Friday, December 19, 2014

Quick Sweets for the Busiest of Days


I was in the baking aisle the other day, and I almost expected the shelves to vibrate from the chaos. People were either on the phone asking for instructions, or they were standing, whispering words out loud, almost waiting for the ingredients to hover in front of them as soon as they called their name.

It was like being at the dinner table in a Harry Potter movie; where the noise level gets so loud that you think you might just have to scream, but you know that if you close your eyes for a few moments, the magic will begin, and everyone will eventually get their hungry wish.

But, this was the supermarket, and all the wishing in the world won't get the candied ginger to jump up, introduce itself, and sit politely in your basket. So, I bought what I needed and left; torn between wanting to help everyone find what they were looking for, and the almost uncontrollable urge to drop everything and run as fast as I could to my nice, quiet car.

I think it is really hard if you don't bake all the time, and you are expected to "bring a plate", or provide sweet treat gifts during the Holiday season. Not everyone likes to do this, and there seems to be the added pressure of being expected to show up with something that is both pretty and homemade at the same time. Buying from the store is secretly frowned upon, and often handed over with an apology and a quick hug.

I actually love to bake, but sometimes my thoughts are bigger than my reality, and I can't always spend a long, lazy afternoon with Elvis Presley in the kitchen. So, for those days, I have my go-to, none-thinking, quick-supermarket-visit, semi-homemade, un-apologetic, inexpensive desserts, that I can make in less than half an hour, make in bulk, the children can help, and, they all have three basic ingredients or less....

COOKIES

Ingredients: A roll of frozen, chocolate chip cookie dough (if you can find one that says real chocolate chunks or chips, that is always nicer than chocolate flavored).
Optional - More chocolate chips, dried cherries, raisins, cranberries, nuts, coconut etc.

Things to do with the cookie dough, other than just slice and bake.
  • Tip the dough into a large bowl, squish in the optional ingredients, roll into balls about the size of a small golf ball, flatten slightly with a floured fork, and bake.
  • Make them extra big, flatten a bit with the palm of your hand, and add a few minutes onto the baking time.
  • Roll it into balls and pop in the fridge for about twenty minutes. Coat the raw dough in melted chocolate, and put back in the fridge for a few minutes until set (just warn people that it is raw dough, but I can't imagine it would harm anyone).
  • Add some colored sprinkles, candies, or brown sugar to the top before baking.
  • Slice per instructions on package, roll each slice into a ball, then roll into a bowl of sugar. Place on cookie sheet and flatten with a fork dipped into flour.
  • Squish it all together, add optional ingredients if you want, and pat it into a pie tin. Bake for about 20 - 25 minutes at 350 F. Cut into slices, and serve warm with ice cream.  
PEPPERMINT BARK

Ingredients: Candy Canes (any amount) and Chocolate (white, dark or milk - any amount).
  • Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, silicone liner or a well-greased piece of foil. 
  • Crush a few candy canes, leaving some chunks..
  • Melt chocolate at 30 second intervals in the microwave until runny. Add  3/4 of the crushed candy canes and stir. 
  • Spread onto cookie sheet and top with last bit of candy canes. Pressing down slightly so it sticks.
  • Refrigerate for about few minutes, then break up into pieces.
* If the chocolate goes grainy when you melt it, just go ahead with the recipe, and spread it as quickly as possible - it will look a little more rustic, but still taste good.

CHOCOLATE FUDGE

Ingredients:  3 cups (18 oz) Chocolate (white, dark or milk) and 1 can of regular Sweetened Condensed Milk (in the baking aisle)  and a pinch of salt.
Optional - 1 teaspoon of vanilla, 1/2 cup of nuts, crushed cookies, dried cranberries etc.  
  • Grease and line an 8 x 8 pan with foil or parchment, or just grease a piece of foil and put it on a cookie sheet.
  • Melt the chocolate, condensed milk and salt over a low heat. Stirring all the time (easier with a metal spoon).
  • As soon as it is melted (it doesn't take long) add your optional ingredients and pour into the pan, or spread onto the cookie sheet. 
  • When set, cut into shapes.
By the way, don't worry if you don't have fancy cellophane bags, or festive cookie tins to present them in; just put them on a plate, cover with cling-wrap or foil, and ask nicely for your plate back when it's time to leave.

Photograph of cookie tower from: www.framedcooks.com

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

To read, or not to read - My Christmas Tree Story

I am often reluctant to write my blog during the weeks leading up to Christmas; it feels like such a busy, emotional time of year, and I know that so many of you are planning parties and buying presents. I wonder if reading a blog is really high on anyone's list of priorities?

So, let me just tell you what happened with our tree this week. It won't give you lots of time-saving  ideas, but it might make you smile as you write another list and check the cupboard for wrapping paper (don't forget to buy tape and sticky labels as well). Unfortunately, my story isn't very short, so if you want to save time, now would be a good place to stop reading.

Anyway, last year I skipped the day long excursion to the tree farm, and decided to get my tree from the hardware store. It lasted through the beginning of January, and drank so much water that I swear it actually grew during the six weeks that we had it. So, I went back to the same store, and bought one on Saturday. In the rain. It kind of went like this....What type do you want? A Frasier Fir, please. How tall? 6 - 7 foot, please. What about this one? That's fine, thank you! Do you want the end cut off? Yes please. Thank you. You're welcome! Have a Merry Christmas! You too! Bye!

I get home, soaked from the rain, and drag the tree off the top of my car. Pull it up the front path, and leave it for a moment while I open the screen door, and unlock the front door. I prop the screen door open, and start to drag the tree inside. As the cat tries to run out, my boot catches on the netting at the front of the tree, I trip, and the tree catches on the screen door. I try to untangle my boot, and my ring (which is the end of an old fork handle - don't ask) catches on the netting, and I am stuck. The only way I can move is to take off my boot and my ring.

So, I get inside, knock the plant off the wall (why I keep hanging that plant on the wall is beyond me) put the tree in the stand, and start looking for my ring. I find the ring, make a cup of tea, put on my Elvis Presley CD, and start to cut off the netting around the tree.

When I tell you that I have never seen so many pine needles in my house, I am not kidding; I could actually hear them falling to the floor, there were so many. In case you're curious, it sounded as if someone was slowly crinkling a plastic supermarket bag. But, I wasn't worried. I grabbed the tree lights, and started to check them. We've all been there, and you know what happened; out of about a thousand (!) lights, I had maybe 27 that worked. So I sat for a couple of hours wiggling them, and trying to figure out which were broken, until I eventually gave up, and decided to just put the 27 lights on the tree. I put them up, and sat back to admire my very minimal Christmas Tree; telling myself that I was lucky to have one, it was about my intention, and spending time with friends and family that mattered, not how big and beautiful my tree was. I could make it work, no problem.

As I stared at it, 13 of the light's went off.

The next morning (sorry, I meant to keep this brief, as I know you probably have somewhere to go, or someone to visit) the container was still filled with water, and my tree was already drooping. In my pajamas, in full view of everyone driving by my house, I pulled the tree out of the stand (not very kindly, and without unplugging the remaining 14 light's) and proceeded to saw off another three inches of the tree. It sounds easy, but even a less than perfect tree isn't easy to plonk on it's side and cut with a rusty old pruning saw.

I can tell you that it took me over an hour, that at one point I lost my glasses, that I now have jaggedy cuts on my hand, that my 14 remaining lights never flickered, and that my tree is now too short, but I can also tell you that it made no difference at all.

It is still sitting in a gallon of water, and the needles are falling and turning over as I write. It is now crooked, and appears to be leaning, and even though we decorated it last night (with Elvis Presley again) it was precarious, and we could not put anything heavier than a half-eaten gingerbread man on it.

In my deluded Christmas tree state, I actually thought about spraying it with adhesive to make the needles stay on, but then realized that it would become flammable, and heaven forbid my 14 lights caught on fire.

Last night, the dog ate the one armed gingerbread man off the tree, but I am still feeling lucky, because this morning I found an extra string of lights hidden in an old Christmas stocking...

Photograph from www.countrysoldier.org, and originally drawn by John Clemmer

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I Want it Painted Black

Once upon a time, a teenager wanted her bedroom painted black. Her parents said no, and she asked why not. Because we said so, was their reply. Not black. Anything but black. Well, except for dark purple, navy or red. No, definitely not red either.

So, she sulked, and she pleaded, but they still said no. In their mind, a black room meant that there was something wrong with her; that she was going to be sitting engulfed in darkness, whittling away at evil contraptions, and thinking of dark tasks to fill up her complicated teenage life.

But all she wanted was a black bedroom.

Painting black on the walls has this effect on a lot of people; never mind that it is technically the absence of color, just the suggestion of it often provokes an instant, unhappy response in the world of decorating. But, I think a touch of black is magical, and adds so much depth to a room, that I could never imagine living without it.

So, in defense of the teenager (and my favorite non-color) here are some options for the (sometimes) worried parents.....




 
Photographs borrowed from www.decorpad.com, www.sfgirlbybay.com, www.couldbemetoday.blogspot.com, www.ghoofie.com, and www.belmav.com.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Keeping (and Changing) Traditions


This week is Thanksgiving, and it is a holiday that everyone can celebrate.

It isn't about religion, and it isn't exclusive to family; it's about spending time with people because we want to, and being grateful for how much we have. Yes, that part often gets lost in the shuffle, but whether we announce it at the dinner table, or whisper it to someone after a glass of wine, we all know that we are lucky to have people to care for, and who care about us.  

Our family spends Thanksgiving with dear friends, and that has become a new tradition; they are our other family - our new normal. It is warm, welcoming and comfortable; I could wear my pajamas at the dinner table, paint my toes (not at the dinner table), and they wouldn't mind in the least. I like that.

Lives change, and as much as we want our traditions to stay the same, they can't. We are allowed to feel sad when we can't do them anymore, but we can always make room for new ones, which is kind of exciting when you think about it.

It gives us an opportunity to try something else, to find out all over again what we do (and don't) like. And, they don't even have to be big, gigantic, extravagant traditions, they can be small, dollar-store ones, that are imperfect, and not quite thought out until we decide they should be. There is no limit to how many we are allowed to have, and we can change our mind whenever we want.

I remember trying to uphold the tradition of going to a Christmas Tree Farm every year. It was fun driving through the countryside (well, sort of, I think it was New Jersey), sipping hot apple cider with our frozen, mittened fingers, and trying to find the most perfect tree in the forest. But, as time went on, it felt more like something we had to do, instead of a nice day out; we would rush out of the house early, the drive seemed to take forever, they would run out of cider, and someone always complained about lying on the ground trying to cut down the too-big tree with the world's smallest saw.

Then, one year I realized we didn't have to do that anymore; our new tradition became a trip to the local hardware store, a tree tied onto the roof of my car by a very nice person, and a cup of hot chocolate at the local cafĂ©. It isn't a picture storybook afternoon, but it is a tradition, it makes us happy, and it is a far more peaceful way to start off our December.

Why not spend some time thinking up new traditions? One's that suit you, your friends and family now. Have them at random times during the year, not just around the Holidays. Ask everyone what they would like to do, or what they wish you did more of together. You might be surprised, and it might be simpler than you thought......

                      Have a lovely Thanksgiving!

Photograph borrowed from www.decoradventures.com

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Coloring Your Winter


A friend is coming over to my house to gather some pine branches from the trees in the yard; an easy decoration to share when your garden thrives on random acts of pruning, and the occasional dose of neglect. We will probably have a cup of tea, I will bake something yummy, and, if it stays this cold, I will definitely warm the house up with the wood stove.

When I read this back, it sounds very idyllic, when really, neither of our lives are, but we are easily pleased, and we like spending time outside. She said, it's more fun doing it together, and she is right; even if it is below freezing, and the pine trees are much less than perfect, it will be a happy few hours. 

I never understood seasonal decorating until I came to New Jersey, and I realize now, that aside from it being a way to celebrate the holidays, it is a way of cheering us up when the days get really gray. Nothing grows, and by January, the color green feels like a distant memory that may, or may not have ever been true.

So, we decorate the outside, and we smile at the sparkly lights and the giant candy canes. We wait for the inflatable snowmen to pop up, and we find ourselves watching for the next burst of color down the street; perhaps judging just a little, but being secretly grateful for the distraction.
I am always amazed at how much work goes on to getting it just right; seemingly ordinary people spending weeks creating the most extravagant of displays, and coordinating lights in a way that would prevent me from ever flipping the on-switch. (I suspect there may be some math and technical skill involved, which could be why the whole process eludes me).

I love to see these homes, but my favorites are the more subdued displays; porches filled with red plaid, a wreath on the door, and oversized presents piled into an old sleigh. It feels like home to me (not that we ever had a sleigh on our front porch) but it looks comforting and warm, and when the day is so cold and gray, it makes you feel that you would always be welcome to stop in.

Decorating in the Winter isn't about whether you choose to have a dancing Santa Claus on your roof, knit a scarf for your tree, or hang a wreath on your front door, it's about adding a bit of color to the outside world, and putting smiles on the people driving by.

The gorgeous Knitted Tree photograph is from: www.superforest.org

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Creating Your Own Vision

 
One day, I saw a picture in a magazine of an old movie being shown on the side of a building. I wanted to believe that the photographer had captured a sentimental moment; that the family often decided to spend their nights outside on the hill, drinking hot chocolate, and keeping warm under the most scrumptious of plaid, wool blankets. That the grass was never damp, and that there was always a heroine swooning over her latest leading man.

So, I pinned the picture to my office wall, and I looked at it every day, because I found it truly beautiful (and, I hope one day to watch a movie outside, on a hill, with hot chocolate and a blanket).

Turns out, it is actually a photograph by Tim Walker, an Englishman who is known for his extravagant staging and quirky, romantic sense of style; the children don't even live in the house, and I bet they weren't drinking hot chocolate. The entire scene was manufactured for British Vogue in 2007.

Yes I was disappointed, and for a few moments I wanted to take the magazine page off my wall, but it is still a beautifully composed photograph, and without it I would never have found a new artist to admire.

Finding things that make you smile, imagine, or dream, may seem silly or unproductive to some, but it really does help many of us move forward. When we are stuck, we are often advised to make Vision Boards; the theory being that if we can see it, we will strive for it, and it will appear. But sometimes I think that there are too many rules, and we start searching for the exact right way to do it; letting perfection get in the way of what should be fun and inspiring, and turning it into just another project, determined to show off our lofty goals and exceptional paper cutting skills. What if you don't do it properly, and you fail at Vision Board making? How depressing would that be?

I prefer to take a much broader, portable, more simple approach. I have wish-lists and pictures taped to my office wall, folded into a small box, and squirreled away in my handbag. This chaotic collection is my adaptation of a Vision Board. It includes crumpled articles about all sorts of heroes, pictures of places that interest me, words jotted down for a book that I want to write, random wishes, photographs of friends and family, a pile of candy hearts with my favorite words, a list of things to do tomorrow, a childrens book by John Lithgow, a scribbled question about buttons, and a post-it remembering the color of a new lipstick that I want to try.

My vision is simple; by imagining absolutely everything, I am bound to accomplish something.....

The photograph is a piece of the wall in my office (the image by Tim Walker is to the left of the middle, and what looks like the moon is actually a white thumb tack).

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Decorating Poem

 
She wants to move the furniture,
on a Sunday afternoon.
It's always fun to decorate,
but first she empties the room.

The room looks dull, so she gets some paint,
decides to tape off a square.
Big and gorgeous, chalkboard black,
perhaps she'll paint a pair?

The paint is drying, furniture is out,
the rug she brings back in.
It's old, it's small, but has to do,
now for the fun to begin.

She pushes the sofa across the room,
moves the rug at an angle.
Amused, she decides to vacuum the floor,
after finding a fork and a bangle.

Thought she was careful, but not enough,
looks down at the scratched wooden floor.
No need to fix it, just cover it up,
by moving the rug some more.

The sofa sits on the rug, looking big,
she sits on a chair next to it.
The chair is old, the fabric worn,
and now, she's gone straight through it!

She picks it up, and throws it out,
with a strength she never knew.
Another chair is quickly found,
lucky she has quite a few.

Another chair, another side,
the sofa is moved again.
She stops, and moves it back some more,
some more, then more again!

Decides to have a cup of tea,
to think of lots of things.
Looks at the mess, and dreams of poems,
of Cabbages and Kings.

Up she gets, and washes her cup,
determined to finish the room.
She checks the paint, and sees that it's dry,
sweeps the floor with a broom.

Brings in a bookshelf, some lamps and a painting.
pillows, photographs, china and tables.
Arranges flowers and washes the floor,
straightens the curtains, and opens the door.

The afternoon over, she smiles at the end.
Her home is now different, but not a penny did she spend.....

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fancy Hanging Lights


I don't know if there is a fear of electricians out there right now, but there seems to be an increase in overhead lights that can be plugged in, instead of hard-wired to the ceiling. Of course, it is easier than wiring what you already have (and less expensive) and some homes don't even have ceiling lights to begin with (which I am still not used to, and I don't quite understand why they build them that way).
But, as much as I am all for quick and easy decorating, I wish these had been designed by real people, and not manufacturer's grabbing onto a trend, throwing it into a factory, and spitting it out at the public. 

Lighting a home isn't just about being able to see; if it was, then we would all just have cheap lightbulbs hanging everywhere, or a constant supply of flashlights in our pocket. We want it to look good, and, from a design point it should somehow enhance the room, instead of looking like some temporary solution on our to-do list. 

I love the idea of making decorating easy, but it is the execution and design of these lights that is wrong. They should come with instructions, and a lot more care, so that they really will look like the picture on the front of the box.
Let's be honest, every single one I have seen lately is hanging from a wiggly cord, looped across the ceiling, and dangling awkwardly down the wall, like a really bad Andy Warhol exhibit. 

So, in my effort to save you from the awful, fancy hanging lights, I have a few suggestions....

- Open the box before you buy it. If the cord is white, wrapped tight, and looks bent, don't bother.
- If you know an electrician who can add a chain to it, and/or a thinner/clear cord, then go for it.
- Please don't wrap the cord in fabric, but you can paint it if that makes you feel better.
- Consider where you are going to hang it, and how you will drape/hang/celebrate/disguise the cord. 
- If the photograph shows just a chain, and no cord, they are fibbing. It still needs electricity.
- Most of them do look better draped (in a designery kind of way) instead of pulled taut (like a bad facelift). 

p.s. If you have a fancy hanging light that you really do love, please send me a picture of it, and I will share it on my business Facebook page. 

Photograph was from Amazon but now it has been replaced with another chandelier.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Things in Jars

 
One of the oddest things that I love, and I don't quite understand why, is a jar (preferably with a lid). Yes, I'm inspired by art, nature, and everything else, but a jar to me is like the wardrobe that leads to Narnia; it is so ordinary, but its possibilities are infinite (and unknown). 
 
I will often buy something at the grocery store just because I covet where it lives (we don't really need the imported peaches, but the upturned sides on the small, round jar is hard to resist when the days are short and I need to grow a daffodil). 

Crazy as it sounds, jars trigger my imagination, and I don't even know why anyone would want to throw them away. Maybe if I ate a lot of jarred things I would feel differently, but for now it is a very manageable obsession, and I am always happy when I scrape out the last bit of whatever is stuck to the bottom of the glass.

To me, they are the perfect starting point to giving someone a present; the packaging is there without any effort, and all I have to do is fill them up with lots of goodies. On a practical note, it is also nice because I can put in smaller things that may get lost in a larger, more decorative bag. Somehow, a jar makes everything seem more important, and it is fun to look through the glass and see if there is anything that we didn't notice the first time.

Because I don't eat pickles (which come in really big, useful jars) I often buy new ones (jars, not pickles) at the store. Although they are meant for storing flour and dog treats, it shows that you really do like someone if you are giving them a present that is new, and not an old one that smells like something you ate with yesterday's lunch.

By the way, when I was looking for a photograph, I Googled 'things in jars", which I wouldn't recommend; my jar-filling ideas are definitely less macabre....

  • Winter Spa Jar - Lip-balm, Shea butter lotion, a bar of chocolate, and a body scrub.
  • Get Well Jar - Vitamin C drink sachet's, fuzzy socks,  tissues and a mug.
  • Happy Birthday Jar - Some of their favorite things, plus a balloon and some candles.
  • Housewarming Jar - Things from your pantry, layered like colored sand, to wish them good luck in their new home e.g. Flour - so they may never go hungry, Sugar - so life is always sweet etc. Write a label on the outside to explain what they mean. 
  • Firefly Catching Jar - A great last minute gift for a child (or grown-up) on a Summer's night.
  • Teenage Girl Jar - Fancy spa things, popcorn, diary, sleep socks and nail polish.     
  • Teenage Boy Jar - Lots and lots of snacks. 
  • New Baby Jar - Cute outfit, chocolate for the parents, and a rattle or soft toy. 
  • Gardener's Jar - Flower seeds, trowel, gloves, and plant markers.
  • Just Because Jar - Anything you think someone would like that will fit inside the jar.
p.s. Photograph of Firefly catcher, and instructions on how to make it, are from Southern Living.