Sometimes, I bake cakes

Once upon a time, I had my deposit in to the French Culinary Institute’s baking program. I was unhappy in my job, as befits a person a few years out of college, and I thought maybe I should do something more creative. If I could have graduated and gone straight to the start-an-adorable-bakery part, I probably would have gone. Instead, I got a great new job, and continued baking on the side. I did a few wedding cakes, including my own, but these days I usually just break it out for special occasions. Especially now that I’m not working and would love to helm my own creative business, I sometimes think about making a push for doing it more professionally. But there are two reasons why I probably never will: 1. It’s against the law in New York State to make custom cakes out of your home. Plenty of people do it, but I am a rules person and it seems very silly to build a business just flouting things like that. 2. The stress! Transporting wedding cakes is the most awful thing ever in the world. I mean, I used to get super stressed when the City of New York was sending out tens of thousands of admissions letters with my name on them, but wedding cake transportation is worse. If something goes wrong it is a disaster with no time to rally and recover. Ugh!

Besides, if I had to do it all the time, on deadline, it would be far less fun.

In the meantime, I mostly enjoy doing fun birthday cakes for my daughter…

Elsa, for her 4th:

The Isle of Te Fiti, from Moana, for her 5th:

Eschewing Disney and going for the polar bear theme for her 6th, which was held on a 6 degree day!

And I have a friend who has me do cakes for her three boys!

I’m adamantly opposed to fondant, except for in very small doses for decorating. Why would you ever want to eat that stuff when buttercream exists? I’ll never understand it…

Basement Office Makeover

I’m currently feeling totally bogged down in my attic makeover, which is of course taking much longer than planned. My uncle has a formula–however long you think a project will take to complete, double the number and increase the unit by one. So if I thought this project would take 4 days, it will actually take 8 weeks. Now, I don’t think it’s going to stretch that long, but we are definitely already in weeks territory, and it is demoralizing. I like instant gratification, and usually I can paint a room in a day, no problem. The attic has tricky corners, and wood paneling that I’m using semi-gloss on instead of the eggshell on the drywall… And smoothing the two end walls to prep for wallpaper is a beast. Luckily at least the attic is the attic and I can live with the mess hidden away up there and allow myself a little time to get it done right.

So let’s look at a successful past makeover. This one I did a year ago when Barry was out of town for the week. It’s his basement office/music room. I married a lovely man, but he is not neat.

Before:

Lots to do here. First, clean it out. Second, paint everything. Third, build and install window casings. I also had to patch a ceiling hole above the washing machine and remount the light. The window casings required a mitre saw, so I got one. The tricky part was that I left my wallet in the car that Barry took to the airport, so I cashed in some old savings bonds and paid cash at Sears for my new toy!

During:

And after! (I am not great at these pano shots, but it’s a small room and hard to get it all otherwise!)

We’ve since gotten some Ikea rugs to cover the cement floor, and he’s rearranged everything, but it’s so much nicer than it used to be! And it kicked off my power saw obsession. In 2017, I got a mitre saw, a jigsaw and a table saw. I think that might do me for a while…

Now I need to figure out how to fix my Dremel Multi Max sander so I can finish the damn attic project! Sanding large expanses of wall by hand is terrible.

It’s the Return of the Garden

My fingers are itching to get dirty out there. Pretty soon it’ll be time to prune and clean up, but I’m focused on the fun part. It’s time to place orders for spring planting. Last year, I converted what we had affectionately termed the jungle in the back of our yard into a gravel patio, with surrounding pollinator and cutting garden. There was so much rock in the center of the ground, it rather limited our options, but I am so pleased with how it turned out.

The first day we saw the house, almost two years ago:

Clearing and leveling the jungle:

Almost there… and enjoying the new patio!

Now I need more plants! I am not tearing out all my lovely hydrangeas, peonies and knockout roses, but I’m trying to ensure nearly all new additions to the gardens are native. Natives are so good for the environment, and I’m hoping to attract all kinds of wildlife to our little plot in the suburbs. I have some ironweed, coneflowers, rudbeckia, anemones and sedum. I am looking to add:

  • Rose Milkweed
  • Butterfly Weed
  • Blue Wild Indigo
  • Foxglove Beardtongue
  • Button Blazing Star
  • Purple Giant Hyssop

I’m ordering from Prairie Moon Nursery, which has an enormous selection of natives, that you can get as seed, bareroot or potted plants.

I may also get some at the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College, where I am a member.

In the meantime, visiting the forsythia regularly to look for buds. Come on, spring!

Valentine’s Day Baking

I love to bake pretty things. Many times I’ve considered going pro, and once I even had a deposit down to start at the French Culinary Institute, but in the end I worry that making it a job will make it feel like work. So I’m happy to continue playing and growing in the kitchen on my own time, and subjecting friends and family to my mostly successful efforts. This year, I saw that our community was gathering baked goods to deliver to seniors for Valentine’s Day. How could I refuse? I know gingerbread is a little Christmassy, but I’m not ready to relinquish this recipe each year until it’s really warm out. It’s called peppakorka, and the recipe comes from my Swedish grandmother. They are crunchy and spicy and comforting, and you can decorate however you’d like. I am currently bogged down in the middle of a lengthy house project (more on that soon) so I knew I didn’t want to go all out. I’ve made peppakorka stars and brushed them with gold luster dust to fabulous effect, so I went that route here, and tried the red as well.

Peppakorka

  • 1/2 c. butter
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 6 Tbsp dark molasses
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1/2 Tbsp vinegar
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 3 c. flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger

Bring butter, sugar, molasses, maple syrup and vinegar to boiling. Cool and add egg. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix well. Chill several hours or overnight. Roll out on lightly floured surface and cut out with cookie cutters. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake on greased cookie sheet at 375 for 7-8 minutes.

If I am going to decorate the cookies, I skip the sugar. I also have found that with my current oven, I do better at 350–not sure if it runs hot or if that just gives me a slightly bigger window to get them to the exact level of doneness I like. They should have just the barest tinge of darker brown on the edges. Any more and they are burnt, but I like to make sure they are slightly well done and will cool to crunchy deliciousness.

Even though we had some cookies left over, I of course had to also make individual two-layer heart-shaped red velvet cakes…

 

Gearing up for Spring

I’ve managed a few walks lately, but I just can’t wait until the weather turns and I can really get out there. I’m looking ahead to some citizen science projects and gardening for wildlife. In just a few weeks, it will be amphibian migration season for those species that come out in the early spring rains to breed in vernal pools. I signed up with the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation to basically be a crossing guard for salamanders and frogs. I’m also getting trained by FrogWatch USA to recognize different frog calls and report on local populations. I always loved these creatures when I was little, and a salamander hike we took last year at the fabulous Skytop Lodge in the Poconos really brought back that childhood joy. I’m lucky enough to have the time and flexibility to devote right now, and I’m eager to see how this is going to go. I haven’t gotten much information yet, and last year they didn’t have anyone in Westchester County working on the migration project, so it’s a lot of unknowns. Depending on the weather, we could possibly start seeing some movement by the end of the month.

Clockwise from top left: northern red salamander, mountain dusky salamander, marbled salamander, northern slimy salamander. We found all of these at Skytop. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment I spotted that enormous red guy. I was so geeked out. I’d never seen any of these species in the wild before. That day we saw over 100 amphibians, mostly red efts and American toads.

Even before my life-changing salamander hunt, I had built a tiny frog pond in the yard so we can have some amphibian friends right nearby.

Breaking ground; visiting the pond; a garter snake and a green frog coexist.

When we visit my parents in Connecticut, we spend much of the day traipsing back and forth between the frog ponds there, so I felt like we really needed one of our own. They have a small natural, spring-fed pond that my dad has helped along so it doesn’t dry out in the summer, and recently, he converted their swimming pool to a natural pool. If you wonder where I get it from, this should explain a lot!

Bathroom Mini-makeover

I live for house makeovers. I dream of being a flipper myself someday, but in the meantime, I am decorating every square inch of our house. My husband Barry travels for work a lot, and if he’s gone for 4 or 5 days, I like to surprise him with a little transformation. Also it’s just easier to manage the chaos if it’s just me and the kid, who is at school most of the day now.

Barry went on a long trip to San Francisco recently, and when he came back, our upstairs bathroom had gotten a facelift. I really want to replace the vanity and redo the tile floor, but I’ve learned the hard way that I need to slow my roll sometimes. Painting (walls, trim radiator, closet interior), moving some art around, hanging a planter and replacing the shower curtain was the perfect little project for the week.

Before

It wasn’t horrible, but it was pretty blah. I needed to work with that pinkish granite vanity top (for now) so I decided to go with a sophisticated pink on the walls. The toughest part was actually choosing the shower curtain. I had initially bought a Kate Spade one at HomeGoods that was greige with white polka dots. Very cute, but it ended up feeling too grey. The tub is off white, the trim, vanity and medicine cabinet are white, the tiles are tannish… It was too many colors too close together and it did not work. I almost bought a linen one on clearance at Target but realized I might run into the same issue. I think the reason I ultimately decided to go with the black and white polka dot is because I have had a crush on this bathroom for many years:

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo from Lonny)

 

After

I adore the end result. And so does Barry. I feel like I had lost sight of how meh the bathroom was and now it has a great personality!

Tada!

I also worked on the tiny little closet behind the door.

Before & After

A Chili Contest, and the Other Gentian

I’m going to be 40 this year, and while I’ve heard of them, I have never met another Gentian. Until this week.

It all started on Monday afternoon. I got an email from a neighbor of mine, who happens to be the coordinator for the Chili Tasting fundraiser for the Chamber of Commerce. “Dear chefs,” it opened. I had seen the signs around town and wondered to myself how I might sign up to compete in this little event, but I had no recollection of actually doing so! The email gave me all the info I needed and asked everyone to confirm their participation. I waffled about whether to confess that I didn’t remember signing up, but I really wasn’t 100% sure I hadn’t, so I decided that rather than come off a little flaky, I would just confirm and start making plans to make chili.

My husband and I chuckled about it for a few days, and looked forward to an evening out with lots of chili, and free beer, and the lovely time we seem to have whenever we get out with our neighbors here in Katonah. On Thursday, the day of the event, I saw a list posted online of all the competitors. Now, the last name on the list was Gentian, but the last name was not mine. The chili had been named “Ridge Chili,” and my neighbor and I live on Ridge Street, so I assumed she’d given it that name since I hadn’t provided one. I was getting really confused, so I picked up the phone and called my neighbor. She was sure she had gotten an email from me, and she thought maybe the other name was my maiden name? Nope, I never changed my name, or emailed her. But the last name was also that of a chef at a local restaurant, so maybe it was somehow connected to him? We went around in circles a bit and had a good laugh about it, but I was still in for the evening’s fun. It turns out that Gentian is the first name of that chef, but he goes by John because it’s easier. There was an Illyrian king named Gentius many moons ago, and I know it’s used as a man’s name in that region of the world, so once we realized there really was another Gentian, it made sense. (I am named after the fabulous fringed gentian myself.) I met him that night. He didn’t seem nearly as blown away, I guess because he’s known others where he’s from, in Albania. I could not get over the fact that there was another Gentian who at least worked if not lived in this tiny town and we made up 2 of the 18 chili contestants! It’s also so funny to me that when I got the email mistakenly I just went with it. Most people probably would have responded to indicate there’d been some kind of mixup. My neighbor still thinks we talked about this and that’s part of how it happened, and it’s 100% possible. Because a chili cook-off is totally my jam.

And in the end, I came in a close 4th. They only announce the top 3, but because we stayed til the bitter end trying to finish the beer with a few fun people, I got the info. I feel like since I was the new kid, back in the corner, and I didn’t know many people, I’m not sure everyone even tried mine. Next year, the podium! At least I beat that other Gentian, and all the other restaurants that entered. The winner truly deserved it–they hunted and prepared their own venison and rabbit meat, and it was delicious! Also, they own an auto body in town and apparently it’s worth it to wreck your car so you can get them to fix it, and then they will invite you to their amazing Christmas party. We have 10 months to do this; I’m sure we can manage it!

Making excellent chili is not hard at all. I definitely riff on the recipe below depending on what I have on hand, how I’m feeling, and how it tastes. A tablespoon or so of unsweetened cocoa powder at the end gives it depth and smokiness if you feel it needs it.

Gentian’s Ridge Chili Recipe

Makes enough for 12-15 servings, depending how you eat it. In our house we love it over Annie’s Mac & Cheese, but it’s also great with just a big dollop of sour cream on top.

  • 3 cans black beans
  • 2 cans red kidney beans
  • 1 large can tomato puree
  • 1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes with green chiles (I like Glen Muir)
  • half a red onion
  • Fresh tomatoes (optional)
  • 2 lbs. ground chuck (80%-90% lean)
  • 1 lb. Italian sausage (hot or sweet depending on your preference)
  • 3 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)
  1. Brown the ground beef in a frying pan over medium high heat.
  2. Once the meat is evenly browned, add spices.
  3. Add about 1/2 cup water (unless your meat has a high fat content and is sitting in liquid already), stir and allow water to mostly cook off. Add to crockpot.
  4. Cook sausages over medium high heat. Once the outside is somewhat evenly cooked, remove from pan one by one and cut up into small pieces and return to pan. When cooked through, add to crockpot.
  5. Add all canned ingredients to crockpot.
  6. Use a food processor (or mince yourself) to cut up the onion. I usually add a half pint of fresh grape tomatoes if I have them on hand or need to use up some that are getting less fresh. Add to crockpot.
  7. Add cocoa powder and/or additional spices to taste. More chili powder, some crushed red pepper flakes, etc.–you can get creative here but you shouldn’t need to in order for it to deliver.
  8. Allow crockpot to cook on high for 4-6 hours or low for 8-10. We cheat on this all the time, which is fine. The texture of the beans changes with cooking, and the flavors gel better over time, but if you’ve cooked the meat there’s no reason you can’t just dig in when you are hungry!