Archive for January, 2011

In Praise of Wallpaper

Friday, January 28th, 2011

The Staffordshire dogs ADORE their new background.

Wallpaper is not in fashion.
When we were readying my mother’s New Jersey house for sale, Wendy the Realtor gazed at the wallpaper with barely concealed dismay, clearly longing for subtly painted walls. She was much too nice to say anything—but the look in her eyes was unmistakable.
A November article in the Washington Post titled “How to Keep Your House from Looking Old, Neglected” was more blunt:
Wallpaper has got to go—with very few exceptions, according to Lynn Chevalier, owner of Staged Right, a McLean firm that dresses up homes for market. “I always say people should take down wallpaper unless it’s very subtle,” she said.
I disagree—and I scoff at fashion.
Some call wallpaper old fashioned. I say “old fashioned” is just another term for “classic.”
Wallpaper has many virtues.
First, it lasts far longer than a paint job. I have visited older homes where one could still see wallpaper that was put up a century ago. Some might shudder at this longevity, but I savor the connection with the past.
Wallpaper makes an immediate statement. At its best it is like art, revealing something about both its creator and its owner.
Wallpaper can define a room simply and completely. Definition is what we were looking for in the dining room in our new apartment in Virginia.
The dining room is really just a section of the living room. It does have three walls–two and a half, really–but it flows right into the living room as apartment dining rooms often do.
My task when looking for wallpaper was to find something that would make this room stand out from the rest of the apartment. I also wanted to find a pattern that would complement the China and tschotchkes we planned to place on a plate rail on the dining-room walls.
It was not an easy task.
I hadn’t purchased wallpaper in ten years. Last time I was looking for it, I encountered many choices. My mother’s New Jersey home had an excellent paint and wallpaper shop nearby, and we had a good-sized wallpaper outlet not far from my home in western Massachusetts.
This time around finding wallpaper was quite different. Having sold the house in New Jersey, we couldn’t go to the wallpaper store there. And the outlet in Massachusetts no longer existed, I discovered.
I called its parent company, which now sells only fabric. “Nobody buys wallpaper anymore,” the operator informed me.
I guess I’m nobody.
I asked around Alexandria, Virginia, thinking historic Old Town would surely have a wallpaper store. It didn’t. A couple of local paint stores offered a meager selection of wallpaper books.
Next, I tried the internet.
Buying wallpaper over the internet is disconcerting because one really isn’t sure what the patterns will look like without seeing samples. I ordered sample after sample from a variety of companies without much satisfaction.
Luckily for me, my friend Peter came to the rescue as he often does.
The king of internet window shopping, Peter follows many design-oriented web sites. It helps that he is an architect.
He is not a wallpaper person himself, but he knows my taste.
He sent me a link to J.R. Burrows & Company, a firm in Rockland, Massachusetts, that manufactures historical rugs, wallpapers, and lace curtains. 

Here is the first Burrows image Peter showed me:

He knew it wasn’t exactly what I needed for the dining room—but he had a feeling I would fall in love with it. I did.
I called the Burrows Company to request samples and was lucky enough to talk to John Burrows himself.
He was enormously helpful, asking what sort of room I was hoping to paper. (By the time I looked at his prices I knew it would probably be only one room!)
John has studied architectural history and design as well as historic preservation. His firm specializes in recreating designs from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
It was John who suggested I consider his honeybee wallpaper, which I had somehow overlooked while perusing his web site (perhaps because it was really, really expensive). “I’ll pop a sample into your package,” he said.
When it arrived, the honeybee paper took my breath away. It was not at all what I had pictured using, and yet it was just right.
I learned from John’s web site that it had been designed by Candace Wheeler (1827-1923), the “Mother of American Interior Design,” in 1881. It won its creator $1000 in a competition for an artistic American wallpaper.
John informed me that he had spent five days on a ladder tracing the wallpaper from the walls of a library in Ionia, Michigan. As I mentioned earlier, wallpaper can last a LONG time. 

He recently installed honeybee wallpaper in the aesthetic movement gallery in the new Art of the Americas wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Courtesy of John Burrows

Being a fundamentally cheap person, I contemplated the cost of the wallpaper for quite a while. The honeybee wallpaper was, frankly, five times the price of the next contender, a Waverly print available online from a discount supplier.
It was far more than five times as beautiful, however, and I understood why it was so expensive: historical research; limited, quality print runs; and personal service. (I couldn’t imagine Mr. Waverly–if there was a Mr. Waverly–helping me choose my wallpaper.)   
I called John’s associate Christine to order it.
Even then, getting my wallpaper wasn’t easy! Christine informed me that she didn’t have enough of the classic honeybee wallpaper in stock for me. The next printing was due in about a month.
Unfortunately, my wallpaper hanger was due in a couple of weeks.
Christine and John asked whether I would be interested in the silver version of the pattern. The original was printed on a cream background. The silver substituted a silver/green background; John calls the green “sage.” 

I said I’d need to see it. They sent an image of the wallpaper.

I said I wasn’t sure how it would look with blue-and-white plates—and bless their hearts, John and Christine posed a few blue-and-white plates next to the paper and sent me photos.
To clinch the deal, John informed me that according to Victorian color design blue was exactly the right hue to go next to the sage green; he called it an “analogous” color.
Who was I to argue with Victorian color design? I placed the order.
To say we are pleased is a massive understatement. Our wallpaper installer, Cindy (F.B.I agent by day, paper hanger by night—or rather on the weekends), did a splendid job, and the gold in the wallpaper glows every afternoon when the western light falls upon it.
The photos here don’t do it justice because I can’t get the light quite right, but I hope they give some idea of how lovely this paper is.
To cap off my pleasure, John sent me a photo of the honeybee wallpaper used as a frieze on a wall of the first lady’s dressing room at the White House.
He informed me that Chester A. Arthur hired Candace Wheeler and her business partner, Louis Comfort Tiffany, to decorate the White House in 1881. 

The photo below, courtesy of John Burrows, dates from the late 1880s.

According to John, the first lady’s dressing room is completely different now, containing various rooms including a small family kitchen and elevator. Still, I think Michelle Obama ought to consider reinstating this lovely wallpaper somewhere in her current home.
Meanwhile, I’m never moving out of this apartment. Or if I do, I’m ripping out the dining-room walls and taking them with me.
In case readers were wondering, I DO have a recipe to accompany my defense of wallpaper. John Burrows graciously gave me permission to print the formula for his scones here.
He learned to make them when he was 16. He spent a summer working with Pelham Puppets in Marlborough, Wiltshire (in southwestern England). His landlady’s daughter worked at the local bakery and obtained the recipe.
John likes to prepare his scones in large quantities for events such as a cream tea he has hosted at Vintage Dance Week in Newport, Rhode Island.
I’m not sure I’d want to make 50 dozen of them as he has once or twice—in fact, I cut his recipe for 16 scones in half since I wasn’t serving a large crowd—but they are lovely and flaky. I particularly liked the cheddar version, something I had never tried before. 

John suggests serving his sweet scones in the afternoon with Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Gold tea, along with lots and lots of whipped cream and strawberry jam. They’re actually pretty tasty at any time of day.

if you are making sweet scones:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (a.k.a. baking soda)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold sweet butter
3 tablespoons sugar (John says “1/8 cup plus”)
3/8 cup raisins (John says “1/4 cup plus; the original recipe called for sultanas, and he tends to use golden raisins; I couldn’t find raisins in my pantry and it was snowing so I substituted dried cranberries)
3/4 cup buttermilk
if you are making savory scones:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (a.k.a. baking soda)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold sweet butter
1/4 pound sharp cheddar cheese
3/4 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees for the sweet scones; 400 degrees for the savory. Line a jelly-roll pan with a silicone mat.
In a medium bowl whisk together the dry ingredients. Using your fingers, quickly rub in the butter until it is fairly well distributed. Stir in the sugar and raisins (for the sweet scones) or the grated cheese (for the savory), followed by the buttermilk.
Roll or pat the scones onto a lightly floured board. The sweet-scone dough should be about 1/2 inch thick; the savory, about 3/4 inch.
Cut the sweet scones into rounds with a fluted cutter. (I didn’t have one so I used heart-shaped cookie cutters.) Cut the savory scones into triangles.
Bake the sweet scones for 10 to 15 minutes; the savory, for 15 to 20 minutes. 

John usually makes 8 scones with this recipe; I cut them a little smaller and came up with 12. He adds that tiny cheddar triangles make a lovely appetizer.

As you can see, we're still unpacking--and we haven't put up any pictures yet--but this room is going to be fabulous when we finish putting away the mess!


If you’re curious about another room in our apartment, visit today’s post on this blog’s sister, Pulling Taffy.

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Inspired by Marilyn Onion Tart

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Marilyn Ferdinand co-authors the blog Ferdy on Films.
She writes about film with wit and insight. She also knows a lot about food, particularly vegetarian food.
Marilyn recently wrote on Facebook that she was in the kitchen preparing an Alsatian onion tart. The combination of onions and pie crust sounded so perfect for winter that I HAD to ask for the recipe.
Alas, her recipe was from a book—so I had to mess with it a bit in order to be able to publish it as my own. I added a little of this, altered a little of that, and ended up with a hearty tart that my family enjoyed very much. Add a salad, and you’ve got supper.
If you’re interested in seeing and/or making the bars we served for dessert, visit this blog’s sister enterprise, Pulling Taffy.
The Tart
for the pastry:
1-1/4 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold sweet butter
cold water as needed
for the tart:
4 tablespoons sweet butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/2 pounds sweet onions (about 4 medium onions), thinly sliced; you may use regular onions if you like, but the sweet are a little gentler on the palate
1/2 pound Swiss cheese, grated
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
herbs to taste (I used 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme; next time I might try a little Creole seasoning for a little kick)
3 eggs
4 tablespoons half and half
You may use any crust you like, of course; this one is adapted from Marilyn Ferdinand. (She’s obviously better at crusts than I am since she manages with less butter!)
If you want to try this one, here is how you prepare the pastry. In a medium bowl combine the flour and salt. Cut in the butter. Add cold water, a little at a time, until the mixture can be formed into a ragged ball. Wrap the ball in waxed paper, and refrigerate it for 1 hour.

Half an hour into the refrigeration, start working on the onions. In a sturdy Dutch oven over medium-high heat combine the butter and oil. When they are bubbly, stir in the onions. Stir to coat them and keep on them on high heat for a couple of minutes.
Turn the heat down to medium and cook the onions, stirring frequently, until they are a lovely golden color, about 30 minutes. Remove them from the heat.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Roll out the pastry and place it in a 9-inch pie plate. Sprinkle the cheese on the bottom of the crust.
Stir the flour, mustard, and seasonings into the onions. In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs and the half and half. Stir that mixture into the onion mixture, and pour the whole thing into the pie shell. 

Bake until the tart is set and slightly brown, about 30 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

Rustic Apple Tart

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Last night my family celebrated Epiphany a little early with a simple but hearty supper of soup, bread, and apple tart, followed by a vigorous game of Clue.
I’ve written before about my love of Epiphany. The quiet final day of Christmas, it celebrates light, hope, and winter magic.
You could make much fancier desserts than this one for Epiphany. Last year I shared TWO recipes for Galette des Rois, one for chefs and one for klutzes—and the previous year I posted a gaudy Mardi Gras version of King Cake.
This scaled down version of a galette is delicious and ever so easy. A rustic tart, in case you hadn’t guessed, is one that looks really, really homemade—my personal specialty. This recipe is adapted from Mark Bittman, the king of simple and sweet.
If you want the recipe for the soup we served with the tart, please consider buying my book about my mother, Pulling Taffy. Happy Epiphany!
Tarte aux Pommes Rustique
1-1/4 cups flour
4 tablespoons sugar, plus 2 tablespoons later
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold sweet butter, plus a bit for dotting later
1 egg yolk
ice water as needed
3 apples, cut into rough slices
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons peach jam (optional)
In a cold bowl combine the flour, 4 tablespoons sugar, and salt. Carefully cut in the butter, making sure not to mix it in too finely.
Whisk together the egg yolk and 3 tablespoons of the water. Use a fork to stir them into the butter mixture. Add a little more cold water as needed to make the dough capable of forming into a ball (but barely).
Wrap the ball of dough in wax paper and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour.
At the end of the hour, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pat the dough into a circle about 10 inches in diameter (the rougher looking the better; remember; we’re being “rustique” here) on a nonstick cookie pan with edges that come up at the sides (so nothing can spill into your oven).
Toss the apple pieces into the cinnamon and remaining sugar. Arrange the tossed apple pieces on your crust. If desired, heat the jam and drizzle it over the apples Dot with butter.
Bake until the crust browns nicely (it’s best a little crispy), about 20 to 30 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

Farewell, little tree!


New Year’s Changes

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Greetings, readers, and happy 2011!
As usual at this time of year I’ve been thinking about what lies behind me and ahead of me—in general and also on this blog.
I have adored our time together “In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens,” and I don’t want to end it.
I do intend to curtail it a bit. Here’s why.
My hope when I started writing here in September 2008 was that I would grow as a writer and a cook by having a regular outlet.
I also hoped to strengthen my “brand”—the recognition and readership of Tinky—so that when it was time to transform the blog into my second cookbook I would have a ready-made audience for that book (and thus a great argument to any publisher that I should be included in its lists).
I got halfway there. I think I’ve DEFINITELY improved as a writer and a cook. Nevertheless, my career hasn’t prospered as much as I hoped it would.
I have a small but loyal readership, for which I am grateful. But my blog’s statistics actually went down this year instead of growing. So clearly I’m doing something wrong.
Part of my problem, I’m sure, stems from timing. I first started writing about food more than 15 years ago because it was one of the few areas of journalism in which there seemed to be a growing demand for writers. Most newspapers had weekly food pages, and they didn’t seem to have the staff to fill those pages.
Since I loved cooking and knew that I could relate food to just about any topic, I was happy to move into this niche.
Things have changed, however. Today, the U.S. has more food writers than ever before. And it has a ton of food bloggers. So my blog and I simply don’t stand out.
I will keep posting here from time to time in the hope that I can figure out how to turn around my fate and that of “In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens.”
Much of my creative energy will be devoted to a new project, however. As regular readers know, I have been busy lately trying to keep up with my aging mother.
My new writing project will explore our journey together as her dementia progresses.
I plan to put vignettes from our life and from this new writing project on the internet on a blog called “Pulling Taffy” (Taffy is one of my names for my mother, thanks to her affection for swimming in salt water.)
So please do keep up with me here and there as we try to be true to ourselves and each other.
Meanwhile, happy New Year to all….

P.S. You DO deserve a recipe on January 1–but since I don’t have a new one here’s something appropriate from this past year: black-eyed peas, a traditional (and hearty) new year’s dish! Enjoy……..