For Your Netflix Weekend: House of Cards

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(Actual tweets by my friend Zach, in response to messages I sent him while watching House of Cards season 2.)

Note: This post is the first in what I’m hoping to make a weekly feature. Do you plan to spend a weekend night or two watching Netflix, then instead spend most of the night trying to decide what to watch? This is for you. Recommendations from me. Let me know what else you’d like to see. Thanks!

If you’re already watching House of Cards, this post is not for you, because I know you’re not struggling to pick something to watch. By the time you’re reading this post, you’ve probably already watched half of the new season.

If you haven’t watched it yet, seriously, go, watch it now. Season 3 launches today (Friday), and if you try hard enough, you can watch through the weekend and be caught up in time to freak out over it with your classmates and coworkers on Monday.

House of Cards is the original Netflix original. It tells the story of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a congressman from Georgia who gets passed over for Secretary of State in the pilot, then spends the rest of the first season getting his revenge. He wreaks more havoc in season 2, and I’m a little scared to see where season 3 goes. Frank is brilliant, but he’s terrifying. He’s power-hungry. He’s ruthless. He’s polarizing. I think that you can tell a lot about a person by what they think of Frank – if he’s your favorite character, sorry, I will probably always be a little wary of you.

So, you have terrifying Frank. And you have his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), who is his match in so many ways – just as powerful and ruthless, even if she’s more quiet about it – and who wears some amazing clothes, oh my gosh. You have Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), the eager young journalist who is smart and determined but also fairly naive. You have Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly),  Frank’s right hand, who is very loyal to Frank, which is scary. You have Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), the troubled, drug-addicted congressman, and Christina Gallagher (Kristin Connolly), the younger campaign worker who loves him. And so many other wonderful characters.

This show is smart, suspenseful and just the right amount of terrifying. There’s political drama, rivalries, betrayals, affairs and deaths. It’s perfect for people who love politics or journalism or ruthless people or great businesswear or just good stories. It’s high-quality — David Fincher of The Social Network/Fight Club/Gone Girl was involved at one point, and Spacey and Wright have won Golden Globes for their performances (check out Spacey’s lovely acceptance speech, which gets great starting at about 1:20). It’s the perfect binge-watch show, even though it has 55-minute episodes, because it keeps you on the edge of your seat. And you will have feelings. So many feelings.

House of Cards, Netflix original. 3 seasons, 39 episodes, 55ish minutes each.

For Your Weekend: Catch Up Before the Oscars

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The Oscars don’t start until Sunday night. You still have time to catch plenty of movies that have been nominated! Here are some of the ones you can still find.

I’ve included mostly movies with Best Picture and/or acting nominations. See the Oscars’ website for a full list – there are some technical-category nominees around, too.

Still In Theaters - Some more than others, check your local listings.
– American Sniper
– Birdman
– The Imitation Game
– Into the Woods
– Selma
– Still Alice
– Theory of Everything
– Whiplash
– Some theaters – I’ve seen AMCs – are also showing roundups this weekend of all the nominated shorts.

On DVD - Check stores, online stores, OnDemand services, RedBox or your local library.
– Boyhood
– The Boxtrolls (animated feature nominee)
– Gone Girl
– The Grand Budapest Hotel
– How to Train Your Dragon 2 (animated feature nominee)
– The Judge

Streaming On Netflix
– Ida (foreign language nominee)
– Virunga (documentary nominee)

What am I missing? If you’ve seen anything else out somewhere, please comment! Happy viewing!

Oscar Project 2015: Best Picture Roundup

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The 2015 Academy Awards are upon us! With just under a week to spare, I’ve finally seen all eight Best Picture nominees. It was a good year, overall — there wasn’t really anything that blew me away as much as past years’ winners, like “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist,” but in general, I enjoyed most of the nominees. I didn’t quite stay on top of things in terms of posting as I saw each film, so instead, here’s my roundup of all eight of them. They’re not really in any particular order — the last two are my bottom two, and I put my bet for Best Picture (though not necessarily my pick, if that makes sense), but I waffle on my rankings of the rest.

Friendly reminder: I am not a professional movie critic? I’m just a person who likes movies and the Oscars. You’ll see various comments about things like acting and pacing and camera work, but for the most part, I’ve evaluated these movies on how much I enjoyed them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them, too — please feel free to comment away!

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Noms: Cherry Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

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Food-wise, there are few things that are a bigger treat for me than Country Ovens dried cherries from Door County, Wis., one of my favorite places on Earth. I can only get them a few times a year, so when I do, I try to make them count. That used to mean eating them carefully, rationing, so they lasted. Now it nearly always means baking.

I got a bag of cherries as a gift a few months ago and stashed it in my baking box, waiting for a special enough occasion to bake the cherries into something great. One finally came along, so, at last, cherry chocolate chip cookies. Let me tell you, they were worth the wait.

Dried cherries are bigger and moister than a lot of raisins, so they bring a lot of flavor. And with the chocolate chips? A+. I’m hoping to get dark chocolate chips for next time, but for today, these are just wonderful. Yum.

The recipe’s just the tried-and-true one from the Quaker oatmeal lid. Can’t beat it. :)

What’s your favorite limited-time treat? What small food joys do you treasure?

Transparency note: No one paid or asked me to say anything nice about these cherries! I’m a lifelong fan. No dried cherries come close to Country Ovens’.

Holiday season, baking season

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Every holiday comes with some baking, but I think that Thanksgiving and Christmas come with the most. For Easter or the Fourth of July or any other holiday, you can eat whatever dessert you want — cake, ice cream, pie, tons of chocolate, anything. But for Thanksgiving, you have to have pumpkin pie. For Christmas, you have to have cookies. Those are just the rules.

A cranberry cake, made from a Chicago Tribune recipe, sits on a platter.

There was a pumpkin dessert at my Thanksgiving this year — admittedly, a roll cake, not a pie, so I guess we bent that rule — as well as this amazing cranberry cake that my mom found and we made together. Cranberry sauce is my favorite Thanksgiving food, and I loved getting that flavor in our dessert, with some orange thrown in. Check out Leah Eskin’s recipe in the Chicago Tribune if you’re a cranberry fan, too.

Three kinds of cookies — chocolate with m and m's, chocolate chip, and peanut butter — sit on a christmas placemat.

For Christmas, we made many, many cookies. My mom likes to teasingly remind me that when I was growing up, I hated the cooking and baking parts of Christmas preparation — it just “wasn’t me,” I said, probably with some overly dramatic tears. These days, I get into it gleefully — this year, I was up working on cookies until at least 2 a.m. two nights in a row. I made:

  • Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. The classic, though I somehow managed to mess them up this time, ending up with two trays of flat cookies that were simultaneously burnt and underbaked before fixing the dough by adding flour. Blame 2 a.m. baking.
  • Chocolate cookies with mint M&Ms, using these Inside Out Chocolate Chip Cookies from Sally’s Baking Addiction as a base. Delicious, though they didn’t come out as fluffy as I wanted them to be — I’ll try again soon! Even flat, they were still chewy.
  • Peanut butter cookies, again using a Sally’s Baking Addiction recipe. I tried Sally’s PB cookie recipe this year because I was unhappy with the recipe I’ve used in past years, and after this first try, I am never going back to that old recipe. These came out perfect beyond my expectations — tasty, fluffy, a hit with every relative and coworker who tried them. Yum.

I didn’t get a picture, but I also made these Homemade Jingles from Shugary Sweets. Have you ever had Jingles, also known as Santa’s Favorites? I grew up eating them at Christmastime and assumed they were a standard thing, but when I talked about them at school in Missouri, no one knew what I was talking about, so maybe they’re a Chicagoland thing. They’re cookies flavored with anise, a spice that tastes kind of like black licorice, and they were always sold topped with red and green sugar sprinkles, cut into Christmas shapes like stockings or wreaths. I just learned that they have been discontinued by Keebler, which is sad news, but I guess that means I found this recipe just in time. I’ve tried a few sad copycat recipes in years past, but this one is the real thing. Fans of the classic cookies will be satisfied.

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And I know this isn’t a dessert, which breaks my theme, but these brussels sprouts with cranberries are too pretty not to share. After I found the recipe, from Rachel Schultz’s Household Almanac, on Pinterest, I showed it to my mom, who is brussels sprouts’ No. 1 fan, and she put it on our Christmas menu. I can’t tell you about the taste personally — sorry, Mom, I’ve never liked brussels sprouts! — but everyone who ate them seemed to enjoy them.

I’m not quite done yet with holiday baking — my high school friends and I celebrated a few baking-heavy New Year’s Eves, and although everyone is spread out this year, I intend to carry that on. But it’s been a fun few weeks of tasty eats, and it’s put me back in baking mode after a few months off. I’m all stocked up on candy mix-ins thanks to after-Christmas sales, and more frequent baking (and blogging!) is on my New Year’s Resolutions list. Stay tuned. :)

If you baked something great this holiday season, please share! What are the traditional treats around your house? Did you try anything new this year that you loved?

A quick programming note

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This blog has been rather neglected this fall as I have been focusing on completing my master’s degree. But it’s almost December, which means three things are coming: graduation, my yearly “Winter Break” rush to see tons of Oscar contenders, and lots and lots of holiday baking. Expect a return to regular blog activity soon.

In the meantime, if you have any requests for types of recipes you would like to see, feel free to leave them in the comments. I have many things on my to-bake list — let me know where you’d like me to start!

UPDATE: I have launched the “official page” for my 2015 Oscar Project, where I will be tracking what I have seen and want to see. Check it out — link in the sidebar!

Gone Girl

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I don’t want to write a lot about Gone Girl, because the fun of Gone Girl is in the surprises, and I know that if I write a lot I’ll ruin something. But man, what a great movie.

I read the book the summer before last, and it was one of those books that you can’t put down until you’ve read it from start to finish, even though it’s over 400 pages long. I went into it fully aware that there were going to be surprises, and I was still constantly caught off guard. The movie, also written by the novel’s author, Gillian Flynn, was the same. I was constantly on my toes, even though I knew what was coming.

The performances were fantastic. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were perfect as Nick and Amy Dunne — they made the characters complex, multilayered, just as they are in the book. The other characters were wonderful, too; I especially enjoyed Carrie Coon’s performance as Nick’s twin, Margo. I do wish they had not cast Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s former boyfriend, Desi — for me, there was something mildly reminiscent of his “How I Met Your Mother” character, Barney Stinson, in his performance, and it was extremely disconcerting. But overall, no complaints.

The movie had great pacing, great scoring, great shooting. Everything was done in a way that kept you guessing, kept you feeling uneasy. It gets scary, and it gets graphic in both violence and sexual content — think before bringing your kids, small siblings, grandparents, etc. — but it’s all worth it. I left the theater feeling pretty creeped out, upset, what have you, but still very happy that I had seen the movie.

Would I recommend Gone Girl to a friend? Absolutely, but with the warning that he/she might not sleep well after seeing it.

Oscar-worthy? I don’t know much about the competition yet, but I will be baffled if Gone Girl doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination. It was just so strong in every way. I’m sure there will be well-deserved nominations for Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, and I won’t be surprised if the movie shows up in the directing and screenplay categories, too.

Programming note: With this post, I’m officially kicking off my 2015 Oscar Project. The most wonderful time of the year! Expect a full game plan to come out soon.