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  • Christmas Plum Pudding
  • The famous Plum Pudding

Baking entrepreneur and sticky toffee pudding queen Tracy Claros is bringing a taste of "A Christmas Carol" to Austin during the Christmas run up.

She imports the traditional British festive treat that is plum pudding, which is easier said than done, Claros said. Last Christmas Claros got a surprise when she had to deal with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that impounded her shipment of plum puddings due to plums and meats being forbidden food items for import — puddings contain mincemeat.

Once Claros explained that despite the misleading nomenclature the puddings contained no plums or meats whatsoever, rather a juicy combination of raisins, fruits and nuts soaked in brandy and sherry, the puddings’ embargo was lifted.

“It’s not about the money, rather providing a service to my customers who ask if I can get plum puddings,” said Claros and who is better known for her company’s sticky toffee puddings. She found enquiries came from British expats but also first generation Americans, some of whose grandmothers had been war brides and who they remembered making plum puddings come Christmas time.

The puddings she imports hail from her hometown Kendal in Cumbria, England, and are good enough to be stocked at the finest of London stores, such as Harvey Nichols.

“They’re one of the last things really seasonal,” said Bernice Humphreys, director of The Ultimate Food Company making the puddings. “They have a wonderfully Dickensian feel.”

Despite 25 years trying to sell puddings outside of Christmas, it’s not been possible to break the festive association, she said. Fortunately, a lot of puddings are needed for Christmas and the company is busy all year round making 150 tonnes to meet that demand.

The pudding’s incongruous name stems from the antiquated use of the word "plums" as a term for "raisins,” befitting for a food that has been around in various guises since medieval times, with the contemporary version now found on British Christmas dinner tables introduced back in the 19th century by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, the tradition took root of hiding a silver sixpence in the pudding — meant to bring good luck to whoever found it — and placing a sprig of holly atop it.

Another plum pudding tradition started during the Victorian era involved pouring lashings of brandy over puddings to be set alight. Who better to describe such a scene than the author of the 1843 archetypal Christmas tale, Charles Dickens:

Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper...In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Puddings are soaked in brandy and sherry, often for weeks, and then steamed for hours, caramelizing the ingredients and giving the pudding its moist, dark finish and rich taste, Claros said.

Try something different from your usual annual festive dose of fusty fruitcake this year. Plum puddings can be ordered online from Sticky Toffee Pudding Co. One-pound puddings are sold for $15 and two-pound puddings for $25, both of which can cost twice as much in some Austin stores.

  • Artists Jeremy Earhart and Josef Kristofoletti of the newly-formed Austin-basedPigment are master manipulators of wall aesthetics and they’re determined toprove to Austinites that walls are meant to be bold, personal, graphic anddynamic.
  • Jeremy and Josef create wall textures, glazes, murals, gilding, customstenciling and basically any sort of wall enhancement in residential andcommercial spaces.
  • Metallic strie and metal leaf.
  • Hand-painted rice wallpaper.
  • Plaster with plaster stencil.
  • Milkpaint, metalic stencil and plaster detail.
  • Color layers mixing to create a dynamic composition.
  • Custom fabricated stainless steel mirror and Venetian plaster wall finished withwax for "Baked" in Charleston, South Carolina.

Pigment plans to add bold colors, modern graphics to Austin walls

bright future

Austin-based artists Jeremy Earhart and Josef Kristofoletti of the newly-formed wall finishing concept company Pigment aren't just decorative painters in the traditional sense. They’re master manipulators of wall aesthetics and they’re determined to prove to Austinites that walls are meant to be bold, personal, graphic and dynamic.

Both from the East Coast, Jeremy and Josef met a few years ago in Austin when they were working for a large, traditional decorative painting company. After discovering their mutual philosophies about wall designs, they formed Pigment a few months ago; Jeremy and Josef create wall textures, glazes, murals, gilding, custom stenciling and basically any sort of wall enhancement in residential and commercial spaces.

"We like taking those really sort of stuffy, traditional materials and doing something completely different with them. Giving it a new twist. Adding bold colors or graphic patterns," says Jeremy.

Along with years of working on a variety of decorative painting projects around the country, they both come with their own impressive art practices. Jeremy creates amazing Plexiglas sculptures and pieces for the wall that combine hip colors, detailed shapes and digital-inspired patterns. Josef is an artist whose incredible murals are colorful and modern; one piece even depicts the Atlas particle detector of CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland on an exterior wall there.

For those not familiar with what decorative painting has been traditionally known as, let us paint you a picture. Imagine a warm, shiny ceiling completely gold-leafed. Or the metallic glints of gilded chair and door molding. Delicately painted floor designs or a wall mural depicting an idyllic countryside scene. The two J’s have certainly done their fair share of traditional projects (as can be seen on their online portfolio), but with Pigment they plan to inject a fresh new style in this old art form and do it in a young, modern way.

"The things that most excite me are like taking a quilt pattern and making it in a completely different palette, making it three-dimensional on a wall or making it modern…putting my own hand in it, in a sense. I think that’s sort of what we want to do [with Pigment]," says Jeremy.

How? By using old decorative painting techniques and tools in new ways. Take a project they're working on now: a residential home has a game room filled with pinball machines, arcade games and slot machines. Combining Josef’s meticulous mural skills along with Jeremy’s sweet Plexiglas designs and some traditional wall techniques, they'll transform the walls and ceiling into the inner workings of a pin ball machine. Yet another project will reimagine Rorschach’s famous ink blots for a wall, only really big and in bold, modern colors.

"One of the things we love about Austin is that the aesthetic here is a lot more modern and closer to what we personally like. We are working on a line of more contemporary looks that use traditional techniques but feel very modern and are unlike anything we've ever seen before. Austin has become one of the most innovative cities in the country and as it grows it continues to create its own aesthetic. We'd like to be a part of that. People here are very open to trying different things; it's almost expected that if it's in Austin, it has to be different," says Josef.

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To find out more information about Pigment, see some of their previous projects and learn how they can help revamp and jazz up some of your walls, visit their website or their Facebook page.

  • The rooms at the Four Seasons Residences Clubs are fully furnished and outfittedwith beautiful decor.
  • The Four Seasons Austin Residences includes a community library for relaxing ina low key environment.
  • A view of the Four Seasons Austin Residences offering permanent downtown living.
  • Four Seasons Vail, one of the locales offering Residence Club accommodations.
  • The luxury and comfort of Residence Club rooms at the Four Seasons.

Building on the trend to travel with the comfort of home, the Four Seasons addsthe extra benefit of luxury amenities to the package

The Comforts of Home

Where do you like to stay when you travel? Do you prefer a hotel, a spa resort, a camper or maybe the residence of a complete stranger? Don’t think I’m crazy; people do it all the time, especially when they’re looking for a different environment with all the same comforts of home. Personally, I enjoy the freedom it can provide. When you opt for a hotel, you’re faced with forging for meals at restaurants and staring at the same four walls during your stay—unless you get a suite. Sometimes that’s not so bad if it’s just a day or two. But for a long vacation, I love having the opportunity to spread out with a bedroom, separate living area, dining room and—most importantly—a kitchen.

The concept of vacation rental rather than hotel or resort stay is not new, but it is a trend on the rise. It's something Austin-based HomeAway.com figured out a few years ago and has since found a way to build a big, thriving, high-profile business. (The company had its Initial Public Offering in June of this year and is currently listing more than 800,000 homes for vacation rental worldwide—589 listings in the Austin area alone.)

“Vacation rentals make great sense for families and groups because of the added space and privacy. Plus, they typically cost half as much as a hotel and include built in savings in the form of a kitchen and laundry facilities,” says Mr. Alexis de Bellow, Vice President of HomeAway.com. “Another great benefit of vacation rentals is they give travelers the chance to have a more authentic vacation and be immersed in the local neighborhoods.”

I’ve used HomeAway.com for a few different trips and have been more than pleased with the experiences I’ve had, but if money is no object, you make look into a completely different form of vacation rental; one through an already well established and highly regarded hotelier, the Four Seasons. I was on a business trip in Colorado and stayed at the Four Seasons Vail. I thought my reservation was for a hotel room, but upon check in I was led to a separate wing of the property to what was nothing short of a full-scale apartment residence, lavishly furnished and embellished with contemporary-meets-understated-mountain decor. The friendly bell hop grabbed my bags and toured me around the 1,800-square-foot apartment, which included two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room, a large living area and a kitchen. (It’s probably worth mentioning the balcony, a veritable living space of its own, which overlooked the ski resort and looming mountains.)

Though in shock at the grandness of it all, I thanked my tour guide and settled in. I found a bucket of iced beer and a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies waiting at the bar for me. I slipped into the plush white robe laid out on my bed and dug in.

The place was impeccable. Each bedroom had its own individual appeal with big fluffy beds and flat screen televisions with personalized welcome greetings displayed across the screen. The master bathroom alone could have equaled the size of an average hotel room and came complete with a separate shower and bath, as well as a clever pocket door outfitted with a full length mirror.

The living and dining room were laid out together, perfect for entertaining friends with two full couches and two comfortable chairs and a gas fireplace that lit a flame while you were in the room, but sensors that shut the fire down when you left the room—genius. We spent plenty of time proving that connection.

And the kitchen? Well, if you’re the type to covet the latest kitchen gadget, or if you get weak in the knees at the sight of a full commercial-grade Wolf gas range with oven and hands-free Kohler sinks, then you’ll find yourself in heaven away from home.

As far as concierge, valet, room service and even spa appointments go, they’re all a phone call away with a quick dial on the main Four Seasons phone that comes standard with each unit. As you might expect with a name like Four Seasons, excellent service is key.

It seems many hotels have taken on the trend of expanding on their operations to include a residential component. We’ve seen it happen in Austin with the Hilton and the W Hotel, as well as the Four Seasons. I recently toured the Four Seasons Austin residence with Director of Residences Lorley Musiol to find out how the two properties compared. Both feature the unparalleled service and beautiful design and decor. The Austin residences have dynamic layouts with views of either Lady Bird Lake or of downtown, and they all feature the same top-tier fixtures and appliances. The property also has a community library and separate entertaining area that includes a large dining room and commercial kitchen for residents to host large parties. There is a state of the art workout facility that allows residents to invite their own personal trainers up for private sessions.

I soon learned from Musiol that the Four Seasons has taken a three-tiered approach to their brand including hotel operations, permanent residence properties, and a handful of “Residence Club” properties that allows “fractional ownership” of a particular residence for certain weeks out of the year, much like a time share. The Austin location is solely a permanent residence property that offers every amenity that hotel guests receive with the added bonus of having the privacy and consistency of life in their own Four Seasons condominium.

“We’ve found that people who want a more urban location in Austin as well as a lifestyle of convenience have chosen the Four Seasons properties primarily because they trust the service and care we offer through our hotel operations worldwide and know they’ll get it when they make a home here,” says Musiol. “They want a familiar community as well and we achieve all of that here.”

But in particular destinations that have high tourism traffic, such as Vail, Jackson Hole and Punta Mita, Mexico, the hybrid Residence Club has allowed the Four Seasons to offer the best of both worlds. At Vail, where winter skiing is king, fractional owners can select the weeks they want to stay in a year, opting to pay a weekly rate when they are in residence. The property offers a full storage facility complete with ski footlockers. When it’s your time to come in, you simply call the concierge and they’ll set up your unit with your ski gear, any other personal items you may have in storage, and accommodate any grocery services you may have in advance of your arrival. Not too shabby considering the great hassle it can be to lug ski gear through an airport, especially with the headache air travel is these days.

And yes, with great accommodations comes a hefty price tag. Though prices vary based on season and size of the residence you’d like to reserve, you’re looking at quite a premium for the convenience. For some that may be worth it. Others may prefer crashing on an old college buddy’s family vacation house couch. For even more, the Home Away option sits somewhere right in the middle, offering the comfort of home in a vacation environment.

Although my budget will likely have me leaning towards the HomeAway.com option for future family vacations, the Four Seasons Vail and all the fit-for-a-queen comforts the Residence Club affords, is certainly up there on my wish list.

  • The home-focused pop-up shop, Nannie Inez, opened November 1st through December31st at the fashion-forward boutique Kick Pleat and is having its opening partytonight from 5pm – 8pm.
    Photo by Deeyn Rhodes
  • Owner and native Texan Deeyn Rhodes, who just moved to Austin with her husbandsix months ago from New York, brings her eight years of experience in thefashion world to the world of home décor.
    Photo by Deeyn Rhodes
  • You can find colorful and bold throw pillows from folks like British designerDonna Wilson or local Austin company August Morgan.
    Photo by Deeyn Rhodes
  • Located in the back third of the store, look through tiny bowls from Africa,ceramic accessories like salt & pepper shakers and artwork from small to large.
    Photo by Deeyn Rhodes
  • “I just can’t imagine not being around beautiful things and working with peoplewho are passionate about what they do. Everything we offer in the shop, weeither know or really respect the designer or there’s a story behind it. We havea very personal connection to everything we carry,” says Rhodes.
    Photo by Deeyn Rhodes

Nannie Inez pop-up shop open for home décor business at Kick Pleat

blink and you'll miss it

While Austin might sport an already impressive array of home décor stores, we’ve always got room in our hearts for more. The newest we’ll be welcoming with open arms? The home-focused pop-up shop, Nannie Inez, opened November 1st through December 31st at the fashion-forward boutique Kick Pleat and is having its opening party tonight from 5pm – 8pm.

Owner and native Texan Deeyn Rhodes, who just moved to Austin with her husband six months ago from New York, brings her eight years of experience (like, work-with-Stella-McCartney-and-other-impressive-names experience) in the fashion world to the world of home décor with a carefully curated collection of lovely items full of meaning, style and good design. You can find colorful and bold throw pillows from folks like British designer Donna Wilson or local Austin company August Morgan. The pop-up is located in the back third of the store, where you can look through tiny bowls from Africa, ceramic accessories like salt & pepper shakers and artwork from small to large that combine to create a truly unique and refreshing aesthetic that nicely complements the fashionable looks at Kick Pleat (run by owner Wendi Koletar).

The pop-up shop is merely a first step for Rhodes, who has intended to open up an Austin décor store for over a year (though looking, they just haven’t quite found the right space for them in Austin, yet). This makes the pop-up shop less a test run, and more a taste of what’s to come: Rhodes says they hope to have a full store open by next spring.

Named for Rhodes’ grandmother (described as a “special lady always about the good life, with never a hair out of a place and just a really good person”), Nannie Inez is a labor of love, passion, style and intention. "Over" the fashion industry, Rhodes' talent and enthusiasm for life has been transfered to Nannie Inez, and luckily for us, Austin.

“I just can’t imagine not being around beautiful things and working with people who are passionate about what they do. Everything we offer in the shop, we either know or really respect the designer or there’s a story behind it. We have a very personal connection to everything we carry,” says Rhodes.

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Check out Nannie Inez from 5pm - 8pm tonight at Kick Pleat, 918 West 12th Street and through December 31st. Learn more about Deeyn Rhodes and the Nannie Inez story on their website, their blog, follow them on Facebook and on Twitter.

  • Four Hands Showroom Bedroom set.
  • Four Hands Showroom living room sofa.
  • Four Hands Showroom Dinning room table and accessories.
  • Four Hands Warehouse Dinning Tables
  • Four Hands Warehouse Rugs

More space and time to shop popular Four Hands Home Warehouse Sale, beginningtoday

daily deal

If you happen to be in the mood to buy a new piece of furniture this weekend… but aren’t exactly thrilled at the idea of parting ways with a handsome amount of cash, you’re in luck. Local furniture company, Four Hands Home, officially kicked off its wildly popular Warehouse Sale this morning at 10 a.m.

While usually located in the stock warehouse adjacent to their retail store, this time around not only does the sale have a new home, but an entirely different look and feel as well. Located on Anderson Lane near Burnet Rd., the new 30,000+ sq. ft. space promises to have even more of the usual great finds and discounts—up to 75 percent off— on everything from dining tables to headboards. Not to mention, the floor is continually restocked with new merchandise and there will be an additional follow-up sale next weekend.

So what else does this dramatically larger space mean for shoppers? First of all, you won’t have to navigate narrow walkways and dig for deals among stacks of furniture to find the hidden gems anymore. More space equals more room to display the goods. Also, given the fact that these sales usually generate a line of eager shoppers before the doors even open, the new location should ease some of the crowd issues.

Although they have one dedicated retail location in Austin, Four Hands Home is also a major player on the wholesaler level, displaying their collections multiple times a year at the High Point, NC, Las Vegas, NV and Atlanta, GA furniture markets.

Founded in Austin in 1996, the lifestyle furnishing company is known throughout the industry for its eclectic, yet modern designs. Most recently, at October’s High Point Market (the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world), the Four Hands showroom won the People’s Choice Award for the third year in a row.

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The sale location will be open today and tomorrow from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and on Sunday from 12 p.m. - 5 p.m. A follow-up sale will take place at the same time/place next Friday - Sunday as well.

  • Spruce is contributing to the nicer aesthetics of Austin one chair/sofa/bench ata time by taking their experience and style and using materials like fabric tobreathe new life into old furniture.
  • Using tools both familiar and new, they hack and pull and rip and tear untilthey strip a piece of furniture to its bones.
  • Spruce’s owner Amanda Brown, is a gorgeous, dynamic, quick-to-laugh Southernwoman that can dig through filthy attics for old furniture finds and host hugeevents with equal amounts of grace.
  • Amanda has led her company to four successful years of business.
  • Spruce also teaches classes from basic upholstery to lampshades, offersinstructional videos for sale and has items (from furniture to housewares) intheir showroom for sale.
  • Their business is about 85% residential.
  • Their impact on commercial spaces in Austin has been quite impressive, havingre-designed furniture for P Terry's on William Cannon, Beets Cafe, Kick ButtCoffee at the Triangle, Sabia, Trace at the W Hotel, Hotel St. Cecilia and more.
  • "I'm always looking for the next way we can move forward and ahead of the pack.We have to keep producing unique products, improving our quality, and coming upwith new business ideas and venues to stay fresh and interesting to ourcustomers."
  • "Colors, textiles, shapes and comfort greatly affect the mood of a room."
  • "Older furniture is so much better quality and lasts so much longer. And you canhand-pick exactly what you want in the fabric you want by reupholstering. Youdon't have to settle for what comes out of the catalog."

Amanda Brown's innovative upholstery shop is "Spruce"-ing up Austin with fabricand furniture

design inspiration

I’ve seen the folks at Spruce (lovingly dubbed by themselves as “The Sprucettes”) in action. Using tools both familiar and new to me, they hack and pull and rip and tear until they strip a piece of furniture to its bones. It’s what they do next, however, that has made them so famous: they take their experience, style and materials like fabric to breathe new life into old furniture. Shaping the look of Austin doesn’t just have to do with designing buildings or erecting outdoor statues; Spruce is contributing to the nicer aesthetics of Austin one chair/sofa/bench at a time.

Spruce’s owner Amanda Brown is a gorgeous, dynamic, quick-to-laugh Southern woman that can dig through filthy attics for old furniture finds and host huge events with equal amounts of grace. She’s led her company, Spruce, to four successful years of business (they just had their four-year anniversary earlier this month) and in those years has had a profound effect on the look of Austin. Along with fixing up the furniture of Austin residents and business owners, Spruce also teaches classes from basic upholstery to lampshades, offers instructional videos for sale, has items (from furniture to housewares) in their showroom for sale, offers to-the-trade fabrics to anyone who loves design and in general exists as one of Austin’s most dynamic centers for design lovers.

Though Amanda estimates their business is about 85% residential (plenty enough to warrant a spot in my column series in of itself), their impact on commercial spaces in Austin has been quite impressive recently, having upholstered furniture for P Terry's on William Cannon, Beets Cafe, Kick Butt Coffee at the Triangle, Sabia, Trace at the W Hotel, Hotel St. Cecilia and more.

We asked Amanda a few quick questions.

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You guys just had your 4th anniversary. How does it feel? What do you think’s been the secret to lasting so long in Austin?
It actually feels like more than four years! There has been a lot packed into that four years, and the key is never sitting still too long. I'm always looking for the next way we can move forward and ahead of the pack. We have to keep producing unique products, improving our quality and coming up with new business ideas and venues to stay fresh and interesting to our customers.

What are your thoughts on furnishings versus architecture? What effect do you think furniture has on a space?
It's funny that you ask this because I studied architecture for three years and have a great respect for architects and the work that goes into designing a space. With that being said, I believe any space can be transformed and take on a new personality through the interior furnishings. Think about people and fashion. How many people have you seen on "What Not to Wear" that have amazing bodies and beautiful faces but have gone unnoticed because of the clothing and accessories they wear? It's the same with interiors. Colors, textiles, shapes, and comfort greatly affect the mood of a room.

Do you find that people tend to express themselves a little more when it comes to reupholstering furniture?
There's definitely a formula to how wild a client will get with furniture. The smaller the piece, the wilder they'll get. As with any product, we're all willing to go a little wilder with things that are less costly to replace or redo. So yes, it's easier to go out on a limb for a piece of furniture than to do crazy flooring or counter top.

Do you guys try to push clients to experiment with fabrics, patterns, colors and furniture frames?
We always work within the comforts of the client and respect many different styles from modern to traditional. We encourage customers to try fresh and new ideas on their furniture because we know that the end product really pays off, and you don't have to recreate grandma's sofa with the same type of fabric and style. We have many clients that discover they like certain fabrics and furniture styles they never considered because they can see it on furniture we've recreated.

If someone’s trying to decide between buying new furniture and reupholstering old furniture, how do you guys persuade them to go the re-purpose, reuse route?
It's not a hard sell. Older furniture is so much better quality and lasts so much longer. And you can hand-pick exactly what you want in the fabric you want by reupholstering. You don't have to settle for what comes out of the catalog.

I vaguely remember someone from Spruce giving a quick run down of some of the weirdest things they’ve ever found in old furniture when they were stripping the old upholstery off…could you give me some highlights?
Hmm...let's see. Well, there are the regulars: guitar picks, keys, old remotes, hair clips, toothpicks, toy cars and lots of change. And we've randomly found items such as a wooden lemon, an old British newspaper, underwear, pantyhose, and a mini Farkel game.

Does teaching people how to reupholster their own work ever, you know, take away business from the furniture y’all reupholster? Or do you consider empowering people in this craft to be just as important as making the things yourselves?
I think the classes actually bring us more business. I don't know how many times I've heard things like, "This isn't a class on upholstery; it's a class on appreciation." After class, students will frequently bring in other furniture pieces for us to redo. And because they've spent two days working side by side with us, they know we're honest and really care about quality craftsmanship and giving their furniture a lot of TLC.

Do you guys feel like you’re having an aesthetic effect on the look of Austin? Do you feel like the work y’all have done these past four years has boosted the look of Austin interiors?
I don't know that we can take credit for that; although, I do think we've helped brighten up a few homes. One of the reasons Spruce does well in Austin is that people were already thinking creatively about their spaces and furniture. We're just a resource for helping them get there. I do believe we've had an impact on the profession of upholstery and how upholsterers are presenting themselves to clients not only in Austin but around the U.S.

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Austin Pets Alive and Austin Animal Center launch $31 pet adoptions for the holidays

New home for the holidays

Two Austin organizations are looking to get local pets into their "furever" homes this holiday season. In a special December promotion, Austin Pets Alive! (APA) and Austin Animal Center are working to get as many animals out of the shelter as possible, by making all adoption fees a flat $31.

The promotion runs December 1-31. According to a release, APA's director of lifesaving operations, Stephanie Bilbro, sees this as a great opportunity to clear out the shelters and make a great impact heading into 2023.

“The holidays are a great time for the Austin community to come together and add to their families. We have so many precious kittens, puppies, cats, and dogs just waiting for their turn to find a family,” said Bilbro. “We hope this is a chance for any family who’s been looking to add a pet to theirs to do so right in the middle of the holiday season. We know Austin is in the upper echelon when it comes to animal welfare. We hope this promo sets us and AAC up for a successful end to 2022 and a fast start going into 2023.”

Both shelters are also seeking fosters and volunteers throughout the holiday season, for Austinites looking to help the shelters without making a long-term commitment.

APA has two locations, one at 1156 W. Cesar Chavez St., and one in Tarrytown (3118 Windsor Rd.). Both locations operate 12-6 pm daily, except Christmas Eve (12-4 pm), Christmas Day (closed), and New Year’s Eve (12-4 pm). The Austin Animal Center is located at 7201 Levander Loop and is open every day from 11 am-7 pm for adoptions. For holiday hours, AAC will be closing at 5 pm on December 23 and will be closed December 24-26.

'Famous' rooftop igloos return to Austin hot spot for the coolest experience this winter

Stay Cool

There aren’t so many winter wonderlands in Austin during the holiday season, but things get colder at higher elevations. The Hotel Van Zandt fourth-floor rooftop may not be high enough to change the weather, but visitors throughout December are invited to hang out in its self-proclaimed "famous" all-weather igloos, snacking on bites from inside and themed cocktails after the sun goes down.

Each private, six-seat igloo at the “South Pole” contains a Christmas tree, board and card games, festive records, and other cozy holiday decorations. It’s as private as Austin dining gets without completely breaking the bank, but the poolside mini-village of transparent igloos creates a warm feeling of togetherness. And in case it actually does get cold (a Christmas miracle!), the vinyl globes are heated.

It's not just a fun gimmick — as cute as the igloos are, Geraldine's is a great foodie destination. Visitors can expect (strong) drinks like the “Dandy Andes,” a minty chocolate mix of Grey Goose vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, and matcha tea. “Santa on a Beach” combines tropical flavors with cinnamon, and other drinks include unusual ingredients like Chartreuse whipped cream, pistachio, and chocolate mole bitters.

Geraldine’s menu focuses on classic Southern cuisine without getting weighed down by tradition; that means a roster of semi-adventurous gourmet comfort foods, like mole birria short ribs, smoked carrots, and salty Brussels sprouts with serranos and mint. Shareables are a good idea, since the igloos are intimate (read: not especially convenient unless you like balancing a dinner plate on the couch).

Two rounds of two-hour seating will be available every night, and reservations will go very fast. As of December 5, there are only a few dates left. Reservations ($100 upfront) entail a $200 minimum on food and beverage, plus a 20 percent service charge. Book on Eventbrite.

Acclaimed Texas chef toasts the Italian liqueur that's perfect for the holidays

The Wine Guy

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day and covers it regularly in a column for CultureMap's Houston site. Here, he talks not about wine, but the perfect after-dinner sip.

All right, team! Listen up! I’m going to give you some very important holiday information to help you get through all of the parties, family gatherings, and large festive dinners. We are not going to talk about wine today. We’re going to talk about another love of mine — the life-saving amaro.

What is amaro, you ask? It’s an Italian herbal liqueur that’s traditionally consumed post-meal as a digestif. Think of it this way: you start your meal with an aperitif — could be a martini, Campari, or Aperol spritz — to get your palate going and your body ready to eat. After dinner, amaro will help you get through the rest of your night. This elixir will magically and quickly break down everything you just consumed.

Most amari are from Italy, but fortunately new producers with similar styles are popping up all over the world. Some are sweeter, some are more bitter. You just have to find the style you like. Producers don’t traditionally tell you what’s in their amaro, because most of them are made up of dozens of herbs and spices. It’s all about trial and error to find the one you love.

I drink it neat, but some people drink it on the rocks. More and more, you’re seeing amari in cocktails, too.

The amari selection at our house is awesome. My wife and I are firm believers in this beverage as a night cap, and it’s even become part of my regiment pre-dinner as a spritz. Kill two birds, you know?

Unfortunately, not a lot of restaurants carry multiple amari, so it’s up to you guys to get this trend moving. The more you ask for it, the more they’ll stock it.

Our No. 1 go to at home? Montenegro. It’s easy to find, and it’s easy drinking. It has flavors of vanilla and orange, but it’s not too sweet and not too bitter. It’s had the same recipe since 1885, and I hope they never change it.

My wife’s favorite is Braulio. This spirit is from the Italian Alps and aged in Slavonian casks. Using more medicinal herbs and fruits means it skews more bitter than Montenegro, but it has a nice sweetness at the end.

A newish player in the amari game is Amaro Nonino. The Nonino family is historically one of the best grappa producers in the world — they’ve been distilling grappa since 1897 — but they didn’t start to produce their namesake amaro until 1992. (By newish, you get what I mean.) It has lots of honey, vanilla, licorice, and orange flavors. It’s a tad less sweet than most, but I think it’s fantastic.

Pasubio is really different from other amari. If you’re a fan of blueberries, this is for you. It literally tastes like crushed blueberries.

The next two are really cool and unusual, because they're made here in the U.S. An all-time favorite is Southern Amaro from High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston. Yaupon is one of the main characteristics, which is found all over Texas.

High Wire built its reputation on using regionally grown and foraged ingredients. If you’re ever in Charleston, you should stop into the distillery and say hi to Scott and Ann! Also, try some of their Jimmy Red Corn whiskey. Actually, everything they make is delightful.

Heirloom Pineapple Amaro is made in Minneapolis. To me, this is fantastically bitter but also tastes like roasted pineapple in a glass. One of my new favorites, for sure.

Now, here’s a helpful tidbit of info. You may have heard of fernet. That’s a general term for an amaro with very little to no sweetness. Branca is a producer that makes fernet, and it’s the most well-known. Search out others as well, because they’re all pretty cool.

Almost everything I listed can be found at most liquor stores. Don’t be afraid to try something. Yes, sometimes it tastes like taking your medicine. But I’ll bet the smell of Jägermeister penetrates your early 20s, and surprise — that’s a style of amaro as well.