29 March 2009

"Pratties and Point": A Day at the Museum

I spent a good chunk of yesterday at a local historic house/museum, taking part in a "storytelling experience" and hearth-cooking workshop. The story told was a first-person performance of the re-imagined life of Catherine Flinn, Irish servant girl at said historic house. It was really well done--our storyteller, Adrianna, is a fine actress and made the story real.

The hearth cooking was a lot of fun. Although we weren't actually let too near the hearth (safety issues--pff) I feel confident that I could now cook a full meal the old-fashioned way, should the opportunity ever arise. It was worth smelling like a campfire for the rest of the day!

A few photos and then on to the recipes:

Maggie--our hearth-cooking instructor.

The bake oven before the embers were cleared out.

Unfortunately some of the embers ended up in our potato cakes! A hazard of hearth cooking.

Ready to bake the Irish Curd Cakes.

Some of the pretty pottery in the kitchen. The wooden box on the wall directly next to Maggie (just by her shoulder) contained the salt. Back in the day salt would clump at the first sign of humidity, so keeping it near the hearth helped keep it dry.

Potato Cakes, ready to go! The ember-flecked ones were discarded but I still think they'd be okay to eat.

Some of the ingredients and equipment used (all historically accurate for the 1850s). You can see the soda bread dough in the baking dish (behind the butter, to the left). The lemons went into the curd cake. The butter went into everything.

The recipes we made were all Irish favourites. Here are a few of the ones we used:

Potato Cakes

This is the exact "recipe" we were given to work with! But they turned out great, so they really are easy to make.

From The Canadian Settler's Guide by Catharine Parr Traill, 1855

A very favourite cake with the Irish. They are simply made with potatoes boiled very soft, and kneaded with flour and a little salt, rolled thin; cut in squares, and baked quickly. The goodness of this cake depends on the making and baking: some persons use twice as much flour in making them as others. A nicer potato-cake is made by adding a little cream to moisten the potatoes and flour, making the dough stiff and rolling it thin, and working a piece of butter in as in making pastry; bake it lightly in the oven, or fry, and sift over them a little fine sugar. All potato-cakes are best eaten hot.

A few tips:

* We made ours just with potatoes, flour, and a tiny bit of salt and they turned out just fine--no cream or sugar necessary.
* Ours were fried in butter and, according to Maggie, our cooking instructor, frying makes a tastier cake than baking.
* Maggie also told us that Russet/baking potatoes should be used. Waxy/yellow potatoes just turn gluey.
* Before rolling out the dough, flour the rolling surface well!
* We rolled our dough out to about 1/4" (about 1/2 cm).
* Cook until browned on both sides.
* Everyone agreed these were perfect for experimenting with. They would be fantastic with finely chopped herbs (garlic, chives, rosemary...) added to the dough.
* These would be great served at brunch instead of homefries.

Soda Bread

From The Genesse Farmer, 1838

Put a pound and a half of good wheaten meal [whole wheat flour] into a large bowl, mix it with two teaspoonfuls of finely powdered salt, then take a large teaspoonful of super-carbonate of soda [baking soda], dissolve it in half a teacupful of cold water, and add it to the meal [flour mixture]; rub up all intimately together [use your hands or a wooden spoon to mix until blended], then pour into the bowl as much very sour buttermilk [you can use regular buttermilk] as will make the whole into soft dough (it should be as soft as could possibly be handled, and the softer the better) form it into a cake of about an inch thickness, and put it into a flat Dutch oven or frying pan, with some metallic cover, such as an oven lid or griddle, apply a moderate heat underneath for twenty minutes, then lay some clear coals upon the lid, and keep it so for half an hour longer (the under heat being allowed to fall off gradually for the last fifteen minutes) taking the cover off occasionally to see that it does not burn. [You may need to experiment to bake this on a modern stove/in the oven! I would try putting the dough in a metal dish, putting that in a Dutch oven, and placing over medium heat on the stove. Because there's no top heat, you might need to flip the bread halfway through cooking. You can also try baking it at 350F for about 40 minutes, with or without the Dutch oven. The bread is ready when it sounds hollow when tapped. Serve with unsalted butter.]


From A Taste of Ireland by Theodora FitzGibbon, 1968

1 lb of kale or cabbage
1 lb potatoes, cooked separately
2 small leeks or green onion tops
1 cup milk or cream
4 oz (1/2 cup) approx butter
a pinch of mace

Have the kale or cabbage cooked, warm and well chopped up while the potatoes are cooking. Chop up the leeks or onion tops, green as well as white, and simmer them in milk or cream to just cover, until they are soft. Drain the potatoes, season and beat them well: then add the cooked leeks and milk.

Finally blend in the kale, beating until it is a pale green fluff. Do this over a low flame and pile it into a deep warmed dish. Make a well in the centre and pour in enough melted butter to fill up the cavity. The vegetables are served with spoonfuls of the melted butter. Any leftovers can be fried in hot bacon fat until crisp and brown on both sides.

Gibson House Museum

25 March 2009

Getting Busy pt 1

Spring is here even though it doesn't entirely feel like it yet. Before we know it, days will be long and warm and the outdoors will be coming back to life. In happy anticipation of this, I've begun the seed-starting odyssey.

March's Seeds

Started indoors on peat pellets:

-Christmas Grapes
-Bush Beefsteak
(mislabelled, apparently, as they always come up as cherry tomatoes)
-Brandywine (a favourite)
-Patio hybrid
-Isis Candy
-Snow White
(another favourite--I was originally given some seeds, but since I've never seen them available commercially, I'm now saving them. Super sweet yellow cherry type)

-Holiday Cheer

Not sure how much luck I'll have with the peppers--the seeds are getting old. Next year I'll have to replenish supplies.

-Garlic Chives
-Columbine, 'Pink Tower'

Started indoors in peat pots with Miracle Gro potting soil:

-Hollyhock, Jet Black
-Hollyhock, Creme de Cassis
-Poppy (Papaver orientale), 'Fruit Punch'
(including "elusive" plum shades!)

Starting outside in pots in the next few days:

-Carrot, Nantes
-Carrot, Nutri Red
-Parsley, mix of flat- and curly-leaf
(Seeds collected from my own plants)

What seeds are you starting (or have you already started)?

20 March 2009

Got the Blues

The process of settling into this house since the move has been slow. There are still pictures that haven't been hung, a couple of boxes (hiding out in the garage) that haven't been unpacked, and--most frustrating to me--rooms that haven't been painted. It's not that they strictly need it; most of the house was freshly painted when we bought it. It's just...I'm really not a fan of neutrals. Sure, they serve a purpose and are fine in limited amounts, but they're so very dull. I can't respect a colour that refuses to take a stand. Besides, I live in a country where it's neutral (brown, white, grey) outside for five months of the year. I like a little life in my home, thanks.

The good news is we're slowly getting around to amending the paint situation. The main floor is now done (other than the foyer, but we're going to need to hire someone for that). The kitchen was already a terracotta colour, which only needed some touching up. At first I didn't love the colour but it's since grown on me. The living room/library we immediately painted red because, well, that room was just meant to be red. The last room we got around to was the dining room. Choosing the colour there was trickier. It needed to be something warm for the north-facing room, and it also needed to go well with the other colours as the dining room is visible from all the other rooms. We considered green, "spice colours," and (briefly) orange. Ultimately we went with blue because it goes well with everything in that room, it looks good with the other rooms, and we like it.

It took us a while to settle on a shade. For a long time I wanted something more subdued, darker, and with greyer undertones. Eventually I realized the SO (who's got a great colour sense for someone who wears black 99% of the time!) was right that my preference would be too dark and cold. We went with something brighter than I'd normally choose, but which is warm and looks great in the room.

We finally set aside a weekend last month and got the room painted. The only real problem we had was with the painter's tape. It stuck and tore, not only making it difficult to remove, but in some places taking the paint off the crown moulding with it (turns out the mouldings were previously painted olive green. Not attractive). Luckily we had paint on hand that matched the mouldings, so covering the green patches wasn't an issue.

I meant to take 'before' shots, as well as 'process' shots. Meant to, forgot, and then got busy. Hope the 'after' shots will do!

The metal piece behind the piano is actually our old headboard. One of the potential problems with old houses is that they were built for much smaller furniture than is common today (we didn't realize how massive contemporary furniture is until we went shopping--especially if you want anything traditional in design. Kind of ironic). Unfortunately, our bed and boxspring were about an inch too big to fit up the stairs. A moment of panic almost had me turning the living room into our bedroom, but then we decided it was time to get some new bedroom furniture anyway (fortunately boxsprings now come in two pieces for just this sort of scenario). The old bed is handmade wrought-iron--we definitely weren't about to get rid of it. So it is now in place as an "architectural" piece in the dining room (the footboard serves the same function in the pantry). Creative recycling! We were just lucky we had a place to put it.

This picture illustrates my point about neutrals being useful in limited amounts. Before we painted, we realized the print on this wall (Printemps/Spring by LaFarge; the original took my breath away when I saw it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art years ago) would disappear against the blue paint, so we decided to paint this wall beige. The colour is almost the same as the original colour of the room (unfortunately we still had to paint the wall because it was full of nail holes). If you stand in the middle of the room and look across to the living room/library, the wall directly opposite is also beige. That was the original colour in that room as well and we decided to leave it (a) as a slight break from all the red and (b) because we didn't feel like painting behind the radiator/in the window bay.

Lots of little details came together so nicely in this room. The fleur de lys bowl on the table echoes the fleur de lys finials on the bedpost/architectural piece. The leaded glass of the window matches the design on the hutch (sorry--I didn't get a great photo of the hutch). There was just enough space next to the French doors to place bookcases (they hold cookbooks and herb books) so that the doors could still fully open. The cabinet under the window is actually an antique Singer sewing machine (the machine retracts into the cabinet). My great aunt in Greece inherited the machine. She didn't have a use for it but apparently she immediately thought of me (I guess I have a reputation for liking old stuff!), and had it shipped as soon as we moved. It's a really cool piece that definitely deserves a post of its own.

This house has great doors. These ones are (we think) gumwood with leaded glass and a cut-crystal doorknob. The SO is convinced the doors aren't original because the hardware around the knob has an old-fasioned keyhole, but there's no hole behind it for a key to go into. He might be right, but all the doorknobs and hardware are identical through the house, and the doors are period-appropriate (there's also a matching single door in the next room). This is one of those times I really wish we had photos of the house from its early days. In any case, you can see a glimpse of the red walls in the living room/library.

The leaded window with a view of the hedge beyond. The stained glass window hanging in front is a reproduction of the (much larger) "Wisteria" window Louis Comfort Tiffany made for his own dining room. This one was a gift from the SO and came from a store I loved, but which has since gone under.

You can't see it too well in this photo, but the thing I think I'm proudest of about the paint job in this room is that we got behind the radiator! And without getting any on the baseboards, either. Since then I've been noticing that other rads in the house are a lot closer to the wall than the one in the dining room. How did anyone manage to paint behind them? Are they removable? I guess we'll figure that out later.

The light fixture in this room was another of those serendipitous details. When we bought the place there was just a hole in the ceiling with wiring sticking out. As soon as we had a chance we went hunting for a light. We'd decided ahead of time that we wanted a stained-glass fixture. The store had a good selection, and although I liked this one it wasn't my favourite. For once, though, I put some thought into it and decided this one would suit the room the best. As soon as we had it installed, we knew it was the right choice (even the electrician said it was perfect!) The design and colours work with the room and our furniture perfectly. That was when I finally learned to decorate for the house, not necessarily for one's own preferences. I love girly crystal chandeliers but they would look so wrong here (as would the predominantly red dragonfly design I really loved at the store). Funny enough (and something we didn't realize until we got it home) this light also matches our cats, right down to the grey-blue of their eyes. All it needs is a bit of pink to match their noses. If you can't decorate for the house, you can always decorate for your pets!

13 March 2009

Beader Madness!

Hello, my name is Aspasia and I'm a bead addict. Not that I want help; I'm having way too much fun with it!

Thanks to the aforementioned addiction, I have a fairly healthy bead stash to play with. Mostly I keep busy with other things, but every so often I get the urge to break out the beads and indulge my obsession. Here are the latest results:

I think I made 20 in total this last binge, although a couple were necklaces I made a while ago, which needed to be re-strung (I learned the hard way that flexible wire pretty much sucks. The pitter-patter of beads from a broken necklace hitting the floor is a sound I now know well).

The white (faux pearl) necklace to the left and the red one with cherry charms to the right are ones I repaired. The rest are all new.

I wish I could have got a better shot of the necklace in the middle of this photo. The transparent glass pendant with 3-D flower centre is just gorgeous. The butterfly hanging from the iridescent teardrop is another great one I couldn't quite capture (I so need a new camera). But I do like how the light shines through all the beads!

The butterfly actually proved quite the challenge. Because it's a button (not a pendant) the backing was all wrong for hanging and it wouldn't sit straight. I tried all kinds of fixes and ended up using a couple of drops of hot glue. Duct tape could learn a thing or two from hot glue.

I'm not usually a fan of large pendants, but I couldn't resist the dragonfly when I saw it at Michaels. The mermaid soon followed. My wallet's been cringing ever since I realized how conveniently located that place is.

The skull beads in this photo were freebies that came attached to the tags on clothes I bought from Inkubus. Never let a good bead go to waste! One of my favourite necklaces from this batch is the purple one with the flower pendant--so pretty. As I type this I'm wearing the necklace with the birch leaf pendant and the light blue seed beads. Something about that leaf reminded me of winter, so I tried to come up with an appropriate design. It turned out well, I think.

And now we come to the real problem with a bead addiction: storage! Here's my collection of costume necklaces, most of them made by me (and not including any of the ones in the above photos). There's nothing like reaching for a necklace and coming away with five, all of them in a crazy knot of tangles. I need to come up with a better system--any thoughts?

Note: since I just do this for myself, I buy all the components and put them together. I play around with the pieces until I'm happy with the design and generally just string the beads onto nylon string/thread. I've also made bracelets, earrings, and rings, but I prefer necklaces. A tool I've found invaluable is a bead tray like the one to the right (in fact, I think that's the exact one I have). I don't know how I ever got along without it. They don't cost much, either. My other must-have tools: wire cutters and needlenose pliers that I "borrowed" from my dad's tool box years ago :)

08 March 2009

Review: Crumbs (Bake Shop in a Box)

It's been an unusually lucky couple of weeks for me. I posted earlier about winning a book in a blog contest. Well, I won two more after that! Guess I know what I'll be reading for the next while.

Crumbs: Bake Shop in a Box was the third book I won but the first I'm going to review. When I entered the contest I didn't realize it was for a kids book; I was just excited at the prospect of getting a new book on baking! But that's okay--I'm definitely a kid at heart.

The book is actually part of a set that includes fifteen recipe cards, measuring spoons, and a sheet of decorating stencils. Very promising indeed. Unfortunately--and I hate looking a gift book in the, um, spine--it was a disappointment.

Despite the cute illustration on the box itself, the book does not involve our heroine (with the unlikely name of Lolly LaCrumb) doing any baking of any kind. Instead she spends her birthday searching for the perfect cupcake, the one she dreamed about the night before. Of course she ultimately finds it, complete with sappy moral. Annoyingly, after all the build-up there's no decent illustration of the legendary perfect cupcake! I know if I were five years old and reading this book that's what I'd want to see.

The non-book components of the set are, sadly, not much better. The measuring spoons, when tested against my own, are inaccurate. The recipes also tend to call for measurements that aren't included in the set (e.g., 1/8 tsp). Better just let your child use the Bake Shop spoons for playtime while you use a real set for the baking.

The stencils are cute, although they're all on one small sheet making it painstaking to apply them without accidentally including part of the neighbouring designs.

The recipes are what really matter, of course, and I'm afraid all I have to say about them is: meh. The cards are nicely designed--laminated (easy clean) and illustrated (although ingredients are listed on one side and directions on the other, necessitating constant flipping back and forth). Unfortunately, the recipes themselves are frequently unclear, inaccurate, and not particularly interesting. Despite being designed for kids, beginner bakers will have difficulty with them. A glossary would have been helpful: not everyone (adults included) knows what 'cutting in' or 'reducing (liquid) by half' means. I ended up trying three of the recipes:

Superstar Raspberry Bars: Not only did these turn out too sweet (even for me!) but there was a problem with the directions. They're either really poorly worded or something was missing, leaving me wondering whether I was supposed to divide the crust into two parts (upper and lower). I didn't, which could be why the crust was a little too chewy. The directions were also vague about cooking time, and didn't even mention how to tell when the bars were done.

Rise and Shine Oatmeal Cookies: This recipe was the best one I tried, but still problematic. Portions are ridiculously vague--what does "small" or "giant" mean when it comes to cookie size? You're instructed to use half an ice cream scoop of dough to form each cookie, but since when are ice cream scoops a universal size? That could be why their numbers are also way off. Instead of "18 small cookies," I ended up with 40 med-large cookies (about 3" diameter). Luckily I had room in the freezer! This recipe also calls for a mixer, a piece of equipment not everyone has and a child is unlikely to be able to use. Adult supervision may be required anyway, but why not make these recipes for kids more kid-friendly?

Ritzy Rice Pudding: Possibly the worst of the recipes I tried. Not only does it require 30 to 40 minutes of stirring as the pudding simmers, but it needs to be chilled overnight. What child would have the patience to wait for the final result? I barely have the patience (or time). Which only makes it more annoying that the pudding is so mediocre. There are faster and easier ways to make better pudding. Furthermore I'm concerned that adding raw egg yolks after the mixture has been taken off the heat is a health risk. The pudding is still hot from simmering, but is it hot enough? There's also no mention of tempering the yolks to prevent them from turning into scrambled eggs should they simply be dumped into the hot mixture as the recipe directs. And again, portions are way off: instead of four ramekins of pudding, I ended up with six bowls of it. Methinks these recipes were not tested, which--frankly--is just lazy.

(By the way, you can sort of see my attempt at using the star stencil on the pudding, as suggested on the recipe card. It didn't quite work out, hence the attempt to cover up with more cinnamon).

Bake Shop in a Box is a great idea. Unfortunately, it was poorly executed. I think you'd be better off buying a few baking tools designed for kids, and taking a few minutes to find simple recipes online or from other sources. Baking with children should be a lot more fun (and tastier) than this.

Check it out on Amazon: Crumbs: Bake Shop in a Box

02 March 2009


It's time to share the wealth of something that's in every Greek mama's cooking repertoire: tiganopsomo (fried bread). This is a handy recipe when you have extra bread dough, but it's worth making dough specifically for it. Traditionally it's made with the same dough you would use for a loaf of white bread, but any yeast dough can be used (my preference is for a half-white half-wheat dough).

Tiganopsomo (tee-gah-NO-psoh-moh)

yeast bread dough, prepared as for making bread, only, you know--not baked. (quantity to make one loaf of bread will make 2 to 3 of these fried rounds)

Divide dough into 2 to 3 balls. You don't want to use too much dough or the tiganopsomo won't cook properly in the middle. Too little dough and it'll be thin (but crispy!) Heat about 1-inch of oil (olive or vegetable) in a medium-large frying pan over med-high heat. If using only olive oil, you'll need to lower the heat and cook the tiganopsomo longer. Meanwhile, flatten and stretch dough balls into rounds that are slightly smaller than the pan (not unlike making a pizza crust). If using a very large pan, you can cook two rounds at once. Prick entire surface of dough round with a fork. This is necessary not only to help the dough cook in the middle, but to make many tasty crispy edges.

When oil is heated, gently lower dough round flat into pan. Oil should bubble up in the holes made with the fork (if it doesn't, turn heat up a little). You might need to quickly stretch dough out again (use two forks). Lift carefully to check for doneness; when round is golden-brown on the bottom, gently flip to cook other side. When round is golden-brown on both sides and no longer doughy in the middle, it's done! Cooking times will vary, but it should take about 20 to 25 minutes total. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

Serve hot (but don't burn your fingers). Tear bread into pieces and eat with your hands. Traditional accompaniments are fresh tomato slices, kalamata olives, and feta cheese--but any salty, sharp cheese will (probably) do. I've also heard that some Greek moms (and dads) sprinkle their tiganopsoma with icing sugar and serve them on their own as snacks, but I've never been willing to forgo the feta to try it (although I think a sprinkling of cinnamon-sugar while the tiganopsomo is still hot could be fairly incredible).