It’s not easy living in Oprah’s shadow. I mean, she gave her audience a cruise. She gave her audience a car that won’t even be available for another six months. She brought her audience the Black Eyed Peas. She brought them a holiday medley performed by Johnny Mathis and Josh Grobin at the same time. And she fed them with macaroni and cheese, chicken pie, Williams-Sonoma croissants, and the world’s biggest tin of popcorn. Where was my granola you ask? I was wondering the same thing. I’m sure that my email invitation was lost in my spam folder. Darn. I was this close to fame and fortune. I’d say “maybe next year,” but as we all know, this is (sniff) Oprah’s 25th, and her very last year as a talk show host. I’m not sure I recall what life without Oprah was like. I mean, I’m just slightly older than 25 as it is……
So perhaps the Fourth Annual Peanut Butter and Julie Favorite Things list isn’t quite as expensive or as luxurious as that of Oprah’s 25th, but what it lacks in terms of personal transportation, diamonds, and all-expenses paid vacations, it certainly makes up for in charm, affordability, and quality (Are you buying any of this? Good.)
This year, as with year 1, year 2, and year 3, all of the items on the list are my own selections. They have not been solicited by anyone or by any company. While a few of the items are creations of my friends, they did not ask me to promote them. I chose to promote them because I think that they are outstanding products, things that I would buy for my friends, my family (or myself!)
So, without further ado (drum roll), I give you Peanut Butter and Julie’s Favorite Things for 2010!!
1. Whenever I go to Sephora, the beauty product superstore where I always feel like I am too old to be a customer, I tend to become completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of products that they have on the shelves. I’ve never been one to wear a lot of makeup, so I don’t even know what half of the products are for. Primer? Dunno. Facial highlighter? Not a clue. If I don’t walk in with a plan, I’ll emerge an hour later empty-handed and extremely stressed out. That’s why I’ve started heading straight to the Philosophy section, my safe haven. Here’s the thing about me, oh marketers of America: Once I’m loyal to a brand, I’m loyal until I am given a seriously good reason to change brands. I’ve been using Kiehl’s products since I was about 18, and I’ve been using Philosophy products since they launched. I especially love Philosophy for their holiday food-themed scents, ones that are truly reminiscent of their titles: Candy Cane, Have a Cherry Christmas, Peppermint Bark, Cinnamon Buns, Dreamy Tangerini…..the yummy list of flavors goes on and on. Last year, while hiding from the overly agressive Sephora salesgirl behind the Philosophy rack, I tried a sample of the new, and very appropriately named, Melting Marshmallow body lotion. While I don’t know if it smells exactly like a marshmallow, this lotion truly melts into my skin, and in this desert climate, you have no idea what an important trait that is. I quickly stocked up for the year. This year, they’ve come out with an even better scent of the same lotion, called The Gingerbread Girl . It hits the mark as far as aroma is concerned, with that same “melting” quality. Yes, I smell like a walking bakery, and I’m OK with that.
2. O.K., so Oprah totally stole this one from me, but I’m going to go ahead and forgive her because, well, she is Oprah after all. Plus, it’s her 25th season, so I completely understand if she is running out of ideas for her Favorite Things list, and she needs to look to people such as myself for assistance. It’s fine, O. I’m here for you. I may have mentioned once, or maybe one hundred times, that I am a sweet potato fanatic. FAN. A. TIC. With the exception of cheesecake, which I won’t go anywhere near, simply put the words “Sweet Potato” on a product label, and you have my attention (and likely my money too.) When I exhibited at the Fancy Food Show in New York this past June, I had a short amount of time to peruse the aisles of the immense Javits Center and check out what the other exhibitors were peddling. Many of the items on display were of the ho-hum-I’ve-seen-this-somewhere-before genre: truffled this, chipotle that, bittersweet chocolate thingamajigs. I was about to give up and return to granolaland, when I passed by Low Country Produce’s booth, and I sampled their Sweet Potato Butter. In a word: yum. It took almost all of my will-power to not slip a few display jars into my bag. Perfect for toast, dinner rolls, or even by itself straight outta the jar, this smooth and sweet spread is lightly spiced with a hint of lemon juice, and it would make the perfect stocking stuffer for anyone who is sweet on sweet potatoes.
3. It never fails. I walk into Target for my monthly supply of Crystal Lite and a box of aluminum foil, and I walk out with three packages of cute cupcake liners, a candle, mascara, a set of retro-looking plates, puppy biscuits, and about five t-shirts. I buy almost all of my t-shirts at Target. And why not? Target makes fantastic t-shirts, and they’re only about $7-$9 each. Of course, when you purchase them by the truckload, that bargain price can really add up. The marketing folks at Target have really figured out their target (get it?) customer (that would be me) too, because they come out with t-shirts for just about every holiday (I Heart Arbor Day!!) and trend. Well, team Tar-jay, you might be interested to know that you now have some competition from the folks at Food Tees, a brand of naturally sweet food-themed tees, tanks, and bags that I recently found on-line. While the price runs a bit higher than your average Tar-Tee, I think that the increased cuteness quotient more than makes up for the difference.
4. The specialty food community is onto me. Clearly, word has gotten out that I love salt, because over the past decade an entire new industry has been created out of what used to be a fairly boring ingredient. When I was growing up, our pantry contained one kind of salt: Morton’s in the blue tube. We occasionally had a box of kosher salt on hand, but it was never used for our table, and I think that we actually had that same box for my entire childhood. As I glance over my shoulder into my kitchen, I see no fewer than eight options of various colors and crystal sizes for seasoning my food. Not only do we now have sea salt, we have Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, not to be confused with Hawaiian Red Sea Salt or, my personal favorite, Smoked Sea Salt. Last year, for Christmas, my mom (who happens to be married to a fellow salt-a-holic), gave me this Napa Style 5-Salt Box, from Michael Chiarello’s store, Napa Style in, you guessed it, Napa Valley. The wooden box contains five little square wells with lids, and it comes with five different salts: Sun-Dried Tomato, Citrus Rosemary, Roasted Garlic, Gray Salt, and the aforementioned Hawaiian Red. I might have gone through those salts fairly quickly (suddenly, everything could use just a little sprinkle of salt), but fortunately I can just refill the box with my own variety of flavors. This would make a great housewarming gift for the foodie who has everything.
5. One of my favorite traditions every holiday season is decorating the tree, even if I end up doing it on my own (Eric doesn’t always get into the holidays quite like I do. It’s in my blood.) My parents did a great job of saving all of the ornaments that I collected over the years, from an angel made out of a paper plate, who is slowly losing her glitter, which I made at the Pennington Presbyterian Church Christmas Bazaar one year, to a golden Snoopy ornament, engraved from my friend Amy in 1982. I don’t know if Martha Stewart would really approve of my tree-decorating skills. I like to think of my technique as more freestyle than department store chic. My tree is definitely over-crowded with ornaments, but there is no way that I am leaving any off, and there is always room for more, especially super-duper adorable ones (see photo). I recently discovered that my friend, Linda Bibbo, is not only an extremely talented cook, but she also makes the most adorable Christmas ornaments, which she sells at various craft shows (or sells out!) These hand-made, 4″ glass ornaments sell for $18 each plus shipping, and they can be personalized on the back or at the bottom. Linda doesn’t currently have a web site (which makes these ornaments even more of a unique gift), but she can be contacted via email (which I can provide for you), and she can usually ship within 5 days or less. Oh boy, oh boy!! Another ornament for my tree!! Eric will be so thrilled.
6. Recently, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t have the shopping attention span or patience to call myself a TRUE fashionista. Come to think of it, I’m probably a salesperson’s dream. I walk in, see a pair of shoes that I like, try them on, and buy them, usually in about 10-15 minutes. I like to hit the malls early and on weekdays, so crowds aren’t an issue. Outlet shopping is my worst nightmare. That said, I devour fashion magazines as if they were an 8-ounce cup of Golden Spoon Vanilla Malt frozen yogurt covered in rainbow jimmies, so I am aware of the trends. I’m just too short on time to follow them all, so I need to pick just a few. Eric is going to kill me for divulging this, but this past year we both became avid watchers of The Rachel Zoe Project on Bravo. I adore Rachel Zoe. I want to be her friend. Plus, I completely identify with her trials and tribulations from a woman business-owner’s (and Starbucks addict’s) perspective. Although Eric doesn’t necessarily get the whole fashion aspect of the show, I think that he identifies with Rachel’s husband, Roger. No, I don’t force Eric to walk around indoors wearing a scarf and carrying a man-purse, but Eric sometimes looks at me when I am obsessing about all things culinary the same way that Roger looks at Rachel when she obsesses about Chanel. Unlike Rachel, I don’t own a lot of Chanel clothes. O.K., I own no Chanel clothes. BUT, I do own Chanel……nail polish. Every season, Chanel ingeniusly comes out with fantastic new limited edition colors that always sell out (anyone remember Vamp?) I buy a few of these every year, although I opted to skip the army green color — didn’t really flatter my skin tone. While, in true Chanel form, these polishes are pricier than normal polish, they are of great quality, and they are a fun, unique, and affordable gift for someone who enjoys fashion. As Rachel would say, they are “major.”
7. I think that the world would be a better place if there were more chocolatiers, don’t you agree? I mean, how many times do you see someone biting into a decadent bittersweet chocolate-covered salted caramel with an unhappy expression on their face? Never. It’s hardly rocket science. Chocolate makes people happy. Sure, the after-effects of not being able to squeeze into your skinny jeans might not be the ultimate joyous occasion, but skinny jeans are stupid anyhow, and they should all be burned. So…….guess what? I have a FRIEND who is a real live chocolatier. A fantastic one too. Jealous? It’s kind of like knowing Willy Wonka, except she doesn’t hang out with Oompa-Loompas (that I know of) or wear crazy hats. I met Ruth Kendrick this year through a mutual Facebook friend, who knew that we both owned small gourmet food businesses. After exchanging emails, Ruth and I decided to exchange products. I sent her a sampler of my granola, and she sent me a HUGE sampler of her Chocolot Artisan Confections, her perfectly gorgeous, beautifully packaged, hand-crafted, rich, creamy, and irresistible truffles. I’m usually pretty proud of my will-power, but it was completely shot after my first bite. I ended up buying a bunch to put into holiday gift baskets. Boy, am I going to be popular!! My favorite flavor??? Definitely the Meyer Lemon….or the Fleur de Sel Caramel….or the Orange Cream….or the Praline…….(clearly I can’t decide, so I may need to sample again.)
8. I think that few people would argue the fact that bacon is everywhere these days. Not only is bacon in your BLT for lunch, but it’s also showing up in your Maple Bacon Cupcake for dessert. In the past few years, I’ve seen bacon ice cream, bacon chocolate truffles, candied bacon caramel popcorn, bacon toffee, bacon mints (fail), and even bacon Jolly Ranchers (not really, just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.) I’ve read write-ups from supposed culinary trend experts who have proclaimed that the bacon trend is “so over”, much like the cupcake or the ubiquitous slider. Um, no. It’s not. That’s clearly the overdose of nitrates speaking. Bacon will never be over, much like culottes will never be stylish. I am fairly confident that I am not alone when I say that I especially love the combination of salty caramelized bacon with something that is particularly sweet, like the classic combination of pancakes and bacon drenched in maple syrup. The other day, I was shopping at Whole Foods when I came upon a carefully crafted pyramid of Mo’s Bacon Pancake Mix, the latest creation from those geniuses at Vosges chocolate. First they came out with Mo’s Bacon Bar, which I thought would be impossible to top. Well they didn’t exacty top it — rather they broke it up into pieces and added it to pancake mix to create a perfect stocking stuffer or gift basket item. I don’t know who this Mo guy is, but I like his style.
9. There are certain baking classics, such as chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and blueberry muffins, for which I am determined to discover “the best” recipe, at least in my opinion. I am 100% satisfied that I have found the ultimate recipe for two of those three items. The chocolate chip cookie is still a challenge. Cakey? Crisp? Nuts? Chunks or Chips? Oh well, I suppose that I am willing to sacrifice continual testing and sampling, all in the name of research of course 🙂 Another recipe for which I constantly get positive feedback is my sugar cookie recipe. Ever since I created this combination about six years ago, it has become my standard for decorated cookies throughout the year. Confession time: Whenever I have posted this recipe on my blog in the past, I might have made one little change in the ingredient list…..but I had a perfectly good reason for doing this: my secret ingredient isn’t exactly a shelf staple. Whenever I prepare these cookies, I use a special flavoring ingredient that I discovered in the King Arthur’s Catalog: Fiori di Sicilia (I think that this means something like “Flowers of Sicily” — anyone??) Just a smidgen of this fragrant extract added to cookie dough or cake batter yields a vanilla-orangey scent and flavor that will truly set your baked goods apart. If I happen to be out of Fiori di Sicilia, I’ll usually substitute some orange zest and extra vanilla extract, but it’s never quite the same. So, that’s my secret. Merry Christmas.
10.This is another one of my favorite things that happens to also be a creation of one of my friends. Hey, what can I say? I have talented friends, and I’m not afraid to brag about them. I’ve mentioned in the past that I occasionally participate in cooking/recipe competitions, a hobby that has allowed me to meet some wonderful friends (who don’t think that I’m weird for sitting around and discussing food for hours on end.) A few weeks ago, I competed in (and won!) the Aetna Healthy Food Fight which took place in L.A. Our challenge was to prepare an entire healthy Thanksgiving feast, using a limited list of ingredients, in 90 minutes. Oh yeah, and the judge? Bobby Flay. The Iron Chef himself. No pressure there. One of the other competitors, Camilla Saulsbury, is someone that I have been friendy with via email and Facebook, but we had never actually met in person. Not only has Camilla set the bar for cooking contest success — she has won just about every major competition there is — but she is a Phd-carrying successful cookbook author, fitness instructor, blogger, former professor, mom, and wife. Oh yeah, and she’s gorgeous……and nice……..and humble…….and funny (I know that you wanted me to say that she was mean or snobby or something, but sorry, you simply can’t hate her.) Anyhow, Camilla and I were both flying solo during our stay in L.A., since both of our husbands had to work, so we essentially became each other’s “plus ones.” We had a fantastic time eating our way through the menu at Mario Batali’s Osteria Mozza and working out next to Fabio of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter fame at the gym (I have to say, he looks pretty good in person.) When Camilla announced the title of her newest cookbook last year, I felt like it had been written just for me: 750 Best Muffin Recipes . No, I didn’t accidentally add a zero to the number. That’s 7.5.0. As in, a new recipe every day for over two years. As in, about $.03 per recipe. Sounds like a good deal to me! I love a well-crafted, moist on the inside, but slightly crisp on the outside muffin, and from the recipes that I have tried so far, I will be very happy baking my way through this book. Muffins for breakfast, savory muffins, gluten-free, international, vegan…..they’re all inside, and then some. Here is a yummy recipe from the book that I whipped up yesterday, perfect for the holidays:
Camilla’s Peppermint Chocolate Chunk Muffins (from 750 Best Muffin Recipes)
Makes 12 muffins
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
3/4 cup sour cream
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chunks
1/3 cup coarsely crushed red and white striped peppermint candies
Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, butter, and peppermint extract until well blended. Whisk in the sour cream until blended.
Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just blended. Gently fold in the chocolate. Divide the batter equally among the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle with candies.
Bake in preheated oven for 18-22 minutes or until tops are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. Let cool in pan on a wire rack for 3 minutes, then transfer to the rack to cool.
O.K., folks!! That’s all that I’ve got. I’m exhausted. Time for a nap. Happy holiday shopping!!