Monday, December 30, 2013

Holiday roundup

The key to Martha Stewart's popularity has got to be her voice.  No celebrity has a more soothing voice than Martha Stewart. (Witness her video on how to split a layer cake, included in the directions for her six layer salted caramel chocolate cake.)  It is the voice of someone who is always serene, who never bursts into tears because she thinks no one will love her because she doesn't have time to make the homemade rolls for Christmas dinner.

Here is Martha's six-layer salted caramel chocolate cake.

Here is my version of the same cake.

I forgot to sprinkle the cake with salt

Despite its ugly duckling appearance, it was a spectacular Christmas dessert, with a low effort to taste ratio. I also made this pumpkin mousse tart with gingerbread crust, which had an agreeably tangy flavor from the goat cheese.

The kids were happy with their presents, and I've learned that having a child move into a real grown-up apartment provide a whole new scope for gift giving.  Pro tip:  If you're going for the "brown paper packages tied up with string" look, use painter's paper rather than kraft paper.  It is much easier to work with, as it has a thinner, wrapping paper-like quality.  It's also cheaper.  I bought a roll for something like $8 and there is still enough left over to wrap all of next year's gifts. 

I trust everyone had a pleasant holiday?  Or, if not, that enough time has passed that you can pretend that you did.  Now that Christmas is past, I am feeling very brisk and efficient and mistress of my domain; a major deadline has been met.  I am now going to clean all the things; something, I can only manage to do every two years. 

So far, I've managed to clean mine and Jon's room.  I'm fairly minimalist when it comes to stuff, but among other things, we have a drawer that contains nothing but back issues of Creative Needle and Australian Smocking & Embroidery.  Underneath the bed, I found not one, but two vials of adenosine, that must have come home accidentally in Jon's scrubs. .

This has inspired an offshoot project: wear all the shoes.  I own twenty-four pairs of shoes, including snow boots and running shoes, and I usually wear just six or seven of them.  So I am giving each pair a one-day test run, and if the shoes aren't working for me, they're getting donated.  Today, I'm wearing a pair of square-toed loafers with clunky heels.  They're not fashionable, but, they were once my go-to shoe for office/funeral can't tolerate stilettos today occasions.  Surveyed in the bathroom mirror at work, they're not too awful, although I should have dusted them before wearing them to work.  I think they are keepers, for now.

I got this image from ebay, but they are an accurate representation.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Diet Books

If Christmas is a calorie-consuming competition, then I am the winner, what with Martha Stewart's six-layer salted caramel chocolate cake, the prime rib roast, the mashed potatoes, the French toast, the cookies, the wine, and the appetizers.  Then there was the traditional Boxing Day lunch at Himalayan Fusion, with my sister and her husband, and, capitalizing on the fact that everyone flees Charlottesville at Christmas, we went to Mas for dinner last night, knowing it would be relatively easy to get a table, which it was.

So this is me today.

Any time I get together with my sister, we discuss diets--it is an irresistible topic.  My sister wants me to read Ultrametabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss by Mark Hyman. She says it will change my thinking and get me off the self-destructive diet treadmill, which would be nice.  You may recall that I once reviewed a variety of diet books and there was a certain sameness to their insanity.  Nevertheless, I'm curious about The 5:2 Diet--you fast two days a week and eat "normally" the other five.  Sound crazy?  It probably is, but I'm not particularly rational when it comes to diets.  Two years ago, I tried The Dukan Diet, and I lost weight, but it is a very difficult diet to stick to.  Two years later, I can't even look at unsweetened Greek yogurt. More rational would be to emulate Mrs. G, over at Derfwad Manor, and burn all the diet books in my barbecue.

Do you read diet books?  What are the dumbest/most helpful ones you've read?

*Fair warning:  the links to the diet books, above, are amazon affiliate links (if they are working--I've had difficulty with their links lately).

Monday, December 23, 2013

Cakes and puppies

This is the week that everybody takes "off" from blogging, but since blogging isn't my job, I don't really think about taking time off from it.  I'll be the one refreshing feedly all week, saying "WHERE ARE ALL THE BLOGGERS?"

I've planned an ambitious baking schedule this year: homemade challah bread to eat with our clam chowder on Christmas Eve, plus a second loaf for French toast on Christmas morning, six kinds of cookies and Martha Stewart's six-layer chocolate-salted caramel cake for dessert on Christmas night. It's fun to mock Martha, and her recipes can be ridiculously over-the-top, but they do usually taste good.  So far I've made the salted caramel sauce which includes two sticks of butter and two cups of cream which is OUTRAGEOUS.  The French toast (from Bon Appetit) also calls for two cups of cream and is 700 calories per serving.  Zoikes.  I'm also doing Lucindaville's pumpkin mousse cheesecake because it looked so delicious on her blog, and one must always be prepared for a tragic dessert shortage.

Phoebe update:  she is now twelve weeks old and has lived with us for five weeks.  Having a puppy is almost like having a real baby in the house.  I love lifting her out of her crate in the morning, all warm and limp and sleepy. In general, she's a pretty easy puppy and so far hasn't destroyed any of our possessions, although she does like to sneak into Grace's room and steal her socks.  We've taught her not to bite, but she seems to think that our bare feet are fair game.  Yesterday she bit my foot hard enough to break the skin and Sancho kissed my foot and then placed himself firmly between Phoebe and me--not sure if that was for my protection or hers.

Phoebe has doubled her weight and has lost that blunt-headed infant look that baby animals have, as if they haven't fully differentiated into the correct species and can almost pass for a bunny or a squirrel.

For perspective, this is a picture of her during her first week with us.  She used to like to drape herself around Jon's neck, but she's too big for that now.

And here she is now, with her BFF Sancho.

This is what Paddington Bear would have called a "hard stare."

So that's all I've got.  I hope all my dear readers have a lovely holiday.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Bridge Jones' Diary--Mad About the Boy.

Pages, 386, laffs out loud, 6 (as of page 342), alcohol units, 743, fags, 0 (Bridget has quit smoking), eye rolls, 10 (est), demented activities for senior citizens, 8 (ish), references to sex, a lot, references to nits, more, references to farts, EVEN MORE, incomprehensible British slang terms, 1 (spag bog,  from context means something to eat, possibly spaghettios*).

I loved the first two Bridget Jones books, so I was really excited to hear that Helen Fielding had written a third one, and as soon as it came out, I put myself on the hold list on the library.  It took a couple of months, but this week it was my turn.  In this novel, Bridget is in her fifties, and is widowed, with two small children.  Her husband, the famous Mark D'Arcy, human rights lawyer and wearer of reindeer sweaters, was killed by a land mine while working in Africa.

It starts off weak, and all of my LOLs happened in the last two-thirds of the book.  Not only is Bridget a widow with two small children, she has become overweight, has not had sex in four years and has a grated mozzarella cheese addiction.  Her friends perform an intervention, and Bridget manages to lose thirty pounds in four months (with help of National Health Service Obesity Clinic) and find 29 year old boyfriend, and accompanying single lady angst.

You'll see your favorite characters from the first Bridget Jones books: Jude and Tom, Magda, (although Shazzer has inexplicably been banished to the United States), Bridget's mum, Auntie Una, Penny Husbands-Bosworth, (only a shadow character, but her name is so much fun to say) and of course Daniel Cleaver whose every utterance is hilarious, sexy, and offensive.  ("Mummy's lovely mummy panties.")  There is a lot of childish behavior with twitter and texting, which is where the eye rolls came in.

Overall this is a fun book, if not quite up to the standard of the first one.  It definitely gets stronger as it goes along.  At first I was worried it would be yet another hectic motherhood tale ("oh no! they've spilled the spag bog whilst infested with nits and flushed the car keys down the bog and have 26 emails from horrible humorless classroom mum about correct way to slice peppers for sodding sports day picnic) but it isn't like that, although I do enjoy digs at perfect school parents who always want to organize everybody.  I haven't quite finished it, but I skipped to the last page, and the ending is likely to be satisfactory to most readers.

*Is actually British slang for Spaghetti Bolognese, which confused me mightily, as I know from watching Shameless that "bog" is also slang for "toilet."  Also, it seems oddly specific.  They must eat an awful lot of spaghetti Bolognese in Great Britain in order to justify a slang term for this one dish.

Spag Bog
PS: don't forget to stop by Jen on the Edge's holiday homes tour.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joyeux oh well.

The picture above neatly illustrates how my attempts at Christmas decorating have been thwarted this year.  Where can the N have gone?  No doubt I will find it in January, at the back of the closet under the stairs, which is where the decorations live, but I cannot be arsed to go digging for it now.

Back before Thanksgiving, when there was still sunshine, and Christmas was a happy, distant dream, I went to the Covesville Store and bought most of their stock of vintage ornaments.  A promising start, but as you will see, things went downhill from there.

Then I looted Thomas Jefferson's grounds for pine cones.  I imagined my pine cones bleached to a creamy white, strung on a jute cord, punctuated with green wooden beads and a big green velvet bow, elegantly gracing the mantle.  What actually happened was that after the tedious washing and baking, I dumped them back into the shopping bags where they turned moldy.  The ones that I bleached did not get moldy, but they smelled overpoweringly awful.

The cemetery that I walk through on my way to work has several magnificent English hollies.  About a  month ago, they were bursting with red berries and I thought that when the time came, no one would mind, and no harm done if I snipped a few small sprigs for Christmas decorations.  This week, I paused to investigate one of the hollies and realized that all the berries are gone.

I also had grand plans to copy Victoria Elizabeth Barnes' Christmas front porch, and to achieve that I bought a cache of small disco balls and an $18 non-electric chandelier, on which I hot-glued some of the disco balls and then festooned with mini LED lights.  The rest of the disco balls, I hung from the porch ceiling with silver craft ribbon.

 I'm pleased with how the chandelier turned out, but I want the multiple disco balls to make reflected sparkles on the house, as they did on VEB's porch, and they aren't behaving.  I actually googled, "how to make a disco ball work" and so went out after dark and aimed the flashlight app from Jon's phone at my disco balls and BAM! Sparkles.  So clearly what I NEED is four or five invisible people to aim spotlights at my disco balls every evening.  We are SEVERELY hampered in any attempt to decorate the exterior of our house because we have no outdoor electrical outlets.

On the positive side, I found the most gorgeous gold ribbon at Les Fabriques, downtown, and bought the whole spool, which turned out to be not-quite enough to wrap around the front door garland, but I'm still pleased with the effect, although my house is totally the wrong color for Christmas.  Jon very kindly drilled tiny eye hooks into the porch ceiling for me.

There was also a stab at making Pinterest-inspired mini boxwood wreathes, which is too boring to recount here, but pictured below is how my version turned out.  Hot-gluing boxwood branches to an embroidery hoop becomes tiresome real fast.

NOT the Elf on a shelf elf.

At any rate, the tree is up, which is what matters, right? I followed Becky's instructions for a fantastically lighted tree, only our tree's branches were too dense to do it effectively.  Still, I did end up with a much more nicely lighted tree than we had last year.  I thought I might make a garland out of the vintage ornaments, but they ended up on the tree.

My newest ornament

This Santa has seen over 100 Christmases

And?  That day at the Covesville Store?  I bought these wooden blocks that spell NOEL, although I was totally unaware at that point that the N from my other Noel display was missing.

I bought this vintage Lightning moonshine jar at the Covesville Store.  I'm not entirely happy with my mantle display this year.  I especially hate the ball jars with candles on the left.  That was another unfortunate pinterest inspiration.

Porch at night.

This year, I feel like my biggest Christmas decorating achievement was yesterday when I finally cleared away the random pine cones, scraps of ribbon, hook-less ornaments, orphan bells and other things that had taken over the dining room table, and now there is only the lovely, giant poinsettia that my father and his wife sent us.
I lied.  There is still a box of Christmas crap on the chair.
This post was inspired by Jen on the Edge's annual Holiday-decorating blog sharing round-up. If anyone is interested, (and it's OK if you're not) here are my Christmas decorating posts from 2012 and 2011.  Bonus Christmas Guillotine

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: The Mansion

I'm sure all of you will be just as relieved as I am that this is my last post about Faulkner.  I recently finished The Mansion, for the Fifty Classics project. The Mansion, you may remember, is the third book in Faulkner's trilogy about the Snopes family of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, the first two books being The Hamlet and The Town.

So.  The Mansion backtracks and retells part of the story from The Hamlet.  Which is good, because this was the part that I had so much difficulty understanding: the murder by Mink Snopes of Houston.  This time it's told from Mink's perspective.  Mink murdered Hudson because of a transaction over a cow.  Wow, I TOTALLY DID NOT GET THAT when reading The Hamlet.  So Mink goes to jail for murder--this happens while Flem Snopes is away on his honeymoon with Eula Varner--and Flem won't lift a finger to help him.

Twenty years pass and Mink is about to be released from prison early for good behavior and Flem Snopes tricks him into trying to escape (dressed in women's clothing) so that's twenty years of good behavior down the drain and another twenty years in prison for Mink.  I know you are wondering: how does one "trick" someone into escaping from prison?  Flem sets up another cousin to be arrested for running an illegal porn and moonshine business and sends him off to prison with a package of women's clothing and $10 for poor little Mink.  Mink's a right bastard, but I kind of like him despite the fact that in The Hamlet he's a mean little wife-abuser of the "shut up woman and fix me a biscuit" variety.

Then there's the Linda Snopes/Gavin Stevens story which is very hard to follow.  Linda is Flem's daughter, only not really because Eula Varner was already pregnant with her by another man before she married Flem.  Much of The Town is about Gavin's love for Eula, which is eventually transferred to Linda, who runs off with her lover to fight in the Spanish Civil War and returns to Mississippi deaf because her ear drums were blown out by a bomb. Gavin and Linda love each other but can't consummate their relationship for reasons I am incapable of extracting from Faulkner's tortured writing.

But here's the thing about Faulkner: you'll be slogging through the Gavin/Linda story and suddenly you're back to Mink who is drinking his first Coca-Cola after forty years in prison, and it's just wonderful.  The whole bit about Mink's first experiences in the outside world after being locked up for so long is beautiful writing and you can see why people go mad over Faulkner.  I'm not usually willing to make this much effort to read something, but sometimes it's worth it, and thinking back on all the William Faulkner novels I've read over the last year, I still sometimes laugh a little at the punchline from As I Lay Dying and I'll always remember Mink and the Coca-Cola.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: The gift of books

Want to give books?  Here's a little gift guide, organized by some of the personalities you might have on your gift list.  (Update:  my links failed to work--so I've replaced them  with ordinary, non-affiliate links.)

For the literate cook: Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.  This book is more a collection of essays than a collection of recipes (but there are recipes).  With chapters like Nursery Food,  Repulsive Dinners: a Memoir, and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People, you can't help but fall in love with this book.

For the Jane Austen lover:  Arabella by Georgette Heyer.  Don't buy a cheesy Austen spin off.  Heyer's novels are set in the Regency period and can stand on their own as witty and entertaining.  I am reading Arabella right now and the best word to describe it is delicious.

For the menopausal: The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing.  Doris Lessing, who died recently, won the nobel prize for literature.  She first tried publishing this brilliant book under a pseudonym and it was rejected. It's the story of Jana, a fashionable career woman of a certain age, who befriends and is much plagued by an older woman.

For the cyclist: French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France by Tim Moore.  Tim Moore, a hilarious British travel writer, cycles the course of the Tour de France, with much agonizing about chafing, among other things.

For the Jane Eyre fan:  Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  Tells the Jane Eyre story from the perspective of Rochester's mad wife.  Ordinarily, I don't like spin offs, but this one is excellent.

For the Anglophile:  Anything by P. G. Wodehouse.  I'd chose Leave it to Psmith.

For the sailor:  Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian.  The first in his famous Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series.  Funny, superb character development and dialog.

For the person who is nostalgic for the eighties: My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket.  Possibly one of the funniest books I've ever read.  Also good for the person who feels keenly the difference between east coast and west coast America.

For the adventurer: Forbidden Journey by Ella Maillart.  The true story of the author's trek from Peking through Tibet, into India in the 1930s.

For the egalitarian:  Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  An entertaining skewering of middle class values.

Monday, December 02, 2013

On the Pine Cone Trail

The year I was in second grade, my mom made pine cone Advent wreathes as gifts for all our teachers.  We took a family walk through the neighborhood and gathered all the pine cones.  It was my job to glue them to a special advent wreath form.  My mom spray painted them gold, added a big purple bow to each wreath, and the traditional advent candles (three purple, one pink).  She made a wreath for us too, and it was actually pretty awesome.   All this is a roundabout way of telling you that I have long been aware of the potential of the pine cone.

Which is why I went out early, the day after Thanksgiving, to the Monticello trail to gather pine cones for a garland.  Most of the pine trees are near the bottom of the hill, but I hiked the two miles to the top, hoping for a different species of tree to add variety to my collection.  And right near the top, I found a pine with perfect, symmetrical pine cones, only they were all firmly attached to the tree, and the ground beneath it was suspiciously absent of cones.  Another collector must have beat me to the spot.

Perfect but unattainable.

Most of the people on the trail gave my brown paper shopping bags the side eye, as if they thought I had just looted Monticello of its silver.  Is it really that eccentric to pick up pine cones off the ground?  You can buy them at Whole Foods--something like $3.00 for a smallish bag, and I need ninety pine cones for a six-foot garland.  In the end, I found the mother load of pine cones on a short side trail.  I filled both my grocery bags.  Two brown paper grocery bags full of pine cones are surprisingly heavy.  It's probably only half a mile from the side trail to the parking area on Dairy Barn Rd, but I was DYING by the time I got to my car.  It was a pretty day for a walk, though.

The next step is to wash them, which I did in the bathtub.  Pine cones come home with a lot of flotsam: pine needles, leaves, dirt, as-yet undiscovered insect species, etc.  It took freaking forever to divest my pine cones of all this junk.  Next, you bake them at 200 degrees for two hours--to kill the bugs.  Despite heaping my roasting pan, and filling a baking pan and a cookie sheet, I had more pine cones than would fit in the oven, and had to do this step in batches.  If you choose to do this yourself, note that the pine cones will leak sap all over your pans and it WON'T come off.

My bath tub, full of pine cones

I want a green and white garland, so I followed the bleaching process outlined in this tutorial.  It calls for a crazy ratio of bleach to water.  I tested a small batch, since to do them all at once would mean filling my entire bathtub with bleach.  I let them sit overnight, rather than the 24 hours recommended in the tutorial, and got uneven results.  Some of the pine cones were bleached, others were still brown.  The white pine cones seemed dangerously close to disintegrating so I removed the whole batch from the bleach.

Bleached and unbleached pine cones side by side

Then you have to bake them again! (Actually, you're supposed to sit them outside in the sunshine to dry, but hello, it's December.  Baking is offered as a faster alternative.)  It was 7:00 am and my house--again--became permeated with the smell of damp pine cones, only now with a hint of bleach.  One thing is certain, I am NOT bleaching the rest of these things.  I abandoned my green and white idea and spray painted some of them with gold rustoleum, and I'm not sure how I feel about them now.


I am already bored with this project and I still have nothing even close to resembling a garland.  The only thing to do at this point, is dump the pine cones back into their bags and go to the library and check out a Georgette Heyer novel.  Done. And Done.  If this thing ever becomes a garland, I will be sure to show you.  Do you do any holiday crafts?