Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Collecting Seashells

While we were at the shore several weeks ago I decided to collect a few shells during one of my walks.  The long stretch of beach that I love so much is covered with seashells, stones and small pebbles locally known as Cape May diamonds.  Not really knowing what I would do with them or where I would display them, I filled a small bag with a few items as we made our way back to the car.  There was such a large variety that I could have filled an entire bucket with shells, to be honest, but I was mindful and gathered only a few.  

Small, dark-colored shells were the first ones I picked up because they looked so beautiful against the damp sand.  These particular ebony-like shells were easy to spot.  They almost seemed to glimmer whenever we’d walk past them.  

As you can imagine, many of the shells were either imperfect or broken, but every once in awhile we would come across some that we just had to pick up.  With a modest amount of them in my bag I began to look at other shapes, colors & sizes.  

Once I got back home and rinsed all of my finds I started to think of my dining table and how I could use some of the shells.  The smaller ones (above) became a pale gray as soon as they dried.  

It's only while they are wet that these shells darken.  

As you can see I only gathered a small amount of shells and stones.  Finding the whorls (I think they're snail tail shells) in the center of the photograph was somewhat of a scavenger hunt for us.  Again, most were broken into bits and pieces.  Although there were many stones for the taking I only picked up 4 of them, such as the violet wampums.  I felt lucky to have found that inner core of whelk.

 I love the variegated creams, browns, grays and purples.

That inner core from the whelk is so beautiful, don't you think?  It's amazing how it spirals and forms that shape.

The snail tails (we kept calling them whorls) had so much sand in them that days later, after I had thoroughly soaked them, they were still depositing bits of it.

As you can see, this whelk has some embedded stones that may or may not be Cape May diamonds.

I only found a couple of wampums so I had to bring them home.  That large stone on the upper right has such a wonderful texture and that round, soft-white stone on the bottom right is what is known as a Cape May diamond.  These 'diamonds' are almost translucent when they lie in water and many people come to this beach just to look for them.  It almost blends in with the Spanish macael marble on the counter.

This is what I envisioned while on the beach.  Old silver, Wedgwood drabware, natural linens in black and flax to set a table with some of the shells.  

 The colors work well together.

A shell used as a salt cellar is a nice way to bring a bit of nature to the table from one of my favorite places in the world.

I normally don't like to set a table with really dark linens, but I do own some that I mix and match with other colors for a bit of contrast.  For this table I envision perhaps a flax-colored tablecloth with the Wedgwood china, gilt-rimmed stemware, this old silver I picked up at an antique store many years ago and some ink-black linen napkins.  A salad to begin the meal and maybe some diver scallops as the main course sounds wonderful to me.  What do you think?

It’s always fun to get creative by giving some unexpected finds a new purpose.  Using shells like the ones I gathered to set a nice table for guests can really get a conversation going, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box.  One doesn’t have to be formal when setting a table, really and truly, and if you must know, looking at nature for inspiration is always my go-to.  With just enough shells for eight place settings it’s going to be nice having them for special moments.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

Edible Prints for Cookies

A good friend of mine recently asked me to create some special cookies for her husband because she wanted to surprise him at work.  Since the logo of his favorite NFL team was the design of choice for this occasion, I suggested using edible prints on each cookie in order to get precise results.  It was then that I began my search for sources that could provide what I needed.

Fellow bakers told me about their tried & trusted sources and some gave me the pros and cons of edible wafer paper versus frosting sheets.  With this information I settled on edible wafer paper which led me to the easy-to-use website of Edible Printing.  An order was placed, the sheets were delivered and yet, we had to wait to use them because they were meant for a specific date.  Since these prints dry out very easily and fade if left exposed, the sheets had to stay inside a food-safe zip-top bag and they had to be in a cool, dry place away from any light.

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about using these images because I hadn't done so before, but after completing the first cookie, the rest were iced & sugared rather quickly without any mishaps.  I was so thrilled with the results and I can assure you that the recipient was very happy with his surprise.

Now that I know how simple it is to work with edible prints I may find myself ordering these for very special occasions and celebrations.  I love the idea of having a specific image emblazoned on a tasty cookie covered with wonderful royal icing.  Think wedding favors with the couple's monogram, an anniversary with names & dates, a graduation, a sweet 16, a baby shower with the baby's name or a company logo for a sponsored event.  Just about any occasion can be made into a wonderful cookie.

Edible prints for cookies are going to become a favorite with me and I hope that after seeing how simple they are to use, you too will be inspired to make a few of these for your next celebration.

Here's a quick & easy tutorial.

This is the type of sheet that arrives from Edible Printing.  Each sheet provides a perfect circle which can be centered on a cookie.  You also have the option to order business card-shaped prints or quarter sheet-sized prints for a larger image.    

If you haven't guessed it by now, this is the logo of the Miami Dolphins!

What I like about Edible Printing is that they provide step-by-step instructions with your order on how to store and use these images.  

For this project I first made sure I had: 

In order for the wafer paper images to lift off the sheets they have to dry out completely.  The best way to achieve this is to leave the images out on your counter for a good 15 minutes before proceeding.  The two preceding images show you how dry they must be in order to lift off the sheets.  If the images are still damp, they will not come off.  

A small icing spatula was used to move every image off the sheet and onto an iced cookie.

You would think that a cookie which is outlined with royal icing and squiggled with it like this would be sufficient to adhere the image, right?  It's not.

You must fill in every single gap with icing in order to create a smooth surface on which to drop every image.

This is what your cookie should look like before even attempting to place a wafer paper image on the surface.  Depending on how your kitchen environment is (dry or humid), make sure the icing is still damp so that the image adheres correctly.  If your icing begins to dry out you may run into problems.  

The image gets centered on the cookie and whatever exposed icing is left gets covered in clear, fine sanding sugar.  It's a good way to hide the outline of the wafer paper, but it's also a nice way to enhance each cookie.  Don't they look grand? 

After getting over whatever nervousness you may have, the subsequent cookies will be a walk in the park for you.  Trust me.

Place each iced and sugared cookie on a baking sheet so that everything dries completely.  

As you can see from this picture, we went with two different sizes (2-1/2" rounds and 3-1/2" rounds) and when all were dry and ready to be shipped out, each was placed in a clear cellophane bag.

Like I said, a baking project like this is simple and the results are absolutely stunning or in the words of the recipient, they're awesome!  The next time you want to surprise someone you love with a few special cookies, think about perhaps creating the treats using edible prints and wait for the oohs and aahs when everyone sees what you've created.  Some may even say that they're too beautiful to eat, but reassure them that there are always more.  

Create & Share 
Beautiful Cookies 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Visiting Cape May Point

This past week I spent some time with family in the historic area of Cape May.  The tranquil town is such a beautiful area filled with Victorian homes, restaurants, shops and miles of pristine beaches for one to stroll during the day.  The first time I visited Cape May was during my freshman year in college back in 1994 and it was then that I fell in love with this wonderful town.  All of these years later the place still holds that special magic for me and I couldn’t be happier having visited for several days.  

As much as I was fortunate enough to have visited for just under a week, our trip didn’t start under auspicious circumstances.  Having our power and heat go out due to an ice storm, we were forced to leave our Montgomery County home to seek warmer shelter.  Cooking meals, sharing laughs, having our cats get used to a new environment and yes, taking strolls along the miles of beach were all very nice to say the least.   

The first day that we were here I wanted to take a walk down Cape May Point, past the historic lighthouse, the WWII bunker and through the wildlife sanctuary that I visited way back when.  Although it was cold that day we ventured out, I found it to be gorgeous because the sun was shining and the breeze was light.  Regrettably I did not capture that walk for you with my camera since we left our home in a hurry, and I really wasn’t thinking in terms of vacationing or recreation.  Luckily, however, I was able to borrow a small camera on a subsequent walk and the photos below are just a few that I took over the weekend.       

If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting historic Cape May, New Jersey, I suggest you put it on your to-do list.  Book a weekend at one of the many bed & breakfast establishments and walk through this glorious town.  Make sure that you have a good hat, some sunglasses, good walking shoes and a camera.  

Like me, you’re going to want to stay here.

Here I am taking one of my long walks along the beach.  On this particular day the weather was quite cold and blustery with temperatures in the 20s. Even so, there were a few individuals taking their afternoon strolls.  

Between Cape May Beach and Cape May Point there is a nature preserve called Cape May Point State Park.  Here I am passed it standing right across from the lighthouse.  To the left is a summer retreat for nuns and to the right is my dream house along this beach. 

This beautiful building is St. Mary's by the Sea.  Originally, this was the Shoreham Hotel built between 1875-1890.  It is now used as a summer retreat by the nuns of St. Mary's.  I'm told that it's best viewed from the lighthouse which is right next door.

This small cottage by the sea has unobstructed views of the pristine beach.  Imagine waking up to it every single morning.  If only!

As I made my way through this small enclave of homes I decided to take a closer look at the little beach house.  Quite small, yet utterly charming in its simplicity don't you think?

To my mind, the Cape May Lighthouse is one of the nicer lighthouses along the eastern seaboard.  It's what we all picture when we imagine a lighthouse, with its white foundation, red widows walk, watch room and service room.  This structure is simply amazing and at some point I am going to make that climb up to the cupola and photograph it for you to see.

Here is a nice beach house with plenty of windows to soak up the summer sun.

I'm going to date myself when I mention this photograph for you, but growing up, we had Smokey the Bear reminding us every single year that only we could prevent forest fires.  Here he is at the entrance to the Cape May Point State Park to remind us once again.

The Lighthouse!  

The sign clearly says that the lighthouse is closed for the season and in the meantime we have this pirate keeping guard. 

Across these dunes and passed that lake is the State Park.  As I said, the day we walked through the preserve I did not have the camera so I wasn't able to photograph it for you.  In the future I promise to do so.  

This bunker was built during WWII and acted as a gun emplacement.  Years ago it was surrounded by the ocean, but the state has since dredged the beach to prevent further erosion, and now many visitors walk around it to photograph its turrets and lookout points.  The bunker has a 'sister' across the bay in Lewes, Delaware.  

These stately beach houses are on the other side of the Point.  The area is Cape May Beach.

If you ever do visit the area you must walk through the mall, which is nothing more than an open air market with restaurants, stores, cafes and yes, antique shops!  Don't forget to buy some of that delicious salt water taffy that is famous around here.

One can't help but be in awe at some of the beautiful summer homes here.  Along Beach Avenue there are homes and then there are homes!  This area is known for its Victorian architecture.  Make sure to keep an eye out for the Seven Sisters in Cape May.  They are a row of 7 colorful Victorian homes.

The columned house on the left is someone's beach house and the one on the right with its cream-colored walls and green trim used to be a private residence as well.  It has since been turned into a bed and breakfast.  

Driving along Beach Avenue you can tell that any residents opt for shingle-style cottages.  They remind me of homes on Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard.

Another stretch of homes.

With its two-story wrap around porches, this residence makes certainly makes a statement.

I love this colonial home!

And yet another beautiful home across from the beach.

It's all about the view.  Every single home along this exclusive avenue has some type of porch to take in the views of the beach.  Who can blame them?

Taking in this beautiful view toward the beach in historic Cape May, I hope you can understand why I didn't want to leave the area.  

Put it on your list of places to visit in the near future and remember to take this long beach walk that I do so love.  Don't forget your camera and please, share your photographs with me!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Favorite Winter Sips

If the weather gets brutally cold out and I want to warm up quickly, I always prepare a delicious hot sip for myself and for anyone who wants one.  Tea is almost a daily ritual for my family as I'm sure it is for many of you, but if I want to change things up a bit I make something that is more indulgent. These favorite winter sips of mine are not difficult to make and any of them can be made in a matter of minutes.  However, the cinnamon-flavored coffee is one exception, because the spice-infused liquid must steep before it can be brewed into a cup.

I'm not sure if it's particularly cold where you are at the moment or if you even need the weather as a reason to make one of these hot drinks.  Anything warm to drink is always welcomed in the mornings or afternoons, but some of these favorite sips of mine that don't contain any caffeine can even be made in the evenings.

Enjoy one of my favorite winter drinks from a mug, coffee cup or even a cafe au lait bowl.

Green Tea
Green tea is my favorite type of afternoon tea.  I have a cup or two of it in the middle of the day when I have a moment to sit down and nibble on a cookie, muffin or on the rare occasion, a slice of steamed pudding (above).  

Whether you make it from loose leaves or from the convenient bags that are available at any market, make sure you warm up the cups first before you pour water to steep the tea.  This healthy and delicious Chocolate Oat Bran Muffin paired with a cup of green tea is a good way to start the day.

Hibiscus Tea
Tea made from the hibiscus flower is usually sweetened, cooled and poured over ice in many Latin American countries, but if you serve the infused liquid while it's still hot, a most delicious drink can be enjoyed.  This particular flower can be found as a main ingredient in many herbal teas and it is this which gives them their crimson color.

If I want to have a hot drink without any caffeine, I make this natural tea anytime of the day.

Ingredients (4 cups)
1/3 cup dried hibiscus flowers
4 cups cold water
sweetener to taste

In a pot, bring the cold water to a boil and
drop the hibiscus flowers into the pot.  
Turn the heat off and let the liquid steep for 8-10 minutes.
Serve & sweeten to taste.

Hot Lemon Drop
This is perhaps the easiest drink of all.  A tart and puckery hot lemon drop is just the pick-me-up one needs when it's cold out.  Find a juicy lemon and heat up some water.  In no time you will have something that is soothing and refreshing.

There is no need to write this recipe down.  For every cup of water, juice one lemon and strain it; pour it into a cup.  Heat up your water to just under the boiling point and pour it into the juice-filled cup.  Sweeten to taste and enjoy!  It's that simple.

Cinnamon Tea 
Again, a very simple cinnamon-infused water makes for a comforting sip day or night.  For every 4 cups of water add 2 cinnamon sticks.  Combine both in a pot and bring it up to a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer the tea for 15 minutes.  You can serve it at once.

This is a favorite drink of my mother's and it's one that I enjoy too.  If you want to make a truly delicious coffee the following day, double or triple the recipe and let the liquid cool.  Keep it in the refrigerator until you're ready to make some coffee.

Cinnamon Coffee
For cinnamon coffee I strongly urge you to find the best coffee beans and grind them yourself. 

For this delicious coffee, start with the cinnamon-tea from above.  Make sure the liquid has been chilled thoroughly (preferably overnight).  Simply pour the infusion into the water reservoir of your coffeemaker, fill the coffee chamber with your favorite java and brew.

I like to indulge by putting a generous amount of the coffee into a cafe au lait bowl and adding steamed milk to it.  Pure bliss!

Ultimate Hot Chocolate
In my opinion it is imperative to use bar chocolate and cocoa powder in order to make the most decadent hot chocolate.  One gives the aroma and flavor, while the other provides sweetness and depth.  I wouldn't call it 'ultimate' if I thought it was anything but.

Ingredients (2 servings)
1 ounce {40 g.} semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup {20 g.} unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons {30 g.} vanilla sugar or regular sugar
16 ounces {1/2 liter) cold milk

Place the dry ingredients in a heatproof bowl.  Bring the milk up to just under the boiling point in a saucepan and immediately pour over the dry ingredients.  With a whisk, combine every ingredient until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.  Return it to the saucepan and whisk over medium heat until hot, smooth and delicious.

Pour the hot chocolate into a generous cup and enjoy.  You could serve it with some light meringues or some other cookie if you wish, or you could drop some marshmallows into each cup (homemade of course).  I guarantee you there won't be a drop of hot chocolate left after you've taken your first sip.  It's that good!

I hope everyone is staying safe and warm this winter.  Spring is right around the corner, and I for one, can't wait for its arrival.