Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Weekend at Luna Farm

A few days ago a group of us experienced a magical weekend at a sprawling farm in Pennsylvania.  Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, we ended up staying at chef Jose Garces' magnificent Bucks County estate.  The 40 acre compound included an antique Pennsylvania bank barn, the main house which was built in the middle part of the 1800s, a large greenhouse, some outbuildings, a pool, and acre after acre of lush meadows.  Really and truly, the estate was magnificent to say the least.

I'm extremely fortunate to have gathered with several generous and loving individuals who live by the same principles that I do, who share common interests and have the same tastes that I do, and who love of all things Martha. It was a weekend filled with cooking, baking, wine tasting, gift giving, trampoline jumping and relaxing poolside on this verdant 40 acre property called, Luna Farm.  We also spent a day antiquing and shopping for some of our favorite collectibles near and around the New Hope, Lambertville area. On this particular excursion we ran into someone we weren't expecting to, which made everything that much more exceptional.   

Friends came from around the country, including San Francisco, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.  From the moment we walked into the main house, we knew we were in the presence of kindred spirits. Several of us had never actually met face to face, which made it all the more exciting, and in the end we found that the group clicked instantly.

We wasted no time in prepping dinner the moment us early birds arrived at the farm.  Two large chickens were placed on beds of vidalia onions, which were then given a slathering of dijon and lots of freshly ground pepper. Several sprigs of fresh herbs from the garden were tucked underneath the skins of the breasts and into the cavities of the roasters.  Everything was then given a pouring of extra virgin olive oil and the juice of a fresh lemon.  My friend Trellis prepared red bliss potatoes for roasting, adding more herbs and a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil.  All were roasted in very hot, 425F ovens.  The 5lb. birds took about 1-1/2 hours to roast, while the potatoes took about 45 minutes.

What is nice about every single one of us is that we are pros in the kitchen.  We all know how to cook and bake well, just like Martha has taught us to through her television shows, her magazines and her books.  

Having a set of commercial grade Blue Star appliances also helped.  If you look at the Blue Star website (click here), you will see that chef Jose Garces took the time and care to design his Luna Farm kitchen just as expertly as he designs his restaurant spaces.  Professional ovens, multiple burners and large refrigerators are key.  I still find it amazing that we were here.

The giant Kalvinator refrigerator was stocked with cheeses from Wisconsin, butters from the Amish in Pennsylvania, wines from around the world and vegetables from local farms.  Everything was carefully planned.

Our friend Nick who flew in from San Francisco on the red eye was very adept at handling sheet pans and frying pans filled with tender asparagus.  In they went into one of the four Blue Star convection ovens set at 400F for about 15-20 minutes.

Jeffrey opened several bottles of Vouvray, rosé and Dr. Loosen German Reisling.  The latter was such a fine wine to have with the roast chicken.

Nick came up with the ingenious idea of tying a different sprig of fresh herbs around the stems of our wine glasses in order to keep track of each person's pouring.  As Martha would say, it's a good thing. 

As we were getting dinner ready, Dennis surprised each one of us with a custom made apron.  Our meadow-green aprons were embellished with an embroidered design of Martha Stewart's iconic Martha by Mail mail truck.  At the bottom of the aprons, Dennis had the Martha Stewart Everyday mixing bowl logo embroidered in white thread, to contrast with the green apron.  We all just about squealed when we saw what he had done for us.  

Do you see how richly detailed the apron is?  It's a one-of-a-kind (well 7 or 8 of a kind!) collectible.  I will forever treasure my apron and use it for cookie crafting projects.  Thank you, Dennis!!

While some of us were cooking dinner, our dear friend David from Washington decided to set up the farm table in the second dining room, with several American-made jadeite baskets filled with beautiful African violets. He surprised us all.

Dinner consisted of herbed roasted chicken with vidalia onions, roasted asparagus and herbed red bliss potatoes.  This is the typical dinner that I serve at home every single Friday to my husband, so it meant everything to have my friends partake of the same repast.

Jeffrey made Martha Stewart's Le Weekend Cake in Massachusetts the night before and brought it down for us to have for dessert that first night.  Dennis had some farm-fresh cream which he whipped & sweetened to perfection, and Trellis hulled and cut some fresh strawberries picked in West Virginia.  Utterly delicious.  It was the perfect ending to our meal.

The first morning was spent lounging around to a delicious brunch of farm fresh eggs (I brought those and set them in a large bowl, Martha style), local bread, homemade jams, Amish hand pies and some Martha Stewart Cafe coffee courtesy of Dennis.  Everything was delicious! 

If the eggs are fresh and they haven't been washed of their protective coating, they can be left out at room temperature just like Martha is known to do.

Trellis runs a successful bed and breakfast in West Virginia and he is used to cooking for large crowds.  He was a master at scrambling eggs for a group of hungry guests.

After brunch and a quick clean up, we then piled into one of the large SUVs and headed toward New Hope, PA for some antiquing.  What did we do?  We watched episodes of Martha Stewart Living as we drove into town.  So much fun!

If you've never visited the New Hope area in Bucks County, you really should spend a day or weekend there, because it is such a quaint, yet lively area.  One can go to art galleries, restaurants, wine tasting bars, bistros and antique shops there.  If you cross the bridge into Lambertville you can experience more of the same.

Here we are at one of booths filled with so many collectibles.

Underneath one of the display tables, Jeffrey and I came across a stack of large ironstone bowls.  We examined each one and picked our favorites.

Armed with a stack of yellow ware bowls, some linens and pieces of jadeite, I negotiated a small deal.  Remember to ask vendors if they offer discounts when paying with cash or check.

It just so happens that on our afternoon of antiquing, Trellis spotted Fritz Karch (pronounced Karsh) while walking through a tag sale.  Our radars went off and we immediately zeroed in on him!  Fritz Karch is the former Editorial Director of Collecting for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and it is because of Fritz that we had a beautifully curated selection of merchandise for Martha by Mail while it was in business; he essentially gave it the look, style and uniqueness that we've all come to love.  It was Fritz who shaped the stories on collecting at Martha Stewart Living, which in turn sparked our interests in so many collectibles.

Fritz was so humble, generous and extremely kind to have spent time telling us stories of working with Martha for so many years (he says she'll live to be 120!).  He listened and answered so many questions we had for him.  This man is truly a one-of-a-kind treasure.  We are indebted to him for shaping our tastes and styles through his years at MSLO.

Our group standing with Fritz.  I will forever remember this moment spent with some of the best men that I know.  Truly amazing.

The morning we were due to leave, we were treated to the most amazing cinnamon rolls baked from scratch by our dear Dennis.  These oversized rolls were buttery, rich and perfectly sweet.  With hot cups of coffee, we were well fed before our journeys home.  

After I got home and began to unpack, I have to be honest with you and say that I got depressed at having to say goodbye to such wonderful friends. Nobody wanted to leave the farm and each other's company. We all made memories that will last us a lifetime.

Here is a small sampling of what I brought home with me:  vintage tea towels, chicken figurines given to me by Trellis, and some eggs laid by Dennis' hens.

Just look at the colors of those eggs.  The Marans are breathtaking.  Again, thank you Dennis.  You are pure gold!

Nick's eagle eye spotted a stack of Fire King jadeite bread and butter plates. These restaurant ware plates have eluded me, but I now have a full set on which to plate appetizers or small breakfast items.

Jeffrey, Trellis, Dennis, David and Nick: words cannot express the love that I have for each one of you.  While some may have had a little trepidation at having to spend a weekend with those of us who had never met, I knew deep down inside that we were all going to hit it off.  It is why I chose you for this experience.  It is no surprise that our group's chemistry was nothing short of perfect.  My Martha boys.  I cherish you.  I love you.  I hold you close to my heart.  


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Araucana Egg Sugar Cookies

If you love getting farm fresh eggs from your local farmers market, from a neighbor's coop, or even if you keep your own chickens for their eggs, it's always amazing to behold the range in colors that they come in.  A few of my own friends raise chickens in their backyards and share the bounty with those near them if they aren't using the eggs for cooking or baking.  The commitment it takes to keeping chickens is nothing short of praiseworthy in my opinion.  It is to them that I dedicate this post.

Araucana Egg Sugar Cookies

Over the years I've made many egg-shaped sugar cookies for Easter, but I've never decorated any as gifts for my friends who are into chicken husbandry.  If you have ever seen Araucana eggs, then you know how varied the pastel shades of these eggs can be.  Their colors are made for cookie decorating!

Dozens of Araucana Egg Sugar Cookies

My neighbor Luke who has a weekly standing order from me of at least one to two dozen eggs, never fails to provide.  The Araucana eggs that come to my door are never exactly the same in size or color.  The greens and blues vary from week to week, as do some of the lighter gray, olive and ivory tones from the other breeds.  He is going to get some of these cookies, so don't tell him!

The other recipients of these goodies are friends who are very dear to me.  I plan on getting together with a small group of them who appreciate freshly baked cookies, farm fresh eggs, gardening and collecting.

I tried my best to capture the eggs that each one of them values in their baking and cooking.  Let's wait and see what they have to say!

Every cookie is evenly iced and flocked with fine sanding sugar.

Begin by cutting out and baking egg-shaped cookies in various sizes. Depending on how many you want to make, I strongly advise having an array of sizes, because if you intend to create gift baskets with them like I did, it will be very eye catching to have a mix.

To make them look professional, use a rolling pin guide to have every cookie of the same thickness.  The thicker the cookie, the sturdier it will be for packaging.

Cookies Awaiting Gift Bags

Outline and flood your Araucana egg sugar cookies in various shades of blue, green, cream and brown royal icing.  I like the pop of colors and am happy with the results.

I took artistic liberties with the colors and made some of them a bit darker. They are whimsical cookies after all.  The royal icing shades I used for these were: dark brown, jadeite-mint green, turquoise-teal, pale ivory and off-white.  

Note:  if you want to flock your cookies like I did, dredge each one with fine sanding sugar while the icing is still wet.  You can then shake off any excess sugar after the cookies have dried completely.  

Every gift bag has an array of sizes and colors.

To construct goodie bags, locate large cellophane bags and paper loaf pans that can easily fit in each one.  Place each paper loaf pan at the bottom of the bags and fill each with a bit of crinkle paper in whatever color you want.  I used natural-colored paper for mine.  Carefully arrange egg cookies on the nest of crinkle paper and arrange them based on color and size, placing the larger ones toward the back.  Tie each with a colorful ribbon.  Voila!

Vintage Linens for Gifting

Everyone of the gift recipients is a collector, so I will be surprising them with a unique tea towel from my collection of 1950s linens.

Araucana Egg Sugar Cookie Gift Bags

I love the way the gift bags came out.  Every one is unique.    

Enjoy crafting your very own Araucana egg sugar cookies for friends.  Do remember to make them easy and enjoyable for yourself because this truly is a relaxing thing to do in an afternoon.

Here's to good baking, good friends and good times!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Cookie Layer Cake

Are you thinking of surprising someone with a homemade birthday cake this year?  Try making a layer cake decorated with iced sugar cookies in whatever shapes the recipient may like, but go the extra mile and add their nickname in cookie form as well.  Whenever I hear the term, "cookie cake", I think of either a layer cake or sheet cake with cookies attached to it.  A flat chocolate chip cookie 'pizza' iced and decorated to look like a cake is not a cake in my opinion.  

Having alphabet cookie cutters in one's pantry is a must if you are a cookie crafter, cookie baker and cake decorator.  They allow you to spell out a person's name, a greeting or even their nickname.  They come in various fonts and sizes, so pick and choose whatever you like, and then create personalized cookies or cakes.

This past week I baked a delicious chocolate layer cake and iced it in delicate Swiss meringue buttercream.  To this I attached royal icing cookies in the shapes of hearts and letters along the sides of the cake, and on the top.

Take a look at how easy, yet showstopping a cookie layer cake like this can be.

The royal icing recipe and the sugar cookie recipe are from yours truly.  Do a quick search on the blog for those recipes.  Use heart-shaped cookie cutters (I used my Martha by Mail Hearts Set) in whatever sizes you wish, and cut out as many as you think you're going to need.  Take my advice and cut extra.  For the letters, I turned to the Martha by Mail Alphabet Set in our pantry, and cut out my friend's nickname, not once, but twice.  I wanted the cake to have 'Bubbles' all around the cake, and since I was thinking of baking a large 10" round cake, I wanted to make sure it was completely covered in cookies.

Leave the royal icing white, and quickly outline and flood your cookies.  Using rainbow nonpareils, sprinkle as many as you want on each cookie while the icing is wet.  Set them aside to dry completely. 

Note:  do not freeze iced cookies with these rainbow nonpareils because they will bleed upon thawing.  It's best to store the cookies at room temperature (tightly sealed) for up to two weeks if necessary.

The rich, yet light chocolate cake recipe comes from Martha Stewart.  It's her 'One Bowl Chocolate Cake' recipe which is always outstanding and very easy to make.  For the surprise birthday cake, I baked a double batch of the recipe and divided it between two 10x2" round cake pans.  These baked at 350F for approximately 45 minutes.  

The Swiss Meringue Buttercream is also from Martha.  I like to use the larger quantity version because it's best to have extra and not run out.  Any leftover Swiss meringue buttercream can be frozen for a later date.

Once the cakes have cooled sufficiently, pop them in the refrigerator to chill and begin making your buttercream.  As soon as the buttercream is ready, take the cake layers out, and place one of the layers onto a cake decorating turntable.  Add a good amount of buttercream to the top of the layer, and then gently sandwich the other layer on top of that, making sure that the layers are centered.  Quickly give the entire layer cake a crumb coating.  You can then chill the cake for about 30 minutes.  The buttercream can stay out in a cool spot, covered with plastic wrap.  Once the crumb coating is chilled, frost the entire cake, applying the buttercream either in one smooth coat, or having it textured as you wish.  The top of this cake was embellished with stars using a large Wilton 1E piping tip.  I then added all of my hearts cookies facing in one direction.  The letters were then gently added all around the cake.

You can see the back of the cake.  It too spells out 'Bubbles'.

I simply adored making this cake because it was for a very special person.  Everyone who saw it at work said that it looked too pretty to eat.  But, do you know what I thought?

I thought it was too good not to dig into as soon as I was done photographing it. :-)  By the way, my friend Kelly loved every bit of it.

Happy Birthday Bubbles!  

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Removing Security Tags from Antique China

It isn't unusual or unheard of to encounter antishoplifting tags on items at antique stores, antique malls and consignment shops. Security stickers on antique and vintage pieces can be problematic if the adhesive is particularly strong or if the tag has been on the item for a number of years.

Antishoplifting tags are made by embedding layers of metal coil resonators within nonconductive materials.  These tags will transmit a signal to the security gates if they have not been deactivated.  This is good if you are the antique shop owner, but bad news if you're the buyer.

Depending on the type of piece you've purchased, Goo Gone Original can be life changing.  If you collect fine china, keeping a bottle of this adhesive removal product in your home is a must.  All high end antique stores & vendors will have security tags on their precious objects, so be prepared.

Antique Drabware ca. 1810-1820

Several years ago I came across several pieces of antique Wedgwood drabware from the early 1800s at a high end antique store that I could not walk away from.  Call it fate, call it good luck.  I think it was meant to be.  What I wasn't expecting, though, was to have antishoplfting tags that seemed to be fused to the undersides of my plates and serving dishes.  As annoyed as I was, I knew that I had to treat my treasures gently if I wanted them to remain undamaged.

Antique Wedgwood Drabware Dessert Plates ca.1820

You can see my pathetic attempts at removing these tags by trying to peel them off of the gilded drabware dessert plates.  The paper peeled off, but the remaining materials didn't want to budge.  They were tough.  I asked several of my friends what they would do.  Some suggested Goo Gone, and others suggested peanut butter.

Antique Wedgwood Drabware Plate

I started by removing as much of the label as possible without resorting to anything.  The paper part was easily removed, but the metal coils were impossible.  I tested one plate before making sure that the Goo Gone was going to work without damaging my antiques.  

Working in my kitchen next to the sink, I laid each plate on a clean, soft kitchen towel.  I then soaked a cotton ball in Goo Gone and applied it liberally over the entire tag.  This was then left to soak for about 5 minutes.  I then used a plastic bench scraper to gently remove the tags.  Most of them were able to come off, but a few were rather stubborn, so I reapplied more Goo Gone until the metal coils came off.  Thankfully it worked!

Each piece was then carefully washed in warm water with a mild dish soap to remove any excess product.  After I hand dried each plate and serving dish, I inspected them for any scratching or color damage, but I detected nothing. 

Note: read the directions and warnings on the bottle, and always test this product before using it.

Lakin Pottery Drabware ca. 1810

This unusual drabware serving dish from ca. 1810 is not Wedgwood.  The gilded piece has a handpainted landscape scene in lovely shades of plums and creams.  The scrolled edges are accented in thick bands of gold.  I love it so much.  

Do you see the imprint?  It says "drab porcelain".

Lakin Pottery Drabware ca. 1810

Here is another early nineteenth century gilded drabware serving dish with a landscape scene in the same shades as the previous piece.  Simply beautiful!

The imprint of this serving dish says 'Lakin'.  What this means is that both pieces were produced by none other than the North Staffordshire pottery works of Thomas Lakin, sometime in the early 1800s.  Thomas Lakin Pottery began producing pieces in the late 1700s and continued to do so through the early part of the nineteenth century.  Undamaged pieces such as these are indeed treasures.

A mix of antique Wedgwood, Lakin and Spode drabware.

The stamp of early Wedgwood is unmistakable.

The thrill of the hunt for unique and rare pieces of fine china doesn't have to be thwarted by a simple security sticker or tag.  Having a bottle of goo gone will have your pieces ready for display on a wall, a cabinet, a breakfront in the dining room or an heirloom hutch in the kitchen.  Remember: antiques are meant to be shared, so display and enjoy them!