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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Russia On My Mind

One of the unfortunate things about paying attention to international (or domestic) politics is how easily the personalities and the negative impressions of foreign governments can easily overwhelm what's truly interesting to me - the people and the cultures. When one is presented with negative news on a daily basis, it can be difficult to remember that a nation's leadership is often in stark contrast to the people they purport to govern.

Take, for example, Russia. Russia is far more than Putin and interference in the elections of its adversaries. Of course I know this on an intellectual level, but it's nice to remind myself of it from time to time.

Just yesterday, I was thinking back to the summers I spent at my aunt and uncle's house. When I think of it now, so much about it reminds me of what I'd imagine Carl Larsson's house to be like, or a wonderful Russian dacha. Perhaps that's because this is where I was first introduced to Carl Larsson or the idea of a Russian dacha!

The house was always filled with good books, music, art and creativity. People were always doing something interesting - gardening, painting, practicing and instrument, playing Super Mario Bros. (I said it was LIKE a Russian dacha, but my cousins and I were still American kids!). In fall and winter, their couldn't be anywhere cozier. In spring it was lovely, too. But, in summer? It was heavenly.

It was in the garden that my interest in Russia really began. As with so many things that I love, it has a royal connection. I remember reading, for the first time, Robert K. Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra". Somehow, reading it in that setting made it seem more alive, more real. Likewise, I read other books on the Romanovs there, notably the biography of the last Tsar's sister, Grand Duchess Olga.

Inside the house were books about Russia and the Soviet Union and I'd look at them over and over. It wasn't just Tsarist Russia that captured my imagination, but also the Soviet Union.  And, it wasn’t the homes of the Romanovs that I found interesting, but those of everyday people.  Houses in the country – many with very rustic, bare wooden walls – always seemed particularly inviting, furnished with interesting and often beautiful furniture, bright tapestries and cloths and filled with flowers.

For some reason, I particularly remember the description of a party held by a professor that was in the Time-Life “Foods of the World” series (books that I love as much now as I did when I discovered them at the age of about 11).  The apartment was tiny and in a building where kitchens and, I suspect, bathrooms were shared. The party was nothing by our standards here and now, but it had deliciously simple food carefully prepared by the hostess, people playing music and singing and what appeared to be deeply interesting discussions.  There seemed to be a lot of vodka, too, but that is beside the point.  The lessons that I took from all of this was that hospitality, fun and warmth could be created under all sorts of conditions; that simple food is often the best food; and that when you bring together interesting people in a welcoming environment, magic can be made.

I also recall the sets from "Dr. Zhivago", particularly Lara's house.  Despite the simplicity of the materials used to build it and to furnish it, it was richly decorated with carved wood, lovely linens covered the tables and the windows and there was a general feeling of warmth and security, quite in opposition to the reality outside the door.

One of the artists who best captured this feeling was Stanislav Zhukovsky, a Polish-Russia painter who lived from 1873-1944.  Zhukovsky’s paintings capture the interiors of pre-Revolutionary homes and estates and record the glorious colors, textures and styles that filled these houses.  I've used his paintings to illustrate this little treatise, and as examples of all that I think of when I contemplate Russia.

Now, I think that I’ll go find my favorite books about Russia and spend a few hours dreaming of the places that, one day, I’d like to see for myself and the people I’d love to meet.

NOTE:  To learn more about Zhukovsky, visit artist Stephen O'Donnell's blog post at (all of his blog posts are marvelous!) Gods and Foolish Grandeur.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Here's Where the Magic Happens

Dapper and Dreamy takes a lot of time and hard work.  That's why it's so important to have a space that I enjoy spending time in.

Our old farmhouse has a wonderful corner room that meets my needs perfectly.  I like small rooms, and I like lots of light!  So, this corner space fits the bill.

Oddly shaped and tiny, it takes some careful thought in arranging and, maybe even more challenging, just getting all of the furniture into the room!


My desk and c. 1920's map of London.

My reading corner...  it's always Christmas in my studio!
The needlepoint picture of the White House and another
commemorating the Queen's 2002 Golden Jubilee were
gifts from Melissa.

Books!  These are just a few of my books dealing with the White House, presidents and first ladies.

I love the vintage map of California given to me by my son, Jack.  I also frequently
read and reread these books by John Steinbeck!  The needlepoint picture of
St. Edward's Crown was one I designed a few years ago.

That Santa wreath is one of my favorite things.  A gift from my daughter, Victoria,
who shares my love of all things "vintage Christmas"!  We've never met a
Shiny Brite ornament we didn't like!

More books and record covers from all sorts of old LPs that I love.  They're fun
to listen to, but it's a shame to miss the great cover art!

Family photos and a Carl Larsson print decorate the top of another bookshelf.

Granny Glittens and Her AMAZING Mittens!

Like so many people, we have certain stories that we read every year at Christmastime.  In the Dapper and Dreamy house there are several, but none more important that Granny Glittens and Her Amazing Mittens.

Granny Glittens has been a part of Christmas in my family since my mother was small.  Her very tattered circa 1940's Golden Book of Christmas was the source for many stories and projects and is well-loved to this day.  Granny is the story of an entrepreneurial old lady who knits mittens for children.  Faced with the challenge of making these mittens out only white yarn, Granny comes up with a clever and tasty solution!

Click on this link to hear the story of Granny Glittens!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Parade... An Annual Tradition!

I could easily go on and on about Easter Parade, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland's late '40's musical masterpiece.  But, why bother when little excerpts of the film itself can say it so much better?  I will only say this...  The songs are delightful and memorable, the actors are at their best and can you believe anyone can dance like Ann Miller dances in her "Shakin' the Blues Away" number?  Wow!

So, if you want to add a terribly dapper and dreamy movie to your holiday lineup, you MUST watch Easter Parade!

Go Annie, Go!

Marvelous...  But what about the poor kid's Easter Bunny?

In your Easter bonnet...

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday is Pie Day!

At last.  Baking day.  Really, as far as I am concerned, almost every day is baking day, but today I’m feeling more energetic than usual.  It started with Dutch Babies baked in a cast iron skillet coated in sizzling butter.  After that, a quick mix up of Brown Sugar Oatmeal Bread which is now rising in the warmest corner of the kitchen.  Now I can really get down to business…  pie!

However you know me, you know that I hold pie in great esteem.  I love baking cakes, bread, muffins and cookies, but pie?  Pie is something else altogether.  In my mind, if someone makes you a pie, or if you make someone else a pie, it indicates a special kind of affection. 

I can mix up a Devils’ Food Cake from scratch in no more that ten or fifteen minutes, depending on how much sifting we’re talking about.  Cookies?  You don’t even have to measure that precisely.  A pie?  A pie takes time.  It requires the actual use of one’s hands to prepare the fruit, especially if you’ve picked it, peeled it and/or sliced it.  And then there’s the blending of the flour and salt and shortening and iced water.  Finally, it has to be rolled out, turned, positioned, trimmed and crimped.  All with one’s own hands.  (No food processors or mixers in my pie-making, thank you very much.)  When you make a pie, you really are MAKING something! 

Today’s pie is apple, and it started as a thank you to someone who did me a favor.  First I had to decide on the apple.  For years I thought Granny Smith was the way to go, but she’s been replaced by the more alluring Golden Delicious.  Less tart and a superior texture when cooked, the only thing better is the coveted Gravenstein that seems to be available for a relatively short time each year.  I like to take a little time when picking out my apples.  Apples with no bruises, no blemishes and a truly golden skin are a pleasure to pack in a paper bag.  They also look lovely in a big blue and white bowl on the kitchen counter between the time I bring them home and the day they are used.

Baking, for me, is a solitary joy.  Rather like gardening, I seem to do some of my best thinking while I am alone and working on something with my hands.  In fact, this whole thing was written in my head as I worked through my recipe…  If only I could remember all of the marvelous sentences and paragraphs and stories I’ve created while beating batter or pulling weeds, I’d be a MOST prolific writer!

Once I’m assured that my wife and kids are otherwise occupied, the dishes are done and the counters clean, I can start. 

First, I get all of my bowls together.  There’s the vintage pink, Pyrex bowl decorated with white gooseberries, just like my mom’s.  That’s for the apple peels.  Next, there’s the big turquoise bowl in which the sliced apples are mixed with the sugar, cinnamon and flour.  And, finally, the giant, heavy, white, pottery bowl that my wife gave me a few years ago at Christmas.  It was the kind of Christmas where the parents could only really manage to give each other one gift and this was mine.  I use it almost every day.  It’s perfect for making things like pie dough and biscuits because it’s wide and deep and you can really get your hands into your work.

I love to peel apples.  This time I have ten perfect, Golden Delicious apples, all the same size.  I try to take the peel off in one, continuous, unbroken spiral and, after lots of practice, rarely fail.  I quarter them, core them and slice them with my much-abused paring knife, and drop them into the big bowl, ready to receive their sugary coating.

When it comes to pie crust my big secret is that there are NO secrets at all.  Really.  Follow the recipe on the back of your Crisco can!  Use your hands and, just when you start to wonder if you need to keep mixing…  STOP!  Add your water, mix a little more and, just like before, stop just before you’re sure if you should.  I’ve always thought that people made too much of the skill and magic required to make things like pie crust and biscuits.  Really, the less you do, the less technique you employ, the better the results!

Rolling out the dough into a perfect disk is, in my experience, impossible.  A sort of rough squarish circle that gives you a good inch or more of overhang is the best that I can do.  Once it’s to the size I want I fold it into quarters, lay it in the pie tin with the point in the middle, and unfold it, gently pressing it into place. 

I don’t like to overfill my pies.  While I like the filling, unless it’s something like all raspberry in which case I LOVE the filling, the crust is the star in my pie constellation.  More is definitely better and, to let you in on a little secret, I generally eat the filling first, saving the pastry (the best) for last!

Once the top crust is in place, I trim both, leaving about ¾ of an inch of overhang which I fold under and tuck in, giving me a nice, thick edge to crimp with my fingers.  Now, I am pretty much a purist when it comes to decoration.  I may decide to form something decorative with the leftover dough – cherries for a cherry pie, for example – and there are always vents attractively spaced, but I shy away from washes of egg or milk, let alone that very unnatural desire to sprinkle SUGAR on the top!

Once the pie is in the oven, there’s the question of what to do with the leftover pastry.  Growing up, my mom allowed me to roll it out, cut it into shapes with cookie cutters, and spread raspberry jam on top before baking them into little tarts that  were delicious.  More delicious, though, was the raw pie dough all on its own!  Oh, how I loved (OK, LOVE – present tense) raw pie dough!  I would eat so much that my overly concerned mom would remind me of the episode of my then-favorite show, “Emergency!”, where a boy had to be taken to the EMERGENCY ROOM for eating too much raw pie dough!  To this day, I have never been able to find such an episode via either IMDB, Wikipedia or Hulu…  Do you think my mom was…  lying?!  Regardless, I still love to eat the stuff, and have been known to make a pie just because of a sudden craving.
I prefer my pie to be served either cold or at room temperature and, please, if it’s a fruit pie, no ice cream or whipped cream.  I’d rather save the calories (as if I consider such things when it comes to pie) for a second piece!

As you can see, I’ve given a lot of thought to pie.  There are few that I don’t like. Cream pies?  Meringue pies?  Chiffon pies?  Fruit pies?  YES!  Even mincemeat pies (hot and with LOADS of brandy butter) meet with my approval under the right circumstances.

So there you have it…  a glimpse into my baking and eating life.  To me, pie is wrapped up with all sorts of lovely things – Sunday dinners and summer picnics;  Monday morning breakfasts and after school snacks; and people who really like you and, to show it, will make you a pie.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Ave Maria Album... What a Good Idea!

Like most people, there are certain pieces of music that I can listen to over and over again and never tire of them.  WAY back in 1998 I found, and was given, "The Ave Maria Album", a CD that contains at least sixteen versions of this marvelous song.  There are performances of the Bach-Gounod piece, Verdi's rendition as well as my favorite by Schubert.

In addition to different composers, the songs are performed by different artists.  Placido Domingo, Mario Lanza and even Enrico Caruso fill out the tenor section, while Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson and Jeanette MacDonald are among the sopranos and contraltos that represent the women.

In the last nineteen years, I've listened to this album over and over again.  Sometimes I play it very, very loudly in the car and, at other times, I play it softly while trying to get to sleep.  While the Schubert version is my favorite with it's soaring notes, the Verdi rendition sounds almost like a very personal plea.  The Bach-Gounod reminds me of a lovely lullaby.

I think that this album containing several artists performing the same songs is a smashing idea!  There are so many compositions that I love enough to listen to over and over again, but hearing them in slightly different forms keeps things interesting.  In fact, I've created my own playlists featuring some of them, many of which are uniquely British tunes.  I can't get enough of Parry's "Jerusalem", and even "Rule, Britannia" energizes me.  "Jupiter", from Holst's "The Planets", which is also known as the anthem "I Vow to Thee, My Country" and "Land of Hope and Glory" are also favorites that never cease to impress.  "O Mio Babbino, Caro", whether sung by Kiri te Kanawa or Maria Callas, and "Nessun Dorma", which really belongs to Luciano Pavarotti, always remind me of the summer when I first met my wife.  We must have been watching a lot of Merchant-Ivory movies and I think "The Three Tenors" were at their height, so these pieces give me wonderfully nostalgic feelings.

Regardless of what songs you choose, focusing on a few of your absolute favorites and finding the many versions of them can be great fun, and it can give you a new appreciation for some much-loved music.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cookbooks I Have Destroyed (and Loved...)

As I was looking through stacks and stacks of cookbooks at a local thrift store, I was struck by the fact that I already have the only cookbooks I need...  and then some!  Of course, the definition of "need" changes based on what I find, what I want, and what I can afford!  In terms of the books that I actually use almost daily, I've got 'em and there's only two!

The first is an obvious choice...  "The Joy of Cooking".  I actually have two editions of this one, the first is from the 1940s and belonged to my grandmother.  The second, and the one that I use most, is more current and was a gift from my oldest son.  He found it at a grade school book fair and was so proud when he gave it to me.  If the usefulness and appreciation of a gift can be determined by how "used" it looks, there are few books that are more beloved!  The cover is stained and burned and big chunks of the text are loose or disengaged entirely.  I have to stuff them back into the pages every time I take it down from the shelf!

"The Joy of Cooking" seems to have everything one needs for basic cooking.  You'd think I'd know the recipe for pancakes, waffles and pie crust by heart but, truth be told, I have to look every time I make them!  The book naturally falls open to the pancakes page, and the fluffy dumpling page is permanently marked with a little piece of dough.

"Joy", as I think of it, also answers key questions about substitutions, measurement conversions, roasting temperatures and how to cook rice (hey...  we all have to start somewhere!).  If I were just starting out in the world, I'd find this immeasurably helpful.  As it is, with plenty of cooking experience under my belt, it still provides all of the information I need and a darned good "Quick and Easy Enchilada" sauce to boot.  This is especially nice when, in the middle of making 80 enchiladas you find that you only bought one, small can of sauce.

My second cookbook of choice came to me via "Baking with Julia"on PBS.  One of the very best episodes features Marion Cunningham, a cook I'd never before heard of.  She bakes wonderful biscuits, popovers and fabulous Buttermilk Crumb Muffins.  Marion's whole demeanor is that of the kind of person you'd love to be taught by.  She's warm, she's enthusiastic and utterly American, in the best sense of the word.  She clearly loves the best American food, which is often simple, homespun and makes use of the best ingredients.  Her biscuits and scones form the base of a decadent Strawberry Shortcake (the shortcake is actually spread with butter before the berries and whipped cream are added!), and her popovers are table-ready for butter and jam or gravy.  By the time you've finished with the episode, you're dying for one of those muffins (and a popover... and a biscuit...)

After seeing the program, I learned that Marion Cunningham wrote "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book", and it is the most wonderful book on basic baking I've come across.  To read it is to hear her voice and feel her excitement about each and every recipe.  One can almost imagine her standing there saying, "Of course you can do this!"  Marion valued old-fashioned recipes, not for nostalgia's sake alone, but because they are often the best.  Sometimes the original really can't be improved upon.

"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" is so useful because it contains countless recipes for things like chocolate cakes, coffee cakes, pies, cookies, breads, even crackers.  More than that, it's delightful to just sit and read.  Each recipe is preceded by an explanation of what makes it worth trying and explains what sets it apart.  There are no superfluous entries here.  If there are twelve chocolate cakes, there's a reason for each and every one of them.

There are several "Master Recipes" for things like butter cake, white sandwich bread and apple pie.  In these entries one gets detailed instructions on the proper methods of measuring, handling and mixing, sometimes with simple line drawings.  Far from being tedious, these miniature classes are clear and, again, in Marion's friendly voice.

"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" has had a challenging existence in my house, though.  After acquiring my first copy for a mere dollar at that same local thrift store, somehow it became the victim of one of my wife's "decluttering" sprees.  One Saturday, wanting to bake some English muffins, I found "Fannie" had disappeared.  Being out of print, and me not wanting to give in and take the easy way out (ordering it from, I searched and searched for it until, sometime last Fall, I found a copy at a used bookshop.

Marion Cunningham passed away a few years ago, I'm sorry to say.  Her own life story is an inspiring one and proves that there's always hope for a better future.  And, she's a marvelous example of finding a passion and making into a living.

Of course I have other cookbooks...  books by Julia Child and Martha Stewart.  Cookbooks for ice cream and Scandinavian food and crepes.  Books all about pie and appetizers and Christmas food...  You get the picture.  In each of them I have one or two "must have" recipes but nothing beats "Joy" and "Fannie" when it comes to my everyday needs.