Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Orchid Show: Chandeliers

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden

I just got back from a wonderful week in New York where the weather was beautiful. The week was filled with great theatre, interesting art, fascinating book exhibitions and many fabulous meals. And there was walking! A lot of it. New York is such a walker's city; spring has definitely arrived which makes walking around the city delightful. The highlight of the trip was going to the New York Botanical Garden to see The Orchid Show: Chandeliers. Some of you may have had a chance to see this stunning exhibition, but if not, here is a little photo tour. I was in awe of the New York Botanical Garden -- this was my first time visiting -- and absolutely wowed by the orchid show.

The NYBG sits on 250 acres and the extensive grounds are an oasis for the weary urban dweller. I can imagine going here as a retreat from the city. There wasn't time to see everything, but on the walk to the orchid show I noted many cheerful signs of spring and several examples of garden beauty.

I loved the poetry quotes that are scattered throughout the grounds, making me think that every garden should have poetry. Gardens and poetry just go together!

The magnolia tree along the way is magnificent -- I overheard someone say "I could live in there!"
It was a bit like a small house.

 The white blossoms made it look like a wedding

Inside the conservatory, we were greeted by floating islands of orchids

The reflections added to their beauty

We began in the conservatory's aquatic collection, a magnificent room overhung with vines 

There was so much to look at

This is an elegant place

And there were orchids adorning every possible surface

On the ground next to the pool

On the higher ledges

And up in the air

Where we saw the centerpiece of the show -- a three-tiered, star-shaped chandelier that overflowed with blooms hanging from the dome in the central room of the conservatory.

There were signs telling us to look up which was a very good idea

Orchids were growing on trees

Hanging in baskets

And enveloping us in garden rooms

Wherever you looked, you were surrounded by the intoxicating sight and smell of orchids

At every level

In trees

In flowering columns

Mixed in with ferns 

And hanging in incredible baskets up above

The beauty was simply off the charts

Everyone had their cameras out

There were so many photo-worthy moments 

I read that this exhibition was especially beautiful and romantic at night. And that there have been dates and proposals amidst the orchid show. Not surprising. I spotted a bride being photographed and thought what a storybook setting this would be for a wedding. 

If you missed this exhibition, don't despair. There is an orchid show every spring. And now the hardworking staff at the NYBG is getting ready for the next blockbuster exhibition: Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life. This one also sounds wonderful. It's a good reason to plan another trip to New York!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring Reading

When I think of Angela Thirkell, images of spring and summer come to mind... 

Maybe because weekends in the country, strawberries and champagne, cricket matches, summer fetes, walks in the garden, and tea on the lawn are featured in so many of her novels. These are books to chase away the winter doldrums. Just look at her titles: Summer Half, Wild Strawberries, August Folly. Now that spring has arrived, I decided to go on a little Angela Thirkell binge and try to make a dent in some of the books I brought home from England last fall. Virago Modern Classics has reprinted many of her titles and when I spotted them in a bookstore in the Cotswolds I snatched up as many as I could find. So far I've read Wild Strawberries (go here) and High Rising. Both of which I loved.  

Right now I am happily immersed in Pomfret Towers and laughing out loud at some of the funny passages about the Earl of Pomfret who rules the little town of Nutfield. Here is the opening of the book: 

"Nutfield is quite the most delightful town in that part of England...The town itself is on the estate of the seventh Earl of Pomfret, who refuses to allow chain store or cinemas, and exercises a personal and terrifying supervision over the exterior of shops and garages. The principal inhabitants of Nutfield are occasionally invited to dine at Pomfret Towers, but without their wives, as Lady Pomfret, who is an invalid, mostly lives abroad. These evenings are celebrated for their appalling tedium, but no one has been known to refuse an invitation. Respectable heads of family have been heard comparing notes about his lordship's dullness and rudeness, even boasting with some complacence when he has singled out one of them by some special neglect or deliberate want of courtesy. Anything that is one's own property tends to acquire lustre in one's own eyes...So did the inhabitants of Nutfield boast about Lord Pomfret's rudeness, looking down with condescending pity upon their less fortunate neighbors."

There are many comic characters and Mrs. Barton is one of my favorites. She is a writer of historical fiction who lives with her husband and children in the old dower house on the earl's estate. Her husband is a prosperous, local architect with a talent for handling old buildings with care and discretion. He has retained the beauty of their old house while making it a comfortable place to live:

"Mr. Barton had a hard struggle with Lord Pomfret before he could install central heating, his lordship having the firm conviction that only foreigners liked their houses heated...

When once the heating was installed, Mr. Barton had no fault to find with his house. The fine Jacobean building on the north, where the kitchen and servants were now housed, the large dignified south front which was added about 1760, were described in every guide book, though not all of them mentioned what was perhaps in its master's eyes its most peculiar beauty. This was a two-storey gardener's cottage...Of...this Mr. Barton was a passionate lover and faithful guardian, finding it of infinite comfort when his wife seemed farther away than usual.

Mrs. Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals...Owing so much to living in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. She was an excellent housekeeper, who never failed to care for her family and give them good food, and all servants adored  her, but though she never obtruded her work, or spoke of it as if it mattered, she only had to go into her sitting room and take up a paper or a book, to be at once engulfed in the ocean of the past, re-living with intensity the lives of people about whom little was known and whose very existence was dubious. When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded upon the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbors. Her own son and daughter she treated as amusing guests who happened to be making a prolonged stay, though her anxiety for Alice, a delicate girl, the younger by several years, pursued her even among her books and research." 

Somehow Thirkell manages to be a combination of Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford and Barbara Pym. 

If you are missing "Downton Abbey" and the time period between the two wars, Angela Thirkell's books are a good place to find it. She wrote 29 novels in all, nearly one a year from 1933 to 1961, all set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire. After two failed marriages, financial problems forced her to come up with a way to pay the bills. She became a writer, starting out as a journalist and going on to create the imaginary world of these comic novels which are now known as The Barsetshire Novels. Mostly they are about bright young women falling in love amidst ancestral country homes and English eccentrics. Funny and often poignant, they are the kind of books that will take you away from it all. When I learned that Thirkell was the goddaughter of J.M. Barrie -- she had a rich literary and artistic heritage -- I wasn't surprised that she became a writer of such sparkling, witty and pleasurable novels.     

Here is a description of her writing from the back of one of her books:

"A perfect balance of satirical observation and chocolate-box charm."
-- The Lady

Exactly what I'm in the mood for now that spring has arrived.

  Surrey, England -- June, 2010

And speaking of spring, wouldn't this be the perfect place to read Angela Thirkell's books?

What are you reading right now? Do your tastes change with the seasons?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Old-Fashioned Strawberry Cake

If kitchens have a life of their own, then mine was feeling a deep sense of contentment this past weekend. My family was coming over and I wanted to make an old-fashioned country dessert for our Easter brunch. I found the perfect vanilla cake recipe in Barefoot Contessa Parties. This cake is light, moist and delicious. I topped both layers with the vanilla buttercream icing from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook and then decorated them with strawberries. It couldn't have been easier and my family loved it. This is the perfect dessert for springtime celebrations. I love how fresh and old-fashioned it looks.

Vanilla Cake

3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 and 1/2 sticks) at room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 extra-large eggs at room temperature
3/4 cup sour cream at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans.

Cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. On medium speed, add the eggs, one at a time, then the sour cream, zests, and vanilla, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix well. Stir together the flour, cornstarch, salt and baking soda. On low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and combine just until smooth.

Pour the batter evenly into the pans, smooth the tops with a spatula, and bake in the center of the oven for 40 - 45 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pans for 30 minutes, then remove to wire racks and let cool to room temperature.


Traditional Vanilla Buttercream

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
4 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pint of strawberries

Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add 2 cups of the sugar, the milk, and the vanilla. Beat until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the remaining sugar, until icing is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency and extra-creamy.

Cover the bottom cake layer with half of the icing and decorate with strawberry slices. Repeat with the top layer. Put one whole strawberry in the center.


My kitchen in the late afternoon after everyone has left. All cleaned up, it feels peaceful and happy after a day of cooking and celebration. A gift of flowers and the remnants of an easter basket make me smile. At this moment, all is right with the world... 

I hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend.
What is your favorite dessert to make for springtime celebrations?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Love of a House

The drawing room of interior designer Penny Morrison's 1790 Welsh home 

Whenever I read an article about someone finding the perfect house because it speaks to them and they feel connected, I always think of E.M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End. At the heart of that book is the love a house. Ruth Wilcox deeply loves Howards End, her family home in the English countryside, and instinctively knows that her friend Margaret Schlegel shares her connection to it. She subsequently scribbles a note leaving the house to Miss Schlegel. Of course, upon her death the family tears up the note, ignoring her wishes. But, in the end, Margaret Schlegel gets the house. Somehow it was meant to be hers and she is its spiritual heir. Many of us have had the experience of finding a house that we love. We sense a certain something, a quality that is hard to define. We feel a connection and we are at home. I recently read about two very inspiring instances of this happening, one in Wales and the other in Scotland.


At the border between England and Wales sits one of the prettiest houses you will ever see, owned by English interior decorator Penny Morrison. After reading a bit about this talented designer, I learned that "prettiness" is one of the hallmarks of her design style. The story of how she came to own and restore her house in Wales is in the most recent issue of Elle Decor. The story is fascinating and the photos definitely fall into the category of "eye candy." I got the feeling that this house spoke to her and she instinctively knew it was meant to be hers.

The boxwood-lined front drive leading to the front of the house

Penny and her husband stumbled upon the house by accident 26 years ago and, although everything needed to be done, they fell in love with the building and its setting. It was basically uninhabitable, but they were thrilled that it was an historic property unspoiled by renovation. They set about restoring the house while retaining its basic structure. Their goal was for every ground-floor room to open onto the garden. Lovely idea! They furnished the entire house, using Penny's beautiful fabric and wallpaper line. The result is a very pretty home that embraces nature.  

The library with curtains made out of fabric designed by Penny Morrison

The dining room with french doors leading out to the garden

The upstairs landing

The guest bath

A guest bedroom with headboard and canopy covered in a linen by Penny Morrison

And the beautiful views. Don't you love a house that feels at one with its setting?
Go here to read more.


Even more romantic in terms of falling in love with a house is when the property is a ruin and someone sets out to save it. In this case the ruin was a sixteenth-century castle in Scotland, definitely raising the enchantment factor up a couple of notches. The intrepid couple who bought it could see the promise and were not daunted by the task ahead. They had always dreamt of living in a castle. 

Ballone Castle, a sixteenth-century tower house overlooking Moray Firth in Scotland

 This is what happened when Lachlan and Annie Stewart, the founders of Anta, discovered a dilapidated castle that hadn't been lived in for 125 years and set about restoring it. Anta is the Scottish design and architecture firm known for its silk and woolen tweeds and tartans, handmade pottery, and architecture celebrating Scottish vernacular. I found their story here and was fascinated by the scope of what this couple did.

Construction underway

The corner of the castle, which now houses the kitchen, had no roof and one part of the building was propped up on a single stone. The couple lived in a large hut adjoining the ruin while construction took place. They puzzled out how to rebuild what was originally there by finding clues throughout the building. There was one piece of each architectural feature left which showed them how it would have looked. They also studied the history of Scottish castles and their patterns in order to come up with architectural plans.

The project took four years

One of six bedrooms, all of which are accessed by steep and narrow staircases

 The dining area with its thick walls and distinctive windows. The light is gorgeous and I love the touch of tartan plaid, undoubtedly made by Anta.

The finished castle and its magnificent setting, just magical
Go here to read more

The 1992 film of Howards End

There's always a touch of magic that goes into any love affair with a house. Somehow the heart gets involved and all bets are off. I'm always inspired when I read about someone taking on such a labor of love. Especially when they do the research to keep it authentic, preserve a sense of history, and create the house of their dreams.