How NYC Does Spring

It got up to a respectable 60° F this past Sunday, but for most of the day it was colder–and windy–making it feel down right chilly. If you were to take a stroll through Central Park, you’d think it was the middle of summer. Everyone was out. The city was a picturesque tableau of the pleasures of urban life. People were picnicing, playing baseball, and sunbathing as though they were in balmy San Diego. If you looked really closely, you could see goosebumps on their bare arms, and if you listened, the sound of teeth chattering.

And who can blame them? We’re desperate here. We’re like a people emerging from a millennia-long ice age. We’ll sit out side if temps reach past 50 and bare our legs if they climb above 55. We know it’s all so fleeting, that before we know it, summer will have passed us by, and then once again, the descent into the big freeze.

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A Sweets Tour of the Upper East Side

Now that it’s finally beginning to feel like spring outside (knock on wood, spit thrice over your left shoulder, pray to the god of your choosing), it’s time to let your hair down and once again set out on foot across this great city. What better place to start than the Upper East Side? Yes, that Upper East Side. While we weren’t looking the buttoned-up ‘hood has transformed, with the help of a few longtime standouts, into the greatest dessert destination in NYC.

Bakeries and Patisseries

Maison Kayser:  The flagship NYC location of a Parisian-based patisserie, this shop is known for breads and pastry and a healthy collection of American treats like cookies and brownies. A sit-down restaurant is filled with ladies-who-lunch enjoying open faced sandwiches and salads. If you’re sitting down to lunch or dessert, make sure to ask for a bread basket filled with an assortment of bread samples; they won’t bring it to you otherwise.

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FB Patisserie: The fancy older sister to Francois Payard’s downtown bakeries, this location specializes in mousse-based pastry, tarts and French macarons. It’s a best-of compilation of French pastry. In front, there’s a casual cafe perfect for enjoying an eclair and a coffee, while the back is host to an upscale full service restaurant–with prices to match.

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Lady M Confections: This slim minimalist shop is home to one of my favorite cakes ever, the original mille crêpe cake, shown below at right. It’s not cheap ($7.50 a slice), but with 20 paper-thin crêpes and light, not-too-sweet cream layers, it’s an ideal celebratory indulgence. There are other flavors and other cakes, but the original is the superstar. The guidebook writers seem to think so, too, as the shop was packed with tourists during a recent visit.

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William Greenberg Desserts: This shop has been an Upper East Side institution for nearly 60 years. Their famous black-and-white cookies are made in the traditional way (more spongey cake than cookie, fondant icing) and are customizable when ordered in large quantities. They also specialize in Jewish desserts, which for the next two weeks or so means kosher-for-Passover favorites like chocolate-covered matzoh and flour-less brownies.

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Glaser’s Bake Shop: Open for over 100 years, this no-frills shop harkens back to the Upper East Side of yesteryear, back when Yorkville (the name of the eastern section of the neighborhood) was filled with central European immigrants. The influence is evident in their large selection of Danish pastries, but the bakery also specialize in American favorites like cupcakes, brownies, pies and layer cakes. The customer favorite is the black-and-white cookie, which, in contrast to William Greenberg’s they top with fondant and buttercream frosting.

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Orwashers: Our tour of the historic bakeries of the Upper East Side continues, and this one’s a real gem. Orwashers–opened in 1916– churns out award-winning artisan breads; their French baguette was recently declared the best in NYC by Serious Eats. They have pastries, too, as well as filled-to-order doughnuts (chocolate or sugar) with your choice of one of 5 fillings. The red raspberry ($4.25) was everything a jelly doughnut should be.

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Two Little Red Hens: This all-American bakery is extremely popular with the locals, even now, when it’s situated on the wrong side of Second Avenue subway construction. On a recent visit, the shop was out of a lot, and patrons were crowding in to enjoy oversize buttercream-topped cupcakes. The Brooklyn blackout cake is a favorite for birthdays.

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(Image courtesy RichardBerg, Flickr.com; made available via Creative Commons license)

Specialty Bakeries

Canelé by Céline: This tiny adorable bakery specializes in mainly one thing–canelés. These ridged French pastries are marked by a soft, custardy center and a browned caramelized exterior. The shop sells unique flavors like caramel, dark chocolate, raspberry and rum, and even a few varieties of a savory canelés, with chorizo or parmesan cheese. It’ll set you back $4.90 for a pack of three.

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Ladureé: It’s hard to overstate the importance of Ladureé in the Parisian collective consciousness. The mint-green bag is ubiquitous around the city, and Charles de Gaulle airport even has an outpost of the famous shop. The speciality here is French macarons in a rainbow of flavors. The Upper East Side location is the first in the U.S. (one recently opened in Soho as well) and the macarons are just as good as the ones overseas–light meringue, flavorful filling. Their raspberry macaron ($2.80 a piece) is the macaron by which I judge all others.

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Sprinkles Cupcakes: This L.A. transplant is all about the cupcakes ($3.75 a piece). Yes, the cake is moist and the frosting is flavorful, but I think what people are drawn to most is the minimalist design of the shop, something mostly absent from American throwback-style bakeries. Next door is a 24-hour cupcake ATM, which is exactly what it sounds like. You pick your cupcake from a touchscreen, swipe your card, and within seconds, a little door opens with your cupcake of choice enclosed in a to-go box (add $.50 for the convenience). Is it at all necessary? Absolutely not. But it sure is cool.

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Dough Loco: There’s some debate about whether this shop’s location, on Park Ave. and 97th St., constitutes the Upper East Side or East Harlem. We’re not concerned with realtor definitions, just with dessert. The doughnuts ($3 a piece) remind me a lot of the ones from Dough in Bed-Stuy. Both shops feature yeast doughnuts topped with unique coatings. The ones here are smaller, though more dense. Flavors include maple miso, blood orange, raspberry Sriracha, and the below, peanut butter and cassis. Blue Bottle coffee products help you wash them down.

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Le Churro: I have a soft spot for churros. After all, what’s not to love? Freshly fried dough drenched in sugar and served with a chocolate dipping sauce. The ones here (4 for $3.95) are thin and light, in contrast to the heavy churros of the subway platform and Costco cafe (hey, if you’re in a bind…). They offer multiple dipping sauces (chocolate hazelnut, sweet mocha, to name a few), chocolate covered churros, bite-sized churros and even filled churros, for those too lazy to dip.

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Ô Merveilleux Belgian Meringue: I had never heard of Belgian meringues before, but they’re the specialty at this quaint new Second Avenue shop. These treats, which come in two sizes, layer meringue and whipped cream and are topped with chocolate shavings or speculoos cookie crumbs. The small, at $2.70, is plenty sweet to satisfy a serious dessert craving. They have other offerings too, including cupcakes, croissants, cakes, cookies, brioche and tarts.

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Favorite Things Lately, Volume 3

1 Chocolate chip pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine: This sugar bomb is definitely not for the demure dessert lover. Packed with whipped cream, butterscotch pudding, and hunks of spongey chocolate chip cookie, this treat is as straight forward as they come–which is why I love it so much! But who needs nuance when you can have an indulgent cup of everything that makes life worth living? And for $4 for a standard 10 oz. cup, it’s more than enough for two people. The bakery is open until 11 p.m. on weekends, making it one of the only post-dinner casual dessert destinations on the Lower East Side.

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2. Eating at the bar: A few weeks ago, my husband and I ate two of our weekend meals at the bar. The first was a date night drinks-and-apps-style dinner at expansive French restaurant Lafayette. The second was a hearty brunch at Ditmas Park favorite The Farm on Adderley (below). I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the casualness of bar eating. You never feel rushed. No one is trying to upsell anything. You can always get the bartender’s eye if there’s something you need. Plus, you get an insider-y view of the restaurant’s goings on.

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3. Brooklyn’s Chinatown: After a decade in the city, I sometimes feel as though I’ve seen nearly every corner of NYC, my own borough especially. I am, of course, wrong. There is so much left to explore. For years I’ve been meaning to check out Brooklyn’s Chinatown, which is home to one of the biggest Fujian immigrant enclaves in the city. Starting at about 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, right below Greenwood Cemetery, the strip is 20-plus blocks, densely packed with bakeries, hot pot restaurants, noodle shops, dim sum parlors, grocery stores, fried fish carts (below) and so much more. On a Saturday afternoon it was certainly more crowded than Manhattan’s Chinatown on a regular weekend, and the latter gets a bump from tourists, who were nowhere to be seen here. My husband and I had a delicious báhn mi at the bare-bones Ba Xuyen, one of the Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled throughout the ‘hood.

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4. Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum: First conceived as an exhibit for the 1964 World’s Far, this room-sizes panorama is the highlight of the Queens Museum‘s collection. The model is beyond impressive, featuring every building constructed before 1992, the year of the last full update, with a few additional buildings added sporadically since 2009. There are all sorts of small, inventive details, including a plane on a nearly invisible wire that lands and subsequently takes off from the scale version LaGuardia airport. Every few minutes, the city goes dark and small bulbs illuminate the panorama.

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Happy 100th Birthday, Russ & Daughters!

There are certain places in New York that, 10 years on, still have the power to turn me into a giddy , I-heart-NYC proselytizer. There is Central Park on a sunny spring day, the Strand bookstore with its tall shelves of aging books, and a certain 100 year-old appetizing store on the Lower East Side. What started as a pushcart at the turn of the century has grown into one of the most iconic and longest surviving institutions in the city, all while keeping it in the family.

Stepping into Russ & Daughters means more than just a shopping excursion or a lesson in the Jewish history of NYC; it’s a sensory experience. It hits you right as you open the door: the wafting scent of smoked fish. It is incredible–one of my favorite smells in the world. The impressive smoked fish selection is supplanted with an equally impressive case of sweets and dried fruits. Russ & Daughters is the rare establishment that’s been able to maintain relevancy in the new millenium while holding on to its old-world sensibility. They care about the customer and about keeping the tradition of classic Jewish appetizing alive. And, well, have you tried the herring?

My Top Five Russ & Daughters items:

Holland catch herring: Around mid-to-late June, Russ & Daughters imports the year’s best catch directly from Holland. This creamy herring comes with its tail still attached. I love it as a sandwich, served on a brioche hot dug bun with chopped onions and pickles.

Beet, apple and herring salad: This is a staple in my and my husband’s home. A surprisingly light and refreshing salad, with a hint of saltiness, thanks to the herring.

Sable: We rarely get this because it’s pricey, but when we do, it’s such a treat. Melty, mild and delicious, it’s a worthy accompaniment to smoked salmon on a bagel sandwich. (Yep, it’s all happening).

Scottish smoked salmon: So buttery and smoky. Ask for it sliced super thin (“thin enough to read a newspaper through” as advised by assistant manager Chhapte Sherpa, also known as the Lox Sherpa), so you can layer the smoked salmon on top of a bagel and schmear (with onions and capers, obvs).

Babka (small): Yes, this is the same Green’s babka that’s sold around the city. Russ & Daughters is the only place, though, that allows you to get a small hunk–the perfect size to split among 2-3 people post-lox and herring gorging.

 

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A Slice to Get Excited About

For the last decade or so the city has been the launching pad for some kind of Neapolitan pizza takeover. These pizza places–categorized by personal-sized light-as-air pies baked in a wood-fire oven–hoarded the spotlight, touted their Naples pedigrees and natural ingredients and seemed to lay waste to the old-fashioned New York slice joints of yesteryear. We were all complicit in their aggression. (For shame!)

But, as evidenced by newbies like Best Pizza and Williamsburg Pizza, the humble slice joint lives on! Last weekend, I had probably one of my favorite slices of the last few years at Prince St. Pizza (in the former Ray’s Pizza space). Though not a standard New York slice, this square Sicilian-style version, was perfection: soft, pliant dough, quality mozzarella, a perfectly-charred, perfectly olive-oily crust, small discs of crispy pepperoni, spicy sauce. It was the square slice of my dreams.

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Sometimes, It’s Work

Nearly 2 years ago, I read about a movie called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in the New Yorker magazine. A remake based on a James Thurber short story from three-quarters of a century ago, the film was in production for years. It’s directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who has proclaimed it a passion project. The movie came out a few months ago, and though I haven’t seen it, it’s advertised as a parable about embracing adventure and not leading a normal, dormant life.

Walter works a boring job at the soon-to-be defunct Life magazine. A final assignment sends him on a trip around the world, and he finally gets to realize the adventures he’s daydreamed about for years.

What struck me is that Walter works in New York City, in midtown Manhattan to be precise. New York City is a place that people from all of the world fantasize about seeing, even if only once. It is the dream they daydream about. I remember the awe of a Paris taxi driver when my husband and I mentioned we had come from NYC. “I dream of going there one day,” he said. “But you live in PARIS!,” I wanted to respond.

Which is kind of the point. Everywhere else seems like the cure to our sometimes boring, stale lives, which can often feel like Walter’s. And though I love to travel–absolutely love it–there’s something to be said for appreciating where you are, especially when that place is NYC. Chasing the newest, best, most exciting cultural experiences can ultimately feel unfulfilling.

And at a time like this, when everyone is so completely worn out from this horrid winter, keeping the spark alive between you and your city is, well, work. It means getting out even for a few hours, even when you don’t really feel like it. It means appreciating the frigid beauty of a long winter in the city, snow-covered parks and all (pictured below). It means feeling grateful that you get to interact with people from all walks of life every single day, even if on a crowded subway.

Plus, spring, is just around the corner. I can feel it.

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NYC Oddities: Lenin Statue

If you’re walking east on Houston Street and happen to look up, you might see an unexpected sight. Perched high above the neighborhood on the roof of the Red Square Apartments is a large statue of Vladimir Lenin, his arm stretched out in his signature pose, a personification of the Communist slogan, “Onward toward a brighter tomorrow!”

The statue sits atop one of the first luxury apartment towers in the area, a somewhat ironic home for the father of the worker’s revolution. Red Square Apartments were built in 1989 by a radical sociology professor-turned-real estate developer, and the 18-foot-tall statue was added in 1994.  According to the New York Times, the statue was made by Russian artist Yuri Gerasimov and commissioned by the Soviet government. Since the USSR collapsed soon after, the statue was never publicly displayed. It was found by the developer’s art dealer associates at a dacha outside of Moscow and brought to NYC.

Lenin holds court over an area that has experienced unprecedented levels of economic urban renewal (or, aggressive gentrification, depending on whom you ask), with luxury hotels, fine dining establishments and cocktails bars filling the crumbling buildings once occupied by artists and squatters more than 30 years ago. Though it’s retained a bit of grit, the neighborhood has been and continues to be a place governed by market forces and the growing wealth of the city’s inhabitants. Not sure Comrade Lenin would be too pleased with his adopted home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Image via wfyurasko, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Creating Traditions

Big city living can take a toll on friendships. I sometimes go weeks or even months without seeing certain friends. It’s not something I’m proud of. The reasons are varied: people (including me) get busy with work.; we travel; we don’t want to deal with a long commute home, especially on weekdays; we feel sluggish, especially in this weather.

A good friend and I have come up with a solution. We’ve adopted traditions–events for which we have a standing date, spread out over the course of the year. And we keep adding events to the list. We see each other more often than a few times a year, but we both love knowing that if it’s February, we have a guaranteed date at the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street Baking Company for flavored pancakes as part of their annual pancake month. (This year we chose raspberry pancakes with almond brittle and vanilla bean whipped cream, pictured below, mid-devour.) We even have a favorite bar with 2-for-1 sangrias where we sit out the wait.

If it’s fall or spring, we’re at a New York City Ballet performance.

If it’s summer, we’re indulging in limited-time-only individual ice cream cakes at Quality Meats in Midtown.

If it’s late September/early October, we’re probably going to New York City Center’s Fall for Dance, a multi-day festival showcasing a variety of the most prestigious companies dancing in a range of styles, from flamenco to modern.

(Our friendship seems to have a bit of a dancing-and-desserts theme.)

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Tip: 10 Ways to Bring Art into Your Home

Filling your home with art is one of the easiest ways to make it feel lived in and personal, especially when you’re living in a cramped NYC apartment. Some people are intimidated, thinking they have to be art aficionados to do it right, so they give up and buy a bunch of generic prints at the home decor store. The truth is, you don’t need any expertise. It’s about finding something that speaks to you–whether from a purely aesthetic standpoint or because it invokes special memories–and knowing where to find it. The below tips can get you started.

1. Museum Prints: This is one of the easiest ways to bring a piece of art that you identify with into your home. It’s pretty simple. Go to a museum, either to see the permanent collection or a special exhibit. Pick out a print that moves you. Even if you’re not an art person, you can find something, based purely on color and composition, that makes you feel excited or conversely, soothed. This print will be a reminder of your outing and–let’s hope–the good, art-appreciating memories it generated. Try to buy a standard size print so you can frame it yourself without having to go the custom route.

2. Postcards: No, I’m not talking about the cheesy sunset images sold at the local gas station. Instead, pick up unique postcards at a historic landmark (the National Parks Service has amazing vintage poster-inspired postcards), an aesthetically-minded restaurant (some will give you a card at the end of a meal) or from an antiques mall (there’s one somewhere near you, I bet), which is bound to have striking vintage postcards of the local area. These can be hung, either in glass or a proper frame, and displayed in a narrow space or as part of a gallery wall.

3. Mementos: Almost anything with a flat backing can be hung, whether in a frame or not, including mementos from nearby excursions or faraway travels. Display interesting menus, decorative plates, beautiful greeting cards, book pages and drawings. A few years ago, Domino magazine featured someone who framed an elementary school punishment where she had to write out an “I will not…” phrase on lined notebook paper.

4. Vacation Photographs: Yes, go ahead and frame that striking picture you took of Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. But even if you haven’t traveled extensively, or you have but only retained badly lit, blurry photographs from the trip(s), you can still fill your home with images of your favorite places. Etsy is a great place to start, whether you’re looking for images of Washington D.C. or Waimea Caynon. There are thousands of photographers selling prints showcasing every conceivable destination. You needn’t have taken the actual photo for it to mean something.

5. Posters: Nothing turns an apartment into a dorm room quicker than a poster hung with sticky putty. But this doesn’t mean that posters should be entirely off limits. A framed concert poster from a show you recently attended or an old movie poster can look really modern. If you really really want to showcase your love for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, how about ditching the student union-purchased poster for the framed vinyl album cover?

6. Something with a Sense of History: I love walking into a home and seeing old family photographs decorating walls, bookcases and mantels. Something with history, including vintage photos, old maps and historic prints can ground a space and make it feel more lived in.

7. Original Paintings: Say you’ve moved up to the big leagues and want to fill your home with actual art that an artist, working in a studio, with brushes and paint and everything, produced from scratch. Picking just the right piece can be daunting, but this list from Apartment Therapy of 10 websites that feature original work can help narrow down the search. No, these aren’t cheap, but some would argue that original artwork is most definitely worth the price of that nightstand you just bought. If you’re buying the work of an unknown artist, chances are your painting probably won’t appreciate in value all that much, but there is something to be said for simply owning a tangible piece of art, especially if it’s a piece that speaks to you personally and that you can admire and enjoy for years to come.

8. Play with Variety: This may just be personal preference as opposed to a design tenant, but I most enjoy a room filled with a hodgepodge of artwork, both in terms of genre (abstract paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, portraits) frame styles (gold, black, metal, glass, thin, thick, beveled, flat), shape and color. I especially find that doses of unexpected color, like peony pink or a shimmery aqua, when paired with black-and-white and soothing pastels, can make a room come alive. Mixing up the way you display is also important. Unless pictures are part of a series, if they’re all surrounded by white matting a room begins to look monotone, and you engage less with the actual pieces of art. Try hanging some works without matting or without a frame altogether (metallic push pins work well).

9. Play with Scale: For the same reason an all-black-and-white print wall can look flat, so can a room filled entirely with similarly proportioned pieces. It can create a staged effect, as though the area is a showroom and everything was bought the same day at the same place. People tend to be wary of oversize pieces, but they can function as the anchor of a room when paired with smaller works of various sizes.

10. Sculpture: Art is more than a painting or a photograph. It can also be something three-dimensional and tactile. Bookends, paperweights and vases are great sculptural additions. Random quirky objects like this starburst statue can also add an element of unexpectedness.

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A few examples from around my and my husband’s apartment. Clockwise from top left, the lead image from 2011-2012′s Brooklyn Museum exhibit, “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties.” A postcard of Grand Army Plaza, purchased from Whiting’s Old Paper in Richmond, VA. An oversize original watercolor abstract painting hanging above our sofa; made by a good friend. The menu from Hemingway Bar at The Ritz in Paris.

Favorite Things Lately, Volume 2

1 Cake at Cafe Sabarsky: I’ve already sung the praises of this cozy Austrian cafe inside the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side–a lovely place to visit in winter. Here, the best part of the meal is always dessert. As a self-diagnosed dessert junkie, it helps that I can scout out my cake before I order it; whole cakes are displayed all around the dining room. The below hazelnut layer cake and pistachio-chocolate mousse cake were exactly what I needed on a cold, slushy, awful, just disgusting day. I believe my socks were soaked from walking around in the sleet, but while eating forkfuls of hazelnut and pistachio with freshly piped whipped cream, I didn’t even care.

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2. The permanent exhibit at Museum of the Moving Image: There’s a 6 minute movie of the best moments in cinematic history that plays on loop here, and, if you look closely, you’ll see a certain spark ignite in people’s eyes as they stop to watch. The movie is a microcosm of the emotional reach of the entire collection, called “Behind the Screen,” at this somewhat out of the way museum in Astoria, Queens. There are old projectors, cameras, TV sets and zoetropes. There are also costumes, masks and makeup, set displays, iconic photos and promotional tie-ins. There are interactive exhibits that let you dub music over a famous scene or your own voice over dialogue in the movie Babe or create a stop-motion movie that you can email to yourself. The sculpture below, called “Feral Fount,” advances historic zoetrope principles, morphing into a mind-melting scene when lit with a strobe. All in all, a reminder of the genius of the medium.

3. The Off-Broadway play Murder for Two: I knew nothing about this musical-ish comedy before the curtain rose, which in a way, was a good thing. There’s a gimmick, but it’s oh-so-clever. The plot revolves around the murder of a famous author, a cast of 12 suspects, and a police officer investigating the case. The catch? There are only two people in the cast; one playing the cop, the other playing ALL 12 SUSPECTS.  Jeff Blumenkrantz (who just left the show and has been replaced with an equally amazing actor, I’m sure) is incredible as a clingy psychologist, a regal ballerina, a valley girl-esque grad student, and many other distinct personalities. His face is cartoonishly expressive, and his mannerisms and vocal fluctuations make each character seem distinct. The screenplay is farcical and over-the-top, but also smart and with a macabre wit that’s often laugh-out-loud funny. Just another reason to love the thee-ay-tah!

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4. The Jungle Bird cocktail: One school of thought maintains that if it’s cold out, you want a cocktail that’s warming, soothing and comforting–an Irish Coffee, for example. But I often prefer the other school, the one that suggests the best cure for the winter blues is an escape to the tropics. One of my favorite tropical cocktails, the Jungle Bird, features a refreshing combination of dark rum (Cruzan Black Strap is preferred, though I only had Gosling), Campari, simple syrup, lime juice and pineapple juice, shaken and strained into a tumbler glass. Drink it and pretend like it’s not as cold outside as  it is inside your freezer.

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5. Softcover photo books from Artifact Uprising: About a year and a half ago, when I was working on my wedding album, it dawned on me that I hadn’t printed real, physical photos in over a decade. My most recent albums were from college–early college, back in the early aughts. I’m a naturally nostalgic person, and I realized I missed flipping through an album and just remembering. Clicking through old Facebook pictures didn’t really compare. Enter Artifact Uprising, a modern, environmentally conscious (everything is printed on recycled paper) and affordable photo book site. Since I discovered Artifact Uprising, I’ve been on an album binge, creating mementos not just of our vacations but, maybe more importantly, of my husband’s and my life together here in NYC.

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