Thanksgiving: a Tale of Two Tables

Confession, I still sit at the kids’ table.

I mean, the “kids” are all over 21 now, two of my cousins are married, and there is an abundance of wine…but we still always break out a craft or coloring page, and all of our parents and grandparents still sit at another table in the formal dining room.

I’m also in charge of decor for both tables. To differentiate, I like to keep my table a little more fun and informal, while the “grown ups” get a more formal dining experience.

Typically, though, I like to tie both tables together with an emphasis on natural decor by bringing the outdoors in (literally). It’s nice to inspire a seasonal ambiance by focusing the decor on what is naturally beautiful at this time of year.

At the kids’ table

Last year, I created a flurry of leaves by preserving maple leaves and suspending them from the chandelier with various lengths of fishing wire.

It’s pretty easy to create this effect. Just soak any leaf in glycerine and water soon after picking, and the leaves will stay more vibrant and less crispy. A simple Google search will help with the exact amount of glycerine necessary.

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Leaves drying after their glycerine treatment in the nearby pan

I added to this rustic table setting with homemade napkin rings (ribbons hot glued to acorns collected in my yard) and little pumpkins I kept from Halloween. All of these natural elements played well with my mother’s colorful serving dish as a centerpiece and some bright placemats.

Meanwhile at the grownups’ table

I actually had a few tables to work with. On one, another little round pumpkin became a carved planter for a burgundy pansy. 1128131148b

On the buffet, there was space for homemade beeswax candles since all of the casseroles were being served from the kitchen next door. Each of these little candles were made from a mail order kit, and cored apples in serving dishes and teacups served as perfect candle sticks.

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To add hight at and keep the formal feel, a seasonal flower bouquet took center stage in a prized vase. 401720_859908748999_18812124_38841154_1935915328_n

Overall, most of the decorations were inexpensive or were found outside or among family heirlooms around the house. The best part was that the day was warm and personal. The decor at both tables helped set the stage for a wonderful dinner and memories with family.

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Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving and that your holiday is beautiful. I can’t wait to share pictures from this year. 

A Little More Please!

More sweet potatoes, more family, and more Thanksgiving is always better.

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A Timeworn and Beloved Recipe

I’m pretty sure I’m totally capable of making sweet potato caserol on my own. Of course, I don’t know for sure because my mom has always helped me.

One of my family’s top two favorite Thanksgiving dishes (tied with my dad’s cornbread dressing) is Mom’s Senator Russel’s Sweet Potato Soufflé. Ok, so in reality, any idea of who Senator Russel was has been lost to time, and from my understanding, the finished side doesn’t fit the definition of a soufflé, but oh my goodness, all cares about the name are completely forgotten as soon as the smells of roasted pecans and sweet potatoes start wafting out of the oven. The second the casserole dish is taken out of the oven, it takes a lot of will power not to dive in before anyone else knows it’s cooked.

The magnetic deliciousness of this dish is why my extended family (and now some lucky friends with the recipe) jump at the chance to bring it to any holiday gathering possible. It’s been to every work and friends’ Thanksgiving in memory, and I’m pretty sure I even brought it to a baby shower a few years ago. You can never ever have too much sweet potato soufflé! Which brings me to another point.

You also can’t seem to have enough help making these sweet potatoes either.

Each time someone offers to bring Senator Russel’s potatoes, my mom starts looking visibly anxious. I’ve come to find out this is because she’s just adding this newest offer to the list of at least five other times the dish will be made the week before Thanksgiving, and it’s implied that she will personally help make it each time. To be clear, I never ask for her help, but it always seems to arrive. Sometimes, the sweet potatoes are even pre-baking in the oven before I can personally get to Kroger to buy the ingredients. Just as arriving at dinners with a warm bowl of bright orange sweet potatoes and crusty sugared pecans has become a tradition, knowing my mom will tell me when I’ve mashed the potatoes enough or even taking the spoon from my hand to show me a “better” way to stir together the crisp topping has become completely expected.

When I first started making this dish, I found the extra help just a smidge annoying. Did my mom think I wasn’t a good cook? Why wouldn’t she just cook something else when I could handle this? I wondered. However, after a few years of this supervision, I realized even though I could make the dish by myself, I didn’t really want to. I think the rest of my family has learned the same thing, too. Every time we cook sweet potato soufflé, there’s  a Hallmark movie in the background, and at some point, my mom and I will both get tickled when pecans start flying out of the mixing bowl as someone stirs too vigorously. With so much help in the kitchen, the festivities begin before the dinner even starts, and the dish has always turned out perfect with extra eyes on the recipe.

So, my recommendation is to use this dish as an excuse to have yet another festive meal, and as a way to make memories with loved ones in the kitchen.

The Recipe:

Filling

  • 4 cups baked sweet potatoes (4 medium sweet potatoes)- lightly mashed
  • 1 cup regular, granulated white sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 2 eggs lightly beaten

Topping

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/3 cup softened margarine

Preheat oven to 350.

For the filling, add all filling ingredients to a large mixing bowl. Stir till combined. Empty this mixture into an oven safe casserole dish.

For the topping, add all topping ingredients to a smaller mixing bowl. My mother uses two butter knives to cut the margarine into the other ingredients with a crisscrossing motion. I have achieved the same results just staring with a spoon when she isn’t looking. The stirring method is personal choice. Once the topping is combined, sprinkle (don’t press) the crumbly mixture on top of the sweet potato mixture in the casserole dish.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Let cool slightly, but serve while warm.

*The recipe can be mixed and added to the casserole dish and kept in the refrigerator overnight to be baked the next day.

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Before…
After!

Enjoy!

A Cake Pattern…or Recipe for Party Success 

Confession: my name is Erica Marchbanks, and I’m moderately addicted to patterns.  I love bright, cheerful, repeated designs. The more pattern, the better! My mom thinks it’s precious, my sister thinks I need help, but I just think about Lilly Pulitzer…and sometimes Vera Bradley…which sometimes gets me in trouble.

To be specific about my love of pattern, blue & yellow based motifs are pretty great, green & pink are even better, but I’m a major sucker for any shade of blue & red/coral images splashed across whatever product you may be selling. For instance, I’ve gone so far as to call Lilly’s She She Shells “my pattern.”

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Photo credit: The Juice Stand Blog

So, it’s no surprise I was quite smitten with Vera Bradley’s Marina Paisley a few years ago. I looked at the magazine, spied that pattern, and marched myself straight into the Saddle Creek Vera store, determined to purchase something great.  This would all be well & good if I had chosen something even slightly useful…but alas, that was not true.

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I bought a recipe holder. Ok, well, maybe it would be useful for other people, but at the time my cooking skills were sub par, and I didn’t have five special, go-to recipes to my name. What was I to do? My recipe holder was so beautiful. I had chosen one where my favorite part of the pattern was front and center (a vital part of shopping for the pattern lover). It was clearly the best, not overly expensive object in the store. It was looking great in its new home. I had to keep it. I just decided it would have to look nice empty. So I called my grandmother, a fellow pattern lover, to tell her all about my new recipe book.

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It was just the phone call I needed (how do grandmothers always know what to do?). Along with patterns, my grandmom shares my love of chocolate. She offered me her favorite Kahlua cake recipe to add to my new organizer and told me she would love a piece of cake if I wanted to try the recipe that night.  I tried the recipe, & to my surprise, it really was easy and delicious!   I brought my grandmother half the cake, and carried some to a friend’s birthday party.  Everyone asked how to make this dessert. I was on a roll! The first recipe in the booklet was now my go-to recipe! I couldn’t thank my grandmom enough!

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Over the last few years, I have brought this cake to many events, & with different garnishes, it has fit every occasion! Somehow, following my seemingly silly interests melded with a little grandmotherly magic and mixed into a cake for any party.

So without further ado….

Here’s the recipe for

My Grandmother’s (Very Easy) Kahlua Cake:

Ingredients:                                                                                                                        

(Remember, it’s tasty. I didn’t say healthy.)

 1 box               Duncan Hines Devil’s Food Cake mix                                                                

1 small box   Jello brand instant chocolate pudding mix                                                      

2 cups             Sour Cream                                                                                                                

4                       Eggs

3/4 cups        Vegetable Oil

1/2 cups        Kahlua

6 oz                  Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips

 

Directions:

 Mix everything except chocolate chips. 

Mix in chocolate chips. 

Pour into a greased bunt pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

 

Decorate for the occasion if you want to….mine isn’t that beautiful, but looks aren’t everything…it’s perfect as it is.

Cake…just don’t take it to a party I’m going to…unless you want double the Kahlua cake!

Enjoy,                                                                                                                   

Erica

The Essence of Tuscany

Sometimes I feel like Tuscany can be bottled.

The olives in a sunny Italian grove are pressed into a bright oil to be taken anywhere in the world and poured over crusty bread. A few drops of the region’s dark, sweet balsamic vinegar on this bread is a very happy start to any meal, and opening a bottle of Chianti Classico seems like a vacation in itself. It’s almost like the sweeping vistas, patchwork farms, and sunny days of Tuscany can be can be distilled, reduced to a powerful essence.

Castello di Verrazzano

I had the privilege of visiting the centuries old Castello di Verrazzano this summer. At the castle, my group’s tour guide enthusiastically told us the estate’s history as well as the process of making delicious wine. Then we got to try some of the estate’s own bottled heritage, including a few types of wine in a range of taste and price.

When asked what the best wine in the world is, our friendly guide explained that her grandfather had always told her, “the wine with the highest price and the most awards isn’t necessarily the best wine. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for a bottle, if you’re with good company, in a beautiful place, and the wine tastes good with what you are eating, then that’s the best wine.” How sweet and true!

Looking back at our stay in Tuscany, I love to scroll through my pictures of the loggia at the Villa il Poggiale where we stayed. The idyllic villa sits at the top of a hill, surrounded by olive groves and allows panoramic views of the innumerable, picturesque farms dotted across similar hills as far as the eye can see. At the end of the deep-set front porch is one tall, open air window which seems to frame the best of the countryside for the viewing pleasure of anyone lounging outside.

Villa il Poggiale

As nerdy as it is, before my trip, I had watched “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” on Netflix, eager to see what the world would look like in Italy. On the show, I learned that a trick in gardening is to frame a beautiful view in order to bring it into focus for the visitor, and by concentrating on one part of a vast expanse, the view outside the garden becomes something precious to be admired like artwork.

It seems to me like this framed view, like a good bottle of wine, condenses what is beautiful about the surrounding area and makes you feel warm and happy to experience it…especially when enjoying it surrounded by friends and family and good food.

Hope you have a chance to enjoy the essence of wherever you find yourself this summer, and maybe you too can take a little bottle of Tuscan sun home with you.

Swiss Sheep

I just love Swiss sheep. The mountains are cool, but when every steep hill is dotted with sheep wearing little bells, what could be better?

When I went to Zermatt a few summers ago, I had expected to spend two full days zipping around in the world’s greatest ski resort where the highest slopes that remain snowy all year round.

Instead, I spent most of my first day hanging out with sheep.

We had arrived during the hottest summer in dozens of years…seriously, we met a Swiss couple this summer who were still complaining about Summer 2017.

Summer skiing the next day…not even warm enough for coats

When my little traveling group showed up at our adorable hotel, Le Petit Charme Inn, our friendly host explained that the ski slopes were currently slush, so we should take a hike over the village to get a good view of the Matterhorn. The hike began at the edge of town and passed a few cows lazing in the grass before climbing pretty steeply through a dense forest. Olivia and I were seriously over the hike after five hundred feet that felt like approximately five miles.  We sat on A LOT of rocks while Dean (who’s basically Disney’s Tigger in human form) bounced around coaxing us to keep going.  That is until Olivia heard the twinkling of sheep bells in the distance.

 

Everywhere we went in Switzerland, every adorable sheep wore a little bell around its neck to help its shepherd keep track of his flock. The sound of a whole flock of sheep bells softly clinking in a field truly sets the soundtrack for an alpine fairytale.

The sound of bells also means there’s surely a group of cute animals just around the corner, which was definitely the case on our hike! The first tiny farm- livestock farms in Switzerland are about the size of my living room, nothing is Texas size- was just feet from the path, and we hurried to take picture of little black eared lambs next to their slate roofed barn. This was just the first group of sheep, though. We spent the rest of our hike hurrying from one little pasture to the next. Soon, without even remembering how “tired” we had been, we found ourselves above the tree line and with a spectacular view of the Matterhorn brooding over a field.

Olivia, Dean, and I spent some time (maybe the better part of an hour) taking selfies with sheep and absorbing the beautiful mountain-scape around us. We also found that, as always, you never know exactly where you’ll end up on vacation, and cute animals plus beautiful views equal extreme hiking endurance.

 

Deign Inspiration at Home

Walking around Zermatt after our hike, we were reminded of the afternoon we had spent with sheep and of the town’s inextricable relationship with the countryside around it. Everywhere we looked was wool and lambskin décor. Many of the cafes had draped sheep skins over chairs to keep customers warm as they ate outside, overlooking the (slushilly) snowcapped mountains. The use of these local wool products showcased regional heritage while creating a cozy, inviting look.

Back home, you can recreate this warm Swiss look with sheep skin throws available online or even relatively inexpensively from your local Ikea store.

You can also honor your new lamb friends by using faux lambskin.

Either way, paired with a warm wool blanket (in very Swiss bright red) your house will feel warm and inviting.

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Night at Oak Alley

I got a chance to experience history come to life at Louisiana's Oak Alley Plantation and Inn.
No Filter

Oak Alley emerges hazily from a Southern fairy tale, humid and sweet with a strongly graceful beauty. A first drive past the planation allows a glimpse of two even rows of very old live oak trees leading up to a symmetrically columned house peeking under the branches at the end of a brick path. Yet, to spend a few hours here only begins to hint at the depth of its timeless character. The ability to spend slow hours at this property affords it a special feeling I haven’t experienced at any other historical site. Every moment of the girls’ weekend I spent at the Oak Alley Inn with my best friend felt like I had discovered a treasure.

After driving rural miles down the old river road, past other fabled plantations, my friend, Sarah Rice, and I arrived in the wake of a gulf coast evening downpour. The staff greeted us warmly in the Inn’s welcome center near where a wedding party was gathering. One of the friendly employees handed us frosty lemonades and escorted us to the cabin we had booked for the night. She showed us all of the amenities in the essentially perfect little house tucked away on the back of the twenty acre property.   My friend and I had chosen the next to last guesthouse on the row of cottages.

The décor felt fresh in a contemporary manner, and the best part of the little house was that it was so clean, there was very little evidence anyone else had ever even stayed there before this weekend. I joked that I could have happily changed my address to Cabin 8 Middle of Nowhere, LA. A rustic fireplace made living area feel cozy, and a large screened porch invited lounging while watching the last of the summer hummingbirds buzzing around the cabin’s feeder. I’ll also mention, the place was bigger than my sister’s apartment in Atlanta.

Yet, the most exciting feature the hostess led us to was a flashlight charging in the bedroom. “You’ll need to bring this flashlight when you explore the property tonight,” she told us.

As soon as my friend and I heard this, we couldn’t wait to take up the invitation to discover what happens after dark on a property with over 200 years of history. The true magic of the Oak Alley Inn is that guests are encouraged to stroll the grounds of the planation twenty-four hours a day, whether or not any public tours are open. After eating a hearty, casual meal at the nearby DJ’s restaurant, my adventurous friend and I hurried back to the cabin to put on sneakers and grab the flashlight.

Not to lie, I had expected to frighten myself a little, imagining what could be lurking in the country fields or even (despite my rational thoughts) what presence from the past may be gliding in the shadows. Yet, the only resident to creep behind us was the tabby cat we had met earlier in the moving and educational slave quarters exhibit.

The long, shadowy walk from our cabin, through the heart of the planation and almost to the Mississippi River beyond was surprisingly comfortable in a way that felt like I was truly getting a chance to live on the property and get to know it for myself without anyone else’s interpretation. As we returned down brick path that had led us under the ancient oaks and to the street where we had caught our first glance at the stately old home, I got the sensation that if I did discover there were vampires to interview in the sticky, Louisiana night air, they truly would be suave and sophisticated and would join us for a stroll before disappearing back across the low-lit brick porch and into the house’s locked front doors. It felt like we weren’t just imagining scenes from movies or the past, we were living them.

Design Moment

Two candles that spark memories of Oak Alley

One of the most memorable things about the immaculate little cabin I stayed in at the Oak Alley Inn was the soft, mint wall color. The tone was fresh yet soothing and lent a relaxing vibe to our cabin.

If you aren’t ready to repaint an entire room, though, this Williams Sonoma candle in the same color can help set a restful tone in your home. I like to enjoy the fresh Lemongrass Ginger scent in the kitchen.DSCN2378

I also can’t help but picture New Orleans gas lamps flickering over columned porches whenever I think of Louisiana nights. Although, this little Lifetime Candle by White River Designs isn’t exactly gas, it’s a different than a regular wax candle and the flame flickers more dramatically when reflected in the oil base.

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Just remove the little glass ball and add the wick, which is included in the box. The lifetime candle can be refilled over and over to enjoy for a lifetime…or many, just like time spent at Oak Alley.

 

 

Swiss Adventure? ALPsolutely!

Creeping along the narrow road, we faced the unnerving reality that the other side of a steep mountain lay between us and a straight road. We had steered ourselves wrong. Well, maybe that way was right. Actually, it was definitely right and then left and then right again about fifty five times. Our rented Peugeot had just tackled half an alp. Olivia (my sister), Dean (her boyfriend), and I had accidentally found ourselves at the apex of Switzerland’s Furka Pass.

Alps are pretty big…

This adventure had begun in the picturesque ski town of Zermatt, Switzerland where we had spent the day summer skiing, and our destination was Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Dean and I had spent the evening before our road trip choosing what appeared to be the most reasonable route for this road trip. We had eliminated any drives through Lichtenstein and Austria, which would have required the international driver’s licenses we neglected to apply for. Also, a highway passing through Italy before returning to Switzerland also seemed like a poor choice because, “why drive more miles and add more border crossings?” Therefore, we chose what looked like the least complicated path from Zermatt, through Zurich, then up to Germany.

So Swiss

The first leg of the journey wound through miniscule, post card towns where our chief complaint was the wildly fluctuating speed limit. Olivia road shotgun, reading aloud about our destination while I passed snacks of raspberries and tomatoes up to Dean, the driver. After meandering past dozens of chalets with dark wooden balconies and slate roofs, we were finally speeding through what seemed like an endless spring green valley when we noticed a street cutting back and forth up the rocky mountain parallel to our drive. We all agreed that would totally be a perfect road for the Grand Tour guys to tackle in one of their death defying challenges and breathed a sigh of relief when our highway continued without turning to toward that mountain.

Then we noticed the highway had started to climb almost imperceptibly off of the valley floor. Weird, but at least our road was wide and straight…until it wasn’t. We were about a third of the way up the mountain when we realized we were on that Grand Tour road. Our chosen route had switched back to snake steeply up the mountain.

My GPS resembled a bowl of spaghetti noodles, and every few feet, we saw memorial markers near the sheer drop off the side of the single lane road.

To make matters worse, we discovered that what would only make sense as a one lane road was carrying two way traffic. At every one of the dozen or so switchbacks, we had to wait on the far side of the street with only inches between our tires and the cliff while oncoming cars inched past. Visions of Bolivia’s “Death Road” filled my imagination as tension grew in the car.

Olivia and I found Dean’s nervous laughter abrasive in the light of the “life or death” experience we believed we were facing. Despite the temperature drop outside as we neared the snow line, my right hand was sweating profusely from its grip on the door handle, but we finally reached the top. Focusing through Olivia’s and my ceaseless warnings to “watch out for that car!,” and “stay away from this cliff,” Dean had gotten us safely to the glacial peak of an Alp. At that moment, I realized all Olivia and I could really do as passengers was trust that our driver would navigate us carefully to the valley on the other side.

Descent from the mountain was no less stressful, but Dean stayed focused, avoiding cars and cliffs, both inches from the sides of the car and often at the same time. Once we reached flat ground, Dean and I switched drivers, so he could basically rest off the effects of shock and a tension headache in the backseat.

I don’t think any of us will forget this alpine pass, known previously only from action movies, such as James Bond. I also learned the importance of zooming in on Google Maps…or better yet, checking with your hotel’s staff for driving directions. More importantly, I learned the importance of traveling with people you can trust in stressful situations.  Travel challenges us as we face the unexpected.  You can’t plan for every adventure, and you never know what’s around the next corner, but you can choose your travel companions.

Safe travels,

Erica