July 4, 2019

Happy Fourth!

Happy Fourth of July! How did it get to be July already? This year is flying by!

I'm sure I've shared Mr. and Ms. Patriotic Bunny in the past, but this time I decided to have them flank my blue and white Chinese porcelain pitcher at the center of my mantel. I filled the pitcher with red roses and white carnations, so I didn't have to look for blue flowers. I think this is much nicer as it's hard to find really lovely blue flowers that are attractive and hold up well.

I "adopted" Mr. and Ms. Bunny about 20 years ago when I attended a July 4th celebration along the Erie Canal, due east of Syracuse in central New York. There was a craft fair that accompanied the celebration in Chittenango, New York (where renowned author L. Frank Baum lived and wrote that amazing tale of Dorothy from Kansas and the Wizard of Oz), which is where I found this delightful pair and I still enjoy them every year when July rolls around.

Chittenango Landing is home to a wonderful canal boat museum at the site of a historic boat yard and dry docks to service the travelers on the canal. Among the special features I recall was a historic canal boat that was being carefully preserved underwater and was visible from the surface. Any effort to lift it from the waters threatened to damage the boat and potentially hasten its deterioration if exposed to air, so it was decided to leave the boat where it rested to protect it where it remained submerged.

It was a time when I didn't mind "working" on July 4th as it was a lovely day and I experienced a wonderful local canal attraction that I hadn't previously visited. If you haven't seen this region of upstate New York, it's well worth a visit to drive on local routes along the Erie Canal between Waterford, just north of Albany, and Tonawanda, just west of Buffalo where the Erie still flows. It's not the original Erie, as it has been enlarged twice since its original 1825 route, the last time 100+ years ago in 1917, and the eastern segment now incorporates river sections that have been "canalized" with locks and dams to make them navigable for boats and paddle craft up to a maximum of about 40 feet wide by 300 feet long. Yes, you can still navigate the entire length of the Erie Canal "from Albany to Buffalo", as the old folk song describes, and many do. You can even rent a real "narrow boat" that you can captain yourself for a multi-day excursion of your own design along the canal.
To be honest, it's as fascinating and rewarding as any European cruise and it's right here in the USA - if you live here, you don't need a passport to get there and enjoy it!

Here are some photos I took a few weeks ago at Erie Canal Lock 2 Park, at the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal in Waterford. The lock is on the right with the view east to the Hudson River where it meets the Erie and just north of the Hudson's intersection with the Mohawk River. 

Enjoy your Fourth of July holiday and celebrate the many freedoms we are privileged to have living in these great United States of America, thanks to the founding fathers of our country and the many men and women who have continued to protect and defend the rights that were so hard won back in 1776. 

June 20, 2019

Bon Voyage, Spring - Hello, Summer!

It continues to amaze me how fast the time passes lately, but here we are, on the final day of what was a fairly wet spring. It seems, lately, like every week the forecast is for five days of rain and two days of sun...if we're lucky. Fortunately, for the past two weeks, that sunshine has managed to appear for most of the weekends, so that's a good thing for those who don't have to report to work somewhere and be stuck indoors during this glorious late spring weather.

Still, it feels like we really haven't gotten the best that spring usually has to offer...warming temperatures, but not too hot, and cool breezes. It's been a mixed bag of cold, warm, warmer and a little bit of hot and humid. I don't recall humidity like that here in the "Great Northeast" until mid-summer, usually late July and August, but it has been visiting lately with the warmer temperatures and the rainy weather. I'd say it's strange, but with what has been happening with weather generally around the globe, I won't speculate as to the cause. Draw your own conclusions, but please don't dismiss the scientists and meteorologists.

All of that said, the excess of rain this spring has been very helpful in my efforts to remedy what previously was a long neglected lawn at my home. Previous occupants were transient over the 30 years of my home's existence. (I've been here for 5 1/2 years.) This was the year that I have made a commitment to addressing what was threatening to become a patch of sandy soil rather than a nice, lush patch of grass. It's not a huge lawn area, and easily maintained, but prior owners didn't seem to care. This spring, I fertilized the lawn, and have been tossing seed down systematically since April in the areas in most desperate need of attention. It's getting a bit late now to expect quick germination, so I'll scale back until mid-autumn, but I've been very pleased with the areas where I concentrated and the new grass has emerged well and seems to be thriving. I've also watered where needed, even though we've had so much rain. Those first few days of seeding are so crucial to keep them moist so they'll germinate and grow well. It's a slow process, but so gratifying when the bright green shoots pop up and fill in the spotty areas. I have more work to do later this year, but am keeping at it to keep things going in the right direction.

I've also got some flowers and herbs growing from small nursery plants and from seed, along with my usual flower box of leaf lettuces and a pot of radishes...all appear to be doing well. I've had other indoor projects to tackle this year, so am not spending too much time on gardening, but have relied on the easiest plant choices that have worked well in the past.

I also retrieved from storage my wood outdoor chairs and settee (in photo above). They've seen a bit of wear over the years, but with a bit of tapping with my mallet and wood glue to put them back into place, they are tightening up well again and make a nice area in the shady corner of my yard - a relaxing place to sit and enjoy a cooling glass of iced tea!

Here's to a pleasant (and hopefully a little bit drier) summer here and wherever you are (if you don't need the rain). Do make an effort get out and enjoy the balmy, beautiful outdoors as much as you can, as the chill of fall and winter will return soon enough to remind us that Mother Earth always needs a rest from her spring and summer labors in providing us the beautiful trees, fields and meadows, flowers, plants and bountiful produce.  

May 22, 2019

When you need a good, all-around handyman, but...

...no one is around (or affordable), you just draw on all your home-ownership experience, life skills and ingenuity to tackle and master the tasks at hand. It has been a long while since I posted anything about home maintenance/improvement projects, but I have four (!) fun ones to share - the first one from a while ago, another one a few months ago, a third more recently, and the last I tackled just today - and I'm pretty pleased with all four of them.

The oldest project is one that I mentioned about a year or so ago. It was a lighting project - a nice iron chandelier that I'd found by accident at my local Habitat ReStore. I wasn't really looking, because I've had some hanging fixtures in storage that I thought would be appropriate for my kitchen dining area, but I wasn't sure the scale would work for this house. Then, I came across this small chandelier that had just the right features. It was a bit grungy and dark, pewter-like grey - not my preference for this space - so I re-painted the chandelier a nice, dark brown (oil-rubbed bronze) with spray paint in a smooth satin finish.

It was just the thing to install in place of a massive, horribly rococo, crystal and brass chandelier that was already installed when I moved into my home 5 1/2 years ago. It was, however, woefully both seriously oversized and wildly out of place for my fairly simple and comfortable decorating style. All I could think was "Why?"...or, more accurately, "What in the [heck] were they thinking???" Honestly. Why would someone think this was an appropriate lighting choice for a dining area in a kitchen that was a very far cry from a grand ballroom?! It does boggle the mind sometimes, but I knew instantly that the grotesque crystal-and-bronze monstrosity had to go and it would just be a matter of time before I found a fixture with the right style (simple with clean, classic lines), the right scale - not too large, but large enough to have some presence - and, most importantly, had the right (read: seriously low) price.

The one I found to replace it - a modestly sized, five-armed, iron chandelier - had all the right features and, best of all, had a ridiculous $16 price tag - win, win, win! I knew it just needed a good cleaning and a tiny bit of love in the form of some spray paint and some nice, natural linen shades (and a newly installed dimmer switch on the wall nearby) to give it new life in my kitchen dining area below, which I really use as more of a prep area as I do have a more formal dining space nearby.

The second project was another lighting coup for my kitchen ceiling. Another oddly inappropriate hanging fixture also had been installed there by previous occupants of my home - it was a very grimy, and I do mean grimy, leaded slag glass "faux Tiffany" fixture. It always looked like the glass panels were a sort of dark yellow/tan ochre color with bronze trim, in a sort of drop-tulip shape. It had a plain, bare light bulb and it was so ugly that I literally never used it. It was situated in the middle of the ceiling between my range and sink - a key location in my work area, but I had lighting over both the sink and the range, respectively, so I didn't really need this ceiling fixture, and I certainly didn't want a pendant light hanging directly over the floor area.

My feeling about functional kitchen ceiling fixtures is that they really need to be flush-mounted to the ceiling and be enclosed, so no bugs or other flying critters like flies, etc. can accumulate inside them. The good news was that I'd occasionally come across brand new and attractive, but fairly basic, fixtures in their original boxes at clearance prices - essentially for peanuts, so I'd buy them not necessarily having an immediate use for them, but I knew that I probably would at some point.

Now, this grimy slag glass hanging light was taking up space and continually collecting more grime, between the steam from the hot water in the sink and the steam and grease from cooking on the range. There was no escape from the environment for this hanging pendant fixture and it really needed to go and be replaced by something flush with the ceiling with a covered bulb. I'm not sure why I didn't remove it instantly when I first moved in, it was that bad.

To see just how awful and grimy this fixture was, here are two views of the shade of its slag glass shade (bulb and socket removed) - the photos show the areas of the shade that I cleaned after I took it down (the areas that are at the bottom and right) and the not-yet-cleaned sections on the left that were the original, frighteningly grimy color. Quite the contrast! I'm sure it had been hanging accumulating this grime for years, and maybe decades. After I spent some time carefully cleaning each section it certianly was transformed, but I still didn't like it very much - it's just not my taste at all. And remember I noted that it had appeared to be a darker golden brown/ochre color - well, actually, there was so much grime on it that cleaning it eventually revealed its lighter, more creamy marbled color. Who knew? Certainly not me. I don't plan to use it, but I will pass it on to someone who will enjoy it much more than I ever would.


Fortunately, I already had in storage a nice, new enclosed ceiling fixture that I'd bought a few years ago - also with an oil-rubbed bronze color finish (though it certainly wasn't bronze) that had a nice, simple ribbed, frosted glass cover to keep out any flies and other flying insects that dared to invade my kitchen work area. I don't remember what I paid for it, but I'm sure it was less than $20 and it might even have been less than $10, but it was just what I needed for the ceiling in my kitchen work area. It's obviously builder grade, but not screaming bright, shiny brass, and not a very grungy old hanging glass pendant, for sure, and it's attractive enough (which is important to me) and, most of all, very functional.

So the challenge for me, which really wasn't much of a challenge, was to remove and replace the existing ceiling fixtures. While I undertook their replacement about a year or so apart, the task was essentially the same and not complicated - turn off the power to the fixture at the circuit breaker, remove the old fixture and install the new one, hooking up the wiring and securing the fixture to the outlet box already installed in the ceiling. I've done this numerous times before in my previous homes, and since these were both fairly straightforward installations, I didn't hesitate to undertake replacing either of the old fixtures myself.

Here's the newly installed kitchen ceiling fixture...turned off (with the light from the left emanating from the flourescent fixture above my sink, shaded by a pretty yellow and red toile valance hung across the adjacent cabinets), and the lower view showing it turned on. It has just one 60-watt bulb, which is plenty bright enough, and the fixture is just the right size and style for this location. I'm so pleased with it - simple, basic, yet attractive and very functional.


The third project, which I tackled about a month ago, was an even easier one and didn't involve re-wiring a light fixture. I replaced all of the drawer and door pulls on my kitchen cabinets. What originally was there were fairly basic polished brass pulls...you know, the ones that enjoyed their heyday back in the 1980s, but, thankfully, have evolved out of favor in recent years. 

Like the previous lighting fixture, these pulls were showing their age along with the grease/grime that tends to accumulate on smooth surfaces in a kitchen. When I first moved in, I removed them all and soaked them in warm water and literally scrubbed them clean as best I could with dish soap. Some cleaned up better than others, but I knew I didn't want to keep them long-term on the cabinets, so I didn't go crazy. 

I've had good luck finding very reasonably priced, but stylish pulls from time to time, and about a month ago, I decided to see if I could find some simple, but well designed replacement knobs to install in place of the brass ones. I was an art major in college, so I do care about aesthetics, but I also care about the feel of a piece, and I knew the brass ones really were the low-end grade of door/drawer pulls. I knew this because, when you go to grasp the knob to open a door or drawer, you can feel that the backside of the knob wasn't finished and didn't give one a nice feeling in your hand when grasped, where the better knobs had a smooth feel and are finished front and back, not just on the front. To me, that matters. I wanted something that felt solid, well made and smooth like the latter and not the former. Understandably, the more effort and material that it takes to make a better project, the more you're likely to have to pay for that, so I was looking for the most reasonably priced, but attractive and well made pulls that I could find.

I looked at the cabinet hardware selection at my local big box home centers and other retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, but I had a goal not only of finding pulls that were aesthetically pleasing, but also ones that were affordable. I needed 18 pulls and I didn't want to spend more than $1 per pull if I could help it, but that's easier said than done these days. Still, I found a very nice pull on eBay available in an array of finishes. I settled on brushed, oil rubbed bronze round ones (like my chandelier and my new ceiling fixture) that showed a hint of copper under the brown finish, and  were just $1 each for 25 pulls -- with free shipping to boot! My kind of deal, so I was happy to buy them and now I also have some extras if I decide to add cabinets on a nearby wall in the future. 

I'm not a huge fan of the golden oak cabinets in my kitchen, but at least the hinges on these are more of a brushed bronze and not screaming shiny brass, so I thought the oil-rubbed bronze pulls would both tone down the brass predecessors and would work fine with the existing door hinges. If I ever get around to replacing the cabinets (they're in dire need of an update, but they're deteriorating and not at all good quality, so not worth keeping or painting or refinishing, though I might repurpose a few of the decent ones in my garage), at least I'll have these pulls to put on any new ones cabinets and can get more pulls if needed.

Finally, my piece de resistance, I've now added simple plumbing to my skill set! My kitchen faucet, yet another item that was already installed in the house when I moved here and probably is the original faucet when the house was built 30+ years ago, began to corrode to the point that the surface of the faucet arm (the part that extends over the sink) literally sprang a tiny hole and was leaking water every time I turned it on. I couldn't fix the leak, so, as a stop-gap, I covered the corroded area with duct tape so water wouldn't spurt out in a fine spray until I could get the faucet replaced. 

I can fix a running or clogged toilet, and I've replaced the aerators on faucets, as needed, with no trouble, but that was the extent of my plumbing repertoire. Well, not any more...I now have added faucet replacement to my skill set! I decided the other day to go ahead purchase the faucet I wanted to replace the leaky one in my kitchen sink that clearly had reached the end of its useful life
Since moving to this home, I now have a dishwasher (that I don't use much), but there was no sprayer on my kitchen faucet. Having always had a sprayer at my previous kitchen sinks, I really wanted one again. While my stainless sink had a hole for a sprayer, it had a cover over that hole since the original faucet - a two-handled model, also not my preference - didn't have a sprayer. Well, now that I had mp choice to replace the faucet, I decided to get exactly what I wanted - a brushed stainless, single lever, low rise faucet with some style -- and a separate sprayer.

I'd previously had a nice Kohler faucet installed at my farm with an integrated sprayer, but I decided to go with a separate sprayer this time. I also decided I didn't want hiny chrome and I didn't think oil-rubbed bronze would work with my stainless sink, even though I'd chosen that finish for my other items. The sink is brushed stainless, so  I thought a brushed stainless faucet would be a better choice there, so that's what I got. I chose the Moen "Muirfield" model which has nice lines with the finish and sprayer that I prefer, and for less than $90. Perfect!

Originally, I'd thought I'd ask a friend to install it for me, but the more I read through the directions and reviewed the diagrams, the more I thought it really wasn't brain surgery to remove and replace the old faucet myself if I had the right tools. I have a good complement of various tools that I've acquired over my years of home ownerhip, so checking through the installation instructions yesterday, I was fairly sure I already had everything I'd need to do this installation myself.  

I started the project and it took me all of about 90 minutes to complete it. I shut off the water supply lines to the old facuet, and carefully removed the old fixture and installed the new faucet in its place. It was fairly straightforward and I'm very pleased with the new faucet -- and I saved some serious money in the process by doing it myself! Win-win!

I have more home maintenance projects to tackle this year, including installing a ceiling fan in my bedroom, where there currently is a simple ceiling light, but no fan. That will happen fairly soon, as I don't have central air conditioning in this house. It's finally feeling like spring, with summer just around the corner, so I'd like to get that project done before the temperatures rise to an uncomfortable level. I even went to a free education session on installing ceiling fans at one of the local home centers a month ago, so I might just tackle that one myself, too! Stay tuned!

April 19, 2019

Spring Has Sprung...Finally!

It's Good Friday of Easter week and Spring has finally arrived in the Northeast, at least in this corner of upstate New York...and none too soon! It was a fairly snowy and protracted winter, but, despite the official arrival of Spring in late March, in a matter of a few days (including a balmy warm one in the mid-70s two weeks earlier), the snow that had literally lightly covered the landscape in a last gasp snowstorm quickly melted away, and the large piles of accumulated snow that had persisted all winter gradually diminished and disappeared over the following few days.

Now that we are well into April, the likelihood of any further snows are remote, although we all know that it's not safe to put out tender plants before Memorial Day, when any chance of a freeze also is well past. We're looking ahead to a typical spate of nonstop "April showers" days (week-plus, actually), but the daytime temperatures finally are expected in the 60s and overnights are likely remaining above 40. It's all good, despite the rains, which I can use as some rough spots in my lawn need some serious re-seeding. I'm glad to have Mother Nature's help with that this weekend and next week.

The grass, at least, is finally starting to green up a bit, but it's still early for us to see leaves on the trees here...it's just that much colder than most of the region south of New York, so it's fairly normal for our landscape to lag behind until early May, but then every thing suddenly explodes, from the forsythia to the magnolias to the apple blossoms and honeysuckle.

I have plenty of plants waiting to go outside (pretty geraniums in a pale pink and a bright fuchsia that I've wintered over for two years now - amazing!), so I'm trying to limit bringing any more plants into the house for lack of room in a bright, light area for them, but I couldn't resist a small pot of pansies (above) a week or so ago. I just needed that sweet reminder that life does begin again each spring and to embrace this season of renewal.

In late February, came across this decorative bunny and speckled egg "Happy Spring" wall plaque with other phrases in French (which I'd studied since 3rd Grade and all through school) at a local thrift store. I don't usually go for mass-produced art (having been an art major in college), but something about this piece spoke to me and decided I needed to bring it home and I'm glad to have it as a reminder to celebrate the beauty and renewal that is Spring, the Easter season and the mild sunny days that finally have started to arrive.

If you celebrate Easter or Passover, have a lovely holiday, and, if those aren't your focus, enjoy the season's flowers and welcome the arrival of Spring wherever you are!        

March 18, 2019

St. Patrick's Day & Nearly Spring

Hello, Spring - almost! I must say, it's a relief that the frigid temperatures and snows of winter are on their way out...finally! This wasn't the worst winter ever seen in this part of upstate New York, but it did feel much colder than others. I did break out the snowblower a couple of times, but not constantly, so I'm grateful for that. In fact, the last time we got any measurable snow here - about 2 inches - I opted to ignore it and let the warming sun and temperatures do the job. It worked, and in about two days there was no snow at all on my driveway - a most encouraging sign and a respite for my occasionally aching muscles.

A little over a year ago, I had a freak fall indoors at an event venue with a marble floor and fractured the top of my humerus (upper arm just below the shoulder). It healed very well over about 5 months, but the muscles still remind me that there had been some real trauma there, so I do feel them whenever I  lift heavier items or shovel snow, so I'm careful when I do that, if I do it. Having ridden and cared for horses for years, I was always accustomed to doing some real "heavy lifting", but I am not the 20-, 30-, 40- or even 50-something that I was back in decades when I did that, so the muscles are both long out of practice and are quick to let me know just how many years have passed since I was last in that regular habit.

Still, Spring is upon us and, after experiencing a rare 73-degree day last week, I'm am more than ready for it to kick in and leave the freezing temperatures far behind. St. Patrick's Day is the real beginning of Spring for me with all of its lovely "greenness" - shamrocks and the rolling land of the emerald "Old Sod" that is Ireland. My maternal grandmother was born and grew up in Northern Ireland before she emigrated to the US in her late teens, so I feel a real kinship to my Irish ancestors, though most scattered to other places - England and the US mostly - as far as I know. I have been to Ireland, but only once and for much too short of a visit. It was a wonderful experience, so I hope to return and visit the north (which I didn't get to earlier) and other areas that I haven't yet seen.

The Wade Pottery covered box shown above that I inherited from my mother is a classic example of a functional piece from the famous Irish pottery maker and always reminds me of my familial roots in Ireland. The cover features a typical "Irish Jaunting Cart" - I can just imagine my grandmother (or her mother or father) taking their small, stocky little cart or plow horse (or large pony) to town or to church in the early 1900s. My grandmother also was a horsewoman, of course, so, while that fascination skipped my mother (though she loved watching horse racing), it definitely landed firmly within my genes' DNA.

Of course, the whole St. Patrick's Day "corned beef and cabbage" traditional menu is entirely an American concoction as corned beef was, and is, not a "thing" in Ireland. Lamb was, and probably still is, the most prevalent meat consumed there, though the widely held perception of the questionable nature of Irish cuisine has long since given way to a real, and much-deserved, appreciation of some of the most wonderful indigenous dishes and foods. If you doubt me, go online and check out the cookbooks from the late Myrtle Allen and her daughter-in-law Darina Allen of the renowned Ballymalloe House on the southern coast near Cork, and its famous cooking school. They were, and still are, doing "farm-to-table" dining long before it was widely popularized in the US as something novel. Sadly, we lost Myrtle fairly recently, but she was a force and leaves a tremendous, lasting legacy in Irish hospitality and cuisine that Darina and her family have carried on.

It's more likely the Irish who migrated to American in the mid-late 1800s learned, like most of our earlier settlers in the New World, that "corning" beef (brining in liquid and seasonings and cooking over a low heat for hours) was a viable method for preserving the meat in order to extend its use for food consumption. 

Still, old habits die hard, so here's my take on the traditional American corned beef and cabbage this year. I confess, I have found that unless I'm feeding a small army for the occasion, I have much more corned beef left over than I'd care to deal with (and have to eat for days), so - forgive me - I opted to go with just some thickly sliced corned beef from my grocery's deli department this year. (Heresy, I know, but I don't care.) Instead, I focused my energies on the accompaniments - none of which were boiled! Seriously, unless you are making mashed potatoes or potato salad, why would you boil them just to eat them that way? So plain and boring - ugh! I do love potatoes, though, so I prepared my usual roasted red potatoes, skins on, of course, and tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, garlic and onion powders, and thyme before roasting. While they were roasting, I sauteed some chopped cabbage and sweet golden onion (Vidalia, in this case), and roasted carrots that I peeled, halved and chopped into approximately 1-inch segments, and tossed with the same seasoning as the potatoes, minus the balsamic vinegar, before roasting. I then chopped a few pieces of carrot into even smaller dice to add to the cabbage.

Rather than the usual intense mustard straight from the jar to serve with the corned beef, which is much too tart for me, I made a variation of a favorite Dijonnaise sauce - a cold sauce of mayonnaise, some sour cream, and a grainy Dijon mustard, which provides just the right creamy yet spicy blend to compliment the corned beef. (It's also great with ham and pastrami and mixed in potato salad - just sayin'.) You also could add grated or prepared horseradish to taste if you like your mustard sauce with even more of a kick.

If you're not feeding a crowd, I heartily recommend this "short-cut" approach to the St. Patrick's Day feast as it requires none of the protracted cooking required - whether boiling (again - ugh!) or roasting low and slow (which is my preferred method when I must cook the corned beef). This whole meal can be pulled together in the time it takes to roast the vegetables in the oven at 375F to 400F for approx. 45-50 minutes (depending on the size of your pieces).  Just saute the cabbage and onion in a bit of butter while the other vegetables are roasting as I noted earlier. You can even warm the corned beef in the skillet for a minute or two right (to take the chill off from the fridge) after you've removed the cabbage-onion blend to a serving dish. Serve with your favorite Irish brew or beverage.


February 10, 2019

Very Familiar Valentine Cake

I was scrolling through my blog feed from as far back as 2009 and 2010, when I first started writing here, in search of an image of the heart-shaped Valentine cake that my mother made periodically in the 1960s when I was a child. I thought for sure I'd shared it before and had taken a photo of it, but all I could find was my description of the luscious cake and the cookbook from which the original recipe came, from February 2010:

"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."

Although I haven't been inclined to make the cake in recent years, not being a particularly adept baker or that fond of sweets, I was prompted to make the heart-shaped golden butter Valentine cake today, with its tasty pink frosting colored and flavored with strawberry. I added my own variation this time, inserting a thin layer raspberry preserves to separate the cake's two layers. The strawberry frosting can be quite strong and I wanted to replace it in the middle of the cake and thought a slightly contrasting raspberry flavor - one of my favorites - would be just the thing. The cake itself is also rich with eggs and butter, so I thought the combination of flavors could stand a bit of tweaking from my mother's original.

I still have my mother's well worn and dog-eared paperback copy of Adventures in Good Cooking and the Art of Carving - Famous Recipes - A Duncan Hines Book of recipes and tips for cooking and carving from people, restaurants and inns from around the country and Canada. It's a 1948 edition - the 18th printing and the year my parents were married - and a wonderful thing to have in my own library, placed among some of my mother's favorite cookbooks. Calling them favorites probably would be a bit of a stretch as she didn't have many cookbooks (while, by contrast, I have dozens and dozens!) and relied on certain recipes over the years of her lifetime as a wife and mother.

Like so many wives and mothers in the mid-20th century, my mother was a self-taught cook. She didn't love cooking as I do, but she was a more precise and exacting one than I am. I am a bit more adventurous cook in some ways, as I had the opportunity to travel to Europe with my father (and brother) when I was just 12 and taste some fairly exotic dishes (while my mother got a welcome 3-week break from having us underfoot that August), but she made very well the meals and dishes that she did prepare. Her food was uncomplicated and honest and always tasty, so that's really all that mattered at that point. I appreciated her interest in making nutritious and attractive meals for us even though she regarded it as much of a chore as keeping house...it didn't show and it certainly didn't deny us the hearty and satisfying meals we enjoyed at home every day.

I hope you have some special Valentine food traditions and special memories that go along with them.

Have a happy Valentine's Day! 

December 30, 2018

Holidays Overdrive: Thanksgiving to Christmas and the New Year en Route

When I looked back recently on the last three months of 2018, I realized I had quite a LOT going on, which is why I never got back to posting after mid-summer. I'm sorry about that, as I so enjoy reading others' blogs, and so many of those I follow year-round are totally diligent about posting and sharing regularly - a few times a week, if not more often. Some of those folks generate real income from their blogs, and my hat is off to them. Unfortunately, my life at the moment doesn't allow me the time to pursue that approach to my blogging, as evidenced by my lack of posts since summer.

While it might seem disappointing, as writing is something I do and have done professionally, it just isn't the time for me to dedicate a lot of energy to a personal blog, but I didn't want to give it up entirely. I will, however, get to posting more often at some point - maybe in 2020 after I've stopped working for others - finally! - and because seasons - spring, summer, autumn and the holidays - are among my favorites and are always rich with inspiration. (Winter, I'm sorry to say, isn't my favorite and probably never will be until I can spend it somewhere a bit warmer than upstate New York.)

Autumn, in fact,  probably is my most favorite season of the year, but this autumn was loaded with other activities for me, and the most unseasonable autumn weather that I've experienced here in the Northeast in years, if not ever. It was damn cold and snowy far earlier in the year than we normally see...it was frigid, snowy, icy and, in a word, just plan awful more than it was lovely and gorgeous. The only saving grace was the autumn color, which was quite late to emerge into peak foliage this year, but we did see it, for a while anyway.

By early November, I had survived the siege of Halloween (never my favorite holiday for various reasons), but I have to say, I was very impressed with the politeness of the young trick-or-treaters who rang my doorbell this year. That was quite a pleasant treat for me, so, while I might have questions about the GenXers, this latest generation of young adolescents does give one hope for the future. I hope those I encountered are the norm and not the exception in their generation. And the doorbell ringing ended fairly early (by 7:30pm) at my home, which was a blissful relief. I think the more overzealous teenagers, who, to be honest, are too-old-to-be trick-or-treaters, might just have "aged out" in my neighborhood and did not appear this year as they had in the past. I'm thankful for that small favor, for sure.

One of the more fun things I do like to do in mid-October is an annual country church sale to benefit the local congregation. It's a fun sale and auction that offers something for everyone and I'm happy to say I have become an ace "picker" of vintage items, so I was thrilled to find, at the bottom of a box of dusty and dirty pots and pans, a perfect, bright yellow enameled saute pan. I wasn't certain, but I suspected, at first glance, that it was a bonafide Dansk enamelware pan covered in a thin layer of dust and grime. That might have been a bit daunting to some, but I usually can tell, despite the dust and grime, whether an item is a true "diamond in the rough" and there no other indication of damage or use on this lovely pan, so I knew that it would clean up beautifully. I snagged it for the astounding price of $3! Truly a steal! These older pans from Dansk usually sell for upwards of $50 as they are becoming increasingly hard to find in such pristine condition. What a satisfying score!

Along with this nice pan. I also purchased a couple of older, vintage cookbooks in the burgeoning book tent, for a whopping 50cents total! That's what makes the sale so great -- simply great stuff for very little money. So little, in fact, that I often give the salesclerks at each area of the sale where I purchase items more than they're asking for in payent - it's all for a good cause in one of my favorite communities, so I appreciate the insane bargains.

I always have had a special affinity for housewares, particularly those involving cooking and dining. I still have a classic, fabric covered ring binder in which I'd saved decorating and cooking/dining pages from old issues of Glamour and Mademoiselle magazines from when I was a young teenager (we're talking mid-1960s here - when Julia Child's program, "The French Chef", was just beginning to appear on public television.) I think I have been "nesting" mentally since I was about 13 and my tastes were just starting to forming. Of course, my taste in decorating and cooking/dining certainly have changed and evolved since as I have aged, but I've always been drawn to classic items with traditional style. I liked contemporary when it was the thing in the 1970s, but by the early 1980s, my taste (and lifestyle with horses) had evolved to the point of preferring the English country manor house style as I traveled more in my 20s and 30s. I've pretty much stayed in that genre ever since from an architecture and decorating perspective, and have gradually edited my collection of items - plates, linens, etc - to refine that taste and add only very well made and well designed, classic items. That said, even though Dansk is considered a mid-century modern brand, I've always liked their items for their clean simplicity, hence the appeal of the yellow saute pan.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were literally a blur of activity for me - no travel involved, fortunately, but way too much snow way too early in November, which kind of took away a bit of the glow of the holiday season, making the first snow a bit less special than it would have been with the arrival of Thanksgiving and early December. Notice also, that given the calendar this year, Thanksgiving arrived on what I think was its typically earliest date on November 22 -- a good 9 days before the first of December, so it pushed the arrival of the "holiday" season fairly early in November.  That seemed a bit odd, but I'm sure is what contributed to a robust holiday shopping season for most retailers.

My Thanksgiving celebration centered around dinner with three other long-time friends I've know through horses for decades - we've all known each other for between 15 and 30 years, so a genial group and a fine dinner that I helped to prepare. We are all meat-eaters and the turkey provided by our hostess was cooked well and happily enjoyed. As I often do, I used some of my left-overs to make several turkey mini-pot pies, which has become one of my favorite ways to use up left-over turkey. I don't follow any particular recipe and confess I do use store-bought crust because I don't usually have the energy to make a crust from scratch. To the cooked meat, I add whatever I have readily available - some sauteed onion and celery chopped into small pieces, chopped roasted carrots, some herbs - thyme, primarily, salt, pepper, garlic powder and some gravy - whatever is ready to go and easy to add. I often cut out a turkey-shaped piece of pie crust to put on top of the pie, so it adds a festive touch and helps identify what type of meat is included. So far, I haven't had any complaints on these tasty little "personal pan pies" so far.

 Christmas was, after a frenzy of activity leading up to the holiday, a blissfully quiet day for me. No complaints about that at all after a busy late summer and autumn season. I'll take it as a quiet time to savor the season and reflect on my many blessings. And we even did get a bit of snow - just a dusting, fortunately - on the morning of Christmas eve to add a festive touch to the holiday flavor, but not so much snow as to make travel hazardous here. Phew.

Above are a few scenes from the holiday decorations outside my home this December. I had to trim some low-hanging branches from a cedar tree next to my house and I decided to use them as a big, pot of seasonal greenery on the bench on my porch. I also had gotten some pre-lit faux greenery garland and strung that on the fencing beyond my patio - that gave a nice glow to the yard each evening. I'll be pulling it down and putting it away after New Year's...but it has been a treat to enjoy these nice seasonal holiday touches.

Now, the new year is upon us. No resolutions for me - I'm just resolved to do good things for others and be kind. I have much to be thankful for in my life, and much to look forward to in 2019, so I'm wishing you all the happiest and healthiest of years ahead - and thanks for reading along!