Friday, February 27, 2009

Like Eyes In The Back of Your Head

Have you ever stopped to notice that there is something really mysterious and magical about the back of someone's head? It's a part of you that you can't ever really see in a natural moment. You have to really be looking. I took this picture of my neice last weekend. I meant to catch her face, but kids are so quick and digital cameras are so slow. 

But I love it. It's one of my favorite photos of her. Somehow speaks to the nature of my love for her -- so big, and she's so small. Too slow, as she grows so quick. So much to give, yet she's not mine, and my time with her is so fleeting.

Reminds me of this painting by Gerhard Richter.

Or this photo by Todd Hido.

Something about blonds and the light.

Merely Martha

Last Thursday my parents and I went to see Martha Stewart at the 92nd St. Y for their Captains of Industry series. She was being interviewed by the EIC of Business Week. (He was forgettable, so he shall go nameless.)

The highlight of the night was the table of free magazines outside the auditorium.

It was the blandest display of two adults interacting in front of a paying audience since... I don't know, you'll have to fill in the blank for me in the comment section. You know I usually make an effort to keep my posts upbeat, but a week later, I still feel insulted by the the experience. A whole lot of nothing with a price tag, and two hours of our lives we'll never get back.

If I sound bitter, it's because it was all my idea. I am fascinated by Martha, and completely envious of her career. She has built an empire on entertaining, home cooking, the floral arts, decorating, and crafts. I admire her as much for her ability to tie a perfect bow as her serious credentials as a business woman. You'd think that dynamic would make for a very interesting person, and an interesting Q&A. Not so, my friend, not so. She basically evaded every question with a watered down, coached non-answer. And these questions were soft balls to begin with.

For instance:
Q: "Martha, you have so much going on. How do you manage your time?"
A: "Well, I know what I have to do. It's all up here [pointing to her head]. I go to bed very late and wake up very early. Sleep is tertiary."

Gee, thanks for that illuminating insight into the inner workings of your universe.

I scribbled down notes of anything that I thought my dear readers might find interesting. I'm not going to dress them up, so here they are:

-She spoke with conviction about the Martha Stewart Center for Living at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. After watching her mother navigate old age and deteriorating health, she was inspired to create a place devoted to geriatric care and living, since she feels it is a greatly overlooked area of medicine. 

-Recently MSLO acquired, an online party planning and invitations service. Papyrus also made a move like this recently. Both empires are looking to gain a foothold in the online universe, but I don't see how this is A) a good idea for Martha considering her brand is premised on quality, handmade goods, and B) profitable. Actually, I happen to know for a fact that it's not profitable for Papyrus.

-In case you missed it, MSLO also acquired all of the Emeril brand with the exception of his restaurants.

-She is developing blogs for her pets.

-She wouldn't admit to grooming any one person in particular to be the face of the brand after she steps out. All she would say is that they are training the various editors of her magazines to be in the limelight more and more. 

-She plans on writing an autobiography, and perhaps even a novel. Autobiography, yes. Novel, please God spare us.

She got really excited twice. First, when she talked about the Valentine's dinner she hosted at her house. She must have gone on for 8 minutes about all the different cookies she made, the menu, the guest list. Then she really got going when asked about the move of her corporate offices. She actually brought up the Gawker incident about sanctioned pens. (It's too long to go into here, just click the link for the full story.) She was very feisty. It may be a ridiculous topic, but that's the woman I want to hear. Give us the good stuff, the real stuff. Give us who you are -- your opinions, your smarts, your edge, your joy. Save the evasive, reserved saleswoman for your board meetings, or your television show, if you must. 

She mentioned that she has long ago given up trying to keep Martha the brand separate from Martha the woman. She said she just has to know who she is and be okay with it. That sounds like great advice, but I can't help but think it's a delusion. We showed up to hear Martha, the woman, and all we got was the brand.

If she wants pointers on livening things up a bit, I suggest she seek advice from Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase. His 2008 interview with Charlie Rose transported him from some banker I had never heard of to a man that I instantly admired for his wit, honesty, intelligence, and attitude. 

Just in time too, since as a former Washington Mutual customer, he's my guy now.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Brother the Bread Baker

Recently I have come to believe that my brother is secretly developing a show for the Food Network. I've started looking for the hidden camera in his kitchen. What else would explain the fact that he has taken his love of hosting and cooking to the next level and started baking his own bread? What else could explain the fact that he hosted a Bread Taste-Off on Saturday? 

The competitors? None other than my brother and his father-in-law. 

To some, this may sound like the set up for a painfully embarrassing Ben Stiller movie, but lucky for everyone involved, my family's got great in-laws -- the best.  So it was just a little friendly competition and all of us judges had a good time toying with the emotions of the bakers as their fate hung in the balance of our taste buds.

Both bread-bakers swear by the No-Knead Bread recipe that appeared in the New York Times in 2006. The full write-up was penned by my favorite food writer, Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything. He got the recipe from the man who owns the Sullivan Street Bakery. If you don't know about this establishment, it provides some of the best restaurants in New York with dark, luscious, drool-worthy, extra crusty bread. (Their gigantic brown bags are prominently featured at Frankie's 457 on Court Street, where you should go if you are in the neighborhood.)

As the bread rose in the oven, my brother explained the genius of the recipe. Basically, making good bread is very simple, but you have to know one secret. The thing that stops the home cook from getting the crust that all carbophiles lust after is nothing but a little steam. Professional bakers work with steam injected ovens, but we amateurs don't have access to such pricey hardware. A pastry chef turned architect I know once told me his way around the problem: put a cookie tin in the bottom of the oven, throw water on this hot sheet of metal as you put the bread in, and -- quickly! -- shut the door. 

Simple enough, but for the uninitiated, a little scary, right? I might feel comfortable trying that method if I knew my oven warranty was up to date and I was wearing a HazMat suit. Well the chef at the Sullivan Street Bakery has solved this problem with one simple, beautiful kitchen accessory: a dutch oven. That's all you need. If you are still intrigued, I urge you to read the article and try it yourself.

Back to the bake-off. I will tell you that Bread A was made with bread flour, and Bread B was made with regular flour. Both loaves were delicious, but A eeked out a victory due to its extra crunchy crust. I will not reveal who cooked what, but I will leave with this photo, of the men and their bread. Bravo to both! I will eat your bread any time, and I am always available for food judging!

Snow in Maine

We're going up to Maine next week for a little weekend getaway. We've never been in the winter, and since we have a fantasy of moving up North and selling pine cones, we figured we better get a reality check. And we all know March is made for reality checks.

My parents are there now with their dog, Bebop, a Schnoodle. Here she is, looking ready to take on the 19 inches of snow that fell on Orono last night.

I'll be sure to bring my Sorels!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Can I Interest You In A Mixed Bouquet?

Luckily, my man knows that I do not like roses, especially red ones, so he doesn't have to shell out $45 for a dozen of droopy, battered ones on February 13th. Many years ago, I did buy into the romantic notion of the whole thing, but that was only after years of going without a valentine.

Nowadays my biggest objection to roses is that I find them hard to arrange in an attractive manner. You really have to have a lot of filler, and good filler is hard to come by unless you are my mother, and you've discovered your backyard is chock full of a variety of plants that work for all seasons. She is a maverick flower arranger. I believe her talent breaks down like this: one-half innate eye for balance and composition, one-quarter amazing collection of one-of-a-kind vases, urns, teapots, and loving cups, one-eighth access to unexpected filler, one-eighth pure magic.

I go on and on about filler because I believe it can make or break an arrangement. I have been favoring minimalist, one or two color dome arrangements for quite some time, but I received a mixed bouquet for Valentines Day that really rocked my world. Here it is:

We've got red carnations, white mums, orange roses, yellow snapdragons, purple irises, orange and pink tulips, and even a couple astromeria. So springy, so much for the eye, and so lovely. But, to get it there, I had to toss all the baby's breath and evergreen fill to take it out of the context of a florist's idea of a mixed bouquet. Really, what are they thinking? Maybe they are thinking the bouquet looks bigger and they can charge more money... 

I just want to reiterate that it is totally okay to rip apart a bouquet that you receive as a gift. In fact, unless you think it's utterly perfect and gorgeous, you really should take it apart. Luckily most bouquets that are hand delivered by loved ones don't come in their own vases, so you have an excuse to cut the stems down to an intimate height that allows for eye contact at the dinner table. 

I have to thank my Aunt Rose, the florist of the family, for this lesson. I visited her for a week once when she was doing all the flowers for a huge university event. On Monday, I gasped as she chopped 85% of the stems off of the flowers in her floral buckets in order to form delightful tea cup arrangements. Somehow it seemed against the rules, like you were shaving the head of the flower. Not so! By Tuesday night I was asking if I could get in on the action, and man, was it liberating. And that is how I discovered the first secret of the floral arts. It's all about how the height of the bloom works with your container. 

Don't ever hesitate to take the florist's plain vanilla glass vase, put it in your basement, and get out your chipped aqua urn. And if you get sick of looking at those sad vases on your shelf, throw them in your back seat and return them to your nearest florist. They are happy to get them back, and you will have a fabulous arrangement that, hopefully, will be with you for weeks to come. 

There are some really fabulous florists out there. But you never really know a good one by the looks of them. When you find one you like, stay loyal! For flowers in Monmouth County, NJ, no one in my mind has outdone Sunset Florist, in Ocean Township. 732-988-7455. No rearranging necessary. Do you recommend a florist? Leave it in the comment section!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Do Love A Holiday That Celebrates Red Hearts.

Was up til 2 a.m. last night making last minute valentines for my family. I was really kidding myself that there'd be no valentines this year. 

One thing I discovered that will make my life much easier in the future is that rubber cement works well for adhering felt to paper. You can brush it right onto the paper and avoid any felt fluff in your brush. A huge improvement over the white craft glue I used to make my felt Christmas Ornaments.

Planning to distribute them this evening at my niece's 10th birthday party. Happy Birthday to the Valentine baby (well, she's really not a baby anymore is she? Double digits!) and Happy Valentines Day to the rest of us!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Recession-Proof Flowers

It's winter. You should not be without flowers to cheer up your house. But I get it, fresh cut flowers in your bathroom are a luxury, right? I always shy away from picking them up at the grocery store if I feel I've put in a full week of spending too much money. The 3-bunches-for-$10 deal seems really expensive when I am nursing retail or restaurant guilt.  

Still, some flowers are a fantastic investment. Make that your mantra when you feel you can do without a little floral excitement. I bought four bunches of flowers for my mother's birthday party -- a combination of daisies and yellow and white spider mums -- and they still look fantastic. I bought them on January 24th, people! These flowers have been living in my house for three weeks, with not even a petal shed! I haven't even recut them or changed the water. I just add a little water when I remember. 

I was going to ask for flowers for Valentine's Day, but how can I get rid of my cheery yellow and white arrangements? My house is literally full of them. At this point, I am like Kramer driving on E -- I have to see how long they will live, so I will not toss them until they are wilted beyond recognition!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Queen of Tarts

My all time favorite dessert -- and that's really saying something -- is the Lemon Tart from Patois, a now defunct restaurant in Brooklyn where I just so happen to have gotten engaged. Their lemon tart is revelatory: a graham cracker crust with a very lemony but just the right amount of sweet filling, and a dollop of creme fraiche on top. (Full discloser: I only know what creme fraiche is from watching "Top Chef.")

I always made sure to save room for this Queen of Desserts (there are no kings in the land of sweets, afterall). In fact, just after ordering drinks at our last visit, I asked with anxious eyes if it was still on the menu. It was, to my great relief and excitement, and about an hour later it arrived at our table. I dug in, allowing the husband only a bite here or there. He knows better than to come between me and my tart at this point, and has even convinced himself that he doesn't like it all that much anyway. Self-preserving delusion, so I don't argue it. : )

Inbetween bites I could always be heard exclaiming how delicious and perfect this sweet masterpiece was, and after about every fourth bite I'd declare that I neeeeded to learn how to make it.

Well folks, yesterday was the big day. After extensive scouring of cookbooks and internets to find a recipe that would mimic Patois's version of the lemon tart, I settled on Ina Garten's version. You may know her as the Barefoot Contessa of Food Network fame. I recently acquired her Back to Basics cookbook, and having realized how obsessed she is with squeezing fresh lemon on almost everything she makes before serving, I figured she could be trusted to make tart filling that was pucker-worthy. 

For the crust I used a generic graham cracker crust recipe, but it was a bit of an adventure. I'd never made it before (in my experience, when you carry on the familial flaky pie crust torch for a third generation, you tend not to branch out), and I'd definitely never made it in a tart tin whose bottom slides around by about a centimeter. Add to that the fact that Bed Bath & Beyond only had 11-inch tart tins (who has ever heard of such a thing!?), forcing me to ad-lib the proportions of the recipe. Plus my hand-me-down Cuisinart was dead. Let's just say the crust caused me a bit of hand-cramping consternation.

But, low and behold, my tart turned out great. The crust was not as well done as Patois, and maybe they have a little bit more pucker on me, and I skipped the creme fraiche due to my lactose problem...  But here are the photos, you can judge for yourself. Hubby said mine was better, but then he knows that flattery gets him everywhere!

From Patois, which has better mood lighting...

From my kitchen... Which, by the way, never smelled better while making this tart. Zesting four lemons will change your olfactory life forever!