A Delicious Year in Review: 2009

A Big Thanks
Wow, I can't believe it's the end of another year. The post-holiday malaise has left me in a shell of dread for the upcoming cold months and limited vacation time. Though 2009 had it's ups and downs, all in all, it was a good year. After all, I got a brandy new day job, am married to the best husband of all time, and, oh yeah, I started this little ol' blog, of which I'm very happy and proud to call my baby.

What started less than a year ago as a way for me to ramble about my love for Manhattan and it's surrounding areas has grown into a bonafide web site with actual readers...something I can't believe is real. This is the most fun personal project I've ever embarked on. It makes me happy and excited every single day and I wish I could devote even more time to developing content. Over the last year with this site, I've taken an interest to things I never knew I liked or even loved for that matter - who knew that I'd be so giddy over receiving baking tools for Christmas? Or that my truly adorable Anthropologie apron would become one of my favorite wardrobe items? Or that I have a serious love of trying new restaurants and the food that's housed within them? Not me. And even more, I can't wait to continue learning about food - how it's made, where it's eaten - and passing on my new found knowledge to all of you. After all, when I started writing about food, I didn't know any more about it than anyone else. Sure, I've always liked it, but who hasn't? Exploring, learning and writing about food has been a wonderful adventure and I can't wait to continue it next year. So a gargantuan thank you to everyone who has read my articles, commented on them, and passed along this site to friends.

And while we're on the subject of how great you all are, I've never really had the chance to explain to you how much each and every one of you means to me and how I truly cherish each and every one of your comments and inquiries. Please keep 'em coming! So thanks again for giving me a reason to keep on writing and I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoy writing it.

Where we're going
So with that in mind, I hope that you'll continue to indulge me in 2010. Some big things will be happening around here very soon and I'm almost bursting with excitement to share the news. I think and hope that you'll be (almost) as excited and happy as I am with my big announcement, so please stay tuned! Part of the 2010 plans include even more food reviews, recipes, tutorials, event coverage, videos and lots of reader contests. This is also the part where I ask you, fabulous reader, what you would like to see more of on this site? It's always difficult to gauge what strikes a chord with you and what you come back for more of. I know what I love writing about...but what do you love reading about? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

So with all of that in mind, have a fabulous, fun, and safe New Year's Eve tonight and a restful New Year's Day! Meanwhile, you can catch some of my own personal favorite articles of the year below (the articles that qualify for this are the ones that I genuinely loved every moment of experiencing and then relaying the messages on to you). Did any articles strike your own particular fancy?

My Top Ten Personal Favorite Articles of 2009:
Yankee Stadium vs. Citifield: Baseball Park Awards

Restaurant Roundup: Mesa Grill

Suburban Dog in the City

Key Lime in the Coconut Cupcakes

Aruba Travelogue: How to do Breakfast Three Ways

Eating Through Madison Square Park

Before Oktoberfest, It's Italianfest Part II or How to do the Festival Circuit

Fall Treats: Apple Surprise Muffins

Turkey Day Recipes

Restaurant Roundup: An Otto-matic Favorite

Ringing in 2010

If you are at all like me, you've waited until the last possible moment to plan your New Year's Eve. And by waited until the last possibly moment, I mean even at this point you haven't solidified plans. I'm not sure if it's the big hype that more often than not doesn't live up to its promise or just plain old post-holiday exhaustion, but by the time New Year's comes around, I'm kind of already over it. Not to mention the fact that I'm kind of tapped out in the cash area and I'd prefer to spend any remaining money on holiday sales rather than one night at the bar (though by going out, it does give me a reason to purchase a sparkly little number for a night out on the town which probably won't be used again throughout the year). So that always leaves one question: what do to for New Year's Eve? Shaun and I rang in 2009 with a night on the couch, surrounded by champagne, hors d'oeuvres, and a viewing of The Dark Knight. To ring in 2010? It's anyone's guess at this point.

So my question to you is, how are you planning to ring in 2010? Are you hitting up a swank bar or lounge? Having a low key game night with friends whilst lamenting the downturn of Dick Clark's deteriorating health? Heading out for a chic dinner with your significant other? Taking in a late night viewing of Avatar 3-D (this one is high on my list)? I'd love to hear about your plans (and possibly steal some of your ideas!) so please do tell!

Holiday Unwrapped

And we're back! I hope everyone had a fabulous holiday. I saved some vacation time and took a few days off from my 'real' job for some holiday celebrating. This included, but was not limited to seeing family and friends, baking cookies, rocking red lipstick for the first time, watching the 25th anniversary of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame concert, viewing The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center and ceasing to sleep for a few days time. And let's not forget about the gift exchange. Shaun and I are so unbelievably lucky to have the absolute best families in the entire universe (no, really...they are) who know us oh-so-well and gave us gifts that just warmed our food-obsessed hearts. From good reads to gift cards to tools, we made out like the proverbial foodster bandits that we are. Here's the rundown:

Serving tray, Target; Good Eats: The Early Years, Barnes & Noble; Rachael Ray nylon bench scrape, Rachaelraystore.com; Bamboo spider, Sur la Table; Rachael Ray nylon 2-pc turner set, Rachaelraystore.com; Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food, Amazon.com; Magazine subscriptions, Foodnetwork.com, Realsimple.com; Entertainment Book 2010, entertainment.com; Sur la Table gift certificate, Sur la Table

Yep, it was a good year for the Humistons. Furthering our culinary knowledge and technique is something we love and receiving gifts to aid us in this food crush of ours is just the icing on the cake. I, for one, cannot wait to dive into New York City Food as well as test out my bench scraper. Apparently it's the only way to pick up chopped food from your cutting board - onions, veggies, you name it - for super simple transfer into your stock pot or skillet. And I know Shaun is just itching to break out the fryer and test out the bamboo mesh spider he's been wanting for ages. What can I say? It doesn't take much to get us going. The holidays were filled with many more gifts (both given and received, including the matching iPod Touch that we unknowingly picked out for each other), multiple family gatherings, and of course, indulging on holiday treats. I'm sad to see it pass us by, but am so looking forward to a fabulous, food-filled 2010.

So there's the food gift roundup - a peek at some of our foodster gifts we were so fortunate to receive and can't wait to enjoy now that our holiday travel has ceased. But my question to all of you fabulous readers is: What did you get for the holiday this year? Any food-related gifts that tickled your fancy? Please tell me that Shaun and I aren't the only food geeks out there and leave us some tales of good eats (and by eats I mean actual eats, products, gift cards, reading materials, kitchen tools and anything else of the sort).

Oh, and in case you're curious, the baking, red-lipstick-wearing, family time went something like this...

The butter cookie cutouts...a Christmas staple for as long as I can remember

Just a small sampling of the Cannon bakefest '09

Kimberly & me

Christine & me vampin' it up

Shaun & me at Christmas Eve dinner

Suburban, yet city-loving doggie Chloe trying her hardest to get some holiday treats from her stocking

My mom, sisters and me after The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center

And there's the roundup. Hope you enjoyed your holiday as much as we enjoyed ours!

PS - If you missed any of our holiday coverage, including foodster gift guides for all the food-lovers in you life, you can find it all right here.

Christmas Favorites: The Food

One of my favorite holiday elements is (what else?) the food. For some reason, I feel that it's a free pass to all of the indulgences that I may not necessarily afford myself all year long. Christmas cookies, egg nog, hors d'oeuvres galore. Perhaps it's just the food-obsessed Italian side of the family, but Christmas Eve is the big night (Shaun's family does Christmas Day, so all works out perfectly) and as in any Italian family it means hours upon hours of eating - from dips to wings to brie to beef tenderloin to cookies and cupcakes. By the time the evening ends, I'm on the verge of a food coma, barely mobile, yet still look forward to my annual breakfast strata on Christmas morning. And let's not forget about the prep that goes into such a feast...here's a peek at Christmases passed...

icing the famous butter cookies

Kimmi taking over

A little wine for the chefs...Jacque & Julia would be so proud

enjoying the goods
So how do you get your party on for Christmas? Is it a two day affair, utilizing both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? Is food the main attraction? How do you celebrate with your family? And, most importantly, what's your favorite indulgence of the holidays?

The Icing on the Cake

Everyone's heard of 'doctoring' up a boxed cake mix. I think that what it really comes down to is the frosting. Am I alone in my distaste for canned frosting? I'll admit, I have dabbled in straight-out-of-the-can style frosting, and the one flavor I'm okay with on cake is chocolate. And trust me, it's not like I would refuse it if presented in front of me. But in my opinion, real frosting is the only way to go, even on a boxed cake mix. And honestly? It couldn't be easier. If you recall my Key Lime in the Coconut Cupcakes, you may also recall my rant for the love of good frosting. It's just a necessity. And once you realize how easy it is, I'm confident that you'll feel similarly.

As a treat at my holiday cocktail party, I whipped up some mini chocolate cupcakes with white chocolate frosting. My sister Kimberly provided the adorable snowman mini cupcake wrappers and decorations and they were the perfect vehicle for a holiday treat and mini-sized for a perfect cocktail party food. Using Betty Crocker's SuperMoist Devil's Food chocolate cake mix and a mini muffin tin, I was on my way to the perfect confection. For the frosting, I consulted The Cupcake Deck by Elinor Klivans and her recipe for White Christmas Cupcakes. Though the cake part called for a vanilla cake batter, what can I say? I'm a sucker for chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. So that's what I made.

White Christmas Cupcakes Frosting
3 oz white chocolate, chopped (I use Baker's chocolate)
1/4 C (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature (leave it out of the fridge the night before)
4 oz cream cheese, at room temperature (leave it out of the fridge the night before)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 C powdered sugar

Melt the chopped white chocolate (for a handy tutorial on this, check out this article). Place in large bowl and with electric mixer (I use my red stand mixer, but a hand mixer will also be just fine) add the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla to chocolate and beat on low until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the powdered sugar, mixing until the frosting is smooth and fluffy. I like to beat the frosting longer than suggested, since I like it super smooth and super fluffy. Once finished, dress your cupcakes with the frosting, give 'em a taste test, and vow to never go back to the canned stuff. See? I told you it was super easy!

So what are your thoughts on the frosting sitch? Love the canned stuff? Hate it? Are you willing to give the homemade frosting a try? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Bark Up This Holiday Tree: Chocolate Bark Three Ways

As promised, we're ending the week with a little tutorial on making the easiest holiday snack of all time. It's chocolate bark, and today I'm serving it up 3 ways to satisfy almost any taste bud. Let's get down to the goods, shall we?

Hold up. Before we go any further, how about a quick lesson in chocolate melting? I refuse to give in to the double boiler, so I go with the good old-fashioned microwave instead. I've done this many, many times and burned many, many bowls of chocolate, so I think it's only right to give you, dear reader, a quick rundown.

Here's how I get it done:
Place chopped chocolate in a shallow bowl (yup, if you aren't using chocolate chips, you really need to give it a rough chop for the chocolate to melt evenly - if you are in fact using chips, carry on as is). Microwave chopped chocolate at 15 second intervals (trust me! I have burned a LOT of chocolate in my day - don't be tempted to add additional time, even when after the first couple of intervals it will seems as, though nothing is happening...do not give in. It must be at 15 second intervals), stirring in between each time, even when it seems like nothing is happening. It will.
When the chocolate seems like it's just about done, but still has a few lumps, remove from the microwave and stir quickly. This will melt the remainder of chocolate chunks without microwaving, and therefore burning, the already fully melted part. It should look something like this:

That's it. Now enjoy perfectly melted, photo op quality chocolate.

Cranberry Orange White Chocolate Bark
4-5 oz white chocolate, roughly chopped (I use Baker's Chocolate, found in any grocery store baking aisle and premeasured into 1 oz squares)
1/3C Dried cranberries
1 tsp Orange zest
After melting your white chocolate, stir in dried cranberries and orange zest. Step lightly, as the chocolate will cool off and harden very, very quickly. Immediately spread out in a thin layer on a sheet pan - I lined mine with parchment paper for easy removal and clean-up. It may require a bit of elbow grease to spread it out, but use a spatula, get your hands dirty, and get 'er done. Let sit for a few minutes and then press aluminum foil down on the bark to hold it in place.

The next morning, with foil still on, bang all over with rolling pin. Remove foil, and break up pieces with your hands.

The result: A creamsicle tasting piece of goodness. The dried cranberries cut out some of the super white chocolate sweetness, leaving a perfect flavor combination that I will be devouring as soon as the clock strikes noon.

Chocolate Cherry Almond Bark
6 oz semisweet, white, or milk chocolate
1/3 C Dried cherries, chopped
1/3 C Slivered almonds, toasted in small pan for about 2 min - don't let them burn!!
After melting your semisweet chocolate, stir in cherries and almonds. Repeat steps above.

And after a night of cooling and being bammed with a rolling pin...

The result: I'm a huge fan of dried cherries so I had high hopes for this one. It did disappoint, however. I went with the semisweet chocolate and I think it was just too bitter to counterbalance the sour cherries. Next time, I'm going milk or white chocolate and I think it will be the winning combo I'm looking for.

Traditional Peppermint Bark
6 oz Semi-sweet chocolate
1 C White chocolate chips
4 Candy canes, crushed
1/2 tsp Peppermint extract
Melt semisweet chocolate and stir in peppermint extract. Spread out on sheet pan and let sit until semi-hardened. Next, temper white chocolate (I used chips here because I ran out of Baker's Chocolate) and carefully spread out on top of the semisweet chocolate. Mine ended up running together a bit, but it doesn't have to be perfect. Sprinkle crushed candy canes on top and press down with aluminum foil.

When it's all put together...

Keep aluminum foil on top of bark, as above, and the next morning you'll get...

The result: What can I say? Nothing beats a classic. This was my favorite of the bunch. Crunchy candy cane on mint chocolate is a dynamite combination in my book. And this version give Williams-Sonoma a serious run for their money.

Now, before you break it all up and reap the sweet rewards, you need to let these cool completely. Even when you think it's done, it's probably not. I'm hesitant to put in the refrigerator since it tends to turn the chocolate into crumbly gray. Instead, I recommend finding a very cool area, like the garage or in a particularly cold room in your home. I laid the pans out in my living room, which gets pretty darn cold in the evening hours. The next morning, with the bark still covered with foil, bang 'em with a rolling pin for an imperfect break. Enjoy!

So what do you think? Do any of these sweet confections make your sweet tooth tingle? Do you have any other holiday barks that you love this time of year?

*Note: I made these in very small batches since I was making all three in one night (all I can say is thank god I'm not a big chocolate eater or I'd be about 400 pounds). If you want more, adjust recipes accordingly.

How to: Plan and Host a (Fabulous) Holiday Cocktail Party

In case you couldn't already tell, I'm a huge fan of the holidays. In fact, my own personal holiday season begins on the ride home from my aunt's house on Thanksgiving night as, to Shaun's dismay, I blare Christmas music and, even worse, proceed to sing along. In honor of our love for the holidays beyond Christmas music, this past weekend Shaun and I hosted a holiday cocktail party at our humble Jersey City abode. It was my first large scale party hosting (and by large, I mean there were 12 of us), and like many, my biggest concern was...where to start? Before we begin, I just want to add the disclaimer that I prefer to think of myself as detail-oriented, not controlling; meticulous, not psycho. As one of my favorite quotes puts it, "I like things the way that I like them, but I mean, who doesn't?" (Bonus points for naming that one) So with that in mind, here's my holiday hostess survival guide.

Step One: Figure out who's attending
You can't really plan much past this point until you know who you're inviting (and who's actually going to show up). Will it be friends? Family? Both? Couples only? Around holiday time, many people are booked early, so at a minimum plan for (at least in our case) half of the invited guests to attend.

Step Two: Plan the menu
For me, this is the most fun part. Scouring recipe collections from Martha Stewart, Food Network, Real Simple, and my mom's own personal collection can seem daunting but the world is your oyster, so to speak, and what can be more exciting than that? For a cocktail party, you'll likely be starting later in the evening (8:30 or later), which means hors d'oeuvres, cocktails, and dessert, all in an informal fashion (and by informal, I mean put out on a table buffet style or scattered among various side and coffee tables).  Here's my food breakdown:
For drinks, we stocked the bar with sparkling white wine and pomegranate juice for a pom-spritzer (a huge hit with the ladies), orange Stoli & Sprite Zero, Pinot Noir, and a fridge full of Stella Artois. I think that in the drinking situation, less is definitely more. Focus in on what you want to offer and stock your bar on a dime by limiting options. I promise, your guests will be happy drinking what you have to offer, especially if it's a special, signature cocktail or decent bottled beer.
For the food, I tried to keep it simple and seasonal. Here's a sneak peek at the menu:

Spiced sweet potato wedges
Pigs in a blanket
Pizza dip
Spinach dip
Spiced walnuts
Brie & raspberry bites
Blue cheese dip with potato chips
So perhaps it wasn't the most healthy menu of all time, but what better time to splurge on the caloric intake than for a relaxed holiday cocktail party with your closest friends? Exactly...there isn't one.

Step Three: Get all fancy on it
If you're having a theme party, your location should reflect this. Shaun and I had our Christmas tree up and ready for all of the oooh-ing and aahhh-ing that our guests were sure to dish out. It's not necessary to spend a fortune on holiday decor. By repurposing some of last year's ornaments, cake plates, and candy, I whipped up some fun, DIY decor on a dime.
By adding holiday M&M's to a Pilsner glass, I spruced up the bar area. Add a 99 cent box of candy canes in a $1 Target planter, and your bar is set for a festive evening.

Next, I raided my china cabinet for a chic cake plate and candy bowl. Add some festive, sparkly ornaments (which were purchased last year for the tree) and you've got two punchy pieces for your table.

And let's face it, nothing quite says POP like a truly gorgeous red poinsettia (snapped up for a mere $5.99 a piece) on a classic white table cloth.

Since the poinsettias were so beautiful, I picked up two and placed one on this amazing glass platter (ok, this one was a wedding gift, purchased at Tiffany, so not exactly an item you may have lying around...but isn't it a beauty?)

Lastly, another candy bowl placed on a silver platter, filled with already-owned ornaments. Ta da!

Step Four: Plot your attack plan
Just like tackling any To Do list, it's vital for keeping your sanity to make an attack plan. I used Google documents to plan my menu ideas, make my shopping list, and plot out when to do each task on the list. Trust me on this...it may seem a bit intense (see disclaimer above), but I've found it's the only way to stay focused and on track while allowing yourself time to enjoy the party. My biggest tip? Do as much in advance as humanly possible and recruit your boyfriend or husband for all of the things you can pass off...in my case it was vacuuming, tidying the living room, and running out to the grocery store on a whim while I was chained to my tiny kitchen doing food prep.

Step Five: Leave yourself time to enjoy the party!
You've done the work, now it's time to reap the rewards. As mentioned before, prep as much in advance as possible. Clean the toilets, vacuum, tidy up, decorate and dust the night before. Prep any dips in advance that can be popped in the oven at the last minute. Leave only the items that will suffer quality-wise if not made the day of (like my sweet potato wedges...this is not something that should be reheated, despite what the recipe recommends). After all, once your friends and family arrive, you'll want to relax and enjoy the night with them, not slave in the kitchen!

So there it is. A simple, chic and fun cocktail party with friends without going bananas trying to prep for the event. Are you hosting the holidays this year? If so, what's your plan of attack? Any fun recipes to share? How do you stay sane as a host or hostess?

A Foodster's Gift Guide: On-the-Go

Welcome to the last edition of the 09 Foodster's Gift Guide, and this time we're talking on-the-go. You know who I mean. The on-the-goer who loves food and sweets, yet whose day is so filled with work, school, or other commitments to get it together and enjoy a great home-cooked meal. Fear not, as the last part of our Gift Guide is for your favorite on-the-go foodster. Check it out...

Hot Chocolate & Peppermint Hot Chocolate, Set of 2, $33 (Williams-Sonoma); Sarabeth's Jam Gift Sampler Box, $25 (Sur la Table); Crumbs Gift Card, $15 (Crumbs); thelifestyled Monogrammed Tote Bag, $23 (Etsy.com); Crockpot Countdown Slow Cooker, $49.99 (crock-pot.com); Eco Coffee Cup, $14 (fredflare.com)

Hot Chocolate - Just like the Williams-Sonoma peppermint bark, this is a total splurge, but one that's well worth it in my opinion. Sampled at Winter's Eve, this hot chocolate is like no other. For the on-the-go food lover, this is a perfect way to have some delicious and quick, right out of your home.

Sarabeth's Jam Sampler - Jam is one of my favorite foods, and this is a great way to enjoy it long past Christmas. While homemade jam can be wonderful, this extensive sampler provides all the jam your heart desires. The complete set features plum cherry, orange apricot marmalade, strawberry raspberry, pineapple mango, mixed berry, and peach apricot.

Crumbs Gift Card - Need I say more? When is a free cupcake ever unwanted or unwarranted? Never. Especially as an on-the go treat.

Monogrammed Tote Bag - Always a pushover for anything monogrammed, I tote this little guy everywhere. The perfect lunch bag or grocery sack, this tote bag is super chic and personal making it the ultimate on-the-go gift. Oh, and did I mention that they are personally designed and crafted by bestie Catherine (who also just so happens to have a fabulously made-over blog)?

Crockpot Slow Cooker - This is one of my personal favorite appliances, and a great on-the-go gift. Put all of your ingredients in this sweet little appliance, press play, and presto! A home cooked meal that's perfect for the cold winter months...soup, pasta, chili, the possibilities are endless and it couldn't be easier.

Eco Coffee Cup - The perfect vehicle for the aforementioned hot chocolate. It's fun, functional and environmentally friendly to boot - the ideal way for an on-the-go foodster to bring homemade deliciousness along for the ride.

So what do you think? Any of these tickle your fancy? Do you have someone on your list for which any of these fit the bill?

Well that wraps up our '09 Gift Guide. I hope it was helpful in your holiday shopping, and if it was, I'd love to hear about it! Or if I left out any fabulous ideas, please clue me in for a possible reader-suggested gift guide for last minute shopping! Have an idea? Shout about it in comments!

*Also, if you missed any Foodster's Gift Guide madness last week, you can check out the guides below: