Sunday, May 31, 2009

Liz Claiborne: Gingham-Print Dirndle Skirt Review

I have wanted Liz Claiborne's Gingham-Print Dirndle Skirt (style #LCMUA160) since pretty much the moment I saw it.  The skirt is numerically-sized, and is available in this one color, indigo multi.  Liz Claiborne describes the skirt as such:
The arrival of this fabulously feminine skirt has just made our day. A fusion of old-world style and new-age whimsy, it features a full and flirty shape, tulle trim and discreetly placed pockets. Its playful gingham print has an innocently sweet vibe that we're over the moon for.Cotton/silk. Fully lined, tulle trim. Side zip, hook & eye close. 2 onseam pockets, high-waisted. Machine wash.
When this skirt was finally available for purchase online, it sold out in many sizes pretty quickly, including mine.  When it finally went on sale, it was available in one size bigger than I needed, so I just grabbed it anyway.  This is a size 8.  I had bought another Liz Claiborne dirndl(e) skirt, and I had ordered a size 4, and it was way too small (granted, I didn't read the size measurements carefully enough - I should have ordered a 6).  I get that the skirt is supposed to be high-waised, but it was very high waisted.  I would have liked this gingham-print skirt in a 6, but I had to settle for an 8, and I'm very pleased with the way it fits.  I would recommend your regular size if you want the skirt to be very high waisted, and a size up if you want to be a little higher on the waist, and two sizes up if you want it lower on the waist.

Boyfriend really dislikes this skirt.  He said it looks like something from the 50s, but that's what I like it.  It's such a fun and sort of retro print!  The skirt has a lining, and the bottom hem of the lining is a stiffer strip of fabric, which helps give the bottom of the skirt some fullness and shape.  There is also a small strip of tulle underneath as well, which also adds some fullness.  The actual skirt is a very light, soft and silky fabric.  I was actually surprised how light it was.  It's very smooth and delicate feeling, and is definitely not as shiny as it photographs.

The skirt moves very well, and is definitely a fuller shape, so if you are worried about adding a lot of volume to your bottom half, you might want to stay away from this skirt.  On the flipside, if you want to hide anything on your bottom half, this skirt can definitely help you out with that, too.  The skirt comes just to my knees, so a nice length, and if I were to wear it higher on my waist, then it would be a bit shorter, but I'm happy with the length it is now.

As for the pattern, it's a very pretty cotton-candyish shade of pink, which I love, but I can see how some people might think it's too cutesy.  I do love the retro sort of vibe of this skirt, but again, I think that's a personal style choice, and can see how it is not for everyone.

I love this skirt, and am so glad I was able to get it, especially on sale!  I love the way they've paired it with floral print shoes on the model - I have a pair of very similar shoes from Payless, and I will be curious to see how it looks in real life.

What do you think?  Do you like this skirt?  Do you think it is too sweet looking?  What would you pair it with?

PS - I included Mr. PD in these pictures just because he does the same turns that I do - front, side, and back - when I am doing them, and that was too cute not to share.

Indulgent Breakfast: Best Blueberry Muffins

I think it's always a bit risky to label any recipe as the "best" anything, especially [baked] classics, like apple pie, chocolate chip cookies, and yes, blueberry muffins.  However, Cook's Illustrated (from America's Test Kitchen) did just that.  I have to say that I have a weird relationship with blueberries - when I was a kid, I'm pretty sure I liked them a lot.  Then at some point, I didn't (same with raisins, YUCK!).  And I didn't for a while, but recently I have started to like them again, especially in or paired with baked goods.

I've never really been a fan of blueberry muffins, mainly because the ones you get at the store are usually huge and, in my opinion, leaning towards the dry side.  I also usually find them to be pretty sparse on the blueberry flavor.  My favorite types of muffins are coffee cake (with cinnamon streusel on top, of course) and chocolate chip.  However, when I ran across this recipe, the muffins looked pretty good (even in black and white pictures), so I decided to give them a try.

So let me tell you, these are by far, hands-down, the very, very best blueberry muffins I have ever had.  They are flavorful, with the just the right amount of blueberries, and are super moist.  I followed this recipe almost exactly to the letter, with the exception of one thing: I used sanding sugar instead of regular granulated sugar.  I prefer sanding sugar for toppings, and it adds a nice, crunchy texture to the top of the muffin.

As another note, I would highly recommend that you get your mise en place set up before starting to make these muffins.  I don't always do mise en place, but I would definitely recommend it for this recipe.  The recipe calls for fresh blueberries, but you can also use frozen blueberries with some changes.  I haven't tried the recipe with frozen blueberries, but I've included the changes below.  There are also a few variations for the topping (streusel, orange glaze, and almond crunch), but I haven't included them.  If you are interested in them, please leave a comment as to which one you are interested in.

The recipe calls for 10 ounces of blueberries; I've made these using two 4 oz. (so 8 oz. total) containers every time, and the muffins come out fine.  I also recommend weighing the ingredients, as opposed to measuring them, where the weights are noted.  The exception to this would be the sugar for the topping and the blueberries.

For the Lemon-Sugar Topping
1/3 cup (2 1/3 ounces) sugar [I recommend sanding sugar]
1 1/2 tsps finely grated zest from 1 lemon

For the Muffins
2 cups (approximately 10 ounces) fresh blueberries, picked over, with stems and bad blueberries thrown out
1 1/8 cups (8 ounces) plus 1 tsp sugar
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp table salt
2 large eggs
4 Tbsps (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsps vanilla extract

For the Topping
Stir together the sanding sugar and lemon zest in a small bowl until combined.  Set aside.

For the Muffins
1.  Melt the butter over low heat, and set aside.  (I include this as a step because I frequently forget to do it!)

2.  Adjust the oven rack to upper-middle position, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Spray a standard muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray.

3.  Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 tsp sugar to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook, mashing berries with a spoon (I find a fork works very well, maybe even better) several times, and stirring frequently, until the berries have broken down and the mixture has thickened and reduced to 1/4 cup (you will just have to eyeball this measurement), approximately 6 minutes.  Transfer the mixture to a small bowl, and let cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

4.  Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.  Set aside.

5.  Whisk remaining 1 1/8 cups of sugar and the eggs together in a medium bowl, until thick and incorporated, about 45 seconds.

6.  Slowly whisk in the butter and oil until combined.  Whisk in the buttermilk and vanilla until combined.

7.  Using a rubber spatula, fold the egg mixture and the remaining cup of blueberries into the flour mixture until just moistened.  The batter will be very lumpy with few spots of dry flour.  Do not overmix the batter, or your muffins will be tough.

8.  Use an ice cream scoop or large spoon to divide the batter equally among the muffin cups.  The batter should completely fill the cups and mound slightly.  You should have enough batter for exactly 12 muffins.

9.  Spoon a teaspoon of the cooked blueberry mixture into the center of each mound of muffin batter.  Using a chopstick or a skewer, gently swirl the blubeberry filling into the batter, using a figure-eight motion.

10.  Sprinkle the lemon sugar evenly over the muffins.

11.  Bake until muffn tops are golden and just firm, 17 to 19 minutes, rotating the muffin tin from front to back, halfway through baking tin.

12.  Cool muffins in muffin tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and let cool 5 minutes before serving enjoying.

For Frozen Blueberries
Follow the recipe above, substituting 2 cups of frozen berries for the fresh ones.  Cook 1 cup of the berries as directed in step 3.  Rinse the remaining cup of berries under cold water and dry well.  In step 7, toss the dried berries in the flour mixture before adding the egg mixture.  Proceed with the recipe from step 7/8 as directed.

I made a batch of these muffins with the blueberry filling and without.  While you can certainly get by without the blueberry filling, the muffins do taste better with it, even if they are a bit stickier.  If you make it without the filling, I'd put more blueberries in the batter.  And if you are tempted by these muffins, but know you should eat them (like me :)), remember what Weight Watchers says: a muffin is just a cake with a hat on it.  Although, that line never worked on me.

J.Crew: Eyelet Pencil Skirt Review

This is J.Crew's Eyelet Pencil Skirt (item #14865), which retails for $138.  It is numerically-sized, and is available in shadow and ivory.  J.Crew describes the skirt as such:
A sophisticated, classic pencil skirt covered with allover eyelet details. Cotton. Sits at waist. Back zip. Back vent. Fully lined. 24" long. Import. Dry clean.
I picked up this skirt in a size 4 in the shadow color, which is a nice, rich navy color.  The skirt fits true-to-size.  It is a straight, classic pencil skirt silhouette.  It is lined underneath in a navy cotton, and the actual skirt itself is an allover embroidered open circle pattern.  Boyfriend had a very special way of describing the pattern of this skirt (skip this next part if you're easily offended); he said it looks the skirt is covered in a**holes.  Honestly, I don't know where he comes up with this stuff.  Regardless, I don't see it.  The eyelets themselves are not too large, but appear larger because the trim around each eyelet is pretty wide.  The eyelets are of uniform width, and the skirt itself is a bit thicker and sturdier than some of the other spring and summer pencil skirts.

I happen to like the print (despite what Boyfriend thinks), and I think it is an interesting way to sort of spruce up a basic navy pencil skirt.  The length is a tad on the long side, but I haven't decided if I'm going to get this hemmed yet.  It comes to below my knees, which is not the ideal length, but I am a tiny bit of afraid of how much the tailoring would be on a skirt like this.  I like the navy color, too.  I would say it's a bit on the darker navy side; Boyfriend actually thought it was black when he first saw it.  I have just started to look at navy as a really great wardrobe basic, because I have finally opened up to pairing it with colors aside from shades of white.

Like all of the J.Crew pencil skirts I've picked up this year, the fit is pretty flattering, in my opinion, even for someone with some curves.  The skirt is a nice, straight line down, and is just fitted enough to accentuate curves (although not as much as some other pencil skirts from this season), but loose enough so you can move and breathe, too.  I would pair this skirt with a variety of colors, but I would keep the top fairly basic - nothing too busy - because I think the pattern on this skirt is a loud enough detail on its own.

Here is a close-up of the pattern.

I am definitely keeping this one.  I think it is an interesting twist on a basic navy pencil skirt, and I really love pencil skirts (so I guess I'm a little biased :)).

What do you think?  Do you like this skirt?  Have you seen it or do you own it?  Which color do you prefer?  What would you pair it with?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

J.Crew: Beaded Etoile Cardigan Review

This is J.Crew's Beaded Etoile Cardigan (item #15091), which retails for $88.  It is numerically sized, and is available in stone and papaya.  J.Crew describes the cardigan as such:
Light up the room in our silk chiffon and seed bead-appliqu├ęd cardigan. It's perfectly lightweight in cotton in a 16-gauge knit. Fitted. Crewneck. Rib trim at neck, cuffs and hem. Short sleeves. Hits at hip. Import. Dry clean. Catalog/ only.
Here is a the stock photo of the papaya color.

I ordered this sweater in a size small, in the papaya color.  I was really curious how this sweater would be in person.  First off, the color is not quite how it is depicted online.  The papaya color is a bit darker, and the beading is darker than the sweater (I think the beading looks a bit lighter than the sweater in the picture).

The cotton on this cardigan is really light and thin.  I was surprised that it was so light, but I think it works with the busy beadwork.  The sweater is about as light as the featherweight cotton cardigans (with the jewel-like buttons), but is silkier and smoother, in my opinion.  The sweater is also fairly sheer; I would definitely layer this sweater, and would not wear it without something underneath.

I believe that the sweater fits true-to-size, but I think it's a tad on the larger size in the body (not the sleeves).  The sweater was a tiny bit loose in places, but I wouldn't size down.  The sweater has a fairly straight line down, so I wouldn't look to this sweater to help create any waist definition.

As for the beading, I was really curious how this would look in real life.  Like I said earlier, the beadwork is darker than the color of the actual sweater, contrary to the stock photo.  The beadwork consists of allover tiny pieces of silk chiffon with a tiny bead accent.  I actually think the look is pretty cute.  The chiffon and beads are very small and delicate, so they don't weigh down or overhwhelm the rest of the sweater.

One thing I would note is that I think it is best to wear this sweater buttoned up.  In fact, when I started to unbutton this sweater and pull the sides apart, there was this almost tearing sound, as the sides separated from each other.  I inspected it very carefully, and there was definitely no damage - where the buttons meet, the sweater is lined with the silk chiffon beadwork all the way down, so this seemed to get stuck to the cotton.  While it looks okay open, I prefer it closed, because the pattern is so distinct.  Below is a close-up of the pattern.

I am keeping this sweater, because I think it is a very cute spring and summer sweater, and will work with so many different colors.  I'll be pairing this with simpler bottoms, to keep the outfit from being too busy.

What do you think?  Do you like this sweater?  Do you own it or have you tried it on?  Which color do you prefer?  What would you pair this sweater with?

J.Crew: Dressy Jersey Cinched Dress Review

This is J.Crew's Dressy Jersey Cinched Dress (item #15340), which retails for $78.  It is alpha-sized, and comes in tropical palm and dark charcoal.  J.Crew describes the dress as such:
A relaxed, versatile style in our refined, sophisticated viscose jersey. Sleeveless silhouette. Fitted bodice with V-neck front and back. Long wrap-tie at waist. Falls to knee; 22 1/2" from natural waist. Import. Machine wash. Catalog/ only.
I ordered this dress in a size small, in the dark charcoal color.  I know the tropical palm color looks very lovely on many of you, but olivey greens are just not my thing.  I think this dress fits true-to-size.  While there is definitely some stretch (and thus a little extra room) in the small, I still would just stick with my regular size, because I think it might be a bit too tight around the waist in an extra small, even with the stretch.

My love for J.Crew's jersey dresses is no secret, and this dress is no exception.  The jersey is a nice, midweight jersey that flows and drapes very nicely.  It is a soft and cool fabric, and the dress is cut in a flattering silhouette that creates a neatly defined waist.  The waist sash is attached at the side, and wraps around the middle, and can be tied in the front or the back.  I think the length of this dress is nice - it hits a tiny bit below the knee for me.  I would have liked it to hit where it hits on the model, but it's not so long that I need to get it shortened, which is always a plus.

This dress is cut a bit more fully than some of the straighter jersey dresses, and that helps prevent any unflattering jersey cling, especially in the midsection or on the rear.

The back of the dress looks pretty much just like the front.  Even though the back is a bit deep, I was still able to wear a regular bra with it, which is good.  My one issue with this dress is the sleeves.  I prefer the sleeveless style on this dress, as opposed to the cap sleeve, which is the way the sleeves sort of naturally fall.  While you can scrunch the sleeves up to make the dress strapless, I couldn't find any way to make them stay, which was disappointing, as I think the dress is much cleaner looking as a sleeveless dress.

Overall, I think this is a really cute dress, especially once I can figure out the sleeves.  I really like the silhouette, and I think this dress can be really simple and casual, or dressed up with the right accessories.

What do you think?  Do you like this dress?  Do you own it?  Which color do you prefer?  How would you accessorize this dress?

Check Out Some Other Reviews

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mother's Day Cake: Devil's Food Cake with Swiss-Meringue Buttercream

I come from a great family of unofficial cookers and bakers (meaning that is not anyone's profession).  I grew up with a home-cooked meal pretty much every night, and have fond memories of baking with my mom for holidays, and indulging in delicious treats made by grandparents.  I'm now the unofficial dessert maker for family occasions, and I love finding great recipes or making up new ones as I go.

For Mother's Day, my aunt asked for 2 desserts, and requested that at least one of them be chocolate.  There were a lot of options, but I was itching to practice frosting and decorating again, so I decided to make a cake.  It was going to be a relatively small group, and I knew that cake-eating would be a tad limited (people watching their weight, grandparents watching their sugar intake), so I stuck with a basic 9" round cake, but I cut each cake round in half, to make a 4-layer cake.

You don't need any fancy equipment for this one, but let me say that if you're going to "splurge" on cake pans, I recommend Chicago Metallic pans for just about anything, and even these are not too expensive.  (I've picked some up for less than $10).  I also recommend getting the non-nonstick ones (lighter and shinier pans).  Even though these pans require more work (what with the buttering and flouring and parchment-papering), these cakes are much less prone to burning or hard edges.  As for the pans themselves, they are a nice, deep pan with more defined edges, that will lend themselves to crisper, more defined cake shapes. 

At a minimum, you will need the following equipment if you want to replicate the cake, including design:
  • Stand or hand mixer, with both beater and whisk attachments
  • Double boiler (either a two-pan double boiler, or a heatproof bowl and a large pan)
  • Offset or frosting/icing spatula [you can use a knife for this, but it will not look as clean]
  • Cake stand (preferably one that turns)
  • Shell, flower, and round frosting tips and connectors
  • Piping bags
The recipe for both the cake and the frosting comes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook.  The recipe for the cake is meant to be frosted with mint-chocolate ganache, but I went with a more traditional frosting, a Swiss-meringue buttercream.  I'll probably try this cake with the ganache at some point though.  If you can't find or don't have Dutch-process cocoa handy, you can go ahead and use regular cocoa powder; your cake will end up a bit lighter in color.  I did a straight substitution in my cake (even though there are some other generally recommended changes if you substitute), and didn't notice much difference, except in the color.

Please note that I doubled the frosting recipe for this cake, but only gave you the recipe for one batch, which makes approximately 4 cups.

For the Cake
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature + more for pans
3/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted + more for pans
3/4 cup hot water
3/4 cup sour cream
3 cups cake flour (not self-rising), sifted
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2.  Butter two 9x2 inch round cake pans, and then line the bottoms with parchment paper.  Butter the parchment, and then dust with cocoa powder, tapping out the excess.

3.  In a medium bowl, whisk the cocoa with the hot water until smooth.  Whisk in sour cream, and let mixture cool.

4.  In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.

5.  In the bowl of the mixur, beat butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 - 4 minutes.

6.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to combine after each addition.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

7.  Beat in vanilla.

8.  With mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in two parts, alternating with the cocoa mixture, and beginning and ending with the flour.  So basically: add half the flour, then the entire cocoa mixture, then the remaining half of the flour mixture.  Beat until combined.

9.  Divide the batter between the prepared pans, and rap the pans on the counter to level and release any trapped air.  Smooth the top of the batter with a spatual.

10.  Bake until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 45 to 50 minutes.

11.  Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes.  Invert the cakes onto the rack, and peel of the parchment paper.  Reinvert the cakes, and let them cool completely, with the top sides up.  [I just left the top sides down, and they came out fine.]

For the Frosting
4 large egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1.  Either in a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, combine the egg whites and sugar.  Cook, whisking constantly, until the sugar has dissolved the mixture is warm to the touch (about 160 degrees F).  [Enjoy this step.  You won't have to do any arm workouts for a couple days after this one.]

2.  If using a stand mixer, add the mixture to the bowl of the stand mixer; otherwise, you can just use the same bowl.  Using the whisk attachment, beat the egg-white mixture on high speed until stiff (but not dry) peaks hold.  Continue beating until the mixture is fluffy and cooled, for about 6 minutes.

3.  Switch to the paddle or beater attachment, and with the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter several tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition.  If the frosting starts to separate after all of the butter has been added, beat on medium-high speed until smooth again, 3 to 5 minutes more.

4.  Beat in the vanilla.  Beat on the lowest speed to eliminate any air bubbles, for about 2 minutes.  Stir with a rubber spatula until the frosting is smooth.

Note on Storing the Frosting
If you'll be using the frosting within several hours, cover it with plastic wrap and keep it at room temperature.  You can also refrigerate frosting in an airtight container for up to 3 days, or freeze it for up to 1 month.  Before using, bring the frosting to room temperature, and beat with an electric mixer on the lowest speed until smooth.

Assembling and Frosting
I can't really give you many tips for frosting and assembling the cake, as it's fairly straightforward: cut the top off each round, cut each round in half, frost in between the layers, frost, and then decorate.

Some tips for a well-frosted cake:
Use simple syrup.  Apply simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) with a pastry brush to each layer to help seal in or add moisture.  [Sadly, I never remember to do this.]

Do a crumb coat.  A crumb coat is a very light layer of frosting that you put on the cake, which helps to avoid getting crumbs in the final frost.  Then you put the cake in the refrigerator for about an hour or so to let the crumb coat set, and then put another layer of frosting on top.  This layer would be much fuller and heavier, and is what you will see in the finished product.

Work from the inside out, and the top down.  Add a huge dollop of frosting to the top of the cake, and use an offset or frosting spatula with a cake turntable to push the frosting out to the sides, and then push the frosting down the sides.

A cake turntable + offset spatula are the best tools.  These two tools used together will give you a very nice looking frost, and are very easy to use once you get the technique down.  The key is just to let the tools do the work.