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Monday, April 29, 2019

The Warming Memories of Good Food

Growing up, the weekend meant good food.  From Friday night through Sunday, there would be several memorable meals, none of them very elaborate and certainly nothing approaching “fancy”.  Still, thirty years later I can still remember the smells and flavors of weekend meals at home.  I can also clearly see why, even as a teenager, few things were more enticing than the food and fun that was provided right where I lived.  I also count myself lucky that, at that age, I could have eaten virtually anything and in any quantity with little fear of adding weight to my scarecrow-like frame!
Friday night was the start of the culinary extravaganza and there were two meals that stand out above all others – homemade pizza and fondue.

Homemade pizza was my mother’s department.  I have no idea how authentic it was or wasn’t, although I doubt that it would have passed muster with a true Italian.  Still, we loved it with its thick, soft crust and myriad of wonderful toppings that could include Canadian bacon, fresh mushrooms, black olives and, sometimes, tiny pink shrimp.  

Fondue was one of my step-father’s best contributions to our family’s menus.  Before Howard came on the scene, I’d never heard of this version.  Rather than cheese or chocolate, Howard’s fondue pot was filled with bubbling oil.  We would plunge pieces of steak, shrimp, mushrooms, zucchini, potato or bread cubes into the hot oil and cook it until it was done to our liking.  Accompanying this feast were countless little dishes of condiments including mustards, steak sauces, oyster sauce and chutneys.  The sauces alone were delightful and, to me, totally new flavors.

Of course, food wasn’t the only attractive thing about these meals.  They always found us gathered either around the “breakfast bar” in our kitchen (no one ever ate breakfast there…) for the fondue or, for many other meals, sitting in the living room with an old movie on television and a fire in the fireplace.  And there was always plenty of conversation and laughter.  I remember nearly every family gathering – whether a simple meal or a major holiday - as being warm and convivial.  This was due to both my mother and step-father.  My mom provided wonderful food, warmth and good humor.  My step-father, who was much older and very English, was the perfect host, keeping drinks refreshed and making sure everyone was at their ease.  He also had a delightful twinkle in his eye and made everyone around him feel special.

Saturday’s dinner was the highlight of the day.  Broiled lamb chops or steamed clams, both served with new potatoes and tiny, sweet peas, or my mother’s homemade fish and chips were typical meals.  Often, I’d accompany my step-father to the fish market or the butcher on Saturday afternoon.  He was always willing to buy the fancy little things that I loved at these places - interesting crackers, sauces and candies and, most delightfully, smoked salmon or tiny pink shrimp for shrimp cocktail.  Also, thanks to Howard, I developed an absolute love of light, crisp cream crackers with cold butter!

If we were having clams or lamb chops, dinner was around the table.  Clams were the most fun, each of us getting a HUGE bowl of shells filled with plump, buttery, garlicky clams.  Lamb chops were a close second, sprinkled with coarse kosher salt and broiled until what little fat there was at the edges was gloriously crisp.  The best part was cleaning every last bit from the salty bones!

My mother’s fish and chips were nothing to sniff at, either.  The potatoes were fried twice - once until they were almost done and, after they’d cooled, again until they were soft and creamy on the inside and with a perfectly crisp outside.  The thick pieces of cod or halibut were just the same.  Perfectly seasoned with a light and crunchy coating, and still firm.  While Tartar sauce was on offer, I wasn’t a fan, preferring malted vinegar.

Another of the highlights of dinner around the table were the games.  Invariably, my step-father would pipe up with either, “Animal, vegetable or mineral!” or an “I, Spy” clue, and off we’d go.  Like the old chestnut, “Is it bigger than a breadbox”, his standard question, repeated even today in an imitation of his perfect English accent, was “Is it DEC-rative or utilitarian?”  Howard ALWAYS won these games.  He would have been a perfect panelist of “What’s My Line”!  Regardless of who won, there was always a lot of laughter.  Current events and history also figured largely in our dinnertime conversations.  Howard had been all over the world during and after World War II, and his travels and experiences perfectly matched my interests.  His stories of pre-war London and beautiful descriptions of Beirut and other Middle-Eastern cities as they were in the 1940s and 1950s were fascinating.

You might wonder what was served for dessert on these evenings.  My mother is just as good a baker as she is a cook.  Still, it wouldn’t be unheard of to be served Pepperidge Farms frozen chocolate cake, and there were never any complaints.  In fact, this was by far the most popular dessert for a Friday or Saturday night, with hot fudge sundaes a close second.  As for the cake, it was really the frosting the was the best part.  Sadly, Pepperidge Farms has “improved” their recipe.

Sunday’s always started the same way and I miss those mornings most of all.  While I rarely slept too late, I was always the last one up.  My alarm was the smell of brewing coffee and frying bacon.  Always.

Sunday breakfasts could be any number of things.  First, there would be eggs – fried or scrambled.  My favorite version of scrambled eggs had crispy bits of bacon sprinkled in during the cooking.  We might also have an omelet which would be filled with the most wonderful things – ham, cheese, sautéed mushrooms, black olives, avocado.  As you can see already, breakfast was never a disappointment.

My mother’s hash browns were a thing of beauty.  Freshly shredded potatoes – NEVER frozen – that were perfectly cooked with the crispest, crunchiest outer layers and the softest, most delicious center.  These weren’t an every-Sunday occurrence, but a special treat when eggs and bacon were on the menu.  Of course, the BEST breakfast ever included finger steaks dredged in seasoned flour, fried eggs with slightly runny yolks and those incredible hash browns.  This also served as a favorite weeknight dinner from time to time.

If potatoes weren’t part of the breakfast, pancakes, French toast or Dutch babies certainly would be.  And, sometimes, waffles.

Pancakes were the Bisquik variety, and were drenched in butter and syrup.  To this day, I still like these pancakes best.  French toast was much the same, but also sprinkled with powdered sugar, the little clumps of which would absorb the melted butter and syrup, creating a sort of candy coating.  The syrup was special, and still the syrup that I prefer over all others.  It was made of sugar, water, a pinch of salt and Mapleine.  My mom STILL has the very same syrup container and, whenever it’s used, it’s placed in a pan of boiling water, melting the crystals that have formed since the last Sunday.

Dutch babies were also coated in butter (EVERYTHING included plenty of butter!), but then lemon wedges were squeezed over the big, fluffy baked pancake and, again liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Waffles were a rarer treat, often made around birthdays, and always served with crisp bacon.  In addition to the aforementioned butter, waffles would sometimes be topped with sweetened, sliced strawberries and whipped cream, although the regularly available syrup was no hardship either.

This talk of whipped cream reminds me of something else.  The coffee. 

I can’t remember ever being told that coffee would stunt my growth when I was a child.  I remember visits to my aunt and uncle’s house where my uncle’s incredibly strong coffee always seemed to be the apex of every evening.  Similarly, my mother put considerable effort into making good coffee.  For many years, we had an old-fashioned, and just plain old, hand grinder.  I was given the task of grinding the fresh beans and loved the crunch as I turned the handle.  When I was done, it seemed rather magical that I could pull open the little drawer to find it filled with the ground coffee, ready to be brewed.

Sunday morning’s coffee always seemed to be topped with a huge dollop of whipped cream.  In my case, I had a very particular ritual.  First, I would put in the whipped cream roughly filling half the cup.  Next, I would pour in the coffee, slowly watching it melt some of the whipped cream.  Finally, I would top it all off with more whipped cream.  In the end, I think it was, perhaps, two thirds whipped cream and one third coffee.  Perfect proportions if you ask me! 

As you can imagine, the weekend ended on a similarly high note with Sunday’s dinner.

We weren’t one of those families that had Sunday dinner in the middle of the day.  We ate it at 7:00 as we were watching “60 Minutes” (I loved that how!).  My mother knows how to cook meat properly, and it was always the highlight of the meal.  Roast beef or pork and Yorkshire pudding, ham and scalloped potatoes, roast turkey breast or stuffed flank steak and mashed potatoes, these were standard Sunday night fare.  Even the vegetables were marvelous – a special, rather vinegary green bean casserole topped with breadcrumbs mixed with butter and Parmesan cheese, carrots coated with butter and brown sugar or broccoli with Hollandaise sauce.

And, if you can imagine, there was still dessert and Sunday night was NOT for frozen cake!
My mother’s repertoire of desserts is pretty endless.  I recall blackberry or apple crisps or pies featuring prominently.  Also, a special kind of chocolate cake that, when baked, made its own hot fudge sauce.  Pies went far beyond the two listed earlier.  There might be chocolate cream, lemon meringue, lemon cream or raspberry chiffon.  We might have yellow cake frosted with chocolate fudge, or spice cake or gingerbread with even more whipped cream.  However, when my mother really felt like baking, there was only one thing that would do…  her MAGNIFICENT chocolate cake frosted with clouds of Seafoam frosting – a seven-minute frosting made with brown instead of white sugar.  These cakes were, and are, works of art.

It might surprise you to know that none of us grew to be incredibly stout and that we all remain healthy all these years later (the exception being my step-father who died at nearly 81 in 1998 and who had the lowest cholesterol of anyone I’d ever met!).  In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons for that good health is that we were fed so well and enjoyed the whole process of cooking and eating so thoroughly.  It’s also important to know that, with the exception of the Bisquik, Mapeline and Pepperidge Farm cake, EVERYTHING was made from the good, fresh ingredients.

When I look back, food nearly always punctuates the happiest times.  Whether holidays, birthdays, family celebrations, vacations or these standard weekend meals, food was a comforting and entirely pleasurable part of our existence.  Even when times were lean, and before my step-father came into our lives they often were, my mother managed to give us a sense of warmth and stability with the meals she put on our table.  I’ve tried to do the same with my own family, and will be delighted if, many years in the future, they remember the food as warmly as I remember that of my own earlier years.

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.