Authentically Artisan: A Fun New Food Collaboration

One of the highlights of the summer so far has been the start of a new collaboration with a fellow history-centric company. I’m so pleased to introduce you all to Artisan’s List, a nationwide directory geared towards the historic home improvement enthusiast or anyone interested in defining their space with handmade touches and artistic refinements.

Just a few of the talented vendors I discovered at Artisan’s List! Clockwise from top left: Natural orchard and landscape design by Janice Parker ; handmade copper cookware by House Copper & Cookware; beautiful backyard chicken coup designs by The Chicken Coop Company

As a go-to resource for niche projects, Artisans List is a dream come true for people who just want to get stuff done. If you have a vintage sofa to reupholster (me!), a backyard fruit orchard to plan, an addition to add onto your house or are trying to hunt down a blacksmith for hand-forged drawer pulls, you’ll find just the right expert to work with at Artisans List.

There, in the dynamic world of creative pursuits, you’ll discover makers of handmade pots and pans, landscape architects, historic home renovation consultants, furniture makers, blacksmiths, stone masons, roofers… basically all the people that can help turn your home project ideas into realities – from the roof line all the way down to the basement floor and everything in between.

Skilled tradesmen include examples like these (clockwise from top left) Historically accurate reproductions of architectural millwork by Architectural Components Inc.; antique and vintage stove restoration by The Antique Stove Hospital ; hand-forged decorative metal work made by traditional blacksmiths

As a resource guide made up of traditional craftsmen and skilled tradesmen AL is a beehive of interesting information, ideas and inspiration that continues to grow more dynamic each day. The whole concept of the directory was born out of the lack of an online community that catered specifically to the local home restoration marketplace state by state. So the founders of Artisans List are very intent on making the site an informative, educational, and useful tool for people all over the country. Each of the AL vendors are vetted to make sure that their business and/or skill is authentically produced and professionally handled. Most of the companies have been around for decades, and even generations which means vast portfolios, passionate voices, and trusted relationships. Exactly the kind of care and expertise you need when it comes to planning and executing a project for your treasured space.

Amidst this talented pool of professionals, you’ll also encounter an active and interesting community of do-it-yourselfers who are looking for ways to build a more thoughtful and storied lifestyle. That’s where the Vintage Kitchen comes in. Every other month, I’ll be writing a piece for the magazine portion of the Artisan List  site that features a vintage recipe and the history behind it.

The first piece came out at the end of  June and is all about picnicking. If you missed the mention of it on social media a couple of weeks ago, no worries, I’ll be re-posting the entire article here on the blog in the next few days. But before that happens, I just wanted to share the news with you and to say surprise! the Vintage Kitchen is popping up in a new place.

I think this collaboration is especially fun since we have so many old house lovers and owners (and readers!) that participate in the world of the Vintage Kitchen. It’s with you in particular that I share this information, in case you are looking for some expert help with your own home projects this year. I hope this recommendation helps! If you wind up connecting with one of the Artisan List vendors or find a particular piece of home restoration information useful, please share your story in the comments section, so we can all learn together. In the meantime, stay tuned for a bevy of Artisan food articles coming out soon!

Cheers to new friends, expert helpers, and a wonderful weekend ahead!

 

Inheriting My Dad’s Apron: A Death But Also A Joy

Hello hello.  Hope you had a wonderful 4th of July and are hours deep into a lovely holiday weekend. These past two and a half months have been officially the longest stretch of non-writing on the blog since its beginning all the way back in 2012. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you. And I’ve missed all the fun topics that we like to discuss here. I wish I could say I was off on a magical adventure, like Ms. Jeannie, traveling the world and collecting fantastic food stories to bring back home to share with you. But the truth is not as glamorous and the circumstances definitely not as joyful.

At the end of April, my dad passed away. It has been hard and sad and writing has been difficult.  I wanted to spare you all a bucketful of emotionally awkward and sentimentally teary-eyed posts that I started to write and then abandoned. All apparently a part of the grieving process which, ironically, is similar to the writing process too.

It has always been one of my goals for the Vintage Kitchen to keep things happy and interesting by featuring positive stories and positive people. We all know there’s enough heartache and negativity already shuttling around the world, who needs to add to it?! Especially when we are talking about such pleasurable topics as food and cooking and kitchens. The vintage kitchen is my joy and I’m always hoping that it is yours too.

That being said, it has taken me a couple of months to wrap my head around the loss of my dad and what that means, specifically, to my happy, healthy and still very much alive spirit. Especially when it comes to cooking and eating – two of my dad’s most favorite past-times.

All I could really muster in the writing department immediately following his death was his obituary and then two brief stories on Instagram about him here and here. Whenever it came to settling down to write a proper post about him and this whole experience here on the blog, each attempt fell apart, and the words turned into a jungle of wild declarations, rough meanderings and that dreaded word that tends to get over-sentimentalized these days … nostalgia. For two months I’ve mulled over what to say, how to say it and why it would be important. Then, just the other day, I looked at the apron and suddenly it all made sense.

When my sister and I closed up my dad’s house in early May to head back home to our lives, I took five things from his kitchen… his crock-pot, his orangey red dutch oven, two handfuls of 1960’s Air France ceramic nut dishes, an all-in-French cookbook featuring recipes from the Riviera, and his black striped apron. Like any good family heirloom passed down from one generation to another, I knew these five items would help make the memories I had of him last.

The apron was originally part of a set made by Now Designs in San Francisco in the 1980’s. It was from their Paris Bistro collection which also included a matching apron in white and grey stripe and a trio of coordinating potholders and oven mitts. Whether he bought it himself or it was gifted to him, I’m not sure, but the Paris theme matched his French airline executive career and the black cloth matched the color of his hair.

I have looked at this apron so many times throughout my life that I don’t really notice the label or even the stripes so much anymore. Whenever I look at the apron I see my dad in a bevy of situations. Standing at the grill on the back deck,  when I was 5 and he was 40. Scurrying around the kitchen readying a weekend dinner party when I was in my teens and he was in his 50’s. Shaking martinis for Christmas cocktail hour when I was in my 20’s and he was in 60’s. At each turn of thought, the apron is always there, with him, with us, an active member of the family at mealtimes for more than three decades.

Looking at it now, you’d never guess it is over 35 years old. Probably this is a testament to the quality of the fabric, and the talent of the maker, and my dad’s neat and tidy ways. But as they say, appearances can be deceiving. This apron is definitely no amateur. It has lived in a suburban family house overlooking New York’s Hudson River, in a golf course bachelor apartment overlooking the Connecticut border and in two houses in Florida both overlooking lakes where alligators may or may not  have roamed. As my dad’s go-to uniform in the kitchen and at the grill, it was instrumental in whipping up many of his favorite house specialties like apricot glazed Cornish game hens, cheddar chive biscuits, and barbecued chicken. It’s been a part of holiday parties, birthday parties, house parties and most every everyday dinner in between.  It’s been dressed with shorts, suits, tuxedos, jeans, pants and even a bathing suit or two. It’s adventured through snowstorms, rainstorms, heatwaves, hurricanes, bad food, good food, burnt food and best foods. And best of all, at one point or another it has at been worn at least once or twice by every member in my family – my mom, my sisters, my brother and me for various cooking tasks. But most often it has been worn by my dad.

When my parents divorced in the mid-1990’s, my dad really took on home cooking with gusto. He was a world traveler by that point in his life, the consummate jetsetter, living a glamorous lifestyle while visiting glamorous places. But he hadn’t really traveled around his own kitchen with that much intrepid wonder yet. Always good at outdoor grilling,  the indoor kitchen was new uncharted territory. One day he decided to change that. He read up on back issues of Gourmet magazine, bought a bunch of kitchen gadgets and got to work. What he produced, over time, were incredible meals fit for lavish occasions. His palate was vast and varied and nothing was off-limits, especially when it came to entertaining and indulging his friends and his family. When all this joie-de-vivre came about in his kitchen, I was teenager and a curious gourmet myself. We would spend weekends together, my sister, my dad and I trying out new recipes, new wines, new techniques while singing the night away to Frank Sinatra as we whisked and whipped and boiled and blanched our way through a plethora of recipes over a plethora of years.

My dad was fun to talk with about cooking because he almost always had a story to back up a food. Pigeon in Africa, pasta in Italy, lamb in New Zealand, croissants in Paris, rice in Kuala Lumpur… the adventures were endless.  Plus we traveled a lot together so we each brought our own memories to the conversation of what we tasted and how we felt. My dad understood the power of food and the emotional vibrancy it brought to an atmosphere unlike anyone else I had known. Probably because he had attended enough work dinners and cocktail parties to last three lifetimes let alone one.  Those experiences helped him craft the subtle nuances of cooking for others and added art to the act of entertaining. He knew that a pre-dinner cocktail could loosen the mood, that a dinner wine could bring out new flavors in the food and that a new style of cooking had the power to ignite curiosity and expand horizons. Once he got the hang of it all, he entertained with abandon. Almost every weekend his house was full with a party or two. And on the quiet nights, he ate just as interestingly.

When he became sick a few years ago my dad stopped cooking altogether. This transition came on slowly. A packaged Trader Joe’s food dinner here, another one there, “for convenience,” he said, when he didn’t have the energy to cook. The phone conversations between my sister, my dad and I became less about what we were all making in our kitchens and more about what he was eating in his. Week by week, it became more clear – convenience was in and cooking was out. By that point, his favorite apron became buried in a drawer beneath the oven.

In these new normal days, my sister and I would fly down every few months and prepare multiple meals for his freezer so that he could pull them out when he was hungry, defrost them and taste something homemade. We made all of his most favorites – French Onion soup, Split Pea, Chicken Cassoulet, navy beans, meatloaf, brownies, chocolate cake, cookies… whatever sounded good to him. Each time we cooked, I’d begin by opening the drawer beneath the oven and pulling out his apron. Within minutes the apron would be full of flour and food splashes, damp with water, as my sister and I dived into preparing our recipes. By the end of each of these cooking holidays, the kitchen, a war-zone of scattered pots and pans and ingredients, would get cleaned up and the apron washed and dried and returned back to the drawer. It seemed like every time my sister and I put it away, we would be surprised by how great the apron cleaned up. How it could still look so spotless and practically brand-new after days of flurried cooking and decades of use.

When his frozen foodstuffs inevitably ran out, my dad would resort to indulging his cravings with things he’d discovered at the grocery store… rice pudding, root beer, peanut butter, cheddar cheese popcorn, danishes.  Over the phone, he’d fill my sister and I in on his new store favorites including a fast-food sandwich –  Egg McMuffins from McDonald’s. All this from a guy who never ate prepared foods or fast food in his entire life, who almost never ate dessert unless it was homemade, and whom prided himself on eating a well-rounded diet. Out of fear that he was going to launch himself into some sort of sugar -induced coma, my sister and I would suggest greener alternatives like kale and granola, grass-fed beef and tuna fish to balance out his sweet tooth. But anything that involved even the lightest amount of prep work was usually taken off the grocery list. There was no way his apron was coming out of the drawer on a regular basis anymore.

This past January, at the end of another big cook-a-thon,  I installed a hook on the back of my dad’s kitchen pantry door and hung the apron there, hoping the sight of it would help inspire him to start cooking again. Unfortunately, by that time, he was hardly spending any time at all in the kitchen let alone in the pantry. When I found four beautiful vintage French wine glasses from the oldest vineyard in France for my shop, and called to tell him about it and get some stories, he said he didn’t remember anything about the company or the vineyard and quickly went on to change the subject.  I knew then that his foodie days were flickering. That the hook for the apron I recently hung, wasn’t going to be able to work any wonders.

My dad died on a Saturday morning four months later. He was in his bed, in his house the way he wanted to be. It was peaceful and calm.  My sister and I were there with him right to the very end. The next few days and weeks passed. My wonderful husband took over kitchen detail and cooked all the meals while my sister and I made arrangements and plans. I felt anxious during that time in his house, like an impostor secretly living someone else’s life. Every activity felt strange, uncomfortable and slightly ridiculous as we witnessed life carrying on in his house, among his things, without him.

I never thought that release from those feelings would ever come in the form of 44″ inches of 35 year old cotton fabric. But when my sister and I sat down to make a list of the few things we wanted to take home with us, right away, my first pick was the black striped apron. Somehow, in some weird testament to its abilities, this apron has always felt the same to wear no matter how old I was – 8 or 18 or 38. It always fit my dad well too – no matter if he was thin and trim like he was in his executive years or stooped and slightly paunched in his senior years. Everything about it just fit right and felt right, always.

I wish I could remember the last meal my dad made for himself in this apron before he decided to stop cooking altogether. It must have been sometime in 2017 or maybe early 2018, when he experienced a brief burst of energy that had him not only talking about food but actually cooking a few dishes too. Stoic and loyal, the apron gives up no clues. There are no stains or spots that might have said he made bolognese sauce or grilled shrimp or chicken pot pie or lamb chops dolloped with a fresh mint jelly. There are no holes or burn marks or ripped threads from an adventure gone wrong. The apron tells no secrets. Instead it just quietly ties together and holds onto a lifetime of one man’s food stories.

I’ll never have the chance to cook alongside my dad or for my dad anymore, but as long as his apron hangs around my kitchen, I’ll always be able to cook with him. He may not physically be here but he’s also not really gone either. That’s the joy of inheriting his apron. Somehow, when I tie the strings of black stripe around my waist and get to cooking it feels like a hug. A hug from a dad to his daughter. From one cook to another.

Funny enough, I couldn’t locate one photograph of my dad in his apron, even though I know there are several somewhere in his photo collection. So in its place, I’m including this one, where he is neither cooking nor apron-ing but instead smiling big and happy, which is even better. As I said earlier, this post took a long time to write. There is still lots more to be said about this big man who led a big life in a big way. I look forward to sharing more about him in future posts. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote by Anthony Hopkins which I think wholeheartedly sums up my new philosophy, especially after going through this experience…

Cheers to eating the delicious food, to aprons that wrap us up in memories that last and to my dad who taught me so much stuff I can hardly know where to begin.

The Recommendeds: Six Different Versions of Home Built Around Six Dreamy Settings

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. – Maya Angelou

Home. It’s a wonderful word isn’t it? Hard to define, but wonderful to say, it means so many different things to so many different people. Even the dictionary doesn’t quite know how to accurately and clearly define it. Depending on the context, home can mean anything from a shelter to a territory, an instinct to a direction, a feeling to a destination.  Such powerful concepts wrapped up in one short little word.

Recently, I’ve encountered a slew of interesting books and movies centered around the symbolic meaning of home. How the need for it is universal, like Maya Angelou said, but also how the journey to find it is completely personal and unique. The selections listed here, focus not only on the literal kind of house made of actual walls and roof-lines and windows, but also the figurative kind.  The place or the space where you feel most comfortable. For some in this list,  that home is their workspace- a place to dwell daily with a like-minded tribe of people. For others, it is a grass-is-greener dream of a city far away. For one woman in particular,  home is not a house at all, but a garden yet to be built.  For another, home is not only an actual house but also a palpable feeling – a place to connect and collect all that soothes and comforts. And for two others, home is a placeholder, a time keeper, a catalog of memories waiting to be recalled.

From the city of Paris to the beaches of the Bahamas; from the inner workings of America’s best loved museum to an artistic collection of everyday items discovered in a humble house; from a Riviera retreat to an English garden…  these are the six shining examples of people and places that tie together a universal and compelling need to identify our own environments.

Let’s look…

1. Museum – Danny Danziger (2007)

 

If you ever wanted to know all the nitty-gritty details of what’s it like to run a major museum than this is the book for you. On average, New York City’s  Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomes about 19,000 people a day through its front doors and houses over 26,000 pieces in its collection. Told in interview style,  Museum is a behind the scenes look at what it takes to keep one of the world’s most iconic landmarks up and running, day by day, from the perspective of 50 of its employees.  Covering all aspects of the building, and a wide range of jobs from maintenance to security, cafe operations to curatorships, the executive board to the gift shop sales team, it doesn’t take long to understand what a massive undertaking is required to keep America’s most favorite museum running smoothly.

Like most enterprises, the heart, soul and success of a business lies in the employees that represent it. And the Met is no different. Some people in this book lucked into their museum job having little experience, while others spent many years studying to become experts in their field. Others worked their way up from volunteer positions to eventually become part of upper level management and some were still just as happy fulfilling the same position they started decades ago. One thing they all have in common though, is their awe and appreciation of their workplace. To them, the Met serves as a refuge. A place that requires  protection and support and endless amounts of attention. But not in that needy way that eventually grinds you down. To all these workers, the museum is majestic  – an irreplaceable gift of history.

Very aware of their own pivotal role inside the bustling metropolis that is the Met, what I loved most about this book was everyone’s sense of pride in their appointed tasks. The floor buffers hold just as much respect for their workplace as the director of the Museum. The information desk clerks are just as excited to chat about art as the tour guides. The cafe waitstaff is just as devoted to their kitchen counters as the collection curators are to their galleries.  Everyone loves the Museum and wants to see it shine.  Of course there are days when not everything goes right or runs in tip-top fashion and that gets discussed too.  The highs and lows that come with real-life don’t stop at the museum doors, but for the people who work there, trivialities and minutia don’t hold a candle to the sheer magnificence of the place. Tucked in-between all these fresh voices, with their fresh perspectives are a plethora of fun facts and interesting details about how a museum really operates from the ground up.  Sure, the Met is home to priceless pieces of art, but it is also home to thousands of workers who feel like they belong there too, just as much as the art.

2. Villa America – Liza Klaussmann (2016)

villa-america-liza-klaussmann

If there is one enviable couple that gets referenced most in the circle of friends that included Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,  John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker and many other icons of Paris’ golden age in the 1920’s and 30’s, it is Sara and Gerald Murphy.

Sara and Gerald Murphy

Mostly known for their stability within this eccentric group of writers and artists, Sara and Gerald were the enigmatic muses that inspired much of their friends work, including F. Scott’s main characters in Tender Is the Night.  Fun loving, family focused and inventive, Sara and Gerald’s relationship within their marriage was stuff of legend – so loyal, so strong, so well-connected it seemed as if nothing could or would tear them apart.

Villa America

Escaping the U.S. for Paris in the early 1920’s led them eventually to the French Riviera and a house they called Villa America.  There, the Murphy’s set out to create a carefree, whimsical paradise for their friends and family to enjoy year after year.  Villa America (the book) is a fictional account of the real-life circumstances wrapped around the Murphy’s idyllic, dream-like lifestyle. Weaving together stories of illuminating dinner parties, interesting friendships, and fanciful family outings,  a darker side to the Murphy’s and their circle of friends is also revealed. One that it is fraught with tragedy and misunderstandings, muddled moods and illicit intentions. Through it all, the house sits center stage, a witness to the people and events who come and go.

What is particularly fascinating about this book is Liza Klaussmann’s interpretation of characters and conversations surrounding  Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lots of known cliches and generalizations float around these two men – that F. Scott was dashing and amusing, a drinker and a romantic, and that Ernest was gregarious, rowdy and an ultra-masculine rough and tumbler. But in Liza’s book, you experience other sides of these two as well.  F. Scott, for all his charming ways is also difficult, overly dramatic, and high-maintenance. Ernest shows up as a ball of opposites –  egotistical but also compassionate, needy but reckless, dominating yet keenly aware of other people’s fragile vulnerabilities.

The environment is lush with details. F. Scott is trying to write his way through novels, gathering source material for his characters from the real friends around him. Like all the other men, he finds himself captivated by Sara, irrepressibly drawn to her emotional maturity and warmth – both appealing characteristics that seem lacking in his own wife.  Zelda, meanwhile,  spends her days romping around the Riviera trying to sort through her own desires. Signs of unusual behavior start to manifest. But no one yet realizes that this troubling behavior has much less to do with Zelda’s natural personality and much more with the start of her slow slide into mental collapse. Likewise, Gerald also escapes into the recesses of his mind, where he begins to question and explore feelings about his own sexuality that extend far beyond his loving marriage to Sara. On the verge of break-up themselves – Ernest, with his wandering eyes and Hadley with her general sense of unease in the glittering Riviera world – are awkwardly together trying to navigate the terrain of a not very well matched marriage.  Sara, sensing the unease of all of these situations silently swirling around her, tries to protect her friends and her family in the sheltered, safe space that she is determined to create at Villa America. But for all of Sara’s best efforts in trying to keep cruelty out of the compound, emotionally difficult situations sneak their way in raising questions about the true meaning of home, family and friendship.

3. Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down – Rosecrans Baldwin (2013)

paris-i-love-you-but-youre-bringing-me-down-rosecrans-baldwin

Staying on the topic of Paris but moving ahead a century, Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down is the memoir of a burnt-out New York City ad man who moves to France for a new job while simultaneously working on a new novel. Tired of the New York City grind, Rosecrans Baldwin is ready to find his paradise in Paris. He has a mood board already mandated for his life before he arrives… the wine, the food, the beautiful architecture, the beatnik lifestyle, the art, the cafes… all those lovely picturesque elements ready for the taking. But what he didn’t count on was what life would be like in reality as an American, not only living, but also working in France.

From day one, Rosecrans is a fish out of water. He finds that daily life in Paris is very different compared to daily life in New York City. When he takes a job at a French advertising agency, he discovers that the same could be said for office culture as well. The language is a problem (too fast), social interactions with his new co-workers are a problem (do you shake hands during first meetings or kiss on both cheeks?), lunch is a problem (never at your desk), even the fundamental pattern and processes of handling ad business is vastly different.  In New York, Rosecrans was used to working long pressure-filled hours, at a fast pace, developing ideas that had to consistently ring true and be brilliant. But when Rosecrans gets to Paris and his new workplace, he discovers many unusual circumstances.  People leave the office at 5:00pm whether their work is finished or not. Many of the office staff grab a glass of wine together after work before heading home.  Gift cards to local restaurants in the neighborhood are given to each employee to ensure that they take time for lunch. They work on one campaign at a time, for one client at a time. No one ever gets fired. No one is ever expected to come in early, skip lunch or stay late. It wasn’t like New York at all. No one lived at the office and just visited their home spaces. Rosecrans found himself navigating a strange, foreign land, both literally and figuratively.

The result of all these oddities and differences yields a hilarious look at real-life in Paris.  Most books written about Americans moving to France focus around their love affair with the city and a charming newly discovered lifestyle which they are eager to adapt quickly. Rosecrans’ book is the opposite. He voluntarily chose to move to Paris. But then, once he gets there, he constantly questions that choice as he moves through his daily “French dream.” He discovers that Paris is not quite the paradise he imagined. Fundamentally uncomfortable in a lifestyle he thought he would naturally love, Rosecrans paints a funny, bizarre and gritty picture of the everyday side of the city that often gets overlooked.  In his world, it was definitely not all views of the Eiffel Tower and beret clad artists. It was not all joie de vivre and buckets of baguettes and walks along the Seine. No, this was a different side of Paris altogether.

How does it all shake out for Rosecrans in the end? Does he stay in Paris, eventually embracing all the differences? Or, does he return back home to the New York, to the city he knows and learns to love again? You’ll have to read it to find out:)

4. Island Style – India Hicks (2015)

india-hicks-island-style

Being the daughter of famous 20th century British designer David Hicks and the goddaughter of Prince Charles might yield an intimidating presence. Especially when her natural born talent of interior decorating has made her a style expert in her own right. But nothing feels more down to earth when it comes to India Hicks and her beautifully bohemian decorating book simply titled Island Style. Here, she shares stories about how, over time,  she decorated her comfortable, casual Bahamian home, with a cacophony of elements meant to inspire more than impress.

Decades ago, a whim led her to the Bahamas, a place she never imagined that she would eventually call home. One thing led to another, years passed years, and India found herself still there. In these pages, she shares the journey that led ultimately to her island house, a sanctuary of memories she shares with her long-time partner, their five children and a menagerie of animals. India intimately discusses at length the art of decorating with sentiment versus cents and the importance of letting your interiors evolve in style as you evolve in life.  If something catches your eye or calls to your heart, take it home, she advises, there will be a place for it somewhere, always.

Thoughtful decorating, India illustrates, comes from storytelling. From gathering and displaying items that are important to you. This leads to personality-filled rooms and fresh perspectives. They become meaningful, nuanced, comfortable, appealing because  the backstory was brought in, in the form of a tale you naturally wanted to tell.  That’s when the magic happens… easily… effortlessly… style and colors and shapes and patterns combine in interesting ways that begin to inspire, remind, emote and invoke a feeling of home.

Mixed in between interior images of her house and collections, she writes beautifully about what it is like to live on an island in the Bahamas, well beyond the honeymoon phase. A period that in her experience lasted about two weeks, before  practicality and reality set-in as far as setting up a real life with real kids, and real pets in a real house.

Island life isn’t for everyone. The point of this book wasn’t to seduce readers with a show-off lifestyle and a get-here-as-fast-as-you-can attitude. The point was to simply demonstrate the impact of personal touch and taste upon a space.  The world is noisy but our interiors don’t have to be. Home is no place for a set of trends established by other people, living other lives in other places. Home is you not them. It speaks for us and of us when we don’t want to speak ourselves. India’s book reminds us of that.

5. 306 Hollywood (2018)

For over 60 years, Annette Ontell lived in this cute, white house at 306 Hollywood Avenue. There, she amassed all the ordinary tidbits that was required of daily life in New Jersey throughout six decades. When she passed away, her grandchildren, brother and sister filmmakers Elan and Jonathon Bogarin felt the weight of her spirit still very much present in all the stuff she left behind. So they set out to tell her story.

Color-coded collections of Annette’s things.

Through a style of art known as knolling, they organize and catalog her collection of ordinary household objects into groupings, to better understand what these objects meant to her life and ultimately what her life meant to them. Combining home movie footage, audio interviews and dynamic cinematography, Annette comes to life before our eyes.

Annette

We get genuine insight into Annette’s passions, pursuits, and philosophies. We fall in love with her affable personality.  We understand how the story of one seemingly ordinary woman actually turns out to be quite extraordinary.  We understand how a home becomes a heart, beating with life and necessity.  A true treasure trove for any vintage lover, this documentary is a colorful, nostalgic and sentimental look at the value of everyday objects, and their purpose over time. Get a glimpse of the magic that is 306 Hollywood by watching the trailer here…

6. Dare to Be Wild (2015)

Based on the true story of Mary Reynolds, the youngest woman ever to compete in the esteemed Chelsea Flower Show, Dare to Be Wild is the cinematic story of the journey that led her from dreamer to doer. From the start of her budding career (no pun intended!) Mary’s clients and employers want her to design gardenscapes within an acceptable box of sameness. But Mary has other ideas, wild ones, that don’t confine nature or ideas into typical proven displays that can be replicated over and over again.  Mary is keen on harnessing a feeling of home and harmony in her garden designs –  a certain sense of wonder and enchantment that she has felt her whole life whenever she steps out into the natural world.

But the Chelsea Flower Show is no easy quest. Paperwork, rules, formalities and finances tie her down at every turn. Her competitors are an intimidating array of past award winners, esteemed gardeners and British royalty. For every step forward, she winds up taking two steps back. Her journey is not easy on so many fronts, you begin to wonder if her plot of ground at the Flower Show is ever going to grow into the vision inside her head. But through all the uncertainty Mary stays true to the sounds that call her home… the wind rustling in the trees, the birds bright with song, the soothing noise of tall grass sweeping against stone.

Beautifully filmed and truly inspiring from the first five minutes, Dare to be Wild is a wonderful example of how the notion of home doesn’t have to be defined by typical, sedentary structures. Home is a feeling as much as it is a place.

Hope these selections have you thinking about your definitions of home and how’d you best describe it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you wind up reading or watching any of these books or movies, let us know. We’d love to keep these discussion going throughout the year.

Cheers to the word home and to all the places we call our own!

Annie’s Wine Baked Brisket and the Multi-Cultural Collaboration That Became a St. Patrick’s Day Tradition

Cows are sacred, salt is expensive, cross the sea trading is prohibited and immigrants had to get to New York. In a nut shell, those are the four substantial situations that had to occur in order to bring brisket to your dining tables today. Happy St. Patrick’s Day dear readers!   Today’s post is all about a traditional Irish food that actually is, in reality, a multi-cultural collaboration between three countries.  While it is certain that many a crock-pot will be simmering away today in honor of the holiday, and the famous corned beef and cabbage that has become associated with it, you might be surprised to learn that the propulsion for this traditional heritage food actually has more to do with New York City than Ireland.

The Kerry cow is considered to be the oldest breed of cattle in Ireland.

It all started back in Ireland’s ancient times when cows were considered sacred animals. Valued for their milk and their strength over anything else, Irish cows were essential components to a working farm and were never considered a viable meat source. But England adored beef, particularly roasts, so much so that by the 1600’s, England couldn’t keep up with their own country’s supply and demand.  So they went to Ireland to see about some cows.

A good revenue stream for the Emerald Isle, and a can’t-live-without-it commodity for England, this cow commerce between countries was mutually beneficial for all.  That is until the Cattle Acts of the 1660’s. In an instant, thanks to the Act, the sale of live cows to England was no longer allowed.  The sudden halt in commerce left Ireland scrambling for a solution and left England grumbly with hungry bellies.  This all came about at a time when salt was also an extremely expensive ingredient in England. Ireland, on the other hand, was not only flush with cattle but also abundant with coastal salt pans. The combination of these two  riches formed a clever way for Ireland to package meat for export that skirted around the law. They created a new method of food preservation called corned beef – a salted meat product that could withstand time and travel to England without spoiling.

Coming from the brisket cut of the cow (located between the front knees and the shoulder area) this salt infused food was named corned beef because of the corn kernal-sized salt crystals used in preserving it.  Generally known as a tougher piece of meat since that area of a cow’s body gets quite a lot of exercise, early corned beef was essentially just a slab of meat that was rumored to taste more like salt than beef.

Commercial Cuts of Beef chart from the Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, 1967 edition

Because it was shelf stable, easy to prepare and came in bigger portions, corned beef became a popular staple in the diets of 18th century Englanders as well as sailors away at sea for long stretches of time. It even made its way into the diets of Early American colonists who were struggling to produce food for their new country. The only people who were not enjoying this salty slice of protein were the Irish, who, in a terrible twist of irony, couldn’t afford to buy the very product they were exporting.

Newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It would take one more century and a move to America before Irish immigrants were able to afford and enjoy the corned beef that made their home country famous. In the mid-late 1800’s, a majority of the butcher shops within the New York metropolitan area were owned and operated by Jewish immigrants.

The Lustgarten family owned a Jewish butcher shop in NYC in the late 1880’s. Photo courtesy of tenement.org

Living in close knit communities, both Irish and Jewish transplants bonded over feelings of displacement and discrimination experienced in their new world. Financial resources were a challenge for most city dwellers, but especially for these two ethnic groups in-particular, as they faced prejudices in work and social environments. Luckily, food brought them together via thrift and necessity and novelty.

Market shopping along NYC’s Mulberry Street in 1900

Upon arriving in America, Irish immigrants were delighted to discover that corned beef was much less expensive in New York then it was back home in Ireland. Likewise,  Jewish immigrants liked brisket because it was one of the least expensive cuts in the butcher shop and could feed a crowd.  Through experimentation in their New York City kitchens,  Jewish and Irish newcomers developed the low, slow cooking methods that eventually evolved brisket from a salty slab of preserved meat into a rich and flavorful meal.  Cabbage was often paired with it since it was the least expensive vegetable. Both cultures developed their own trademark dishes – slow simmered corned beef and cabbage for the Irish and smoked pastrami and sauerkraut for the Jewish community. Each specialty stemmed from the humble brisket cut.

Beef Chart from the Culinary Arts Encyclopedic Cookbook circa 1948

Today’s recipe focuses on the Jewish side of cooking, with a brisket that quickly browns in butter on the stove top before heading into the oven for a slow simmer in red wine. If you are not a fan of the saltiness of traditional corned beef, or are wary of the seasoning packet that comes in most store-bought brisket kits, this recipe is a great alternative, since you can control your own level of spices. It comes from Annie, an avid cook, and a world traveler who lived in New York for most of her life. A dear friend to my father, she’s proud of her Jewish heritage and is famous for many signature dishes including homemade horseradish (more on that in a future post).

Annie sent this recipe to my dad over email 15 years ago while she  was at sea traveling between Buenos Aires and Santiago.  The trip was rough with wild waves and cold temperatures but Annie was more than happy to take a few moments to share her way of making brisket. In our modern age, email letters aren’t quite as pretty as handwritten ones – but the sentiment is there nonetheless. My dad has hung onto her correspondence for over a decade and a half. I discovered it recently, tucked inside one of his favorite cookbooks.

Although it requires two days to make, it is very simple and involves just a few ingredients. I used grass-fed beef from the farmers market and a red wine blend called Sheep Thrills for the fun pun. Also, Annie cooks like James Beard recommends – with your intuition – so she doesn’t specify in her recipe exactly how much seasoning to use. In the directions, I share my method, but you may want to add more or less depending on your preference.

Annie’s Wine Soaked Beef Brisket

4-5lb beef brisket ( I used a 3.5 lb grass-fed beef brisket)

4 tablespoons butter (only necessary if using grass-fed beef)

6-7 onions

4 stalks celery

2 bay leaves

2 cups red wine

Onion Powder

Garlic Powder

Celery Salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the brisket from the packaging and let rest on the counter for 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you are using frozen grass-fed beef make sure that it has completely thawed in the fridge before beginning this recipe. Do not trim the fat from the brisket.

Seasonings with dots of butter on top before the flip to brown the other side.

In an ovenproof pan (preferably one that has a lid) over medium high heat, add the butter (but only if using grass-fed beef, otherwise omit the butter). Generously sprinkle each side of the meat with the onion and garlic powders and the celery salt (I did about five passes on each side with each of these seasonings). Brown the brisket, fat-side down, for 5 minutes on each side.

Roughly chop the onions and the celery and add them to the brisket pan.

Pour in the red wine and add the bay leaves. Cover and bake in oven for 2 to 3 hours or until the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees. (Note: Grass-fed beef cooks faster then grain-fed beef, so watch the temperature and time closely.  My 3.5 lb brisket came out exactly at the 2 hour mark.)

Let the brisket cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight it in the same pan that you cooked it in so that all the juices can soak back up into the meat.

The next day, remove the pan from the fridge and scoop off the top layer of fat.

Remove the onions and celery to a blender and mix until well combined. This will form a thin au jus style gravy which is delicious for dipping.

Transfer the au jus to a small saucepan and warm over medium heat. Next, thinly slice the brisket and serve cold or at room temperature alongside the au jus and/or with your favorite condiments like mustard, mayo or horseradish.

This style of brisket is perfect for French Dip style sandwiches served on crusty rolls. It also travels well for spring-time picnics and outdoor family gatherings. In Annie’s house it is a staple for many Jewish holiday celebrations.  Simple fare with a collaborative past, that’s the brisket in all its wonderful ways.

There is something lovely about Annie’s recipe that ties all the historical elements of the holiday into one tidy package. With its Irish and Jewish heritage,  its international transmittance and Annie’s New York roots, it feels like this recipe really embraces the spirit of the holiday. The parallels are endless. The recipe was written on a boat in the 2000’s featuring a food that was once eaten by sailors in the 1700’s. Annie lived in New York during the 20th century. The immigrants who helped perfect this style of cooking lived in New York in the 19th century. Annie is Jewish. The butchers who sold brisket cuts to the Irish in NYC were Jewish. Annie uses brisket to feed her family on Jewish holidays. The Irish-American community uses brisket to celebrate their national Catholic holiday.

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only for the Irish – it’s for everyone in America who hand a hand in building a country where people and food worked together to create new things and new traditions in a new land. Cheers to foods that continue to bring people together in surprising ways. And cheers to Annie for sharing her delicious brisket recipe.  Hope this St. Patrick’s Day is your most festive one yet!

The Take-Out Ladies: Welcome to July 1967 and the Brand New Mystery

Lots of notable things were happening in July of 1967. At the beginning of the month, this song by the Beatles debuted in London and then 2 weeks later in the U.S….

This woman successfully flew around the world following the same flight plan as Amelia Earhart…

Ann Pellegreno completed the 28,000 mile flight on July 7th, 1967

And this funny man was born on a sunny July day in Irvine, California…

Actor, writer and comedian Will Farrell born July 16, 1967

An ancient city dating back to 1628 BC was discovered in Greece. Race riots broke out in New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin and  a sink hole swallowed two houses in Oklahoma.

The world also said their final goodbye to Scarlett O’Hara…

Vivian Leigh November 5, 1913- July 7, 1967

and tourists took the tram for the first time up to the top of the St. Louis Arch.  Other events included a new gemstone discovered in Tanzania…

Tanzanite’s beautiful blue color can only be found in one place in the entire world – in the immediate area of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

and the famous ocean liner, the Queen Mary, was sold to the highest bidder for transformation into a luxury hotel.

On her final voyage – 1967

This was also the same month in the same year that these two ladies stopped for a bite at a take out service counter…

Photographed during a decade when lunchtime sit-ins symbolized a fight for equal rights and Americans were inspired by the impactful words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, eating out was not only a sociable activity but also a powerful statement.  These two fantastic and fascinating women posed in front of a take out service window in July 1967…

…which brings us to our mystery. If you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that we always love to explore a good vintage puzzle around here.  Whether we are trying to translate the characters on a vintage Chinese mug or figure out the author and era of an old note scrawled on White House letterhead, it is these these types of curious mysteries from history that always inspire us.

Today’s puzzle focuses on questions about this 1967 photograph, specifically the restaurant in the background. We’d like to find out the name of it, its location and the significance of the glass panel partitions between customer and employee, which was a somewhat unusual feature for takeout restaurants of the time period.

Was it part of the segregated South or just a style of architecture? Were these two women, in their pretty cat eye glasses and high-heeled shoes, simply stopping for a bite to eat or were they making a statement similar to the lunch counter sit-in crew at Woolworth’s? Are the answers in their faces as to how they were treated or were they just hungry and a tiny bit exasperated by a photographer friend insistent on capturing the moment?

These are the questions swirling around this mighty but mini photograph from fifty years ago. It was found last week  at an antique store in Nashville buried in a box full of random photographs that included a wide assortment of people, places and nationalities from around the world.  There are no notes on the back. The only true identifying mark on the front is the date stamp of July 1967.

First speculations brought to mind were that this was possibly a scene from a drive-up motor lodge (something along the lines of a Howard Johnson’s) or a  bus station depot (with the option of eating inside or outside). So we will start down those avenues first and see where our theories lead us.  As the puzzle begins to unravel clue by clue – we’ll keep you posted as to what we discover. In the meantime,  please feel free to weigh in with your theories below in the comments section too. Especially if you happen to recognize the style of building, the sign font or perhaps even the ladies themselves.

Cheers to a good mystery! And cheers  to these two ladies, for providing us with a glimpse into the world of 1960’s take out.

Gifts of Food: Generous James and His Rich Pastry Dough Recipe {circa 1965}

In 1965, when James Beard published his new cookbook, Menus for Entertaining, he had one thing in mind… generosity. Unlike his 14 cookbooks published previously, all of which taught readers how to prepare good food, this one focused on the largehearted act of cooking for other people.

A subtle change from his more tutorial-style instruction favored in earlier cookbooks, this one captured an idealized, ethereal expression of how to combine the art of being a good cook with the art of being a thoughtful host. Two concepts that, surprisingly, don’t always meet up in the race to put a good meal on the table.

There are lots of elements that can inspire one to cook. Maybe it’s a particular ingredient or a time constraint, a season or a health reason, the weather or a garden, a particular holiday or a memory, a special piece of cooking equipment or a celebratory event.  And there are lots of fundamental reasons  to prepare a meal: to satiate, to learn, to nourish, to educate, to create, to boast.  In James’ case, in this cookbook, his inspiration was people and his reason was gratitude.

“There is no greater reward than pleasing your audience,” James shares in the introduction. His cookbook was not only about preparing something delicious, it was also about spoiling his guests, about indulging the valuable time spent together, and about presenting a thoughtful, custom dining experience. Like a play or a live performance, this type of entertaining is a nuanced event. Something wrapped around food and friendship equally. To James it meant paying as much attention to what you were serving as to whom you were serving and why.

For example, if James wanted to throw a dinner party and wanted to include a certain guest whom he knew was on a diet, he would plan a light and low calorie menu for  the night, making sure that it didn’t skimp on flavor but was fully satisfying for everyone, dieters or not, without being calorie heavy.

Or if he had a friend who longed to travel to Germany but couldn’t afford the plane ticket, James would plan a whole dinner party around German foods from start to finish complete with music and wine and Bavarian-style decorations. By putting focus on this German lover’s interests, it was his thoughtful way of acknowledging, satiating and celebrating his friend’s wanderlust.

This idea of unselfishly cooking for other people in an effort to please them and care for them is a notion that really hit home these past dozen weeks while I’ve been away from the blog. I spent the time in Florida, in and and out of the hospital with my sick dad as he fought hard through infections and medical procedures, rehab and rest.  While I was there, I was overwhelmed by the love and support that people showed my family through gifts of food. From the vendor at the farmers market who tucked extra pastries into our packages, to neighbors who stocked the fridge with homemade meals, to family friends who stopped by with treats in their hands and empathy in their hearts, it was these thoughtful gestures of kindness that helped sustain and support our spirits during a daunting time. Like James suggests in his book, cooking is one of the kindest, most fundamental things that you can do for another person, so you might as well throw your heart into it and fill the effort with joy and passion.

On Friday over on Instagram, I posted a picture of this homemade pear tart which was made with the Rich Pastry Dough recipe from James’ 1965 cookbook.

This was a thank you food parcel too. A gift for my friend, Diane, who shared her vintage cookbook collection with me while she was packing up to move. Like James in 1965, and the wonderful people in Florida in 2019, I wanted to thank her for her kindness with a homemade dessert. One that could be easily kept and consumed over the weekend while she moved from one house to another.  I wanted to make something for her that could be eaten on the run for breakfast or enjoyed by slice or sliver late in the afternoon when the moving boxes might seem endless and energy levels might be in need of a boost. Either way, tarts are very accommodating in that department. They travel well in the car, can sit on the counter all day, and can be eaten, provincial style without any need for plates and forks.

This pear tart in particular, is also a good transition dessert between Winter and Spring, and the wonky weather that always seems to be sorting itself out in March as the temps fluctuate between hot and cold. Comforting cinnamon and in-season pears are nods toward Winter, while the thin buttery crust with flecks of lemon rind adds a light, fresh note for Springtime. Diane’s husband is also a collector of vintage French cookbooks, so it seemed fitting to make a classically French dessert, but with a slight James Beard twist for them. This crust includes egg yolks, lemon rind and lots of butter and the filling is a combination of Julia Child’s pear tart, James Beard’s apple tart and my sister’s homemade apricot jam. (Note: If you don’t have a jam-maker in your family, don’t worry.  Any good-quality, corn syrup-free store bought jam will work too.)

Whether you make this for yourself or as a gift for someone else in your life, I hope you enjoy every part of the process of making it and presenting it. That’s what James would have wanted and what he hoped for when creating his cookbook so many decades ago.

James Beard’s Rich Pastry Dough circa 1965

Makes 1 2 crust pie or 2 shells

2 cups unsifted flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup vegetable shortening ( I used butter)

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

2 raw egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Make a well in the center of the flour. Add sugar; butter, not too hard, not too soft, cut in small pieces; vegetable shortening cut in small pieces; lemon rind; eggs and salt. Work quickly with finger tips to make a smooth, firm pastry. Dough should form a ball and leave tabletop or bowl fairly clean. Chill dough ball in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before rolling.

Remove dough ball from fridge. Cut in half.  Roll out one half of the dough on a floured work surface.  Transfer rolled dough to tart tin and remove excess dough from  the sides. Using a fork prick the dough all over the bottom and sides. Chill unbaked tart shell in pan in the freezer for 2 hours.

After two hours, remove tart pan from freezer and place immediately in a hot 450 degree oven for 10 minutes to pre-bake. Remove from oven and let cool in pan on a wire rack while you assemble the filling.

Pear Tart Filling

4 ripe pears

1/4 lb butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon (depending on taste preference)

1 splash of white wine

2 tablespoons cane sugar + 2 more tablespoons for sprinkling

1/8 teaspoon salt

A dash of nutmeg

Juice of half a lemon

Apricot Jam

Leaving the skins on, dice two of the pears into quarter inch pieces. Add them to a small saucepan along with the butter, vanilla, cinnamon, white wine, salt, 2 tablespoons sugar  and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until most of the liquid is evaporated (forming a consistency close to thick and chunky applesauce). Remove from heat. Let cool.

While filling is cooling cut the remaining two pears in half. Then lay them cut side down on a cutting board  and carefully slice them vertically into paper-thin slices.

Spread the filling evenly into the pre-baked tart dough. Arrange the pear slices in a circular fashion on top of the filling. Squeeze lemon juice over the pear slices and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons cane sugar. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until pears and crust are lightly brown on top.

Remove from oven. Spread a thin layer of apricot jam over the entire tart and let cool to room temperature.

Last November, my husband and I traveled through Gearhart, OR where James Beard grew up, spent childhood summers and eventually after a long and hardy life,  became the final resting place for his ashes. We were hoping to see a glimpse of his life in town. Perhaps a restaurant named after him or his childhood house now a monument to visit. But there were no obvious signs. There was just a big stretch of beautiful ocean and the sound of the sea. Maybe that summed up his impact on the 20th century food scene best… a massive presence that still ripples through our modern days making us feel inspired, and impressed, soothed and comforted.

The beach between Astoria and Gearhart, OR

Cheers to James Beard, to good friends and to thoughtful food! Interested in learning more about James Beard? Discover a few of his cookbooks, including Menus for Entertaining,  in the shop here, here and here.

Sugar Spun Success: It’s the 1920’s, It’s Wilton and It’s the Winter Snowflake Cake!

Although it was invented technically in 1927, television didn’t make a widespread appearance in homes until the 1950’s. And cooking shows didn’t reach their heyday until the 1990’s. That means there was no Food Channel, no Great British Baking Show, no Martha Stewart. If you wanted expert instruction in the 1920’s on how to bake a festive looking cake for the holidays you basically had four options as far as guidance… your mom, your grandmother, your favorite cookbook or your favorite radio show…

Agnes White Tizard, the voice of Betty Crocker on Betty Crocker’s Cooking School of the Air taught listeners how to cook for 20 years. Read more about her here.

Very reliable sources for sure, those options would have definitely produced a delicious, time-tested cake that everyone enjoyed, and had been enjoying for years and years. But none of those options would have been able to show you how to make something new and innovative. For that you would have had to go to Chicago – to the Wilton School of Cake Decorating, where you’d get expert hands-on-training on how to make the most pretty and modern cake of the holiday season.

Dewey McKinley Wilton

Started in 1929 by confectionery artist Dewey McKinley Wilton,  the Wilton School first taught classes to area pastry chefs in the hotel industry. Dewey had a special relationship with these guys in particular. As a traveling pulled sugar expert, Dewey would show up in hotel kitchens around the Midwest when the pastry chefs needed an extra bit of magnificence to wow their hotel guests.

An example of pulled sugar ribbons atop a modern day cake. This is the type of work Dewey did for area hotels in the 1920’s. Photo via pinterest.

Most of these pastry chefs were wonders themselves in the cake baking department, having been trained in Europe, and were very proficient with a frosting knife and lofty buttery layers. But they weren’t quite as familiar with Dewey’s flair for pulling sugar into hardened shapes and intricate designs.

A 1920’s pastry chef with confectionery creation. Photo courtesy of snackncake.com

Quite curious, they wanted to know about techniques, about processes, about possibilities. And most importantly, all these pastry chefs wanted to know how exactly a pot of boiling melted sugar could eventually turn into a big, brilliant ribbon or a bird or a crunchy piece of abstract art. Dewey was more than happy to share what he knew, but after so many pastry chefs in so many hotels kept asking so many of the same questions over and over again, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

Instead of telling each chef, one by one, how pulled sugar was done, he realized he needed to be teaching one class geared towards many minds.  So that’s what he did. He started the Wilton School of Cake Decorating in the dining room of his house in 1929 and charged $25 a class for an expert lesson on how to pull sugar and make hard candies. The class filled up in a jiffy. Nothing excites a pastry chef more than a newfangled way to decorate a sweet treat, and in all that sugary merry making of the new School there was plenty of learning going on.  While Dewey was teaching his students, he was also learning about their classical European ways to bake, frost and assemble cakes in eye-catching ways.

An image from the early years of the Wilton School of Cake Decorating.

Soon word spread beyond the pastry chef community. The school was fun and informative and produced the most spectacular and delicious cakes the Midwest had ever experienced. People started arriving for instruction from other towns beyond Chicago, and then other states beyond Illinois. Home cooks, caterers, food economists and restaurant owners were clamoring to learn Dewey’s special way with cakes – a method he wound up calling the Wilton Way – which combined the best parts of European baking with simple easy-to-replicate American designs.

Now getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday in a few short years, The Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art still remains a bustling educational center for all baking aficionados.  Determined to create interesting and engaging art through butter and suagr, Dewey and his following generations grew the business into not only a school, but also a food product and accessories line that can be found in most grocery stores around the country today as well as on their website. They even offer online classes for those who can’t make the trip to Illinois to join the fun in person.

That’s a pretty remarkable career for any business, let alone one in the baking industry where it can be difficult to remain innovative and approachable at the same time. Thanks to Dewey’s Wilton Way  and his easily accessible method, he helped dispel the myth that cake decorating was an intimidating, complicated art meant for only a certain type of person.  Thousands of accomplished students have graduated from the Wilton program since its inception, many continuing on with successful careers in the baking industry.

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, I was introduced to the Wilton Way through this book…

a 1991 reprint of their 1979 cake decorating book. It is full of attractive cakes, some vibrant with retro charm, others timeless and elegant…

Laid out like coursework, it teaches readers progressively in master class style. Meaning that if you start at the very beginning, and work your way through each chapter, by the end of the book you’ll have amassed so much skill you’ll be able to confidently tackle the baking and decorating of a multi-tiered wedding cake festooned with  a bevy of frothy details.

This past week, I endeavored to make their Winter Snowflake Cake – a pale green pastel beauty that consisted of two layers and frosted snowflakes…

This was my first foray into cake decorating with an intentional design, multiple frostings and more than one piping project, so it was a fun adventure, but it definitely didn’t go quite as planned. The Wilton’s are fast to reassure in their book, saying that the best way to make a perfect cake is to practice, practice, practice. I fast forwarded through the beginning chapters and went straight to this cake. That being said, here’s my finished version…

You’ll notice it is missing some elements from the original cake – most noticeably the side snowflakes. I’ll explain how they went awry further down in the post. I’m also sharing the recipes, as I go along too, in case you want to take yourself to school and experiment with making your own vintage snowflake cake this winter as well.

One funny thing about this cake decorating book in particular is that it’s all about cake decorating and only cake decorating, which means that you have to gather a recipe in order to bake the actual layer cake part from another source. I used Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake recipe which turned out great because it baked flat and even on all sides – characteristics you definitely want when making a multiple layer cake.

Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake 1 

(makes two 9.5″ inch round cakes)

8 ounces unsalted butter

3 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350. Butter cake pans and dust with flour, tapping out excess flour.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, mix butter and sugar until pale (about 2-3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix again.  Add flour mixture in three batches alternating between each batch with two batches of milk. Stir until evenly combined.

Distribute batter evenly between cake pans (this is about 3 1/4 cups of batter per pan).

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool in pan on wire rack for 20 minutes. Invert cake layers and remove cake from pan. Let cool on wire rack completely then wrap each cake in wax paper and then plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you are ready to frost.

There are two types of frosting used for this cake. A pale green buttercream and a bright white royal icing. Both icing recipes are from the Wilton School and are easy to use. They both include a curious ingredient called meringue powder (made by Wilton!) which can be found in the baking section of your grocery or online.

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as meringue powder before this project,  but basically it is an egg-white substitute used in place of whipping up fresh eggs. Normally, I’m not a fan of substitute convenience products but since this was the first time I was making this cake I wanted to use the products they recommended. Next time, I’ll try to make my own meringue using fresh eggs. Now it’s onto the frosting…

Snow-white Buttercream

(makes 8 cups)

2/3 cup water

4 tablespoons meringue powder

11 1/2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 1/4 cups butter

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2-3 drops green food coloring

In a large mixing bowl, combine water and meringue powder and whip at high speed until peaks form. Add 4 cups sugar, one cup at a time, beating at low speed after each addition. Alternately, add butter and remainder of sugar. Add salt and vanilla and beat at low speed until smooth. Add food coloring one drop at a time, (a little goes a long way!) mixing thoroughly between drops until a desired shade is achieved. The color will deepen as the icing ages, so keep that in mind when adding drops.

Special note: This  recipe makes enough frosting for one two layer cake  including top, sides and  filling between layers, plus a little extra. Leftover frosting can be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for several weeks.

Next, I set to work frosting the top of the first layer and then the top and sides of the next layer…

When it was all sufficiently frosted, I cleaned the frosting knife and then gently scraped it as evenly as possibly around the sides of the cake to create a smooth texture.That same treatment was repeated on top of the cake too so that it maintained a flat and level surface. At this stage, I learned a fun little trick. A little drop of water helps to smooth icing out – so round I went once more on the sides with a wet frosting knife. Then the cake was set aside so that the icing could harden (or “crust” as Wilton described it). Next on the schedule was making the icing for the snowflakes…

Meringue Royal Icing

(makes 3 1/2 cups)

3 level tablespoons meringue powder

1 lb. confectioner’s sugar

3 1/2 oz. warm water

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Combine all ingredients in a medium sized mixing bowl. At first, mix slowly with an electric mixer then increase the speed to medium and mix for 7-10 minutes.

Things is where things got a little bit tricky. While the snowflake icing is super easy to make,  the method used to make the snowflakes is really difficult. It involved piping icing onto wax paper…

letting each snowflake dry for an hour…

re-piping each one again (aka over-piping), letting it dry for another hour…

and then carefully removing each snowflake from the wax paper and adhering them to the cake one by one. In theory, this sounds simple enough, but each snowflake was very tricky to remove without them doing this…

After many attempts and many hours, I abandoned this method of snowflake making altogether. Evidently I need more practice in this department! Instead, I just carried on and piped the large snowflake directly on top of the cake, freehand style, and left the sides bare.

Finally, this winter snowflake cake was trimmed on top and bottom with little snowballs. Wilton recommended using two-different sized pastry tubes #3 and #6 for this task, but I just used just one ziploc bag and it worked great.

And that was how this vintage snowflake cake came to be. It definitely isn’t a perfect cake compared to Wilton standards, but it was a whole lot of fun to make and has me thinking about future designs once I practice, practice, practice as Wilton often recommends.

Have you guys ever decorated cakes like this before? If you have any tips or techniques or adventure stories of your own confectionery creations, please share them in the comments section below. It will be fun to help propel the educational portion of this post, so that we can all learn together. And most definitely, if you embark on this winter snowflake baking project, please let us know how it all tuned out in your kitchen.

In the meantime, learn more about the wonderful world of Wilton and their inspiring vintage cake decorating book  here.  Several other shop items also made an appearance in this post’s photos as well… find the 1960’s era glass cake stand here, the 1920’s silver plate water pitcher here, and the vintage embroidered tea towel here.

Hope your weekend is as sweet as buttercream and as lofty as a layer cake! Cheers!