Thursday, December 30, 2010

Caramels That Make You Believe You've Died and Gone to Heaven

I make them precisely once a year, but are remembered by friends and family throughout the year: golden caramels. I like to call them my labor of love, as they take the better part of an evening to cook them and then another couple of hours to cut and wrap, but they are so worth it. 
Here is the recipe for these unforgettable treats, found online at marthastewart.com. They are not difficult, but you must be precise!
  • 4 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 cups light corn syrup
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Vegetable-oil cooking spray

Directions

  1. Spray an 11 3/4-by-16 1/2-inch baking pan (this is a half-sheet pan) with vegetable-oil spray. Set aside in a spot where it will not be moved. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine cream and sweetened condensed milk; set aside.
  2. In a heavy 6- to 8-quart saucepan, combine corn syrup, 1 cup water, sugar, and salt. Clip on candy thermometer. Over high heat, cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring with a wooden spoon, 8 to 12 minutes. Brush down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to remove any sugar crystals.
  3. Stop stirring, reduce heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Cook, without stirring, until temperature reaches 250 degrees (hard-ball stage), 45 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, cook cream mixture over low heat until it is just warm. Do not boil. When sugar reaches 250 degrees. slowly stir in butter and warmed cream mixture, keeping mixture boiling at all times. Stirring constantly, cook over medium heat until thermometer reaches 244 degrees (firm-ball stage), 55 to 75 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Immediately pour into prepared pan without scraping pot. Let stand uncovered at room temperature for 24 hours without moving.
Since dust and pet hair seem to have honing beacons for freshly-poured caramel, I've found that finding a good spot for the standing-at-room-temperature-for-24-hours part can be a bit daunting. I happen to live in a pet-free apartment, which enables me to set the pan on my dining table without threat of kitty attack, but I know many people have pets, kids, and curious hungry onlookers to contend with. If you can close off a room from traffic and pets, e.g. a mud room, that's a great place to cool the caramels. At my Dad's house, I've gone as far as clearing off a shelf in a storage closet and placing the pan in there to prevent the inevitable poking, pawing, and jarring of the candy! 

Once the caramels have "cured" for 24 hours, it's time to release them from the pan and cut 'n wrap. I loosen the 4 corners of the caramel with a butter knife, and with very little prodding the entire caramel will release itself onto your cutting surface. I use my bread board or a large wood cutting board to cut the caramels, spraying the surface first with just a bit of pan spray to prevent sticking. Using my biggest chef knife I halve the caramel to make the cutting more manageable, and then cut that section in half again (for the math whizzes out there I cut the sheet of caramels into quarters). I then cut that quarter into 3/4"-wide strips and then each strip into  1"-long pieces. I'm always amazed at how beautifully the caramels can be cut; the caramels are not too hard but cut cleanly with the knife. Once I've completed a quarter of the caramels I wrap them all at once in wax paper. 

Cutting the caramels. These caramels are receiving a crunchy topper: fleur de sel. 
Over the years of making these caramels, I have tried a few variations to enhance their smooth goodness. My favorite is pressing the tops into fleur de sel. Fleur de sel is a delicious, clean-tasting, large crystal sea salt. It's very expensive (I get mine at a local specialty kitchenware and food shop), but a jar lasts a long time. I sprinkle a couple of teaspoons of the salt onto a saucer and gently press the candy into the salt. The result is a sweet caramel with just a touch of salty crunch. 

Another great variation is dipping in chocolate. I melt a bag of bittersweet/dark chocolate chips with a teaspoon or two of shortening in a double boiler. Once the chocolate is melted and smooth, dip the caramels, using a toothpick or fork. Place on wax paper and allow to set completely before wrapping.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Christmas Tree With a Little Old-World Charm

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my niece and sister helped me put up my Christmas tree. It's a big tree in a very small space, but I do love how it warms up my living room. 
My niece adding ornaments to the tree

I have a 9-ft slim tree, which fits well in the corner of my living room. To play up my chosen theme, I used about 25 yards of tartan ribbon (with wired edges for shaping!), frosted cranberry garlands, sprays of pheasant feathers, and dozens of white glittered snowflakes. As I mentioned in a previous blog, my Stewart tartan wool blanket became my tree skirt. 

The first time I put up my Christmas tree, I had an extremely limited budget. I had to light and decorate this big tree for less than $100. I found that unbreakable ornaments from Wal Mart (or any from a discounter) can fill a tree fast...and affordably. Floral picks, sprays, and ribbon for garland came from Michael's. And the fun pheasant feathers, along with more unique ornaments, came from after-Christmas sales at Marshall Field's.

Lighting is really important, so I bought two sizes of bulbs (C7 and regular indoor twinkle) for the tree. All said and done, I use about 500 twinkle lights and 100 C7-sized bulbs. One of the twinkle light strands has different lighting configurations, so I set it on a slow fade. It's amazing how much dimension that one change in lighting configuration can add to the tree!


Each year I add a little something new, which allows me to build a collection affordably. Now that I have a great base of non-breakable globe ornaments, I buy special ornaments to add visual interest to the tree. I have found so many beautiful ornaments at Macy's in recent years, and highly recommend finding something special on Holiday Lane. This year I bought Radko ornaments that were reproductions of the 1940s ornaments that hung on my Grandparents' and now Dad's Christmas trees.  I also bought a beautiful globe with the Manger Scene inside, a woodsmen-like Santa Claus, and gigantic glittered pinecones.

There's always such a sense of satisfaction and joy that comes with putting up the tree each year. Since many of the ornaments get rotated, it's always fun to decide which ornaments will fit the theme of the tree, and even more fun to bring back an old set of ornaments that haven't gotten their place of honor in a couple of years. Turning off the lights and sitting in the glow of the tree instantly transports me to Christmases past and reminds me of the magic of the season. 
The finished tree, complete with oversize pinecones, a wool blanket tree skirt, and a crown of feathers.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

2 Hours, 3 Projects

My excitement for Christmas is growing by the day, so I made a trip to Michael's today, looking to find the components that would enhance my newly-minted Old-World/woodland theme. I'm happy with my existing collection of ornaments and decor, but I do like to add new projects every year or so. This year I added a new piece of furniture to my dining area, a china cabinet that was my Grandmother's, and it screamed for crowning glory. Literally. My vision was to create a sparkly "crown" for the top of the cabinet, made from glittery beaded branches and twinkle lights. In my head I had this winter-in-Narnia look, something that would've made the White Queen proud.

While at Michael's I decided to create a garland for the window in my bedroom (why should all the decorating fun occur in the living room?!), as well as make a wreath for my apartment door. 

I started with the wreath, which took only about 15 minutes and less than $10 in supplies. I bought a plain evergreen wreath, and wove a frosted cranberry garland (I bought several more for the tree) through the branches. To get the garland to stay exactly where you want it on the wreath, all you need to do is wind an occasional branch around it to secure! I love monograms, so a jingle-bell "A" ornament was the perfect finishing touch. 


The next project I tackled was the hutch's crowning glory. I found a pretty beaded garland with shimmering holly leaves, and I bought two so they could be bound together to make the arrangement look fuller. I also bought 3 packs of LED battery-operated lights, so that I didn't have to run extension cords to the nearest outlet. All said and done, I spent about $18 on this project.
I used floral wire to twist the garlands together, and later used more floral wire to bind the lights to the garland. To ensure even spacing on the lights and branches, I staggered both the 2nd garland and the strings of lights so that they didn't overlap. 
The finished product

 My last project was a garland for my bedroom, and took only about 20 minutes and less than $20 to put together. I bought two 9-ft evergreen garlands, and wound them together to make them more full. I then wound pretty floral picks that coordinated with my bedroom colors in the garland, along with two gorgeous gold branches that had dangling crystals.

 The best thing about all of these projects is that it took little effort and not a lot of money to make a big impact. By doing these yourself, you never have to settle for something "close but not quite perfect", or an expensive version from a store. You also come away with the self-satisfaction that you've created something custom-made that you'll be able to enjoy for many years to come.

Found: A Christmas Decor Theme

I love decorating for Christmas, but considering that I have a tiny apartment, I have to be careful about what I choose to display. A well-edited decor theme allows me to create a surprising and pretty scheme, without it looking like a Christmas shop exploded in my living room. 

Every year I try to do something just a little different, try to incorporate new/different colors and patterns. It's amazing how different a Christmas tree can look when one switches out some ribbons, adds a new color of ornaments, or tries a different size string of light bulbs. Every year I also try to add to my collection in some way, enhancing another room's decor. This year it took me a while to figure out how to tweak my existing decor, but a blanket I inherited from my Grandma earlier this year finally gave me the inspiration I wanted. 

I decided on a theme surrounding this comfy old wool blanket; in fact, it will serve as my tree skirt! My theme is a little Old World meets winter woodland. I want to incorporate natural elements into my tree (pheasant feathers, pinecones, wood ornaments), but still give it a pretty shimmer with the ball ornaments I already own. 

My intention is not to create something too "country" or too "rustic cabin". I merely want to reflect my heritage and the beauty of where I grew up. Simple, pretty, slightly mismatched, and completely unique. 

As I complete my decorating later this week, I'll be sure to post photos of the process and the end result, as well as how I did my decorating on a very tight budget. In the mean time, however, are some of my favorite Christmas trees from the last few years. 

 

Above left: the Christmas tree in the upstairs living room at Dad's house. It spotlights a special set of "12 Days of Christmas" ornaments my Mom bought years ago. 
Above right: the Christmas tree at my apartment 2 years ago.
Left: the Christmas tree in the downstairs living room at Dad's house. We call it the "rebel" tree, as we use strings and strings of colored twinkle lights, a rare thing at my Dad's. The tree is covered with decades' worth of handmade ornaments by us kids, antique ornaments that were once owned by my great-grandparents and passed down, and spools of silver ribbon.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Heart Attack in a Bowl

In honor of the first snowstorm of the season, here is a recipe for a tried-and-true hearty meal. Affectionately known as Heart Attack in a Bowl, it is filling, delicious, and has almost no redeeming nutritional qualities. Enjoy!

Baked Potato Soup (makes a large pot of soup, 8-10 generous servings)
1-5 lb. bag of russet potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-size chunks
1/2 cup of butter (1 stick)
1 box of Betty Crocker sour cream and chive pouch potatoes (you will use both pouches in the box)
2+ cups of milk
 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1-12 oz. tub of Top the Tater sour cream (or any other variety)
1 lb of bacon
1/2 cup of chopped green onions (optional)
Salt and cracked ground pepper to taste

  • Boil the potatoes for about 15 minutes in salted water, or until fork-tender. Better to err on the side of a little too firm--when everything is mixed together a firmer potato will hold up better to the stirring.
  • While the potatoes are cooking, chop the bacon and fry in a pan. When crisp and brown, transfer to a plate covered in paper towels to drain. 
  • When the potatoes are cooked, drain in a colander, reserving about 2 cups of potato water in the pot. This will be used to help thicken the soup. 
  • Over low heat, add the stick of butter to the potatoes in large chunks. Add the two pouches of potato flakes and slowly stir in the milk. Stir carefully, so that the potatoes do not break up. 
  • As the soup starts to thicken, stir in the tub of sour cream and one cup of cheddar cheese. Add any salt and pepper to taste.
  • Heat the soup, stirring occasionally. If desired, add more milk in 1/4 cup increments to thin the soup.
  • Use the reserved cup of cheddar cheese, the bacon crumbles, and optional green onions as garnish. (I don't recommend mixing the bacon into the soup, as it will lose its crispiness quickly, especially if it is stored as a leftover.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pumpkins of Halloweens Past

With a linoleum cutter set (found at any art supply store), an awl (even a long needle will do), an image to transfer, and a little bit of patience, almost any image can be carved into a pumpkin! Below are some of my tried-and-true tips for amazing pumpkins, but here are a few samples from years past...enjoy!
Pumpkins carved for a Harry Potter-themed Halloween party a couple of years ago


A pumpkin carved for a contest at my old job...this one earned second place, good enough for a large gift bag full of Martha Stewart goodies!

Pumpkins I carved for last year's 80's themed Halloween party.
Obviously Michael Jackson's Thriller was a huge inspiration for the pumpkins!

As promised, here are some of the things I've learned in the last few years to make the pumpkin-carving process less daunting: 
  • Prep your space. Always lay down plenty of newspaper to make clean-up easy.
  • Carve under good light. Natural light, or at least bright overhead lighting, will make carving intricate details much easier. 
  • Print out your carving image. Use your computer's photo-editing functionality to make the image negative or "inverted", and print in grayscale. That image negative will help you determine exactly how deep to carve. For example, light skin tones on a photo will appear black, signifying that you need to cut almost through the wall of the pumpkin to achieve a lighter (brighter) image when the pumpkin is lit.
  • Use what you have on-hand. Masking tape will hold the image onto the pumpkin just fine, and even attach a sewing needle to a ball-point pen or dowel rod to serve as a makeshift awl. A cereal bowl serves as a great pedestal for the pumpkin while carving, keeping it securely balanced. A cheap scoop from a pumpkin-carving kit or a soup spoon is all you need to hollow out the pumpkin.
  • Cut the bottom off of the pumpkin. This is really the best way to keep a great stem intact, prevent the lid from falling into the pumpkin as it dries out, and to make lighting a cinch.
  • To get down to transferring the image and carving the pumpkin:
    • Use a kitchen knife to carve a good-sized hole into the bottom of a pumpkin. It should be large enough to accommodate your hand so cleaning is easy.
    • Clean out the pumpkin, making sure to get rid of all hanging strands and seeds. I also try to get the top-most layer of the pumpkin flesh scraped out, in order to make the lighted image brighter.
    • Trim your printed image down to a half-inch border all around, and use masking tape to adhere it to the pumpkin. 
    • Transfer the image to the pumpkin by using an awl or needle to create hundreds of tiny holes on the surface of the pumpkin. Don't be intimidated by the complicated pattern you see upon removing the paper from the pumpkin! 
    • Using the original image as your guide, use the linoleum cutters to gouge out the skin of the pumpkin. I recommend starting with the largest areas first, and then working down to the smaller detail. Try to gauge how deep to cut into the flesh using the negative image. The white areas on the image should be left uncarved; the black areas should have the most flesh removed. However, make sure that you don't carve all the way through the wall of the pumpkin!
  • Check your progress in the dark. Keep a votive or pillar candle on hand so that you can periodically check your work. Once you're happy with your carving, or to make sure you're on track, turn out the lights and place the pumpkin on the lit candle. It'll help you see what areas need more work. 
  • Make your image brighter...fast. If you're pleased with the carved image but want it to be brighter, it's much faster to scrape out more flesh on the inside of the pumpkin than on the outside. Scrape carefully, layer by layer, checking the image in the dark, until you achieve the desired brightness. 
  • Go beyond candles for lighting. Although a flickering candle is eerie in a jack-o-lantern, twinkle lights can be just as effective (and a lot safer). Just wrap a string of 50 twinkle lights around an empty jar, plug in, and voila!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

First Apples of the Season

September is my favorite month of the year for many reasons, but the apple harvest is certainly toward the top of that list. Every September, my sister and I head to the local orchard and load up on fresh apples, jams and butters, syrup, and fresh-pressed cider. 
A decadent Fall breakfast: chunky cinnamon bread French toast with pumpkin butter from the orchard and a drizzle of hot caramel sauce.

In the following weeks, the Jonathans, Galas, McIntoshes, and Honeycrisps are put to good use in many different recipes. 
A panorama of the apple orchard and vineyard we visit each year.
My sister protecting one of the best treats from the orchard: the homemade kettle corn from a local vendor.
 Three of my favorites are apple crisp, apple pie, and apple turnovers. The best thing about each of these recipes is that it only takes a few humble ingredients to showcase the flavor of the apples. In fact, I use the same recipe for pate brisee (from marthastewart.com) for both apple pie and apple turnovers:

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp each sugar and salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp ice water

Although it is very easy to roll a good pie crust, there are a few hard and fast rules to ensure perfection every time. 
  • Refrigerate everything, including the metal bowl and dry ingredients, for about 10 minutes before starting to make sure that the dough remains as cold as possible while mixing.
  • Don't use your hands to blend the dry ingredients and butter; use a pastry blender or a few pulses of a food processor to prevent heat from being introduced into the dough. Cut the butter into tablespoon-size chunks for faster mixing. The resulting mixture should be soft and crumbly.
  • Add the 1/3 cup of ice water all at once, and use a wooden spoon to pull the dough together. Do not over-mix; that will only make the dough tough. Mix it only well enough to fully incorporate the flour. If the flour cannot be incorporated with the 1/3 cup of water, add the extra tablespoon.
  • Divide the dough into two portions, press into two disks, and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a couple of hours, or overnight. 
Rolling out the dough for turnovers



When rolling out the dough, work only one disk at a time, leaving the other in the refrigerator. Lightly dust the rolling surface with flour, and make sure the rolling pin is well-dusted too. Roll out dough to about an eighth of an inch, and trim into a rectangle if making turnovers, or gently roll up the dough onto the pin and unroll into the pie plate. The second disk of dough will serve as the second batch of turnovers, or a top crust for a pie.

Here are some of my other tried-and-true tips for apple turnovers and pies:

  • Any unused scraps should be refrigerated immediately, and only rolled out once more. Any dough remaining after rolling twice should be used for another recipe or discarded. 
  • Do not overfill turnovers; spoon filling into lower right half of the turnover, leaving at least an inch of dough on the edges so that the edges can be crimped with the tines of a fork. 
  • Use a paring knife to make slits in the top crust or top of the turnover before baking. This will allow to steam to escape while baking.
  • Brush egg white onto the top of the pie or turnover to create a golden crust. It will also help sanding sugar adhere to the crust better.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Labor Day Brunch

In a week the Summer season will end, and I thought it would be best to say so-long to Summer with a family brunch. After the success of my sister's graduation brunch, I thought I could bring back some old favorites and do an encore presentation. The beauty of this brunch will be its simplicity: food with few ingredients, a casual atmosphere, and plenty of helping hands. 

 My Dad's little house on the prairie, home to much of my inspiration!

Menu: 
  • Caramel French toast, easy to make, but is always a hit with the family! I soak day-old French bread in a mixture of half & half and eggs, and bake them on a bed of a brown sugar-corn syrup-butter mixture. The result is a golden-brown toast with a sticky toffee-like crust on the bottom. Caramel sauce from the same ingredients tops it off when they come hot out of the oven.
  • Cinnamon Rolls (I use the "Clone of Cinnabon" recipe from allrecipes.com as my starting point, and I finish them off with a double-batch of cream cheese frosting)
  • Brunch Enchiladas ( I've never tried this recipe, but it sounds amazing and I plan on using Chorizo sausage to spice it up)
  • Sausage links
  • Apple butter hand pies or spicy pumpkin bread (a little hint of Fall)
  • Watermelon smoothies, made with pureed watermelon and key lime juice (reminiscent of hot Summer days)
Outside of the food, I want the ambiance to be just right for this casual setting. There are plenty of wildflowers growing down the road, so I'll fill mason jars with them and set them along the buffet. As dorky as it sounds, I have a "Brunch" playlist on my iPod for just these kinds of events. To evoke the right mood (cheerful, eclectic, a little tongue-in-cheek) here are some of my favorites:
  • "Have You Ever" by Brandi  Carlile
  • "Life in Technicolor ii" by Coldplay
  • "Penny Lane" by the Beatles
  • "Something's Got a Hold on Me" by Etta James
  • "Dreams" by The Cranberries
  • "There was Sun" by Devendra Banhart
  • "I Miss You" by the Honeydogs
  • "I Melt with You" by Modern English
  • "Chocolate" by Snow Patrol
  • "Follow" by Semisonic
  • "So Happy Together" by the Turtles




Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Flying Turkey

Let me just lay it all out on the table and fully admit that I am a product of my Mother. I come from a distinguished line of garage-sale junkies, antique-shop hounds, and collectors-cum-pack rats. My Grandmother, Aunt, and Mother all had (have) the knack to hone in on beautiful pieces at great prices and bring them home (much to the chagrin of their husbands). As a child I could recite their collections by name, like a mysterious code passed down from Mother to Daughter: Ironstone. Spatterware. Transferware. Blue Flow. Depression Glass. Salt Glaze. Cranberry Glass. Hobnail. Petalware.  I didn't necessarily know why they were named as such, but I understood that they were all beloved by generations of women in my family.

The passing of my Mother and Grandmother led to my acquisition of several sets of beautiful and unique dishes. While my pieces aren't perfect and worth a mint on eBay, they are special and important to me. Even chips, crazing, a poor transfer, or yellow residue from an ancient price tag don't matter; they're part of each collection's history and identity. And it certainly doesn't stop me from using them as often as I can!

I collect Ironstone, Spatterware, Salt Glaze, and Petalware, but my curiosity was piqued when my Aunt asked if I wanted a set of blue and white "Flow" dishes. She couldn't remember the name or the size of the collection, but I readily agreed. Some of my best childhood memories from my Grandma's house centered around her extensive Blue Willow collection, and I knew these dishes would have a similar look and feel. 

Opening up the large storage tote of dishes, I was pleasantly surprised. I came face to face with blue flow dishes of large birds intertwined with flowers and vines. Most of them had "Made in Japan", "Japan", or an "M" encircled by a wreath stamp on their base. I had no clue how old these dishes were, but I guessed that they were produced before the War. I went straight to my computer, and a few Google phrase searches later, I had solved the mystery. 

It turns out that the bird is a Phoenix, and that the pattern is more commonly known as "Flying Turkey". The Phoenix is a very common motif in Japanese and Chinese art, and the legend of the Phoenix is known the world over. Further research showed that my pieces do date from around 1920 to 1950. Before 1920 many Japanese porcelain producers used the name "Nippon" (Japan) in their stamps; therefore, "Japan" is a more contemporary mark. The M encircled by a wreath turned out to be a mark of Morimura Brothers, the predecessor to the now-famous Noritake brand. Because many production facilities were destroyed by the Allies during the War, and between 1945 and 1953 most porcelain was stamped with "Made in Occupied Japan", I'm confident that most of my collection dates before 1945. 

The dishes are now drying in my dish rack, awaiting their placement in the china cabinet. It's amazing to think I was able to uncover more information about these dishes in a few minutes via the internet than prior generations could in their lifetimes. These dishes are another connection to the past, and, more importantly, another connection to the women of my family. Now all I need to do is plan a tea party centered around this pretty addition to my cabinet....



Sunday, July 11, 2010

Chic Decorating...on the Cheap

I've been in my apartment for a couple of years now, and in that time I've done whatever I can to make this apartment a home. I haven't always had a lot of extra money to work with, so I've substituted elbow grease and a little creativity for the deep wallet. Here are some of the things I've learned since moving in to my little city abode:

A can of paint does wonders. Some decorators say to wait until you have completely settled in, to see what colors you already have in your belongings and to find complementary paint colors. But to me that just means a lot of work to pull everything off the walls, move all of your furniture, cover everything in plastic, and then get to work. In my case I had very few belongings to begin with, so the first thing I did when I moved in was painted. I highly recommend lighter neutrals, especially in a rental. Priming and re-painting over claret-colored walls is the last thing one wants to do when moving out!

Another benefit of neutrals is their adaptability. I selected a soft New England blue-grey for my living room, a color I would have never thought of before, but was so pleased with its results. Natural sunlight and indoor lighting warm it up, yet it keeps its cool composure on the hottest of summer days. Contrary to what one would expect, this blue is actually very neutral. Since I love rotating colors and fabrics seasonally, this blue stands up well to the reds and navies of winter, the yellows of spring, and the fuchsias and greens of summer. Find a few contenders, paint a few sample swatches on your wall, study how the colors change in different lights, and make your decision. The worst thing that can happen is that you don't like the paint. Better to lose $40 in paint than several hundred on a piece of furniture you don't love!

Take cheap furniture and add a few unique touches. Like I mentioned earlier, I started with hand-me-downs and furniture from Target and Ikea. Needless to say, new drawer pulls or crown molding nailed to the top of a cheap bookcase can do wonders. I bought a neutral slipcover and pretty pillows to hide a dated couch. My dinged, stained, and otherwise unloved wooden furniture received an update (but more on that in an upcoming blog).
Cheap bookcase and TV stand dressed up with light fixtures, plenty of books and new drawer pulls. I also built a "revolving" gallery for whatever I feel like hanging up at the time. I used plyboard, quilt batting, muslin, and furniture tacks to create a piece where I could use t-pins to hang photographs and art. This board also means no extra nail holes in the wall!


Cover your walls. Nothing livens up a room like paintings, photography, collages, and the like. I printed a lot of my favorite photographs in black and white, put them in black wooden frames (look at Target and Wal-Mart for great bargains!), and created photo displays. Finds from allposters.com, matted and framed, add color and a personal touch. I am by no means a professional painter, but some of my more decent results ended up on my walls too. Last, but certainly not least, add mirrors where you can. I have 4 mirrors in my living area alone! I really believe in the assertion that adding mirrors to a room (especially across from a window) will open it up and add light to the space.

A group of photos and knick-knacks that are dear to my heart. The "My Fair Lady" poster is an original from the 1960s, when my Mom played Eliza Doolittle in her high school production.


Whatever you do, don't make it matchy-matchy. Rooms shown in decorating magazines look amazing because not everything coordinates. Avoiding matchy-matchy syndrome is also a lot easier if you select items mindfully and one-by-one. I know "room in a box" kits (read: a couch, love seat, end tables, and a coffee table that all match) are extremely popular, but it's a fast way to paint yourself into a decorating corner. Different furniture heights, textures, and colors are what make the room interesting and draws peoples' eyes.

I think people are often afraid of mixing different wood colors, patterns, and fabric colors, for fear that they will make a mistake, which makes the "room in a box" so appealing. My theory is that if you buy what truly appeals to you, things will always come together in an unexpected, yet perfect, way.  Trust your senses! I think we're often drawn to things of a certain style, color palette, or design. With these similar styles, colors, and designs united, we naturally create a look that makes sense.

For example, I am drawn toward neutrals as my base, but love many different colors, patterns, and textures. I bought a brown and white houndstooth chair because of its perfect size in my little living room and because I love  menswear-inspired houndstooth. The brown and white is neutral, so I threw on an angora throw in robins-egg blue and a pillow encased in a lively rose-printed cotton. The throw and the ground color of the pillow complement my blue-grey living room wall and are a nice contrast to the brown and white print. The soft angora contrasts the nubby houndstooth, and the floral print of the pillow lends a feminine touch to a masculine print. The result is unexpected but looks put together...and more importantly, it looks like "me".

My little armchair, perfect for reading or idly looking out the window, is in arms' reach from one of my must-haves: my books!


Always keep your hobbies and lifestyle in mind. If you love books, make sure you have plenty of shelving to hold them. If your hobby is photography, plan out a photo wall with your work and use mats and frames in similar colors to bring a sense of cohesiveness to the collection. If you are more homebody than person about town, splurge on the TV and theater system that will make your quiet evenings at home memorable.  If dinner parties with friends and family is enjoyable, make sure you make room for an expandable dining table and keep mix and match linens on hand.
My current tablescape: a sweet eyelet runner, hemstitched cocktail napkins, and mis-matched placemats from Pottery Barn. The pillars and topiaries were found on clearance at Pottery Barn, and the candles were dollar-store finds. Vintage butter pats hold tealights, and the napkins were found for pennies on the dollar at Home Goods.


Lastly, don't be afraid to leave your space empty for a while. It's ok to not know exactly how you want the room to look. It's better to wait for the exact item you want (especially with more expensive pieces, like furniture) than to buy something that is merely "ok". I started with a lot of hand-me-downs and a few antiques inherited from my Grandma, all supplemented by finds from Target and Ikea.

I started with colors to which I was naturally drawn, items with personal value, and items I could never live without. For me it was almost any color, depending on the season: shades of red and pink; navy, robins-egg blue, and blue-grey; olive and emerald and kelly green. Items with personal value were my photographs, inherited antiques, and collection of pottery. The items I can't live without are books, my television with theater system and collection of DVDs, and my painting supplies.

Once you know your colors and your-must haves, it's all about layering on pieces that enhance what you already own and love. There's no point in hiding things for the sake of a "look". Your spaces should always be a reflection of who you are.
 The inside of my recently-inherited hutch. I used fabric remnants as shelf liners, and arranged parts of my pottery collection, my Grandma's spatterware, random tea sets, and stemware inside. Does it match perfectly? No. But does it somehow work together and reflect me? Absolutely. 


Another of my really easy and cheap projects. I took an outdated chandelier that came with my apartment and made it look completely different. Black torchiere shades from Target diffuses the light, and I used thick scrapbook paper to cover the "candle" base of each bulb. The crystals came from an antiques shop and Michael's and were leftover decorations from Christmas that I didn't quite feel like pulling down.


I have open shelves in my kitchen with displays that rotate seasonally. Right now it is pretty china, English ironstone, coffee grinders I inherited from my Grandma, and jars of pantry staples. In a few weeks it will be salt glaze pottery, spatterware, and copper to reflect the changing seasons.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Graduation Party...With a Twist

Last weekend my younger sister graduated from high school and, like any good big sister, I was more than happy to step up to the task of planning her party. Our Mom passed away when she was 9, so my sisters and I have always made sure our youngest sister has had strong female influences. I like to think my influence on her includes passing on my kitchen skills.

Graduation parties have changed a lot since I graduated from high school; the hamburgers off the grill, veggie tray, and purchased sheet cake have all evolved to a more sophisticated level. Suddenly the plastic tablecloths, confetti that finds its way into your food, and the color coordination of everything to the high school's colors seems a little contrived.

My sister's school colors were black and orange, so right off the bat I nixed playing on that color scheme (hello, Halloween!). Her favorite color is purple, so the combination of that and chocolate brown eventually brought me to a "French Countryside" theme. We wanted to have a brunch, allowing us to try foods different from the normal graduation-party fare. Another great benefit of a brunch is that the ingredients (flour, sugar, eggs, butter, cheese) are very budget friendly. 

 
The Menu:
Baked caramel French toast with caramel sauce
Cheese and bacon quiche
Hashbrowns
Bacon
Cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting
Banana bread 
Chocolate-chocolate chip muffins (my sister's special request!)
Fruit salad
Country-style baked macaroni and cheese
Tortellini pasta salad with spinach and tomatoes
Croissants and all the sandwich fixings
Monogrammed cupcakes with fondant and buttercream
                                           Coffee, juices, soda, and water


Above: cinnamon roll dough, ready to be sliced
Chocolate-chocolate chip muffins
Cupcakes with pale lavender fondant and a chocolate monogram






For decor we wanted to keep things simple and feminine. Instead of plastic tablecloths, we bought cheap cotton tablecloths for only a few dollars more. To dress up the tables, I bought yards of cotton French toile and enlisted my sister to make several table runners and table coverings. Wildflowers clipped from the ditch across the street were heaped into baskets, and grocery-store flowers in purple and white were arranged in large hurricane vases and Mason jars with river stones in the bottom. I am by no means a professional floral arranger, which was perfect for the country theme...the more organic and slightly disheveled the flowers look, the better! 
 The linens and flowers for the tables in the tent
 Having been through this party-planning experience, I thought I'd share a few of the things I learned along the way. 
  • When trying to figure out how many people will eat at your party, plan on 25% of the invited guests eating a full meal, and 50% of the invited guests to eat a limited amount or only come for dessert. Make sure there are plenty of beverages for all invited guests.
  • Make sure to keep your hot foods hot and your cold foods cold. I used chafing pans and shallow foil baking pans filled with ice to keep food the proper temperature. I also tried to plan foods that were good at room temperature.
  • Try to stagger the timing of your hot foods and entrees to keep things fresh. That's one thing I wish I would've done better in my planning. I went through several pans of French toast very quickly, and later guests missed out. Had I staggered the timing on this entree, I would've had enough for all guests. 
  • Don't forget the guest-of-honor's likes, dislikes, and opinions when making plans. This is their day, and incorporating things they love into the decor and food will make it all the more special. My sister picked the colors, most of the food, the cupcake flavors, and the music playlist.
  • Re-purpose things found around the house to save on decoration costs. I stacked cake pedestals I already owned, gathered baskets found around the house, and dug old vases and Mason jars out of pantry cabinets. 
  • A little creativity and elbow grease can help make your party one-of-a-kind....and save you money. I didn't like the typical graduation banners found at party stores, so I took an old white tablecloth and painted it with acrylic paint. I saved a lot of money by purchasing flowers at the grocery store and arranging them myself. Several yards of toile and about an hours' worth of hemming made the rental tables look a lot more luxurious. I also saved money by making cupcakes instead of ordering a large sheet cake from a bakery.
  • Enlist those around you with a special talent. One of my sisters is a computer whiz and made all of the invitations. The graduate is very artistic, and she made her own poster boards, covered in mementos and photos from her school years. My Dad has a knack for organization and cleaning, so his tasks revolved around keeping everyone on task and on schedule. 
  • Lastly, don't forget to enjoy the moment when it arrives! Enjoy your hard work and preparation....your guests undoubtedly will. 


Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Perfect Omelet

Oh, how life gets in the way and effectively prevents one from sitting at her computer and turning out an entry. I'm back, whomever you are, taking time to read this blog!

In recent years there have been a lot of discussions surrounding the omelet...writers behind television shows, magazines, and online media have taken very humble ingredients and elevated it into an overly complicated, however delicious, piece of art. 

I'm not here to wax poetic about the magic behind an egg, some spices, and a lob of butter, but I will tell you how I've achieved omelet greatness without the threat of carpal tunnel. I love omelets and eat them constantly, knowing that they are A) relatively healthy and B) take very little time to cook. After a long day at the office, the comfort of a hot, savory meal drives me to pull out my omelet pan time and time again, and I'm never disappointed. Here are my tried-and-true instructions for an unadulterated cheese omelet.

I start with two eggs and two bowls. I immediately diverge from the gourmet track by fully admitting that I am using run-of-the-mill, non-organic, non-cage-free or just-harvested-from-my-own-coop-this-morning eggs. Let's be honest here...I certainly understand the flavor benefits of a gorgeous fresh egg, but how often do we have immediate access to them? I also put my little non-stick skillet on the burner and turn the heat on low-medium.

I separate the two eggs: the yolks into a little dessert dish or cereal bowl or whatever is handy, and the whites into my Mauviel copper bowl. (Writer's Interjection: Alright, I understand that copper bowls are a somewhat rarity in a typical kitchen, or at best have a place of unused honor on a wall or shelf. But to reference a past blog, I must say that one should never own anything that is too good to use, and that includes the beautiful copper pieces adorning a pot rack or hanging on a wall!)  Honestly, any metal bowl will do. I whisk the egg whites until fluffy and near soft-peak stage, (the benefit of copper is in this step--the copper ions adhere to the egg and the white stiffens much faster than using a metal bowl.) which normally takes 3-4 minutes. I give the yolks a quick stir, and pour them into the whites. 

 Gently fold the yolks with a rubber spatula until fully incorporated, and add any spices you'd like. I personally stick with a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and about half a teaspoon of dried thyme.The pan will be nice and hot by now, so drop a healthy tablespoon of butter into the pan and let it sizzle to a fragrant, slightly nutty, and golden brown state. Pour the eggs into the pan, and pull the rubber spatula through the egg several times.

I let the egg cook for about a minute, and then flip it with the rubber spatula. There is an ongoing discussion regarding this step; some say that an omelet has no need to be flipped, while others flip the egg to ensure it is fully cooked. If you're afraid of flipping the omelet and the possibility of breaking it over the edge of your pan, don't do it. Just watch for the omelet to appear slightly dry, with tiny bubbles rippling the surface. 



The omelet will only take about 2 minutes to cook completely, and when finished  turn the burner off and sprinkle cheese over half of the omelet. Almost any cheese will work, based on your personal preferences. I love an extra sharp cheddar, or even soft mozzarella and a sprinkle of shredded parmesan. Use the rubber spatula to fold the other half over the cheese, and allow it to set and melt for a minute. Slide the omelet onto a plate, and voila! just about the best omelet you could ever have on this side of the Atlantic. 


 

The end result is warm, cheesy, and thick yet light. A completely satisfying meal for any time of the day!