Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Naptime, Mini-Feminism, & Theo Chocolates

Every afternoon when Emilia is going down for her nap I put the house into, what I call, Lock-Down.  That means I un-plug the phone and desperately try to make the house quiet-as-the-tombs, as they say.  It can be very hard at times because our house is rather small and particularly noisy.  And once summer really starts up, I will officially be having nervous breakdowns on account of the damned neighbors being so damned loud.

I happened to learn very early on that I need Emilia to have a nap just as much as she needs to have one.  That way everyone ends up much happier by the end of the day.  Yes, I feel like a complete lightweight making such a claim, especially when my sister is running around like a crazed lunatic chasing after seven kids all day, and also managing to write an enormous book at the same time.  But what can I say?  I need downtime.

And so today, moments after Emilia had been read to, plonked in her bed, given a drink of water, and so on, I ran to the sofa in the living room and sat -- in dead-silence and waited.  Seriously, if I so much as put on the tea-kettle, I will hear her saying, 'Mama making tea!'  And then she will quickly change from her commentary on tea to singing her favorites from Mary Poppins.  'Mia love Cast off the Shackles!'  That would be Sister Suffragette, in case you were wondering, which is hilarious to hear her sing.  And she will emphatically do this for you upon request.  I still remember her running around saying, 'cut off shackles, mama!'.  I would in turn ask Michael, 'What did she say?  It sounds like she is asking to cut off the shackles!  What an odd little child...'  And then one day it hit me, 'Of course!  You're asking for Mary Poppins!'  Knowing Miss Milia, she probably then said, 'A-doy, Mama!'

She knows every single word and never misses one -- albeit, her words are slightly off as she doesn't exactly know what she is singing.  Over the past couple of months she has gone from singing 'Yemen's Goats' to 'Women's Dotes' to, finally, 'Women's Votes.'  We've a little feminist in the making, I suppose. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

31 Rue Cambon

Coco Chanel once said, 'A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future.'  (Well, isn't that just great.  As if I wasn't stressed out enough as it is.)  Anyway, I find it rather interesting that the woman who once said such a thing was the very same woman who was also peddling the world's most popular perfume.  Chanel No. 5, ever since it was introduced in 1921, remains the world's most popular selling fragrance.  In fact, during WWII when Coco essentially shut down her couturier business, she still made piles of money on this little bottle of perfume.  Everybody wanted it, and when their bottles ran dry, they wanted more.  So it should come as no surprise that, being the very astute business woman that she was, she would say something so absolutely daft as that.  I mean, really.

That being said, maybe the lady had a point.  Clearly, it is a very serious claim to make, and one that has probably made many a fine woman squirm (myself included).  Even though any reasonable person would/should simply balk at such a claim and then continue on their merry (but is it also successful?) way.

I happen to have my fair share of perfume bottles cluttering up our bedroom, and I used to actually wear them quite a bit.  Then one day I got a job pushing rather high-end lingerie and virtually stopped wearing fragrance entirely.  I cannot stand when a woman's perfume announces her presence in a room 20 minutes before she even arrives; I find it very rude, very loud, and even very cheap (having nothing to do with the monetary value of said obnoxious scent) -- not to mention the fact that it is terribly un-ladylike.  And I also dislike when I give someone a hug and then end up wearing their perfume for the rest of the day.  (Ah, come on, tell us how you really feel.)

Despite this, I do actually like perfume.  I like it on the skin, because this is where perfume is the least overpowering.  (If you really want to smell a perfume then put it on fabric.)  I only want someone to notice my perfume if they happen to get close enough to me.  Picking out a perfume though is a very tricky business, and it is something I've been immersed in for the past few weeks.  (Even though I know better, Coco's words have been haunting me.  If I happen to be a failure in life, I'd rather it be of my own doing, instead of sheer negligence in the area of feminine fragrance.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel

I really don't know what's gotten into me lately.  For some reason or another I seem to have developed a mild obsession with Coco Chanel.  It's inexplicable, really.  My closet is far from overflowing with her dresses.  I've never been a real fan of Chanel No. 5 (way too heavy and old-lady, if you want my two cents), despite the fact that Marilyn Monroe once claimed that was all she wore to bed.  I could never afford an original 2.55 handbag, sigh.  But I do like the makeup.  Although really, was Coco even still alive when the makeup line hit the department stores?  I suspect the answer is non!

I am, on the other hand, an enormous fan of Audrey Tatou, and I would watch any movie that she happened to be in.  (Although I did draw the line with The Da Vinci Code.  It's a bit of a toss-up as to what was most offensive: the reprehensible and wildly anti-Catholic nature of the book (which I did read)/movie, or Tom Hanks's hair.  Tough call.)  Anyway, I do adore her.  So the instant I heard about Coco Before Chanel , I began to anxiously await its release on dvd.  (I don't think we've actually gone to see a movie in the theater since Emilia was born.)  Anyway, I know I've said it before, but the movie is marvelous.  Beautiful from beginning to end.  Although, if you have a preference for more of the action-flicks, it may not be your cup of tea. 

Immediately on the heels of the movie, my nearest and dearest Lizzie sent me an email saying something along the lines of this: 'I've taken the liberty of choosing our new selection for book club.  When shall we plan our champagne-filled discussion?'  Considering the fact that neither of us belong to any sort of book club, I found this rather funny.  And so, me being me, I knew I would be very grumpy and rather stressed if I did not procure a copy of the book immediately.  And there you go, after a quick ride in the car with Miss Milia, I had my own shiny new copy of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, which I placed on our coffee table to patiently await Emilia's naptime.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Smattering of Napa, Part 4 (Branches Honey)

And now, for the grand finale ... honey!  (I think there is supposed to be a drum-roll of sorts imagined there.)  Believe it or not, this was the only thing I really, really wanted to cram into my suitcase as we were leaving town.  I bought it last year as we were wandering around Whole Foods (leave it to me to wander around a WF every where we go), and I bought it again immediately upon our return. 

Branches Honey, by Katz and Company, is a local product.  (Yes, I realize we are supposed to be eating honey from our own neck of the woods, as it were, in order to fend off allergies, but what if I also happen to get allergies in California?  Huh?  What then?)  Anyway, last year our little family polished off our jar of Range Wildflower Honey in no time, and I immediately regretted not having more.  So this year, I did the reasonable thing and bought more.  I had to convince myself not to simply buy two of the wildflower jars, and instead got one Range Wildflower and one Citrus Blossom.  (They had a few more to choose from, including a sage-something-or-other that looks very lovely.)

Incidentally, my perfect breakfast consists of: toast (Old Mill Honey White, if you please), loads of salty Irish butter melted and smeared all over it, and then a nice little dollop of honey on top.  Oh, and my ever-present cup of very strong black tea to kick me in the pants.  Mmmm, bliss.  Now, if I could only get Emilia to stop requesting pancakes for breakfast, then (to quote my handsome husband) 'my problems would be solved, mate!'

On account of the fact that the stuff is fancy, and also that honey bees are apparently kicking the can right and left, the jars are not exactly cheap.  (Really, what is going on with the honey bees?  It's fascinating -- not to mention absolutely terrible.)  Anyway, a jar is $10 at Whole Foods and $12 at St. Helena Olive Oil Company.  (The rent for the the SHOOC is most likely sky-high for their little shop, so I'm sure they could use the extra revenue.  And besides, charging a few bucks more makes it look even fancier.  Meanwhile, I'm glad I found mine down the road...)     

As a side note, I've just discovered (via the Katz and Co website) that this honey was featured on Oprah's list of stuff everyone should run out and buy.  How annoying.  How very, very annoying.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Smattering of Napa, Part 3 (St. Helena Olive Oil Company & Woodhouse Chocolates)

It is always the simplest things that make me the happiest. But please don't misconstrue my meaning of the word simple. I do not, by any means, wish to imply infantile, silly, or a simpleton. (I'm clearly none of those things.) Rather, I mean unfettered*, whole, uncomplicated -- even luxurious, if that makes any sense. Coco Chanel summed it up best when she said ' lies not in richness and ornateness but in the absence of vulgarity.' Poetry, sheer poetry, is it not? It makes you want to exhale.

Anyway, this idea of simple luxury is perfection in itself. However, in the material goods sector it can be very difficult to achieve. (Something to do with quality and, therefore, a prickly price, I daresay.) This is why when you see it done well, you must stop and notice. And try not to load your suitcase up too much in the process. (Stinking airlines and their suitcase weight restrictions! Not to mention personal checking account restrictions.  It's nearly enough to ruin your day!)

Every year we've been to Napa,  St. Helena Olive Oil Company is a place I seek out. And they just so happen to be purveyors of simple luxury. The shop itself is beautiful -- stone floors, high tin ceiling, beautiful tiles strewn about, you get the point. (We've only been to the one downtown St. Helena. I believe their 'flagship' is in Rutherford -- looks lovely from the outside, but inconvenient if you happen to be on your way to breakfast at Gillwood's.)

They have goodness knows how many varietals of oils. I don't happen to know the first thing about olive oil, to be perfectly honest. Although I do know a little bit about pressings and such. I also know that I would never cook with any of their oils. And by cook, I simply mean the application of heat. Rather, I use them 'raw' -- you know, as dressings or as a nice drizzle on top of your soup or something. (Sorry, but they are way too expensive for me to go frying up an eggplant parmesan or Neapolitan meatballs. Besides, they aren't really intended for that kind of cooking anyway.) You can sample as many as you'd like while walking around the shop, including their many infusions. I believe their basil one is wildly popular, however, I've not actually sampled it. Although we have given it as a gift. (Never inquired as to whether they liked it or not. Michael said it would be rude to ask, so there you go. Now we'll never know.) They also have a lovely selection of vinegars. I'm currently longing for the fig one, in particular.

One of my favorite reasons to visit this shop is their lavender. Something I've returned to time and time again is their lavender spray. They've just changed the name to Hydrasol spray -- much in the manner of Pelindaba Lavender's, and they've also changed the packaging.  (I don't think they've changed the product.)  I'm a big fan of their old pretty blue glass bottle, but I'm sure the new one will serve its purpose just fine. They recommend spraying it on just about anything, which is marvelous -- including your spazzy dog, if need be, (although Governor didn't seem to appreciate it).  However, Miss Milia and I like it in the morning when we've just gotten out of the shower. She will stand with her enormous white towel saying 'labder spay!' and I will give her little face a spritz or two. She also seems to think that all of my other products are fair game as well -- you know, eye cream and all.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Smattering of Napa, Part 2 (Taylor's Refresher/Gott's Roadside)

Apparently everyone is already in the know about this place. So how I managed to miss it for so long is beyond me. Although, I will readily admit that the whole concept is not typically something on my radar. I think it might have something to do with the fact that it is all outdoors -- you know, picnic benches and such.

Anyway, it was brought to my attention while sitting in the restaurant The Market (which I happen to adore -- the wood bar is gorgeous and strangely reminds me of our bed) in St. Helena a few years ago. Along with my ABLT (that would be the heavenly concoction of avocado, bacon, lettuce, and fried green tomatoes, fyi) both Michael and I ordered a glass of Joel Gott Zinfandel (2006, I think). I can't even tell you how much we both loved that wine. (In fact, it was one of the wines we served at Emilia's christening a handful of months later. And I was so glad when I rather sneakily took one of the bottles from said stash for later. It is sadly, [oh, so sadly] long gone now.)

A little while later Michael pointed out Taylor's Refresher to me as we drove down 29, informing me that it is both owned and operated by Joel Gott and his wife. He also told me that David (that would be the one and only Bampa David) had just seen it on the Food Network and was rather intrigued. Rightly so, I say.

Taylor's Refresher, now called Gott's Roadside (I much prefer the retro-sounding original) is always crowded. Driving past the line always seems to go on forever. That is why, as the rainstorm began to roll in over the weekend, we found ourselves huddled up on tall bar-stools by the heat-lamps digging into enormous hamburgers and french fries. (Despite the weather, the line was still amazingly long -- but nothing like when the sun is out.) Emilia sat, perched on my lap, cramming as many french fries in her mouth as she deemed possible. (She only gets french fries when we travel, so the girl has learned to work fast.) Every now and then I was able to get a bite of her 'meatball', as she called her hamburger, into her little mouth. Once she'd had her fill, I ended up handing the rest of my Wisconsin Sourdough (so good) over to Michael and polishing off her hamburger (also so good).

Right as the rain started to come down, we made our way back to the car -- all three content, all three ready for a nap, and all three weighing a bit more than we did before we got there. All in all it was a successful lunch, I must say. However, Emilia's mama and dada sorely missed Bampa David throughout. It is totally his kind of place. And if it wasn't so freaking cold last Saturday, it is also my mom's kind of place. Maybe next time.  (Also my mom's kind of place: Kara's Cupcakes, see below.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Smattering of Napa, Part 1 (Kara's Cupcakes)

'We go get tuptates! We go get Trophy Tuptates!', Emilia shouted as happily as can be from the backseat of the car. 'Not Trophy Cupcakes, different cupcakes -- Napa Cupcakes!', her mama replied. 'Napa Tuptates! Oh, boy!' And that gives you a brief idea of how we spent our first afternoon in Napa Valley.

Several weeks ago Michael emailed an article from Saveur magazine to me that highlighted a cupcake shop (among other things) in Napa. I tucked the information into my brain somewhere and then promptly forgot about it. That being said, shortly after we checked in to our hotel, Michael sat with his laptop looking for local cupcakes. 'I think it was on Front Street or First Street or something. 610, maybe? I don't know. And maybe it was called Anna's or Kara's or something. I can't really remember .' And there you go: Kara's Cupcakes, 610 First Street. What more can I say? Well, maybe this, they are located in the magnificent Oxbow Market downtown Napa. And if you haven't ever been to Oxbow, let me also say this: It is completely my cup of tea. It is set up like some fancy indoor farmers'/local wares market. Admittedly we didn't spend too much time there (I've been sorely regretting the spice shop) -- we got cupcakes for the road, had a quick browse, and then sat down to share an icecream. (The Three Twins is so good, by the way.)

Anyway, back to the issue at hand: Kara's Cupcakes, or Napa Tuptates, if you will. We ordered three in all: one for me, one for Emilia, and one for me and Miss Milia to share. (Michael claims to appreciate a good cupcake so long as you don't ask him to eat it.) I got the Sweet Chocolate, Emilia chose the Passionfruit, and then we got the chocolate raspberry (on account of the fact that it was chocolate and had pink frosting).

After wandering around in the sunshine for awhile, we eventually made our way back to the hotel. And that evening, while Michael was out running in circles entirely different from our own, Miss Milia and I pulled the cupcakes out of the fridge and had a grand ol' time. Immediately after that little girl bit into hers I spent the next couple minutes trying to finagle the thing away from her. It didn't work. Instead, I just had a bite (or three) before tucking into my own. The Passionfruit cupcake is divine and completely worth stealing from a small child -- if, in fact, you have the nerve -- which I, unfortunately, did not. It was so moist with the perfect amount of sweet. And the frosting (which was why Emilia chose it to begin with) was vanilla buttercream with coconut flakes on top, 'You want coconut one! That look like yummy!' And, alas, the girl was right. I desperately wished for another.

As for mine? Equally divine, if you must know. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the only other chocolate cupcake that even comes close is my own. (The recipe is from my sister.) They use all local ingredients including E. Guittard chocolate, which has now gotten my attention -- and I fully intend to use it next time I pull out my mixer and tins. Usually I use either Scharffen Berger or Valrhona. However, the chocolate taste in the Kara's Cupcakes is exceptional, and definitely worth revisiting.

We waited until the next evening to have the last cupcake -- Raspberry Dazzle. Yes, it was good. But it didn't have the same effect as the other two. Although, to be perfectly honest, Emilia was a complete frosting hog and would hardly share. Lesson to be learned: next time we go to Kara's Cupcakes we get enough so we don't have to share -- and make sure that at least two of said cupcakes are Passionfruit. Because Emilia was right, not only do they look like yummy -- they are yummy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Napa for the Soul

Here's the thing of it, if someone walked up to me and said, 'Move to Napa, Or Else!', I would likely say something along the lines of, 'Well, if you insist.' And then I would call for a U-Haul straight away and be done with it. I can't even begin to tell you how that place has managed to soak into my skin.

I was actually born in California (Fremont, to be exact). When I was a few years old my family moved away (much preferring the horribly cold climate of Wyoming, I guess). When I was younger I adored California, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would move to San Francisco.  I would also become very rich and very beautiful in the process, I'm sure. However, several years passed and I was singing a different tune altogether. (Eventually I wanted to move to France -- and that was that -- end of story.) Anyway, not only did California completely fall off the radar, but I began to look at it in a different light. It had become the land of plastic surgery, excessive teeth bleaching, and Juicy Sweatsuits (rather accurate, I must say), and, therefore, to be avoided at all cost. It's funny, really, as I happen to own two and a half Juicy Sweatsuits myself. However, I will deny this point-blank if ever asked. Besides, they don't really count as I've never actually worn them out of the house. (How you like that for snazzy logic?)

Anyway, my wonderful husband had to go to Napa for work, so naturally Miss Milia and I accompanied him. Shockingly, it is our third time doing so. The first time was when Emilia was only three months old, and I still remember the pilot saying as we boarded the plane, 'Why, she's fresh out of the wrapper!' For some reason that still gives me the willies. Yuck.

Visually speaking Napa is breathtaking. Whether you like wine or not (I happen to like it very much) the actual vineyards are gorgeous. I love driving by and seeing row after row of vines fly past the window. And most of the wineries themselves are pieces of art. (Michael is still talking about Del Dotto from our first trip. He came back to the hotel after being wined and dined and raving about the whole experience. As I recall, I said a few choice words and nearly knocked him flat. What can I say? I was very tired from a baby right-out-the-wrapper screaming her head off for two hours straight or something. And the last thing I wanted to hear about was wild mushroom ravioli and wine being poured straight from a cask --while being seated in a cave, mind you. Meanwhile, he still gets this glossed-over look every time the place is mentioned. Whatever.)

One of our favorites is Freemark Abbey,  and not solely because of the wine.  Although I seem to recall it being quite nice. Rather, we want to live there. One of the walls in the tasting room is dark wood and glass, and it essentially works like a sliding glass door, disappearing to goodness knows where. It opens up onto a beautiful patio with stunning grounds. I also love all the stone -- you know, actual stone and not the cultured crap you find everywhere that gives a slight Disneyland feel to things. It's magnificent.

Even though many go to Napa for the actual wine (I've heard that 29 can have some terrible accidents on account of this fact), it is most definitely not the only reason to go. It is always much cheaper to buy wines at home, really -- wineries are notoriously over-priced (you know, the whole captive audience thing). Instead, we go for the sunshine*, the beautiful scenery and architecture, the restaurants (albeit nothing terribly fancy -- no Bouchon for us, I'm sorry to report), the shops (including a cupcake shop that nearly blew my flip-flops off), and the much needed desire simply to get our bums off the front porch.

And so, get ready for a little barrage. I came home with a very full tummy and a few things in my suitcase. And I expect to tell you all about it.

*Now really, who knew it even rained in Napa? Meanwhile two out of the four days it did just that. And I'm not talking about a little sprinkle here and there. I'm talking about full-on-Southern-style rain.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

best, For an Anniversary

when I don't think I'm good enough,
                           you make me feel better.

when I think I've let you down,
                          i want to be better.

when I've got you figured out,
                         i learn to know you better.

when you ask me if I love,
                        you should know better.

--Michael Bindas, c. 1999

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Friday Harbor

Sometimes it is so nice just to get our bums off the front porch. Michael, being a not-for-profit lawyer, has very few perks with his job. In fact, the only perk I can think of is that when he goes out of town for work, Miss Milia and I usually go, too. (Unless he is going to Nevada or something, then he goes by himself.) That is why we found ourselves making the trek to Anacortes and then on to a long ferry ride to the beautiful San Juan Islands last week.

I'm not sure if you've ever been to the San Juans or not, but if you haven't, then get your arse moving. They are glorious. The ferry ride is beautiful, and supposedly you can do a little whale watching while aboard. But what we do is this: Michael hunkers down in a booth with work stuff while I chase Emilia this way and that. She runs to the race car video game where she can sit for ages, even with no quarters it is apparently very exciting, 'Going to Aunt Denise's!' Once mama has had her fill we then run around the rest of the ferry -- people watching**, and randomly dashing out onto the very windy deck.

Friday Harbor itself is wonderful. Once the ferry docks, you can literally walk off the boat and up the street to your hotel. It is a small town, so if you aren't paying attention you will walk yourself right out of it. But that's alright because you will most likely run into cows and the lavender fields. Pelindaba Lavender is based here and rumour has it that their farm is not to be missed. That being said, we keep seeming to miss it. (You need to drive there, and the only time we ever get in the car is to get back on the ferry. Even though our hotel would have loaned us some bikes, it would have been way too ambitious.) The Pelindaba Lavender shop is lovely though, and their lavender products are both unfettered and organic -- which means the smell is so pure they will nearly make you weep.  Miss Milia's hair likes the shampoo and conditioner, and I like the culinary lavender. I also just bought a bottle of their Hydrosol cleaner, which promises to be a wonder product. (Apart from cleaning fruit and veggies, it also polishes chrome, countertops, and wards off bugs.) 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hot Cross Buns for Good Friday

Now really, I've never understood why it is that we are meant to eat Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday when we are also meant to be fasting. Particularly since I have a tendency to let my hunger override my piety. As it turns out, Hot Cross Buns were originally intended to be eaten when one broke their Good Friday fast. (That would be in the evening after skipping the first two meals, in case you were wondering. And not what one is supposed to eat with a giant bowl of very strong tea for breakfast, even though that is when they sound heavenly.)

Anyway, I suppose this does make me feel a bit better. After all, I can still keep my image of Jo (from Bleak House) running about the streets of Charles Dickens' London with a little Hot Cross Bun in his hand. Although, I should really choose a different character — one not so tragic and who may have actually stood a chance of procuring one of these delectable little buns, perhaps. (How about Guppy? Is that any better? No, it's not — I'm sticking with Jo.)

If we are striving for accuracy, however, we should bump ourselves over to the Tudor period (1485-1603, give or take) when Hot Cross Buns originated. Apparently they used to be sold throughout the year. However Queen Elizabeth I decided to put her foot down (in her attempt to stamp out Catholicism) and restricted their selling to Christmas, Good Friday, and burials. (Not that I can blame her. I suppose little buns with images of crosses on them are rather menacing.)

Nowadays, if you happen to live in England, you can get Hot Cross Buns year round. (Or so I have read. I've never actually wandered into a Sainsbury or Tesco in hot pursuit.) Yet it is still considered traditional to eat them on Easter. But if you are trying to be right-proper, then the evening of Good Friday is the ticket. And not a moment too soon, if you're like me. Because by that time your head will be throbbing, and you're mad at everyone for absolutely no reason at all, and you have lost all energy to even be bothered with making dinner. And you will be frustrated because what you are supposed to be doing is thinking about Jesus on the cross. (See, I told you I wasn't a very good faster.)

I have actually tried my hand at these two times before with very disappointing results. And I very nearly skipped them this year altogether. I have Michael to thank for their presence, as he gently reminded me that seasonal cooking is, in fact, my thing, so snap the hell out of it. Or something like that anyway. This year they were divine, and I'm not sure if it was the recipe I used (that would be Nigella's) or allowing the dough to raise in the oven. Probably both, I suspect. That being said, they are actually a lot of fun to make. The recipe is rather long, but don't let that deter you. In fact, you are supposed to make the dough and then plunk it in the fridge overnight. That way you can get on with it the next day — in between grousing about and feeling very badly about the fact that you've been grousing about.

Also, every recipe I've looked at has called for bread flour, as opposed to all-purpose. Nigella seems to sum it up the best: 'There's no point going through all this effort and ruining your chances of success over such a small but significant point.' So there you go. Live dangerously if you'd like, but my lovely husband offered to run to the store for a bag and I'm very grateful that he did.