When we were up in Holland a last week, I made it clear that we had but one option for dinner that night: Fricano's, Too. We'd walked past it over the summer and I posted a shot of their sign which boasted that they were home to "The Original and Most Famous Pizza in Michigan".  At some point, someone chimed in with a comment on that original post shaming me for not going. 
You should've made room for a Fricano's pizza that day! None of this American-ized, three-inch-thick, beef stew on a dough disc nonsense here! Fricano's are paper thin, 12" only, a little burnt around the edge of the home made crust, and is the best pizza you'll ever eat. I challenge you to NOT eat a whole one yourself!
So...we went.  And, guess what?  It kind of sucked.  Maybe "sucked" is too harsh a word, but I have NO NEED to ever go back.

It seems that this place has grown over the years and is clearly very popular with the locals.  We were there on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and the place was full.  Well...actually...it was only half full.  But...that's the weird part.  You enter into one side of the restaurant and are quickly pulled into this other part - far away from the entrance.  Perhaps on the weekends they use this other "newer" side?

We were seated in a booth and had a nice waitress.  When Nat asked for a menu, she was a bit surprised and pointed to this little sign on our table.  That *was* our menu. 

Fine.  I'm certainly no snob, so I don't mind a simple menu.  Pizza and beer.  But...that's seriously it.  Just pizza and beer.  No salads - which was a bummer to both of us, but we moved on.  They offer 1 size pie - I think a 12 incher.  Six toppings - order whatever you want.  Sounds like the regulars order something called a EBA - Everything But Anchovies. 

Based on the comment - and a bit of guidance from the waitress, we ordered 2 pies.  One Sausage and Pepperoni and one Mushroom and Green Peppers.

When they arrived - they came as billed:  super thin and about 12 inches.  Seemed to be good looking.  But, they were pretty ordinary pies - tastewise.  I REALLY wanted to like this place - because they clearly care about their pizzas (and their history), but if anyone thinks this is the "Greatest" pizza in Michigan, they need to head 30 miles south and grab a bar stool at Silver Beach Pizza in St. Joe's.

For posterity sake:  Here's a shot of the upskirt (below) - not to terribly brown and certainly NOT crisp!

This might have been the best part!  These crispy edges of burnt/charred cheese were tasty!

Having made Tom Thayer's Italian Beef recipe twice in the past few weeks, I've been to the grocery store buying a lot of giardinera - as each batch calls for two bottles.  I've tried a lot of them, and I keep coming back to what is my favorite:  Scala's Original Giardinera.  At the local Jewel's, you have to be a savvy shopper to know where to find it because they keep it on top of the deli counter, not in the salad dressing aisle with the rest of the various giardineras (including Il Primo, Marconi, and others).
They've always had that distinctively generic white label you see on the left.  But, the last time I went to pick it up, the display (Which really is just a small basket of 8-10 jars) had both the white labels and this new, much more professional-looking red/green/white label and identity. 

I don't love change, but in this case, I think the new look is an upgrade.  But...most importantly...they've only changed the jar - not the recipe.  The stuff no longer looks like it was made in a deli (too bad), but I won't stand in the way of progress!

For those wondering why I like Scala's the best?  It isn't just the flavor (which is good).  Unfortunately almost every giardinera these days are including olives (which I hate in mine!), but Scala's uses whole olives, so fishing them out is a lot easier!
When we were in Holland Michigan last week, we were pretty bummed to find out that their big bookstore closed.  Seems they're part of a national trend of bookstores closing - succumbing to the digital revolution.  Sad.
Our local Jewel has rolled out a new private label brand that they've positioned as a bit more upscale called Culinary Circle.  They bill it as "chef inspired" and generally, the products are pretty good.  As I was in the store this week doing checking out my favorite Home Run Inn frozens, I noticed that Jewel (and their parent Super-Valu has  recently extended the Culinary Circle line to frozen pizzas. 

They're nicely packaged, merchandised well, and generally look pretty appealing.   Being a store-brand, they get a lot of real estate in the freezers.   But, things get interesting when you take a closer look at the boxes. 

From a few feet away, things look harmless enough, right?
But, once you zoom in on the lower left corner (where the pizzaiolo is shaping the dough), we run into a bit of trouble.  Note the text:  "Product is NOT handmade."  As if we all didn't realize that each frozen pizza didn't start from a hand-stretched skin.
Really?  Was someone going to be confused? 

"Man....I bought this pizza the other day and when I opened it up it turned out to be made in a factory.  I was so bummed."

"You were?  Where'd you buy it?"

"From the frozen food aisle at the Jewel grocery story."

"So...you bought a frozen pizza?  What made you think it wasn't going to be anything but a factory-made regular frozen pizza?"

"Dude...they had me fooled!  You see, they had this small photo on the front of the box of a pizzamaker spreading the dough.  I figured that guy *actually* made *my* pizza."

"Guess you didn't look close enough to see if they put a disclaimer on the box"

"Guess not."

Seems the in house Super-Value Grocery legal department sure wanted to make sure they were needed and worked overtime on this one, eh?
At what we still call "The Hilltop" even though it is a Harding's Market - and has been for 10 years or so - I ran across these retro Doritos in the chip aisle.  (The store was called "Hilltop Groceries" or something like that prior to being bought by Harding's.  We began going there in 1989, and the change happened sometime in the Aughts, so 20+ year long habits are hard to change!) 

You can tell this is Michigan because you can spot the price tags on the Fritos dip below the chips.  More here about price tags in Michigan)

But...back to the retro Doritos.  I didn't buy them, but the bag just about had me convinced that I should!  The new bag is CLEARLY aimed at teenage boys - the same demographic who are buying Monster Energy Drinks - with the edgy, electric graphics.  But the cuddly, retro, 80's logo is aimed squarely at 30-somethings that will be hit with a wave of nostalgia - remembering their childhood of brown-bagging their lunch to grade school.  At least, that's what came over me when I came across the packaging. 

The only question I had was, why are these "Taco Flavor"?  Was that the original flavor we ate back in the day?  Is "Nacho Cheese" a new-er invention?  I could have sworn I was eating "Nacho Cheese", but maybe that's just modern marketing that has altered my memory? 

Last week, Google (Full Disclosure:  I work there!) kicked off our fourth annual Doodle 4 Google contest - a competition open to K-12 students in US Schools.  Students are invited to create their own Google Doodle (those creative adaptations of our logo that run occasionally on our homepage) inspired by this year's theme of:  "What I'd like to do someday...".

Google is upping the ante with some pretty rad prizes, but those are secondary to the top prize:  one lucky student gets a chance to have his or her artwork appear on the Google.com homepage for one day and admired by hundreds of millions of people!

There are two key differences this year.  First, is that instead of making teachers/schools register their entire classes, we've now opened it up to anyone - parents can now register their kids, too!  Second, Google has recruited some celebrity judges (Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Davis - creator of Garfield and others). 

To register now, head to the contest page here

The full details of what the winner receives is:

  • A $15,000 college scholarship
  • A trip to New York City for an awards ceremony on May 19, 2011
  • A laptop computer and a Wacom digital design tablet
  • A $25,000 technology grant for their school or after school program
  • A chance for his/her doodle to appear on the Google.com homepage on May 20, 2011
  • Inclusion in an exclusive exhibition in partnership with the Education Department of the Whitney Museum of American Art
  • The three national finalists each receive a $5,000 educational scholarship
After MUCH experimentation, the High Priests of Pizzanerds over at Slice are able to claim that these plum tomatoes from Trader Joe's are the BEST tomatoes for pizza.  (Go check out their spreadsheet.  There's nothing I like more than a food-based experiment tracking spreadsheet!  Seriously!)

Many of you know that for the past five years or so, I've been using 6 in 1's - and liking the results.   In fact, I was a 6 in 1 evangelist - telling everyone that I knew about these canned beauties.  So, considering a new tomato product for my pizza making is serious business. 

Upon some inspection, the key difference is that with these from Trader Joe's (that Slice recommends), you have whole tomatoes whereas the 6 in 1's are mostly sauce/pureed.  For my deep dish pizzas, the chunkage is nice, but when I'm making my skins thin, I want my pizza sauce to be smooth.   Nothing a stick blender can't fix, right? 

I don't think I'll totally convert over to these, but with all the shopping we do at Trader Joe's and so little that we do at Dominick's (where I get my 6 in 1's), I'm guessing I'll be using the TJ's more and more.  With the blessing of the Slice gang, that should be fine. 
I don't know who Dr. Oeter is, but he needs to hire a fresh pair of eyes in new product development.  Something about this doesn't seem quite right.   But...it still seems better than Jumbo Fudge Sticks.

(UPDATE:  Seems the good Doctor doesn't do things very healthy.  His pizzas were recently rated as the WORST for you health-wise.  Guessing Sauce'nCake isn't great for you, either!)
A few weeks or so back I changed what this site looks like on mobile devices.  Using Blogger-in-Draft, there's a pretty simple mobile-friendly template.  Just takes a few clicks and all of a sudden my blog looks like this on Android and iOS devices (and other's, I'm sure...but at this point who is using those things?).   Should be easy to navigate, fast to load and optimized for your handset.
Oh, you Blackberry users.  Be quiet.  I'm just bustin' your chops!
*Looking for the recipe?  You can skip the story & find it here:  Tom Thayer's Italian Beef Recipe

With the Bears in the NFC Championship game, Chicago is all orange & blue all the time.  Both papers are draping themselves in the Bears flag, the local newscasts seem to be leading with a Bears angle, and there sure are a lot of Bears jerseys at Menards today.

But...there's also something else going on:  party planning.  Based - solely on ONE DATA POINT - it seems like everyone MUST be looking for recipes to make for the various parties they are hosting tomorrow.  That one data point is the seemingly random popularity of a recipe I posted almost a year ago:  Tom Thayer's Italian Beef Recipe

Over there on the sidebar of my blog, Google Analytics displays the top posts - based on traffic - for the past week.  There are a few usual posts that get a bunch of search traffic and a few "current" posts.  But...this particular one has never appeared before.  My only (completely uneducated) guess?  Party planning!

Don't know who Tom Thayer is?  That's him over there on the right - in all his glory.  He's a former Bears offensive lineman and current radio analyst on their broadcasts on WBBM

And...after eating his version of an Italian Beef, he knows a thing or two about the kitchen (or...more likely his mother does!).  I made a pot of this stuff last weekend for a few friends and we quickly devoured it.  If you're looking for something to make tomorrow for your Bears party, give this a try.  It is a bit spicy, but it will definitely be a hit.
One of the Christmas presents we gave our family was personalized outdoor door mats.  Using this post by Martha Stewart as my inspiration, I set out to make mats with names on them - while Martha's uses numbers. 

We started with plain mats from Ikea.  

The ones we bought are called Trampa and run less than $10 each.
Just like Martha says, I first started with creating a border.  For these, I used blue painters tape to make an edge that would remain un-painted.  From there, because I was doing names, not numbers, I had to create a stencil.  I did this by printing out the name on paper, affix it to a piece of posterboard and pricking holes through the posterboard to create an outline of the name.  Using a pair of sharp, small scissors, I cut the letters out - leaving behind custom stencil.

I popped the stencil in the middle of the mat and taped everything down.
Then came the easy part:  spray painting the mats.  Being careful to protect the mat I used a piece of scrap cardboard to make a guard that I held in one hand while spraying in the other.  This kept the paint off of the portions of the mat that I wanted blank.

I made these mats for a bunch of Nat's cousins/aunts/uncles.  With everyone sharing a last name, one stencil went a long way.  If you're looking for a personalized gift for someone at Christmas-time, this is something that's pretty easy to do and will most definitely be used by the recipient.  Everyone can use a door mat, right?
Equation Boy/Man surprised me one afternoon by inviting me to see the Bulls that night.  He said the tickets were "good".  I had no idea how "good" they were.  This photo shows where we were located:  on the floor.  Like...actually on the floor.  Baseline - right next to the Bulls bench.
Those of you eagle-eyed Bulls fans can date these photos based on who is in a suit and who's dressed, right?  Pretty nice view of the game and a lot of inter-team discussions. 

As the team left for half-time, they had to walk right by our seats.  Pretty rad.  Thanks again, Marc!

Right before Christmas, I spotted chestnuts and roasting instructions at Trader Joe's.  When I was in there this week, chestnuts were again prominently displayed.  These weren't raw, but rather steamed and peeled.  Are these for snacking?  Are chestnuts going to be "hot" in 2011?  Are they tasty?
The TJ's buyer must be awfully close to whomever controls the chestnut racket, right?
I spotted a huge pallet of these in Costco the other day.  You send your kid to school with one of these in his lunch bag, I can guarantee he'll grow up to be a stand-up comedian.
I spent the better part of last week in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show working the show floor, stalking folks in the media room and learning a lot about what makes auto writers tick.  I was armed with a bunch of stats and insights - gleaned from Google's data - and landed some stories.

But, this data needed greater exposure, and although just last month, I had my fourth post published (about Google's 10 year mark in Chicago), I figured the OGB would give the data a pretty wide audience.  So...I wrote a post for the OGB entitled:  Auto Industry off to a Fast Start in Motown

This was the second time I've been to the Detroit show and it always amuses me how the industry treats the new models:  they're like brand new babies - kept under wraps.  This (I think) is the new VW Jetta. 

Those of you following along at home will notice a similarity in this Auto Show post on the Official Google Blog and the other ones I've written - 4 of the 5 have dealt with trends!  Because his one involves our business and some of our largest customers however, may have turned out the best!

Here's the full list of all FIVE of my Official Google Blog Posts:
Each January, I take in my change jar to Harris Bank where they tally it up for me.  Starting last January, the proceeds have been heading to a savings account we set up for the Babe.  Prior to that, I think I just stuck it in my checking account and went on with my merry way.   I keep a quart mason jar on my desk and every time I have a few coins in the bottom of my pockets, I try to stick them in there.

This year, the total was $19.60. Plus a few Canadians and a green marble (all of which I put back in the bottom of the jar). Which, when looking at the online records from last January, was pretty light.  2009's haul was more than double that at $53.51.   Maybe that's an indication that either I was spending less cash this year or that I was better about using available coins during my transactions.  I'm not sure.  But...next year, we'll have a third data point and that means we can start to claim things are starting to "trend"!
Wondering if the Tostitos sponsorship of the BCS National Championship game and the Fiesta Bowl are paying off for them?   They've faced some criticism for the way Brent Musburger inserted their brand name in the game - something Tostitos said they had nothing do do with. 

I can't say for sure that it is money well spent, but based on the buzz on Google searches - which goes through the roof AROUND THE WORLD, I'd say it is money well spent.   They always get a smaller spike around Bowl Season, but this year, the public was clamoring for more info.  Anyone have any insight into why there are summer surges?  The world craving nachos?

**NOTE**  If you're looking to make your own version of this dressing, you should check out the recipe I posted back here:  Lou Malnati's Salad Dressing Recipe.

Last week, I was in the Elmhurst Lou Malnati's picking up a pie and noticed that they're NOW selling a bottled version of their salad dressing they've called "Lou Malnati's Sweet Vinaigrette".    That's the second consumer packaged good they have in their take-out shops - with the first being Lou Malnati's Tomatoes.    They sell it in 16 oz jars.

I didn't catch a price, but I did catch a photo of the ingredient list.
Hmmm...comparing that to the Lou Malnati's salad dressing recipe, it seems that there are a few differences.  First, the bottled dressing uses corn oil (listed first) and olive oil (listed way down), while the recipe posted in the Tribune back 40+ years uses olive oil.  The bottled dressing also has mustard, "natural flavors" and a few different preservatives (Delta Lactone?) which I presume are necessary to make this stuff shelf-stable.

In a pinch, I think the store-bought stuff would be great, but if you have the time, why wouldn't you make your own?
After a successful first attempt in baking bread (Pane Cafone) from my starter, I opted to take on bigger challenge:  sourdough baguettes.

Using this recipe from Chocolate and Zucchini as inspiration, I undertook the two-day process.  For a first-time baguette shaper and baker, I think they turned out pretty good (aside from that one bent one!). And...they tasted, good, too!
 I also took another shot at the round Pane Cafone and that baked a bit better the second time, too!

Sourdough Baguettes (nets 4 demi-loaves)
  • 200 grams (7 ounces) ripe starter
  • 600 grams (21 ounces) flour(s)
  • 400 grams (14 ounces) water
  • 10 grams (2 teaspoons) salt
1. In stand mixer, combine flours, water, and starter - let stand for 20 minutes. Then, add salt and knead dough on low for 5 minutes.

2. Cover with a towel and let the dough rest at room temperature for 1 hour. After an hour, fold dough on itself. Wait an hour. Then fold it over on itself again. After those 2 hours, stick a piece of plastic wrap right on the dough and another at the top of the bowl (or put a cover on it if you have one). Put the bowl in the fridge overnight (12-20 hours)

3. Take the dough out of the fridge and let it warm up to room temperature (about an hour). Remove plastic wrap and dump dough out onto well-floured surface.

4. At this point, stick your pizza stone in the oven and crank it up to 500 degrees. About 45 minutes.

5. Back to the dough: cut it into quarters. Then shape each quarter into a log shape. Cover with kitchen towel and let rest. Wait for the rest of the 45 minute pre-heat to finish.

6. Stick a rimmed baking sheet into the lowest rack of the oven (under the stone). Bring 2 cups of water up to a boil in a kettle and just before you're ready to stick the dough in the oven, open the door, slide out the rimmed sheet and pour the water in. It'll make a loud sizzle sound and should begin to steam right away. Quickly close the door.

7. Slash the dough to make those lines on the top then quickly (using a pizza peel) slide them into the oven.

8. Turn the temperature down as soon as the baguettes go in. Turn it down to 450 degrees.

9. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Turn them around every once in a while.

10. Transfer to a rack to cool for an hour before eating.

Pizza skins are next on deck.   That's the real reason why I wanted a starter in the first place, so I'm looking forward to giving it a shot!  Will report back soon!
I was gifted a bottle of Dom Perignon from a friend when the Babe was born back in late 2009.  Quite the nice gift, eh?

With champagne having somewhat of a shelf-life, we knew we wanted to drink it soon.  We kept trying to remember to bring it out or over to parties, but we always forgot it in our wine fridge.  So...we finally remembered and figured what better way to ring in 2011 than to pop the cork on this baby.  I don't drink A LOT of champagne, but I must say that this was pretty tasty and very drinkable.  I went back for a second glass.

Consider drinking a big glass of Dom crossed off my life list.
This year, Equation Boy/Man had me in the men-only Christmas gift exchange.  As I might have told you before, we exchange gifts each Christmas Eve and rotate through the three brother-in-laws (Equation Boy/Man, Shaun, and myself).  So, that means that every other year, you give a gift to the same person.  I always look forward to the exchange and always get good gifts.

Part of the gift that Equation Boy/Man gave me was this set of Beatles magnets.
Not only are they awfully cute, they're perfect for our huge chalkboard that we use to hang just about everything important in our lives up on.  Much better than the basic black round magnets that we were using!
Last week, the Sun-Times ran a wrap-up story on the Illini football season and included a photo of Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning.   They also included a photo inset of what they claimed to be Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino.
The issue?  They used two photos of Koenning.  It isn't even close.  Take a look at what Petrino looks like:
A quick glance at the hairline of the guy in the inset photo will tell the photo editor that they have the wrong guy.  I don't mean to pick on the SunTimes - in fact we get both the Tribune and ST delivered to our driveway each morning.  I pick up the S-T first and prefer the sports coverage over the Trib's.  But they should know better than to put 2 photos of the same guy together!

Move Over, Trader Joes.  There's a new Private Label beer on the town. 

Did you know that Walgreens has their own private-label beer?  I spotted a big display of Big Flats 1901 Lager in the store in Downtown Elmhurst and was a bit confused.  First...I didn't even know Walgreens sold beer.  But, not just any beer.  Cheap beer.
Although they bill it as "Premium Brew" made from the "Choicest Hops", the guys over on BeerAdvocate say that although it isn't the tastiest beer you'll drink, it is passable.  They, do, however recommend that you drink this stuff ice cold to enjoy it. 

For me, the cans are pretty cute and the price is right:  a six pack was on sale for $2.99 for a six pack.  The other intriguing part is that this stuff is brewed in New York by "Brewers Choice", but the BeerAdvocate guys say that it is actually brewed by Genesee Brewing and is ONLY sold through Walgreens. 

Sounds like a nice beer to have in Coloma at the lake, right?
After 20+ years of operating in downtown Elmhurst, Let's Have a Party is closed.  The storefront at 152 N. York Street is empty.  Unfortunately, in our 2+ years in town, I never set foot in the store - and I'm guessing that many other folks didn't shop there either - and that's why they're now closed.  The company appears to have been a full-service party shop selling party goods like balloons, hats, banners and such, but they also were a caterer?  At least that's what the one review on their Yelp page says.  

What is a loss for the business is an opportunity for another entrepreneur.  The location of the store - now vacant - couldn't be more "prime".  The storefront is one door north of the York Theatre and adjacent to what appears to be the viable strip of stores in Downtown (Enzee, Jamba Juice, Rocky Mountain Chocolates, Play-N-Trade, Starbucks, and the Heavenly Cupcake Shop.
So...what's next for this location?  This is another big opportunity for Downtown.   There's now THREE high-profile vacancies.  The magic shop at the corner of First and Addison, the former Armstrong Aerospace building at 111 N. Addison and now this store at 152 N. York Street.

Seems that since the economy still isn't totally back on track, I'm guessing we won't see huge investments in these locations.  But...why not dream?  What about a crafty-man retailer (for me, please!)?  Or another boutique retailer that sells higher-end kitchen stuff?  I think both of those would work in town.  Or, will we aim low and get another Fanny May

The listing is here and they're asking $1850/month in rent.  Not sure what the economics look like in retail, so I'm wondering what that type of location cost requires as far as sales.  Any experts out there?
With a healthy sourdough starter, I figured I should dive right in and bake some bread.  My first attempt was one of the more simple breads:  Pane Cafone.  Turned out pretty good for a first attempt. 

Pane Cafone (Country Man's bread) - Produces One Round Loaf
1 Cup Starter
3.5 Cups 00 Flour
1 Cup Water
2 teaspoons salt

1.  Knead starter, flour and water for 5 minutes and let autolyse (have flour absorb water before salt has time to draw it in).  Mix in salt and knead for 2 more minutes. 
2.  Cover bowl and proof for 8-12 hours at room temperature. 
3.  Punch down and form round loaf without slashing the top.  Proof for 2-4 hours. 
4.  Pre-heat your baking stone at 450 for 30-45 minutes.
5.  Bake on pre-heated stone at 450 for 15 minutes.
6.  Reduce temperature to 350 and bake for an additional 45 minutes.  Turning once or twice. 
7.  Cool on wire rack.

Here's my round dough loaf after it rose and just ahead of baking. 

Right after I pulled it out.  Great crunch and pretty spring-y when you handle it.

Cutting into the loaf, the hole structure isn't too large, but it tastes really great.    A little bit of tang from the starter. 
Consider this a successful first attempt!
During the run-up to Christmas, we HORDE both Peppermint and Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Joe-Joe's from Trader Joe's.  They made my 2009 Favorite (Holiday) Things List, and should be on there every year.  Starting at Thanksgiving, every 10 days or so, when Nat (and sometimes I) head to TJ's, we grab at least one box of the cookies and usually two.  To be clear...we eat a lot of these, but so do our guests and most specifically our nieces and nephews.  But...still...we *do* probably eat too many cookies from the end of November to January 1 each year.  I'll admit that!

Well...this year, there was a run on peppermint Joe-Joe's.  Our TJ's ran short and was out on two different occasions we went.  My sister went one day and they, too' were out.  Bummer.  But...on a random trip to the Park Ridge TJ's, we ran into this mysterious beast:  The Astounding Multi-Flavor Joe-Joe's package.  Inside, there were four flavors:
Peppermint (which they have normally, but three other's I had not had before:  Double Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Ginger.  I cracked the box in the store and I don't think the peanut butter ones made it to the register.

These are billed as a "collection of past and present Joe-Joe's cookies".  Past?!?  Wha?  I have never had 3 of the 4 before and Nat is a pretty good TJ's shopper.  Perhaps we've just missed them.  Now...I would love for the PB ones to "come back" but maybe it is a good thing if they're confined just to the holiday season?  I eat enough maple cookies in the fall anyway!
Last week, I went to our Sears Essentials - which is really just a KMart - to pick up an ornament box. These are tubs that have special dividers that allow for an orderly packing of all of one's ornaments.  Unfortunately, they didn't have any.  The guys there said that I had to go to an *actual* KMart, not just one dressed up as a Sears Essentials.  Bummer.

But...as I was nosing around the holiday section, I came across their Christmas Village display.  And...what did my wondering eyes did appear, but a bunch of heavily discounted buildings from Lemax and Department 56.   Lots of them without boxes, some with boxes, but ALL of them at rock-bottom prices.  I'm just a novice when it comes to this whole Christmas Village deal, but the structures that Sears had on display weren't the same as the ones at Menards.
I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't go crazy and buy up a bunch of buildings but this stuff was cheap.  Really cheap.  Especially the ones without boxes.  And the best part?  They had a few different Department 56 buildings from The Christmas Story series including the Chop Suey Palace restaurant and Pulaski's Candies.
Not to mention a bunch of figures, trees, fences, lights, and more.

But...I didn't buy a single one of them.  If I did, I think I'd be turning more towards hoarder and less towards "collector" of sorts.  Don't you think?

But...the temptation didn't end when I walked out of the store.  Turns out, Sears has put ALL of their buildings on sale.  Good prices, too!  Maybe just one wouldn't hurt.  Right?
It wasn't all fun and trains at Christmas this year, as I was quite the lucky guy!  My in-laws gifted me a JawHorse.   Talk about an awesome gift!   On occasion, I've borrowed my father-in-laws JawHorse to build various things like our deck.  This is a perfect addition to my workshop in the basement.  Don't know what a JawHorse is?
Not to make this a total commercial, but.....It is a portable workstation/clamping tool that does just about anything.   It holds boards, doors, projects and with the extension that they got me, even a full 4X8 sheet of plywood.  That's pretty rad.

But...the real key is that this thing allows someone to work by themselves.  This thing is basically another "set of hands".  No more relying on others to help hold boards when I'm cutting, the JawHorse does that for me.

Those of you who've tried to build something solo, you know how difficult it can be.  Just "holding" the end of a board while you cut is a task that you need done A LOT.  Not with the Jawhorse! This video shows a lot more.

Just like last year, I'm going to document my Favorite (Holiday) Things.  But...I'm not Oprah, so don't look under your chairs - all of you readers won't be getting these these things from me!  Here they are, in no particular order.

2010 Favorite (Holiday) Things

1.  Bass Pro Shop and their free photos with Santa.  We went to Marshall Fields on State Street and had the Babe sit with Santa.  And they proceeded to get us for $20 for the photo.  However, when we were in Bolingbrook, I took the Babe to see Santa at Bass Pro.  And sure, they *tried* to upsell me on photo key chains and such, if you say "no thanks", they let you out of there with a nice photo for free!

2.  Our new blowmold Santa, sleigh and reindeer.  I picked him up this year after eyeing the pair for a few years.  The plan is to add a reindeer each year and eventually get a full set just like Clark W. Griswold.   Just waiting for the prices to drop!

3.  Christmas Villages.  This one was easy and should be no surprise to anyone!  After lying dormant for a few years, our Village (I'm working on a name for the town!) exploded with new growth.  Four new structures went up and some new people moved in.  There's plenty of vacant land up on the new mantle, so expect to see growth when the 2011 holiday-time census report comes out.

4.  Tammen Tree Farm.  One of two second-time nominees on the list, the Tammen family put out the red carpet the weekend after Thanksgiving and welcome a few thousand of their closest friends onto their land to cut down their Christmas trees.  This was my sixth year heading to the farm and his year we paid $50 for the tree plus $7 for the shake & bale.

5.  Having a project  for the Holidays (Topper Hockey, Cutting Boards).  This year, I was working on two projects leading up to the holidays. Both Topper Hockey Boards and end-grain cutting boards were being built right up to the 24th and I enjoyed having the projects to keep myself busy.  I'm already thinking of what I can begin to work on for 2011 Christmas.

6.  Menards.  Much like the American Airlines music that they play after you board which makes me feel like I'm going on vacation, the Menards Christmas jingle just *makes* me feel Christmas.  I love walking through the converted patio furniture area that they've temporarily named the "Enchanged Forest".  Having those Christmas Village sets is a new, added bonus!

7.  Chrome OS and the CR-48.  I've been using the ChromeOS CR-48 Pilot Program laptop for the past few weeks.  While there are certainly some issues (the trackpad is, ah, bad) I can see the future and it is all about speed, security, and over-the-air updates.  Oh...and it comes in a really cool box courtesy of the geniuses at Google's Creative Lab.

8.  Trader Joe's Advent Calendars.  They're dirt cheap (< $5.00) , the chocolates aren't that great, but they sure come in handy when there's more than one "opener" involved.  With our nieces and nephews angling for the bigger calendar, the TJ's version was there for the rescue and a back-up chocolate.

9.  Crate and Barrel Star-shaped Christmas Tree Cookie Cutter.  This is a set of concentric star cookie cutters that -when used - creates a set of star-shaped cookies.  Stacking these cookies on top of each other creates a tree.  Nat made the cookies and I helped stack them up.  She (fortunately) made two sets.  The first tree didn't fare so well, but once we learned how to work with the icing, the second one firmed up and looked great.

10.  Norad Santa on your phone.  This is the other 2-time nominee on the MF(H)L.  Because we spend a good bit of time on Christmas Eve NOT near a computer, having the ability to track the Big Guy on my phone was pretty neat.  I could show the kids in church where he was.  The only hiccup was when Santa showed up at my Mom's house to give out presents.  Why couldn't we see him on my phone in Frankfort?
It's alive!
Look at all those bubbles!  That's a wide-mouth quart mason jar and the starter is all the way up to the top lip.  That's a lot of growth.  Right after I feed the jar, I split it into 2.  If all goes well, I'll have 2 starters to work from for those occasions when I'm doing a lot of baking.  Just a few more feedings (and thin-ings) and we're on our way to dough.  Lots and lots of dough.

Looks like we might have something, here!  After feeding the starter some flour and water, I'm seeing some bubbles.
This *should* double in size in the next day.  After a bit of thin-ing (dumping of some of it to remove acidity) and feeding, we should be on our way to the finest breads and pizza skins in the land!