Sunday, November 28, 2010

Setting My Intention

At the beginning of yoga class, my instructor usually guides us through a short meditation, asking us to silently set an intention for our practice.  My individual intention is my personal focus for the next hour and a half.  As an article on states, "...[one's intention] is a path or practice that is focused on how you are "being" in the present moment. Your attention is on the ever-present "now" in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values."

In talking to my dad over Thanksgiving, he reminded me that this Sunday, today, is the beginning of Advent.  Tonight after Mass, I picked up a complimentary copy of the Little Blue Book, which includes daily reflections for each day of Advent and Christmas.  I love little tools like this book as they provide a small daily reminder of what this season is all about.  All it takes is six minutes a day to read and reflect on various readings, thoughts, and traditions.

I am already a little anxious about decorating and buying gifts and handling all the busyness of the next few weeks.  But now that Thanksgiving is over, I am setting my intention for the holiday season.  If my intention is based on what matters most and aligns my actions with my values, I want to focus on each moment - be with friends and family, celebrate my faith, enjoy the bounty of food and gifts, and all the while, remember the true meaning behind it all.  We all lament how time flies, but I hope to savor this season, full of celebrations of light, love, life.

With the help of the Little Blue Book and the devotion of six minutes a day, I plan to fulfill my intention.  I may not succeed in holding this focus each day of the season, but as in yoga, a gentle reminder can bring one's intention back to the forefront.  Perhaps the Little Blue Book can be my reminder.

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and that you enjoy the upcoming holiday season, whatever your faith - and your intention - may be.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Putting Pen to Paper

Ever since I was four years old, when I penned (or crayon-ed) the first story I can remember writing, I have felt called to write. I think the story was about fireworks and how pretty they are.

I was in high school when I first read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Since then, I have re-read it a number of times, different sections here and there as well as the whole way through. One part stands out to me, a part that has resonated in my memory and echoes what I feel:
"Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity..."
My growing collection of books on writing
I know what I want to do, what I need to do. I want to move people through writing, the way art and music and films move people. The problems that arise are the same things that stand in the way of anyone's dream... they are the reasons we don't all open a bakery, start our own fashion line, or star in a blockbuster movie (or do whatever it is you dream of doing!). It's the reality of life. We have bills to pay, spouses and kids to care for, friends and family to keep in touch with, work to do, houses to maintain. And the fears inside ourselves.

Fear gets in the way of pursuing one's calling. It's not always comfortable. I always want to feel wonderful, rested and inspired when I sit down to write. But the reality is that I am usually tired after a long day at work with a stomachache from eating too much ice cream. My back hurts and my mind is distracted with random worries and the reality show that's playing on TV. There is never the perfect time. And there is always the fear of failure... my perfectionism doesn't help there. What if my writing sucks tonight (or always!)? What if the idea I have in my head doesn't come out the way I would like on paper?

The solution is to put pen to paper... or fingers to keyboard. Sentences may be a struggle, and the right words might be hard to find. But the only way to finish is to start. The only way to improve is to practice. The only way to create something beautiful is to make a lot of really horrible attempts.

This idea of just putting "pen to paper" makes me think of a book I have referenced over and over again, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I also read this book for the first time in high school, and I still treasure my semi-worn paperback copy. Lamott's voice comes off the pages as if she is a live person in front of me. She speaks (writes!) of her writing experiences and all the ups and downs, just as she does during the classes and workshops she teaches, using real words, stories and emotion. Reading this book feels like listening to an interesting friend as she explains the inspiration, obstacles, and successes of writing - and how those experiences translate to life. Here are a couple parts from the first few chapters that compel me to simply get the words out...

On the journey of writing:
"There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that now you know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go - but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages."
On why we write:
"What's real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you'll get better. At times when you're working, you'll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart's deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.

"And what are those reasons again? my students ask.

"Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life - wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean."
I'm grateful for the black words on the white page, the sentences that create a living, breathing story, a time and place with people and plot. I'm grateful for the connection between writing and life - the historical and fictional and current worlds, the small but vitally important details, the emotions evoked and experienced, the complexity of people and relationships.

What do you feel called to do? As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, what are you grateful for? Have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Jolt of Java - My Love Affair with Coffee

My relationship with coffee began when I was in high school. If I remember correctly, a good friend of mine took me out to dinner before we stopped by one of his favorite little coffee houses. It was a warm house-like building, wooden floors and cozy couches, soft yellow lighting. The menu of drinks was posted in handwritten lettering, and I blinked up, trying to decipher what the words meant and which type of drink would be least offensive to my still-maturing palate. He suggested a mocha, just right for a girl with a sweet tooth, and that is when my love of coffee began.

Since then, I have so many memories that happened over a cup of coffee. My high school girlfriends and I would go to a little coffee shop to chat, once we graduated from hanging out at the mall and the movie theater. It had small pieces of art from local artists on the walls and a bar in the back that we basically ignored at that age (the coffee was strong enough for us, I suppose). We would try not to get kicked out after sitting there for three hours nursing one drink, planning out our weekend, complaining about school work, sharing secrets.

In college, I would often stop by the student center for a cup of flavored coffee before a boring class (econ, anyone?). It was a treat to get me through the freezing walk across campus and the subsequent mind-numbingly confusing class. Then when I was hunkered down in my dorm room, pounding out a paper the night before it was due, I would run to the basement vending machine and buy a bottled Frappacino. The boost would push me through the last few hours of homework, and I would crash into bed with my heart still beating under the influence of caffeine and my mind still racing against the clock, the impending deadline, the first light of sunrise. Starbucks was over-priced for my college-student mind (too many "points" off my dining hall plan), but I tried my fair share of their beverages. 

Little did I know how I would become a frequent visitor to Starbucks post-graduation. Once the working world hit, coffee became a mini-escape, even just five minutes to run downstairs and grab a drink. It is now a moment to catch up with a work friend as we shuffle through the perpetual line and then wait a minute for our drinks to be ready. It gives me a caffeine-fueled clarity as I tackle my to-do list. (Seriously, the employees recognize me at the Starbucks in my office building now. My tip for saving money on these expensive almost-daily treats: I ask for gift cards every holiday, use some of my credit card reward points to receive more gift cards, and register all of the cards so I can get free drink postcards after every several visits.)

It's a wonderful time of year when the red cups return!

On the weekends, coffee provides a moment of relaxation and comfort, as I navigate the aisles of the grocery store, write blog posts and short stories on my laptop, page through magazines and books, or catch up with a friend post-yoga class. With a splash of Bailey's, it's an early-morning college-football-tailgate beverage or an after-dinner treat (just don't laugh so hard while sipping that it goes up your nose... my sisters are hilarious and this was the unfortunate, albeit memorable, result during one holiday dinner). Coffee is always brewing in the morning at my parents' home in Kansas or at Scott's parents' house in the suburbs. Both our moms appreciate a good caffeinated cup of brew, so it's a little source of bonding time in the kitchen as I curl up in my pajama pants on a barstool and we chat about what's in the newspaper that day.

We have a coffeemaker now, a wonderful wedding shower gift from my family, but it's really just for me. Coffee is one of those areas of difference for Scott and me. He has never had a cup in his life, but he is kind enough to recognize my love for it (addiction is a strong word) and knows it is a good idea for everyone involved that I get a little bit of coffee most days.

I'll leave you with some cheery news: Today and tomorrow from 2-5 pm, Starbucks is offering buy-one, get-one-free holiday drinks.  So grab a friend and get into the holiday spirit with a cozy, caffeinated cup!

(Birthday gift card in hand, I stopped into Starbucks yesterday and noticed that they now have polar-bear iced sugar cookies - reminds me of my dad who loves polar bears... Also, as I was waiting in line behind a woman who had the hiccups, I overheard the Starbucks employee recommend that she drink a glass of water while her friend plugged her ears. The whole store was soon glancing over at the ridiculous attempt to cure hiccups, but guess what, it worked!)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Delicious Ambiguity

Some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next.  Delicious ambiguity...
-Gilda Radner

I'm a planner.  I like to keep myself challenged.  I always ask "what's next?" and look forward to what is coming up.

The challenge then becomes truly living in the present.  Lately, I have been working to notice and appreciate the beauty around me.  I think of my five senses: What am I feeling right now?  What do I see?  What do I hear?  What do I taste?  What do I smell?

It is tough to remain present when I have deadlines, to-do lists, plans for next weekend, next month, next year.  Being present in every moment means I experience and treasure it, rather than breeze by it.  I can settle into all five senses and escape to a place of calm and contentment.  I move away from the daily stresses or long-term questions of life, simply breathing in my current experience.  I don't have to worry about what might happen in the future, don't have to look back with sadness or disappointment.  The present is the only thing in my consciousness.

Vacation day... Feel: comfy in sweats;
See: words and pictures in some of my favorite magazines;
Hear: country music playing from my laptop;
Taste: iced coffee and a donut;
Smell: nothing in particular
I think that is why I love things like yoga and massages and reading so much.  (I had a fantastic, much-needed massage last week and that one hour of relaxation felt about 2 hours too short.  My shoulders were up to my ears with stress beforehand, so I just breathed and blocked out everything else.)  I can relish the feelings of the moment and push away any stress or worry.

Sometimes I don't want to live in the present when it's crazy busy or insanely stressful.  In that case, I try to remind myself that the moment will pass, I will learn from it, and I will appreciate the calmer times more because of it.  I find something to be grateful for that day, even a small thing like the changing fall leaves or a hug from my husband.

A cozy spot to curl up with a book
There is a wonderful prayer from St. Theresa that speaks to living in the present and trusting you are where you are meant to be.  Recently, I have been repeating the first line to myself as a reminder to live this way, even when I feel my blood pressure climbing.  I would like to share it as a source of inspiration.  Remember each day is a gift.

May today there be peace within.  May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.  May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.  May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.  May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.  It is there for each and every one of us.
-St. Theresa of the Little Flower

Friday, November 12, 2010

Lovely Lashes

I am not super-skilled with eyeliner.  I attempted false eyelashes once for Halloween and decided the glue and precision required was not worth it.  Then I discovered eyelash tinting.

Freshman year of college during orientation, all the girls in my section of the dorm got together and shared "two truths and a lie" about themselves (great icebreaker...).  One girl told us she had gotten her eyelashes tinted... and I thought it was ridiculous.  I mean, can't you just wear mascara?

Fast forward several years and I'm trying out a lash tint at the Benefit boutique on Armitage in Chicago.  Benefit may be known for their Brow Bar (my low tolerance for pain says "no" to waxing, but just ask my younger sisters who are brow-obsessed how awesome they are at Benefit).  But I can't help but be "wowed" by the lash tint, which is about $20-25 at Benefit.  The boutiques are only located in certain cities, but many other salons across the country offer eyelash tinting as well.  (As an aside, I want to get an airbrush spray tan at Benefit too... everyone who has gone there comes out looking sun-kissed and natural - for only $40 to boot!)

So here's the eyelash tint process: I take out my contacts, the Benefit woman applies Vaseline under my lower lashes and on my lids to keep the dye off of my skin.  She then places white paper-like half-moons under my lower lashes and asks me to close my eyes.  Good-bye to vision for exactly 14 minutes!  (Be sure you are hydrated - it can be a little disorienting to close your eyes for that length of time and still hear everything going on around you - and it's usually smart to not be hungover, as I was the night after my bachelorette bar crawl - yikes, that was a long 14 minutes!)  The woman brushes the dye onto my upper and lower lashes, sets the timer for 7 minutes and then adds additional dye before the last 7 minutes.

Sit back and relax... and look creepy :)  If you have a buddy to keep you company, the time passes more quickly, even if it is awkward to talk to a friend with your eyes closed.  My eyes tickled a bit with a "peppery" sensation, but it's not painful (remember, I can't deal with pain).  When the wait is over, it's time to rinse off the excess.  I hold a few tissues under my eyes and look up while the Benefit woman squirts saline solution over my eyes and asks me to blink, then wipe.

Without mascara!

With mascara

The result of this unusual experience - dark, full eyelashes!  The first few days, it looks like I am wearing eyeliner since the dye settled in between my lashes, but that eventually wears away. As for my eyelashes, the effect lasts for up to 4 weeks - both upper and lower lashes that are dark without any makeup (especially helpful for beach vacations!).  Even though I'm blonde, my eyelashes are naturally fairly dark... this tint still makes a significant difference.  I like to add mascara on top to increase the look of fullness and give my lashes some shape.  My two faves: CoverGirl Lash Blast Volume for everyday and Revlon Grow Luscious for special occasions and nights out.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I am not receiving anything from Benefit to blab about this awesome service... just wanted to share this fun beauty tip!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Notre Dame Family

My mom forwarded this beautiful description of the recent Mass held at Notre Dame in remembrance of ND student Declan Sullivan.  It is a moving example of the universal celebration of the Eucharist and the strength of the Notre Dame "family."  I am blessed to be part of the Catholic faith and the Notre Dame family, two communities that intersect and extend across the globe.  My prayers are with Declan's family and friends. 

Here is the link to Amy Holsinger's blog post and the full text follows below:

October 29, 2010...12:22 am


I did not know Declan Sullivan.

On Wednesday, Declan was killed on campus in an accident involving a hydraulic lift. He was filming football practice for his job as a student manager, and high winds caused the scissor lift he was filming from to topple over.

He was 20 years old. He was a junior majoring in FTT (film, television, and theater) and marketing. He lived in Fisher Hall.

Tonight, Father John Jenkins, University President, presided over a Mass in Declan’s memory in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Mass began at 10 pm. I was in a lecture and movie screening for class until 9:45 pm, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it to the Basilica in time to get a seat. I also wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go to the Mass. I didn’t know Declan, so a part of me thought, “Why should I take a seat from somebody who knew him, loved him, cared about him? Who am I to do that?” But another part of me desperately wanted to go to the Mass to show my support for Declan’s family during this horrible, difficult time. That part of me wanted to show the Sullivans that Notre Dame is a place where everybody matters, a place where the spirit of the community links everybody together. I was already running late and I knew that my baseball-cap-and-Ugg-boots attire wouldn’t fly at the Basilica, so I decided to go over to LaFortune Student Center, where I had heard there would be auxiliary seating and a live feed from the Mass.

As I walked across God Quad in the dark, I watched people walking towards the Basilica, two by two. The doors were wide open, emanating a warm golden glow. I was able to hear the prelude for Declan’s Mass all the way at the flagpole on South Quad, and the sound of the organ became clearer as I crossed through the pine trees and made my way to LaFortune.

Up the winding staircase, I burst in to LaFortune and brushed past the representatives from the Student Activities Office who tried to usher me upstairs to the ballroom. “We have some seats left up there,” a girl with a nametag whispered. By the time I heard her, I had already set down my backpack near my usual spot in the main lounge. LaFortune was different. Normally, the building serves as a study/food/coffee/socialization/meeting space, and it’s one of the busiest places on campus. But tonight, it was quiet. Dimmer, somehow.

All of the comfy armchairs were occupied, so after lingering against a wall, cornered by a trashcan, for a few minutes, I plopped down on the floor like a kindergartener. Mass was beginning. The broadcast was coming through on the two large televisions in the main lounge. (It was available online as well.) During the opening song, the SAO folks brought out a number of chairs from another room, and I snapped up a seat just as Fr. Jenkins was greeting the Sullivan family.

Then, the oddest thing began to happen. Everyone in the room began to respond to the TV, just like Mass.

Peace be with you.
“And also with you.”

I don’t know if it was reflex, a genuine desire to participate in the Mass, or some combination of both. All of a sudden, I found myself in the midst of the celebration of the Eucharist in the same room where I drink coffee, read the paper, watch ESPN, and play Sporcle.

Notre Dame is very good at a lot of things, and one of those things is church. Notre Dame knows how to put on a great Mass, and the higher-ups pulled out all the stops for Declan. The Folk Choir provided beautiful music for the service. I was particularly impressed with the selection of the readings. The first reading was Romans 8:31-39 (“If God is for us, who can be against us?”). The gospel reading was John 14:1-14 (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”).

Father Tom Doyle, Vice President for Student Affairs, gave the homily. He spoke eloquently and simply about storytelling—about Declan’s love of telling stories through film and about the feeling that we have been “written out of the book of life” that accompanies loss and grief. Doyle said, “Most days, we live in this place that is like Eden before the fall.” Normally, bad things don’t happen here. Students joke about the “Notre Dame bubble” for a reason. When terrible things hit Notre Dame, it seems that much worse.

As I watched the Mass on TV from my chair in the LaFortune, I noticed that the camera kept panning out to the people sitting in the pews at the Basilica. The Sullivan family sat in the front row. Gwynn, Declan’s sister, wore a Notre Dame football jersey and Mac, Declan’s 15-year-old brother, wore a Notre Dame sweatshirt. Across the aisle, the men of Fisher Hall sat in the other front section, all with their trademark neon green retro sunglasses pushed back into messy brown waves and perched on blonde crewcuts. Fishermen wear these distinguishing sunglasses around campus all the time, so seemed appropriate that they wore their shades to Mass in memory of their hallmate. The Notre Dame football team sat behind the contingent from Fisher Hall.
During the Eucharistic Prayer, LaFortune was filled with the mutterings of hundreds of students.

Lift up your hearts.
“We lift them up to the Lord.”

When it came time for the Our Father, the Folk Choir sang the beautiful Notre Dame Our Father. LaFortune joined hands and joined in. Then, everyone got out of their seats for the sign of peace. Hugs and handshakes all around.

The SAO employees notified us that the Eucharist was being distributed outside the Basilica and that we could leave and come back. After a moment of hesitation, about 75% of the room stood up, grabbed coats, and quietly filed out of the room. I was near the door, so I made it out quickly. Down the stairs, across the quad, towards the music and light. There were hundreds of people already standing outside the Basilica—overflow. Outside, there were musicians performing acoustic versions of the songs playing inside. As I huddled around the front of the Basilica, I turned around. A massive block of students stretched all the way from the foot of the Basilica to the stairs of LaFortune, and people continued to stream out of the building from the ballroom on the second floor.

We stood patiently, quietly in the cold. Occasionally, a priest would emerge from the big Basilica doors. People gathered around eagerly as the priest distributed Communion. Nobody jostled, nobody complained. We just waited. Slowly, more priests came out. After I received Communion, I walked back to LaFortune. I counted six priests standing outside, each man completely surrounded by students waiting for the Eucharist.

I made it back to LaFortune just in time for the final blessing.
The Mass is ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
“Thanks be to God.”

And then, as always, we sang the alma mater, arms around each other, swaying.

Notre Dame, Our Mother
Tender, strong and true
Proudly in the heavens
Gleams thy gold and blue.
Glory’s mantle cloaks thee
Golden is thy fame.
And our hearts forever
Praise thee, Notre Dame.
And our hearts forever
Love thee, Notre Dame.

The fervent prayers of the Notre Dame community are with Declan Sullivan and his family.

A night like this should never have to happen again.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Big Huge Birthday Party Post

Hello, loyal readers!  I know I have been a little quiet the last few days, but not to worry - this post is big enough to make up for the wait (good thing we have an extra hour with daylight savings!).  Yesterday was my 26th birthday, and since I love hosting parties, we had a whole bunch of friends over for cocktails and appetizers.  We hadn't had people over since fixing up the condo, and even though it's still a work in progress, there is nothing like a party to provide motivation to complete those lingering home projects.

Scott surprised me on Monday when I got home from a work event - he had painted most of the living/dining room, finishing the job on Tuesday and Wednesday evening.  I really wanted to paint the room before the party this weekend.  The room is much brighter now - we chose a lighter brown (Kilim Beige from Sherwin-Williams) than the original wall color.  We also hung up a few decorative pictures in the dining room.  And today, my birthday present from Scott arrived - a new coffee table!  I had been pining away for the vintage trunk coffee table from Crate & Barrel, which sadly disappeared from the C&B website this week.  Thankfully, there was one headed my way!

New coffee table arrived!

And the party also gave me a chance to try out a bunch of NEW recipes...  Trust me, these are super simple ones that only require a few ingredients and are easy to follow.  Plus they all turned out wonderfully - definitely had a couple major crowd-pleasers!  So here's a peek at my busy birthday:

Saturday, November 6, 2010

9:30 am - Wake up, open my gift from Scott (a picture of the coffee table to be delivered the next day)
10 am - Move my old dresser that has been hanging out in the kitchen downstairs to our storage room
10:30 am - Build my menu of recipes and grocery list

I listed out each recipe, the book it came from and page number for easy reference, the oven temperature and cook time.  After putting together a pretty ambitious list, I decided against Slow Cooker Mexican Dip... there was plenty of cheese in the other recipes anyway.

Bite-size Brownies
Chili Cheddar Pinwheels
Artichoke Ranch Squares
Roasted Red Pepper Dip
Mini Hamburgers
Rustic Apple Tart
Cheese & Crackers
Birthday Cake (all the way from Kansas - thanks, Mom!)

11 am - Grocery shopping... with a stop by Starbucks on the way
Noon - Arrive home and unpack groceries
12:30 pm - Help one of my guy friends shop at Bed, Bath & Beyond (I love consulting on home decor... plus it's fun to pick out new stuff and spend other people's money... ha)
1:30 pm - Bake brownies (Ghirardelli mix)
2 pm - Roasted Red Pepper Dip
from Taste of Home 2009 Summer Appetizers, page 56

I started with this recipe since I knew it could stay in the fridge all afternoon.
Yields 2 cups

1 cup (8 oz) fat-free sour cream
1/2 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used red pepper flakes instead)
4 drops hot pepper sauce (I used Frank's hot sauce)
1 jar (7 oz) roasted sweet red peppers, drained and chopped (threw them in the mini-prep food processor)
1 medium sweet red pepper
Assorted fresh vegetables (bought a veggie tray and sliced up a couple cucumbers)

In a small bowl, combine the first five ingredients.  Stir in the roasted red peppers.  Cut a thin slice of one long side of sweet red pepper; remove seeds.  Spoon dip into pepper cup.  Serve with vegetables. (I waited to cut the pepper and spoon the dip into it until right before the party.)

2:30 pm - Chili Cheddar Pinwheels
from Taste of Home 2009 Summer Appetizers, page 107

I prepped these roll-ups and then baked them closer to the start of the party.
Yields 64 appetizers

1 package (8 oz) cream cheese, softened
1 cup (4 oz) shredded cheddar cheese
1 can (4 oz) chopped green chilies, drained
2 tablespoons picante sauce (I used some chunky salsa we had in the fridge)
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
2 tubes (8 oz each) refrigerated crescent rolls
Additional chili powder, optional

1) In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth.  Beat in the cheddar cheese, chilies, picante sauce, chili powder, garlic salt and onion powder until blended.
2) Separate each tube of crescent roll dough into four rectangles; press the perforations to seal.  Spread about 1/4 cup cheese mixture over each rectangle.  Roll up jelly-roll style, starting with the short side.  Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.
3) Cut each roll into eight slices; place on ungreased baking sheets.  Sprinkle with additional chili powder if desired.  Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.

Bite-size Brownies and Chili Cheddar Pinwheels

3:15 pm - Artichoke Ranch Squares
from Taste of Home 2009 Summer Appetizers, page 104

I made this recipe and then re-heated it before the party.  It is probably best fresh out of the oven, but I had a lot of "hot" recipes, so I had to prioritize.
Yields about 2 1/2 dozen

2 tubes (8 oz each) refrigerated crescent rolls
1 can (14 oz) water-packed artichoke hearts, rinsed, drained and chopped (tossed these in the mini-prep)
1 cup (4 oz) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup ranch salad dressing (I used the ranch dip from the veggie tray)
1 jar (4 oz) diced pimientos, drained

1) Unroll both tubes of crescent dough and pat into an ungreased 15 in x 10 in x 1 in baking pan; seal seams and perforations.  Bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes or until lightly browned.
2) Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the remaining ingredients; spread over crust.  Bake 12-15 minutes or until cheese is melted and crust is golden brown.  Cut into squares; serve warm.

Ready for the oven...

3:40 pm - Rustic Apple Tart
from Real Simple Celebrations (the book I blogged about in this earlier post)

The recipe is for one apple tart, but I had so much of the apple mixture, I ended up making two tarts.

1 refrigerated piecrust (thankfully the box I bought had two crusts!)
5 medium apples, preferably Empire or McIntosh, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick (I used McIntosh)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (I used a little extra since I made two tarts)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1) Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Unfold piecrust and place it on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.
2) In a large bowl, combine the apples, 1/4 cup of the sugar, cinnamon, and lemon zest.  Place the apple mixture in the center of the crust.  Fold the edge of the crust over the apple mixture, allowing it to fall into pleats (the center of the tart should be uncovered).  Lightly, brush the top of the crust with water and sprinkle with the remaining sugar.  Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.  Let cool for at least 30 minutes.  Serve warm or room temperature.

Before baking...

After baking...

4:30 pm - Clean up the condo a bit by throwing things into closets and under beds.
4:50 pm - Mini Hamburgers
from Taste of Home 2009 Summer Appetizers, page 99

I mixed up the hamburger meat and waited until closer to party time to cook them.
Yields 40 servings

1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound of lean ground beef or ground round
1 egg, beaten
1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/4 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teapsoon pepper
40 mini rolls, split (Since my grocery store only had 1 package of dinner rolls, I used hawaiian rolls to make up for the rest.  They were smaller and worked really well, but with the amount of hamburger meat, you could get away with about 32 rolls)
8 ounces process American cheese slices, cut into 1 1/2 inch squares, optional (I just broke each slice into fourths)
40 dill pickle slices, optional

1) In a skillet, saute onion in butter.  Transfer to bowl; add meat, egg and seasonings.  Spread over bottom halves of the rolls; replace tops.  Place on baking sheets; cover with foil.  (I forgot to cover with foil and it worked out just fine.)
2) Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.  If desired, place a cheese square and pickle on each hamburger; replace tops and foil and return to the oven for 5 minutes.

5:15 pm - Dust every surface in the condo and Swiffer like a crazy lady, while Scott cleans the bathroom.
5:45 pm - Hang the pictures and decorative keys on the wall in the dining room area.  (Everything is from Hobby Lobby or Kirkland's and cost about $3 to $12 each.)  I first arranged everything on the floor so I could determine the layout.  Then we started by hanging the two center pieces and then the three pieces on the right side, then the two pieces on the left side.

Layout arranged on the floor


After close-up

6 pm - Jump in the shower and quickly do my make-up and hair (at this point, I am thankful that I cut off about four inches of hair the previous day!)
6:30 pm - Greet our friends from Milwaukee who made the trip to Chicago.
7 pm - Set up the bar with booze, ice, and sliced limes.

7:15 pm to 8 pm - Cook the mini hamburgers, bake the cheddar roll-ups, warm the artichoke squares, put the dip in the pepper cup, cut the brownies and apple tart.  Plate everything on various platters.  Set out cheese and crackers.

Gouda and Boursin

8 pm - Pop open a bottle of champagne!  Time to begin the celebration!

It was a wonderful birthday... thank you to everyone who was there to celebrate and everyone who called, texted, sent Facebook messages, etc.  I am so blessed!


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