This holiday season has been a hectic one and I wasn't sure I'd be doing any decorating. My new granddaughter was born on November 25 and my younger daughter just relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I am jumping for joy about both these events. But there has been little time to work on the house. As of last Thursday I hadn't done a thing to get ready for Christmas.
But on Friday I turned the corner, caught the holiday spirit, and everything started to come together. Part of this was reading some holiday essays I have saved over the years. We put up the garlands and got the tree. It will be a quiet holiday this year -- no parties at the house, there just hasn't been time to plan anything -- but that's exactly what I'm in the mood for. As the years go by, I realize the big parties and celebrations are receding and the smaller, magical moments are becoming more important. Have you noticed this also? I'm looking forward to sitting down and writing holiday cards, making cookies, decorating the tree, and having my family around the dinner table. I can't wait to take a photo of my granddaughter in front of the Christmas tree. In the meantime, here are some special holiday moments that have been making me very happy.
Discovering a new recipe for brownies -- you will love these!
Taking out the decorations for the tree. I have had these green and white storage boxes for ages and the sight of them always fills me with anticipation.
Finishing the tree! I love having it in the library.
Finding the perfect book to give my granddaughter for Christmas, though I won't be able to read it to her for a while. But getting her started on the Madeline books with this special 75th anniversary edition is very exciting!
Finding a present for myself
The Writer's Garden is about the way gardens have held a special place in many authors' lives. It is filled with beautiful photos and fascinating text about the gardens belonging to writers such as Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie and many others. This would make a great gift for your gardening and literary friends.
Taking a few peaceful hours in the day to write my holiday cards
Going to the Christmas tea that my book club has every year
And being touched by how much trouble my friend Judie took to make it look so beautiful!
Many writers have written about the redemptive power of making a home for the holidays. I read an article years ago on this topic. The writer discovered that working on his house and creating a holiday for his family was a way to create a sanctuary in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the world. I was inspired by the idea of making a beautiful and safe place to shelter our loved ones. This year with a new grandchild in our family, I especially feel this. It will be fun as the years go by to see the excitement in her eyes as she experiences the holiday. Each year, when I think about that article from years ago, I appreciate the value of getting the house ready for the holidays. Often it's the little things that make the holiday so magical!
Fudge Brownies Sprinkled with Coffee Salt
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 and 1/4 cups of sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
Stumptown Coffee Flake Salt for sprinkling (You can order it here)
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch by 8-inch baking pan with parchment and grease well. Melt chocolate and butter over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture is smooth. Remove pan from heat and set aside to cool. Add vanilla, sugar, eggs and salt to chocolate mixture and mix until combined. Add flour and stir until completely combined. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes. Do not overbake! When done, a toothpick inserted into the middle should come out just barely clean. Sprinkle the top with coffee salt. Cool in pan and cut into squares.
This recipe comes from Anne Zimmerman, a friend who is a writer and an excellent cook!
Every now and then a book comes out that captures the feeling of home and hearth that many of us crave around the holiday season. A book that is perfect to give to our literary, homebody, and design-addicted friends, as well as ourselves. A book that is a place to escape from the holiday madness. This year the book that hits all the right notes for a cozily domestic and inspiring read is Novel Interiors by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti. Its theme is "living in enchanted rooms inspired by literature." That description alone has me running out to buy copies for all of my friends.
If there's anyone who knows a thing or two about making a warm and welcoming home, it is Lisa Borgnes Giramonti. She has been writing about it and inspiring us to do just that on her beautiful blog A Bloomsbury Life for years. Her new design book "Novel Interiors" has just been released and for those of us who love her blog, it is an occasion to rejoice. I know Lisa and from the first day we met at a book reading by Dominque Browning in Santa Monica -- we just gravitated towards each other -- she has been an inspiring and supportive friend. We bonded over our passion for Bloomsbury and English literature and have gotten together many times to exchange books and ideas. She is a treasure!
Photos from "Novel Interiors" that illustrate Lisa's design philosophy inspired by classic literature
These rooms convey a cheerful domesticity
If I could think of one concept to describe Lisa's blog, and hence her book, it would be how to live a meaningful life. One way she has personally done this is by creating warm and happy homes wherever she has lived, homes that are inspired by great literature. "Novel Interiors" is all about that idea. Like many of us who love to read, Lisa has discovered many truths from classic novels. And one of those is that a cheerfully and warmly designed home can add to a happy life. In her new book, she gives us hundreds of design ideas to accomplish this. As she writes, "Don't underestimate how important these details can be to your life. Happiness has a wonderful way of reverberating outward -- when you are surrounded by things that bring you a deep sense of well-being, everyone around you feels better also."
Her ideas for a more stately and traditional look
As she has written on her blog, the books she has loved in her life have shaped the person she is today. They have influenced her personal style, especially the way she decorates her home. In "Novel Interiors," Lisa shares with us "the beautiful moments" from her favorite books and how they can be recreated in our homes. The photographs by Ivan Terestchenko of houses and their interiors are gorgeous and the quotes from Lisa's favorite books are inspiring and plentiful. According to her, many of us nesters want our rooms to feel cozy and warm, or chic and glamorous, or earthy and natural. It all depends on who we are. We want our homes to reflect ourselves. This book will show us how. And for the bibliophiles amongst us, aren't we always looking for a good book to read? Lisa's book will help us accomplish that as well.
The book is divided into chapters: "Shall I Put the Kettle On?," "Remembrance of Things Past," Living au Naturel," "Oh, the Glamour of it All," "Anything Goes," and "Sometimes a Fantasy." Each chapter guides us through the settings of more than sixty literary classics and shows us how they can inspire our decorating style. Here's the introduction to "Shall I Put the Kettle On?" --
"In the classic novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and others, home sweet home is a well-worn sanctuary where the furniture is a bit threadbare, the kitchen has yet to be tidied up from breakfast, and a cheerful domesticity reigns over all. Woven into the architecture of these richly detailed worlds are countless lessons on how to live simply and meaningfully. When in doubt, keep it comfortable, they tell us. Embrace the charms of disorder. Go ahead and let the stitches show. And don't ever underestimate the power of a good armchair."
Elements of a glamorous design
After reading this book, you will be inspired by how easy and satisfying it is to create a warm environment for yourself and your family by paying attention to the little things -- such as having fresh flowers in a favorite vase and placing them in a spot that catches the afternoon light or putting out an earthy tea kettle in the kitchen next to mugs and tea accoutrements signaling afternoon tea. There is also the idea of a drinks tray for mixing that evening cocktail. It's the details that make all the difference.
A drinks tray adds a note of hospitality and graciousness to a room
You will also be delighted by how many great book suggestions Lisa makes. I always seem to be on the hunt for a good book. Lisa's anthology is excellent and emphasizes the classics, including some titles you may not have heard of. I will be searching for Lark Rises to Candleford by Flora Thompson, Loving by Henry Green, and Vainglory by Ronald Firbank. So get ready to be ordering some new books as well as rearranging a cozy corner or two around your house. You will be inspired to find the perfect spot to read one of these books, brew that perfect pot of tea, make an evening cocktail, and create some beautiful moments of your own! Go here to order a copy.
Photo by Megan Taylor
Lisa signing my book at her book launch in Beverly Hills
"It's fruitcake weather, Buddy" says the central character in Truman Capote's beautiful and poignant story A Christmas Memory. Well, I don't make fruitcake so I will paraphrase slightly and say, with the same amount of glee, "It's gingerbread weather!" Of course, a snowy winter wonderland would be lovely. But here in Los Angeles a cool and rainy day can be described as gingerbread weather. Today everyone is excited because this is our winter. We are celebrating the rainy weather not just because it feels cozy, but also because California has been in an historic drought for three years. Rain is what we desperately need. And, since it is the first day of December, there is even more to celebrate as we head into the holiday season.
Inspired by the cozy weather, I took out my holiday cookbooks and decided to challenge myself to a month of holiday cooking. There are 24 days to go and I will try to make all my favorites. The first recipe will be gingerbread, a dish that for me has the Proustian power of a Madeleine cookie. Just smelling it takes me back to childhood Christmases. Gingerbread is a nostalgic, homey dessert that I absolutely love and baking up a batch just feels right on a cold winter day.
The ingredients are luscious and redolent of the holiday season: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, brown sugar, molasses and butter. When I noticed that the recipe also called for a cup of freshly brewed coffee and that is exactly what I had left in my coffee pot this morning, the decision was made. I would make gingerbread on the first day of December.
My recipe is from Sara Foster's wonderful cookbook The Foster's Market Cookbook. She is the creator of Foster's Markets in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Prior to opening her stores she worked alongside Martha Stewart in the kitchen of Martha's catering business. Her cookbooks feature recipes for the most popular dishes from her specialty stores. This gingerbread is served all day long in her restaurant -- for breakfast, tea, and even dessert topped with whipped cream. It's sweet and also spicy. The recipes calls for black pepper and dry mustard.
Besides the ginger, the key ingredient to gingerbread is molasses which gives the mixture its gorgeous color
The flour and spice mixture gets added to the wet ingredients
Two loaf pans filled with batter ready to go into the oven
They bake for 40-45 minutes and fill the house with the most wonderful smell
Is there any happier sight than a plate of gingerbread and a cup of hot cocoa?
My kitchen -- December, 2012
For me, the holidays are about hearth and home and the kitchen is at the center of it all. This is where I will be spending most of December. A loaf of gingerbread or a tin of cookies wrapped up and tied with a pretty ribbon and a sprig of holly makes a heartfelt gift. What could be sweeter than a gift from the kitchen?
What are your favorite holiday foods to cook at this time of the year?
Is there a book or story you read every holiday season?
Sweet and Spicy Gingerbread
3 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (I used 1/4 teaspoon)
12 tablespoons (1 and 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 and 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 and 1/2 cups molasses
1 cup brewed strong coffee, cooled
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 9 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pans and set aside. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mustard and pepper in a large bowl and stir to mix. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Slowly add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the molasses to the butter mixture in a slow, steady stream while continuing to beat. Add the coffee, and continue to beat until all the ingredients are well blended. Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir just until all the dry ingredients are moist and blended. Do not overmix. Pour the batter evenly into the prepared pans and place on the center rack of the oven. Bake 40 to 45 minutes , until the bread rises and springs back lightly when pressed and a toothpick inserted in the center of each loaf comes out clean. Let rest for 10 - 15 minutes before removing from the pans. Serve warm or place on a baking rack to cool.
Wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving and the coziest of weekends as we officially enter the festive season! This is one of my favorite holidays and I love how it kicks off the Christmas season. I would normally be cooking this week and setting the table, but instead have been on "baby watch." Yesterday my new granddaughter arrived and I am over the moon! I am now a grandmother and have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
Go here for an inspiring article in The New York Times on setting your Thanksgiving table.
And here for a fantastic Cranberry-Pear Tart in a Walnut Shortbread Crust that would work for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I love this quote from Laurie Colwin:
"The table is a meeting place, a gathering ground, the source of sustenance and nourishment, festivity, safety, and satisfaction. A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."
Have the happiest of holidays! See you back here next week.
"I have never known any distress that an hour's reading did not relieve"
-- Charles de Montesquieu
I love books and continue to prefer them over electronic devices even though they sometimes threaten to take over my house! In fact, my very first blog post four years ago was about the beauty of books. In my opinion, nothing makes a room warmer than a personal collection of books. I love how they bring color, pattern and texture to a room. And they tell us so much about the collector. Recently, after returning from a trip to England and new books arriving daily, I realized it was time to edit the books in my study to make room for the new ones. The goal was to be able to put my hand on whatever title I needed without too much trouble. My system of organization was pretty relaxed with the only rule being to group all books by the same author together. Other than that, I hoped to arrange them in an attractive way to highlight the beauty of the books. Since every book "counts" in this room (no forgettable books here), I should be able to find what I want easily. The topic of this collection would be favorite authors, as well as some new ones from the trip to England. This room would contain literary novels and biographies, mostly English, and very much my "old friends."
Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury would be front and center. These are the diaries I found in London. I have been reading Virginia Woolf's books for many years and finding these beautiful editions of her diaries was a highlight of my trip. Seeing her lighthouse in St. Ives was also pretty special!
Books on her as well as her circle of friends take up a few shelves
I have been collecting books on the Bloomsbury Group for about 35 years now!
Next were some groupings of favorite authors. I loved getting the Nancy Mitfords and Katherine Mansfields together.
As well as books by E.M. Forster, Elizabeth Von Arnim, and E.M. Delafield. Though it seems that I have many editions of just one title by Delafield, The Diary of a Provincial Lady. This charming book about the life of an ordinary woman living in an English village during the 1930's is laugh-out-loud funny. Go here to read more. I discovered this gem a few years ago and apparently can't resist buying attractive editions.
My beloved Barbara Pym -- I think I've read every one of these
And some lovely Persephone editions -- oh, there's another "Diary of a Provincial Lady"!
Elizabeth Bowen is next to books on reading and writing. This accidental combination makes sense since Bowen's writing is some of the most beautiful and memorable writing you'll ever read. Go here to read more.
My Jane Austen books
Next were the books purchased in London, Cornwall, Devon and the Cotswolds. The goal was to keep all those together so I could have them at my fingertips to remind me of my trip. I have been slowly making my way through them.
So far I have read A Cornish Affair and Ross Poldark. They are both fun, escapist books and they took me back to Cornwall. Ross Poldark is an old-fashioned, swashbuckling tale that I loved and would put under the category of "guilty pleasure."
Some highlights --
This one came highly recommended by one of my readers and I can't wait to read it!
Summer in February is about an Edwardian artistic community set in Cornwall. I am reading this now and enjoying it. It was made into a film starring Dan Stevens which I may now have to rent.
This one is about a young woman who flees her wedding and hides out in Cornwall doing research on a grand old home and garden. Naturally she is seduced by the beauty of the place as well as the scion of the family who owns the house. A good old-fashioned love story.
I learned about Cider With Rosie while in the Cotswolds. A best-selling (six million copies) nostalgic memoir of finding love during a summer in the Cotswolds, it was published 100 years ago.
Another laugh-out-loud classic of English comedy, also set in the Cotswolds
A collection of recipes from Cornwall and Devon that I found in a bookstore in St. Ives
The third installment of the Old Filth trilogy by Jane Gardam. Go here to read an excellent article about her in the New Yorker magazine.
I found three books by Angela Thirkell -- they are impossible to find here -- at a little book store in the Cotswolds village of Stow-on-the-Wold.
And this book on Beatrix Potter's gardening life, found at Kew Gardens bookstore, was hard to resist.
A room filled with books is such an inviting sight. I am looking forward to spending some happy hours this winter in my study curled up with a favorite book and a cup of tea!