Archive for April, 2009

On the Giving and Leaving of Notes


Notes, a vital part of domestic life.

I was actually going to give you a panna cotta update tonight, but instead Wonk the Plank realized that we could watch the entire Silence of the Lambs via YouTube and, well, you can figure out the rest.

So I’ve got nothing. Nothing. Except some notes. Domestic notes.

Wonk and I are fans of notes. It all started with an elaborate treasure hunt he made for me when we were first dating, which involved a series of notes with clues that took me way too long to figure out. That treasure hunt is one of my fondest memories. I think I still have those notes in a box somewhere.

We still employ notes, but for more mundane matters – I leave him notes telling him where the dinner is if I’m out for the night, and he leaves me notes alerting me to the existence of snacks in the fridge.

The other week I woke up to the following series of notes. Wonk had left before me and, I suppose, was afraid I wouldn’t find my lunch. Yes, I didn’t really need a Plank to tell me where my lunch was. But is there really a better thing to wake up to? I don’t think there is.


Note Number One

The first of the notes. The satsuma oranges are the first part of the lunch components.


Note Number Two

This one was right between the table and the fridge.


Note Number Three

This one was on the kitchen floor, pointing the way to leftovers in the fridge.

In case you’re wondering, I found the lunch.


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Why I Love (And Love To Hate) Specialty Cake Pans


Note to any secret admirers, this cake pan would totally be welcome on my doorstep. Just sayin'.

When I first stared writing this entry, I was convinced that I wasn’t a fan of specialty cake pans. But, um, upon further reflection, that’s not exactly the case. It’s not that I think they’re practical, or useful, or particularly well made. In fact, in my head I know that they’re just a way for stores to sell more bakeware around the holidays.

But in my heart? I seriously I love them. Like, love them. They appeal to everything that is girly and cutsey and domestic in me. Every time Williams-Sonoma sends me an email desperately hocking their latest cake pan (in case you haven’t heard, things aren’t so good in the profit arena), I kind of secretly want to buy them.

My latest obsession? This Oreo cookie sandwich shaped cake pan. I know that it’s the most impractical thing ever and we have no more room in our cabinets – but, OMG, I want it! I would totally make a chocolate cake and fill it with the mint frosting I used on the whoopie pies.

So, all my secret admirers, take note: I wouldn’t turn this down if it showed up on my doorstep. Not at all. I might even write a post about it.

Photo via Williams-Sonoma.

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April Custard Project, Take Three: Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta With Orange-Infused Strawberries

Panna Cotta 1

Panna cotta - lovely to eat, difficult to photograph.

I’m sad to see the April Custard Project drawing to a close. I’ve barely tapped the surface of custard; there are so many flavors, recipes, and techniques I have left to try. And after months of eating cookies and cakes, I’m still astonished at how custards are such perfect vehicles for flavors – a vanilla poundcake, for instance, will never match the rich, pure flavor of a vanilla-infused custard. I miss the solid satisfaction that can only come from creaming butter and sugar until light and fluffy, but, right now, I’m sold on the joys of scalding cream, whisking egg yolks, and scraping seeds from vanilla beans.

If I get really ambitious tonight this week may boast a fourth and final entry in the custard project, but I’m not sure as of yet.

Perhaps a final entry would bore you anyway, since it’s most likely going to be a do-over of my latest custard project, vanilla bean panna cotta, which was so close to perfection that it practically screams to be made again.

I’ve had fantasies about making panna cotta ever since Stefan made a mango version during Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars. Wonk and I also had a fabulous panna cotta at 2Amys on Valentine’s day that I still dream about.

I adapted this recipe for my own panna cotta experiments, but made one key substitution: instead of using vanilla extract to flavor the custard, I used a real Tahitian vanilla bean. My mother gave them to me as a Christmas present, but I could never find the right occasion to use them. Now that I’ve tasted the real thing, I don’t think I could go back to vanilla extract.

So why was the custard only “close” to perfect? Well, I had a little “mishap” with the gelatin, which acts as the thickener for this Italian dessert. I misread the recipe, and instead of adding two and a half teaspoons of gelatin to the custard I added two whole packets. Suffice it say, this panna cotta was more “rubbery” than “silky” – kind of like a grown-up version of Jello Jigglers.

Still, it tasted good enough that I want to make it again. I was especially pleased with the fruit topping. I sweetened the strawberries with a couple teaspoons of the orange syrup I had left over from making candied orange peels, and I mixed the berries with orange zest, which was the perfect compliment to the strawberries. This would also be lovely with any kind of fresh fruit – I think blackberries and peaches would be on the top of my list to try next.

Panna cotta 2

Panna cotta, close up.

Recipe: Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta With Orange-Infused Strawberries

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Highlights from the 2009 Smithsonian Craft Show


Glowing pottery from Rossheim/Marrinson Studios at the 2009 Smithsonian Craft Show.

I was fortunate to make it down to the Smithsonian Craft Show on Sunday, a yearly event featuring the work of American’s best craft artists. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, the juried show featured the work of 120 artists in the areas of basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood.

While most of the people at the show seemed to be there to shop, I headed down for inspiration. After all, as an amateur crafter, it’s always good to see what some of the best people in the country are producing. And I was not disappointed.

Here were some of my favorite exhibits at the show.

Danielle Gori-Montanelli
1046 Oldfield Rd.
Fairfield, CT 06824
(203) 548-9025


A felt collar from Danielle Gori-Montanelli

I was drawn to the bright colors and fun shapes of Danielle Gori-Montanelli’s booth. Her hand-sewn felt pieces, which ranged from necklaces to collars to brooches, were absolutely stunning. Her pieces are simple – constructed from just felt and thread – but the way she plays with height, depth, pattern, and color is expertly done.


A stacked felt brooch.

You purchase Gori-Montanelli’s work on her web site, and learn more about her creative process.

Jessica Beels
1781 Lanier Place, NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 361-2609


You would never guess that this jewlery is made from paper.

These pieces by Jessica Beels caught my eye because they were so delicate and subtle, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the translucent covering was made of. So imagine my surprise when I found out they were made from paper! Beels, a DC local, makes her jewelry out of her home studio in Adams Morgan. She has a description of how she makes her paper pieces on her Web site; she starts with a metal armature and covers them with strips of homemade  paper. The paper shrinks as it dries, creating a taunt and delicate structure.


One of Beel's paper sculptures.

You can purchase Beels’ products and learn more about her work on her web site.

Rossheim/Marrinson Studios
PO Box 78
Starksboror, VT 05487
(802) 453-4887


This pottery seems to glow.

I am a sucker for a beautiful pottery. But the bowls in the Rossheim-Marrinson Studios booth were more than just beautiful forms – they literally seemed to c0llect light. Emily Rossheim developed a technique where the unglazed pottery glows when placed under direct light. I loved the bright colors and organic shapes of the pieces as well.


I loved the bright colors.

Rossheim/Marrinson Studios’ pottery sells in galleries all over the country. Email them at for more information.

Ann Brauer
Quilt Studio
2 Conway St.
Shelburne Ma 01370
(413) 625-8605


A quilt that's more like a fabric painting.

What would a craft show be without quilts? But, as you can see, these quilts by Ann Brauer are more than just ordinary quilts – they’re fabric works of art. I love how the pieces play with light and color. I asked Brauer how long a piece takes to construct, but she couldn’t give an estimate – although she did say that choosing and placing the fabrics takes much longer than the actual sewing.  You can learn more about her work on her Web site.


A close up of one of Brauer's pieces.

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Weekly Roundup: Spring Flowers Edition

Wardman Park Mariott

Flowers at the Wardman Park Mariott, near the Woodley Park Metro.

Good morning! I keep on saying that it’s finally spring in DC, only to be met with a week of rain. Let’s hope I’m actually right this time.

Recipes I encountered this week that I totally want to try:

  • Buttermilk pound cake from the New York Times. Granted, I’d switch out the shortening with butter, but it still looks delish.
  • Vegan chocolate chip cookies from the Vegetarian Times. Okay, I’m usually not sold on vegan recipes, but a friend raved about them on Facebook. I’m intrigued.
  • Three alarm tofu with oyster mushrooms and spinach from Serious Eats. I’m looking for meatless, cheap dinner options that don’t involve eggs. Not that I don’t love eggs – they are the food of the gods – but a girls’ got to mix it up sometimes.
  • Barbecued chicken on garlic toast from Martha Stewart. This looks like a perfect Saturday night dinner – I’d serve them with a salad and a good beer (from Oregon, of course), and eat them out on the fire escape with my favorite Plank.

And in other domestic news:

  • On May 11th, Proof will be hosting a benefit for the Museum of the American Cocktail in honor of World Cocktail Week. Given that I don’t have $145 to spare for a five course tasting menu and signature cocktails from some of DC’s best mixologists, maybe I’ll try to find my own way to celebrate this holiday. Possibly with this. Via Metrocurean.
  • NPR reviews good cookbooks for “lean times.” Maybe I should check these out for lunchtime alternatives to bean soup? I made it for lunches this week, and there’s no way I can eat another bowl.
  • The District Domestic is in love with succulents. It reminded me how much I love my own succulent, though it be near to death.
  • The Open House Blog has cheap decorating tips. I like that this article address the “Pottery Barn funk.” That’s one nasty funk.

Happy Friday!

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Would Julia Child Tweet?


Twitter ain't got nothin' on these babies.

Let’s start with the facts: I am not anti Twitter. In fact I signed up for Twitter a couple of weeks ago, on the advice of DeborahDawn and countless social networking articles (you can follow me at Modern_Domestic).

I may have joined the bandwagon, but I’m still not sure how I feel about Twitter. I’d still rather read a good news web site, or blog, or even (*gasp*) book, than my Twitter feed.

Which is why I felt especially conflicted when the New York Times reported that Twitter is taking on one of my favorite, time-honored food media sources: the cookbook.

The Times featured twitterer (tweeter?) Maureen Evans, who tweets recipes in 140 characters or less at Amazingly, the recipes aren’t just standard fare (if I were tweeting recipes, I wouldn’t get further than buttered noodles).

Take this April 5th tweet:

Darjeeling Soup: fry leek&onion/T butter. Simmer15m+2c cauliflr/1tater&celery/4c Darj tea/s+p/bay. Rmv bay; puree+6T milk. Srv w nutmeg&pep.

It’s sophisticated (tea as entree), exotic, complicated, and not something you’d expect could be communicated via tweet. And, once you parse through the abbreviations, it’s easy to follow.

But, with all due respect to Maureen Evans, who seems like an ambitious and thoughtful home cook after my own heart, her tweets leave me cold. As a technical achievement, tweeting complicated recipes in 140 characters is impressive. But where is the soul? Where is the voice? And where are the detailed instructions?

I not only find cookbooks easier to follow, especially for tricky techniques (I’d never be able to follow a tweeted recipe for, say, pat a choux, or caramel sauce), but the bare bones tweets are missing the human and dynamic element that make cookbooks worth reading.

Take Nigella Lawson – what would her cookbooks be without her soulful, decadent, descriptive prose? When Nigella advises me to not color lime curd with food coloring, because the off-putting fake green color “prove[s] in one characteristically rash act that food is better left to its own devices,” I’m not just being warned off chemical dyes. Her breezy tone tells me not to worry about being perfect and to take my mistakes in stride. At the end of the day, she seems to say, my love for food will shine through my cooking.

And would “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” have become a seminal text for the home cook without the no-nonsense, yet deeply sympathetic writing of Julia Child? How can you not fall in love with the book when she declares, in the beginning of the chapter on eggs “wine and eggs have no great sympathy for each other?” Her straightforward writing calms me, making even the most complicated dish approachable. Reading it today, I completely understand why her writing was such a revelation to home cooks in the 1950s.

This probably makes me old fashioned. And maybe this means I’m weird – maybe normal people don’t sit down and read cookbooks cover to cover. But I’m a firm believer that cookbooks are more than just the sum of their recipes. A good cookbook should introduce you to a cook’s world view on food, eating, and cooking. Trying a new recipe is more than just following instructions – it’s an opportunity to inhabit someone else’s kitchen. I don’t think it’s possible to do that in 140 characters.

All the same, I still plan on linking to this post on my Twitter feed.

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April Custard Project, Take Two: Orange Chocolate Pots De Creme

Pot de creme

Orange Chocolate Pot De Creme.

After the cupcake deluge last week, I was done with sugar. Or, well, I was done with sugar for a couple of days. As Wonk the Plank will tell you, I have a huge sweet tooth, so this was an unusual occurrence in our household. But eating multiple cupcakes for days on end (how many I’m not even going to say), will force even the most avid sugar enthusiast tot take a break.

If you’re wondering why last week didn’t have a custard project entry – that’s why.

Thankfully, I rallied this weekend. Wonk’s mother was visiting, and I wanted our Sunday night dinner to end with a fabulous and decadent dessert – I can never pass up the opportunity to show off for company. So I served up the second entry in the April Custard Project: Orange Chocolate Pot De Crèmes.

Let me first say that we loved it – I flavored the custard with orange and cinnamon, which married well with the chocolate. But I also especially loved this dessert because it was so simple, and yet so satisfying.

The pot de crème is a classic French dessert – it’s a cream-based custard that is thickened with egg yolks and cooked in small custard cups (think of it as a crème brulee, but without the burnt sugar topping). The pot de crème embodies what I love about many French desserts – it’s a rich and deeply satisfying dessert that is deceptively simple. It can also be adapted to any taste or flavor.

It allows me to show off with relatively little effort.

Begin cooking these a day in advance, since the custard will need time to cool and set. The only part of the recipe that can be a little intimidating is that you must temper the egg mixture before adding it to the hot custard – otherwise, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs in your custard. “Tempering” sounds scary, but all you have to do it quickly add a small amount of hot custard to the yolks and stir vigorously, which cooks the eggs without scrambling them.

Also, you may not want to make the candied orange peel, but I promise you – it’s really not as difficult as it sounds. And it adds a lovely touch and visual interest to the final dish – well worth the small amount of effort it takes.

Recipe: Orange Chocolate Pot De Creme

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Weekly Roundup: Giant Chocolate Rabbit Edition


Because every Friday needs a giant chocolate rabbit.

Good morning! This giant chocolate rabbit was at the house where Wonk The Plank and I had a fantastic Easter dinner. Usually you only see giant chocolate rabbits in candy stores, so imagine my surprise when we were greeted by this fellow. Many thanks to the lovely Tabatha, for putting the giant-ness of the rabbit in perspective.

After eating so many cupcakes this week, I’m taking a break from baking for the next few days. This is difficult, since I’ve already seen several recipes this week that I really want to try.

Tempting recipes from the blog-o-sphere:

  • The first is from Lemmonex, who is fed up with the internets and making sugar and spice shortcake with peaches and berries to channel her frustration. Nice to know others engage in the art of stress baking.
  • I am intrigued with the Pastel De Tres Leches, over at Not Quite Nigella. It’s a Latin American cake, soaked in milk and topped with a whipped cream frosting and pomegranate seeds. Lovely.
  • I don’t want to make this, one I just want to look at it: cake porn from Rose Levy Beranbaum.

And in non recipe-related news:

  • Reading story after story about “teabagging” has put me off tea for the next month.
  • Apartment Therapy DC reviews Apartment Zero, a home furnishings and all-around cool stuff store in Penn Quarter.
  • In a bizarre piece of fashion-related news (kind of), George Will unleashes a tide of hatred on blue jeans. Woah. Is someone still bitter that his jeans weren’t “cool enough” in high school or something? We Love DC thinks this is a stupid waste of ink. So do I.
  • Doing some spring cleaning and redecorating? Check out this affordable art from DesignSponge.

Happy Friday!

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Sweet Rewards From Georgetown Cupcake! And a shameless Peeptown Cupcake voting plug.

Georgetown Cupcake 1

Who needs to win the Peeps Show when you can eat cupcakes?

There was a cupcake deluge at my office yesterday afternoon! As a thank-you for “Peeptown Cupcake,” Georgetown Cupcake sent four dozen cupcakes to my work. There were only four of us at the office (only seven people work there total), meaning that there were a dozen cupcakes per person. Needless to say, I stopped by Wonktheplank’s work and dropped off half. I was very touched that the GTC staff loved the diorama, and I was very flattered by the cupcake gift.

Needless to say, we were in sugar shock all afternoon. We were all big fans of the white chocolate raspberry seasonal cupcake – the fresh raspberries baked into the cupcake were wonderful and we loved the white chocolate frosting. I also had the mocha, which may just be my favorite GTC cupcake yet. The coffee frosting was just . . . amazing. Mmmm . . .

Also, if you haven’t yet voted for Peeptown Cupcake on the WaPo web site, you still can! Vote now!

More pics below:


At the office with the cupcakes, taken with the help of my coworker's camera phone.

GTC Note

A very nice note from the staff.

Four Dozen

There were a dozen cupcakes per person. Needless to say, we didn't keep them all!

White Chocolate Raspberry and Lemon

Lemon Berry and White Chocolate Raspberry.

Really, there were so many.

But, seriously, there were so many. The mocha cupcakes were especially good.

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Kitchen Basics: How to Use Parchment Paper

Bonnie Doon Oaties - Empty Cookie Sheets

Pans lined with parchment paper.

Photo via flickr, by phil_g under the creative commons license.

I used to think that parchment paper was snooty. Just the word “parchment” sounds refined and gourmet – as though parchment paper was a snobbish cousin to the more down-home wax paper. But then I started using parchment paper, and I came to love it for what it was – a multipurpose workhorse of the kitchen.

Parchment paper is brown and heavy nonstick paper; it’s like wax paper but without the wax coating. You can use it for many kitchen tasks, although I mostly use it for baking:

  • Lining cookie sheets. This is the main way that I use parchment paper – it’s the perfect nonstick coating for cookie sheets. The dark coating on my nonstick cookie sheets conducts too much heat and burns my cookies, so I switched to using AirBake cookie sheets and lining them with parchment paper instead. The parchment paper also makes for easy transfer to a cooling rack – just slide the entire sheet of parchment onto the rack. This is especially helpful for delicate cookies, like tuiles or gingerbread, which can break easily if you try to lift them off with a spatula.
  • Lining cake pans: lining the bottom of your cake pan with parchment paper also ensures that your cake will flip out of the pan perfectly, every time. To make a parchment circle to line the bottom of a cake pan, place your pan on the parchment paper, outline with a pencil, and cut out the circle slightly inside the pencil line. You can also use parchment to line loaf pans, or to make a collar for a souffle dish.
  • Pastry bags: okay, so I haven’t actually used parchment to make a frosting piping bag, but it’s a classic technique that I should probably master some day. Detailed instructions on making a parchment piping bag are available here.
  • Piping surface: when you are making delicate frosting figures that you intend to transfer onto a cake, you can initially pipe them onto parchment paper. I’ve only done this a couple of times, given that my cake decorating is more down-home, but it was extremely helpful You can also use parchment paper in this manner for making chocolate decorations.
  • Rolling out pie dough: for those of you who have a hard time rolling out pie dough, you can lessen the pain by rolling the dough between two sheets of floured parchment paper. The rolling pin won’t stick to the parchment, allowing you to roll the dough more thinly and evenly than you would otherwise. It also makes it easier to transfer the dough to the pie pan.
  • Fish en papillout: cooking fish in parchment paper in is a classic French technique, and one I love to use when we make fish (which isn’t very often, because the fish one gets in DC is of dubious quality). For recipes, check out Martha Stewart’s guide to fish en papillout.

Any other uses that I left out?

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