Create: Chocolate-Almond Bark

I was at a party recently where I finished nearly an entire tray of this incredible bark with sea salt, hints of caramel, almonds and dark chocolate. It launched me into complete college flashback munchie mode in the middle of a pretty fancy affair. And I wasn’t at all apologetic. It’s that good.

The recipe is from the December issue of Bon Appétit. Making the caramel takes a little patience, but otherwise it was pretty simple. I just made a batch to bring to friends, and it was nearly wiped out within two hours of our arrival. Thankfully the bowl that I gifted along with it will last a bit longer.

Gift: Golden Year

There is a superstition that whatever you do on New Year’s Day will set the tone for the year ahead. So when it comes to gifts, why not make them shiny and bright. Here are a few golden ideas for any New Year fete from dinner party to brunch.

A bit of a splurge, but these elegant Golden Fig Vases from Apartment 48 are worth it.

Golden Fig Vase

Practical, yet stylish, the S’well stainless steel water bottle is a great accessory for those resolving to be healthier in the coming year. You can find it at Orange and Pear. What’s even more refreshing is that 10% of proceeds go to helping build safe water sources internationally.

S'well Water Bottle

So cool. So affordable. So perfect for any party. You’ll find the chic Glitter Tart Server at LEIF.

Glitter Tart Servers

These glasses hand etched with a golden berry pattern would be perfect with something bubbly. And they’re on sale right now atSeltzer Studios.

Golden Berry Glasses

A little something for the kids: a Golden Can Bank from Fred Flare. A cool way to save in 2012.

Golden Can Bank


Gift: Tiny Bubbles

Big announcements. Small victories. Long-awaited reunions. Family drama. Whatever the season brings, break out the bubbles. Leigh Thurber and Melissa Apfelbaum, owners of Picada y Vino, a wine shop specializing in smaller-production wines from around the world, shared their expert sparkling picks. They travel in search of great finds from lesser known regions, up-and-coming winemakers, unique estates, and off-the-beaten-path producers, so I knew they’d have some festive Champagne alternatives.

Leigh notes that sparkling wines are a natural cleanser for the palate, making them perfect for any course or in-between. Cool fact: all wine starts out as sparkling, and then the gas is released to make it still. Ok, enough small talk, now for Leigh’s selects and wine notes…..

Gruet, Brut, New Mexico: Yes, a sparkling wine from New Mexico. Made with Chardonnay grapes in the Champagne style, it’s brilliant with ultra fine bubbles. A wonderful fine bouquet dominated by green apple and grapefruit flavors.

Gruet, Brut, New Mexico

 N.V. Frédéric Lornet Crémant du Jura Brut Blanc, France: A biodynamic sparkling wine with a lovely pink tint—pink is the big thing this year. It’s fruit driven with wild strawberries, raspberries, a bright fruit profile and bubbles that tickle the palate.

N.V. Frédéric Lornet Crémant du Jura Brut Blanc, France

Le Vigne di Alice Prosecco Sparkling: Made from the Prosecco grape, this is how Italians do sparkling. Super elegant and on the dry side with mix of apple acidity with pear notes. The pink is fun for the holidays too.

Le Vigne di Alice Prosecco Sparkling NV

Lini 910 Lambrusco Rosato, Emilia-Romagna, Italy: Lambrusco is the grape, and this style of wine can range from very sweet to very dry. The dark red color is kinda masculine, so good for guys who don’t typically go for a lighter sparkling wine. This wine has pleasantly brisk bubbles and a fresh, ripe berry flavor-wine detail.

Lini 910 Lambrusco Rosato, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Castellroig Reserva Brut Naturi, Spain: Spanish take on bubbles from the Cava region. This cava is made following traditional methods. The resulting sparkler is festive and elegant. It has delicate but persistent bubbles, hints of bananas, fresh fruit, brioche and a fresh, dry, balanced palate. A great choice for cocktail parties and other holiday occasions.

Castellroig Reserva Brut Naturi, Spain

Thanks Leigh! Stop by Picada y Vino in Brooklyn and shop their hand selected wines.

Create: Winter Bird Feeders

Materials: twine, pine cones, bird seed, peanut butter

Every year my sister and her husband have a Winter Solstice party which has now become its own mini-holiday. Like other holidays, it involves traditions and rituals. Made up ones, but still, it all comes off as legit and even meaningful. Each year we know there will be mulled wine bubbling on the stove, sugar cookies decorated with pentagram symbols and the bird feeder craft table.

We slather the pine cones with peanut butter, roll them in bird seed and leave them to set while we drink wine. Once we’ve all made a bird feeder, we head to a nearby park (one year in full candlelight procession) on the East River to hang our sticky offerings to Mother Nature (and the pigeons) on the spindly trees. Everyone is also given an evergreen bough which they wish on and fling out into the dark water. Then we march over to the local bar and continue the party.

Weird, right? But no stranger than decorating a once living tree with fragile ornaments or putting cookies out for a fictitious guy in a red suit. Not just for Winter Solstice, making bird feeders is a diversion for any winter afternoon, especially with kids. The materials are easy to find and would make a cool little gift too.

Happy Winter Solstice! Here’s to longer, brighter days ahead.

Click on the images for the easy step-by-step instructions.


Create: Go Nuts!

Guest post by Adam Miller

Allow me to introduce Adam Miller: writer, editor, curious traveler and the guy to stay up with way too late talking about music. He cooks too, and offered to reveal his family’s Spiced Nut recipe for the holidays. So Adam can now add Good House Guest contributor (our first!) to his list of distinctions. Thanks Adam! Follow Adam around on Twitter and read more of his food writing here. 

 A batch of these savory-sweet snacks would make an excellent gift for upcoming Hanukkah, Christmas or New Year’s parties. Adam suggests presenting them in a Mason jar with a ribbon. We guarantee everyone will, er, go nuts for them.

My mom and aunt have been making spiced pecans and almonds for years. I’ve always loved them. A bit sweet, a bit salty, and a bit spicy—they’re the perfect snack. They’re also great in salads and an impressive garnish to add to a cheese plate. Funny thing about these, though, is that I never considered making them myself. Just seems like it must be a lot of fuss, right?

So wrong!

Although they take a bit of time in the oven, the actual work involved is 5-10 minutes, tops. It’s worth the minimal effort because these are so much tastier than any of the store-bought mixes. (Don’t worry. I still love you, trashy gas station Blue Diamond Smokehouse Almonds. See you next road trip!)

Make sure the nuts you buy are raw. Raw nuts are available pretty much any place that sells nuts in bulk. This recipe is for one pound of nuts. I use a mix of almonds and pecans, but I’m sure you can do it with any combination.

Here’s what you’ll need:

1 lb. raw nuts

1 egg

1 Tbsp. chili powder*

2 tsp. garlic powder

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. salt

1 Tbsp. rosemary, crumbled

Preheat your oven to 250°. While the oven warms, prepare the mix by separating the egg and discarding the yolk. Beat the egg white with 1 tbsp. of water until frothy. In a separate small bowl, combine all the spices (everything except the nuts). Blend the spices and add to the egg white mixture. Mix well. Add the nuts and fold in until all are coated. Spread the nuts across a non-stick or lightly oiled cookie sheet. Bake for 40 minutes. Stir and bake for 30 more minutes. Allow nuts to cool and store in an airtight container.

*Chili powders vary greatly. I found that the one I was using was a little too salty and not spicy enough, so I only used half a Tbsp. of the chili powder and added half a Tbsp. of cayenne pepper. You could also make your own with cumin, cayenne, a bit of salt, and whatever else you enjoy! Really, the spice mix can be tinkered with a lot.

Gift: Coral & Tusk

Bunny with Arrows

My devotion to the fairy tales and nautical yarns spun by Brooklyn-based Coral & Tusk started with a bunny. Not just any little fuzzy rabbit either. But one who had recently earned his scout badge by making a set of bows and arrows by hand that he slung (along with some carrots) in a woven basket over his shoulder.

This endearing character was perfect for my son’s room. More than just a cute creature, he’s a resourceful and curious little adventurer. Just the sort of someone I hope my son will grow to admire.

As I explored the Coral & Tusk site I realized that the artist, Stephanie Housley, lived right next door to me. What incredible luck! Especially since I kept finding things just right for different occasions from baby gifts to weddings from her line.

Better yet still, Stephanie is just as lovely as the fantastic scenes she sketches and stitches into existence. She recently took some time away from her woodland and high seas worlds to tell me a little more about the company she started with her husband Chris in 2007. There are four other members of the C&T team (Alija, Maya, Chelsea, Atsuko) and their dog, Paco, who serves as a pretty excellent mascot.

How did Coral & Tusk begin? The seed from which the whole company and product range grew from was my memory game, Sea & Match. I actually began it when I had insomnia one night in India. I embarked on making a hand embroidered, entirely nautical themed memory game, one letter for the whole alphabet. About halfway through I realized I had to make two of every piece––52 pieces total––plus a container! Then one day, I was looking through Martha Stewart magazine drooling over a pic of one of her sewing rooms when it hit me: they must make a machine that would allow me to do what I am trying to achieve.

The embroidery process is pretty cool. Can you explain how it works? I begin by drawing the original artwork on paper and then make an embroidery file based on that drawing. There is software that comes with the machine where I redraw the artwork, literally stitch by stitch, so that it completely harnesses the hand and mark making of my drawing. Once I have created the embroidery file, I make the design on my embroidery machine.

 Is there a story behind the name? I wanted to choose a name that had wonderful visual components. I selected Coral & Tusk specifically because they are both very auspicious natural materials that bring good luck and carry a lot of symbolism. I also appreciate that these materials exist both on land and in the sea.

Your characters––a bird-watching owl, bunny with a sack of arrows, sledding hedgehog––have distinct personalities and pretty rich lives. How do these characters and stories come to you? I do all my best thinking on the subway or chatting at home over coffee with my husband, Chris. Storytelling is the defining component that drives me to create these critters. As childish as it sounds, I do not really see animals as different from  people. So it’s a pretty easy bridge to cross when I am thinking about a bunny who is going out for a little archery knowing that he is going to get a touch hungry and would need a snack, so he’s put a carrot in with his arrows. Wouldn’t you? The stories and accessories seem to just develop really naturally

Any new characters in development? Yes–– many new things on the horizon! More pocket dolls for sure, and panda and tiger from my design “high five” are coming to life.

What are your top C&T gifts to bring to a host? Being that it is holiday season, the tea towels are an excellent multi-purpose gift. The pocket dolls are also really great gifts since they are very much ageless and appeal to kids and adults alike. The embroidered stationery is also a great idea since you can leave your hostess a hand written thank you note on what becomes a keepsake for them.

Find retailers, the web store and the full line of Coral&Tuck creations here.

Click on an image for a slide show.



Wander: Venice

My dollhouse was a three flat brownstone walk-up. A bit odd for a 7-year-old living in the  suburbs, but it explains my pull to urban nests. So I couldn’t have been more thrilled when on a family trip to Venice, Italy we rented an apartment in the San Polo neighborhood near the Rialto Mercato and lived as the locals do, for a few days anyway. Aside from the bountiful fish and vegetable market, here, tucked like pockets into the stooped doorways, were bars serving short glasses of wine and small, savory plates to gondoliers and water taxi drivers. It was a good locals scene all around.

The facade of the 17th century apartment building was rippled with stains marking the canal floods like rings on a tree. Three flights of stairs led up to a modern respite in this Gothic city.  The contemporary lines inside the spacious one bedroom with squat loft gave way to bell towers and titian hued roof lines that stacked like caterpillars inching towards the horizon outside.

We were there on the verge of Carnevale, when elegant, masked characters float like ghosts throughout the watery city. The costumes added yet another mythical layer to an already surreal setting, which made returning each evening to creature comforts like a stocked kitchen and sprawling couch that much cozier.

Click on an image for a slide show.


Gift: Stock the Larder

Enji Kunsei Olive Oil, Japan,

What do you bring to your boss’s house for dinner? Gift your child’s teacher? Or your soon-to-be in-laws? Well, ask Good House Guest. I’ll do my best to hunt down a solution, like I did for my friend Sarah.

Q: We are invited to dinner at a couple’s house tomorrow night. They are retired and super foodies. They always cook us amazing dinners and never want us to bring dessert or anything, and I’m tired of bringing just wine. They are sort of no nonsense people. I need a suggestion of what to bring. Ideas?

A: Help re-stock their pantry. I like the combo of an interesting olive oil (comparable in price to a really nice bottle of wine) and sea salt. Super basic, but very necessary. The oil is something they’ll experiment with while cooking or appreciate for dipping. Plus, it’s a good excuse to stop by your local specialty grocery store and sample smooth oils from Italy or peppery ones from California. I even came across a cold-smoked olive oil from Japan. Sea salt is used to finish everything from fresh pasta to baked goods. It’s a staple, but you can find some cool small batch ones being made everywhere from the shores of Long Island, New York to the coast of France.


Ps&Qs: Shoes On or Off?

The practice of leaving shoes at the door when entering a home is one of the many Japanese customs that clicked with me. I especially liked it when house slippers were presented in exchange for my shoes. At a ryokan in Kyoto designated toilet slippers were even provided. Kinda brilliant.

I asked a Japanese friend about this, but she couldn’t explain what she considered merely a habit of daily life. So, I put a curious gaijin (my cousin Tommy who lives and works in Tokyo) on the case.

The reason for ditching shoes at the door is largely practical. Traditional Japanese living happens close to the floor. You dine at low tables without chairs and sleep on futon mattresses rolled out on the tatami mat floors. Bare feet, socks or slippers keep living spaces cleaner and save on tatami wear and tear.

There is also the symbolic. In every Japanese house is an area called the genkan, where you take off your shoes. This area literally separates the inside and the outside of the home. Removing shoes in the genkan could be seen as a gesture for letting down your social guard before entering the home where you can be more comfortable with the family and friends inside.

For the most part our house is now a shoe free zone. Friends and family seem comfortable with the rule. But we make it optional for new guests, and we always make an exception when we have bigger groups over. It was an easy and practical change to make. In New York, where garbage blossoms at the curbs, we’re all too aware of the crud we drag underfoot. Plus, with a baby in the mix we spend a lot of time on the floor these days.

Aside from the benefit of cleaning up a bit less, it’s been noted that reduced germs from dirty shoes can result in fewer colds. I’ll go with it. In a nod to Japanese hospitality, I even bought a bunch of slippers for people to shuffle around in–but really, people just prefer to be slipper free too.

So what’s your policy: shoes on or off?


Create: Sew Easy

I took my very first sewing class recently at the incredible Make Workshop, a tidy studio housed in an artist’s collective on the Lower East Side.  Dianna Rupp, the studio’s founder, sewing book author and creative force, patiently walked us through everything from bobbins to back stitches. And at the end of the two-hour Intro to Sewing Machine session I had a nifty wallet-style pouch to show for it.

For those who know their way around a sewing machine, Diana suggested a pouch like this to present small trinkets for a holiday grab bag or office gift swap. Gussy up movie tickets, coffee gift certificates, even a little tube of lip gloss will seem like a bigger deal with bespoke packaging.