Eggplant & Bruschetta Napoleons

Eggplant NapoleonsYou know what is hard work, friends? Wedding planning! And, more so, wedding planning that includes creating all of the decor & various adornments alongside making most of the food. Phew! Luckily, it’s fun and creative work and all for a very dear friend, so it balances out.

Still, with so much going on, feeding oneself can feel like such a chore. While I am fortunate enough to get Bear-made meals each and every week, not just tough ones, I still long to get into the kitchen and cook – I just might not have my usual stamina once I get there. Here’s where this quick dish comes in!

Eggplant & Bruschetta NapoleonsEggplant & bruschetta napoleons are an easy summer dinner because there’s not a lot required of them and they can be made in pieces throughout the day; or even, in part, the day before if you’re anticipating a jam-packed tomorrow. What’s more is that you can tailor them to your tastes and your time commitments. Do you want to grill the eggplant slices instead of frying them? You can do that. Would you rather use your stovetop grill pan instead of trudging out to the patio or backyard? Done and done. Want to just roast them off in the oven and walk away for a bit? Still delish. When I made these recently, I topped the napoleons with an easy balsamic reduction. If that feels like too much for a busy weeknight, a light dash of extra balsamic on top will work fine too. I will say, though, that the added bit of sweetness from the syrupy balsamic reduction changes the flavor of the whole dish in a fantastic way.

Eggplant & Bruschetta NapoleonsWith a green side salad – I’m thinking some light, lemon-y dressed arugala – eggplant & bruschetta napoleons are a delicious and satisfying meal that will make you feel gloriously rewarded for all of your hard work. Also, tomorrow’s leftovers make an awesome second round of this exact meal or an amazequake eggplant and bruschetta sub for lunch. Try it on crusty Italian or French bread with a little homemade basil mayo for the ultimate sandwich.

Eggplant & Bruschetta Napoleons
Yields 2-3 servings

Ingredients
5 plum tomatoes
1/4 cup of diced red onion
6 leaves of thinly sliced basil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch of sugar
Salt & pepper
3/4 cups of balsamic vinegar, divided
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pan or grill
1 large eggplant
1 16-ounce log of fresh mozzarella
Italian-style bread crumbs (optional)
2 eggs (optional)

Directions
Salt & drain your eggplant. Line a baking sheet with two layers of paper towels. Slice eggplant in 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch slices and place on baking sheet. Lightly sprinkle with salt and allow to sit a half hour. After time has passed, flip the eggplant slices and do the same to the other side for about 15 minutes. The paper towels will be damp with excess moisture and the bitterness sometimes associated with eggplant. Remove eggplant from paper towel and set aside.

Next, make the bruschetta. Seed plum tomatoes then chop and add to a mixing bowl. Add diced red onion, garlic cloves, basil, garlic powder, sugar, salt, pepper, 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar, and 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Mix thoroughly and set aside. Allow to sit at least 2 hours before eating. If waiting to serve this, store in refrigerator. Bruschetta can be made up to two days in advance.

Prepare the eggplant to your desired liking. You can brush it (and your grill or grill pan) with olive oil and grill each side. If you go this route, cook it to the point where it has nice char, but still has some body to it. You don’t want it to be a mushy mess (technical term). Same goes for roasting. If you’re frying the eggplant, scramble two eggs in a bowl and then dip each slice in it until submerged, shake off excess egg, and dip both sides in seasoned bread crumbs. In a frying pan, heat olive oil over medium high heat and fry each slice of eggplant approximately 4 minutes on each side until done. Keep your cooked eggplant slices hot in the oven at its lowest level of heat; for mine, that  is 170°F.

While your eggplant is frying or grilling, pour 1/2 a cup of balsamic vinegar into a small pot and bring to a boil over high heat – watch this closely, as it can reduce entirely and burn quickly. Once boiling, knock the heat back to medium and cook about 5-7 minutes or until it becomes a thick syrup. When it reaches this consistency, immediately remove it from the heat.

When your eggplant is finished cooking and your balsamic reduction is ready, prepare your napoleons. Put down a wide slice of eggplant for the base and top it with a 1/2-inch thick slice of fresh mozzarella. Follow that with another slice of eggplant and another of mozzarella, then top your stack with a hearty helping of bruschetta. Drizzle balsamic reduction on top.

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No-Bake Double Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap Crust

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap CrustForgive my few weeks of absence, dear friends! I was off on a whirlwind of travel that brought me home to New Jersey to see family and then up to the North Shore of Minnesota for a cabin getaway. If you follow me on Instagram, you probably caught some of the photos. I’m back now and ready to take on summer with its bounty and its leisure in order to turn out some exciting content for you. Up first is this fantastic recipe from my grandmother, Hilda.

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap CrustIn the depths of summer, no one wants to turn on their oven, but almost everyone wants to still eat pie, right? The solution? No-bake fruit pies! They’re completely easy, homey, and taste just as delicious as their brethren who spend time baking in the oven. While blueberry is my personal favorite – and the one my grandmother makes for our family the most -  you could substitute peaches, strawberries, and combinations of all kinds of summer fruits in this. You may have to adapt the amount of fruit to switch it up, but play around and see; there’s no such thing as being grumpy over extra pie filling!

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap CrustWhile traditionally, I’ve made her no-bake blueberry pie in a standard, flaky pie crust, I noticed her original recipe called for a gingerbread crust; she, nor I, ever remember her making it this way. Visiting family in New Jersey a few weeks ago, hunting through a pantry for some graham crackers to start a crust, I came across a box of Anna’s Swedish Ginger Thins and thought, “Hey! Gingersnaps would work and would be even better than gingerbread!” And so it was.

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap CrustFor many of us, Anna’s are synonymous with Ikea because they’re sold there in such abundance. They’re thin and sweet with just the right amount of spicy ginger flavor and, you know what? They pair *so* deliciously with blueberries; cinnamon, ginger, and berries are natural friends. Of course, if you can’t find Anna’s, any gingersnap will do, just make sure you’re getting gingersnaps and not gingerbread, as I’m predicting the latter would be too soft and moist for this application. You want your cookies to be full of crunch and snap so that your crush holds up to the lusciousness of the berries and cream.

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap Crust

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap CrustThe filling comes together nice and quickly in this recipe and because you only cook one half of the berries, and then add in the remaining off the stove, the pie has the fantastic combination of textures from both the disintegrated, now jam-like, berries and the bright burst of ones just warmed through. It is so juicy, sweet and delicious and makes for a gorgeous, seasonal dessert.

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap Crust

No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap CrustWhen the pie has cooled, I like to top it with a thick layer of fresh whipped cream, but ice cream, or even vanilla yogurt, will also do just fine. This is a great way to have dessert despite a summer swelter and make something that looks, and tastes, like a true labor of love.
No-Bake Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap Crust
No-Bake Double Blueberry Pie with Gingersnap Crust
Yields one 9″ pie

Ingredients
1-1/2 cups of gingersnap crumbs, about one 5.25oz box of Anna’s
1/2 cup of graham cracker crumbs
1 stick of butter, melted
3 pints of blueberries, divided in half
1/2 cup of sugar
2 Tablespoons of cornstarch
2 Tablespoons of water
Pinch of salt

Directions
In a food processor, pulse gingersnaps until you have 1-1/2 cups of crumbs, set aside. Repeat with graham crackers until you have 1/2 cup. Melt one stick of butter in the microwave. In a bowl, combine both sets of crumbs and melted butter thoroughly. Pour mixture into a 9″ pie plate and, starting at the bottom, in the middle, begin pressing the crumbs into the pan to form the base and sides of the pie. Be sure to press crust into the bend between the base and the sides of the pan and then press the crumb up the sides. Place crust in refrigerator to firm up.

In a mixing bowl, add 1-1/2 pints of blueberries, sugar, cornstarch, water, and salt, and combine. Add fruit mixture to a 3-quart pot and heat mixture, stirring occasionally, until boiling. Once boiling, allow to do so for 2 minutes, stirring constantly now until it thickens some and many of the berries pop and split open. Remove from heat and immediately add in the remaining 1-1/2 pints of blueberries and stir together gently.

Remove pie crust from fridge and gently spoon in fruit mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until completely cold and firm. Top with fresh whipped cream if desired.

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Make Your Own Wedding Bouquet

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme FraicheIf you’re thinking about making your own wedding bouquet – or a hand-held bouquet for any occasion – but are concerned you won’t be able to hack it, I’m here to tell you to put fear aside and embrace the DIY! Making a bouquet, even a large one, even one for a very fancy affair, is not nearly as difficult as it seems. Truly, the hardest part is standing in front of a refrigerator full of flowers and deciding which ones work best together. Even then, though, I’ve got some tips to make that easier, as well.

Creating your own bouquet, or having someone in your wedding party make one for you, is so much more cost effective than going to a florist and shelling out at least $200. By making the bouquet yourself, you not only save money, but can really customize it to your tastes. With a few tips, some guidance, and patience, you can design a really gorgeous bouquet and for a price so small, you’ll feel like you got away with something really sneaky!

Charlotte's BouquetI recently created a gorgeous bouquet for my friend Charlotte’s wedding (above) and while it was far easier than I anticipated and came together really beautifully, my nerves were sky-high leading up to making it and throughout the process. Of course they were though, right? It’s a big job, and an important one, but also totally overrated in its presumed difficulty. You’ve got this!

Because I was focused hard on creating a beautiful bouquet, I didn’t enlist anyone’s help in taking photos throughout its construction. Curses! Fortunately, though, there were leftover flowers and the next day, I recreated a smaller version of Charlotte’s bouquet in order to lead you through the crafting of your own with some step-by-step instructions and photos. If you’re looking to make a larger bouquet, I’ll note in the tutorial where and how to continue adding flowers to make a very full, formal one like hers. At the end, I’ll also organize a list of some tips I figured out along the way.

I promise you that the hype – and expense! – of bouquets isn’t justified. With some patience and some know-how, anyone can make a stunning bouquet for any kind of special day.

Step 1: Select & prepare your flowers
The first thing you’ll want to do is select what flowers you’re going to use in your bouquet. Consider the head – or flowered section – of the bouquet as needing three distinct kinds of flowers – 1) those that make up the bulk of the head (this can be one or several different kinds of flowers), 2) those that give the bouquet some height or dimension, and 3) those that can be used as filler to bulk a section up or add some contrast. I chose to incorporate some bay leaf in this bouquet to create height and dimension to my bulk flowers – roses & carnations – and, if you look really closely, you might be able to tell that they’re artificial! For filler and stems, fake sprigs can add a lot of variety and drama for very little money.

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme FraicheTo prepare your flowers for the bouquet, remove all fresh leaves and thorns below each flower’s head and cut all stems on a 45 degree angle while under running water, then plunge immediately into a vase filled with room temperature water. Cutting the stems under water prevents an air pocket from immediately forming at the cut site, which will interfere with the flowers being able to take in as much water as they need; this is an especially important step when working with roses. As you work, keep your flowers in water and in a cool spot.

Step 2: Build your base
The first step to making a sturdy, tight bouquet is to build a solid base. As a foundation, this initial group of flowers will keep the center of the bouquet together, creating a strong neck by which to hold it. The base is important because it will be what you build out from in order to grow the bouquet to the size of your choosing.

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme FraicheCreate the base by pairing 4-5 flowers together in the pattern or arrangement that you like. Starting with the first flower in one hand, imagine it as the very middle of the bouquet. Add your second flower and hold the two tightly pinched between your forefinger and thumb, adding the third, fourth, and possibly fifth flowers in the same way, keeping them tightly gathered beneath the heads of the blooms. Don’t worry if, at this point, the stems are all pointing in awkward directions. All you want to be certain of is that the top of the flowers appears the way you’d like the middle of the bouquet to look and that the flowers are being held together tightly right below the heads.

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme FraicheNext, apply the end of a roll of floral tape no further than an inch below the flower heads and, while holding the stems tightly together,  wrap down the gathered stems about two inches. The tape doesn’t have to be perfectly wrapped or look very neat – you’re going to be adding more flowers and then ribbon to cover it all – it just has to be tightly wound, keeping your base very solidly together.

Step 3: Build out the head & tape
Once your base is solidly clustered and taped, the next step is to continue widening and building out the head of your bouquet. Here’s where you decide how big you want the bouquet and can continue adding concurrent layers of flowers accordingly to get the shape and size that you want. Employ the same tactics as above, adding and pinching the new flowers one-by-one around your base, holding them tightly. A loosely held bouquet will shift and appear sloppy, so keep those stems tight and, as needed, apply more floral tape to keep everything sturdy.

DIY Wedding BouquetIf you’re working with a mixture of different flower sizes – for example, in Charlotte’s bouquet, I used roses, carnations, and then large, white hydrangeas – consider symmetry when in doubt about how to further arrange the growing layers. Balancing one large flower on either side and then filling in the two remaining sides with similar, smaller flowers will keep the bouquet round and voluminous. If you don’t like how something looks, rearrange things. Nothing is set until you tape the final bunch and even then, you can unwrap and reassemble, or add additional flowers if they are needed.

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme FraicheWhen you have filled out the head of the bouquet to the point where you are satisfied, use the floral tape once more to begin tightly taping the stems together. Start, again, an inch or so below the heads of the flowers and wrap tightly, overlapping the tape, until you’ve reached approximately 2 inches above where you want the stems of the bouquet to end once you are prepared to cut them.

Step 4: Incorporating filler
For some reason, filler is my favorite part of creating a bouquet. I think it’s because of how it takes an already beautiful bouquet to a completely different level, but also because there’s so much you can consider using to add height and texture. As mentioned earlier, I used some artificial options – a spray of bay leaves and a stem of faux white berries – but also incorporated traditional baby’s breath because it’s just so dainty. Consider overbuying on the filler, choosing lots of different varieties, and then experiment once your bouquet is in-hand. You can’t know for sure what kinds of leaves, sprays, or baubles, your bouquet will benefit from until you have everything in front of you. Filler is an opportunity to really add a little extra beauty that is specific to your tastes and aesthetic.

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme FraicheDepending on the length of your filler, you may be able to just nestle it between the blooms, as desired, but if the pieces are longer, or fall more on the outside of your bouquet, you may need to, once more, tape the length of the bouquet handle from one inch below the flower heads to 2 inches above where you will trim the stems. If you’re concerned about filler falling out, you can always add a drop of hot glue to the end before nestling it down into the head of the bouquet.

Step 5: Finessing the handle & trimming stems
The bouquet head gets all the glory, but truth is that the handle can also be really gorgeous and eye-catching too. For both Charlotte’s bouquet and this re-creation here, I used a thick navy grosgrain ribbon and pearlized pins for a clean, classic finish. You can use any combination of ribbons, laces, twines, etc. that you can think of, so long as you can easily cover the floral tape and find a way to inconspicuously secure the ends.

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme Fraiche
With this bouquet, I wrapped the ribbon tightly over all of the visible floral tape. When I reached the end of wrapping, I cut the ribbon about a half inch too long and folded it under, creating a finished edge, stretched it as far around the handle as it would go, and held it firmly against the handle with my thumb. Using my other hand, I pinned into the fold and then into the stems, angling the pin upward into the handle so that it was securely fastened and safely ensconced in the handle, free from poking through to the other side and injuring someone. I proceeded to do this with several other pins, equal distance from one another, up the length of the bouquet handle. Of course, if pearlized pins are not your style or you’re using a twine or something similar, you could always just hot glue the end and tuck it beneath an area where the handle is wrapped.

DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme FraicheLast, but not least, trim your stems straight across about two inches from the bottom edge of the handle wrapping. Handle length is entirely personal and, fortunately, something you can customize. Just remember to err on the side of caution and trim less before more. No one wants a stumpy bouquet!

When finished, place your bouquet in enough water to submerge the ends, but not wet the wrapped handle (see tips below regarding flower food). Bouquets can be kept overnight in the refrigerator if made the day before or left in there to keep cool if made the day of the event. Before doing so, verify that the flowers you’re using can withstand the coolness of a refrigerator, though, and are not a variety that will wilt in lower temperatures.
DIY Wedding Bouquet | Femme Fraiche
Tips & Tricks:

  • When selecting flowers, consider sturdier blooms for the bulk, nestling more delicate ones inside the bouquet. For the DIY bouquet maker, erring on the side of stronger, less delicate flowers, will allow more room for rearranging.
  • Finding flowers that are easily accessible and financially within your means are key parts to DIY-ing your bouquet. Google around your area for wholesale flower markets, many of which are open to the public, and also start scouting friends with Costco memberships. Yes, Costco! Believe it or not, they have gorgeous fresh flowers and at really reasonable prices – $16 for 2 dozen roses? Boom. Also check out markets that fancy themselves more “gourmet”-type establishments – Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Kowalski’s, if you’re in the Twin Cities, are all examples. They always have fresh, beautiful flowers available and, often, a wider variety compared to a standard grocery store.
  • Remember that you can always supplement with artificial pieces. I’m not suggesting making a silk flower bouquet, but filler, embellishment sprays, and leaves can be hard to find if you’re working the grocery store circuit for your bouquet. Check out local craft stores a week ahead of time and stock up on all kinds of potential. Save your receipt so that you can return the pieces you don’t use.
  • Use Pinterest as inspiration ahead of time and gather ideas there for flowers that work well together and bouquet handle designs that match your tastes. Print pictures, or save images to your phone, and take them with you when looking for flowers or materials from the craft store.
  • Give yourself plenty of time. This is a new endeavor and while it’s really not very difficult, it requires patience, and deftness of hand; rushing through will end in broken stems and petals askew. Think the whole process will take you 2 hours? Block off 3-4 to be safe. No one wants to have to rush out the door to the ceremony, leaving their kitchen strewn with debris.
  • Pay extra close attention to pets while you’re creating your bouquet. Dogs and cats gravitate toward crunchy, fresh flora, so they may be circling beneath you like sharks or waiting for you to turn your back in order to steal a taste. Because plants and flowers can be really harmful to pets, consider keeping them in another room if possible until you are done with the bouquet and clean-up or enlist a friend or partner to keep their eyes peeled.
  • A bouquet can last well over a week if kept fresh with water and nutrients after the ceremony. Cut the stems on a 45 degree angle under water and then return them to a vase of water that has been fortified with the packets of flower food that come with loose flowers or make your own concoction by diluting half a teaspoon of bleach and half a tablespoon of granulated sugar into a half gallon of room temperature water. The bleach keeps bacteria down (the #1 cause of early flower death) and the sugar feeds the flowers. Keep this mixture on hand and empty, rinse, and refill the vase with new solution every day. Keep flowers in a cool place that receives indirect sunlight and that is far away from fruit, which releases ethylene gases and can cause flowers to shrivel up early.
  • Transporting a bouquet to a wedding venue can prove a challenge. Creating a stable holder, though, takes just a few minutes. Find a box that is wider than the bouquet (for stability), but that is still easy to carry. Next, seek out a jar that is nearly the same height as the box, but no shorter than an inch below, or longer than an inch above, it. You will want a jar that is at least 4 inches wide so that the base is not too narrow to support the top-heavy head of the bouquet. Wrap the mason jar with brown paper or newspaper in order to give it some padding and tape well. Place the mason jar in the center of the open box and fill all open space around it with filler or any kind – again, newspaper works well here. Fill it tightly so that the jar cannot slide around. Close the lids of the box and tape shut, then cut out a square around the mouth of the jar. If the jar is slightly taller than the box, cut the square before putting the mason jar in the box and taping down the lid. Fill the mason jar with water and flower food solution and insert bouquet. Before leaving, loosely wrap a plastic bag around the head of the bouquet to keep it clean. Check out the quick photos I took with my phone for a better idea of how to efficiently transport the bouquet – photo 1, photo 2, photo 3, photo 4.
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Panzanella Salad

Panzanella SaladMy two go-to meals any time of year, but especially in the summer, are, in many ways, variations of the same thing – antipasto and panzanella salad. Growing up, antipasto was a weekend staple whenever company was coming and usually consisted of fresh mozzarella, soppressatta, olives, eggplant caponata, pepperoni, and provolone so sharp it’d make my nose run. Oh, and bread. So much delicious, chewy, Italian bread in long braided loaves covered in sesame seeds.

With summer nearly upon us and the reminder that sweet, juicy tomatoes do exist (buying tomatoes in the winter is so depressing, isn’t it?), panzanella takes many of the same flavors of antipasto and dresses them up in an easy one-bowl lunch or dinner that is totally satisfying and filled with fresh, delicious, good-for-you ingredients. When I posted a quick snapshot on Instagram last week of panzanella in the works, a follower asked for the recipe and while I will, of course, give you one here, the truth is that it changes every time! But that’s what makes it so easy and so perfect for summer when fresh veggies are all over the place.

Panzanella SaladWhile this version has tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion as the stars, I’ve also used combinations in the past that include fresh zucchini, grilled eggplant, and red peppers, among others. If you’re not familiar with panzanella, tomatoes are always a staple alongside toasty cubes of a rustic bread, such as Italian bread, ciabatta, or French bread, which soaks up the juices from the vegetables and the vinaigrette only to soften and become little, tasty bites that just explode summer when you bite into them. I like to toss my bread in a frying pan that has olive oil and garlic in it as it toasts and dries out, but you can also do it on a baking sheet in the oven or grill two halves of a loaf and cube it after it’s cooled. There’s a lot of flexibility here.

Adding mozzarella cheese, freshly torn basil, and other goodies, such as soppressata, could be seen as gilding the panzanella lily, but it also bulks up the salad and makes it feel a little bit more special, especially when serving it to guests. Though rustic and easy to prepare, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with this meal. In fact, the leftovers may even turn your workday around when you have the remains for lunch, though I do recommend also packing a roll of breath mints in that case considering the abundance of garlic. Panzanella holds up and never disappoints. It’s a keeper and an easy, versatile summer meal.

Panzanella Salad
Yields 4-6 servings

Ingredients
1 loaf of Italian or French bread
2 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
Olive oil
1 Tablespoon of butter
Salt & pepper
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved
6-8 leaves of basil, torn or thinly sliced
12 ounces of fresh mozzarella
6 ounces of soppressata, cubed
1/2 of a large cucumber, halved and sliced into thin half-moons
1/4 cup of red onion, thinly sliced
Balsamic vinegar

Directions
First, cut the entire loaf of bread into 1-inch cubes. In a large frying pan with deep sides, melt the tablespoon of butter into approximately 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat and add the thinly sliced garlic. Allow the garlic to gently cook for 1-2 minutes before adding the bread and tossing it in the oil and butter mixture. Allow the bread to toast, flipping cubes over and tossing it every 2 minutes or so. If pan seems very dry, drizzle in a little bit more olive oil. Cook until all cubes are toasted and the exterior of each is crisp. For a whole loaf of Italian bread, this will take about 10-12 minutes.

While the bread is toasting, slice the vegetables and basil and cube the mozzarella cheese and soppressata; set aside. When the bread is finished cooking, add it along with the toasted slices of garlic into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool down for about 5 minutes. At this time, you can walk away and assemble the salad later on or finish making it. Add the sliced ingredients to the bread and lightly salt and pepper. Next, drizzle the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss together thoroughly to combine. I usually start by adding about two tablespoons of vinegar, tossing, and seeing where I’m at after. Remember, your vegetables will release moisture upon contact with the warm bread and then even more so with the acidity of the vinegar, so add a touch more vinegar if you’d like, but this will soften more and more as it sits.

When you eat the panzanella is entirely up to you and your preferred texture. I eat it all kinds of ways, but I prefer it about a half hour after everything is incorporated and macerated. The bread still has some crisp texture then and I like that bite, but it is also delicious once everything has really softened together and the bread is moist with all of the flavors. Depending on what you prefer, allow the salad to sit on the counter for a bit and then serve it or store in the refrigerator for a few hours, or overnight, before enjoying.

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DIY Wedding Binder

DIY Wedding BinderLast Friday, one of my dearest friends, Charlotte, married her longtime sweetheart, Katie, in an intimate courthouse ceremony. The bride was beautiful, the butch groom very dapper, and all attending guests were there to share in what was a really lovely afternoon. Since Charlotte and Katie’s families are spread out, they are doing things a bit non-traditionally, but no less thoughtfully. While their formal ceremony was Friday, they will be having a party in July for friends and loved ones in the Twin Cities and then another with family at a gathering between their two homes come the fall. So many opportunities to celebrate!

DIY Wedding BinderOver the next month and a half, Charlotte and I will, largely, be planning what their celebration for friends will look like and, chances are, you’ll see some of the projects we undertake for it here. What a happy way to cultivate blog content at the same time as organizing what will be an amazingly fun, love-filled day! My Pinterest boards and I are already bursting with ideas!

DIY Wedding BinderPlanning a party, even one that is informal and fairly small in size for a wedding celebration (about 40 people), is a lot of work and, herein, my Virgo brain sees an opportunity for organization. Enter: The Wedding Binder. A wedding binder is many things I love all rolled into one: structured, informative, tidy, an excuse to buy cute office supplies, etc. I know that holding up these kinds of qualities probably makes me sound like a total stiff (do people still say that?), but it’s only in project planning that I hold so dearly to these ways. How else will one remember if they sent a “thank you” card to their aunt or remember where they put the receipt from the caterer? If you have a wedding binder, everything has a place, eliminating one stressor right off the bat.

DIY Wedding BinderCould you buy a wedding binder? Of course, but there are so many templates online to make your own, and now this one, that printing out some pages and putting them in a binder along with some dividers is time well spent. Not only does it save you money, but making your own wedding binder also allows you to really customize it to your needs. When I made this binder for Charlotte and Katie, for example, I didn’t have to include space on the “Expenses” sheet for ceremony costs because, aside from the marriage license, there weren’t any.

DIY Wedding BinderCharlotte and Katie’s party, as many small weddings are, will also largely be a very DIY affair, so I knew it was also important to include space in their binder where they could collect visual ideas from magazines or Pinterest to inform future table design or what have you. I also created a section called “Team Bride” where Charlotte can identify friends in her network who she can ask to assist with parts of the party, i.e. here she can make a note that our other friend, Katie, will do Charlotte’s hair and make-up that day. Since music is so vitally important to the small, DIY wedding, I made sure to also create a “Soundtrack” page where they could jot down ideas that came to them for “must-haves” to hear on the day of the reception. On their wedding site, Charlotte and Katie asked guests to suggest songs when they submit their RSVP – a great idea! – so this is a landing place for those selections too.

DIY Wedding BinderWhile this binder has largely been geared toward Charlotte and Katie specifically, I’ve kept the average small wedding planner in mind as I’ve crafted this, so the sheets, which I’ve made available as free printables below, should be helpful to lots of folks. Take a look!:

- Guest List
- Gift Log
- Vendors
- Expenses
- Menu
- Seating Arrangements
- Team Bride
- Soundtrack
- Shopping List

For smaller, DIY parties like this one, keeping organized, budgeting well, and relying on friends for additional help and services depending on where their strengths lie are all key to pulling off a beautiful day. To those of you out there who have planned (or are planning – congratulations!) a small, but special day, what other tips do you have to keep everything and everyone reigned in and organized leading up to, and on the day of, the main event?

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Fennel, Onion & Fontina Pizza

Most of the memories I have of my father’s parents revolve around food. Due to the complicated nature of family, I didn’t grow up around them to the extent I did my mother’s parents. With the latter, we were together almost every weekend, vacationed together, and lived mere blocks away for the first few years of my life. My grandparents on my Dad’s side, Rose & John (seen below with my great grandmother between them), lived in apartment projects for the elderly in Hoboken, NJ, before it’s renaissance of the past decade. They were complicated people. Always kind to me, but there was a persistent and underlying tension present because of my dad’s strained relationship with his father stemming back to childhood.

Grandma & GrandpaAs a result, we didn’t visit often and when we did, it was more a result of my mom having to work on a weekend and my father thinking he could kill two birds with one stone: visit his parents and get us fed well at the same time. Though my memories of them are few and fleeting – they both passed within a year or so of one another when I was in the range of 10-11 years old – gathering around their tiny kitchen table with the heavy, clear, vinyl tablecloth remains one that is firmly in place.

Seated here, I marveled at the food they turned out of their tiny kitchen – dishes and ingredients that were largely unfamiliar to me, but which introduced me to the culture of this side of my family (Italian-American) that my mother’s side seemed less connected to. Fish cakes made with baccala at Christmas, celery logs stuffed with blue cheese alongside antipasto, the very best rice balls (arancini if you’re fancy) that I’ve had in my life – all of these things laid across the table with the gentle encouragement to try new things and flavors.

It’s from my grandparents that I fell in love with fennel. What 7 year old is like, “More fennel, Grandma!” but that was me. I happily crunched on it between courses as a palate cleanser (I knew nothing of this, of course, only that it was delicious and crunchtastic) and marveled at its completely different flavor when my grandfather served it baked as a gratin aside homemade braciola. They had me hooked on fennel early and my love for it is still going strong.

This pizza brings together the sweet taste of cooked, caramelized fennel and the slight anise flavor it has raw by scattering some of the fennel fronds over top. Layered with sautéed onions and creamy fontina cheese, it’s a delicious take on a vegetarian pizza option and works well right in your oven or, now that it’s warming up, on the grill. Serve it with a big salad for dinner or cut it into small strips for an appetizer; it’s completely malleable to all kinds of meals and occasions. If you’re not sure that you like fennel, or have only had it raw, give this recipe a try. The transformation between raw and cooked is night and day and that sweet flavor, coupled with the salty cheese, and the garlic and onions make for a perfect mouthful. Take it from 7-year-old me and give fennel a try!

Fennel, Onion & Fontina Pizza
Yields one pizza

Ingredients
1 pizza dough
1 bulb of fennel
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced
7 ounces of fontina cheese, grated
1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
Salt & pepper
Olive oil
1-2 Tablespoons of cornmeal

Directions
Remove your pizza dough from the refrigerator about 20-30 minutes before you’re going to assemble your pizza so that it has time to soften a bit and becomes pliable. Sprinkle cornmeal over baking sheet and set aside. Preheat oven to 425°F.

In a small bowl, pour 1/3 cup of olive oil and add two cloves of minced garlic and some cracked black pepper. Microwave on high for 30 seconds, or until you just start to smell the garlic, and remove. Set aside.

Peel the onion and slice in half, cutting uniform 1/4″ half-moon slices. In a large, non-stick frying pan, drizzle 2 teaspoons of olive oil and apply a medium high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally. Once the edges start to turn brown, drop the heat to medium and cook until they are brown throughout and slightly translucent. Before removing them from the pan, salt and pepper them lightly, stir, cook an additional minute or two and then set aside in a separate bowl. Return the pan to the stove and drizzle with an additional teaspoon or so of olive oil. Remove the fennel stems and peel off the first layer of the bulb. Slice the bulb in half and cut each half into 1/4″ half moons. Sauté the sliced fennel over medium heat with a little bit of salt and pepper, allowing it to cook until softened and golden.

Unroll the pizza dough and stretch it accordingly to form the crust. When the dough has reached the size and shape you’d like, brush it with the garlic-infused olive oil and place in the oven for 5 minutes. While the crust is par-baking, grate the fontina and pick off some of the fennel fronds and set aside. Remove the par-baked crust from the oven and layer the onions and fennel over top. Top vegetables with both cheeses and cover with fresh cracked black pepper. Drizzle with a little olive oil if desired and bake for 10-12 minutes or until crust is golden brown and cheese is completely melted and bubbling. When finished, remove from oven, sprinkle with fennel fronds, and allow to stand for 5 minutes before slicing.

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DIY Vanity Trays

DIY Vanity TraysI track my femme roots these days back to my mother and grandmother who always worked within the confines of what they had – whatever shape and size of body, whatever financial means – to project confident, unwavering femininity. While make-up, jewelry, and perfumes do not, of course, make the femme, what I locate in them as femme-inine is the process and the pleasure, for my mother especially, that comes in adorning herself in heavy scents and lipsticks.

DIY Vanity TraysFor my grandmother, it’s the fun in assuming and identifying glamour in loud, fake jewelry (when she was younger) and the ability to stretch a dime without sacrificing her desired image. One of my favorite memories is of her showing me how to layer perfume on top of unscented lotion; the oils in the lotion hold on to fragrance longer, requiring one to use less, stretching the bottle further. We both still use that trick today.

DIY Vanity TraysIt’s no surprise then that as a little kid, the definition of fun was sitting at my mother’s vanity, or in front of my grandmother’s dresser, and admiring their things. Both kept neat, organized trays on top of their furniture where they lined up their favorite perfumes, lipsticks, and various pieces of jewelry. When I thought they weren’t looking, I would slide rings on to every finger, dig through earrings to find the shiniest clip-ons and spray myself up and down with various scents. You could smell me coming a mile away, but even if that hadn’t been the case, the jig was up when I broke out in a case of hives from too much Chanel no. 5.

DIY Vanity TraysMore or less a grown-up now myself, I also love a vanity tray and after changing some colors and patterns in my bedroom recently, wanted something bold, but pretty to keep my own everyday baubles arranged and accessible. When I saw these pastel hexagonal trays at Target in the dollar section, I knew I could use them in a variety of ways, but the vanity trays were first on my list.

With a little paint, scrapbook paper (which was also in the Target $1 bin!), and sealant, these trays are instantly upgraded to elegant, modern places to keep trinkets, keys, or even to hang on a wall as art. For me, they’re just the spot to keep my favorite perfumes, my current nail color, and my jewelry of the moment. Having a landing spot for these things helps keep mess contained and also from having tiny earrings roll away never to be seen again (…she says, having just lost a new earring last month in this exact fashion).

DIY Vanity TraysThese are a cute and creative DIY Mother’s Day gift, but also serve well as a small treat for just about anyone – who doesn’t need a spot to drop keys or spare change? For those of you heading into wedding season, what a cute little gift for a bestie or friend who is recently engaged or married as a new place to put their rings, as well. The ways to gift these are about as limitless in number as the ways to decorate them.

DIY Vanity Trays

Supplies:
Plastic hexagonal tray from Target’s Dollar Spot (or any other plastic tray or shallow vessel will do)
Scrapbook paper
Scissors
Pencil
Metallic gold acrylic paint
Mod Podge Gloss
2 Foam paint brushes

Directions:
Place the hexagonal tray on top of a piece of scrapbook paper and trace the outline of its base onto the backside of the paper. Carefully cut out the outline with scissors and set aside.

On a work surface, paint the tray with the metallic gold paint using one of the foam brushes. Apply one coat to all sides of the tray, as well as the interior. I did not paint the bottoms, but you certainly can if you’d like. Allow this first coat to dry and then assess if you will need a second and even, possibly, a third. After each coat, allow the paint to dry completely before applying another.

When the tray has received it’s last coat of paint and is completely dry, apply a thin coat of Mod Podge to the interior base of the tray and place your cut piece of scrapbook paper on top of it. Press down from the center and smooth out the paper working outwards. If bubbles develop under the paper, simply press them out to the edges and release them. Once the paper is in place and no bubbles remain, apply a thin coat of Mod Podge to the top surface of the paper, as well as to the sides you’ve painted. When it has dried, consider applying one final thin coat of Mod Podge to the paper if needed and allow to dry completely. When the Mod Podge has hardened to a glossy shine and is no longer tacky or wet to the touch, your trays are ready to use.

Two notes: Applying too thick of a layer of Mod Podge at any point will result in a tacky feel to the tray, so keep your layers thin to avoid this. If while pushing out air bubbles you accidentally cause a small tear in the paper, don’t despair! Cut a small piece of scrapbook paper to fit over the hole (just cut to the size of the tear, nothing much bigger), lightly brush the back with Mod Podge and adhere it to the spot. Once it has some time to dry, go over the patch with another thin coat of Mod Podge and it should blend in perfectly.

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Dried Orange Slices for Tea

Dried Orange Slices for TeaSometimes life is kind enough to bring a friend into your life at just the right time, in just the right place, and you have it and hold it dear to you for all the rest of your days. For me, that’s my friend Emily. Em came into my life my first year of graduate school when I had just moved to Minnesota knowing only one person in the entire state, as I was about to start a seven year program as a cohort of one. The first year of my Ph.D. program was a humbling experience altogether, but those first weeks were brutal. I sat in my classes stunned into silence by my peers and by students three and four years in with so much more knowledge and poise than I thought would ever be possible for me to attain. The community in my department was welcoming, certainly, but not having anyone with whom to share the vulnerabilities and doubts of the first few weeks was scary and isolating.

Emily was part of a cohort of first years in a neighboring department where we met in a class on gender, race, and class in American culture. They were all so nice and warm and I was lucky that they brought me into their fold as an honorary member as quickly and effortlessly as they did. I hate to think what the rest of that year would have looked like for me had they not taken me in. I got even luckier, though, when Emily and I discovered that we lived literally right on the other side of the block from one another – oh, kismet! Our friendship was sealed and we’ve shared many a memory and milestone together since.

Dried Orange Slices for TeaThough Em has long since moved back to San Francisco, I still miss her like she left yesterday. Which is why when I recently found myself with a brand-new mandolin slicer, my first thought of making a grilled zucchini lasagna was eclipsed by the idea of making some dried orange slices for tea and sending them her way. Emily is a tea connoisseur, you see. Prior to meeting her, I always just happily drank whatever bags I had gotten on sale last time I went to the grocery. I knew nothing beyond those sad, little pouches. Loose tea? Different brew times? Herbal vs. black? No clue.

What I learned through my friendship with Emily, though, and the inspiration I found as I tasted and learned about different teas through her and for myself, was that great teas are uncomplicated, sometimes not very fancy at all, and are best when left alone or, only slightly adulterated, by the tiniest squeeze of lemon or drop of cream. These very thinly sliced, dehydrated oranges and lemons – one snuck in to my slicing and drying! – are a wonderful addition to any old cup of tea. They add a subtle sweet taste of citrus to your brew and the aroma of them steeping in the hot water makes every sip feel really special.

Dried Orange Slices for TeaKept in a sealed container – I’m partial to a small jelly jar, but even a sealable plastic bag will do – they last forever. While they’re obviously great in hot tea, I’ve also enjoyed them in iced tea, cold water, and Em herself gave me the great idea to try one in a pint of wheat beer. So refreshing! These are a year-round staple, a great gift, and a sweet new way to enjoy a bunch of different beverages. I’m imagining them in a bevy of different summer cocktails as well!

Or, if you’re Bear, you can also dip them halfway in melted dark chocolate, let them set up on some waxed paper in the fridge, and then talk about how you’re a master chocolatier and have never tasted anything better in your life. Whatever your pick. You do you.

Dried Orange Slices
1 orange yields approximately 10 slices; recipe may also be used for lemons and limes

Ingredients
1 orange
1/2 teaspoon of sugar (optional)

Directions
Preheat oven to 200°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat or parchment paper and set aside. Using a mandolin or a very sharp knife, carefully slice the orange – my mandolin was set on its thinnest setting, which is 1/16th of an inch. Arrange orange slices on the baking sheet in a single layer and sprinkle with sugar if desired – I skipped the sugar because my oranges were very, very sweet. Bake for 2 to 2-1/2 hours or until the slices are completely dry and the flesh is translucent. Remove carefully to a baking rack and allow to cool completely before storing.

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DIY Sparrow Place Cards

DIY Sparrow Place CardsI mentioned in my recent Coconut Chocolate Dipped Peeps post that, for me, Easter is a celebration of friends, family, and spring rather than anything religious. So while I’ve made these place cards for my Easter table, they would be a welcome addition to any springtime, or even summer, event that calls for some table flair.

DIY Sparrow Place Cards, SuppliesLook, the reality is that I’m only having 6 people over for Easter dinner – finding a seat is not going to be a real Olympics of the mind situation. That being said, though, I think a beautiful table is as important as the food you put on it when making a memorable day. In this case, that means having adorable sparrow-shaped place cards adorning everyone’s spot. My goal any time I host a meal or a party for friends, whether it be a small brunch with a bestie or a larger gathering to welcome a friend in from out of town, is to create the feeling that this day is special and that the people attending are cared for.

DIY Sparrow Place CardsEspecially for the queer folks among us whose family situations may be tenuous at best, gathering around a table with others specifically on a holiday can bring up a lot of conflicting feelings – including sadness and even relief. Surely, it’s all a process, but if taking the time and effort to make the day beautiful and the atmosphere warm gives someone a sense of home in the meantime, creating that is important to me. How could anyone see this pretty little thing perched atop their plate and not feel welcomed?

DIY Sparrow Place Cards

What’s nice about these place cards is that while they’re festive and, in many ways, seemingly elaborate, they require little skill and once the parts that involve tracing and cutting are done, they come together quickly. My dear friend, Katie – my co-host for our Easter/Springtime Celebration of Friends – and I knocked these out in about an hour after everything was cut out and ready to go. Another fun fact: they cost only about $1.50 each to make!

We chose sheets of scrapbook paper that coordinated with our color scheme in a variety of patterns – floral, polka dots, and plaid – so that regardless of gender or personal taste, everyone will have a place setting that appeals to them along those lines. Not that I expect the gents among us to really hold on to their tiny bird place cards afterward, but you know, thoughtfulness is next to godliness or something.

DIY Sparrow Place CardsWe really saved here in creating our own nests out of tiny vine wreaths that were about 50 cents at our local craft store, as opposed to pre-made nests of similar materials which were upwards of $3 each. For added realness, we added Spanish moss and tiny eggs to our DIY bird nests, which we would have used to decorate the $3 nests too, so we really did save quite a bit without sacrificing the look we were after or a bunch of extra time.

DIY Sparrow Place CardsWith several days left before Easter and many more days of spring and summer ahead of us, there’s plenty of time to add these sparrow place cards to your dining decor. Whether you’re a table of two, 12, or even 100, these are the perfect way to welcome guests and, simultaneously, tell them where to park it. Two birds, one stone.

DIY Sparrow Place Cards
Yields one place setting

Supplies
1 sparrow template, re-sized, printed, & cut out; I used this.
1-2 sheets of sturdy scrapbook paper; 1 sheet if you don’t mind the back having the same pattern as the front, 2 sheets if you want to combine patterns
Glue gun & glue sticks
Craft glue or Elmer’s glue
Small vine wreath
Spanish moss
One sheet of plain, white printer paper
Sharpie or other thin marker, color of your choice (you can also use the printer for writing names if you’re not great with handwriting; more on that below)
Scissors
Small, plastic bird eggs
Pencil

Directions

Step 1: Plug in your glue gun and allow it to heat up on the high setting.

Step 2: Using a pencil, trace the outline of your sparrow template onto your scrapbook paper so that you have a front and back with the pattern(s) facing outwards. The two cut-outs should be facing the same direction so that when glued together, they match up giving the bird weight and stability to stay upright in the nest.

Step 3: When you have both pieces cut out, use the Elmer’s or craft glue to adhere the front and the back together, but leave the beaks unglued for adding the name banner later. Set aside to dry.

Step 4: Free a small handful of Spanish moss from the bag. With the wreath on a flat surface, apply a ring of hot glue to its top edge and, working quickly, gently apply the Spanish moss to edge of the wreath concentrating the bulk of the handful into the center, creating a bit of a well. Be careful not to burn yourself. Once the glue is more warm than cool, press the moss more firmly into the setting glue along the top edge of the wreath. Allow to dry.

Step 5: Place a small bead or two of hot glue into the middle of the well of Spanish moss and place the feet of your sparrow into it, holding the bird part upright until it has dried and can support itself standing.

Step 6: Add some hot glue into the well in front of the bird, as well as behind and fill any holes or spaces with small bunches of the Spanish moss. You’ll want to partially obscure the feet so that it seems they’re nestled in the nest. Trim stray Spanish moss pieces with a scissor, as needed.

Step 7: Use a bead or two of hot glue to secure two eggs onto the rim of the wreath within the Spanish moss and allow to dry.

Step 8: Lastly, create and adhere the name banner. You can do this one of two ways. Initially, I cut out small banners made of white printer paper and hand-wrote the names, but later chose a font and color I preferred more, printed each of the names out on one sheet of paper, and cut out the banners from there. It’s up to you which option you choose. When envisioning your banners be sure to consider that about 1/4″ of one end will be between the the two sides of the beak, so make sure you cut the banners long enough. With the banners printed, apply a small dot of Elmer’s or craft glue between the two sides of the beak and insert the beginning of the banner. Press the two sides of the scrapbook paper together to adhere them together, setting the banner between the beaks. Allow to dry.

Step 9: Trim any stray pieces of Spanish moss or strings from the glue gun and store until ready to use.

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Guinness Fudgesicles

Guinness Fudgesicles[Note: I made these fudgesicles and wrote this post last week when we received another 6 or so inches of snow. I'm pleased to report that, mere days later, I'm publishing it with the promise of it reaching 70°F today! Welcome back, Spring! Please be here to stay. My sun dresses have missed you!]

I can’t believe I have to write a post about ice cream while the snow is falling outside with abandon and several inches are already under foot with more to come. Scratch that. I can believe it because I just remembered recently that on the first week of May last year, I wrote and told you all about the coconut ice cream with graham cracker swirl I was making amidst a blizzard. Oh, Minnesota, never change!

Guinness Fudgesicles are the perfect treat for those among us who love a rich, chocolatey dessert, but one that is punched up a bit by the bitter creaminess of a good stout beer. They are everything you remember about fudgesicles as a kid, but upgraded a bit because we’re all adults here and deserve a little something sophisticated with our desserts from time-to-time.

Guinness FudgesiclesIt might seem, upon first glance, that there’s not a lot to these, but in a way, that’s what makes them perfect. They’re not loaded up with a lot of superfluous ingredients, nor do they require a lot of technique. There’s just a bit of melting, some whisking, a pour or eight and they’re off to set up in the frozen recesses of your freezer. For full disclosure, if you have to go and buy a bag of chocolate chips to make these, or a bottle of Guinness, you’re going to have some leftovers.

Sorry about that not-a-problem. I have faith that you can handle it.

Guinness Fudgesicles
Yields 8 2.5oz pops

Ingredients
1 cup of milk chocolate chips
1/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips
1-1/2 Tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup of sugar
1/3 cup + 1Tablespoon of Guinness, divided
1 Tablespoon of cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 cup of half and half
1/2 cup of 2% or whole milk
1 Tablespoon of butter

Directions
In a small, heavy-bottomed pot melt the chocolate chips over low heat. While waiting for them to melt, prepare the other ingredients, checking on the chocolate every minute or so to avoid burning. When the chips have melted, add the half and half, milk, salt, cocoa powder, sugar, cornstarch, and 1/3 cup of Guinness. Stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium and cook for 5-10 minutes or until it begins to thicken. You may want to switch out your spoon for a whisk in order to make sure your mixture is free of any lumps. When it has thickened slightly, remove from the heat and add the butter. Stir in and allow to melt fully, incorporating it completely. At this point, taste the chocolate and see if the taste of the Guinness suits you. I wanted a little extra oomph, so I added 1 Tablespoon after cooking and the Guinness flavor really blossomed.

Pour mixture into 8 popsicle molds and freeze for 30 minutes. Then, insert the popsicle sticks and allow to continue freezing until they are solid. Before serving, you may need to dip your molds in warm water to loosen them. If they seem a little too soft after this process, lay them gently on a baking sheet lined with wax paper and return to freezer for 15-20 minutes before serving.

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