Saturday, April 5, 2014

Spring Cleaning, Part Four: Products Updated

It's hard to believe that it's been almost five years since I started writing about spring cleaning. That first post was for a food shelter site where among my beats was nostalgic cooking, a role I slid easily into. Then as now, I associated spring cooking with chiffon cake, so that's what I wrote about. The post has been archived by the site's successor, but in writing about chiffon cake I was writing about spring and food, and that meant writing about my grandmother. For my grandmother, spring meant chiffon cake, Easter candy, and spring cleaning. And so, chiffon cake led to spring cleaning, and not just because of the crumbs on the upholstery.

Since then, I have written about spring cleaning both practically and poetically. Annually, the most popular free printable download in Urban Home Blog's ever-expanding library of them is the Spring CleaningChecklist, even as that article enjoys an annual resurgence of hits. After my cancer diagnosis, treatment and, at press time, cure, I re-evaluated my approach to homekeeping, which led to popular articles on the chemistry of spring cleaning as well as its products.

As noted before, changing households is an opportunity to re-evaluate how we keep our homes. Most of us know the familiar routine of evaluate/purge/organize that represents annual and semi-annual household organization, from setting up the home office in January to changing over the closets at spring and autumn. But it kicks into high gear in a move, and the work, overwhelming as it can get, is also rewarding. As much as we accumulate, it is good to pare down. By volume alone, a move all but demands this, and a large-scale move, such as one to another part of the country or the world, commands it.

Once you arrive in your new home, one of the necessities of setting up homekeeping will be evaluating what you need to do to keep a safe and well-run home in this new environment. The larger lessons of that teach themselves. For John and me, after years of vertical New York City living, the open arms layout of our Los Angeles home afforded us the pleasure of reconnecting with outdoor living.  But that's only one example. Any switch of households, whether across town or across a continent, will require practical re-considerations as well. These include everything from learning a new neighborhood to maintaining new appliances and cleaning new surfaces. To that end, here is a follow-up to a popular earlier column on Spring Cleaning products. It is not meant to supercede that original column, but it does take into consideration the needs of a new and different urban home, many of which didn't necessarily apply to the previous one.

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..

A fundamental concern for homekeeping, and one we don’t always think about unless something goes wrong with it, is the water supply. The quality of water supplied to your home will be evident at shower and bath time, when you do the dishes, and on laundry day. You can learn the details of your water supply from your water company. It is good information to have, for it affects everything from personal hygiene to kitchen, laundry to plumbing. In all municipalities, you have the right to expect that the water that comes out of the tap is clean enough for human consumption. Always call the water department if the water looks dirty or displays an off odor.

For household use, water is evaluated on a scale from hard to soft, with hard water referring to water with a noticeable concentration of mineral salts, especially magnesium and calcium, and soft water referring to an absence of that mineral salt concentration. One way that hard water announces itself is in the formation of mineral deposits in basins and enclosures, and in lower lather when mixed with water-activated cleansing agents. In addition, municipalities will be affected variously by salt, dirt, local manufacturing, and other factors. It is important to remember that the water supply runs both directions, and whatever you wash away returns to a larger water supply, where it affects the ecosystem.

In the kitchen, water quality affects virtually everything. While, again, you have the right to expect that the water that comes out of the tap is safe for human consumption, for drinking and cooking we use filtered water. This came into sharper focus when we moved west, where we noticed that our city water evidenced a hard profile. We have tried both faucet filters and filtration pitchers and have found that a filtration pitcher works just fine. We use Brita Everyday Water Filtration Pitcher. A counter embedded in the lid advises us when it is time to change the filter, which we buy in bulk at the beginning of the year. We use this filtered water for everything that impacts food and drink, from boiling water to filling the ice trays.

Water quality in the kitchen doesn’t just affect drinking and cooking, it affects preparation and clean up. Since the earliest days of Urban Home Blog, I have tagged every recipe that utilizes fresh produce with cleansing it before cooking and eating with a food-safe produce cleaner.  We like both Environne Fruit and Vegetable Wash and Trader Joe Fruit and Vegetable Wash.

I wrote about dishwashing liquid in the previous column about cleaning products. Those recommendations still hold, but how I do dishes has changed now that I have a dishwasher. As with all home appliances, taking care of the appliance with routine maintenance and cleaning both enhances the appliance's functioning and extends its life. CLR Calcium, Lime and Rust Remover can run through most dishwashers, but it's best use is for those mineral-filmed basins and stalls referred to above. For the dishwasher, we prefer Glisten Dishwasher Magic for both its economy and ease and effectiveness of usage. Use it once a month to clean and disinfect the dishwasher. A finish-rinse agent such as Jet-Dry helps the dishes dry nicely by interacting with the rinse cycle of the machine, a need that becomes more pronounced with hard water.

Once you have removed those sparkling dishes from the dishwasher, you will need to return them to well-organized cabinets. We all recall the gummy plastic shelf liners of our childhood cabinets and craft tables, but the best shelf liners are made from natural material. Bamboo liners exist but are pricey and not shock absorbent. We have found that the best shelf liners are made from cork. We use Target Naturals Adhesive Cork Liner.

Many homes are equipped with a garbage disposal. A good garbage disposal is an environmentally responsible way to deal with food scraps provided it is utilized and maintained properly. Locate the usage directions for your garbage disposal unit in the homekeeping records or online and then heed them. Your garbage disposal unit should break down appropriate food wastes such as non-fibrous fruit and vegetable scraps and then send them, almost liquefied, into the wastewater system. Most garbage disposers work best if operated under a thin stream of running water. While cleansing supplies exist for garbage disposals, the best cleansing supply for your garbage disposal unit is a box of baking soda. Pour 1/2 box of baking soda into the unit monthly, and allow the soda to sit in the unit for five minutes. After five minutes, turn on the tap so that the stream goes into the disposal's drain, and run the disposal until it sounds clear, typically about thirty seconds. If your municipality allows, the best way to manage food scraps is a compost bucket. We got our white ceramic compost pail with charcoal filters at Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood, where we knew it would conform to local guidelines. We use the compost to nourish the soil for the plantings around the patio.

A task whose necessity doesn’t change is laundry. Air- and water quality have their effects on clothes. For all machine-safe fabrics we add 1/2 scoop OxyClean per load to the drum of the machine as it fills. For sturdy clothes that see a lot of wear, such as underclothes, we add one capful of Lysol Concentrate Disinfectant per load to the drum of the machine as it fills, and for all laundry except towels we add 1/4 cup baking soda per load to the drum of the machine as it fills. Perhaps we ever will be New Yorkers at heart, for it is noticeable how many of our clothes are black. To clean those, we use Perwoll Black.

Fabric softeners are tricky, as many of them contain irritants to sensitive skins and, depending on the formulations, some of them can harm fabric either by staining it or by leaving residue on fibers. If you use baking soda in the wash water as noted above, you shouldn't need a fabric softener, but if you like the fragrance that fabric softeners impart, the best products are green. We like Seventh Generation Natural Liquid Fabric Softener and Ecover Fabric Softener. Remember that all laundry recommendations must be evaluated against such considerations as contact allergies or other reactions with cleaning products, and for suitability for fabric- and article type.

Of course, skin is at the center of the daily bath. We make our own bath salts in our urban home, but before we clean our skin we must have clean bathtubs, showers and sinks. Cleaning the bathroom must include disinfecting it, but disinfecting agents can be harsh. While most households keep  a supply of disinfecting wipes in a bathroom cabinet, these are best kept for touch up cleaning rather than for regular cleaning. For that, measure 1/4 cup Lysol Concentrate Disinfectant into a small waterproof bucket and fill the bucket 1/2 with warm water. Agitate the solution until well-mixed, and, wearing rubber or latex gloves, use that solution and a sponge to clean the bathroom. For hard-water deposits, Calcium, Lime and Rust Remover works well; be sure to follow the label directions, including those for ventilation. Especially for the shower and tub, the Rubbermaid Extendable Scrubber is invaluable for cleaning the bathroom.

One thing I got used to during years of caring for New York City hardwood floors was the "high traffic area" of weekday game shows. In California, hardwood flooring exists in older buildings but in newer ones, wooden flooring when present is likely to be made of bamboo. This material is sustainable, durable, cost-effective and attractive. While not a hard wood, bamboo responds to the same cleaning schedule, process and products. Click here for those earlier recommendations. Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner works effectively and easily to clean and condition the bamboo flooring in our new urban home.

For carpets and rugs, we remain faithful to the Riccar1500S, though newer models have since been introduced. With regular upkeep, carpets and rugs shouldn't require ongoing deep cleaning. If they do, rental machines such as Rug Doctor are available at the home center and often the supermarket. At the home center they should also be able to refer you to a professional cleaner for home textiles, who can not only clean carpets and rugs on site but deep clean the upholstery and draperies as well.  This is a worthwhile expense once a year.

Between professional cleanings, use the vacuum to regularly clean carpets, rugs and upholstered furniture. For leather furniture such as the club furniture in our home office, use Lexol Leather Cleaner and Leather Conditioner on a weekly or bi-weekly basis as warranted by the atmospheric conditions in your home. Click here to learn about monitoring temperature and barometric pressure in the home; as a rule, the warmer and drier the atmosphere, the drier leather will become and the more frequently it will require care. Once it is compromised, leather cannot be salvaged, so this care is not only important once you have the furniture but as a consideration before you purchase. If necessary, a tanner may be able to repair small patches or panels in the furniture.

Finally, while it is certainly sobering to hear that your home requires earthquake proofing, in Southern California that is a fact. Earthquakes are unnerving to be sure, but they are our emergency to be prepared for just as surely as a midwesterner has to be ready for a tornado and an northeasterner ready for a blizzard.  It isn’t a cleaning product, but this is as good a place as any to remind us of the necessity of a household kit. Pre-packaged kits are available, but the best practice is to decide what is necessary for your household and then assemble those supplies. Place them in an easy-to-carry box with a handle, and place the box in an accessible area of the main floor of the home, such as an entry closet or the broom closet. FEMA has a valuable list of items to consider. Include an index card with emergency numbers, both for you and for emergency responders if necessary. Finally, register your household with both local law enforcement and the FEMA field office. Include pets, children, and the elderly, so stating, and if any of these individuals are housed elsewhere, even short term, be sure that those institutions daily send an updated list of residents and charges to local law enforcement.

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.