Four Things.

{Finding old childhood photos while packing for school}

This week I finally arrived in Evanston to start my junior year at Northwestern. I’ve moved into my new apartment (good riddance, campus dorm life) and it’s huge! Four bedrooms, a dining room, living room and a sunroom, huge! If only it was fully furnished…then it would look like people actually lived here. But we’ve got our basic furniture and the small things will come eventually. With some reunions with friends underway and the first day of class on Thursday, I’m totally stoked for the new year.

{Flying out to Chicago, and discovering a new love for Southwest Airlines – it really is the best airline out there}

{Discovering good cheap wines}

{The only real decoration in my new apartment room so far – a canvas print from a NY street market}

Caramel Banana French Toast

It’s the night before until I leave for school and what time was passing by in painful slow motion is suddenly moving too fast. Way, way too fast. My usual case of jitters are starting to form and anxiety is starting to pump through my blood.

With my sleeping schedule royally screwed (5 a.m. bedtimes, 2 p.m. “mornings”) and my furniture situation for the new apartment room still up in the air, I could not be less prepared for a full school year.

Yet this month has been a time when I’ve finally felt emotionally okay. My fierce uncomfortableness with being alone has subsided and the dissatisfaction I used to feel with my life is gradually transforming into hope, hope for a better year and hope for a happier soul. Ironically, knowing I’m in a good place is making me all the more nervous for the school year. I can feel the expectations I have to live up to closing in on me. Self-created expectations that are just waiting to poison my budding optimism before it gets to set root.

Expectations to enjoy my time. Expectations to be happy. Expectations to be mature, enviable, productive, successful. It’s a tall order.

Trying to live up to self-expectations is unbelievably daunting, and now that I’ve lived through it, I’ve realized, a ridiculous way to go through life.

It’s taken 20 years to absorb this knowledge and finally put it into real practice. And admittedly, it’s still a work in progress. But hey, at least the train is moving.

Caramel Banana French Toast

Ingredients:

1 slice of white bread, sliced into fours. You can use any kind of bread, I suggest brioche if you can find some.

1 egg, beaten

3/4 teaspoon sugar

1 dash of cinnamon

A pat of butter

1/2 banana sliced

Enough sugar to evenly coat the bottom of a small sturdy pot or heavy-duty pan.

Directions:

1. Soak bread into the beaten egg (into which you’ve mixed your 3/4 tsp. sugar and cinnamon) in a bowl. Let it soak for a few minutes and make sure each side is evenly coated by egg.

2. Heat a pan to medium-low heat and melt your pat of butter. Place each piece of bread down.

3. While the french toast cooks, pour enough sugar to evenly coat the bottom of your pot. Put the heat to low and do not touch the sugar. It will slowly melt and turn a light amber color. Once the edges start to brown, start dragging the sugar towards the center to make sure there are no burnt spots. (Keep a watch on the french toast and flip when the first side is done). Slowly stir and keep a constant watch until it turns into a medium amber. Toss in the bananas and coat with the caramel.

4. Plate the french toast and pour over the caramel-coated bananas. In a clean, dry pan, quickly toast a few chopped walnuts and sprinkle over the french toast. Enjoy!

Birthday Cake, for a Father I Still Love

Happy birthday daddy!

You’ve made it to another year – 55 and still alive.

It was my dad’s birthday yesterday and I made cake.

My dad and I have come a long way. I think understand him more than anyone else ever will.

You see, I love my dad, but I also resent him. I resent him on behalf of my mother, I resent him on behalf of my brother, most of all, I resent him on behalf of the man he could have been.

He is an absent husband, a barely existent father, a lazy, unmotivated breadwinner. Every night when he comes home from work, he changes out of his suit into his ill-fitted high waisted shorts and a polo, which he’s probably owned as long as I’ve lived, and goes out to sit at the table in our backyard patio. He brings three things: his cigarettes, a cup of straight Soju and a newspaper or book. In the darkness illuminated by his small lamp with no lampshade, bright lightbulb exposed, he reads, he smokes, he drinks, and he forgets about reality. He comes in at the end of the night and falls into a drunken slumber on the living room couch – glasses on, clothes unchanged – in front of the tv, which he almost always forgets to turn off. It’s become such a common occurrence in our household that this behavior doesn’t faze any of us, but when described with concrete words, the reality of it becomes clear, unbearably clear. And it’s painful.

But I still love him.

All the weird, questionable purchases in my house that we end up throwing away – fig newtons, random cans of sauces, already rotten plums – are my dad’s. My mom thinks he’s an idiot.

But I still love him.

The alcohol’s kind of fucked up his brain and the smoking has corroded his teeth. My younger brother doesn’t look up to him as a father figure as far as I can see.

His nonfunctioning marriage has left my mother silently depressed. She’s scared for her future once my brother leaves for college and she’ll be left alone with my dad and no one to communicate with.

But I still love him.

He told me a story one time about the woman he loved a long time ago. How he was too stupid and immature at the time to man up and propose. How she’d left him because he wouldn’t. Her father came to my dad to tell him that she still loved him, but my dad had too much pride to take her back. He still thought about her years later, already married to my mom and a father to me and my brother. They met up, not too long ago, and after, he was finally able to get over her. I had never imagined my father ever loving a woman, taking her out on dates and being in a real relationship. It made me realize how much more he could’ve had in his life. It made me hate him for failing my mother, his wife.

But I still love him.

Because he’s a good guy. A good guy who would rather pray to God and live a modest life rather than be rich and successful. A good guy who thinks he should’ve studied philosophy in college, not dentistry.

He’s a shadow of a man with unquittable bad habits and a good heart, the purest of the pure. He’s a man who is equally as pained as he is painful to be around. He is a man who hates himself but doesn’t try to change. He’s given up. I’ll never forgive him for it.

But I still love him.

Layered Vanilla Cake (with Blueberry Whipped Cream and Strawberries)

This cake is delicious. I mean, really freaking delicious. I cheated and used a cake mix, but hey, I was on a time limit. I used Trader Joe’s Vanilla Cake mix with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Flavor and can I say, I’m glad I did. It produced the eggy scent and flavor of a most basic cake, the kind I love, and a fluffy, moist texture. I highly recommend it.

By the way, the leftovers for this cake – phenomenal. It’s the kind of thing that gets better as it sits in the fridge, the kind of thing you should pull out and indulge in for breakfast because it’s just that good.

Ingredients:

1 Package of Trader Joe’s Vanilla Cake Mix

6 Ounces of whipping cream (I just about 1/4 of my 16 ounce carton)

2 Tablespoons of white sugar, or you can do this to taste for the sweetness you want, remember you’re going to add jam

3-4 Tablespoons of blueberry jam, microwaved for 20 seconds and then cooled completely (look at whipped cream directions)

15 Sliced strawberries, you might need more or less depending on your strawberries’ size

Blueberries for topping if you’d like (I think it would a nice touch)

Directions for Whipped Cream:

Mix heavy cream and sugar into a large bowl and start whipping with a mixer or whisk until peaks form. If you want to alternate plain cream and blueberry in your layers, take half of the whipped cream and transfer into a different bowl. Gently fold in 2-3 tablespoons of jam into one bowl until just incorporated, you don’t want to deflate the whipped cream. Place both bowls of cream in fridge until the cake is ready to frost.

Directions for Cake:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2. Make the Vanilla Cake mix batter according to the box’s directions. Or make your cake from scratch, your call.

3. Pour a thin 1/4 – 1/2 inch layer of batter into a 9-inch round non-stick pan. Repeat with a second pan, if you have one.

4. Bake the cake layer until it is just beginning to turn golden. When done, remove and let cool completely.

5. If your cake has puffed a little in the middle, just trim it off best you can until you have a even, flat surface.

6. Scrub off your pan and repeat the process. Again, if you have multiple pans, use them. You’re making four layers.

7. Once your first layer is cool, spread a thin layer of blueberry/plain whipped cream evenly across the surface.

8. Then line with sliced strawberries over the entire surface.

9. Top with your cooled off second cake layer and repeat the whipped cream/sliced strawberry process. Keep doing this until you have your final layer on top.

10. Spread whipped cream onto the final layer and line with sliced strawberries and whole strawberries in a design you like. I also took some almond toffee crisps and crumbled them on top in a ring just because I had them.

Lemon Bars

There’s just something about citrus fruits. I wish they were in my life all the time. Grapefruit, lemons, limes. These waxy orbs of sour, tart, and sweet bring me so much joy and I wish their refreshing scents would travel with me always.

A few weeks ago, my love for citrus led, naturally, to a purchase of an excessively large bag of lemons, and I needed to do something with the overflow in my fridge.

Cue the lemon bars.

This was my first time making and eating a lemon bar, but even so I knew there had to be an art behind these tasty treats. Even as a lemon bar novice, I really felt that the perfect bar should strike a balance between tart and sweet, between creamy and buttery and fruity. And last but not least, they should (they must!) be lightly and evenly dusted with a layer of superfine powdered sugar. If a lemon bar doesn’t meet these requirements, it’s not perfect. Unfortunately, mine were not perfect.

There was a slightly cheesy taste to it that emerged when not eaten straight chilled from the refrigerator. If I had to fault anything in the recipe, I think it might have been the condensed milk. Besides this flaw, everything else met my standards. The bars had a delicious buttery crust, the filling was sweet but still a little tart, and the lemon flavor shone through.

Anyway, my hunt for the right lemon bar recipe continues, but I’m really hoping these few* will quickly nip the search in the bud. Until then, here are some nice photos to placate the newfound hunger for lemon bars triggered by this post, and the recipe I used, simply because it was so damn easy and still produced something pretty acceptable, at least when chilled.

*David Lebowitz, Smitten Kitchen and Ina Garten: These are people I trust, people who have never failed me. Funny enough, Deb from Smitten Kitchen adapted her lemon bar recipe from Ina Garten’s cookbook – great minds think alike!

Lemon Bars (Recipe from Laura in the Kitchen)

Ingredients:

For the Crust:
2 Cups of Flour
1/2 cup of Powdered Sugar
2 Sticks of Unsalted Butter, at room temperature

For the Filling:
1 14 oz Can of Sweetened Condensed Milk
4 Eggs
2/3 Cup of Fresh Lemon Juice
Zest of One Lemon *Make sure it’s organic! You don’t want wax in your lemon zest…
1/4 tsp of Salt
1 tsp Baking Powder
1 Tbsp of Flour

Directions:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 by 12 inch baking pan with aluminum foil and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the crust and mix together until it forms a dough. Press the dough in the bottom and half way up the sides of the baking pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for a few minutes.

3. In a large bowl combine all of the filling ingredients and mix until everything is well mixed.

4. Pour into the baked crust and bake for 25 minutes.

5. Cool for 30 minutes at room temperature and 2 hours in the fridge.

6. Dust with confectioner sugar and cut into bars. Make sure to dust the sugar after the bars have been chilled, otherwise the sugar will melt right into the lemon filling and you’ll never be able to get that pretty dusted sugar top again.

Five Things.

{Snacking on handfuls of sweet, juicy grapes after every meal – the perfect dessert!}

I’ve decided to post “Five Things” once a week to give you guys a few snippets from my life that I’m loving at the moment. Whether they be snapshots of newly bought clothing or of delicious meals from when I eat out, I hope these bits and pieces will inspire and excite (and don’t fall flat instead).

{Our beautiful flourishing basil plant, soaking in the rays.}

Just looking at it getting so big and healthy brings a smile to my face.

{My first Chick-Fil-A!}

I got the Spicy Chicken Deluxe sans cheese, with fries. A bubbly cup of Coca-Cola in hand and I had the perfect fast food meal in front of me, waaay better than any Burger King or the likes. I found this Chick-Fil-A at Paramus Park Mall, NJ of all places, while all this time I thought the only Chick-Fil-A nearby was at NYU. On another note, can you just look at this photo! Isn’t it a beaut? No editing necessary. God bless my iPhone, I do love it dearly…

{The Capriciosa from A Mano in Ridgewood, New Jersey.}

Homemade mozzarella, neapolitan salami, Italian ham, artichokes, mushrooms, gaeta olives, parmigiano reggiano, basil – it’s a recipe for heaven. The crust was chewy, fluffy and charred; the cheese oozing and pulling long melted strands (as you can see above); the ingredients and sauce were fresh and vibrant. We also had the Polpetta panini, which was sliced homemade meatballs, mozzarella, arugula and parmigiano reggiano tucked into a pizza dough panini, which is the best kind in my opinion. This place is a gem among the endless other pizza joints, and serves the authentic Neapolitan style you envision when you think of real Italian pizza. They make gluten-free pies for an extra $5 too!

{Serendipity’s Frozen Hot Chocolate.}

It was all I dreamed it would be. The icy frozen hot chocolate is super frothy and light, and comes spilling out in a huge bowl. That giant cloud of whipped cream floating on top was perfectly airy and not too sweet. Serendipity itself is not really my kind of place – just a tad too tacky, overhyped and overpriced – but the dessert is pretty damn good.

Orzo Salad

You can really feel the air cooling down and the wind sharpening as summer has been coming to an end. And while everyone else is rejoicing the greeting of fall, I’m silently cursing the dropping temperatures and the return of sweaters. You see, I revel in hot, dry heat and the feeling of sunshine warming my skin. It melts the ache in my bones and lifts my mood from the inside out. I don’t remember when the charm of crisp, autumn air faded away but I’ve been trying to soak in every last bit of summer while I still can.

That means lots of fresh salads and light pastas using up the last supply of summer vegetables. I rediscovered a half-used box of orzo pasta so I whipped up a quick salad for brunch with tomatoes, red onions, peppers and feta. It’s great when you’re on the go – just chop up your ingredients and make the dressing while the orzo is cooking, then assemble. And the leftovers will simply get better overnight as the flavors deepen and permeate the pasta and veggies over time.

Orzo Salad

Servings: 4 people

Ingredients:

1/2 box of Orzo Pasta

1 Tomato

1/2 Red Onion

1 Orange Pepper

1 Scallion

1/2 Ounce of Feta Cheese

Dressing (found here – you can probably halve that recipe)

Directions:

1. Boil a pot of salted water and cook the orzo until tender al dente.

2. While the orzo is cooking, dice ‘n slice all the vegetables and cube the feta cheese.

3. Make the dressing.

4. Once the orzo is cooked, rinse it with cold water to cool the pasta down.

5. Then, toss the orzo with the vegetables, feta and dressing.