Farewell 2013

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As we count down the hours to the new year and make decisions about glittering party wear, I’m thinking back a little on the last twelve months.  Here are a few highlights.

New Mosque and a chestnut vendor

We had an amazing time exploring Istanbul

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I got a great new bike from Public and starting riding to work

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We made it up to New York three times to visit friends and family

Getting the fire pit going

We vacationed with dear friends in Michigan

Countryside

Visited Ithaca for a wedding

Satellite Beach

Visited Florida for another wedding

Traveled to Texas for a family wedding

Traveled to Texas for a family wedding

Traveled to Boston for another family wedding

Traveled to Boston for another family wedding

View of the city

Traveled to LA and the OC for a fifth and final wedding

Amusement park on the Santa Cruz board walk

Caught up with good friends in Santa Cruz

Red ice plant growing along the dunes

Spent two wonderful weeks in Monterey

A perfect weekend lunch

And enjoyed all kinds of amazing food, both homemade and at incredible restaurants

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We ate a lot of good cheese

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Made many great drinks

Dinner party with old friends and my mother ❤

And shared food and drink with small gatherings of good friends and family

It’s been a great year, and here’s hoping 2014 is just as wonderful.

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Another Christmas

Pass the Pigs antics

Pass the Pigs antics

Hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and a relaxing weekend.  We had an amazing few days of wonderful food and great fun with friends.  Here are twelve of my favorite shots from Christmas.

Nostalgic gifts

Nostalgic gifts

The best kind of Christmas eve lunch

The best kind of Christmas eve lunch

Roaring fire and mini stockings

Roaring fire and mini stockings

Champers and paper crowns

Champers and paper crowns

Roasted duck feat

Roasted duck feat

Enticing a few gifts out of Caga Tió

Enticing a few gifts out of Caga Tió

Somebody decided to make wrapping paper for my gifts as well

Somebody decided to make wrapping paper for my gifts as well

Borrowing babies from the neighbors

Borrowing babies from the neighbors

Pretty thrilled that everyone shared my enthusiasm for paper crowns

Pretty thrilled that everyone shared my enthusiasm for paper crowns

Pass the Pigs

Pass the Pigs

It’s Friday, I’m in love

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Working between the holidays is pretty tough, especially when the Mister is home.  I’m glad for the weekend and a little more quality time with him.  We’ll be working on freshening up the paint on the walls and putting in shelves.

Here are a few photos from the week.  Hope you have a great weekend!

A little decadence peeking out of my purse on the commute home

A little decadence peeking out of my purse on the commute home

Smitten Kitchen has taught the Mister to make the perfect poached egg every time

Smitten Kitchen has taught the Mister to make the perfect poached egg every time

The jewels of winter

The jewels of winter

Enjoying a few last Christmas cards over champagne cocktails

Enjoying a few last Christmas cards over champagne cocktails

Boxing day sales

These calf hair flats have seen better days

These calf hair flats have seen better days

Though I have to head back to work today, later in the day I’m planning to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales to fill a couple of wardrobe holes.  My beloved leopard-print calf-hair flats have seen better days and I’m thinking of replacing them with these similar loafers from Madewell.  They look comfy, and leopard print seems to work like a neutral and pair with everything.  What sales are you planning to hit?

The Teddy Loafer from Madewell

The Teddy Loafer from Madewell

[Lower photo courtesy of Madewell]

A very merry DC Christmas!

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Happy Christmas morning!  We’re spending the day munching on sweets, beating a few presents out of Caga Tió, and then heading over to see friends for a holiday celebration.

Here are a few photos of the National Christmas Tree at the White House, which we which we stopped to visit after work a few days ago.  Happy Holidays from DC!

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White.House.Christmas.1

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Paper crowns

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I mentioned yesterday that I can’t think of anything more fun than wearing paper crowns on Christmas.  Last year I cut out colorful tissue paper crowns to go in my homemade Christmas crackers.  We hosted family and a friend for the holidays last December, and paper crowns on every head made for a festive Christmas dinner.

This year, I went a little fancier and used gold watercolor paint on a large piece of rice paper.  The 21 x 18 inch sheet cut down perfectly into eight crowns, each of which got embellished with little golden star stickers.  The paper crowns are now all tucked away in Christmas crackers, which we plan to bring over as a gift to the friends who are generously hosting us on Christmas day.

Paper.crowns.1

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Making Christmas crackers

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I’ve always loved the idea of Christmas crackers.  One year, in an office white elephant exchange, a box of Christmas crackers briefly entered and exited my possession.  They were the real British kind, that made a cracking sound and were filled with prizes and paper hats.

Disappointed but determined to have my own crackers, a little googling showed me that they were pretty easy to make, and now it’s one of our traditions.  All you need is a few cardboard tubes (spent wrapping paper tubes are perfect), tape, string or ribbon, and wrapping paper.  For the prizes that go inside, I make paper crowns and add a few chocolate candies.  Traditionally small toys also go into the crackers, but since there aren’t currently any children in our family, I think it’s fun to throw in a few scratch tickets.

We had a lot of fun with these last Christmas when my in-laws were visiting.  This year, we’re spending part of Christmas day with friends and I’m planning to bring my homemade crackers along.  Hopefully everyone will be as excited to wear paper crowns as I am.

Materials: cardboard tubes, wrapping paper, paper crowns, scratch tickets, chocolates, and twine

Materials: cardboard tubes, wrapping paper, paper crowns, scratch tickets, chocolates, and twine

Place scratch tickets in the tube

Start by inserting a scratch ticket in the tube

Roll up the crown and slide into tube

Then, roll up the crown and slide into tube

Tie one end of the paper with string

Wrap the tube with a bit of Christmas paper and tie one end  with string

Add a few small candies

Add a few small candies

Secure the other end

Secure the other end with string.  Ready to go!

It’s Friday, I’m in love

The atrium of the building I work in never looks lovelier than at this time of year

The atrium of the building I work in never looks lovelier than at this time of year

Since the Mister spent the earlier part of the month traveling, we’re staying in town for the holidays this year.  This is the first time we’ve spent the holidays alone together, which is kind of sweet and romantic.  We’re planning to do a little baking, wrap a couple more gifts, and enjoy a few cocktails while DC is at its quietest.

Here are a few photos from the week.  Hope you have a great weekend!

The bar cart looking lovely in the midday winter sun

The bar cart all aglow in the midday winter sun

Tiny stockings hung from the bookshelves

Tiny stockings hung from the bookshelves

White poinsettias lined up on the marble staircase

White poinsettias lined up on the marble staircase

Gingerbread and candy zoo!

Gingerbread and candy zoo!

Caga Tió

Caga Tio

Caga Tio

Since we’ve been together, the Mister and I have adopted our own little hodgepodge of holiday traditions.  One of our favorites is Caga Tió.

I first experienced Caga Tió, or Tió de Nadal, while spending part of the holidays in Barcelona.  As I wandered the Christmas markets, I kept seeing these adorable wooden logs with smiling faces and red caps.  This was Caga Tió, which in Catalan translates roughly to Poo Log.  The tradition works like this: leading up to Christmas, children offer Caga Tió little gifts of food like nuts and candy, and cover him with a blanket so he doesn’t get too chilly; then on Christmas, they entice him to “poo” out presents by beating him with a stick and singing songs.  The presents “appear” under Caga Tió’s blanket.

Caga Tios at the Christmas market in Barcelona

Caga Tios at the Christmas market in Barcelona

Spanish children beating a giant Caga Tio

Spanish children beating a giant Caga Tio

While in Barcelona, I saw children lined up in the market square to take a turn beating a giant Caga Tió with a stick, much like other children line up to visit Santa.  I thought this was a pretty delightful tradition so I bought a small Caga Tió as a gift for my mother, who likes to fill her home with Christmas decorations.  She loved it and every year our family dutifully feeds it treats during the holiday season.

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2011

2011

2011

2012

2012

When I started to bring the Mister home for the holidays, he was equally enchanted with the idea of Caga Tió, so one Christmas a few years ago, he surprised me with a homemade Caga Tió.  We adore him, and he takes the place of honor in our little apartment that would normally be reserved for a Christmas tree.  Every year we feed him treats, and every year we give him a good beating with a stick so that he will “poo” out our presents under his blanket.  We’ve even gotten friends and family to participate, and it has become one of our fun traditions.

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Peppermint bark with a crunch

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I’d never heard of peppermint bark until the first Christmas I spent with the Mister’s family, and it has since become a holiday favorite.  This year I wanted to try making my own, and I scoured the internet looking for the perfect recipe.  I’m a big fan of Shutterbean and when Tracy posted a recipe for crunchy peppermint bark a few days ago, I knew I’d found the one.

These have been a hit both at home and with my colleagues;  I think the Mister ate about half the plate by dinnertime.  Fortunately they are super easy to make, so I think I may whip up another batch before Christmas.

Candy canes, white chocolate, rice crispies, dark chocolate

Candy canes, white chocolate, rice crispies, dark chocolate

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A few tips:

Tracy recommends buying “good” white chocolate.  I’ve never bought white chocolate before so I wasn’t sure whether this was for flavor or ease of use.  I get my good dark chocolate (for baking) at the local organic store, so I just bought the only white chocolate they had and it tastes good and melted well.

I took her advice and refrigerated the crispy white chocolate layer, then added a dark chocolate layer and the crushed peppermint.  This was a fantastic idea and I like the way the white and red of the crushed peppermint stands out against that dark chocolate layer.  I do think next time I’ll look for a slightly more bitter dark chocolate since the white layer is already so sweet.

I smoothed my white chocolate and rice crispy layer between two pieces of parchment paper.  This meant that the upper surface was nice and smooth by the time it had set, and much easier for me to spread a thin layer of dark chocolate over.

When crushing the candy canes, I recommend doubling up on the plastic bags.  The sharp edges of the candy tend to bust right through the baggies, and the peppermint dust will go flying.  I went through three plastic baggies altogether for this batch.

Tracy breaks her bark into jagged pieces, but I found it pretty easy to cut into neat little rectangles with a knife.

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Making wrapping paper

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This year I decided to make my own wrapping paper.  This decision was less about any crafty inspiration on my part, and more about not wanting to go buy wrapping paper and then having to find storage space in my tiny apartment for the half I don’t end up using.  I’m already using storage space on perfectly good rice paper, gold paint, and brushes.

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While I was at it, I made little gift tags out of a cut up Madewell bag and a small pile of Christmas catalogs that had recently come in the mail.  Then, as I was making more wrapping paper, I realized that painting the Mister’s face right onto the wrapping paper accomplished both the decorating aspect and the labeling aspect.  I am pretty pleased with the result and may paint his face onto all of his presents next year.

Have you ever made wrapping paper?

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Our holiday cards, featuring the DC Panda Cub

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Christmas cards are pretty much my favorite part of the holidays.  I love getting them in the mail, especially photo cards, and especially especially, the slightly irreverent ones some of our friends make.  We like to have a bit of fun with our holiday cards.

Two years ago we had fun “baking” with a little Maker’s Mark.

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2011

Last year, we got caught under the mistletoe.

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2012

This year we decided to express our excitement about our newest neighbor, the panda cub born at the National Zoo this summer.  I love Cardstore for Christmas cards.  They have so many great options and are super affordable.  Isn’t their packaging adorable?

2013

2013

While I hate that so many of our friends and family live so far away, when I’m filling out mailing addresses on the cards it’s fun to think about all the different places they’ll be going.  This year our mailing list includes Ann Arbor, Austin, Berkeley, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Durham, Hoboken, Houston, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merrimack, Milford, Monmouth, New Orleans, New York City, Norwalk, Philadelphia, Portland, Richmond, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and a dozen small towns in Texas and Massachusetts where we have family.  Do you send out holiday cards?

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It’s Friday, I’m in love

Now I want a panda Christmas tree

Doesn’t everyone need a panda Christmas tree?

I haven’t mentioned it, but the Mister has been away on a two week long trip for school.  He’s headed back tonight and I am so excited to see him.  I’m looking forward to a couple of lazy days together.  Here are a few photos from the week. Hope you have a great weekend!

I'd like all my future food served on a golden lily pad, thanks.

I’d like all my future food served on a golden lily pad, thanks.

We were surprised to receive this fresh wreath from the Mister's Auntie.  What a great gift!

We were surprised to receive this fresh wreath from the Mister’s Auntie. What a great gift!

Just what I needed.

These two should always go together.

Getting a lot of use out of these vintage duck boots lately.

Getting a lot of use out of these vintage duck boots lately.

Christmas in New York

Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center

New York City is a dazzling place any time of year, but around the holidays the city seems to have a little extra magic.  From department store windows to ice skaters in Bryant Park, to the smell of roasting chestnuts and Rockefeller Center, spending a few hours walking up and down 5th Avenue was a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

Macy's holiday window

Macy’s holiday window

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Rockefeller skaters

Rockefeller skaters

Lord & Taylor's holiday windows

Lord & Taylor’s holiday windows

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Macy's holiday decor

Macy’s holiday decor

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Holiday window selfie

Holiday window selfie

Ice skating in Bryant Park

Ice skating in Bryant Park

Lord & Taylor's holiday windows

Lord & Taylor’s holiday windows

Saks' holiday window

Saks’ holiday window

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Peppermint star sugar cookies

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Sunday was quiet and snowy, perfect weather for staying warm inside, drinking lots of tea, and wearing pajamas for most of the day.  It was also a perfect day for baking holiday cookies.

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I’ve been working on my cookie-making skills this year, and have been looking for a perfect sugar cookie recipe.  For these star-shaped cookies I used a simple Martha Stewart sugar cookie recipe, dividing it in half to make a slightly smaller batch.

I wanted to try something a little different for the frosting and thought it would be fun to drizzle them with lines of red icing.  The red frosting made me think of candy canes so I added a tsp of peppermint extract to the icing. This turned out to be a great idea, and everyone exclaimed that the icing was both pretty and tasty.

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My approach to icing making was a little less than scientific. I dumped about 1.5 cups of powdered sugar in a bowl, flavored it with 1 tsp of peppermint extract, then whisked in a tsp of water at a time until the icing had reached my desired level of drizzliness.  It took about 15 drops of red food coloring to get the right color of red, and once I’d whisked it in well, I used a long tea spoon to drizzle thin streams of icing over the cookies.

Overall these cookies came out fine, neither crumbly or rock hard; subtly sweet but a little on the crunchy side.  This pleased my colleagues, who got to eat most of them, but personally I’d like to find a recipe for a slightly chewier cookie.  Do you have a go-to sugar cookie recipe for the holidays?

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Zoo Lights at the Smithsonian National Zoo

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We live near the Smithsonian National Zoo and are frequent visitors.  One of my favorite annual events is Zoo Lights, which unlike many of the Zoo’s other after hours events, is free to the public.  Every year, from the day after Thanksgiving until New Years, the Zoo stays open late for visitors, puts on an extensive holiday light display, and leaves several of the animal houses open late.

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They have hot chocolate, a tube slide, a gingerbread house contest, a dancing panda, and performances by choirs and other musical groups.  A few nights ago, I ventured over with a small group after work to check out this year’s display.  It’s a great place to visit with kids, but we always have a lot of fun with our friends.

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Winter’s first storm

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Sunday morning saw the start of our first winter storm of the year.  For several hours, everything was coated with a lovely layer of soft white snow.  I spent the afternoon baking cookies with a few of my favorite holiday movies playing in the background.

As the day wore on, the snow turned to a far less pleasant wintery mix.  The ice and sleet will surely make my Monday morning commute interesting but I’m glad to have had a few hours to enjoy the snowy scene today.  Has this winter storm been affecting you?

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It’s Friday, I’m in love

Eastern Cape of South Africa.  Nkosi sikelel' Nelson Mandela and South Africa.

Nkosi sikelel’ Nelson Mandela and South Africa.

Nelson Mandela’s passing yesterday has been on my mind.  A few years ago, I spent several months interning at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, which was Mandela’s alma mater and the oldest historically black university in southern Africa.  It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and the news coverage has drudged up a lot of memories.

So in addition to a few photos from the week, here’s my favorite photo from the Eastern Cape and another of some comic books I picked up while I was there.  These were distributed for free to young children all over South Africa to teach them about Nelson Mandela’s legacy since, in their short lives, apartheid was a thing of the past.  I think I’ll spend a little time this weekend rereading them.

Madiba Legacy Series.  Free comic books given out to teach South African children about Nelson Mandela's life.

Madiba Legacy Series. Free comic books given out to teach South African children about Nelson Mandela’s life.

West Village scene from our table at Cafe Cluny last weekend

West Village scene from our table at Cafe Cluny last weekend

Trivia night.  We came in third place!

Trivia night. We came in third place!

Racing inner tubes down a hill at the Zoo

Racing inner tubes down a hill at the Zoo

Holiday decor in a small apartment

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We’ve been apartment dwellers for years, and probably will be for most of our lives.  In such a small home, space is a precious commodity.  The placement of every object is considered and weighed; most of our possessions have been whittled down to things that are very useful, very beautiful, or, ideally, useful and beautiful.

As much as we like to get into the spirit of the holidays, its hard to justify the space for items we’ll only use a few weeks out of the year.  So, to get a little holiday cheer into our apartment, we buy several yards of fresh pine garlands from our local nursery, and have fun draping them around the apartment.  I hang them over doorways and on the bookcases, and this year I had several feet left over and wound them into a wreath to hang on a door.  They look fresh and festive, and make the apartment smell amazing.  This year, I also bought a couple of red berry branches and they’ve been looking gorgeous set out on our table in a vintage milk glass vase.

One of my favorite storage tricks, is placing things behind the books on a bookshelf.  I’ve designated the space behind one row of books to store my “Christmas bag.”  This beloved old bag from a chocolatier in Paris, holds several dozen gold, sparkly snowflake ornaments, a few candles, some artificial garland, a couple of tiny Christmas stockings, ribbon, and twine.  The snowflakes are hung from the garland, the wreath, and any other obliging place in our apartment.

As much as I enjoy visiting friends’ homes that are completely decked out in holiday decor, I’ve grown to love our simple green garlands and handful of snowflakes.  Our apartment seems lush and cozy, and wanting only for some hot cocoa and a few Christmas carols.

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Wanderings: A romantic day in New York City

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This past Friday, the Mister and I decided to spend a lazy day together in New York City.  Typically when we visit, we race around Manhattan and Brooklyn, trying to catch up with friends and maybe visit an art exhibit or two.  This time, apart from a cocktail party later in the evening, we had no real plans and decided to wander around the city and just do whatever we felt like doing in the moment.

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During the day, we wandered around midtown, did a little shopping, and bought fried pickles and steamed buns at Bryant Park.  We watched ice skaters, admired art deco tree guards, and ducked into a little cafe to share coffee and a bagel when we needed to warm up a bit.  As the sun went down, we popped into a whiskey bar across from Central Park and flirted with each other until it was time to catch a train down to the West Village, where we had made last minute dinner reservations.

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After dinner, we decided to walk to the party in the East Village, and it was lovely to wander among the little neighborhoods, pop into tiny wine stores, and just enjoy the city and each other on a quiet day.

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Caramel cider apple pie

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It’s taken a couple of tries, but I finally got got the caramel apple pie to come out perfectly and just in time for Thanksgiving.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I first saw this recipe on Cup of Jo over the summer and set it aside for apple season.

I found the recipe to be very inspiring, but a tiny bit sloppy.  There were details missing that I found frustrating, particularly with the cider caramel, so I took the liberty of making a few changes, which I’ve outlined below.

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A few tips and what I changed:

Given that the original recipe’s crust is from Martha Stewart, it’s probably perfect good to use.  I however, have a lot of faith and experience with Mark Bittman’s flaky pie crust and made two of those for this pie.  Bittman’s recipe is easy, always flaky, and has never gotten soggy on me.

Getting the caramel right took a few tries.  What ended up working for me was to keep the cider at a steady medium boil, and actually measure the liquid to see how far it reduced.  Once it was down to about a cup, it was noticeably thicker, but not as thick as I expect caramel to be.  If I cooked it much longer it burned, so at the one cup mark, I put it in a mason jar and stuck it in the fridge.  That finally did the trick.

I like the apple pie filling to be perfectly soft and have no sort of undercooked bite to the apple texture.  Once I’d cut up the apples, I sauteed them in skillet until they softened.  The additional benefit of pre-cooking your apples is that it removes some of the juice and the pie will be less likely to be watery (the pie in the original recipe photos looks very liquidy.) This takes about 10 minutes in my Le Creuset, and about 20 in a regular kitchen skillet.  I let them cool in the skillet for about 10 minutes, then mix the other filling ingredients directly into the apples in the skillet.  Mix well, then transfer to your prepared pie crust.

Lately I’ve been wanting to improve my pie crust making skills, so I’ve been toying with these dough circles I saw on Food 52.  I found that it was important to keep the dough thin and cold, so I rolled the extra crust out on a piece of parchment paper, then transferred the paper and dough onto a sheet pan and refrigerated them for about 15 minutes.  When I was ready to assemble the top crust, I pulled the sheet pan out of the fridge and cut the dough circles with a shot glass. I got the best result by arranging the dough cut-outs in concentric circles over the apple pie filling, then arranging another set of circles along the edge of the crust.

Given that I used dough circles instead of a regular top crust, I found the browning on the pie crust to be more even if I brushed it with a little milk, rather than egg.  Don’t forget to sprinkle the crust with cinnamon and sugar before popping the pie in the oven.

Lastly, as with most pies, it is very important to let the pie cool completely before serving.  This will help the filling set and not ooze out of your cut pie, as well as help prevent your bottom crust from getting soggy.

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