30 October, 2015  |   Comment

Helen Jane’s Apple Crisp Sipper

My first apartment.
Winter in Wisconsin.

(This is me back in the mid-nineties, all film camera and apple crisp.)
Helen Jane, mid nineties

During a particularly brutal winter, in those early grown-up years, I learned to bake apple crisp.

The ingredients?
Inexpensive staples.
The outcome?
Warm and loving.

Now that I’m in sunny Napa Valley, November temperatures can reach the nineties. So when I’m craving something cold and cozy, spiced and sweet, fresh yet comforting, I make this Apple Crisp Sipper.

Turns out, this autumn-inspired cocktail is the perfect pre-Thanksgiving cocktail. Pair with gently spiced nuts to keep guests cheerful when the turkey roasts.

Helen Jane's Apple Crisp Sipper recipe

2 ounces apple juice
2 ounces cranberry juice
1 ounce amaretto
2 ounces rum
2 ounces hard apple cider

Add the first four ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into an pre-iced old-fashioned glass. Fill the rest of the glass with hard apple cider. Garnish with a cinnamon-sugar crusted apple slices if you’re feeling ambitious or a cinnamon stick if you’re not.

Helen Jane's Apple Crisp Sipper recipe

Three cheers for cozy, icy drinks!

20 November, 2014  |   1 Comment

Thanksgiving Budget 2014

Thanksgiving 2013Next week is Thanksgiving. One of our guests is a chef, so my competitive side is coming out. I’m like that. With my guests. Stop talking Helen Jane.

Anyway, Thanksgiving Budget. I have a bad habit about prying into money matters so it’s only fair that I share some details with you. We did it back in 2011 and we’re doing it again — $260 — a huge amount of money for Thanksgiving — here’s how we’re spending out and cheaping out on the budget this year.


Spend out

Cheap out


Table settings


Yesterday I outlined how the wine money gets divvied out. I forgot to add that we always have a bottle of sparkling apple cider for the kids. They love joining in the toast. This will sate 5 grownups and one hairy dog.


The kids always make something amazing for the table — plus! We have some leftover gourds from Halloween!


Cornbread & Dinner Rolls


As in 2011, I’m spending the most on our bird. This year I bought the bird for a youth group fundraiser, but our local FFA also raises turkeys for sale. Yours might too!


We’ll make less expensive cornbread — and I’m not shy about telling a helpful guest that they could bring the dinner rolls.

Vegetables and fruits



We make an extra big veggie purchase before the big day to accommodate all our sides. I make the cranberry sauce a week in advance and use the toaster oven to roast the sprouts.


Mashed potato supplies will run me a little less than $5 this year. For this, I am thankful.

Cheese & Appetizers



I prioritize guests and snacks. This year we’re putting out some Franklin Teleme, spiced pecans and dried cranberries with some Nut Thins. Easy. Done.


Pumpkin pie is another one of those Thanksgiving things that guests are happy to supply. As a host, I want to make sure I have ice cream, whipped cream and coffee on hand.

Day after Thanksgiving meals

Thanksgiving day meals


I include the “day after” budget as well because I’m spending that cash all in one go. We like our sandwiches on bakery bread with the good bacon.


On the actual Thanksgiving day, we eat cheap. Fruit or cereal for breakfast. Snacks for lunch. Save that cash for the big meal

20 November, 2014  |   3 Comments

Wine Wednesday: Thanksgiving Edition

Back in 2011 I set a Thanksgiving budget and we stuck to it. The budget’s a little less this year – about a third less – and for that we’re lucky and three cheers for Thanksgiving! Tomorrow, I’ll go through this year’s budget.

Our wine budget is now around $60 for the big day. I know! I ain’t complaining. We’re making it work with these three bottles of the wine I’ve been drinking lately for work and fun.

2013 Giesen Riesling
Giesen Riesling
I know, I know I should be drinking American to kick off this meal, but with the way things went with Lord of the Rings, it seems like New Zealand could be, like, at least part American. With a low alcohol point (12.5%) this is the perfect wine for kicking off the holidays but maintaining your cool. Good for people who say they don’t like sweet wine but secretly do. Round, floral and delicious, sip it when the kids are wrassling within eyeshot. Costs about $13.

2012 Niner Pinot Noir


Costs about $30. Pinot Noir makes the millennials happy, it makes your Gen X aunt happy, it makes your snooty brother happy. This one is a great deal, coming from the on point Paso Robles region of California — from a shiny new winery. It’s balanced, it’s got a slight cranberry taste that makes Stove Top sing.

2012 Renwood Zinfandel
Zinfandel wine powerhouses Renwood make American wine from a truly American grape. Their winemaker is one of Wine Enthusiast’s 40 under 40. Youth is also an American value! Bold and tasty — it works to punctuate your end of meal political “discussions.” Plus, Zinfandel is just fun to say. Costs nearly $20.

23 November, 2012  |   Comment

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

Every year, after Thanksgiving dinner, we make a paper chain with what we’re thankful for. We hang it in the house and that’s that. But after nine years of that tradition, I was ready to mix it up.

Fold a piece of construction paper in half, and then half again.

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

Make sure the folded side is on top.
Cut sides off in a modified “A” shape.

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

Cut out the middle of the shape like below.

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

You’ll end up with a shape like this one:

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

Fold it in half again.

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

Hook each shape together. You can do this by putting the wide end through the narrow end, sort of like a ladder. The chain hangs together without staples or paint.

Make a paper chain shaped like an evergreen tree.

Keep going until your whole house is covered in trapezoids.

To save paper, I use the inside block that I cut out for a smaller chain. Maximize that effort!


19 March, 2012  |   Comment

St. Paddy’s recap and an Irish Soda Bread recipe

Dottie Jane and some Irish Soda Bread
We learned this week that Irish Soda Bread isn’t just for St. Patrick’s day.

It’s a handy quickbread.
Part biscuit, part bread, perfect for sopping.

I can see this bread sopping up gravy for beef stew,
or buttered and toasted alongside a cioppino.
(I can see it with my mindbrain!)

But first, let’s talk about the rest of the meal.
St. Patrick’s, that is.

Another yearly habit since we married,
we enjoyed the traditional corned beef and cabbage.

My mom called and left a message reminding us of a St. Patrick’s day two years ago, the day that we moved into our house-that-we-love.

“And we were surrounded by boxes, and you surprised ALL of us, baby Dottie, Nora Lea, James and especially me with a full Irish feast!”

(And then I remembered our 2005 St. Patrick’s Day with our dog Pinot.)
(And then I remembered our 2007 St. Patrick’s Day before kids.)
(And then I dug up my few word post from 2003’s St. Patrick’s Day.)

Like my man, I’m half Irish and half German. This means we enjoy St. Paddy’s day and Oktoberfest with equal enthusiasm.

Oktoberfest quickbreads ain’t got nothing on us.

Irish Soda Bread Recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated

Adapted from Cooks Illustrated Best Recipes

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
3 1/2 cups white flour (Cooks Illustrated recommends a lower-protein flour like Gold Medal or Pillsbury)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons softened butter
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 1/2 cup buttermilk (in this situation, I made a passable substitution out of 1 1/2 cups whole milk and 2 tablespoons lemon juice.)

Before anything, you take the butter out to make sure it’s softened. Not being aware of unsoftened butter is a thorn in my side, a slippery, greasy thorn.

Preheat oven to 450°. Prepare a baking sheet by slapping a piece of parchment paper on that guy.
In a very large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, salt, soda and cream of tartar.

After your hands have been well washed and dried, pinch pieces of the softened butter off of your butter chunk and work into the flour until the mix is crumblike and sandy.

Add the buttermilk and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together in a big sticky blog. Plop onto a flour-covered work surface and kneed until it all comes together about 14 times and really no more than that. Shape into a round shape about 6 inches across by 2 inches high. Score the dough by cutting a cross shape on the top of the loaf.

Put the round in the oven and bake for about 40-45 minutes.
When you pull the loaf from the oven, brush the top with the leftover melted butter and cool for a half hour before digging in.

I like slathering with blueberry jam, but that’s my jam.

St. Paddy's dinner 2012

Irish Soda Bread party. Throw it!