Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Caring for Outdoor Living Spaces

When we moved cross-country, I touched on both the practical and the poetic aspects of setting up a new household in a couple of From the Vault posts. Moving west meant re-evaluating my homekeeping, as the care and maintenance of a home is so different between Los Angeles and New York City. The primary noticeable difference is space. It is a cliché but it is true: in New York City, space is at a premium, and however much of it you get is, among other conditions, both part of the trade-off for living in the city and the result of how hard you are willing to work. After the requisite several years of trying to cozy up to supers and of putting our names on management company lists, with the help of a friend we prevailed with a sizable rent-stabilized apartment in the then hidden-gem neighborhood of Astoria. It was bigger than most apartments in New York City are and in it, we had a very good life. Much of that life, from conservation work in Astoria park to holiday walks through Astoria’s business district, from Pride Weekend in Greenwich Village to Thanksgiving in the city, has been chronicled in the early years of Urban Home Blog.

Our apartment in Los Angeles, which could be described as modest by some LA standards, wouldn't exist in New York City. As I've written before, to a New Yorker, space in Los Angeles is an embarrassment of riches. Because there is space to inhabit, our building along with most in Los Angeles is built for arms open wide. Out here, space is an embrace, from the ocean crashing against the never-ending horizon at the beach to processions of palm trees towering over boulevards.

Southern California homes are designed with outdoor living in mind. A drive along the classic film strip of Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills affords glimpses of the showy landscaping of mogul mansions, where tennis courts, citrus groves, outdoor art pieces, gazebos and pools are protected by stately iron gates, often attended by guardhouses.  In areas inhabited by those whose fortunes are still ascendant, outdoor living occurs poolside and parkside, in plazas and on porches, on patios and balconies both public and private.

Common to most apartment buildings of its provenance, our urban home is fronted by a patio with a rock wall and a bit of yard. The yard is overseen by a splendid California laurel who has been watching over this turf since this area was fields of poinsettia farms, and by an unkindness of ravens who make their urban home in those branches. The branches shade both the office window and the hummingbird feeders, whose users exhibit no concern whatsoever in shooing the ravens from the area at feeding time. From the low hedge at the sidewalk to the hellos of neighbors passing by, everything is open and welcoming.

We let the indoors in whenever we can, and that gift of southern California living  is also a responsibility, because outdoor spaces - including  yard and patio, carport and garage -- require care. Here is Urban Home Blog’s Guide to Caring for Outdoor Living Spaces. As with all lists and guides at Urban Home Blog, this is a list of suggestions rather than a comprehensive checklist of essentials. This list is based on my ongoing experience as a homekeeper and lifestyle author, and, as always, none of these is a compensated endorsement. 


It sounds obvious, but when caring for the outdoor spaces of your home, it is helpful to understand the atmospheric patterns in your area. Your local county extension can help you understand local atmospheric conditions and weather patterns, and so can The Farmer's Almanac both in print and online. But it isn't necessary to be a climatologist to identify the basic weather patterns where you live - whatever you've noticed is likely what's true. Just remember that conditions change seasonally, and will vary throughout your area.

In southern California, local weather includes a specialized phenomenon, the same one that nurtures those world-renowned wine grapes: the microclimate. As John and I learned during last spring's May Gray, a simple drive along one of the city's boulevards can start off gray and clammy and conclude in dazzling sunshine and dry heat, all while passing through a variety of local weather occurrences and all without leaving Los Angeles! Each of those zones is a microclimate, and each one is settled over its own parcel of topography. They slip and slide into one another depending upon larger atmospheric and geological conditions, but they can get as specific as the square foot. This is as true of the home as it is true streetside. It is as true of large homes with landscaped grounds as it is of compact homes whose outdoor space is a stoop, a patio or a balcony. And it means that the conditions that apply to one home may not necessarily apply to the neighbors.

Yes, we all have access to the weather report, but for your home, it is worthwhile to invest in a weather station and learn how to interpret it. For household use, obtain a weather station that accurately reports barometric pressure and temperature while being easy to understand. Where feasible, it is ideal to place one weather gauge outside and one inside, with both linked to a single station that supplies the readings for both zones. The included instructions will advise the optimal placements for weather gauges; typically it is a semi-protected area when outside, such as a porch or eave, and a contained traffic area when inside, such as a hallway or foyer. Acurite 634 is easy to understand and inexpensive. For homes with yards and gardens, a rain gauge is a nice addition; we like Productive Alternatives' Stratus.

That rain gauge is especially important to the green members of your household. Through years of gardening columns, I have always advised that plants are members of the family, and should be cared for accordingly. The plants in the yard are not less family members because they get to live outdoors - in fact, living out there means they are routinely exposed to conditions that indoor dwellers are spared. Whether you are your own landscaper or a gardener does it for you or for a management company, learn the basics about the plants in your outdoor space. At a minimum, know the species, basic care requirements, and health issues plants may be prone to, such as disease, infestation or damage. Two good resources are The Plant Encyclopedia and My Garden Guide. Also learn if there are any heirloom plants in the vicinity, especially trees, as these carry special responsibilities - often including advocacy.

Learning your USDA heartiness zone is vital for caring for outdoor life, especially plants, and agrees with learning about the weather patterns as discussed above. This information is easy to obtain and understand; two invaluable resources are the USDA and your local county extension. The latter can also connect you with local garden clubs. Unless your lease or gardening agreement precludes caring for or planting in your outdoor space, understanding the weather, the zone and the plants that thrive in them will enable you both to care for the plants that are already there and to decide what plantings you want to pursue.

Basic gardening kits are widely available but can be of varying quality and do not offer the option to thoughtfully choose individual tools. Just as with kitchen tools and the household tool box, it is best to obtain gardening tools individually. Choose the best tools your budget allows, balanced against practical value such as usage. Any home and garden center or hardware store offers trained staff to help; for the former, try Home Depot or Lowe's, for the latter in Los Angeles, try Koontz Hardware. For modest outdoor gardening needs, obtain a portable-sized trowel, spade, bulb planter, and pitchfork; a pair of lockable pruning shears; and a pair of gardening gloves with rubberized grips. For watering, obtain a large rust-proof wide-spray watering can. For larger yard care, supplement the basic gardening kit with a full-sized hoe, spade, shovel, and rake. For watering, add an easy-coil gardening hose with extra couplings, a watering wand, and sprinklers if they are warranted.

A kneeling pad and gardening clogs are useful, and if you're gardening in the sunshine, don't forget your sunblock. A soil tester allows you test the basic characteristics of the soil, which is always a good idea and is a necessity for caring for plants that require specific conditions, such as cacti and succulents or roses. For plants and soils themselves, consult with the local garden club, who can recommend the best local nurseries. Nurseries, hardware stores and seed exchanges all provide access to seeds, and you can save seeds from kitchen produce. Store seeds in clear glassine envelopes labeled with the species and common name, harvest and drying dates if saved, and expiration date if prepackaged.

While most gardeners default to storing their portable gardening tools in a bucket, for ease of transport store them in a plastic toolbox or a strong canvas tote bag. Remember to clean your gardening tools after every usage - typically a pass under the hose or spigot is fine. Use a wire brush to loosen stubborn clumps of earth. Dry gardening tools with a gym- or car-towel (see below) dedicated to the purpose rather than leaving them to air dry. Inspect gardening tools periodically, and oil them as warranted with a basic household oil such as 3-in-1 or WD-40. Finally, to truly bring the outdoors and indoors together, keep a composting bucket and corresponding composting catalyst such as charcoal in the kitchen for cooking scraps. Compost the scraps and return them to the yard or garden according to the instructions and schedule supplied with the composting bucket.

Those larger gardening tools may very well be stored in the carport or garage. Parking spots often include storage space, from simple bins and cabinets to lock and key storage units. Whatever your outdoor storage, use it for bulky items, those that are infrequently accessed, or those that pertain to outdoor living. Avoid using cardboard containers for outdoor storage, even if the storage is enclosed - cardboard deteriorates in response to exposure. Use specially treated wooden crates or plastic bins with snap-lock lids. Storage spaces are often prone to extremes of heat, cold and barometric pressure, so consider keeping a high-capacity moisture absorber such as Damp Rid in the storage space. In the event that mold and mildew appear, that will require special handling; start by learning about these fungi and some ways to manage them here.

Of course, the household member that the garage, carport or parking space primarily stores is the family car. It goes without saying that regularly scheduled service appointments for household vehicles are vital; schedule those visits at the beginning of the year while you are scheduling the year's other appointments such as doctor, dentist and veterinarian. While you're at it, renew your yearly membership in a respected automobile club such as AAA. Yearly, have the club send you a map book of your area, and keep it with the vital deeds in the glove compartment. A map book of your area is invaluable beyond the paper maps it contains - it will contain local municipality information from emergency services to rest and renewal resources such as gas stations, restaurants, and hotels. Most of us also have a GPS device such as Garmin Nuvi -- most automobile clubs can program or download driving directions right into your device. The auto club can also advise on the right road and first aid kits for the amount and distance of driving you do. Wherever you live, be sure that the emergency kit provisions for emergencies specific to your area - in southern California, that includes earthquakes and mudslides.

While professional maintenance is vital for the safety and durability of the car, you can manage some car care yourself. Whether you do it yourself with suds and buckets or let a pro do it at a roadside car wash, washing the car is a given on a regular basis as well as before and after long road trips. Car care businesses such as car washes, gas stations and dealerships can provide the best supplies for washing the car, based on such considerations as the car's paint, detailing and finish. Don't forget to care for the inside of the car. Maintain a supply of interior detailing items such as interior cleanser, leather conditioner, window cleanser, and microfiber detailing cloths, and use them routinely - ideally, weekly -- to detail the car's interior. Keep a supply of small rubbish bags to contain the daily refuse of driving. Properly dispose of the bag and its contents at the end of each journey.

Finally, as you and your family enjoy the benefits of outdoor living, remember that other species make their home there as well. In our urban home, we refer to these as “patio family.” Three favorites are bats, bees and hummingbirds. Some of the ways we provide for these extended members of our household include composting as noted above to provide healthy vegetation for bees and other insects, not disturbing them or their living spaces, hanging bat houses, and maintaining hummingbird feeders. Obviously each family makes its own choices regarding caring for outdoor life, based upon considerations specific to each family such as health concerns, beliefs, etc. Our belief is that we are part of larger systems, and we take care to be respectful of that. Ecology is a cornerstone for how we keep our home, both outdoors and inside. From family pets to the plant life discussed above, the pleasures and privileges of outdoor living are attended by responsibility to the lives that co-inhabit the space.
Urban Home Blog’s Guide to Bees and Beekeeping

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rice Pudding

The sounds of the kitchen are the sounds of comfort. On a winter weekend, the refrigerator door opens and closes as if from afar, if we are hearing it from the floating comfort of our warm bed. Anticipation awakens us to the sound of eggs cracking, of dishes clattering, of bacon sizzling in the pan. And soon the aromas greet us: of melting butter, of toasting bread, of perking coffee. Breakfast on a winter morning beckons us with the warmth of the oven, the sturdiness of the coffee cup, the promise of the sunlight filtering through the curtains and glinting off the snowscape just outside.
Snow was a rarity on my grandmother's homestead, but warm memories of her kitchen aren't. In that kitchen she cooked and canned, every day and every season and sometimes all day, in a rhythm that understood and inhabited the grand poetry of the seasons but treated each day as the gift that it was, that it is. Springtime meant spring cleaning and sponge cake; summer meant cookouts and canning. Autumn meant mincemeat and roasted turkey and the holidays meant cookies and ham. And winter, whatever the weather, meant pancakes and home-baked bread and catching up on chores on days, rare as they were, that were too cold to venture far outside. Saturday was the busiest day of the week, as grandma's turn at the weekly church rummage sale started mid-morning with sorting tables of soft goods from pressed table linens for the home to corduroy jeans for the youngsters and didn't end until she had ladled out the last of the lunch-time barbeque from the communal pots in the kitchen.
On Saturday mornings, she didn't make a big breakfast - true to her schedule and to the times, that was saved for Sunday morning. Often we ate her apple granola. But if there was an extra bit of time or a grandkid that happened to be clamoring for it, she made rice pudding. Yes, you read that right: rice pudding for breakfast. As noted in numerous columns, including last November's Thanksgiving of acknowledgement for powerful mother figures, my grandmother was an extraordinary woman, and here was the proof, in a double-boiler.
That double boiler is the key to true grandma's kitchen pudding. If you've ever had the privilege of eating pudd'n from grandma's kitchen, it has ruined you for the gluey concoctions of the prepared foods aisle and the lunch line -- an accomplishment that, rightfully, grandma is proud of. With a double boiler, a body got a small amount of water to a good boil in the bottom chamber and then fitted the top chamber just above the boil line, so that the fresh, simple ingredients in the top chamber of the boiler cooked very hot but gently while being stirred attentively but not as if any of this labor was a big deal. The result was a pudding that was substantial and rich, not the foamy silk of the dessert cart or the heavy-handed custard of a rotation through the oven. My grandmother's rice pudding was soft and ploppy in bowls, served with butter and sugar on the table in case somehow the pudding wasn't rich or sugary enough.
My grandmother made butterscotch, banana and Indian pudding, but the specialty of the house was rice pudding. Unlike many of my grandmother's recipes that I replicate, this one is not exactly duplicative - because they are something of a rarity in the contemporary kitchen, this pudding is not made in a double-boiler. Take note, though: it could be. The technique that cannot be improved upon is cooking pudding stovetop. The rice takes a nice slow bath in a simmer of whole milk infused with pungent spices and warming vanilla. The rice turns silken but retains its toothsome quality, while the fragrant milk-spice bath fills the entire kitchen with the smells of a perfect childhood snow day. Many serve their rice pudding heaped diner style into parfait glasses and garlanded with whipped cream or meringue, but in our urban home, we serve rice pudding topped with a sparkly dusting of cinnamon sugar. And yes, we serve it for breakfast.
Rice Pudding
American long grain rice should be a staple in your urban pantry; click here for Urban Home Blog's Guide to the Home Pantry.
1 cup American long grain rice
3 cups whole milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 eggs 
  1. Measure the sugar and spices into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Use a wire whisk to mix the ingredients together.
  2. Measure one tablespoon of the cinnamon sugar into a small bowl and set aside.
  3. Measure the rice into the cinnamon sugar. Use the wire whisk to mix well.
  4. Carefully measure the milk into the rice-cinnamon sugar mixture.
  5. Measure the vanilla extract into the milk-rice mixture.
  6. Turn a burner to low. Place the pan on the burner and use the wire whisk to stir the mixture.
  7. Place the lid on the pan. Cook the mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thick and very fragrant, approximately 45 minutes.
  8. After 45 minutes, use a teaspoon to test a bit of the pudding. It should be pleasantly sweet with rice that is cooked through but still chewy. If warranted, cook up to five minutes longer, adding up to 2 tablespoons more milk if the pan is running dry.
  9. Once the mixture is thoroughly cooked, break the eggs into a bowl. Use the wire whisk to beat the eggs until they are they are creamy with no visible yellow, clear or white streaks.
  10. Use one hand to continue whisking the eggs while using the other hand to use the teaspoon to drizzle some of the hot pudding mixture into the eggs. Work quickly and consistently in order to warm the eggs but not cook them. Continue tempering the eggs until the eggs turn thick and fragrant.
  11. Hold the bowl containing the egg mixture over the pan containing the pudding. Use your free hand to gently whisk the pudding mixture as you tilt the bowl so that the egg mixture goes into the pan in a thin, steady stream. Whisking as you go, the pudding should become very silken and fragrant.
  12. Use a silicon spatula to get the last of the egg mixture into the pan.
  13. Cook the pudding, stirring constantly, one minute.
  14. Turn off the burner and cover the pan. Allow to sit, undisturbed, five minutes.
  15. Remove the lid from the pan and stir the pudding. Use a heavy spoon to transfer the pudding to four serving bowls. Sprinkle the puddings with the reserved cinnamon sugar.
  16. Serve warm.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Homekeeper's Library: Craft Books

Perhaps it is by grand design that, in this hemisphere, the new year turns in the depth of winter. Even we who don’t have snow and ice to drive us indoors find ourselves holing up a bit, as we review the year just completed and orient ourselves to the new year that has arrived. Winter drives us indoors for a reason. Snow day or not, this is the time to let go of that which no longer serves with gratitude for its service, and to set the stage for whatever will be arriving. This is the time to consider plans and put them into action, to use down time to get organized, and to learn new skills.

January is the month of school closures, weekends indoors, and, yes, cabin fever. We catch up on everything from reading and movies to knitting and mending. Harried parents are looking for projects to quiet stir-crazy kids, and many of us use this time to get to all of the projects that we let pile up over the course of the year. There are memory projects to make of every event from last year's birthday parties to Halloween costumes, from vacation flip books to anniversary dinner shadow boxes. Household projects await, from cleaning and storing the holiday linens to organizing the garage. It is time to set up the home office for the coming year, and during the first long weekend of the year, maybe treat ourselves to a trip to the big box store to upgrade our electronics.

Many believe that as our ancestors drew inside for warmth and companionship, the practice of craft emerged. The cold dark winter months were the perfect time to tend to practical matters that fell to the way- or hearthside during the outdoor months. There were tools to repair, seeds to coax, shoes to sole, all accompanied by stories told and, eventually, written down. Going inside for deep winter coincided with reorientation after the winter holidays, as exemplified by the holy season of Yule that led to the holy season of Candlemas. That season occurred during this time of digging in, and both the study and application of craft became sacred acts.

Whatever craft you practice, January is an ideal month either to begin the study or to renew it. In honor of craft, crafters, and study and practice, here is Urban Home Blog's Guide to Craft Books. As you read both this column and these titles, remember that study without application is a bit pointless, and application absent study is foolhardy. Most craft stores have huge sales during January, at which you can obtain many of these titles and most of the tools and supplies for realizing projects. Let us use our time indoors to create something useful, or interesting, or beautiful, for both study and application are the law in January, and that is by grand design, for these set us up very well indeed for the upcoming year.

Craft Books and Resources
As with all guides at Urban Home Blog, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list but one of suggestions based on my own experience as a lifestyle writer and homekeeper. As always, none of these is a compensated endorsement.

Sewing. I have written before about my grandmother's copy of the Better Homes and Garden's Sewing Book, which in a very real way was the genesis of Urban Home Blog. Though some would call it retro, to my mind, this is the platinum standard for sewing books. Copies of this spiral-bound treasure can be obtained through used booksellers both brick and mortar and online. Retro sewing gets a more literal treatment in Sew Retro and Vintage Notions. In both of these titles, doing and reading spar nicely, with the marvelous year-long nostalgic ride of Vintage Notions inspiring the practical projects of Sew Retro. Interesting projects include a shawl (Retro, page 24) and a hanging organizer (Retro, page 136). For useful, practical sewing books, the Singer library remains the platinum standard: you will refer to Singer's New Sewing Essentials and The Complete Photo Guide to Sewing again and again. Finally, if you are looking for a new sewing skill to learn and some absorbing projects to turn out therefrom, try the Japanese craft of Sashiko. Sashiko Style makes this craft easy to understand and rewarding to execute.

Jewelry-Making. Jewelry-making is as practical a craft to learn as there is, for with the exception of fine pieces and clockwork, you will be able to repair the jewelry you have sequestered for just that purpose. To learn the basics, almost all craft stores have in-store classes and pamphlets; in our urban home, we rely on Michael's. For the homekeeper's library, The Complete Jewelry-Making Course is a solid basic guide. This thoughtfully written and well-illustrated course teaches all of the basics along with offering inspiring and practical projects. Once you start making and repairing jewelry, your own aesthetic will guide you to resources and projects, from romantic Victorian fancies to architectural post-modern statement pieces. One such is steampunk jewelry, as exemplified by Steampunk Emporium and Steampunk Style Jewelry. Some of my favorite projects from these specialized guides include Absinthe charms, cuff links and bracelet (Emporium, pp. 52 - 63), White Star Line necklace (Jewelry, p. 72), Captured Time ring (Jewelry, p. 34) and Admiral's Cuff (Jewelry, p. 131).

Paper Craft. Scrapbooking and papercraft are simple to learn and to do. They require a modest commitment of time and supply costs, but the return on investment could not be more rewarding. I have scrapbooks that go back thirty years, and turning those pages is the very definition of history coming alive. While all one really needs is glue, mementos and paper, books and resources about scrapbooking not only enliven your creativity but plug you into the community of fellow papercrafters, as most contemporary publications include access to online communities where await downloadable resources including templates, discounts at the craft store, and places to share your own designs, often by upload or pin. These include the downloadable paper crafts at Urban Home Blog such as ice cream bar party invitations and a bookmark.

That bookmark will come in handy when you dip into your scrapbooking and papercraft titles. A great fundamental title is The Encyclopedia of Scrapbooking Tools and Techniques. This well-written and -illustrated guide to the techniques and tools of this craft covers everything. With scrapbooking, one learns the techniques as one engages the craft, and from that emerges one's own creative style. I like the aesthetic and technique of Clean and Simple Scrapbooking and Clean and Simple Scrapbooking the Sequel, which offer forthright templates and techniques for a papercraft approach that avoids fuss. As you begin to capture memories from the four seasons and the events and holidays that fall within them, a good seasonal scrapbooking resource will be essential; try Better Homes and Gardens 365 Days of Scrapbooking Ideas. Papercrafters beyond the scrapbook will like Vintage Collage Journals, which contains beautiful examples of putting all kinds of ephemera to work with your memories and Delight in the Details, which has ideas for all kinds of paper mementoes. Finally, Wallpaper Projects is a wonderful little idea book for putting those patterns elsewhere in the home than the walls.

The study and application of craft are ongoing, and there are too many crafts to write about here. From making soap to putting together architectural models, from sewing aprons to tooling leather, whatever your craft, this is the perfect month either to learn and engage it or to re-learn and re-commit to it. If you are not sure which crafts interest you, Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Crafts covers almost all of the bases, from basic introductions to dozens of crafts to several inspiring projects for each. And if the memories of our ancestors practicing craft hearthside resonates with you, an indispensable tome for your Homekeeper's Library is Spell Crafts.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Urban Bar: Scotch Mist

As I write this, the northeast is gripped by a spectacular snow storm. Friends’ reports from the snow front include photo safaris of New York City in the snow, from streets and trestles to brownstones and parks. Children and pets who are big enough for it romp in drifts that reach fences and windowsills. Playing in the snow is fun as long as conditions are safe and the snow is pretty, but all too soon that fluffy white blanket will become sooty and runny. Breakup is always sad and a bit treacherous, but that makes the fun, cozy moments of snow days all the more precious.
Coming in from the cold is the very definition of the importance of home. We shuck off wet things on back porch, mud room and vestibule and stamp inside. Even as the exertions of the cold left us energized, we welcome the caress of warmth. Cups of hot chocolate and coffee are circulated, with perhaps a toddy for snow adventurers of tippling age. The indoors activities of snow days are cozy and productive: cooking a big pot of stew to serve with the morning’s freshly baked bread, capturing memories with glue and paper in scrapbooks, mending favorite clothes or making new ones, even taking down the tree. Some of us curl up with a good book or a stack of favorite films, and many of us sit at the window, watching the snow.
From the safe distance of sunny southern California, I recall numerous snow storms during my quarter century in New York City. I took a few of those photo safaris myself, trekking both to the local park, bustling with sledders and their chaperones, and to the streets of the Village, etched in ghostly iron against the white backdrop of snow. Local taverns that could get the doors open found themselves crowded as the day waned, as winter cheer flowed from tap and shaker. I wrote many columns taking in the city’s winter landscape through my writer’s window in Astoria. As the snow falls a continent away, I find that I am misty-eyed for those days and grateful for my new life in equal measure.
Memories come to us through the mists, and what time more than the new year are we prone to them? Winter arrives amidst a cacophony of holidays: Yule, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, New Year’s Eve. Some of us even have birthdays in the depths of winter, just to remind us, amid festivities, of the lessons of having survived another year and the responsibilities of being granted a new one. Reflection is as important to the act of planning as is drafting an action plan or acting upon it. Absent reflection, thoughts and plans ping around our minds unshaped, where, often as not, their tendrils reach out to entangle formed thoughts and plans. The act of sitting quietly to think is as important and active a skill and building and playing are, and it is not by accident that all three can be symbolized by a heavy snowfall.
This brings us, amusingly but appropriately enough, to the first Urban Bar of 2014: the Scotch Mist. It may seem funny to equate reason, planning and contemplation with strong drink, but in point of fact, Scotch is one of those libations that, like wine, quiets the mind. Perhaps it’s got something to do with maturity – any January baby will tell you, that is one of our key traits – for Scotch is best with age. Any Scotch drinker will tell you that their preferred pour is the most contemplative of drinks. Perhaps this is because good Scotch appeals to so many senses with the liquid gold of its hue, the peat and smoke of its aroma, the purity of its flavor. Good Scotch wraps itself around our senses and, through smoke and sensation, clarifies our thoughts.
The unique characteristics of Scotch are the reason so few cocktails are built with Scotch. These include the Rob Roy, the Smoky Martini and the Blood and Sand. Scotch often performs best alone or with water, soda or ice, and that is where the Scotch Mist comes in, as a drizzle of good scotch -- the older and smokier the better -- nestles onto a snowdrift of crushed ice. 

Further to poetic fancies, the Scotch Mist may be a mythical drink. One finds few citable references to it. One of the first – perhaps the first – comes from the movies: Lauren Bacall ordered one in The Big Sleep. That alone ought to quell doubts if any regarding the Scotch Mist’s authenticity -- if it’s good enough for Bogie, Baby and Chandler, there’s nothing for the rest of us to question. But question people do, and while those so inclined continue the discussion over the provenance of the Scotch Mist, even its authenticity, the fact is that the drink does exist nowadays, and some of us would rather drink them than argue about them. In the spirit of smoke and snow, here is the recipe for what is sure to become one of your favorite new cocktails: the Scotch Mist.
Scotch Mist
Premium Single Malt or Malt Scotch Whisky
1 lemon
Crushed ice 
  1. Place a drop of vegetable cleaner in your palm. Rub the lemon between your palms. Rinse the lemon under cool water until it feels clean.
  2. Dry the lemon with a paper towel. Safely use a citrus reamer or sharp paring knife to excise two long peels of lemon peel.
  3. Fill two Old Fashioned glasses halfway with crushed ice. Nestle a lemon peel on the ice in each glass. Add more ice to each glass to fill the glass.
  4. Fit the lip of the Scotch bottle with a pouring spout. Gently pour Scotch into each glass, stopping as the level of Scotch reaches just below the top of the ice.
  5. Serve immediately. Remove the pouring spout and securely re-cap the Scotch before returning the Scotch to the bar cabinet. 
Scotch whisky is a malt or grain whisky that, in order to earn the name, has to be made in a manner that is regulated by law. That law includes the Scotch starting as a distillate of malt barley, wheat or rye, which then must be aged in an oaken barrel for a minimum of three years, with both the production and the aging done entirely in Scotland. Good Scotch is labeled with a number that corresponds to the number of years that the youngest component of the Scotch spent in the barrel. This is known as guaranteed age, and not trifling with it is a commandment of the religion of Scotch. The higher the number, the finer and the costlier the Scotch. In our Urban Bar, the Scotches of choice are Lagavulin 16 and Macallan 18.
Manual ice crushers are a tricky prospect for the home bar: there is guarantee that they will work well or even at all. The best way to crush ice for making drinks at home is either to utilize a refrigerator-freezer with a crushed ice dispenser, or to use the blender set to the appropriate setting, provided your blender is strong enough for it. For Urban Home Blog’s recommendation for a blender for home use, click here.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Lights

Light Wrapping Template
Illustration: Eric Diesel
Everyone who decorates for the holidays knows the sight of a jumble of lights. No matter how thoughtfully we packed and stored them last January, it seems as if come late November/early December, the lights tangled themselves together like grapevines. They also have the power to accumulate, as evidenced by the fact, demonstrable to any jury, that however many strings we catalogued at storage time, they have profligated.

This year, as my holiday present to readers who decorate for the holidays, I am going to share foolproof ways to choose, hang and store holiday lights. But before we get to that, let’s learn about the history of holiday lights.

The tradition of holiday lights comes not just from Christmas but from Hannukah, Kwanzaa and Yule. Of these holidays, the oldest is Yule. In the ancient Western world, Yule was the celebration of the winter solstice, the day of the year when there is the least amount of daylight and the greatest amount of moonlight. These ancients perceived the year as a wheel, ever-spinning, with eight great spokes. The spokes corresponded to holidays, known as Sabbats, each of which occurred at approximately six-week intervals. In the ancient world Yule did not correspond with the new year – that was Samhain – it corresponded with the winter solstice.

The rites of the solstice were reverent indeed. Congregants gathered in the still of icy midnights, to mark the passage of time both grandly and in quiet reverence for this longest night of the year. From this moment, daylight would lengthen and warmth would strengthen. Sources of light, from the stars to the hearth fire, were celebrated on this long, dark, cold night. This looked forward to the next holiday – Candlemas – but on this night, the holiest of holy acts was to recognize the long cold night, and revere the illumination of waxing light.

In the forest, a mighty tree was chosen from among the evergreens, for it was those trees that stayed green during the Yule season that represented the everlasting hope of continuance. Offerings were made at the foot of this tree: a few handfuls of grain, a pour of wine or honey, even some feed for the creatures that sheltered there. Often candles – themselves precious -- illuminated a circle in the snow at the base of the tree. It is easy to see the correspondences between this festival of lights and those of Kwanzaa, Hannukah and Christmas. Each illustrates that winter holiday lights occupy – one could say illuminate - a special place where celebration can be cultural or secular but proceeds from religion.

And that brings us to the Christmas tree, which started as the Yule tree of those ancient rites, arrived as a household fixture in the 1800’s, and has become ubiquitous today. It is because of the Christmas tree that Christmas lights as we string them today evolved. The first household Christmas trees appeared in the early 1800’s in Europe, as a variation on the Yule tree rituals that was meant to individualize the celebrations to households as well as remove the symbol from its pagan roots and attach it to Christianized traditions. Those trees were decorated with lit candles (carefully tended, one hopes) and, eventually, glass decorations. As Christmas evolved, decorating for it expanded from the tree to the entire household, with decorations including those any of us would recognize today: sprigs of evergreens, holly, and mistletoe; lengths of ribbon; glass fancies; toys; and lights. What these Christmas decorations had in common was that they all referred to winter and to winter celebrations.

The first electrically illuminated Christmas tree is credited to Edward H. Johnson, who displayed a tree wired with electric bulbs in his New York City home in 1882. Mr. Johnson was wealthy, and though by the early 1900s electric Christmas lights were common in wealthy homes and in business, it was not until the Depression era that electric Christmas lights became available on the mass market. Due to the finances of the times, electric lights remained overall a mark of privilege, and in private homes electric Christmas lights, though not unheard of during the war years, didn’t really catch on as a household norm until the 1950s.

The same cannot be said of public spaces. From the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to the lights at Harrod’s, retailers have been using lights to decorate for the holidays for almost as long as lights were available to do so. This is now so commonplace that anyone who’s been to the mall in recent memory not only expects to see winter holiday lights there but steels themselves against the likelihood of seeing them as early as Halloween.

In downtown America, holiday decorating in municipalities took a creative turn when business owners would decorate not just their stores but business districts themselves. Just as each area of the American landscape once had its own distinct character, so was that reflected in holiday decorations. Silver bells hung from street signs or light poles, while the boulevards themselves were canopied by holiday swags that ran from one side of the street to the other. Downtown business districts often hosted holiday evenings of shopping and fellowship, of every kind from open houses with hot cider and ribbon candy to chorales to, of course, candlelight walks.

Not just business districts but neighborhoods where people lived took significant civil and individual pride in stringing lights for the holidays. Numerous of these became famous in their own right, from Candy Cane Lane in Los Angeles to Winter Street in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Though eventually they became homestead theme parks of animatronics and television specials, these expressions of holiday spirit began with the humble colored miniature light bulb.

That light bulb has changed a lot over the decades. Tree lights began as candles and progressed to miniature incandescent bulbs that had to be special ordered and often as not were rented. Christmas nostalgists remember a tangle of thick black cording, affixed with wide-mouth sockets into which one screwed a bullet-shaped bulb whose interior had been painted red, blue, green or yellow, with white and pink joining the line-up in later years. These bulbs were known were somewhat costly, which probably contributed to the desire to urge them outside where everyone could see that you had them. One might plug an auxiliary into a figural plastic display item that was rendered in every kind of holiday image from Rudolph to Santa, angels to Magi, trees to, tellingly, candles.

Once the practice of Christmas tree lights became common, variations began appearing. Many people have memories of trees, windowsills and mantels decorated with lights nestled in sprays of evergreen and sprigs of holly; of lights shaped like toys and candles; of lights shaped like snowflakes and snowmen and ice skates. There were bubble lights and fairy lights and movie star lights that referenced Shirley Temple and Roy Rogers and Robbie the Robot. There were lights shaped like nets of ornaments and lights that clipped to individual branches. And, lest any other culture or holiday feel left out, there were lights for Hannukah, Halloween, Easter, Valentine’s Day, the Fourth of July, birthdays and anniversaries.

Both lighting technology and practices evolved. Downtown America decorated less for the holidays, or moved from figural and highly referential Christmas displays to the clear lights that started appearing because they were ecumenical and that have evolved into the ubiquitous holiday adornment. The bulbs themselves have progressed from those nostalgic multi-colored bulbs to the clear strings of infinite tree-trunk wraparounds and back to nostalgia again. One of the most noticeable trends in holiday décor this year is retro lighting, from reissues of those clunky multicolored bulbs of the mid-century to a resurgence of figural lights. When manufactured by a responsible manufacturer, those modern lights are both safe and fail safe. Here is Urban Home Blog’s Guide to Holiday Lights. Use this guide each year to make sure your lights are safe and to enjoy both decorating with lights for the holidays and those brightly-lit holidays themselves.

Christmas Lights 
Test existing lights. Modern holiday lighting is so reasonably priced that there is no reason for anyone who wants to light their home for the holidays to use outdated or otherwise potentially unsafe lighting. So the first rule of holiday lights is: discard any light or string of lights that is potentially or actually unsafe. As an exception, if heirloom lights can be safely stored (i.e., do not have a dangerous short in the string or socket, as confirmed by an electrician), then safely store them. Handle them carefully when sharing the stories about these heirlooms, and promptly place them, unplugged, safely out of reach.

To test holiday lights, plug a long extension cord into a safely grounded socket in a safely grounded area of the home. Test each and every string of lights by plugging it into the socket. If it doesn’t light, if it sparks, or if it evidences any other kind of safety compromise, unplug it immediately. Unless the string is smoking, discard compromised holiday lights in a plastic wastebasket while you test the remaining strings. While testing lights, it is tempting to try to isolate the “burnt bulb” in instances where a string won’t light, but it gets frustrating quickly and is mostly a waste of time, so just discard those strings as well.

Once you have tested all of the strings, bag up the unsafe, compromised or otherwise unusable strings and throw them in the trash outside. For lights that are true fire hazards, place them in a disposable metal box – often home stores and hardware stores will have one set up for just this purpose during the holiday season.

Replenish and Replace. Most contemporary holiday lights are light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which provide numerous advantages over the incandescent lights we have all gotten used to. They require very little energy to operate and they last a long time. Because modern holiday lighting has gotten relatively inexpensive, it is worthwhile to invest in these lights. They will last for years without the burnouts or potential safety compromises that are a danger with pre-LED strings of lights, even those that are just a few years old. Holiday lights will almost certainly be part of pre-holiday sales, so watch for ads and then take advantage of special offers.

Once you find lights you like, lay in an adequate supply for your plans. As a rule, a six-foot tree should accommodate about 300 lights. Obviously, if you use lights beyond the tree, that increases the number of lights to have available. It is not necessary that lights match – they often look charming when they don’t – but that is the decorator’s decision. Be sure to get lights with a string color that matches the branches of the tree – typically green – and be sure to get lights with one male plug and one female plug.

Make a File. Be sure that your holiday lights are manufactured by a reputable manufacturer. If they are, they should be accompanied by a guarantee. Register the lights if they are packaged with a registration card (often you can do so online), and keep a copy of the registration, the dated sales receipt, and the specifications and instructions together in a paper or electronic file devoted to decorating for the holidays. This is also a great place to store snapshots of how the lights looked once you strung them, in case you want to refer to that in the future.

Light the Tree. We believe in conservation at Urban Home, so these instructions refer to artificial trees. For live trees, remember that LED lights, while the safest choice for lighting, are nonetheless electric, and practice appropriate safety measures.

Lighting on a Christmas tree looks best when it adds dimensionality to the tree without detracting from other ornamentation. Lights should travel from the trunk to the branches and back again, with no noticeable spots that are too dark or too bright. That said, the tree needn’t look perfect, as part of the charm and tradition of a Christmas tree is the story it tells of the family. So don’t get too uptight about wrapping the lights. Focus instead on following these simple basic instructions and the tree will look good.

Artificial trees assemble in layers, often color coded, with the widest branches logically at the bottom of the tree and moving upwards to the shortest branches and, eventually, the crown of the tree. Wrap each layer of the tree as you assemble it, beginning at the trunk and loosely wrapping each branch clockwise. Once you reach the end of the branch, move the string clockwise to the next branch and wrap back towards the trunk. Follow this pattern with each layer of branches, attaching one string to the previous via the female plug that should be at the end of each string of lights. Always work trunk to branch, crossing over from branch to trunk, crossing over again from trunk to branch, and always work clockwise both for wrapping the lights and for progressing through the branches. This is simple and effective, looks lovely when lit, and then when the sad day dawns to take down the decorations, you only have to reverse the process.

Store the Lights. It is tempting to store lights in their boxes but unless you work on a lighting assembly line, it’s a nearly impossible task. A simple low-tech project is a better solution to storing the lights. Note: you can do this project during an off-moment during the holidays, so that your storage solution is waiting when the time comes. Safely use an X-Acto knife or box cutter to cut one of the cardboard shipping boxes that arrives during the holidays into rectangles approximately 14 inches by 7 inches. Make a stack of them; it is no harm to have too many and annoying to come up short. Safely use the knife/cutter to cut a slit approximately 2 inches long at each of the opposing corners of the long side of the rectangle.

As you unstring the lights by reversing the process in the Light the Tree step above, wrap them loosely around your arm. Unplug each string as you go, and deposit each loosely coiled string of lights on a table. Watch for any faulty lights as you go; it is best to dispose of bad strings if any now rather than waiting until next Christmas. Once you have unstrung and coiled all of the usable lights and disposed of any unsafe or otherwise unusable ones, write down how many strings there are on an index card. Store the card in the paper or electronic holiday decorating folder from the Make a File step above.

Using one cardboard rectangle per string of lights, insert one plug end of one light string into one of the slits in the cardboard and, working from there, wrap the lights around the short side of the cardboard, working up the surface of the cardboard as you go. It is okay if the wrapping overlaps a bit as it is virtually impossible for lights to get tangled with this method. Secure the remaining plug end of the light string in the other slit. Store the carded lights in a box or plastic tub large enough to allow them to lie flat. If the lights are affixed with figural caps or other accessories, remove these if the design of the lights allows and place them in a plastic bag; mark the cardboard containing the lights that matches these fixtures. Do not store lights where there is noticeable moisture or extremes of cold or heat, and do not place anything heavy on the box/tub containing the lights.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


December mornings dawn dewy and golden in southern California. This is my second winter holiday season in the land of endless sun, and I must admit both that it took some getting used to and that I am getting used to it. Southern California holidays don’t offer snowy scenery or big city bustle, but they are, indeed, merry and bright. After a low-key Thanksgiving at which we keenly missed the family of friends that would have been gathering in our apartment in Astoria, our holiday season began in the Santa Ynez Valley. We holed up there for a few days rest and relaxation with the area’s famous food and wine, but it turned out to be the ideal spot to welcome the holiday season. The hotel was abustle with getting the property ready for Christmas, which lent a cherry atmosphere without feeling forced or rushed. For years, we have supported Small Business Saturday. This year on that day, we found ourselves in Solvang, California. Every business in this small town seemed to be gathering the benefits of SMS, and we were glad to be there to contribute at our favorite breakfast spot, toy store, food and wine shop, and, of course, independent bookstore.

Back in LA, the holiday season has proceeded with fun and activity, absent the antic edge it often displayed in New York City. We were at The Abbey the afternoon they hoisted the towering Christmas tree into place and cheered on as go-go boys decorated the tree. The Abbey is one of the touchstones of gay life in Los Angeles; perhaps during the holidays that takes on dimensions of enhanced importance. Weekly we check in for cucumber martinis, burgers, and comradeship, to be followed by a walk along the Boystown business district. The holidays are dressed in red velvet and golden lights in West Hollywood, and it makes for a celebratory atmosphere indeed.
I’m getting used to Los Angeles, even learning to love it, but I have to admit that I have times of missing Christmas in Astoria. I’ve written numerous columns from the home office we worked so hard to organize in that apartment, watching from my writer’s window both as snow fell and as it refused to fall. Downtown Astoria is colorful and cheery during the holidays; a crossroads of urban hip and small town closeness. The tree vendors have set up shop along the boulevard, which has been strung with lights in an old-fashioned tradition that today’s malls emulate but whose charm they never capture.
We celebrated over twenty Christmases in New York City, and over that time, our own traditions evolved. Christmas is about tradition but every family’s circumstances evolve, and our own circumstances have taken us from those yearly festivities in the chill northeast to brand new ones in sunny SoCal. We have had to change some traditions, reinvent others, and welcome new ones as we start deeply settling into Los Angeles living.
The change has not been all bad. Space is always an issue in New York City, and even though our apartment in Astoria was large by NYC standards it was always a bit crowded when decorated for the holidays. In our spacious apartment in Los Angeles, we were able to install not one but two Christmas trees. Both the living room and the home office front the patio and are visible from the street, so we positioned the trees to be viewed by passers by. The living room tree is decorated with the collected memories of twenty years of amassing ornaments, offset by warm white lights, while the home office tree is trimmed with mercury glass ornaments, spied through a window framed with golden lights. A poinsettia, gift of a neighbor in the southern California tradition, waits by the door, red brachts at attention to remind us to be merry.
Some traditions we have to work at maintaining. One such is our traditional Christmas morning breakfast, which is just about as New York City as you can get: we have bagels and lox. This evolved because one year I had to work Christmas Eve, which of course evolved into working late. By the time I emerged from the office, the only place open to pick up something for the next morning’s breakfast was a Jewish deli. I got bagels and lox, and one of our private holiday traditions was born. Anyone who’s ever been to a New York City deli, coffee shop or diner will recognize the breadth and heft of a “bagel all the way,” which is a bagel toasted and served with a schmear, lox and red onions. At the Neptune Diner in Astoria, they extended this to include razor thin slices of cucumber, a scattering of mixed olives, a smattering of briny capers. For years, the Neptune’s interpretation of a bagel all the way was the inspiration for how we served our Christmas morning bagel breakfast.
Bagels are not impossible to come by in the land of carb counting, but it took some doing to isolate good bagels in Los Angeles. Los Angeles bagels are smaller than New York City bagels but then so is your average hubcap or Frisbee. Western Bagel came through with flavorful, perfectly textured bagels that toast to golden crispness. Plus a true treasure awaits in the refrigerated case: cucumber-dill cream cheese, somehow airy and substantial at once, and the perfect foil for the toasty bagel.
For years, we had smoked salmon cut by hand by the fishmonger at Balducci’s, but when that venerable Greenwich Village institution shuttered, good lox required traipsing to the Lower East Side. As the child of Osages, I should know how to cure fish, so I vowed to learn how to make lox, and I did. It turns out that easiest to prepare without a smokehouse is also our household favorite: gravlax. Gravlax is the Scandinavian dish that results from curing salmon with sugar, salt and dill. The “laks” that results is light and flavorful, without the heavy oiliness that smoked salmon can display. Sliced thin and served with fresh dill, it is the perfect centerpiece for a bagel breakfast spread that also includes cream cheese flavored with cool cucumber, razor-thin slices of red onion, spritely capers, and fresh dill.
Tell the fishmonger that you want salmon boned and skinned for gravlax. They should reward you with a slab of their finest fish, which should smell clean and succulent while evidencing no off smell or visible black, brown or yellow discoloration.

For the gravlax
1 side fresh salmon, boned and skinned
½ cup vodka, Kummel or Aquavit
2/3 cup kosher salt
½ cup granulated sugar
1 head fresh dill
Freshly ground black pepper
For the breakfast
2 – 4 bagels
1 8-ounce brick cream cheese
¼ cup whole milk
2 cucumbers
2 scallions
1 small red onion
1 small jar Spanish capers
1 head fresh dill
One week before serving
  1. Unwrap the salmon and pat dry with paper towels as needed. Safely use a sharp paring knife to score the salmon in a criss-cross pattern on both sides.
  2. Place the salmon in a glass 9 x 12 cake pan. If it is not sized to lay flat, trim the short edges so that the side lays flat, and distribute the smaller pieces around the empty spaces in the dish.
  3. Gently pour the vodka, Kummel or Aquavit onto the salmon. Use all of the liquor, letting excess settle into the dish. Gently shake the dish to be sure the liquor is well-distributed, including underneath the salmon.
  4. Cover the dish with a double-layer of plastic wrap and refrigerate the salmon, undisturbed for 24 hours.
24 hours after marinating
  1. Remove the dish containing the salmon from the refrigerator.
  2. Use tongs to remove the marinated salmon from the dish and to place the marinated salmon onto a platter large enough to accommodate the salmon. Most of the liquor should have been absorbed by the salmon, so the salmon should be slightly wet.
  3. Generously sprinkle both sides of the marinated salmon with freshly ground black pepper.
  4. Lay the head of dill onto a clean cutting board devoted to vegetables and herbs. Use a sharp knife to cut across the fronds and stems of the dill to produce a large pile of chopped herb.
  5. Measure the salt and sugar into a mixing bowl. Add all of the chopped herb to the sugar-salt mixture. Use a wire whisk to mix the sugar, salt and dill together.
  6. Wipe out the glass pan.
  7. Measure half of the sugar-salt mixture into the pan. Shake the pan to distribute the mixture evenly.
  8. Gently reposition the peppered salmon onto the salt-sugar-herb rub. Make certain that the salmon lies flat, and distribute smaller pieces if any around the empty spaces in the dish.
  9. Add the remaining salt-sugar-herb rub to the top half of the salmon. Use your hands or a silicon spatula to make sure that all of the surface of the salmon is covered with the rub.
  10. Place a sheet of waxed paper large enough to cover the salmon on top of the salmon.
  11. Place pie weights or canned goods on the wax paper in order to weigh the fish down.
  12. Cover the weighted pan with a double layer of plastic wrap.
  13. Place the weighted pan in the refrigerator. Allow to cure, undisturbed, a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 7 days.
Slice the gravlax
  1. After 5 – 7 days have passed, remove the pan containing the cured gravlax from the refrigerator. Unwrap the gravlax. The gravlax should be bright pink and very fragrant.
  2. Place a clean tea towel lengthways on the counter. Place a clean cutting board devoted to seafood on the towel.
  3. Gently place the gravlax on the cutting board. Use paper towels to blot away excessive cure, but it is desirable for some of the cure to remain.
  4. Safely use a large sharp kitchen knife to slice across the grain of the gravlax to form thin slices. Arrange the slices on a serving plate as you go.
  5. Once you have sliced the gravlax, cover with a loose layer of plastic wrap. Use within a few hours or refrigerate covered until ready to use.
Assemble and serve the breakfast
  1. Open the cream cheese and place into a medium bowl to soften.
  2. Place several drops vegetable cleanser in your palm. Rub the cucumbers with the cleanser and rinse the cucumbers under cool water until they feel clean.
  3. Use the knife to cut away and discard the stem and blossom ends of the cucumbers. Use a peeler to remove and discard all of the peel from the remaining cucumber so that no green peel remains. Use the knife to cut the cucumber in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the cucumber seeds and pulp. Set aside the seeds and pulp to infuse vodka.
  4. Place a box grater over a colander. Use the large or medium holes on a box grater to grate the peeled, scooped cucumber halves into the colander. The cucumber will begin to express a lot of liquid so work carefully.
  5. Hold the colander over the sink. Give the colander a good shake and leave the colander in the sink to drain.
  6. Cut the remaining cucumber into coins approximately ¼” thick. Arrange the cut cucumber on a serving plate.
  7. Peel the onion and safely use a sharp knife to remove the stem and root ends. Position a mandolin over the cutting board and place the cut end of the onion against the mandolin. Put on a pair of metal gloves. With gloved hands, use the guide to gently move the onion back and forth across the sharp cutting surface of the mandolin, until you have very thinly sliced about half of the red onion.
  8. Remove the gloves and arrange the shaved red onion on the plate with the cut cucumber.
  9. Use a silicon spatula to work the cream cheese until it is smooth and workable. Use a hand mixer set to medium to gently whip the cream cheese. Once the cream cheese begins to lighten in texture, add the milk in a thin stream to the cream cheese, mixing all the while.
  10. Align the scallions side by side on a clean cutting board devoted to vegetables. Safely use a sharp paring knife to remove and discard the root ends of the scallions. Peel away and discard any papery outer skin from the scallions. Use the knife to slice down each scallion lengthwise to form halves. Cut across the halves to form tiny pieces of scallion.
  11. Transfer the scallion to the bowl containing the whipped cream cheese. Give the colander a final shake. Add the drained, shredded cucumber to the bowl containing the whipped cream cheese.
  12. Use the spatula to incorporate the cucumber and scallion into the whipped cream cheese. Transfer the whipped cream cheese to a serving bowl.
  13. Open the jar of capers. Empty the jar into the colander. Give the colander a good shake. Transfer the capers to the plate containing the sliced cucumbers and shaved onion.
  14. Remove the plastic wrap from the gravlax.
  15. Use several sprigs fresh dill to garnish the cucumber-scallion cream cheese, the cucumber-onion plate, and the gravlax.
  16. Serve with sliced bagels for toasting, for guests to assemble as they desire.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dilled Cheese Bread

One of my favorite things to bake in the holiday kitchen is quick breads. Quick breads are ideal for this busy time of year because they are easy and satisfying to make, can be done in large batches, and are simple to wrap, transport and serve. Quick breads are the stalwarts of both bake sale and coffee hour. Something about their nature, so sturdy and neighborly, is why quick breads are ideal for the holiday kitchen. They invite comradeship over coffee and tea, even if it’s in so simple, but profound, a way as asking for the recipe.
And recipes we do have. Just as surely as quick breads are the workhorses of the holiday kitchen, so are recipes for them a backbone of Urban Home Blog’s baking content. We bake sunny lemon pound cake come springtime, serve savory cream cheese biscuits and pear coffee cake for brunch, spread date nut bread with honeyed cream cheese for picnics. And we always bake cranberry tea bread for the holidays. 
This year, we add another recipe to that repertoire: dilled cheese bread. This savory quick bread emerges from the oven amid clouds of the most amazing aromas: freshly baked bread, melty cheese, heady dill. This bread is perfect to accompany a bowl of soup for lunch, a cheese board at an open house, a selection of dips on the Christmas Eve buffet, but it is at its best fresh from the oven, spread with compound butter. Here is my original recipe for dilled cheese bread.
Dilled Cheese Bread
As noted in Urban Home Blog’s guide to the baking pantry, a 9 x 5 loaf pan is essential for your kitchen. You can obtain a good one here.
1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
1/2 cup grated fontina
1 cup whole milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter plus additional for the pan
1 egg
1 head fresh dill
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper  
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of the loaf pan.
  3. Place a wire mesh strainer over a medium mixing bowl. Measure the flour, baking powder, cayenne pepper and salt through the strainer into the bowl. Shake the strainer to ensure that all of the dry ingredients are in the bowl and set the strainer aside.
  4. Unwrap the butter and add it to the dry ingredients. Use a pastry cutter to thoroughly cut the butter into the dry ingredients. The mixture will remain on the dry side.
  5. Place the dill on a clean cutting board devoted to vegetables. Safely use a paring knife to chop the fronds of dill into tiny pieces. Try to avoid using the thicker stems; just use the fronds.
  6. Use the knife to help you transfer the chopped dill into the bowl containing the butter-flour mixture. Add the grated cheddar, grated fontina and several grindings of fresh black pepper to the bowl.
  7. Use your hands to lightly but thoroughly mix the cheese, the dill and the dry ingredients together.
  8. Measure the milk into a small mixing bowl. Break the egg into the milk and use a wire whisk to whisk the egg into the milk.
  9. Hold the bowl containing the milk-egg mixture over the bowl containing the flour-cheese-herb mixture. Use a silicon spatula to mix the dough as you add the milk-egg mixture in a thin stream to the flour-cheese-herb mixture. Use the spatula to get all of the milk-egg mixture into the dough.
  10. Hold the bowl over the rim of the pan and use the spatula to scrape the dough into the pan. Use the spatula to smooth the top of the bread.
  11. Hold the herb board over the top of the bread and sprinkle any extra minced dill across the top of the bread.
  12. Hold the pepper grinder over the top of the bread and sprinkle the top of the bread with several grindings of fresh black pepper.
  13. Place the bread on the center rack in the preheated oven.
  14. Bake until golden brown and very fragrant, 40 – 45 minutes.
  15. Remove the baked bread from the oven. Allow to cool slightly in the pan before slicing and serving.