it was an Unbirthday Party! Very nice. As Constant Guest, I participated both directly and indirectly in the scavenger hunt.

I had my invitation with twelve scenes or characters from the two Alice books: Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Guests could find a representation of each picture somewhere in the house. Nothing was hidden, exactly, but the representations were not always what one expected.

The Walrus – As it happened, this was not a figure or picture of an actual walrus, but the cover of the sheet music of “I Am the Walrus.” Coo Coo Ca Choo! For bonus points, you could identify the religious candle with an illustration of Jesus on it. His profession was, of course, carpenter.

The Mad Hatter – A hat very much like the Hatter’s, including the price card, was on the table with the appetizers.

The Caterpillar – A challenge. We had a little windup caterpillar that did not look very much like the one in the book, but it was obviously a caterpillar, so it counted. But then, thanks to the good offices of Laurie’s nephew Ryan, we were able to add a hookah–quite a pretty one–to the table. It was much more obvious than the windup caterpillar, which, in fact, no one noticed at all. No bonus points were awarded.

Three Gardeners – Hazel’s floral arrangement covered that category handsomely, and she’ll tell you how she did it. Suffice it to say, there were red and white roses. Cabbages and kings. Paint brushes…

The Cheshire Cat – The Cheshire Cat has always been one of my favorite Alice characters because he is really the only one who has control over his own life. Most of the others are controlled by their passions. I put out my stuffed Disney cat, as well as the box which held a heat-sensitive mug — it shows Alice looking up at the Cheshire Cat in a tree. If you put hot liquid in the mug the cat disappears. Except for his grin, of course.

The Queen of Hearts – “Off with their heads!” As the ruling monarch, she was everywhere. On the napkins, in the flower arrangements, tucked in among the desserts.

The White Knight – Everybody noticed the chess pieces on the table, but no one spotted the cool puzzle cube of the knight in armor. No bonus points for acuity.

A Tea Cup – Again, Hazel’s flower arrangements concealed a clue. Or in this case, contained it.

Humpty Dumpty – Our friend Barbara gave us three versions of Mr. Dumpty: the first sitting comfortably on our mantel. The second falling. The third in pieces on the ground. None of the King’s horses or men could put him back together. Far from it–we ate the remains in the form of deviled eggs.

The White Rabbit as herald, by John Tenniel

Alice With Flamingo – After a long search Laurie finally found some small tin flamingoes at Joann, a local fabric shop. She taped a card to each one to identify the food the flamingo was standing in.

Oysters – smoked and served, naturally, with bread and butter. We never did learn if they desired to trot home again, because our guests ate every one.

The White Rabbit – There was a nervous silence when Laurie asked for the location of the White Rabbit.
The birthday girl made that image by way of a piece of equipment at Kinko’s called the Zoomer (I’m not making this up). She started with the Tenniel illustration, simplified it via Photoshop, then blew it up to door size and mounted it on cardboard, which Laurie attached to the front door. It was much larger than a life-size rabbit. Yes, you would think it would be hard to miss. Yet miss it we did.

The White Rabbit's tabard acquired red hearts. He was in service to the Queen of Hearts, after all.

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The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland is a short-tempered monarch who spends a lot of time ordering her minions to behead those who fail her. It doesn’t take much to set her off, either.

In other words, we are not talking romance here!

As we began planning the Queen of Hearts party, Annotated Alice in hand, we found lots of inspiration in the Tenniel illustrations. The fact that Mel is a lifelong fan of the book meant we had a knowledgeable resource close to hand–even if he did whimper periodically because he wasn’t going to be the guest of honor.

We decided to make the invitation one of the games we would play the night of the party. We found 12 Tenniel images and decided to compile a visual scavenger hunt, with each illustration having a counterpart somewhere in the house:

This is the back of our invite with all the clues


Walrus, from “The Walrus and the Carpenter”
White Rabbit
Mad Hatter
Caterpillar on his mushroom, hookah in hand
White Knight (yes, he is from Through the Looking Glass, but we conflated the two books for the party)
Alice playing croquet
Oysters hurrying up all eager for the treat
Humpty Dumpty
Teacup from the mad tea party
Cheshire Cat
Card gardeners painting the roses red
Her Majesty, the Queen of Hearts, presiding crossly over the whole ensemble
Like any good invitation, this one set the tone. Our text added to it. We said:

Her Majesty,
the Queen of Hearts,
Commands Your Presence

The Birthday Will Be Celebrated
Games Will Be Played
Food (Copious Amounts) Will Be Served
Scavengers Will Hunt
Wagers Will Be Placed on the Time of the
Queen’s Arrival

Present This Invitation for
Admittance

Ignore It at Your Peril

Laurie

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By Mel

Laurie usually makes her own salad dressing, and she buys salad ingredients at a local farmer’s market where the selection is always fresh and interesting. I enjoy following her around as she makes her selections — a mysterious activity, like watching a sorceress choose ingredients for her spells. Many of the items she buys for salad include greens that 1) I had never heard of before we met and 2) look as if somebody picked them from among the weeds in an empty lot.

One of Laurie's weird salads. Pretty and, yes, good--but where's the iceberg lettuce?

Many of the green rags of leafy things seem to be related to the hot thistles that Eeyore eats in the Winnie the Pooh books. Other leaves have a milder flavor but may still have an unusual texture — unusual to me, anyway.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy Laurie’s salads. I’ve gotten used to them over time and often, particularly at the end of a hot summer day, even look forward to them. It’s just that I was brought up eating salads made mostly with iceberg lettuce and dressed with a viscous orange fluid labeled “French dressing” that came straight from a bottle.

Laurie has nothing but contempt for iceberg lettuce, and it rarely graces our table. According to her, it is without flavor or nutritional value or any other interesting attribute. I miss it sometimes, but I find I can satisfy my jones at the mid-range restaurants where Laurie and I occasionally have a meal. At these places a handful of shredded carrots and a few dry croutons serve to enhance the bowl of chopped greens they optimistically call salad; the greens are usually the iceberg of my youth. I enjoy these mid-range salads as exercises in nostalgia, but the truth is, after eating Laurie’s version of a salad, I usually find them pretty dull.

Sometimes a restaurant that has pretensions to being slightly higher than mid-range will perk up a thick wedge of iceberg lettuce with a cup or two of blue cheese or Thousand Island dressing, and then sprinkle cheese or bacon bits — in the really classy places you sometimes get both — over the whole mélange. Such a salad must be carved with a knife and fork, which can be fun.

Eating Laurie’s food is always a wonderful experience, and it is often educational as well. This is certainly the case with her salads. Though I do sometimes wish she would bend her mighty culinary imagination to seeing what she could do with the lowly iceberg.

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Overstock.com's (and now my) pasta machine

I recently purchased a pasta roller – something I’ve wanted for years and finally treated myself to for my birthday. But it took me a couple months to try my hand at it, and I must admit – it was a dismal failure!

First, out of my ten or so basic cookbooks in the kitchen bookcase, only three had recipes for pasta. Sauces and accompaniments galore, which I love to create without a recipe, but basic pasta recipes were scant. So back to the basics I went. James Beard had a recipe, and so did the Joy of Cooking, as did my 1950 and 1970 issues of Betty Crocker. None of my chi-chi cookbooks had any recipes at all.

So my niece Madison and I pulled out Betty and made the noodle recipe. Maybe we didn’t knead it enough, maybe it didn’t rest long enough, maybe we didn’t roll it thin enough. Whatever the error of our way, our pasta was tough, chewy and less than the vision I had when I dreamed of making my own pasta. The sauce was judged worthy enough to cover the multitude of ills and both Maddie and her mother said the pasta was acceptable. I’ve had dang good pasta and know it wasn’t.

So now I’m on a quest for the perfect pasta recipe. While I was up in the mountains at a family get-together last week, Vicki’s coffee table sported the Thomas Kellar’s cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, where I found a recipe for pasta. I considered it – in fact I’m still considering it, not seriously, but I’m intrigued. Twelve egg yolks, 1 egg and 2ish cups of flour. Twelve egg yolks? Really? Thomas Keller is considered the chef’s chef, so of course I want to try it, and after all a dozen eggs is only $4, what do I have to lose? In fact, I think I must try it. I’m compelled. In the meantime, my shiny new pasta machine remains shiny and almost virginal.

I’ll report back.

Hazel

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