February 24, 2010

No Escape from Winter...Yet

While I sat happily in the Northeast, just beyond the clutches of the blizzards that bombarded the Mid-Atlantic region over the past few months, I suspected my relief would be fairly short-lived.  Yesterday, the hounds of Winter reminded us up here in the NY/New England region that they hadn't finished with us quite yet, and that persnickety ground-hog, Punxatawny Phil, was right on the money.  It's still snowing in my neck of the woods this morning (well, not quite woods, but close enough), but that should wind down soon. 

If it was December, I'd be celebrating the fact that we'd likely have a white Christmas.  Now that it's February, I'm celebrating that this accumulation of white stuff, while very pretty, isn't likely to last forever.  Spring is just around the corner...I think.

Here are a few views of the latest version of "winter white."
Knowing that snow was in the forecast, I went out into the back yard the other day and raked up the last of the residual leaves that had piled up in the corner against the fence.  Sitting in my kitchen, I saw them there as the last snows had melted away and they were bugging me.  So unkempt!  I pulled out a rake and ended up filling two brown leaf bags (for recycling) within a half-hour.  It felt so good to get out an do something physical in the crisp, fresh air.  It was fairly mild for mid-February - funny how high 30s can seem balmy!  I even found, as I progressed, I was too warm with a long-sleeved tee and a fleece jacket under my snow coat, so I took off the coat and enjoyed how my exertions had warmed up my muscles.

Because I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Spring's first crocus, green grass, and warmer breezes, I added a new and optimistic tune to the playlist - perhaps it will hurry its arrival along.

Think Spring!

February 18, 2010

Mardi Gras: Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Sometimes my celebration of various holidays is consciously grand and expansive, like decorating several rooms in the house for the Christmas holidays weeks in advance.  Sometimes it's modest, understated and somewhat fleeting, as my celebration of Mardi Gras was this year, on February 16, hot on the heels of Valentine's Day.

Unfortunately, I don't have any strings of brilliant, metallic emerald green, purple and gold beads to celebrate Mardi Gras, but I do have this fun mug that I found at Goodwill a few months ago.

It's charming and it caught my attention initially because of the rooster design.  Like many people, I am partial to roosters.  I'm not sure I know why - maybe it derives from my affection for a restaurant that I had enjoyed many (like about 40) years ago in southern Vermont called Le Chanticleer.  I think it was the first time I realized that roosters and French country design and food were inextricably linked, and often were prevalent in kitchen design.  It's that "cockadoodle-do" rise-and-shine breakfast thing, I suspect.

Whatever the reason,  I found this particular rooster mug with its bright colors and confetti-esque, cheerful Mardi Gras theme irresistable.  Accordingly, it became the singular focus of my "minimal Mardi Gras" celebration this year.  Not being in the heart of the "Big Easy" (although I'm happy to say I have been there and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit) but very much in the heart of the frosty, freezing Northeast, I celebrated Fat Tuesday not with an alcohol infused "hurricane" or some coffee with chicory, but with some sweet, dark and rich steaming hot chocolate.  It was a warm, cozy and tasty way to celebrate the evening and the best part was there was no "morning-after" effect or confetti to sweep up the next day!

Of course, what would a holiday celebration blog post here be without a little complementary musical sound track to set the tone?  I give you the sounds of one of NOLA's favorite sons added to the playlist just for the occasion.  So, have a seat, pour yourself a cup of coffee with chicory (or hot chocolate or whatever libation you fancy for the occasion), relax and just laissez les bon temps roulez!

February 12, 2010

My Funny Valentine

Valentine's Day is one of my favorite celebrations of the year.  It's not because of the red roses, the chocolates, or the other expressions of love and affection, although those are quite nice, especially if one is on the receiving end of the gesture. 

No, I love it because after the quiet - and usually snow-covered - frosty month of January, a period of recovery from the visual excesses of the December holidays, Valentine's Day is a shot of bold, bright color - of brilliant crimson hearts against the stark February landscape.  I just like the vibrant "redness" of it and the sentiments of warmth and affection behind it.  It's a happy day for me, and even if one doesn't happen to have a Valentine to share it with, it's a little reminder that Spring and its signs of rebirth and renewal are just around the corner. 

When I was a child, my father gave me a few little tokens of Valentine affection.  I suspect my mother actually purchased these items on my father's behalf, but the fact that he gave them to me are the memories that linger.  As I grew older, he continued to give me Valentine cards - again, I'm sure thanks to mom - but they were sweet and endearing.  Both my parents are gone now, but I still have a few of the tokens that I keep tucked away in my box of Valentine keepsakes - a tiny, fuzzy, charming little bear wearing a small red heart and a pair of dear little tiny sachets embroidered with hearts - and a few of the lovely cards they gave me.  They are sweet reminders of them and that lovely day in February.

From my mother, I remember vividly the heart-shaped double layer cakes she baked for our Valentine's Day celebrations.  Rich, tasty, golden, butter cakes made from scratch with sweet pink, strawberry flavored frosting.  I still have her vintage, old Duncan Hines cookbook with that cake recipe, but I haven't tried to replicate it yet.  Maybe I will make it on Valentine's Day and revisit those wonderful, warm childhood memories of the people who affectionately launched my Valentine traditions.

To mark the occasion, I've added the beautiful standard, "My Funny Valentine" to my playlist.  It's performed here by one of my very favorite artists.  It's a song I learned when I was fairly young, again, thanks to my dad, who also shared with me his love for jazz and great jazz musicians.  It's a fairly simple, elegant arrangment - just trumpet and piano - so haunting and beautiful, and a heart-warming reminder of a special day to celebrate love in February.

February 6, 2010

Let Them (and Me) Eat Cake!

I haven't ventured into the arena of food/cooking/recipes here at the blog, but I do love to cook and spend most of my time in the kitchen (where I have the laptop).  Kitchens are my favorite places and I'm so fond of them that I've even contemplated venturing into kitchen design professionally.  It might happen yet.

In the meantime, however, I've been having a food craving lately.  Some years ago, a local commercial bakery that distributes to grocery store chains in the Northeast offered a wonderful cake in its product line.  It was called their "Nut 'n' Honey Round Cake."  It was a simple yellow cake with a chocolate frosting flavored with a bit of honey and topped with walnuts.  It was my favorite for years, so much so that I even asked my mom many years ago to serve that as my birthday cake.  (I'm sure she appreciated not having to bake a cake from scratch - which she did periodically and wonderfully.) 

The bakery stopped offering the cake to grocery stores some years ago and I've been sad about that ever since.  So, this week I finally pulled together the ingredients I'd need to recreate the cake.  I am not the world's greatest baker, so I opted for the easy, short-cut approach - boxed cake mix, even ready-made frosting - because I think the secret to this cake isn't in the "made from scratch" approach - it's in the blending of key flavors. 

I made the cake per the package directions, only instead of adding the full 1 1/4 cups of water needed to moisten the mix, I substituted about 1/4-cup of honey for 1/4 cup of the water.  (I had warmed about 1/2-cup honey slightly in a pan just to liquify it further, using half for the cake and half for the frosting.)  Then, I poured the contents of one ready-made milk chocolate frosting container into a bowl and added the remaining 1/4-cup of warmed honey to the bowl, and mixed it into the frosting with an electric hand-mixer.  The result was a slightly lighter and creamier (and tastier) frosting than the stiff blend that came out of the container, which made it the perfect consistency for easy spreading.  If you prefer a darker color, you can always use a dark chocolate flavored frosting instead.

I baked the cake per the package directions (using, in this case, two 9-inch round pans), then, after the cake cooled, I assembled the two layers, spreading black raspberry jam (rather than the frosting) between them.  (I love cakes with a tasty fruit jam between the layers.)  Then I frosted the top and sides with the honey-laced chocolate frosting and finished it with ground walnuts on top.  Voila!  I give you my quick-and-easy version of Nut 'n' Honey Round Cake:

I'm pleased to report that this version of my favorite cake tastes just as good as the original that inspired it.  Yum!

February 4, 2010

A Bright New Day

To accompany my impending change of domestic scene, I've changed the header image yet again.  I like this image a lot, in part, because I know the local artist, and also because it's a contemporary landscape depicting the Hudson River.  It reflects some of the spirit of this blog - country and comfortable in feeling, but contemporary and current in tone - at least I hope that's what is happening here.  Either way, change continues to be in the wind, so here's a bright new one to symbolize the bright new days of Spring ahead.

February 3, 2010

What Are They Thinking?

Since my last post was rather a long one, I'm going to make this one fairly brief, but I need to address something that has been bothering me for a little while now. 

I've had an opportunity in the past few months to be exposed to an inordinate amount of daytime television programming.  It's not that I watch transfixed, it's just there in the background like a musical soundtrack (although, admittedly, not necessarily as soothing as music).  It's just my "companion" of sorts when I'm working at home, cooking, cleaning, etc.  I keep it turned on and around because, occasionally, there are interesting segments that grab my attention, whether on a morning news or talk program, a cooking show, a travel segment, a home renovation/redesign segment, etc.

Something I've noticed a quite bit lately is that the latter - the home renovation/redesign programs - are not always espousing what I, in my infinite wisdom and experience in life (well, okay, I'm in mid-life, so I wasn't born yesterday), would NOT characterize as great good design.  At first, I questioned my reaction to some of these programs' segments.  I thought, they're putting this stuff on TV, so maybe I'm missing something here or they look better in person, perhaps.  But, no, honestly, I think some of the "solutions" these program hosts and/or their design "experts" are promulgating - indeed, in some cases, inflicting on these unwitting (but obviously complicit) residents or homeowners - is just unbelievably bad design.

Most of my objections surround the programs that purport to create great spaces out of found and repurposed materials.  I think it's a wonderful concept, but, more often than not, I think the designs and the projects tackled are just plain lame and badly executed.  

One needn't look much farther than the options on the blogs one finds online (not mine, but some of the ones to which I've linked) to find far better concepts, workmanship and finished products.  What is with these TV folks? 

I'll confess, a lot of the design work that I find unattractive is often executed by much younger folk - 20- and 30-somethings.  They mean well, I'm sure, but it makes me wonder what the producers of these programs are thinking?  Indeed, I'm wondering what these designers are thinking.  It's as if they've just stepped out of design school, but still seem to have the work ethic of students and none of the, as they say on Project Runway about errant fashion designer candidates, "taste level." 

I'm inclined to say this stuff ain't brain surgery, but, in some ways, it is complex and shouldn't be diminished.  I can say some of this with impunity because, among other things, I was an art major in college, I've done work professionally that involves making aesthetic and space design decisions, and I'm also a licensed realtor.  I've seen and done a lot in the big world in which some of these types of projects exist.

Making hard choices about shape, size, line, color, texture and placement is not for the faint of heart and takes time and careful thought.  The problem seems to arise when the designer looks for the "quick-and-dirty" solution, as we used to say in the printing production business, one that doesn't cost much.  Unless it comes from a place of solid perspective and the ability to reference those efforts that have stood the test of time as good interior design, the results often look like...well...you know. 

What scares me most about this "instant" design approach that the television media, and some print media outlets, are foisting upon us is that unwitting viewers who ascribe some sense of intelligence and authority to this programming might be inclined to view it as worthy of emulation.  All I can say is, don't go there.  It's not necessarily, so don't try this at home!  If it looks cheap, it often is cheap (you've heard the one about the quack and the duck), so while it might appear to solve a problem expeditiously, it isn't necessarily good design, it's just a fast solution...and not usually a very good one.  If it is done on a "dime," look very closely and beware.  Good stuff visually (or functionally) isn't necessarily about cost, but there is an aesthetic price to pay if you assume anything can be done cheaply and it still will be viable visually.

As with everything you read in the newspapers, take what you see on some of the television design programs with many very large grains of salt and don't believe, just because they put it on the air, that it's worthy of design credibility.  As the Gershwins wrote in the song from "Porgy & Bess," it ain't necessarily so.