A Day Off in Chicago

Yesterday our family played hookie and became tourists for a day in our own backyard.  We visited famous landmarks, cruised along in a double-decker tour bus, took a ride on a giant ferris wheel, and got in everyone’s way while taking a million pictures.

Our first stop was Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower).  We took an ear popping elevator ride up to the 103rd floor and marveled at the views alongside tourists from all over the world.  When you love a city as much as I love Chicago, it gives you great joy to see others appreciate its extraordinary beauty and architectural significance.

Views from the top – North, East, and South.

Marina City, famously depicted on the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco being another Chicago treasure).

Cloud Gate at Millennium Park.

Snapping a picture of my children in the reflection of Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean).  The Bean polishers must have been off over the holiday weekend because it was filthy.Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain, an ultramodern interpretation of traditional gargoyle fountains.

The Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion.

I really wanted to see the Lichtenstein retrospective at the Art Institute, but I was outvoted.  I promise to get there this summer and report back.

Lunch at The Gage, above and below.

Architectural detail on the surrounding buildings.  I fell head over heels for the stripes.

Last stop – Navy Pier.

In line for the Ferris wheel.  It was modeled after the very first Ferris wheel, which was built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  (If you haven’t read Devil in the White City which takes place in Chicago during the construction of the 1893 Exposition, I highly recommend it.)

A view of the John Hancock building from the Ferris wheel.

A final view from the Pier.

All photos via the aesthete and the dilettante

Mother Nature

Last evening the most breathtaking cloud formation undulated over our rooftop and across the sky on its way to the lake. The motion was unlike anything I had ever seen and the brilliant color changed from moment to moment.  If only I had taken a video!

All photos via the aesthete and the dilettante

What to Bring: Mini Carrot Cakes

Memorial Day is almost here, so I’ve been working on what I will bake and take to a barbecue this weekend.  My mother makes the best carrot cake on the planet.  A cake so mouthwateringly perfect that you cannot resist cutting a thin slice and popping it into your mouth sans plate each time you pass through her kitchen because, frankly, grabbing a plate and fork means it will take that much longer for it to reach your mouth.  The crumbs fall, the frosting oozes down your fingers, but you don’t care because you are blissed out on cake.

But back to my point.  What was my point?  Oh yes, this weekend’s barbecue.  The spice of the cinnamon and the divine creaminess of the frosting seem to be the perfect accompaniment to the bold flavors of barbecue fare, so I experimented this week and adjusted the recipe for miniature sized cakes.

What makes this carrot cake so fabulous is threefold:

1) The secret ingredient of baby carrots.  Not the kind you snack on out of the bag, but baby food carrots.  That’s right.  It makes the cake incredibly moist and allows you to skip the step of cooking and food processing fresh carrots.

2) The cream cheese frosting.  Most cream cheese frostings include butter, but this one sings with just powdered sugar, cream cheese, and vanilla.

3) There are no bells and whistles.  No coconut, pineapple, ginger, or other fanciness – it is the simplest of comfort foods.

Mom’s Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 14 oz baby food carrots
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups canola oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Prepare a tube pan or mini cake pans (this recipe makes enough batter for 12 mini cakes) by lightly oiling and dusting with flour or using baking spray with flour incorporated.
  3. Sift dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.
  4. Beat sugar and oil together in a large bowl.
  5. Add eggs one at a time to oil/sugar mixture, then add your dry ingredients, nuts, and carrots. Mix until combined completely.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes to one hour if in tube pan, OR for 25 minutes if using mini cake pans.  My mini cake pans hold approximately 2/3 cup of batter (see below).  Check the size of your mini pans ahead of time with water to see how much liquid they hold and adjust your time accordingly.
  7. Let cool for 15 minutes in pan on a wire rack, then remove cake from pan by placing wire rack on top and flipping over.  Let cool entirely before frosting (frosting recipe below).

Simple Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 8 ounces ROOM TEMPERATURE cream cheese
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 1/2 t vanilla extract

Beat together until incorporated.  Frost cake/s with an offset spatula or pastry bag.  If you want to pipe and don’t have a bag, fill a ziploc bag with frosting, snip a small piece of the corner off, and there you have it.

From the photo below you can clearly see I am not a piping expert, but please note that I am using two hands.  You must grip the top of the bag and hold it closed with one hand while guiding the tip with the other hand, or frosting will ooze out of the top, making a huge mess.  Trust me.  I am speaking from experience.

This is the first time my mother’s recipe has left the confines of our family kitchens so I hope you enjoy!

*One note – I replaced the all purpose flour with a gluten-free all purpose flour for the first time this week and it turned out beautifully.

All photos via the aesthete and the dilettante

The Top Ten (May Edition)

Ten things I am loving this May…

1. The gorgeous color and heady scent of lilacs in bloom.

2) Nars Super Orgasm Illuminator.  I have never been a big make-up girl, but when I tried this and saw the nice (ahem) glow it gave me, I was sold.


3) My Garmin Forerunner 310XT.  Attractive it is not, but essential to my current life as it keeps track of rides, runs, and swims.

4) J Brand Luxe Twill Skinny Jeans in soft lilac.  AMAZING.  They look great with navy, grey, white, aqua, blue chambray, heels, sandals….pretty much anything you pair with them.

5) Paris in Color is a magical, fresh, cliche-free voyage through the most beautiful city in the world.  Fair warning: perusing this book will induce pangs of desire to travel immediately.

6) Farrow & Ball paints.  We are planning a major color change for our home’s exterior, and we love these high quality, naturally derived English emulsions.  Right now I am thinking a light stone/cream on the wood siding to match the stonework, and a deep, rich, dark green on the trim, windows, frames and sills.  But check back because I have already changed my mind at least half a dozen times!

7) Siggi’s Icelandic style yogurt (skyr).  It has a blissfully low sugar content and is super thick and creamy.  I do not love it plain, but doctored up with granola, almonds, chopped dried fruit or fresh berries and a good dose of honey or agave, it is luscious.

8) My snakeskin iPhone case from J.Crew.  (I found it in a fabulous French blue not available online anymore, but it is still in stores.)

9) Stripes in any form.  It’s an obsession.  My favorite is the one below from chance co.  It really is embarrassing how much I have worn it.

I also fell for this one because she looks amazing, no?  So somebody please tell me why, when I wear it, it reads Seussian rather than sexy?!

10) My new summer fragrance, Hermes un jardin sure le toit. It is light, summery and undeniably sexy.  Kind of like the girl in the striped shirt.

A Mother’s Day Love Letter

My mother has been sick for almost as long as I can remember.  But the truth is, I did not consider it as much as I should have growing up.  She never allowed her physical limitations to define her, so I saw her through the lens that she held up for herself and it did not focus on what she wasn’t able to do.  She shared with me once, in a rare moment of reflection on her childhood, that before she became ill she was quite the active tomboy, spending most of her days out of doors and beating the boys at baseball and running races.  I remember her sad smile of what l now know to be nostalgia as she recounted the story, though I did not recognize it then as I was young when she shared this and had no frame of reference.  Her illness, she said, had robbed her of her energy and deprived her of doing what she loved.

She made sure that my sister Kathy and I spent our childhood days as she would have, pushing us out the door to explore.  Summers were spent – sunrise to sunset – outside, riding our bikes, reading our books high up in the crooks of trees, having picnics and playing games with the other neighborhood kids.  “A dirty kid is a happy kid!” she would say (actually she still says this when she sees me raise an eyebrow at my children when their clothes are full of a day’s play).  I fondly remember sitting on the lip of the tub with my sister, scrubbing the dirt off our feet when we did not have time for a bath before bed, and being tucked in, exhausted and happy, to the sound of crickets.

As we grew, she watched us tackle our physical endeavors and supported us from the sidelines.  I do not think she missed a single tennis match, and she sat close in the football stands when I was a cheerleader, subtly letting me know whenever the ball had changed hands so I would not embarrass the squad by calling a cheer for offense when we were actually defense.  Though those days are long gone and my sister and I have families of our own now, she is still there for us in every way possible.

She has recently become sicker and her body simply cannot keep up.  Every occasion spent together, from celebration to simple lunch, holds more meaning than it would have perhaps even a year ago.  Next month, she will stand on the sidelines once again as I take on my first olympic distance triathlon.  What she does not know is that I am doing this for her.  For every bike ride she could not take, for every race she could not run, for every boy she could not beat.  Thank you, Mom, for teaching us that we could do anything we set our minds to, and for showing us through the beautiful example of how you have lived your life what true strength really is.