Monday, July 28, 2014

Empty Nest

On Thursday, I loaded three of my kids onto a plane and sent them home to visit family.  As soon as they arrived, one of them came down with one of those self-limiting but extremely uncomfortable childhood viruses.  This virus, I have learned through local gossip, is running rampant through our town, in a new and exciting "super bug" form.  There have been tearful phone calls, and much handwringing, and I feel obligated to warn you that if you were on the 06:30 flight from CHO to LaGuardia, you might want to invest in some orajel and Advil.  One of our neighbors was actually on that flight.

I thought Jon and I were going to enjoy a preview of the empty nest, but instead I have spent the last four days fretting--partly because I was worried about my child, partly because it was such a downer, and partly because I felt guilty for thinking it was a downer.  By Sunday, there were reports of improvement, thank goodness.  Despite the anxiety and handwringing, here are some kid-free, me-me-me things that I did.

Barre Class.  I've been dying to try a barre class and finally made the effort to attend the Saturday morning class at my gym.  I was a little worried I'd be a big, galumphing, elephant in a class of dainty ballerinas, but it wasn't like that at all.  It was a good workout for the whole body and I am going to try to attend regularly.

Dinner for Two.  I got a notion to cook a special dinner for just Jon and me, and created a Martha Stewart menu which was a great success.  Filet mignon with cilantro butter and oven potato fries with cojita cheese and more cilantro and garlic.  I was nervous about the filets, never having cooked one before.  Martha says seven minutes per side. During the second seven-minute interval, Jon became concerned that they would be overcooked and I took them off the pan when there was still four minutes left of cooking time.  And they were a little too rare.  Martha knows, people. Do not deviate from her instructions.  But where filet mignon is concerned, too rare is a far less serious error than too well done.  Jon thought his was perfect, and I ate the half of mine that had been exposed to the heat for seven minutes and Jon put the rest into an omelet the next day.  To round out the meal, I opened one of the jars of pickled green beans that I made last year, and made another Martha recipe, molten chocolate pudding cakes, a very fudgy chocolate cake which you bake in little ramekins.  Lacking ramekins, I used Buffalo China coffee mugs, which worked perfectly.  The cakes are served with homemade caramel sauce.  Martha Stewart isn't really one of my main cooking resources, but her caramel sauce is the caramel sauce.

Sunday, I went to the Alderman library and checked out a big stack of books.  Reloading my nightstand is an eminently satisfying activity.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: A Shocking Tale

The Woman in White probably can't be considered a classic, in the strictest sense, but I included it (and The Moonstone) on my list for the Fifty Classics project.  I have been meaning to read it ever since Jon and I were blindly channel surfing several years ago and stumbled on an absolutely mesmerizing movie which turned out to be Masterpiece Theater's adaptation of The Woman in White.

Written in 1859 by Wilkie Collins, it is the first suspense novel in English.  It is written in a breathy, much-imitated Victorian style.  At first I thought Collins invented it, but then I realized I'd encountered this style before in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).  (So not Victorian at all.)  Lots of rooms with "gaily-coloured carpets" and "low tables."  Lots of trembling hands and dainty feet and flashing eyes and becoming bonnets.

The story is totally engrossing with satisfying plot twists and shocking developments.  Considering the year in which it was published, it must have been downright scandalous.  At the center of the story are two sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe who become the victims of a despicable plot after Laura marries the monstrous Sir Percival Glyde.  Meanwhile the mysterious woman in white, an escapee from an insane asylum, appears at intervals trying to warn Laura about her husband.  Walter Hartright, Laura's drawing teacher prior to her marriage, is the hero of the tale.  This is all very thrilling and mysterious and I really was eager to be able to read this at the end of every day.  Work has been especially stressful lately, so it was nice to have something to escape into.

That said, the modern woman (or man) may not be able to read this without some eye rolls.  Laura Fairlie, one of the two main female characters is beautiful, sweet-tempered, dainty, delicate, and helpless.  She faints at inconvenient moments and other than a few feeble attempts to defy her husband, is utterly incapable of acting or thinking for herself.  The main male character, Walter Hartright, is head-over-heels in love with her.  Naturally.  The other main female character, Marian Halcombe, is smart, sensible,  resourceful, and a good conversationalist, which can't be said for her sister Laura.  Walter tells us that Marian has a bodacious body, but she has an ugly face!  All the men in this book, even the villain, respect the hell out of Marian, but nobody loves her.  Smart women can't be beautiful or lovable, and beautiful women can't be smart.  Another female character, Madame Fosco, is married to the evil Count Fosco.  Before her marriage, we are told, she was a vocal advocate for women's rights, but under the count's thumb, she's like an malevolent wind up toy.  Finally, there's the Woman in White herself, hysterical, unpredictable, irrational, slightly mad, athough in a benevolent way.  She is a woman outside the bounds of polite society.  Still, if you can make allowances for the era in which it was written, you would enjoy The Woman in White.

The movie that Jon and I thought was so engrossing gets mixed reviews among Amazon customer reviewers.  Many objections to the fact that it deviates from the novel.  I will have to watch it again.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Crispy Crust

I thought I knew all the bread-baking tricks, but apparently, there is one I missed.  Back when I was at home full time with a houseful of babies, I made a serious study of baking bread.  One thing that I couldn't quite master was achieving a crusty bakery-style loaf in my dinky home oven.  All of the cookbooks agreed that steam was the secret and usually advised that you put a roasting pan full of boiling water in your oven.  This was supposed to give you a crispy crust, but it never quite worked and was enormously labor intensive.  One cookbook advised pre-heating a dry roasting pan and tossing a handful of ice cubes into it just before baking.  I tried this and the impact of the ice on the hot pan seared a good three inch gash into the enamel on my roasting pan.  This was certainly dramatic, but did not result in a crispy crust.

Recently, I read South Wind Through the Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David and discovered a crispy crust tip I wasn't aware of.  In case you are not familiar with her, Elizabeth David was one of England's great cookbook authors.  She worked in Egypt during WWII and developed a taste for Mediterranean cooking.  Back in England after the war, rationing severely limited the British diet.  As a way of cheering herself and her fellow countrymen, she wrote The Book of Mediterranean Food, even though at the time it was published, most of the ingredients it called for were unattainable.  She went on to publish several more cookbooks.  Elizabeth David was also a food scholar and her books include recipes for historic dishes and essays on the origins of certain recipes. Although many of her recipes are simple, I find her to be a bit intimidating and whenever I cook an Elizabeth David dish, it is something of a project.

Anyway, in this essay on bread baking, she recommends baking your bread under an inverted earthenware bowl in order to obtain a perfect crust.  I absolutely had to try this, right away.  I figured my antique yellowware bowl would be perfect to invert over the loaf as it baked.

I used David's Coburg loaf recipe, from the same book, originally published in English Bread and Yeast Cookery.  It's a very basic bread recipe with only four ingredients: water, salt, yeast, and flour.  Elizabeth recommends baking it on an "earthenware platter" which I assumed was something like a pizza stone.  You mix the ingredients as is usual for bread, and for the second rising, form it into a nice little round cushion.

As I preheated the oven, I began to have second thoughts about my yellowware bowl.  Was it really oven safe?  I was sure I'd read somewhere that old yellowware is safe to put in the oven, but the internet refused to confirm it.  And even it was oven safe, did that mean it was OK to invert it over a pizza stone?  I imagined the bowl exploding when I tried to lift it off the bread.  I saw myself sitting in the triage chair in the ED with a disfigured face and a shard of pottery embedded in my eye.  I chickened out and used my cast iron Dutch oven instead.

You bake this entire contraption at 475° for about 30 minutes and then lift off the cover.  (This is hot work.  Make sure you have superior oven mitts.) Continue to bake, uncovered, until the loaf is done.

This is how the bread looked after I took the cover off.

Here is how it looked when it was finished baking.

It stuck to the pizza stone, but I scraped it off.

The crust was perfect.  My kids' verdict?  "Just like a bakery."

Monday, July 14, 2014

A weekend in RVA

I know I said we have decided to stop spending money unnecessarily, but Jon came home from work on Thursday and declared that we HAD to get out of town for the weekend.  I got to go to Cape Town, while his broken arm used up most of his vacation time.  Suddenly it seemed like a mini vacation could be categorized as a necessity.  So we went to Richmond.

I've been to Richmond many times--regular jaunts to the Science and Children's museums when the kids were little, and hanging around in the Fan or Carytown since Brigid started school there, but I've never visited with "getaway" in mind and there is a lot we haven't seen.  We booked a room at the Linden House Inn, near downtown.

Our hotel on E. Franklin St.

Friday night, we went to Bistro 27 on Broad St. for dinner.  When we arrived, they seemed a little nervous and told us it was the first night with their new menu, and to please be patient, but everything was lovely.  If it was chaotic in the kitchen, you couldn't tell in the dining room.  We started with a mackerel pate.  I ordered a vegetarian entree; lentils and seasonal vegetables with feta, wrapped in naan bread.  I loved this!  I would definitely order it again if we were to return.  We finished the evening visiting with Brigid (now safely home from Cape Town) and her boyfriend, Ryan.

Hotel dining rooms at breakfast are interesting places.  Everyone is from somewhere else and has a different story.  Most people are cheerful at the prospect of a "free" breakfast that someone else prepared for them.  Over my coffee and book, I eavesdropped a little.  A table of chemistry professors were mocking their students' obtuseness. One of them said,  "I told them, 'One mole ten to the 27th power times six tons of grass clippings' and what answer did they choose on the exam?  Eight."  She sat back in her chair, triumphant, amid sympathetic clucking from her companions.  At another table, a woman was gushing on the phone about the hotel, "My room is bigger than my house.  It's GRACIOUS. LIVING." 

After breakfast on Saturday morning, we went to Caravati's architectural salvage.  I have been dying to visit for years.  You can find all kinds of old house parts: claw foot tubs, stained glass windows, fencing, mantles, door knobs, hinges, lighting etc.  We spent a happy hour browsing and taking stock for future projects.

A forest of columns

Perhaps you need stair bannisters

Or an antique stove

At Brigid's boyfriend's suggestion, after Caravati's we walked the pipeline.  This was super cool!  You walk through the giant flood wall that protects Richmond from the James and follow a track through the grass to the pipeline.

The track takes you to this ladder.  (I took this picture after we were finished and were ready to climb back up.)  We met a guy at the top of the ladder who was planning to carry his dog down it.  We didn't stay to gawk at him, but I know he made it because we saw him later. His dog probably weighed close to 100 pounds.

Anyway, you walk on the top of the pipeline, under the railroad bridge and along the James River.  I was hoping a train would go over while we were there, but it didn't happen.

Eventually, there's no more walkway or railings and you walk directly on the pipe.  At a spot where someone had piled rocks against the pipe, we were able to climb down onto the rocks by the river's edge, where we rested and watched people in rafts and stand up paddle boards go past.  Blue herons nest on the island and one stood watching us the entire time.

The walk back was a little scary.  First of all, I had trouble climbing back up to the pipe.  Standing on the very top of the pile of stones, I just managed to drag myself onto it.  The pipe isn't really wide enough for two people, but now lots of people were heading toward us with their picnic coolers.  You had to turn sideways and edge past each other, and on the part with no railings, this was scary.  We made it to the end fine, though.

Later in the afternoon, we went to St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry famously ranted, "Give me liberty or give me death!"  I took my father their years ago, but I wanted to return to see the view.

This is St. John's

This is the neighborhood around St. John's

We talked about how we need to familiarize ourselves more with Virginia.  We have lived here for fifteen years, and we have never been to Norfolk, Virginia Beach,  Chincoteague, or even northern Virginia, except for field trips to Wegmans and Ikea.  We're hoping to be able to do some more local vacations.

After a siesta, we went out for dinner with Brigid and her boyfriend and after that to a place called Wonderland in Shockhoe Bottom, to hear some music.  It turns out the show had been cancelled, but we stayed to have a beer.  Sunday morning, we left early to return to Charlottesville for our usual weekend chores.

What about you?  Do you tend to ignore your region when traveling, or do you do local trips?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: David Copperfield

If you've ever thought to yourself, "I would like to read the great classics of literature, but I don't know where to start," David Copperfield is a good choice.  It's probably the most readable of all of Dickens' novels.  The story is engrossing from beginning to end, and doesn't feel like medicine, unlike some other classics *cough* Faulkner *cough*.  Dickens was a master at mingling humor and tragedy.  The little comic details, such as Dora's ridiculous Chinese dog house, are pure genius. I read this in college, and reread it for the fifty classics project.

David Copperfield is one of Dickens' autobiographical novels. (Great Expectations is the other.)  It follows David's life from birth through the beginning of his second marriage.  Cruelly treated by a stepfather, he's sent to fend for himself in a factory after his mother dies and his adventures carry on from there.  Side plots include the absorbing story of "Little Em'ly," the misfortunes of the Micawber family, and the machinations of Uriah Heep, one of the great villains of history. The one theme that is repeated in almost every storyline is foolish marriages.  David, his mother, his aunt Betsey Trotwood, and "Little Em'ly" (in a sense--she didn't actually marry) all fall victim to marrying out of impulsive passion.  Another character, Aimee Strong, is diverted from marrying her first sweetheart, although he causes her misery for a long time after her marriage to a sensible older man.  Dickens' own marriage was unhappy.  He was young when he wrote David Copperfield, but he must have already been bitterly regretting his choice.

I believe this is one of the illustrations from the original edition.
It depicts David and Dora's domestic unhappiness.

There's also a fantastic movie starring the great Maggie Smith, and Daniel Radcliffe in his pre-Harry Potter days who plays David Copperfield as a child.  Nicholas Lyndhurst, who plays Uriah Heep is perfect.  I highly recommend it.

Uriah Heep

Ciaran McMenamin as David Copperfield

Monday, July 07, 2014

In the Bathroom with Power Tools

Our bathroom windows need help

Our upstairs bathroom has casement windows and curtains that came with the house.  They were nice curtains back in 1999 when we moved in, but have since literally shredded with age.

Also, traditional curtains on traditional rods don't work well with old fashioned casement windows.

This has been annoying me for fifteen years
 and I'm not talking about the view of our neighbors' house.

Almost the moment we moved in, I added "do something about the bathroom curtains" to my to-do list, but there was always something more pressing, and before the days of online shopping, swing arm curtain rods were hard to find.  They are also expensive.   Two years ago, I decided to get serious about the bathroom curtains, as they had deteriorated so badly we were draping pillowcases over the curtain rod so people couldn't see in at night.  I bought fabric.  I put off buying the curtain rods until a few weeks ago, when I finally ordered the cheapest ones I could find from amazon.  They are staggeringly expensive.

This weekend, I installed the rods and sewed the curtains.  Curtains are the easiest thing to sew, but installing the rods was a bitch.  It's not complicated, but I chose a too-small drill bit and then I got two of the screws stuck in the holes and Seamus had to help me wrench them out again and then they were stripped, so I had to find substitute screws.  Jon was at work while I did this.  I have a thing about taking on projects while he is away, so I can say, "Ta da!  Look what I did!"  when he gets home.

So the curtains are finished and I am pleased.  No more covering the shredded bits with pillow cases; no more awkwardness about opening the windows.  The fabric is seersucker, and the pink color is cheerful and imparts a rosy glow to the light in the bathroom.  Jon and the kids have all commented on how much better they are.

Also this weekend, I made this hideously ugly but highly serviceable oven mitt.  It used to be my favorite sweater, but I deliberately shrunk it to prevent myself from wearing it to work and trying to hide the elbow holes by rolling up the sleeves.  Felted wool is the best material for oven mitts.  I had to sew most of it by hand because my sewing machine told me fuck off and jammed itself repeatedly until I promised to never make it sew through three layers of felted wool again.  I used it while baking bread in a 475 degree oven, and felt no heat at all.

No thumb, but check the jaunty fur cuff!
So that's two things from the to-do list finished and another weekend passes.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Front Hall finished

I really owe you guys an update on the front hall, which is finished for now.  "For now" because as I've become intimately acquainted with the drywall I've realized it absolutely needs to be gutted.  I planned to redecorate, and add one of those leaning-against-the-wall mirrors and a small console table.  But the redecorating plan conflicts with our new plan to spend as little as possible so that we can escape the rat race.  So no new furniture, which is fine.  I'd rather have my sanity.


After--happy birthday sign for Jon in the doorway

After (We haven't fixed the door yet. Separate project.)

Upstairs landing Before

Upstairs landing after

The paint is Sherwin Williams' "pediment."  Part of the redecorating plan was to frame and display my vintage Great Lakes nautical charts.  I only managed to get one of them framed before we decided to stop spending money.  This is not its permanent hanging space.  It's just resting here while we figure out where we should hang it. (There happened to be a nail here.)  This is the spot where the leaning-against-the-wall mirror was supposed to go.

Here is Jon, with his broken arm, painting the last, tricky, high up bit.

I taught myself (with the help of google) to replace outlets and switches.  I could have hired an electrician, but it's actually quite easy to do yourself.  The outlet below, besides being paint covered and generally gross, could no longer grip electrical plugs.  It had been my nightly ritual for YEARS to wiggle the lamp cord that was plugged into it in order to get it to light.  Now, weeks after replacing the outlet, it still seems like a miracle that now all I have to do is turn the lamp on.  No more cord wiggling.

I had trouble with these light switches--the one the furthest to the right had a different wiring configuration.  I think I need to buy a different type of switch.  It has never worked, anyway.  We have NO IDEA what it will turn on if it were to work.  I was kind of excited to find out, but I guess we will never know.  

Also, the switch furthest to the left is a bit crooked, and as a result, one of the screws for the new switch plate won't fit.  I think I can fix it, but for now, I am done fiddling with the breaker box.

Half assed
I thought I had a picture of the disgusting old switch plate, but I can't find it. It was plastic and coated with about forty years of grime.