Chalkboard-Sign1For his birthday this year, my son Ben requested a Fantastic Mr. Fox party, which was no surprise considering that he has seen the movie numerous times, and is constantly singing the “Boggis, Bunce, and Bean” song—always pausing and then slowly enunciating the word, “nonetheless.” I loved the theme that he chose and, luckily, the party ideas came easily. I thought I’d share some of them here, in case anyone out there is planning a party and needs a little inspiration.

I went rustic with the invitation and used watercolor to paint some of the text as well as Mr. Fox.


Chocolate is Ben’s favorite cake and icing flavor, so I baked a decadent and rich two-layer chocolate cake topped with sprinkles. The flags were cut from old fabric scraps and glued to wooden skewers. The “Fantastic Mr. Ben” banner was hand drawn with a calligraphy pen on kraft paper, and then his plastic fox figurine was placed beneath the banner. 


Every birthday party, we give out favor bags filled with plastic toys and bubbles. Instead of the usual bags, I decided to sew fox masks for the kids this year. Felt is my favorite fabric to work with because it is so easy to cut and sew. Once I drew the pattern on card stock, I traced it over the felt and enlisted my husband to cut out the pieces.


I also made s’mores kits for the kids and stuffed small boxes with graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows. On top of each box, I wrote one of my favorite quotes from the movie to remind each kid how fantastic they are.

SmoresKitAnd it isn’t really a kid’s party without a game, is it? We decided to help out Mr. Fox and played pin the tail on the fox. My husband drew the fox from the invitation on a large poster board, and cut the tails out of felt. Instead of tacks, we used sticky dots on the back and wrote each child’s name on washi tape. It was a hilarious sight to see, and there was a prize for the winner.


Next year, I hope Ben picks an equally great theme for his birthday party!


Founded by creative director and designer Sarah Sherman Samuel, A Sunny Afternoon is an eclectic online boutique with an exquisite range of tabletop textiles. This bright and cheerful collection was “born out of Sarah’s desire to create a line that marries her style with her love of the outdoors, gathering for a meal, and the handmade.” In fact, most of the items in the shop are made in her father’s Michigan workshop, including the heirloom-quality wooden serving boards. We also love Sarah’s cheerful textiles—especially the napkins. Each piece is handmade in the U.S. using a linen/cotton blend fabric and brightly colored prints. These pieces are picnic-perfect, don’t you think?

{ Images via A Sunny Afternoon }

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I’m already scheming ways to work this cake by our talented food contributor Melina Hammer into my agenda as soon as possible. Half dessert, half after-dinner drink, this seems like ideal party fare and the perfect way to keep friends lingering around a table a bit longer. (By the way, are you following Melina on Instagram? Her stream is full of delicious glimpses of life in the South!) Thanks for sharing, Melina! —Alexis

Bourbon-soaked, densely chocolatey layer cake with mocha buttercream.

Have I got your attention? I’ve been thinking about the kinds of things people reliably go bonkers for in the world of food, and I realize that layer cakes hold a special place in people’s hearts. Or minds. Or is it stomachs? Whatever the case, it had been a while since I’d fashioned one.

As I contemplated in which direction to take the plunge, the outrageous, soaked, savory/sweet flavors of my wedding cake washed over me. That cake conjured much in the way of heady delights—so much so that I felt the need to recreate its sinful layers and see if I could hit the perfect balance of booze, chocolate, and velvety cream. I think it worked as my husband, when offered his first slice, had only superlatives and “oh damns” to utter in-between bites.

So, if it’s time to endeavor to make a magnificent layer cake—perhaps a last minute celebration of sweet Valentine’s love?—or just to get rocked by something sinfully great, let this decadent beauty woo you.

Bourbon-Soaked Cake with Mocha Buttercream

For the cake:

  • 2 sticks butter, softened, plus more to grease pans
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder, plus more to dust pans
  • 5 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/4 cup instant espresso
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup good bourbon like Bulleit, plus more to drizzle onto cake layers
  • 2/3 cup cane sugar
  • 3 eggs, plus 1 additional egg white to paint the fruit
  • 1 tbsp good vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup caster sugar, for the fruit
  • 7-11 lady apples or seckel pears

For the mocha buttercream:

  • 5 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 5 oz milk chocolate, chopped
  • 2 1/2 tbsp instant espresso
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp good vanilla extract
  • 2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted

Note: If you can, bake the cakes a day before icing them. They are are easier to work with when chilled. You can make the buttercream in advance too. Store buttercream refrigerated in an airtight container, then allow to come to room temp and give it a good whip before frosting the cake.

  1. For the cakes: Using a pastry brush, paint a thin layer of softened butter all over two 8-inch round by 2-inch high cake pans. Be sure to paint along the crease. To line the pans with parchment, start with a square piece, fold in half, then in half again. Fold one side to the other to make a triangle, and repeat one more time. Place the point of the triangle at the center of the pan, press parchment along bottom and crease parchment at pan edge. Snip off the extra with a pair of scissors, unfold, and spread flat on the bottom of the pan. Dust the pans with cocoa powder, tapping and tilting until the interior is completely coated. Empty leftover cocoa powder from first pan into the next and repeat until it also is well-coated.
  2. In a double boiler over simmering water, melt bittersweet chocolate until just smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool a bit. Combine cocoa powder and espresso in a heatproof measuring cup. Pour enough boiling water in to reach the 1 cup line and stir until dissolved. Add salt and stir to dissolve, then pour in bourbon. Set aside.
  3. Preheat oven to 325°F. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the butter until pale and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. Add sugar and beat until well incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract, baking soda, and chocolate. Continue mixing on medium high, scraping down the sides as needed, until the mixture is well combined..
  4. Add about a quarter of the bourbon mixture to the mixer bowl and with the mixer on low, blend well. Next, add about a third of the flour, mix well. Repeat like this until you finish with the last of the bourbon mixture.
  5. Pour batter into prepared pans, smooth the tops, and smack the pans onto the counter a few times to settle the batter. Place into the oven and rotate the cakes halfway through, baking for 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then invert onto rack.
  6. Drizzle a tablespoon or so of bourbon over each cake. Wrap in cellophane and chill for at least an hour, as long as overnight.
  7. For the buttercream: Place chocolate chunks into a double boiler over simmering water and melt until just smooth. Remove from heat and set aside. Use a teaspoon or so of boiling water from the double boiler, dissolve the espresso powder by swirling it in a small dish. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
  8. With an electric mixer beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add in the espresso and beat to incorporate. Add the chocolate and beat until well mixed, then add the vanilla and kosher salt. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, mix everything together.
  9. With the mixer on its lowest setting, add the confectioners sugar in stages and beat until creamy, about 2-3 minutes. Beat for a few more minutes once well incorporated, until mixture becomes even lighter and more fluffy. Store overnight refrigerated in a sealed container, or prepare to frost cake layers.
  10. To Assemble: Use a pastry brush to paint egg white onto bottom two-thirds of a lady apple or pear. Holding the stem, roll fruit around in a small dish filled with the caster sugar. Lightly tap any extra crust of sugar off and set aside onto a plate for later. Repeat with remaining fruits and set aside.
  11. After having chilled the cakes, remove cellophane from one and set on top of a piece of parchment. Carefully slice each layer in half so you have 4 equal layers, each about 1″ thick. Place one layer on your cake stand and refrigerate the others.
  12. With an offset spatula, work a quarter of the frosting from the center outward and in back-and-forth gestures to spread it towards the edge. Place the second cake layer, centered and level with the first. Press down lightly with your hand flat on the surface of the cake to even cake and frosting. Continue stacking layer atop frosting, until everything looks level and absolutely gorgeous.
  13. After the top layer has been frosted—I kept the frosting in from the edge to create a border for the fruits—position the lady apples, or whichever fruits you have chosen to use, in a pleasing fashion. If you have survived all this, chances are you have a stunningly beautiful and delicious cake in front of you. Invite friends over and enjoy! They will have nothing but love for you.

{Photos by Melina Hammer for Anthology Magazine}


Zani&Zani Cookware

by Alexis on January 17, 2014

I love cooking. Whether it’s preparing dinner for one or putting together Thanksgiving for a crowd, it’s really something I enjoy. But even a favorite pastime can become tiresome when it’s repeated daily. One of the ways I like to keep myself from getting disenchanted with food prep is bringing beautiful, functional tools into my kitchen. I think it’s a principle that holds true with any task—celebrating an activity with the right well-designed tool makes it feel special.

So this gorgeous line of cookware from Zani&Zani, an Italian company known for their well-made, professional-quality goods, is something I’d love to add to my collection. Designed by Italian modernist Enzo Mari for Zani&Zani, the pots and pans are pared-down, classic forms, but it’s their matte finish that really makes them stand out. While the black feels more practical, the white set really steals the show. Wouldn’t you love to showcase them on your stovetop and make them a part of your daily dinner routine?

{Images from ABC Home}


Melina Hammer is back today with a recipe that’s perfect for winter evenings full of family and friends. If you’re looking for a straightforward but delicious meal to serve over the holidays, give these braised lamb shanks a try. Just reading the recipe is sure to make your mouth water. Thanks for inspiring us with this, Melina!  —Alexis

This recipe is a wonderful mix of inexpensive ingredients and simple process, but yields big flavor. The only real work is browning the meat and onions, but even that is an exercise in juicy anticipation. Perfect for this time of year, once you put the lot into the oven, you can switch to getting everything else on your lists done, and it feeds a small crowd who will no doubt ooh and aah over the results. I give credit to the sharp gals over at the Canal House for the original inspiration. On leafing through one of their so-useful cookbooks I came upon this pleaser, and tweaked it through the times I’ve brought it to table.

Braised Lamb Shanks and Melted Onions
Serves 6

  • good quality olive oil
  • 6 lamb shanks (one per person, add more if you’re serving more)
  • 9 onions, peeled and halved, or quartered if they are large
  • 2 heads garlic, cloves peeled
  • 2 1/2 cups red wine
  • 2 cups crushed tomatoes
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 4 organic* lemons, lightly rinsed and scrubbed, then quartered
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • mashed potatoes or cooked polenta for serving

*since you’ll eat the lemons skin-and-all, it’s best to use organic to avoid any pesticides and other chemicals

  1. In a Dutch oven or large enameled cast-iron pot, heat a good glug of olive oil over medium heat. Place a batch of the onions in the pot cut-side down, and sear without turning them until nicely browned, about 5-8 minutes. Do not over crowd the pan. If the onions are quartered, turn and brown the second cut side. (This is a good time to pour yourself a little wine.) Transfer browned onions to a platter, add more olive oil and another batch of onions, continuing until all the onions are browned. As you have room in the pot between the onions, add the whole garlic and brown. The garlic will only need a minute or two per side, then transfer to the platter as the rest of the onions continues cooking.
  2. Season the lamb shanks with salt and freshly ground pepper, add a little more oil into the pot and, in batches, brown the shanks on all sides, about 10 minutes or so per round. Transfer to another platter.
  3. Preheat oven to 325°F and place a baking sheet on the rack in the lowest position to catch liquid that may bubble over. Pour off any fat in the pot and clean up any black bits in the bottom with a damp paper towel. Bring pot back to the flame on medium heat, add the wine and bring to a boil. Stir in the tomatoes, then place the shanks, garlic, and any juices from the platter back into the pot. Alternate nestling lemons and onions around the shanks. (Any onions and lemons that sit at the surface will become more crisp or caramelized, while all those that are submerged in the liquid will become meltingly soft. I like both textures, so I try to get a mix.)
  4. Season with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, and tuck the bay leaves in and slowly pour in the stock. Cover the pot and transfer to oven. Braise the mixture in the pot until the shanks are tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Uncover the pot and continue to cook in the oven until shanks are so tender the meat nearly falls off the bone and the braising liquid has reduced a bit, about 45 minutes more.
  5. Serve the lamb shanks and flavorful stew with polenta or mashed potatoes, along with a robust blackberry-note wine. I love a good Zinfandel, Malbec, or Mourvedre.

{ Photos by Melina Hammer for Anthology Magazine }