Monday, December 31, 2012

A Welcome Interlude

 Photo via here

The last week has been a wonderful time for relaxing with family and friends.  Thank you for all your holiday wishes.  I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.  Don't you love the week between Christmas and the New Year?  It's a welcome break from the holiday frenzy, a hiatus when our normal routines are put on hold.  All the build-up and most of the work that lead up to Christmas is over and there is a glorious peace and quiet that seems to exist all around us. The tree is still up but there are no presents to wrap.  The house still looks festive -- the garland is on the mantle, the wreath is on the door, and bowls of pine cones are all around.  But it is refreshingly quiet and there are many hours to putter, rearrange, reconnect and get recharged.  Last week I spent time with my family and friends, saw movies, ran errands, cleaned up and read.  I hope you did also.

Memories of Christmas

I have been catching up on some reading from the stack of books on my night stand. One of my favorites is the engrossing memoir and love story Must You Go by Antonia Fraser.  It is about the life she shared with the playwright Harold Pinter.  I feel as if I have been transported to the vibrant literary and theater scene of London in the seventies and eighties when Fraser and Pinter were hanging out with celebrated writers such as Anthony Powell, Phillip Roth, Iris Murdoch and V.S. Naipaul.  Dinners with playwrights, directors, and actors such as Samuel Beckett and Alan Bates were normal, as was attendance at the premieres of all the major new plays on the London stage.  Fraser writes of "Supper with the two knights (Gielgud and Richardson)."  The book is written in diary entries which gives the narrative an immediacy and compels us to read on.  Pinter was at the height of his career, writing plays such as "Betrayal" and the screenplay for the film "The French Lieutenant's Woman." Their love story is a fascinating literary romance and takes us back to an era when many exciting things were happening in literature and theater.  It was an amazing time.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters is another book I have been enjoying.  This one is about Hollywood via two settings in Italy --  a rustic inn on the Italian cliffs above the Mediterranean and the glamorous city of Rome where the epic film "Cleopatra" is being filmed.  It moves from 1962 in Italy to Hollywood of today.  The main characters include an Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love, a Hollywood producer and his idealistic assistant, an army veteran turned aspiring novelist and Richard Burton himself, who plays an integral role in the plot.  It's a delicious escapist kind of a book. Perfect for right now.

  Image via here

Visions of sugar-plums are still dancing in my head.  Christmas dinner is a recent memory and I can't stop thinking about the Lumberjack Cake that my daughter made us for dessert.  Have you ever made it?  My daughter tells me that it is served at an excellent restaurant in San Francisco called Frances.  This is not a fancy dessert, but a homey cake made with pears, dates and coconut flakes.  It was a hit and everyone agreed that it tastes just like Christmas.  We served it with vanilla ice cream and butterscotch sauce.  This cake is so good and easy to make that it just may become part of your holiday traditions.  The recipe is here.

 Matthew and Lady Mary in the final scene of Season Two of "Downton Abbey"

This has also been a great time to catch up on some delicious television and I have been riveted to one of my favorite shows.  I have been rewatching the first two seasons of Downton Abbey in preparation for the new season, which starts January 6.  Can't get enough of this wonderful show!  Will you be watching?

Photo via here

It is exciting to think about a new year when everything seems possible.  January always feels like a new beginning, a blank slate, the refreshing start of a new period of time.  It is a month of reflection and renewal.  Here's hoping that there are many inspiring adventures in store for all of us!

Happy New Year
May all your dreams come true in 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

And to all a Good Night

Wishing you a joyous holiday

May it be filled with enchantment

Treasured family traditions

Time spent with loved ones, hug them tightly 

Warm spirits

Holiday spices

Childlike wonder

And peace

"The snow turned all to pearl, the dark trees strung with pearls, the sky beginning to flow with such a radiance as never was on land or sea.  And the stillness everywhere..."
--  Gladys Hasty Carroll


May we find that stillness and peace within ourselves and all around us in the New Year.  More than ever we need "peace on earth, good-will to men."

"I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a joyful holiday season!  I am taking a little time off to enjoy my family and will see you back here in 2013.

Photo one by Alex De Cordoba, two and five via here and here, and others via Pinterest 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Dickens of a Year

Did you know that Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" in six weeks, under pressure to get it finished before Christmas?  It was 1843 and Dickens was experiencing falling sales and diminished interest in his last two books.  He was filled with self-doubt, short of cash, and not too happy that his wife was expecting their fifth child after only seven years of marriage.  He had travelled to Manchester to give a speech on the lack of education for the poor and other problems plaguing the city.   Manchester reminded Dickens of many of the social ills that plagued England at the time. Everywhere he looked, there was poverty, hunger, filth and unemployment.  In 1843 fifty-seven percent of children born to working-class parents in Manchester died before they reached the age of five.  As many as 3.000 people per day lined up at soup kitchens and crowds of unemployed working men stood idle on the streets.  Dickens delivered his speech at the Manchester Athenaeum, an institution that provided education for the working poor.  He was encouraged by the audience's warm reception and left the Athenaeum filled with new hope about his writing future.

That night he walked the streets of Manchester thinking about his writing and realized that he needed to work on maintaining the strong qualities of storytelling and characterization in his novels which his readers had grown to love. Those qualities needed to exist side by side with the social messages which were so important to him.  He would need to get his points across without preaching to his readers, in an entertaining way, almost without his readers knowing what had happened.  As he walked the streets that night a book began to take shape in his imagination and as the story unfolded he recognized that this was his next writing project.  He was lost in thought, crying and laughing, as the characters began to fill his head -- two children named Ignorance and Want, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and Ebeneezer Scrooge.  He had discovered that his next book would be a story about Christmas and he had six short weeks to get it done.  He would later find out that his publisher was losing confidence in him and would refuse to publish it.  So he needed not only to write the book quickly but also to publish it himself.  Back in London he continued to walk the streets at night until he had thought out the entire book.   It would become "A Christmas Carol," probably his best known work and certainly his most beloved.   At the turn of the twentieth-century it was said to be the second most widely-read book in the English language (the first was the Bible). 

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford is filled with fascinating stories about Charles Dickens and the creation of "A Christmas Carol."


February 7, 2012 was the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth and the entire year has been filled with celebrations to commemorate the occasion.  On Dickens' actual birthday in February there were events staged in England and all over the world.  They including public readings, a ceremony at Westminster Abbey and many birthday celebrations.   Newspapers and magazines featured articles by writers, academics and scholars listing the most popular novels by Dickens and their own personal favorites.  "Bleak House" and "Great Expectations" were at the top of most lists.   Claire Tomalin's new biography of Dickens was published this year and a revival of the "Mystery of Edwin Drood" is currently playing on Broadway.  In New York there was an exhibition -- A Tale of Two Centuries: Charles Dickens Turns 200 -- at the Morgan Library which featured the largest collection of Dickens material outside England.

Painting of Charles Dickens from the Morgan exhibition
Image via here

Dickens' signature from the exhibition at the Morgan
Image via here


But it seems that the best was saved for last.  On December 10 the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street in London, his only surviving London home, reopened after a three year, $5-million  refurbishment and restoration.  It was the home of Charles Dickens from 1837 to 1839 and the site where he wrote "Nicholas Nickleby" and Oliver Twist."  He moved in as a young husband with his new wife, Catherine and their first child.  Two more children would be born while he lived there.  It was the house he lived in when he became famous under his own name, dropping the pseudonym of Boz which he had previously used.  The Dickens museum has been in operation since 1925, but its new facelift is so impressive that it has inspired many people to say that it has gone from "Bleak House" to "Great Expectations."  

The goal was to make it look less like a museum and more like a home, much as it would have looked in Dickens' own lifetime, as if he had just stepped out the door.  For example, in the drawing room, where Dickens regularly entertained his friends with performances from his works, visitors can sit on the sofa and hear the voice of the actor Simon Callow reading his words.  Visitors can see the blue-walled dining room where he entertained his friends; it features the original sideboard and a portrait of the the 25-year-old author.  The master bedroom displays many of his personal items that have never been seen before. The second bedroom where his sister-in-law Mary died at the age of 17 contains rare photographic prints showing the 1856 rail crash which Dickens was involved in.  It has been said that the tragic death of his sister-in-law Mary may have influenced many of the death scenes in Dickens' novels.  On the top floor, the former servants' quarters contains a set of bars from Marshalsea prison, where Dickens' father was imprisoned for his debts.  There is also an exhibition of costumes from Mike Newell's new film adaptation of "Great Expectations." 

The refurbished staircase at the Dickens' museum with a silhouette of Dickens

The dining room

The drawing room

Bars from Marshalsea Prison where Dickens' father was imprisoned

Throughout the month of December the rooms will be traditionally decorated for Christmas and will host many Christmas events.  Mulled wine will be served and live readings of "A Christmas Carol" will take place.  It will be the only London museum open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  How exciting that the restoration of The Charles Dickens museum was finished just in time for Christmas, the time of year memorialized in Dickens' beloved book "A Christmas Carol." 

If you want a treat, go here to hear Charles Dickens' great granddaughter Monica Dickens read "A Christmas Carol."  It will give you goosebumps since it is as close as we can get to hearing the actual author himself.  Monica Dickens first heard the reading from her grandfather, who heard it from Charles Dickens.  Her reading of the famous opening: "Marley was dead: to begin with..."  will give  you a thrill.  


Last five photos via here 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Holiday Vignettes

Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco

Every year at the beginning of December I get to visit San Francisco because my daughter sings in a Christmas concert.   I was there last weekend and the city was sparkling with holiday decorations.  Twinkling lights and lavish displays were everywhere and there was holiday magic in the air. "The Nutcracker" was playing at the War Memorial Building, the hotels were decorated with garlands and Christmas trees, and the department stores had windows filled with wreaths.   But this time I enjoyed seeing the quieter, gentler displays of Christmas decor. Everywhere I looked I saw artfully designed vignettes of holiday cheer and I was inspired by all this festive beauty. Especially in the wonderful shops, boutiques, and food markets for which the city is famous.  Here are some of the happy scenes that caught my eye.

The Gardener in Berkeley carries much more than gardening items

There were beautiful vignettes all around

They have Christmas decorations and interesting books -- I bought the book on typography

Musicians at The Gardener playing holiday music

Fourth Street in Berkeley

Everything you could want for the holidays at The Pasta Shop

Panettone, Italian Christmas bread

Holiday foods from Britain

Pomegranates at the Ferry Building

Quince Paste from Happy Girl Kitchen 

Scharfenberger Chocolate

Heath Ceramics

Cowgirl Creamery

Raclette from Cowgirl Creamery

Tempting display of honeys and jams at a bakery

Locanda Restaurant in a festive mood

"Din Don!  merrily on high
In heav'n the bells are ringing;
Din don!  verily the sky
Is riv'n with angel singing."

(A French carol sung by the San Francisco Lyric Chorus)

 We heard  beautiful music and saw many lovely things in San Francisco.  The city by the bay really sparkles at this time of the year.  I hope you are enjoying the sights and sounds of the holidays in your neighborhood!

Top photo by Megan Taylor

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Brontes

"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bels; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

"The Brontes" by Juliet Barker
Revised and updated for a new generation of readers

Ever since I discovered the books by the Bronte sisters in my early twenties, I have been fascinated by their lives. Their story was the stuff of myth and I was as spellbound by their lives as I was by their books. The sisters lived in a remote parsonage on the wild moors of Yorkshire with their stern father Patrick, a clergyman, and their disturbed, alcoholic brother Branwell. Their house was adjacent to a cemetery. As children, the four siblings spent endless hours creating fantasy kingdoms called Gondal and Angria and populating them with Bryronic characters. They wrote the stories in tiny handwriting in a series of miniature books. Later, when each of the sisters wrote the books for which they would became famous -- "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights," and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," to mention a few -- they published them under male pseudonyms. Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. And tragically all of them died young -- Anne at 29, Emily at 30, and Charlotte at 38. Charlotte died just months after getting married at the age of 38. 

In 1994 Juliet Barker wrote The Brontes, Wild Genius on the Moors, the definitive biography of the the family that produced Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. I remember buying it and devouring every word. Barker's biography was a landmark work because it dispelled much of the myth that had surrounded the Brontes since their deaths and finally portrayed them with the clarity and precision that Barker's vast scholarship and research brought to the topic. It told the real story. I learned so much about this extraordinary family. I was very excited to discover that it has recently been reprinted with updates based on new information that Barker has uncovered. She is very happy (like the rest of us who loved it) to have this book back in print so that a new generation can learn about the Brontes and their fascinating lives.  

Portrait of Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte by Branwell Bronte (he erased the image of himself)
It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London
Photo via here

Haworth Village in Yorkshire, England
Photo via here

Twenty years ago Juliet Barker realized that this story needed to be retold based on first-hand research among all the Bronte manuscripts, including contemporary historical documents never before used by Bronte scholars.  She had observed that many of the stereotypes about the Brontes, such as the one about their father Patrick being a tyrant, were reinforced by the practice of writing separate biographies for each member of the family. Her thesis was that this extraordinary family produced three, or four if you count Branwell, talented writers and the fact that they were such a close family is the key to their achievements. And so Barker wrote about the Brontes as a unit, showing for example how the children's closeness and interdependency led to their writing together the elaborate Gondal and Agria stories. These stories would later influence the creation of the sisters' masterpieces "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights," as well as the other novels.  

Barker's biography is now considered the standard biography of the Brontes. She spent years as Curator and Librarian of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth and during that time talked to many Bronte enthusiasts who treked to Yorkshire to visit the shrine of the Brontes. It was there that she heard many misconceptions about the family. Her 1994 biography finally revealed them as real people, rather than stereotypes. Among her new discoveries is a charming letter from Charlotte about her wedding dress which shows her sense of humor (she could laugh at herself being a new bride at 38). There is some new information about Branwell's art instructor. Although his teacher was a member of the prestigious Royal Academy of Art, he was a bad instructor and failed to show Branwell how to mix the pigments properly. This explains Branwell's faded portrait of his sisters that hangs in the National Portrait Galley in London. These discoveries and others further clarify our understanding of the Bronte family that emerged in the 1994 biography.    

The new edition of Barker's biography is a lovely book; the snowy scene of the Brontes' parsonage and adjacent cemetery on the dust jacket captures the moody atmosphere of the Bronte books and the landscape where they took place. It would be a wonderful addition to any library. It's the kind of book to dip into for all kinds of historic and anecdotal information about the Brontes, but is also an engrossing read from cover to cover. And with Christmas right around the corner, it would make a special gift for anyone you know who loves the novels by the Bronte sisters.    

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Getting Ready...

We are getting closer to Christmas and I am starting to feel the Christmas spirit.  I have begun to get the house ready for the holidays -- putting up Christmas lights, taking out decorations, buying new wrapping paper and ribbons, and bringing out holiday tablecloths and napkins.  For me, so much of the warmth, welcome and cheer that comes during this holiday season begins in the kitchen.  And so the first thing that I think about is the food.  I have been pulling out my favorite holiday cookbooks for inspiration.  There are so many festive recipes to make this month.  It is time to think about cookies and holiday dinners.  Wrapping presents, decorations and the tree will come next week. But for now I am concentrating on favorite holiday foods, the ones that my family and friends expect each year.  A great recipe for a warm beverage that everyone loves is Spiced Cider Wassail Bowl from the book Parties! Menus for Easy Good Times.  It has all the flavors of the holidays and makes your house smell so good.  One of my favorite ways to entertain during December is to keep it casual.  I like to invite a small group of friends over for a cookie exchange or a tree trimming party and serve cozy, comfort food such as Brie with Pumpkin Butter wrapped in puff pastry, Spiced Nuts, a big salad, Butternut Squash Lasagna (recipe here) and Chocolate Crinkle cookies.

 More holiday ideas

Cookie dough needs to be made

My family's favorite -- Chocolate Crinkle cookies

Another favorite -- Gingerbread men

The ever present Brie with Pumpkin Butter in puff pastry and Spiced Nuts

Brie and nuts are ready to be enjoyed in front of the fire

Years ago I read a beautiful essay about Christmas traditions and rituals in "House and Garden" magazine.  The writer told the story of not appreciating all the efforts his mother made to get her home ready for the holidays -- the ironing of the linens, the unwrapping of precious ornaments, the holiday baking -- until one day after 9/11 he discovered the real meaning of the holiday rituals passed down from his parents.  He found that working on your home for the holidays is redemptive and that making your house beautiful and comfortable for Christmas is a positive thing because it shelters the people that you love.  The rituals of the holidays are comforting and make us feel safe.  He discovered that making a home for the holidays is an act of hope.  I've never forgotten that idea and each year, when I decorate and cook for Christmas, I keep it in mind.

By the way, if you want to get into the holiday spirit, read Pamela Terry's beautiful essay about Christmas on her blog From the House of Edward.


 Spiced Cider Wassail Bowl

8  cups good-quality cider
2  cinnamon sticks
10  allspice berries
8  whole cloves
1/4  cup dark brown sugar
2  cups of orange juice
1  tablespoon lemon juice
1  cup dark rum
1/2  cup brandy or Cognac
Quartered orange slices for garnish

In a large saucepan, combine the cider, whole spices, and sugar.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook gently for about 5 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar.  (Base can be made 2-3 days ahead.  Refrigerate.)  Stir in orange juice, lemon juice, rum and brandy.  Heat gently.  When ready to serve, float orange slices in wassail.  Ladle hot wassail into small cups, serving directly from the stove or placing pot on a warming tray on your table.


Brie with Pumpkin Butter Wrapped in Puff Pastry

1  20-ounce round of Brie
1  Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Sheet, defrosted for 20 minutes 
Pumpkin Butter (Dickinson's Country Pumpkin Butter is very good)
1  egg, beaten with 1 Tb. of water

Cut the top of the white rind off the brie with a sharp knife.  Roll out the puff pastry so that it will be large enough to encase the brie.  Spread a generous amount of pumpkin butter on top of the brie and place puff pastry around it.  In other words, lay pastry on top of brie, you will eventually be tucking it under.  Cut a circle out of puff pastry so it will be big enough to tuck under and encase brie.  After encasing the brie with the pastry and tucking under, seal it by pinching the ends together.  Save scraps for cutouts.
Cut fall or winter shapes out of leftover pastry.  With a pastry brush, brush egg wash over top and sides of brie.  Top with cutouts and brush cutouts also.
Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake in preheated 375 degree oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.  Let sit 15-20 minutes before serving.


What are your favorite holiday foods and traditions?