Author: Luisa Perkins
•1:58 PM

When we designed our kitchen renovation, I knew I wanted something unique for the backsplashes, filling that crucial space between the soapstone counters and the cherry Mission-style cabinets. We researched a lot of different options, but nothing seemed quite right. Then Patrick had the brilliant idea of asking our friend Seth Fairweather to design something for us.

Seth is a glass blower, but we knew he had recently been dabbling with casting glass as well. I asked him to make some sketches for some glass panels with our tastes in mind. Seth knows how much I love the Arts & Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelites; he said the the verticality of our kitchen chairs (our seats are not upholstered) and cabinets reminded him of barrel vaults in a cathedral.

I was thrilled with Seth's sketches; they featured little medieval workers building a cathedral, with each panel broken up by pillars of the vaulting. We asked him to cast the panels, and he got right to work. Once our cabinets and countertops were installed, Seth came down from school to install the panels. The glass was devitrified, and when the little glass bullets melted in the molds, they retained a bit of their own shape, so the surface of the glass looks like a stone mosaic.

Seth and I had discussed whether or not to paint the glass; I finally decided that I would, so that the relief of the characters and architectural details would be more apparent. Above are before and after photos of the first panel. This panel is above the counter where I do my baking, and has the most elaborate details. I especially love the rose window. The rustic style evokes woodcuts and illuminations of the Middle Ages for me; I think it's a great contrast against the clean lines of the cabinets and woodwork.

One panel down; three more to go. The other panels will be less work, since I'll just use the cream wash on most of them to highlight the figures. I'll post again when they are done.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:22 PM

Daniel asked for a hat, which coincided nicely with my new resolve to knit down that stash in the attic. This stripy number is some Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran leftover from a yoked Fair Isle sweater I knit for myself a couple of years ago. I think I still have enough left for one more hat; I may make a spare to have in the hall closet, just in case.

Hope begged in on the photo shoot; I acquiesced, since her hat hadn't been published yet.
Question: Is Daniel this happy all the time? Answer: Yes, actually--pretty much.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:16 PM

Hope strapped on the apron for CIA night this weekend. Macaroni & Cheese from scratch was her dish of choice--as opposed to the Annie's boxed stuff the kids get (and love) whenever there's a babysitter for the evening. A-grating she went, only grazing her knuckles twice in the process. Once again, the Cook's Illustrated recipe delivered. The casserole was creamy, smooth, and cheesy without strings. Salad and ice cream completed the evening.
We're all enjoying the cooking tutorials; James already is browsing through cookbooks and planning his next turn in the kitchen.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:13 PM

Right now, Daniel is obsessed with his Baby Mousie costume. He wants to wear it most days; fortunately, he hasn't insisted on wearing it to church. It's an extra layer of clothing, nice on freezing cold days like we've finally been having.
Goldberry is very tolerant of the kids' displays of affection.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•11:05 AM

Christian got a great game for Christmas. The object of Carcassonne (photo above) is to build a medieval landscape using tiles that have roads, farm, cities, and cloisters on them, scoring as many points as possible for claiming and completing the various items. Friends have told us that the game can get quite cutthroat, but we (and I'm trying hard not to be smug about this) really enjoy the cooperative alternative. Helping each other build an aesthetically pleasing country (with no square holes in the topography) has been more fun than scoring at someone else's expense every time. The game suggests that it is for ages 10 and up, but even 5-year-old Tess can play with a little coaching.
Patrick and I are big fans of Settlers of Catan as long as we can play with our friends Herb and Elizabeth. They are both smarter in general and better at this particular game than we are, but are so kind and apologetic as they win that it's fun and instructive every time. We can only play three or four times a year; Settlers requires a significant investment of time. Fortunately, their kids and ours can amuse themselves together quite well when we get together.
Karen and Ron introduced us to Pick Two. This game now rivals Big Boggle as my favorite game ever, and it's way more fun than Scrabble (no more interminable waiting for someone to set down a word). Apparently, it's now being marketed as its own game, but all you really need is a set of Scrabble tiles (I like playing with three sets at a time).
Turn all the tiles face down; each player draws seven tiles. Turn them over all at once and begin building your own crossword puzzle, freestyle, right on the table--no board needed. Scrabble word rules apply. When you've used all your tiles, shout out, "Pick two." Each player chooses two more tiles to add to their own puzzle. When all the tiles have been taken, the first player to use all his/her tiles wins. You can keep score if you wish, subtracting the values of the unused tiles from the losers' scores, but we never do this. A potentially hilarious option is to require each player to tell a story using all the words in his/her puzzle. Our kids love this game; it's quick and challenging. We're happy to help James and Hope with their construction, but Tess is happy making up her own words.
I love to sit with the family around the table, everyone glowing in the lamplight as they concentrate on the play at hand. What do you do when it's too dark and cold to play games outside?
Author: Luisa Perkins
•3:13 PM

I've always found the phrase 'strange dream' to be redundant. Aren't dreams strange by definition? I've never had one that wasn't. Take Monday night, for example. I dreamed about Sir Philip Sidney, and he looked exactly like his portrait. Why would he, of all people, appear on the stage of my slumbering brain? I have no idea, unless my subconscious was trying to remind me of the couplet most often quoted from his writings:

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
'Fool' said my Muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.'

Yes, yes, milord; I'll get back to it straightway.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:05 AM

It was James's turn for CIA Night last night. He'd chosen to make Jambalaya, always a crowd pleaser. I promise, he didn't really use the green spoon for tasting--only for stirring.
Unfortunately, I've never been to Louisiana. Most of what I know about the Cajun culture has come from my long-distance love affairs with Queen Ida, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Donna the Buffalo. The rest has come from eating at restaurants in Manhattan. Many years ago at Harglow's (now closed), I tried Jambalaya for the first time. Love at first spoonful--slow-cooked rice with tomatoes, onions, and peppers, studded with tender morsels of shellfish and andouille sausage--what could be better on a cold January night?
We used the Cook's Illustrated recipe, but modified it quite a bit. For one thing, we added small red beans, because Red Beans & Rice is my second favorite Cajun dish, so why not combine the two? I'm sure it was very up the bayou of me, but it was delicious. Just so you know, Applegate Farms makes a kickin' Chicken and Turkey Andouille--highly recommended.
One of the many terrific things about James is his gift for mimicry. We all adore Luis, the child prodigy chef featured on the Noggin channel. Luis was born in Guatemala but lives in Australia; he can't be more than six or seven years old, but he's a brilliant and enthusiastic cook. James does a perfect impression of Luis's endearing accent, and assumes his persona ad libitum whenever he's in the kitchen.
The Jambalaya turned out great. A bonus is that Jambalaya, like so many other slow-cooked dishes, is always better the next day--and we have plenty left over for dinner tonight!
* Tonnerre mes chiens = literally, thunder my dogs, or Holy Cow!

Author: Luisa Perkins
•3:56 PM

Perfection. I'm always reaching for it, nearly always falling short. Perfect writer? Hardly. Perfect knitter? I wish. Perfect wife and mother? Lamentably, not even close. But when I do attain perfection in some tiny corner of my life, it makes the reaching in all arenas easier to continue.

I tasted perfection twice the other day--a rare occurrence indeed. I made a batch of scones on Wednesday morning; this is a recipe I've been tinkering with for over a decade. The original recipe--called "Dried Fruit Cream Scones"--came from The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. I've changed it enough by now though to call it my own, even by the strict interpretation of my copyright lawyer husband. I've made it frequently enough to have gotten it into the category of "Very, Very Good" for a long time, but a new twist (sour cream instead of my usual buttermilk) the other day brought it into a flawless state.

Chocolate (or Peanut Butter) Chip Scones

2 cups flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips (or peanut butter chips, if you like)
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix the first four ingredients together well; add the chips. Add the sour cream and the melted butter; mix only until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. Drop by spoonfuls onto cookie sheets and bake for 15 minutes.

Full credit goes to Shauna for suggesting years ago that the scones were great with dried fruit (when I want to go that route, I use chopped dried cherries and apricots), but that they'd be outstanding with chocolate chips. Pure genius, Shauna--thank you for once again dramatically improving the quality of my life.

I can't stress how easy these are--such delightful payoff for very little work. Of course, perfection in the realm of food carries a degree of subjectivity about it, but give these a try and see what you think.

The other instance of defectless excellence was my first-ever full-sized finished sock. I grafted the toe Wednesday evening, wove in the two ends, and presto! Completion. I'm sure a discerning judge at a County Fair might find fault with it, but what a thrill it is to put on something that I made to fit my own foot exactly. Impeccable comfort. Can't wait until the other one is done.

Failure frequently looms large in my life; I try to be patient with its bitter presence, as I know that there is much to be learned with each new mistake. How pleasant is the contrast then, once in a great while, to savor perfection's rich flavors.

Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:16 AM

Someone emailed me and asked whether I had made an inspiration collage for the other novel I'm working on. Yes, I have, and here it is. This book will be finished first, mainly to make Patrick happy. Of course, I'll be happy, too; it's just that for a long while, the other manuscript was flowing better for me.

This one is going well at the moment; I like my story, and I think about it all the time. Knitting is especially conducive to my musings on plot points and character details. I'll let you know just as soon as I'm done, I assure you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your kind phone calls and emails regarding this blog. It's nice to know that others are enjoying it; I certainly am. Feel free to leave me comments right here on the blog page, though. It would be ideal to have an organized record of your responses. Thanks again.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•5:06 PM

Someone requested that I post this email of mine (first sent out last spring) to my blog, so here: your wish is granted!

As Jerry Seinfeld famously decreed, the Black & White Cookie is a perfect dessert, symbolic of the unity that should exist in society. But long before Seinfeld featured this NYC delicacy on his show, I was on the search for the perfect B&W, because when they are good, there's nothing better. On the other hand, a bad B&W is more than disappointing: it's an abomination.

Today was a rainy, crappy day on a lot of fronts. At about 4:30 this afternoon, I found myself seeking comfort through food, as is my wont. I stopped at the fabulous Garrison Market (more on them later), thinking I'd have a little scoop of heaven (Blue Pig ice cream, made by local genius Julia Horowitz down in Croton-on-Hudson).

At the counter I noticed something that had never been there before: a platter of Black & Whites. "Hmm," I thought. "Do I go for the sure thing (the Blue Pig), or do I take a risk and try Garrison's version of the B&W?" I'd been happily surprised before; their lemon pound cake rivals my own, for example. I decided to gamble.

What a payoff, my friends. I've eaten many a B&W, from Zaro's in Grand Central, to a funky version from a Dominican bakery on Amsterdam Ave., to shrink-wrapped numbers from your bodega of choice, to the (previously) definitive version made by William Greenberg. I even made them myself once from a recipe published in the NY Times and served them at our Seinfeld "Final Episode" party.

Garrison's blew them all away. The cakey cookie, potentially dry and crumbly, was light, fluffy, and perfectly moist. The two frostings--vanilla and chocolate--were ideal. Not too sweet, and a bit al dente, but not glue-ish. Fresh and fragrant--mmm. Though milk would have been a pleasant accompaniment, it was not necessary. I finished the entire cookie in the car on my way home.

It's a good thing that Tess's preschool is ending next week, because right now I drive by the Garrison Market four times a day doing drop-off and pick-up. I'm not sure I could resist the siren call of a daily B&W, and that could be disastrous.

Garrison Market―what a gem. It opened up a year or so ago in the former Gulf service station on 9D, just north of St. Philip’s-in-the-Highlands. They make homemade doughnuts daily that are to DIE for. Sandwiches, paninis, dang good cheeseburgers. Lovely drinks, from Italian lemon sodas to Izzes to Ronnybrook's celestial drinkable yogurt. And the Blue Pig ice cream. And now the Black & Whites. And the chance that when you're there, you'll bump into Kevin Kline tanking up on some Catskill Mountain coffee. Life only gets better here in Putnam County, I tell you.

I hope that all you locals come up and join me for a B&W soon. Those of you who are far away: I hope you are drooling by now, and that when you finish reading this, you will go online and buy a ticket to come visit. These cookies are worth the trip.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•12:01 PM

Our first CIA Night was an unqualified success. Cowboy Stew involves much chopping and slicing, and since Christian has earned his Scouting award for knife safety, proper kitchen knife technique was a snap for him. He did a great job.

Cowboy Stew is one of my favorite comfort foods. Here's what you need for a batch:
1 lb. bacon (or more, if you like)
5 lbs. potatoes (we like Yukon Golds or Russets)
3 yellow onions

Fry up the bacon a few pieces at a time in a hot iron skillet (high heat), setting cooked pieces on a plate lined with paper towels. It is the cook's privilege to eat no more and no less than one piece of bacon while cooking.
While the bacon is frying, chop the onion and set it aside, then peel and slice the potatoes. Your potato slices should be no more than 1/4 inch thick.
Reserve half the bacon fat for another delicious use (like clam chowder or scrambled eggs); saute the chopped onion in the fat that remains in the skillet (low heat). Once the onions are soft and starting to turn brown, add the potatoes in layers. Sprinkle some salt and pepper between the layers (it's better to undersalt than to oversalt, and remember that the bacon will be salty).
Add 3 or 4 cups of water and cover the skillet. Set the timer for 10 minutes. Chop the bacon, set the table, and make the salad.
When the timer goes off, stir the potatoes from top to bottom as well as you can. Set the timer for another 10 minutes and finish your other dinner prep. When the timer goes off again, test the potatoes for doneness. Not only should they be cooked through, they should also begin to fall apart and thicken the gravy. Do a little mashing and a lot of stirring (to avoid scorching) for a couple of minutes over high heat if necessary. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the potatoes on plates with bacon on top. If you are in need of extra comfort, add a dollop of butter.
This batch will amply feed a family of seven with enough leftover for two or three for lunch. Cowboy Stew works very well on campouts!
Author: Luisa Perkins
•3:45 PM

Above is a photo taken last June of my perennial border, featuring irises divided from my mother-in-law's yard and a rose named Gertrude Jekyll.

Six years ago, I was merely an armchair gardener. Living in our Upper West Side apartment with young children afforded little opportunity for working the earth; lack of childcare resources frustrated my desires to join the doughty corps of the Central Park Conservancy Volunteers. As it was, we loved and nearly daily appreciated Manhattan's parks. I was never happier there than when pushing the stroller along the Hudson River or through the North Woods near Harlem Meer. Much as I loved city life, I did find sweet escape from life's travails reading Barbara Damrosch's Garden Primer or Sallyann Murphy's Bean Blossom Dreams.

Michael Pollan wrote, "Much of gardening is a return, an effort at recovering remembered landscapes." This is certainly true for me. My love of gardening stems from my memory of the Edenic harmony achieved by my grandmother in California's Central Valley. Grandma's front porch was lined with a hedge of gardenias--blissful on a steamy August evening.

In her back yard, my sisters and I were free to pick and consume as many strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries; apricots, plums, Concord grapes; and walnuts and pecans as we liked. I recall with deep gratitude lying in Grandma's hammock and turning the pages of Felix Salten's Perri or Howard Pyle's Robin Hood with fruit-stained fingers. It was not until I was much older that I realized that gardenias, apricots, and blackberries are counted as luxuries in today's world. They surrounded me as a child, and as such I both treasured them and took them for granted.

Five and a half years ago, we moved to the country, and my aim became (and remains) to recreate Grandma's haven for our family. Our first spring I started with just one four-by-four-foot square plot, a la Square Foot Gardening, plus a little extra room for James's kindergarten-sprouted pumpkin plant. I quickly learned that all the book learning in the world is no substitute for hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails experience. My most vivid lesson was realizing that there may be little hammock time for the person who is creating and maintaining the garden--and I'm actually okay with that. Flushed with a little success (a few salads and a mammoth jack-o-lantern), we expanded the following year.

I continue to read gardening books voraciously. Patricia Lanza was very influential early on, as was Mrs. Greenthumbs, a.k.a. the late and very much mourned Cassandra Danz. Michael Weishan's aesthetics awe and inspire me; if I were a millionaire, I'd hire him to come in and do my landscape design. I just finished reading Second Nature, by Michael Pollan. What a gift.

Then there are the catalogs. Someone more witty than I once wrote that White Flower Farm's catalog amounts to gardening porn; I have to agree. I haven't yet been able to afford any of their gorgeous offerings, but I drool and swoon over their full-color coated stock pages like a hormone-crazed teenager. Far more within the realm of my budget (and with peerless customer service) is Bluestone Perennials. They actually guarantee their seedlings for a year. Don't ask how I know, but they're good for it.

For seeds, there is no substitute for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I try to order as many of my vegetable seeds as possible from them--they are good folks and support a number of worthy causes. Forget Burpee; these people collect exotic melons, tomatoes, and other specimens from all over the world. Why plant hybrid cantaloupes when you can have Tigger Melons (from Armenia) or the Hero of Lockinge? Look at their website; you'll see what I mean. I also order from Seeds of Change--most of my herbs come from them. They have seed donation programs similar to Baker Creek's and are big permaculture fans.

Speaking of permaculture, that's our focus this year. I own several weighty textbooks on the subject, but the clearest and most succinct book on the subject is In Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway. What is permaculture? I'm not going to bore any of you still reading at this point with a lecture; look it up on Wikipedia. It's very, very cool, though. I met with a permaculture designer last fall. He's working up a plan for us to incorporate a considerable portion of Edible Landscaping's catalog into our yard this spring--very exciting.

You already know about my addiction to English Roses. Antique and English roses tend to bring out the excess in anyone who experiences them first hand. Rosarians are often British and therefore somewhat stoic about life in general. Ask them about their subject, however, and steel yourself. They will wax rhapsodic in an embarrassing manner usually reserved for teenagers gushing over their favorite rock star. Trust me: these roses are nothing like the ones in your prom corsage. Lush, fragrant, sensual--I can't get enough of them.

Will I ever achieve the garden of my dreams? Maybe when my own grandchildren are running around our place. Fortunately, I find the journey as rewarding as my contemplation of the vision--the only reason to keep doing anything, in my opinion.
Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:47 AM

Years ago, my good friend Trevor started publishing his Year's Best list and emailing it to his wide circle of acquaintance. Several of us in that circle reciprocate, blithely clicking on the "Reply All" button and scattering our opinions far and wide. Every year it's a treat to discover what people known and unknown to me relished and despised in the year before.

Trevor waits until Oscar season to publish his list, but my life is too much of a blur to wait that long. I find I have to summarize pretty early in the new year so as not to lose all memory of what I read, watched, listened to, and tasted in the previous twelve months. So, here are my lists. Some of them are in order; some are not.

Top Ten Books:
1. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
2. Lisey's Story, by Stephen King
3. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
4. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susannah Clarke
5. Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell
6. if on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino (Yes, I read it again. Still a work of genius.)
7. Perfume, by Patrick Suskind
8. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
9. Rome, by Mauro Lucentini
10. Return from Tomorrow, by George G. Ritchie

Most Disappointing Book:
Eragon, by Christopher Paolini (How did this book get published? It is a puzzlement.)

Top Ten Movies:
An Inconvenient Truth
Casino Royale
Glory Road
Lady in the Water
The Prestige
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Stranger than Fiction
Akeelah and the Bee
16 Blocks
Happy Feet

Looking Forward to Seeing:
Who Killed the Electric Car?
Children of Men
Miss Potter
Pursuit of Happyness

Top Ten Songs:
Reservoir (Hem)
Pride (Syntax)
Steady as She Goes (The Raconteurs)
Short Skirt, Long Jacket (Cake)
Firecracker (The Wailin' Jennys)
The Seventh Wave (The Duhks)
Woman (Wolfmother)
Jubilee (Alison Krauss)
Hey Ya (Outkast)
Beautiful Garden (Toni Price)

Top Eating Experiences:
10. Chicken Salad and Pink Lemonade at Pittypat's Porch (Atlanta, GA)
9. Chicken Burrito and Tres Leches Cake at Cafe Rio (St. George, UT)
8. Truffled Mac & Cheese and Sticky Date Cake at Cafe Umami (Fishkill, NY)
7. Black & White Cookie and Ronnybrook Creamline Milk at Garrison Market (Garrison, NY)
6. Thanksgiving Stuffing with Gravy Chez Les Perkins (Cold Spring, NY)
5. Return from Chiang Mai at Bouley (NYC)
4. Roasted Bluefoot Chicken at Alain Du Casse (NYC)
3. Bread and Butter and Hot Chocolate at Hotel Exedra (Rome)
2. Pizza and Carciofi alla Giudia at La Sagrestia (Rome)
1. Fettucine with Truffles at Il Colosso (Rome)

Yarn of the Year:

Rose of the Year:
Sharifa Asma

Compiling this list, I am struck by the fact that 2006 was an amazing year--"the best of ever," as my nephews would say. Here's hoping 2007 tops it.

Author: Luisa Perkins
•9:33 AM

I love the peculiar mix of melancholy and hope that is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Ring Out, Wild Bells." That's exactly how I feel standing on the cusp of the new year. New Year's Resolutions have become a painful irony in today's society; nonetheless, I continue to make them. And not just at the beginning of January--I tend to make them at the end of August as well as I contemplate the start of another school term.
Self-sabotage comes when we don't make our goals simple and reachable; more comes when we lose the vision of why we made them in the first place. I'm taking my cue from Tennyson this year. A little more kindness, a little less greed. Less feeling sorry for myself; more trying to help others. We can all do that, right?