Perfect antidote to nearly everything

May 29, 2009

Still occasionally screaming for ice cream? A surprising recipe offers a new reason to indulge.

Got buttermilk!

Got buttermilk!

Buttermilk always reminds me of the pioneer stories I read obsessively as a girl, so I’m forever tearing out magazine recipes featuring the old-fashioned-seeming drink. Buttermilk-cardamom pie! Buttermilk and lemon curd cake! Buttermilk fried chicken! No buttermilk mention is too small to warrant my immediate attention. One case that actually made it from “Oh, that looks interesting!” to “Gee, your ice cream tastes terrific!” is an incredibly simple recipe for iced buttermilk.

A couple of summers ago, I began an ice cream quest. It’s sort of like a tundra-based vision quest. Instead of wandering in the desert, you eat ice cream. You can see the similarities already, I presume. I invested in one of those no-muss, automatic ice cream makers that comes with a bowl you stash in the freezer and started trying recipes.

The recipe in question is courtesy of Emeril Lagasse and contains only sugar, lemon juice & zest, a pinch of salt and buttermilk. His recipe calls for lots of sugar, but I reduced it with tasty results. (You can see the recipe below, or click through for the original on the Food Network site, complete with a cake that he serves along with it.)

The kicker is that since buttermilk is cultured, it has the same health benefits of yogurt. Since the buttermilk is so creamy, the texture feels much fuller than other low-fat ice creams. And thanks to the tang, the taste is similar to that addictive-to-many Pinkberry frozen yogurt.

If you really want to commit to your ice cream experiments (that sounds downright scientific – it’s like summer school, really), try David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop. My favorite recipe in the book is Guinness-Milk Chocolate Ice Cream. I’ve also had fun convincing my friends to try his concoctions of Olive Oil Ice Cream and Goat Cheese Ice Cream.

But seriously, try the buttermilk. It does an ice cream quest good.

Emeril’s recipe on Food Network site (scroll past the cake for the ice milk)
The Perfect Scoop, $16.47
Ice cream maker, $49

Emeril’s Buttermilk Ice Milk (Food Network)
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar (Note: I reduced this amount.)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Pinch salt
3 cups buttermilk

In a large non-reactive bowl combine sugar, lemon juice, zest, salt and buttermilk and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Cover with plastic wrap and transfer to the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled, about 1 hour. (Note: I never bother to chill it since I’m not a purist and the buttermilk is already cold.) Process in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Yield: about 1 quart

Stick it to the poetry man

May 11, 2009

Enjoying poetry after April makes the mustard sandwich all the more poignant.

PBS shows poetry some love

PBS shows poetry some love.

Now that all the excitement from National Poetry Month has died down (oh, you didn’t feel that?), I’m going back to a couple of online favorites. You can get a quick hit of that ineffable poetry-i-ness on the PBS site by hearing poets read their work. Try The Lanyard by Billy Collins for starters or The Gate by Marie Howe. These two aren’t frequently decoded and deconstructed by Ph.D. students, but they are admired by academics nonetheless. Their work is free of pretension and finds mystery in ordinary objects such as a lanyard or a cheese and mustard sandwich.

Of course, if you don’t go for new-fangled audio and video, you can find plenty of tidily organized written words on Poets.org. You can even use their U.S. poetry map to get proud about your home state.

Or you could just wait until next April when National Poetry Month rolls around again, but then you’re going to feel like not reading poetry just to spite the calendar. You’re such a rebel.

Thank you note for a love letter

April 17, 2009
ray-guns-are-not-just-the-future

The love letter in question

How do I love Love Letter to Japan by The Bird and the Bee? I’m only a moderate fan of Victorian poetry, so let me count two ways.

First, the song feels happy and danceable, and who am I to argue with that? I’m always on the lookout for additions to the Charm-o-Matic manifesto soundtrack.

If I were a music critic, I’d describe the Bird and the Bee’s music as other reviewers have, using words like “buoyant,” “charming” and maybe even “immaculately produced.” If I were a real pro, I could refer to the group’s “pop pastiche” or even blithely mention “the synth-tinged retro pop brimming with kaleidoscopic detail.”

Instead, I’ll just say that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to Love Letter to Japan, so enchanting is it to my ears. The tune is a veritable prescription for high spirits. Perhaps you need something to induce dancing while you’re getting ready in the morning. Perhaps you need something for the heartache that resulted when this hockey season ended with your team just a broken cheekbone away from the playoffs. Perhaps you need a little sugarless boost to power you through the afternoon these days. In any case, have a listen.

Love letter of my own

The semiotics of cute?

Second, I frequently extol the virtues of various Japanese delights and have been composing my own love letter to the entire country for several years. These things take time. The Bird and the Bee are more succinct than I am and thank Japan “for the patience and the peace, cherry blossoms and the candy.”

That’s a promising start, although the mere word “candy” doesn’t begin to describe the odd wonders filling that aisle in any Asian market worth its soy sauce. My own love letter also includes bento boxes, Yoshitomo Nara and the nation’s inventive use of vending machines. One of Japan’s most monumental imports in my life, though, are notebooks by San-X that feature cats playing in food.

I’ve never been able to pin down the subtext of these little notepads and toys: Do the designers who create these tasty kitties revel in the irony of their work? Do they have conversations about semiotics during lunch? Are they evil geniuses with a subversive agenda? Or do they just think the little kitties are cute? (Cute enough to eat, you see.) My friend Jenner calls these characters “Hello Kitty in grad school,” so I’m going with the semiotics option.

So thanks for that love letter, The Bird and the Bee. Your cheerful tune is sure to inspire even more love letters in the future and lift moods across the country in the meantime.

Watch their Jimmy Kimmel performance on YouTube.

Mighty nice operation

March 18, 2009
Taking the world by nice.

Taking the world by nice.

When nice is more than just fine.

You know what’s nice? Being nice – that’s what’s nice. Not wimpy nice. Not namby-pamby nice. Consciously nice. Determinedly nice. Or as the Niceness Pro at Operation Nice puts it: “proactively nice.” We’re not talking about the kind of nice that stems from feeling obligated or from not standing up for yourself. We’re talking about the kind of nice that benefits everyone. It’s a win-win, I tell you.

I loved this site the first time I laid eyes on it a few months ago, and founder Melissa Morris Ivone is following up beautifully on her mission to make the world a nicer place. Her site is full of downloads, challenges, testimonials, tips and other niceties.

At its best, a commitment to being nice is about more than holding a door here and there or gracing the world with your smile when it occurs to you. When the amazing story of Jill Bolte Taylor started circulating, one of things she said that stood out to me is that we need to be responsible for the energy we’re putting out into the world. Lying in her hospital bed after suffering a stroke, the brain researcher was unable to communicate; however, she picked up on the energy of the various doctors and nurses who came in and out of her room. Some people made her feel cared for in her vulnerable condition, and some made her feel utterly insignificant.

We do this to the people around us every day. By taking responsibility for the kind of energy we’re transmitting, we improve the environment around us. That includes the other people within reach of our mysterious energetic vibes, and it includes our own state of mind, too. See, I told you it was a win-win.

Making Operation Nice a regular online stop will give you all sorts of gentle reminders to be nice on purpose. That’s the kind of nice that gets the Charm-o-Matic whirring.

Hymn to everyday beauty

February 24, 2009

Practicing the maintenance of extreme delight.

percy_bysshe_shelley

Percy Shelley, calling your inner poet

A while back, I read an interview with the brilliant Amy Adams. I’m not even sure why I was drawn to the article since I usually don’t enjoy reading about celebrities. (Honest.) I think I’m still so mesmerized by her performance in that scene around the kitchen table in Junebug that I couldn’t resist finding out a little something about her.  (Seriously, I don’t usually read about celebrities! Why can’t you believe me?)

Anyway, she told the interviewer the most delightful thing. She was talking about how much she loves drinking coffee. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said that sometimes she’s so excited at night, knowing that she gets to have a cup of coffee when she wakes up the next morning, that she can’t get to sleep. I just love that. I mean, I really love that.

I love that she reminded me to be intensely happy whenever I’m so inclined. The Charm-o-Matic revels in those moments.

When you think about it, this feeling of extreme delight is the stuff of poetry. It’s the essence of an artist at work. It’s about finding the happy bits of your life and celebrating them with the abandon of a poet. Who can forget Shelley’s famous line from Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, “I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!”

You don’t have to be one of the famous instigators of the Romantic movement to find inspiration. The switch from grand poet to everyday person is simple: You’re not writing lines of verse, but you’re at work on your life, and your job is to enjoy it. Your art is in allowing the small things that delight you to bring inordinate pleasure. This goes deeper than a mere outpouring of emotion, though – our own Emily Dickinson thought of it another way: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”

That’s tapping into the charm happening all around you. Either that, or it’s just a really, really, really good cup of coffee.

More face time for Jane Austen

February 12, 2009

Deciding whether to fend off or embrace Facebook and zombies, Jane Austen shows once again that she really is just like us.

austen_book

This online gem has been gaining fame the last few weeks: It’s Jane Austen meets Facebook. And oh my, it’s charming, as long as you remember a few plot and character details from Pride and Prejudice. Some of my favorite updates:

  • “Lydia Bennet became a fan of Officers.”
  • “Kitty Bennet became a fan of Officers.”
  • “Charles Bingley created an event: Ball at Netherfield.”
  • “Kitty Bennet can’t stop coughing!!!”

Once the topic of Jane Austen comes up, I find I rarely can contain myself. Did you know, for example, about the upcoming Jane Austen zombie book? As the Quirk Books site explains, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action.” Please understand that the Charm-o-Matic rarely condones of any kind of brain eating or other crimes perpetrated by the undead, but every person of discretion knows to make occasional allowances.

Austen anticipating zombies?

Austen anticipating zombies?

Also by the same publisher is the delightful Jane Austen Handbook, a guide for those who long for a little Regency-era England in their everyday lives. And they’re not new, but I certainly hope you’ve been made aware by now of the Jane Austen puppet and action figure.

A sci-fi Austen-themed miniseries (Lost in Austen) debuted a few weeks ago on the Ovation network, but alas, my cable provider does not offer such gentle pursuits.

Oh, and Jane is podcasting, too. Actually Masterpiece asked life coach Cheryl Richardson to offer her take on what we can learn from Sense and Sensibility through a free, two-part podcast that you find by typing in Cheryl Richardson or Masterpiece on iTunes.

Now then, after this necessary discourse and before presenting you with more succinct linkage to the worthy endeavors I have put before you, I shall proceed to inform you that I look forward to attending an exceedingly good ball within a fortnight. Actually, my only certain plans within a fortnight include attending a hockey game. I dare say it will make a very pleasant evening, nonetheless (and ties in with the aforementioned bone-crushing in a most unexpected way). In the meantime, I trust you have found these niceties agreeable. I have every disposition in the world to join you again soon.

I am very much flattered by your attention, and I am ever yours,
S.B.

Jane Austen meets Facebook, free site
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, pre-order for $7.77
Jane Austen Handbook, $11.53
Jane Austen puppet, $5.95
Jane Austen action figure, $8.95

Soft lips, full pocketbook

February 3, 2009

Just a spoonful of sugar helps your chapped lips go down, thanks to a budget-friendly DIY exfoliator.

Lip-smacking assemby line

My lip-smacking assembly line

Winter is taking a toll on my skin this year, but I’m pleased as sugary citrus punch to have found a solution for my lips that only cost me pennies. I’ve read this year that the secret to soft lips is exfoliating, and I decided it must be true a couple of weeks ago after several days of incessant lip balm applications were to no avail.

Then I ran across this post on Bella Sugar with instructions to make your own lip exfoliator. My personal talents usually don’t extend to the DIY realm, but this effort consists of simple ingredient assembly. I’d say my pet monkey could do it, but I think we all know I don’t have a pet monkey.

Just mix together a teaspoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of honey, two teaspoons of white granulated sugar and a dash of lemon juice. I didn’t have any lemons, so I settled for a lime. I also didn’t actually bother to measure anything. Then rub some onto your lips and sweep back and forth.

Before finding that idea, I’d had my eye on this prettily packaged tube of buffing beads from Benefit, which is one of the exfoliators recommended by the Law & Order: Beauty woman (aka “cosmetics cop”) Paula Begoun. (No, there isn’t really a Law & Order: Beauty edition … I’m just delirious from all the sugar on my lips.) The lip balm & exfoliator duo is cute, but I also had my eye on my budget, and I couldn’t quite pull the trigger on $32.

So read my lips and pull from your cupboards instead. The result is sweet, cheap and effective.

Lipscription, $32
DIY recipe, free

(I also found instructions for DIY lip balm, but that’s way out of my league.)

A tree on every wrist

January 29, 2009

holly_hawk_tree

Holly Hawk's leather designs on Etsy

Make like a tree a leave a cuff on your wrist.

Now that I’ve gone public with my love of trees, I’m declaring these leather cuff bracelets by *hollyhawk* to be the next best thing to taking a walk in the woods.

I don’t remember how I found Holly’s designs on Etsy a while back, but my wrist has been happier ever since I did. Her leather bracelets are one part sophistication and one part rock-n-roll. Also one part delicate and one part bold. And three parts nature.

The bracelets look cool, but my theory is that wearing one can also serve as a three-second meditation every time it catches your eye. Spending time in nature is more soothing and inspiring than anything else on the planet for some of us, but the great outdoors isn’t always accessible – or feasible, given our crazy schedules. So sometimes a little replica just has to do.

Here’s to incorporating trees into our wardrobes and supporting independent artists, too.

Tree silhouette leather cuff, $22

The simple “happy new year” plan

January 5, 2009
Icy trees also make me happy.

Icy trees also make me happy.

Here’s to putting the happy back in 2009.

For anyone who didn’t spend quite as much time last weekend as they’d planned reflecting on personal resolutions and creating elaborate schemes for the Best! Year! Yet!, I have a simple approach.

Making a detailed plan works for some people. But if you’re not of that stock, you don’t need to shy away entirely from what can be a rewarding and – dare I say it? – empowering activity.

Welcoming the new year in some deliberate way puts you in the catbird’s seat. You’re putting the year on notice, so to speak. We’re onto you, 2009. We see you flaunting yourself about on calendars everywhere. Well, that’s just fine. You’re not about to escape us.

Even a small gesture can shift your perception of those crafty, shifting sands of time. Besides, in this time of economic chaos, taking more of a bird’s eye view seems smart. (Especially if you’re already in the catbird’s seat.) What matters amidst upheaval is the big picture – we’ll likely all have to be more flexible and resourceful than usual when it comes to the details in 2009.

So here’s the plan.

1. Spend a moment reflecting on what really makes you happy. Think bigger than career goals or travel plans. What are the meta-narratives and the uber-themes of your life that define you and inspire you? I don’t mean this to sound overly grand … it’s just about reaching that layer above where our heads usually are for everyday matters. Relationships can be on the list, too. If you have an extra few minutes for the deluxe version of this process, also consider what makes your life unique: that inimitable combination of your story and your talents. In this economy, having a strong grasp on your particular thumbprint (I’m finished with cats and birds and have moved onto thumbs for a while) may help you re-think the way you spend your time.

2. Make a list of several things already in place in your life that make you happy. Yes, writing down what you’re thankful for sounds hopelessly clichéd and even overly elementary, but it’s one of the best ways to focus on what works for you. And I swear, focusing on what works makes more things work. A simple list only takes a couple of minutes and doesn’t have to be profound. I must admit that trees often appear on my list. Yes, I’m thankful for trees. Even more than thumbs, they make me happy. Thumbs up for trees. This realization translates into strolling through nature and staring longingly out my kitchen window, perhaps for long stretches of time. Ah, you’re feeling better about your own list already, aren’t you? I’m sure you’ll come up with something more piercing than that. The point is not to wonder about my personal time management skills but rather to realize that sometimes just approaching life from a position of gratitude creates other important shifts.

3. Find ways this year to focus on the happy fruits of these reflections. That might mean making a goal or two or getting rid of a few activities that don’t fit the bill. Or it might mean simply deciding to more fully appreciate what’s already at your fingertips and seeing what the perceptual shift will do for you.

As you can see, the theme here is happy. That is how the saying goes, after all … “happy new year.” So let’s put the happy back.  I know it sounds simple. So simple, in fact, that there’s no harm in trying it.

Charm-i-days Idea #10: Retro sport love

December 15, 2008
ebbets-field-rioters

Ebbets Field brings it home.

They’re nostalgic … they’re sporty … they’re cool.

Mixing sports and nostalgia is one of those fool-proof formulas – it can create several reactions in the gift-ee, but they’re all varieties of happiness. Retro shirts and baseball caps are popular right now because they work on several levels. If you’re a die-hard fan of any team, owning something with their logo from way-back provides indisputable proof that you’re a true fan to all who look upon you. (I feel nearly unstoppable in my retro Cubs baseball cap.) And the designs are so cool that they hold appeal for non-sports fans, too. Varieties of this happiness formula include sports fans who admire not only the team to which they pledge their current allegiance, but also the logos and built-in history of teams that no longer exist.

To wit, who wouldn’t love wearing a shirt for the Amarillo Gold Sox from 1958, the 1888 Shenandoah Hungarian Rioters or the San Francisco Missions formed in 1937? Ebbets Field carries just that kind of t-shirt and also makes throwback football and baseball jerseys.

For more modern teams, Retro Sport has shirts and hats with that vintage feel for quite a few pro and college teams.  You can find the Retro Sport brand at several department stores and on Amazon.com, too.

And even though their online store is down at time of this post,  I have to mention Blue Marlin. They were one of the first companies to jump on the replica hat and cap bandwagon; in fact, they did a lot to create the trend in the late ’90s. Bluefly.com usually has a collection of their t-shirts on hand.

Even the MLB and NFL shops are getting in on the action – if you search carefully, you can find vintage-looking gear on their sites, too.

Prices vary as widely as the teams we love.