Friday, March 9, 2018

Snow Day

Our Nor-easter cake

In New York, it looks like we are getting 3 nor'easter storms in as many weeks. This time of year, as I start to yearn for spring, and am teased with a few above average spring-like days, I must remind myself that we are still in "moody-March." Even though I am over winter, winter is not over us.   Yesterday was our second nor'easter in March (the third is expected early next week). I was ready.  The refrigerator was stocked with multiple meal options, there was plenty of sidewalk salt just outside the back door and the shovel was in position for immediate use.  And, for this particular storm, I had stocked up on baking supplies. Because, when it's cold and the snow and sleet are braising the doors and windows, working around a toasty oven always warms the family.

One of my hearty Hellebore, with mayonnaise white flowers peaking out of the melting snow -- tempting us into thinking spring is here!  

I have been searching high and low for a dense, but moist cake recipe, the kind that I remember from my childhood and was popular in the 1970s (I was just a baby, of course!).  Back then, I think most home bakers used and referenced the Betty Crocker cookbook.  I fondly remember the cakes being a slightly different texture, thicker but still moist, probably because they relied on unhealthy ingredients such as Crisco shortening. Or, maybe today's flour is a bit less dense.  Or, maybe even, the standing mixer (ours was avocado green, below) didn't over mix? Whatever the case, I have been trying to replicate, somewhat unsuccessfully,  that seemingly long-gone, tender, yet dense, cake consistency.  It seems good cake, homemade or otherwise, is very hard to come by.

My childhood mixer.  I don't think it was as easy to over mix the batter back then with less powerful mixers like this one. 

So, for this week's nor-easter, we set out to re-enact my childhood favorite dessert! In the absence of the Betty Crocker cookbook, I turned to next best alternative -- The Dessert Bible. I highly recommend this cookbook and it's preceeding volume -- The Cook's Bible. Taken from the pages of the amazing Cook's Illustrated magazine, where classic dishes are meticulously tested, and retested, and the lucid outcomes are presented, these cookbooks answer the how and the why of perfected food and dessert. It's a little like science class in the kitchen and it's fabulous!

A cookbook that should be in every cook's kitchen.  Order it here:
From the Dessert Bible,  I chose the well-rounded English pound cake.  Pound cake is named, not for its weight, but for its use of 1 pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs.  But, for this week's cake, I chose a slightly more American version, the 1-2-3-4 cake, which is made from 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs. When mixing batters, it's vital that the ingredients are room temperature so that they whip up properly, otherwise the cake will be too dense.  Butter should be slightly above room temperature. Butter that is too soft will not whip up well either.  For our cake, I neglected to take the eggs from the refrigerator early enough, so I warmed them in some warm water to get the temperature up.  It worked.

A little random, but I needed another image here.  So, here is an easy and delicious ricotta cheesecake.  Recipe can be found here:

The best part of the cake was the buttercream icing. Most buttercreams are thick, and while ours was definitely not light, it was a touch lighter than most, and perfect for this cake as we only used it in the center.  The outside of the cake was iced in a simple home-made whipped cream. If you are looking for an excellent buttercream recipe, I again recommend the Dessert Bible.  Be sure to have a candy thermometer, though, as it is a little tricky bringing the egg-sugar mixture to 160 degrees.

Frosting the cake.  While the kitchen doesn't look too bad in this photo, in actuality, it was a bloody mess!

The only problem with baking, aside from the need to be fairly precise, is that it is messy. The counters and sink become filled with batter dripping spoons, egg sodden measuring cups, and buttered spatulas. It can be sloppy, really sloppy.  For me, the worst is the flour dust that settles on everything in the kitchen after pouring it into the mixer.  Baking with children exaggerates this many fold.  So, perhaps the best tool you can come into kitchen with when baking is patience.  Be prepared for a mess and be ready to spend time cleaning. And this is why setting out to bake on a snow day is the perfect activity.  What else is there to do?

The homemade chicken pot pie that we ate before having cake.
 It was an rich, snowy night, filled with indulgent food!
Now, off to the gym...

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Morning Routine

In my family, I am the one responsible for getting everyone up in the morning. I am the family's human alarm clock, the morning buzzer, the motivator.  It's a job that I don't mind.  In fact, I prefer it. I like getting up first, when the house is quiet and dark, when the only immediate demand is to get a fresh pot of coffee brewed, and to see what crazy news I may have missed in the overnight hours. Rising early gives me the opportunity to jump start my own self before I need to energize everyone else.

Every school day morning, the routine is exactly the same. After I am fully caffeinated, which is usually just before 7:00am, I wake my daughter by endearingly singing:  "good morning sleepy doo!"  Or, sometimes I  really mix it up with a pitch perfect "good morning plumb cake!" It's sweet, and my daughter still gets a kick out of it.  I like to think that my morning jingle helps provide a pleasant, positive and jovial start to her day!

But, in this last week or so, I have noticed myself adding one more step to this simple morning routine. Before breaking into my normal "Good Morning..." sing-song custom, I find myself pausing for a moment to say a little prayer, of sorts, before she wakes. It goes a little like this: "please, God, as an adult, don't let her ever get involved in a relationship with an abusive partner."

It may seem a little strange to be thinking and praying about such a heavy topic. My daughter, after all, is still quite young and relationships are still far off into the future.  But, it's a worry that I have, nonetheless.  One that has been more electrified by current events. It's probably a worry that many of us are having of late, as we should.

"...don't let that happen, please..."

I know it's cliche, but one of the advantages that gay men enjoy is the extraordinarily close relationships they are able to build with straight women.  I cherish the relationships I have with women and consider myself lucky to have so many fascinating people in my life.  The women that I have had the pleasure of knowing and confiding in are all smart, educated and successful, and have truly enriched my life. I am very fortunate.  And aside from being intelligent and thoughtful and accomplished, there is one characteristic that many of these woman also seem to share.  They have, at some point in their lives, and to different extents, been assaulted by men.  I am not sure that most men realize that almost every woman shares some version of this experience, of being sexually assaulted. Men should be encouraged to think about that -- and about their mothers, their sisters, their spouses, girlfriends, and their daughters.

Most woman have experienced some form of violence from a man.
It's daunting!

And this is why I worry for our children!

Years ago, I received a late night call from a very, very close friend, who, through tears, recounted  the most unpleasant experience she will ever have with a man with whom she was dating.  It was disquieting and scary and I was speechless.  And, looking back,  I can only hope that I was able to give her the appropriate, compassionate and needed support. This was a long time ago and my friend is now a highly educated,  extremely successful businesswoman, successful mother and successful wife. And while I have not thought much about that haunting, late night conversation in many years, due to current events, I have thought a lot about it lately.  The stories we are seeing on the news are not one-offs, they are, to some extent, almost every woman's story.

My friend and I never spoke about that conversation again and I suspect that she hasn't shared it with many other people, possibly no one else.  She moved on, and, as I mentioned, is happy and successful.  I wonder, however, if that deplorable man, who permanently destroyed a part of my dear friend, and probably went on to assault other women, ever tried to run for public office, would she publicly denounce his supposed virtues?  I think she would, and I think she should.  Would she be called a liar? Judging from recent events, yes, she would be called a liar. But, she's not a liar.

Public life aside, I have been recently conducting a little unscientific survey of my friends, asking them what they would do if they ever discovered that a friend of theirs assaulted his spouse? The response is overwhelmingly clear --  exterminate  that odious person from their lives.  Period.  Its universal -- assault against woman (or anyone) is never acceptable.  People who engage in this activity deserve little, and anyone in the know that does not call it out is complicit. Universally, everyone in my little survey vehemently understands that violence is always inappropriate. It was the indisputable response.

So, here we are, trying to raise a well-adjusted daughter who, in today's increasingly offensive mysogynistic environment, will likely and sadly face some uncomfortable relationship encounters in her lifetime, if things stay as they are now.  Hopefully, as a precursory, I will be able to instill in her a sense of strength and strong self-worth.  It's something I work at every day.  Since our daughter was very young, I have tried to encourage open, honest, and thoughtful reflection on healthy relationships. I know that my own relationships have to be an example of that.  And I always try to accentuate the positive.  I try to make it very clear where I stand on disrespect, on abusive or inappropriate language (and that when it comes from high members of our government, they are not leaders, but bullies!) and of any form of violence. And I always encourage her to stand up for friends and to look out for others that may seem uncomfortable. Every few weeks, I remind my daughter to be an 'upstander,' to do things like looking around the lunch room and making sure no one in her grade is sitting alone, and if they are, inviting him/her to join her at her table.  I am counting on these little things, these simple daily lessons, to add up.  But, I also know that violence can happen to anyone, regardless of how strong their makeup. So I will continue to worry!

And this is why I take that moment in the morning to say a little prayer...

...before I get my family up and into the world each day.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Brooklyn townhouse renovation before/after

The renovation is complete, for now!

For some time, I have intended to post the dramatic before and after photos of our recent townhouse renovation in Brooklyn Heights. But, I had a problem. I neglected to take proper photos of the project before I began.  So I don't have the absolutely essential and melodramatic before pictures. What the heck was I thinking? Anyhow, now that our renovation is complete, and we are fully settled into the space, I will attempt to show the transformation. Hopefully the impact is not totally lost on the lack of before photos.

The kitchen, as it appeared when we purchased our house in Brooklyn last year.
 I think that is one of the contractors I interviewed standing at the window. 
Most of the work that I did in our new/old house was performed on the parlor level. When we bought the 1800s brownstone in this historic part of Brooklyn, the entire interior of the house was painted a rather dated, and utterly drab olive green. Most of the original detail was stripped from the house and in its place were contractor quality fixtures. While the house did have some warmth, and good bones, it seemed dark, depressing, and didn't fit with the historic surroundings.  Simply applying a brighter, fresher coat of paint throughout the house (recommend Farrow & Ball's Slipper Satin), and popping in a few period fixtures and details would have done wonders to the look and feel of the building.  But, that wasn't enough for me. Clearly, I was in the mood for something more -- I was ready for a big renovation!

Since we cook nearly every night and entertain friends almost as much, the kitchen was the priority.  It needed to be comfortable, yet elegant; stylish, yet functional.  And it needed to accommodate many cooks in the kitchen at the same time.  Thus, it needed two sinks, two ovens and multiple burners.  Thank you Thermador!

We hired an amazing "old world" plasterer, who worked for months with casts to recreate plaster moldings, similar to the ones that would have adorned all of the townhouses in our area. 

When we bought the house, the cabinets were only three quarter height to the ceiling.  So the entire kitchen area felt truncated, short, and small.  The original height and grandeur of the building was stolen away; the enviable ceiling height was lost!  I needed to fix this!  And I did! I designed the cabinets to be dramatically higher, to the ceiling actually (I now use a ladder for the hardly used, stowed away pieces in the top cabinets). I also mixed painted cabinets on one side of the kitchen with dark stained oak on the other, to give the room depth and variance.

I always advise building cabinets to the ceiling, no matter how high.  This brings the room up, elevates the eye, gives the room air, and makes everything feel expansive and majestic. For this project, the high cabinets did all of this and more, bringing distinction back to the room, and life back to the house.

Former rear kitchen door, which is now replaced with one nearly twice as high.
For this project, I also reconfigured the rear windows, bringing them up almost to the ceiling,  making them even at the top. This was actually the original builder's intention. A previous owner took their size down, presumably to cut costs.  Again, like the cabinets, tall windows and doors help to bring the room up, to let the entire space breathe. The before (above) and after (below) pictures show the pleasing difference.  And yes, that is a large brown mohair sofa, sandwiched between the refrigeration units in the kitchen area.  I am done with uncomfortable and unwieldy counter stools.  Kitchens, and the guests that enjoy them, deserve all the joy and comfort that comes with a sofa!

It may be hard to see in the photos, but I also salvaged original period moldings from a building that was tearing them out. I had them stripped and used them to frame the door and window.  It all came out rather nicely:

What was once a dark, unappetizing kitchen, is now bright, expansive and utile.  It's a pleasure to cook and host parties in this resurrected space.  We all love it!

A tufted mohair sofa is the backdrop in our kitchen. I picked Italian "Ponte Vecchio" marble for the center island.

In the parlor-level half bath, the fixtures, tiles and wall color were inappropriate for a traditional brownstone... off it went to the salvage yard!  In its place, I installed a period-appropriate sink (from Simon's Hardware) and a gilded mirror, and I pasted up some traditional wall paper.  But, don't be fooled!  On closer look, the paper is not actually that traditional at all!  It's from the amazingly innovative and popular Brooklyn-based wall covering genius' at Flavor Paper.  Flavor Paper produces hand screened or digitally printed paper and is made to order.  So the colors can be interchanged and the images are completely customizable. For our wallcovering, we choose traditional colors and format, but the images are silly and somewhat controversial.  There is an image of the poodle, for example, that is actually in the form of campy balloon art.  And the Pegasus', standing guard over a guillotine of all things, have breasts! We give our guests something delightful to look at and ponder while they are taking a moment in the restroom!

Below is one of the few period details in the house that has managed to survive its many renovations -- the living room marble fireplace.  It's fairly simple and not unlike many others in the neighborhood, but it is very sweet and grounds the living room.  It's charming. But, it definitely needed some dressing up. 

So, I added studded leather wall sconces, hung an antique, traditional, gilded mirror, imported from an antiques dealer in St Louis, and accessorized.  It worked:

Finally, while there are many more elements that were updated, switched out, and modernized in our new/old Brooklyn townhouse, the renovated newel post and stairway is my self proclaimed crowning achievement. 

The newel post, seen immediately upon entering the house, was inherited from a previous makeover. It was contractor grade, did not represent the history of the house, was feeble looking and exceptionally dated.  It needed to find a new home, immediately!

I hired a local wood sculptor, seasoned in the art of making newel posts that were fashioned after the decadent posts of yesteryear. 

We labored over many designs. Weeks later, after painting the spindles Farrow & Ball's "pitch black", and the risers a sophisticated mayonaisse hue, we had a entirely reshaped, elegant entrance stairway.  It's gorgeous, wouldn't you say?  Where have all those specialized craftsmen (and women) gone?

That's all, for now!  There are many more updated features to this project which I hope to bring to you in future posts.  But now, I need to get to work on dinner, in my wonderful new kitchen! Have a great day! 

Taking a moment on the kitchen sofa before I
 get up and make dinner.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Storing decorations, making tarts and ringing in 2018

Welcome to 2018!

All that is left from my holiday baking are the photos!

Decorating for the holidays is a little like moving!  While it may not be that evident when we are setting up for Christmas -- excitedly putting lights on the tree and garland around the fireplace -- it is VERY evident when we need to take it all down. After spending all of yesterday carefully arranging fragile bulbs back into their wrappers, discarding torn cardboard boxes, worse for wear after reuse year after year, and safely organizing and storing all evidence of the holiday season into nifty red and green waterproof containers down into the back corner of the basement, I had an epiphany.  The holidays are a boatload of work, not that dissimilar from moving. Every year, I move an entire room of items, first up the stairs, then down the stairs, to decorate and then un-decorate for the holidays. And while, at the onset of the season, it is very exciting -- the snow is falling softly outside while our whole family joyfully reacquaints ourselves with ornaments that we have not seen for a year, happily placing them on a fresh cut tree. It is far less exciting when there is a foot of snow on the ground and we are completely drenched as we clumsily box up soggy and wet outdoor garland for storing.  It's funny... what great lengths we take to make everything chipper and festive during the holidays.

But, don't get me wrong, while I may be complaining after a clean up that is still fresh in my mind, I do still love the holiday season. And perhaps there wasn't a more important year, than 2017, for each of us to put some joy back into the world.

Any trace of the holidays no longer adorns my fireplace!
Actually, I left one bowl of ornaments out for another couple weeks -- just because!

Aside for the normal bustle of the holidays, which for our family included a trip to beautiful Deer Valley, Utah, I managed to accomplish a few new tasks.  For beginners, I made my first large batch of salad dressing.  Friends, who have enjoyed my salad dressing for years, have been urging me to put it into a bottle for some time.  So, for the holidays, I finally did. I made 20 bottles of my famous garlic, parmesan dressing and I now have requests for more!  We'll see where this goes! 

Refrigerator stocked with freshly made salad dressing
Look closely, and you might be able to uncover all the secret ingredients in my famous dressing!

A second accomplishment this holiday involved baking.  I love making dough -- working with my hands to kneed and shape a dough into the perfect consistency is, in my opinion, an incredibly artful process. But, dough is tricky.  Even for the most accomplished bakers, dough can become tough, dry, crackly  -- and then there is the problem with rolling it out.  Mostly, doughs require some experience, to know when the butter is too soft, or when it is too lumpy, or when there is just the right amount of stickiness to the hand. Luckily, this year my holiday dough was perfect! No promises for next year, though!

With the dough, I made two types of tarts. First, I made a white chocolate and raspberry ganache tart (below) and then, with the remaining shells, I made a custard filled tart that I topped with colorful fruit. Both were amazing, but I preferred (slightly) the fruit tart.  

Before making some dough this winter, here are some tips (from my recent baking journey):

The fat (butter, shortening, lard, etc) must be very cold.  I like to put it in the freezer for a half hour before using. This way, the butter does not soften when kneading.   

Use a food processor (pulse position) to initially mix the flour and fat, to get the desired pellet consistency. 

Add water AFTER mixing flour and fat and do not use the food processor at this point. 

Work slowly when mixing in water, but quickly to keep the butter from melting. Tricky!

 In case you are in the mood to bake, here is the recipe that I used for the shells. It is a gorgeous recipe that can be used for any sweet pie crust:

Sweet pastry recipe:

2 and 2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
zest of a lemon
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2/3 cup cubed butter
1 egg yolk
cold water (2-4 tablespoons)

Mix together flour, sugar, zest and salt in bowl.  Put into a food processor fitted and add the butter.  Pulse until pellet crumb consistency is achieved. Take out of bowl and add egg yolk and enough water to make dough come together.  Do not over kneed. Form dough into ball and place in refrigerator for at least an hour.  It can last in the refrigerator for a few days, if needed.  Good Luck!

So far, it is a great start to 2018.  I hope it is the same for you! 

Baking in my new kitchen.  The marble counter works perfectly for this!