Today I started my Christmas shopping.  Not the gift-getting, per say, but the actual shopping.  The a million-people, no parking spaces, empty shelves kind of shopping.

And what a day it was indeed…

After waiting in line 36 minutes to buy a $3 powdered sugar sifter, I walked to the parking lot, searching like an aimless lunatic for my car, forgetting I was in my sister’s car, and getting completely drenched by the stormy grays above.  After shoveling my stuff hurriedly in the back and fiddling with unfamiliar keys, I finally turned the lock hoping to hear the soft purr of an engine ready to get me the heck out of dodge.  What I heard instead was Eartha Kitt, blaring “Santa Baby” in a way that made me feel like I was in a Lifetime Christmas movie.  A bad, bad Christmas movie.

Soaking wet and lambasting crowds, I drove away plaintively intending to retreat to a hot cup of coffee and… Driving down the road, I let my mind wander; wander to gifts I can’t wait to give, people I can’t wait to see, and, obvi, treats I can’t wait to bake.  The next thing I know I am singing along with my girl Eartha, begging Santa to slip a sable under the tree.  I’m such a pushover.

Here are: My favorite gift picks for her this Christmas season
Enjoy Perusing With: Pandora Christmas and a ceramic boot of eggnog

1. Original Wellies by Hunter; $125

2. Suede Invitation Clutch by J.Crew; $118

3. Layton Large Chronograph Watch by Michael Kors; $250

4. Acrylic Monogram Necklace by Poppy’s Closet; $58

5. Tortoise Sunglasses by Marc Jacobs; $98

6. Tweed Throw by Nordstrom; $58

7. Classic Trifold Wallet by Marc Jacobs; $198

8. Large Logo Studs by Tory Burch; $68

9. Lulu Frost Bangles by J.Crew; $68

10. Monogram iPhone Cover by daninotes; $55

11. Leopard Fringe Scarf by Michael Kors; $50

I’ve never been particularly good at keeping gifts a surprise.

It’s not that I intend to be this way, it just sort of, uh, happens.

I mean, I guess there were signs: rewind to 4-year-old Alice, begging my mom to tell me the contents of all the gifts under the tree. Knowing just.exactly what I was going to do, she would whisper secretively in my ear “It’s a purse, but don’t tell.” You can obviously tell where this is going- before she could even turn around, my curly-headed self would belt to the top of my lungs: “EMILY, YOU’RE GETTING A PURSE!”  She got a “purse” for 7 years straight.

Rewind to more recent times, like say, last year, when someone left the receipt for Bryan’s gifts at his house. Let me tell you, I did a great job explaining why I needed an 85″ projector screen. Guess not much has changed.

I am happy to report that this year no secrets have been leaked…. yet.  Keep your fingers crossed for me.

To propel your inability to keep surprises, over the next few weeks I am going to be featuring a bevy of gift ideas for your perusing.  Because we all know boys/guys/men are the easiest to shop for, they’re up first… I had so much fun preparing this list, for when shopping for a gender that views gifts of cashmere and cheeseburgers with analogous excitement, the possibilities are endless.

Here are some ideas the sisters and I have had success with in the past and a few that our fellas will be surprised with this season:

1. Leather iPhone case by J.Crew; $38

2. Polarized Wayfarer by RayBan; $165

3. Howland Penny Loafer by Cole Haan; $148

4. Event Tickets by Ticketmaster; prices will vary

5. Watch by Luminox; $235

6. Home Theater Projector by Sony; $950

7. Vintage Handstamped Cufflinks by Cuffart; $95

8. Better Sweater Vest by Patagonia; $89

Festive decorating, to me, is one of the most fun parts of the holiday season.  I love to see personalities come out through the decorating styles of my friends and family: rustic, whimsical, nostalgic, chic… I seem to learn a little something about my loved ones each year through these uniquely personal touches.

Rather than sticking to one distinct holiday “style”, I like to mix a variety of pieces in coordinating tones, creating a look that is both put-together and inviting.  Metallics instantly add specialness to room without over-powering your year-round decor, making them the perfect {not so} neutrals for decorating your home.

Here are my favorite ways to get the look:

    • {1} Metallic glassware adds an instant touch of cheer to December dinners- no matter how low-key the menu.
    • {2} A simple mercury glass bowl filled with sparkly ornaments lends effortless charm to more formally decorated spaces, such as your living or dining rooms.
    • {3} A grouping of antique candle glasses brings warmth and dimension to small spaces without the stiffness of tall taper candles.
    • {4} Mixing unexpected textures- such as canvas and sequins- lends versatility to holiday entertaining without seeming stuffy.
    • {5} For those with limited space or time, a simple tree with white lights and glittery monochromatic ornaments can make a big impact with minimal effort.
    • {6} Make spontaneous holiday entertaining easy by serving store-bought hor dourves on pretty metallic cocktail napkins.
    • {7} Porcelain plates in whimsical patterns make dinner party decor as simple as setting the table.

1. Gold Chisel Glassware by Z Gallerie; $35

2. Mercury Glass Equinox Bowl by Z Gallerie; $36

3. Antique Glass Candle Holder by Crate&Barrel; $6

4. Sequined Pillow Cover by West Elm; $44

5. Glittered Silver Ornament by Pier 1; $6

6. Gold Cocktail Napkins by Plum Party; $5

7. Tinsel and Confetti Plates by Crate&Barrel; $8

After seeing this idea here, I knew I had to make these adorable pumpkins at home.  I love seasonal decorating that is both fun and simple, and these fit the bill perfectly!

All you need for this project is clear-drying craft glue, glitter {I used “onyx”}, and, obviously, pumpkins!  {I found everything at Michaels; the glue and glitter are by Martha Stewart Crafts}

I used tiered glass cake pedestals to display the finished product.  I love how they turned out and how festive they looked decorating my sideboard.

Check out the complete tutorial here!

Fun DIY decor > Finding glitter in my hair for 3 days post-project…  Enjoy!

As far as days of the year go, July 4th is one of my favorites.  While I adore all summer holidays, 4th of July boasts several reasons to slip into the lead of most-looked-forward-to: aside from the whole Independence thing, it’s my dad’s birthday.

Along with enjoying the usual barbecue, beach time, and long-weekend with our family, my sisters and I always try to think of something fun to surprise our dad with themed accordingly to his oh-so-patriotic birthday.  This year we were inspired by the cover of Martha’s {obsessed=first name basis} July issue…

Aren’t those cookies adorable?!

I baked the cookie “canvases” at my house the night before we left… at midnight… without having a.single.thing packed for the trip.  Because baking cookies is much more important than making sure you’ve packed your black swimsuit bottoms for a beach trip… {this statement has been rescinded due to 2 hours of prowling tacky souvenir shops to find a replacement for my packing neglect… lesson. learned.}

I mixed up my favorite vanilla-almond sugar cookie dough and used 3 graduated biscuit cutters to make a variety of cookie sizes.

After I cut out the cookies, I put the whole parchment-lined cookie sheet in the freezer for about 5 minutes to set the cookies, then transferred immediately to the oven.

Lean Cuisine … Skinny Cow ice cream bars … Cookies made with 4 sticks of butter… Obviously I like to balance my vices.

Fast forward to the following night: decorating these little festive edibles at the beach.  As you can see, our condo clearly lacked an essential tool for making royal icing: a mixing bowl.  Since it was late and I would have rather thrown the cookies off the balcony than fight the crazy grocery store again, I waxed resourceful, hence the little mixing set-up above.  Who knew a giant seafood boiling pot could be such a chameleon?  {don’t worry, I washed it before doing this… twice}

After coloring the icing, I poured the colors into 3 plastic squeeze bottles. {Get them here}

At this point the kitchen was handed over to my sisters to do the dishes and laugh hysterically me for making icing in a pot, bringing plastic squirt bottles in my suitcase, and splattering the entire counter in a {unintentional} pigmented tribute to the holiday.

Now to the fun part….

To make the firecracker design, first flood the cookie in a base color of your choice {white shown here}, then use the squeeze bottle of icing to pipe concentric circles {and a single dot in the middle} over the still wet base layer.

Next, use a toothpick to drag the icing outward in lines from the center dot.  Do this around the entire cookie, then reverse the direction by dragging the toothpick from the outermost circle into the center dot.

By using different combinations of base colors and accents, the decorative possibilities are endless.  For recipes and further decorating information, check out the July Issue of Martha Stewart Living, on newsstands {or for your iPad} now.

We had so much fun making these and surprising our dad with a homemade birthday treat.  I hope he felt as special on his birthday as he makes his girls feel every day! We love you, Dad!

And now, a few photos to convince you that although decorating {and eating!} cookies might be fun, there is no 4th of July treat better than an icy red, white, and blue StarKiss popsicle.

Our adorable cousins Audrey and Paige {who also celebrated 4th of July at the beach with us} showed Laura and me the only proper way to enjoy this DQ delight: with reckless abandon.

My face was even more covered in the sweet cherry goodness that theirs were… Seriously, too.cute.for.words.

I think this precious smile says it all.  Happy Birthday America, indeed!

I love going back and looking at my Google search history at the end of the day.  I always find it funny to see my random progression of thoughts, and today was no exception!

Verbatim Google Search History
– polycythemic
– how long is milk good after the expiration date?
– hydramnios / polyhydramnios
– attenuated definition
– causes of congenital diaphragmatic hernia
– how to calculate standard deviation
– recipe clone for pf changs garlic noodles
– what germ layer forms esophageal muscle
– traveler’s insurance commerical song
– how to draw a frog
– is glee new tonight?

From these virtual clues, one might gather (a) that I was studying for an embryology test, and (b) I was hungry.  Yes and YES.

After taking care of step (a) on my agenda, my growling stomach was begging me to now take care of (b).  Feeling ravenous, I headed straight home after my test, only to be greeted by a mountain of dirty clothes and an empty refrigerator.  Anyone who has ever been to my  apartment knows washing clothes hovers around 57th on my chore ranking preference, so judging by the avalanche overtaking my laundry room, I was in for a long night!

Once all the clothes were sorted into 7 neat little piles, I decided to address the empty refrigerator problem.  After a few minutes of digging, I found a crumpled box of cinnamon burst cheerios in the back of my pantry, and poured a big ole’ glob of milk right on top of them.  Yes, you read that correctly- apparently in answer to my second search above, 2 weeks is too long.

Since the ketchup and jar of jalepenos in the fridge showed about the same promise for deliciousness as the milk, I threw load number 2 of clothes in the drier and got in the car to search for sustenance.  Not even one mile from home, I see Burger King, and the potent smell of a Jr. Whopper called out to me like a siren’s song.  Just as I am about to turn on my blinker to give in to my instantaneous craving, what tiny will power I had left about the situation kicks in and I keep driving.  A few minutes later, I find myself in a deserted Kroger at 11:30 at night with no list and no ideas. 

I stopped at the produce first, finding  it almost luxurious to shop in the empty store without being bumped by over-zealous cart drivers and waiting on acutely critical apple examiners.  Ultimately, I settled on 2 packs of luciously red strawberries and a package of goat cheese.  By this point, I had an idea so I grabbed some pecans and strawberry jam and was out the door.

If you have ever eaten the strawberry salad at Julep in Jackson, I bet you know where this is going.  “Fresh strawberries, candied pecans, and goat cheese served over field greens with a strawberry balsamic vinaigrette”.  If you aren’t salivating now, I guarantee you will be after you see the pictures!

Here is my {late night} interpretation of this delicious salad:

Here’s what you’ll need.

The first step of this recipe is making the deliciously sweet and crunchy candied pecans.  Grab some sugar, a little bit of butter, and about 1/2 cup of pecans. {you’ll also need some vanilla extract, too – my vanilla somehow escaped the photo shoot!}

If you want to throw this together in a hurry or if you just don’t feel like making your own sugary little gems, feel free to substitute any kind of  store bought candied pecans {I found the praline pecans above by the checkout line at walmart}

If this candying thing does sound right up your alley, keep reading!

Melt 2 teaspoons of butter over medium heat.  Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1/2 cup of pecans.  Turn the heat to medium/high and stir the mixture constantly with a wooden spoon until the sugar begins to boil and turns a golden brown-ish color {this took my pecans about 3 minutes}.  Remove the pot from the heat and stir in 1/8 teaspoon of vanilla. {it will bubble and hiss, beware!}

Immediately pour the pecans onto a silpat / parchment and cool.  That’s it.  Easy as pie! 

Now it’s time to address these beauties.  Out of all the fruits in the world, there are none I love more than strawberries.  Seeing them in grocery stores makes me pine for summer, and they taste even better when bought on the side of the road off the tailgate of a pick-up truck {or is that just a Mississippi thing?}

Rinse and slice the berries. 

The next {and last!} step is to mix up some yummy strawberry balsamic vinaigrette.  Put 1/4 cup strawberry jam or preserves {I used low-sugar preserves} in a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon of water.  Microwave on high for 30 seconds.

Next whisk in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar.  Season with salt and pepper.

Here we go, ready to assemble this thing and make someone’s mouth very happy.

Fill 2 large plates with assorted field greens.  Layer half of each ingredient {strawberries, pecans, then goat cheese} on the greens.  Drizzle with dressing, and voilà!

Bryan and I have eaten this salad for lunch the past 3 days and I still haven’t stopped craving it!  I hope you’ll love it too!

Strawberry Salad with Candied Pecans and Goat Cheese

– 4 cups field greens
– 1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
– 2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
– 1/2 cup candied pecans (recipe follows)
– 3 Tablespoons strawberry balsamic vinaigrette (recipe follows)

for candied pecans
– 1/2 cup pecans
– 2 teaspoons butter
– 2 Tablespoons white sugar
– 1/8 teaspoon vanilla

for vinaigrette
– 1/4 cup strawberry jam
– 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
– 4 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
– salt and pepper, to taste

Melt butter over medium heat.  Increase to medium/high heat and add sugar and pecans.  Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the sugar becomes bubbly and golden.  Remove from heat and add vanilla extract.  {the mixture will bubble}.  Immediately transfer pecans to a silpat or parchment paper to cool.

For the vinaigrette, combine strawberry jam with 1 tablespoon water.  Microwave on high for 30 seconds.  Next whisk in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble salad, top 2 cups of greens with 3/4 cup strawberries, 1/4 cup pecans, and 1 ounce goat cheese.  Drizzle on 3 tablespoons of vinaigrette.

{this recipe makes 2 salads}

Meet Barbie & Teresa. {aka my sister Laura and her sweet friend Madison}

I have no idea when these Mattel inspired nicknames originated, but these two have been dubbed “B & T” for as long as they have been friends.  Both of them are are cute as can be, and I love it when they come over to my apartment to bake/laugh/make messes. 

Today’s cooking escapade was inspired by a sad little stale-ing loaf of white bread sitting in Madison’s dorm room.  This poor little loaf had been forgotten and just as it was on its way to the trash, Laura had a sugar-laced eureka moment – turn it into bread pudding!  Resourcefulness in desire to calm an insatiable sweet tooth must run in the family.

This recipe is a version of the bread pudding Laura’s boyfriend’s mom makes… we added a few tweaks of our own and ended up with something so divine that it had to be physically removed from my apartment to keep us from eating the whole pan. 

Besides being unbelievably delicious, this recipe is super easy to make, although the people that are lucky enough to have this served to them would never guess! 

Here are the ingredients {I bet most of this stuff is in your pantry now!}  While we used a sandwhich-style bread, I bet an airy bakery bread would be even better… feel free to use whatever you have on hand, it will be fabulous either way!

The sweet little loaf of inspiration.

First cube the bread (or tear it like we did!) into a 9×13 dish.  We used a disposable tin pan, which was perfect for transporting the finished dessert to hungry friends.

Next make the custard part of the pudding using the milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and butter.  Make sure to use an electric mixer to whip all this together, otherwise it is really hard to get a uniform consistency and the pudding might taste “eggy” as opposed to smooth and creamy!

Pour the custard evenly over the bread and let it soak for 10 minutes {a little longer is ok if you forget about it sitting in the kitchen, which we may or may not have done…}

Meanwhile, mix up some cinnamon sugar.  We used 1/2 cup of sugar and 3 Tablespoons of cinnamon {I like things extra cinnamon-y}… feel free to use store-bought if you have it, our grocery store was just out today.

After the bread has absorbed all the custard-y goodness it can possible stand, sprinkle cinnamon sugar over the top.  We used about half the batch we mixed up (so a little over 1/4 cup) but use as much/little as your taste buds prefer!

That’s it!  Simple, right?  Bake the pudding at 350 for 40 minutes.

Now it’s time to make the sauce.  While traditional bread pudding has a relatively thin and pourable sauce, ours had a much thicker and sweeter consistency, so perhaps it should be called an icing or glaze instead.  Whatever you call it, this stuff is good!

Melt 6 ounces of white chocolate chips and 1/2 stick of butter over medium heat, then take the pot off the stove to add the water, vanilla,  powdered sugar, and sweetened condensed milk, stirring after each addition.  Place the mixture back on the stove and let me flavors meld over medium/low heat for a few minutes.  Before serving, stir the cinnamon sugar into the mixture {we used the rest of the mix we made earlier, so about 1/4 cup}

Drizzle the glaze over the warm bread pudding, and try to make it to the table with this little bowl before digging in.  It will be hard, trust me. 

Just a little note, make sure the glaze is warm when you are ready to serve the dessert, otherwise it will likely be too thick to pour.  If you are taking the pudding somewhere {like we did after we finished a very unfeminine portion of it}, pour the sauce in some sort of tupperware container and just re-heat it in the microwave before you need it!

I hope you enjoy making this as much as we did!

White Chocolate & Cinnamon Bread Pudding

– 1 loaf white bread, cubed
– 2 cups whole milk
– 1 cup sugar
– 2 eggs
– 1 teaspoon vanilla
– 1/2 stick butter (melted)
– cinnamon sugar (for sprinkling on top)

for icing / glaze
– 6 oz white chocolate chips (about half a bag)
– 1/2 stick butter
– 3 Tablespoons water
– 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
– 1/2 cup powdered sugar
– 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
– cinnamon sugar (to taste)

Preheat oven to 350.  Cube 1 loaf of white bread into a 9×13 baking dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray.  Make the custard by combining milk, vanilla, sugar, eggs, and butter with an electric mixer.  Pour over the bread and let soak for atleast 10 minutes.  Sprinkle liberally with cinnamon sugar and bake for 40 minutes.

For the glaze, melt the white chocolate chips with 1/2 stick of butter over medium heat.  Once combine, add the water, vanilla, powdered sugar, and sweetened condensed milk.  Return to medium/low heat for a few more minutes.  Add remaining cinnamon sugar.

Spoon the warm pudding into a bowl/parfait glass/ramekin and drizzle with warm glaze.  Sprinkle a few white chocolate chips on top and enjoy!

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