Monday, September 21, 2015

Winner announced!

Hilary with the exploding soup, congrats!  You have won your own copy of Recipe for Disaster.

Email me your shipping address to staceyballisinfo (at) gmail (dot) com and I will get it out to you.

The Polymath

Thursday, September 10, 2015



It's Fall!  The chicks are back in school, or so I gather from the book of face, the football is about to begin in earnest, and I've begun looking at my boots with longing.  I'm also baking up a storm over here, testing recipes, feeding contractors, and generally having a grand old time.  I think the fact that the new kitchen is really truly underway in a manner that isn't an ephemeral "....someday..." but is in fact "HOLY CRAP I'M ORDERING APPLIANCES!!!" has made me all nesty and inspired to the kitchen.

And if you follow me on Twitter @staceyballis, or have liked my Facebook Page (which if you have not, I hope you will) you have recently seen a bunch of mediocre photos of what I've been up to...  like these:

Milkbread Rolls

Nutella Babka

Banana Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Cornmeal Pound Cake

Cornmeal Pound Cake again, all Bundty

All yummy.  And a hit with the recipients.  I realize that mostly here, that is what I talk about...the successes.  But please know that I leave crushing perfectionism to Martha, and for every "nailed it!" moment, I do certainly have some epic disasters.  Such as this morning.

Now my mornings, thanks to my job, are pretty easy.  I do not have little ones to drag crankily out of bed, to get washed, brushed, breakfasted, backpacked and off to school. My Charming Suitor is far more proficient at mornings than I, and as a capable guy, gets up at the crack, makes his own coffee and toasts his own english muffin, smooches me goodbye and goes his merry way.  Leaving me to rise when I'm no longer tired and get about the business of my day.

But sometimes, I need to be up and at 'em.  Making stuff happen.  Today was such a day.  And I failed completely.

This is a big and busy cooking week.  We are hosting a dinner party for 10 on Friday night, attending a dinner party at friend's Saturday for which we are bringing an appetizer, and Monday is Rosh Hashanah, and I'm in charge of matzo ball soup and dessert.  Which is no problem at all, I've done more in less time, so I was looking forward to the process.

We scheduled a house cleaning for today, so that the place would be spic and span for the guests tomorrow, and being a smart girl, and knowing that most of my cooking, while delicious, is also enormously messy, I wanted to get as much of the really disaster-making stuff out of the way ahead of time.  So last night, in anticipation of cleaning beginning today late morning, I pre-prepped the ingredients for three different recipes, getting my mise en place all en place, putting out all the necessary butter to be at perfect room temp, and set my alarm for 7:45, which is a normal, almost late time for most people, but is very early for this night owl.  I had enough time to make the first recipe, get it in the oven, get the batter prepped for the second, get the first out of the oven and the second one in, and then get the third done while that was baking.  And it totally would have worked.  Had I not had a major screw up kind of morning.

I was starting with sticky toffee pudding, dessert for tomorrow night.  I love this stuff.  Rich and moist and dark and complex with a killer caramel sauce, it is a crowd pleaser.  It is also a messy prep that makes a lot of dishes.  I got up, put the dates that I had minced in the food processor last night into a saucepan with water and set it to heat.  I took the well-softened butter and dark brown sugar and creamed them into fluffyness, and then added the eggs one by one.  When the date mixture came to a boil I turned off the heat to let it rest.  And this?  Right here?  Is when everything went sideways.

I thought I would get a head start on the caramel sauce, so I mixed some milk into the corn starch I had prepped last night, and set it aside.  Turning back to my date mixture, I reached for the baking soda I was supposed to add, and discovered I had mistaken it for the corn starch, and made a slurry with it.  I laughed at my stupidity, dumped the little ramekin, and went to the pantry for more baking soda.  I glanced quickly at the recipe, measured 4 tablespoons, and dumped it into the date mixture, spoon at the ready, since the baking soda will make the dates foam up, a whole chemistry thing that I'm sure Alton Brown would explain but I won't.  Let's just say it foams up rapidly.

Which it did.  Beyond any stirrings ability to quench.  Up and over the top of the saucepan, sending sticky hot date liquid over the stove.  I ran to the sink, watching a veritable volcanic eruption of date lava cover everything in the sink...filled to capacity with dirty bowls, measuring cups, the food processor etc.  Spattering a thick gooey mess everywhere.  Fearing I was losing too much volume to salvage the recipe, I grabbed the batter bowl, and just dumped the foaming insanity in, and started stirring like crazy.  Now the foaming has taken on a life of its own, threatening to overrun the batter bowl, and I'm stirring like a madwoman and swearing like a sailor.  This had never happened before, and I've made this recipe many times.  I was doubling it, to be sure, but that should not cause this explosion.  When it finally ends its migration over every surface of my kitchen, I look back at the recipe.  With my morning eyes I had read teaspoons for tablespoons and had added literally three times the proscribed amount.  Rendering everything I had so thoughtfully prepped and organized completely useless.

The now-ruined batter got dumped.  I ran to place a fast order (thank God for Instacart) for new dates, more brown sugar, more eggs.  I took a new stick of butter out of the fridge and onto the counter to start to soften, and then set about cleaning the date holocaust that my kitchen had become, because I do not want the cleaning lady to think I am some filthy beast.  I unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher with the contents of the sink and set it for Tough.  I wiped down every surface, the floor, the cabinet fronts, the stove, and my slippers, and changed into clothes that were not bespattered with sticky, all the while laughing like a hyena, since I know that the general perception of food writers is that we spend all of our time making perfect food without a hair out of place.  I took a deep breath and went on to make the second recipe, which thankfully went just as planned and is now baked and cooling on the rack while I await my delivery of new ingredients, hoping upon hope that I can still get this thing in the oven before it is time to have the kitchen cleaned.

Or I should say, cleaned again.

The whole thing reminded me of my last book, Recipe for Disaster, where the heroine is teaching herself to cook, often with horrific results.  And one thing is for sure, while recipe successes result in delicious dishes, recipe disasters result in delicious stories, as long as one keeps her sense of humor.

So, a quick Fall giveaway!  Share your own favorite kitchen disaster in the comments below by 11:59pm Sunday night September 13, and one lucky reader will receive a copy of Recipe for Disaster.   Winner announced next Monday.

Yours in Good (usually) Taste,
The Polymath

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Movin' On Up!


How is your summer going?  Things here have been quite lovely...I turned in the manuscript for my new novel, WEDDING GIRL, which will be released next May, and I'm really happy with it.  The best thing about delivering a new book is the blissful weeks that follow, when your editor has not yet sent rewrite notes, it is as close as a writer gets to summer vacation.  Which is very sweet when it actually coincides with Summer!  Charming Suitor and I took a short break to visit friends in Maine (if you don't have friends in Maine, I seriously recommend you get some) and recharge the batteries.  This involves CS eating his weight daily in various crustaceans, and me taste-testing every grilled cheese sandwich in a forty mile radius, and our jointly depleting the local antique population.

Now that we are home, it is back to construction, and with the basement finished, we are finally on to PHASE 2!  22 months into this renovation, we have shifted up to the second floor!  When you are living in your construction project, phasing becomes essential to your mental well being, because if you don't plan carefully, you end up without basic needs or with all your stuff covered in dust daily and it makes one all stabby.  Since our first priority is to finish this home and live in it TOGETHER for the rest of our natural lives, it was awfully essential that we plan things so that we don't end up crabby and snippy and bickery.  Luckily, our aesthetics are very much in sync, so we don't quibble about design choices, no one is going to the mat over a doorknob or paint color.  But we do need to make sure that our living environment itself is not a constant source of stress, so while it might have made sense to work our way up from the basement floor by floor, since the first floor is where the living room, CS's dressing room/mancave, dining room and kitchen live, we decided to hunker down on the first floor and in the basement, and let the noise and dust shift upstairs to the second floor for this phase so that our lives are minimally disrupted.

To refresh, here was what the second floor used to look like:

And here is what it looks like now...

GACK!  I know, I know, some of you are saying...Um?  Stacey?  That place looked really fine, even quite lovely, WTF???  Why would you turn it into a disaster?

So, here is why we blew up the second floor.  As I mentioned way, way back, this building was never converted to apartments, it was always built as three units.  As such, there was no easy way to "deconvert" to an original floor plan, it is already in it's original floor plan! This meant that as we approached each level, we had to think about how we were planning on using the space.  This second floor started, it should surprise no one, with the dream kitchen.  There will be many much bigger more specific posts about he kitchens, since that is the biggest project of the whole house, and we are full steam ahead in there, but the short version is that in 1907 no one ever heard of an eat-in kitchen, let alone one that is a joy to cook in, and so we needed to blow out some walls to make a 2015 kitchen that would work for us.  Since cooking is literally a big part of my job, not to mention that CS and I entertain with pathological regularity, we needed some real space.  So the new kitchen incorporates what used to be the kitchen, butler's pantry, food pantry, dining room, and the back bedroom of the second level.

In addition to the big kitchen, this level will have two guest bedrooms, a bathroom, a den, and...MY OFFICE.  Oh, Chickens.  You cannot imagine, after all this time of working on the ottoman in the living room, what an office means to me.  I can barely stand it.

Of course, when you open a few walls and ceilings (as one must for things like upgraded electrical, plumbing, HVAC duct runs, insulation etc.) you find some unexpected things.  Like a steel beam smack where you think you are going to send all of that plumbing and ductwork.  Ooops.  Nothing like renovations for some surprises!  After much debate, we finally decided to follow the old adage:  if you can't fix it, feature it.  So we cut holes directly into the original steel beam which is hidden in the ceiling, and then added a new steel beam directly below it to pick up the weight, which we will leave exposed as a design element in the kitchen.

New duct going thru the old beam.

New steel!

Our contractor designed these lovely custom support brackets
so that the exposed steel looks great while holding up the building! 
Our other snafu was the flooring in the kitchen.  We had fully intended to simply refinish the original hardwood floors.  Only one problem.  When a building is 108 years old?  There is some sagging.  (let's be honest, I'm only 45 and there is sagging aplenty, so I can't blame the old girl for the effects of time)  While we are fine with things not exactly being level or square or perfect in most spaces, the kitchen?  Needed a level floor.  Not a good idea to install beautiful custom cabinetry and expensive appliances on a non-level surface.  It is a recipe for disaster down the road.  So, while it broke our hearts a bit (and the budget a bit more), we pulled up the old flooring in the areas of the kitchen where the cabinets and appliances will live, and the boys leveled the crap out of it.  We were able to leave the original flooring in the new Kitchen Library space, so that was good, but the rest of the space will get new flooring that will hopefully be a good match for the rest.  

In addition to the second floor demo, we also have demolished the bathroom on the first floor.  Since the first and second floor baths are stacked right on top of one another and share all the same plumbing, we needed to treat the two bathrooms as if they were one big project.  While we do still have a quarter bath on the first floor, (yes, a QUARTER bath, just a toilet in a closet with no sink), I had no idea how much time I spent in the now-gone bathroom until it was an empty shell.  On the upside, I get a lot more Fitbit steps running downstairs to the bathroom!  

You are now up to date on the next adventure, stay tuned, because we have some really fun and cool design stuff to share...I'm super excited about the two bathrooms, which I think will be lovely, and the kitchen is going to BLOW YOUR MINDS!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Monday, June 29, 2015

A New Addition


Today is a good day! Remember a gajillion years ago, when I told you that as part of our dream house project, Charming Suitor was finally getting his very own Wine Cellar?

Well, the time is finally here.

After months of prepping the space, and working closely with Vinotemp on the complex design for the two-room space, with literally hours and hours of really tedious measuring and re-measuring to be sure that every single area was plotted out to the tiniest variation....

This happened:

 So here are the important bits:

Vinotemp does a truly amazing job of taking your measurements and the layout of your space, and maximizing the useful storage.  I know it is hard to tell, but these racks have been custom designed to hold a variety of sizes and types of bottles...Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Riesling, half bottles and even some spaces for larger format bottles like Magnums and Double Magnums.  The racks were built to order, and then sent to Quality Control to make sure they were all perfect, and then packaged up.  35 crates, each labeled with a code that matched the code on the drawings, with all of the fasteners and trim pieces included.  Key pieces were also individually stamped with the same code, to ensure that installation would be as easy as possible.  Which doesn't mean that it is easy.  While I absolutely believe that regardless of the space you have available for wine storage, that tiny nook under the stairs, or that huge corner of your basement, and everything in between, unless you are a very skilled and confident and patient DIYer, it is very much worth the extra expense to have the cellar professionally installed.  You'll be so glad you did, and if you aren't lucky enough to have a contractor onsite like we do, Vinotemp can help you find a local installer in your area.

As much as we love the racking, and the perfect cool humid environment that Vinotemp has helped us create?  The real magic of this space is 100% credited to our King Konstruction team.  Patrick latched on to Charming Suitor's desire for a space that honored the structural elements of the building, and came up with little details that have made the cellar very very special.  He and Dennis salvaged tons of the lath that had been removed during demolition, and cleaned up every piece and clad the whole ceiling, the soffits, and other odd nooks and crannies with it.  He created wainscoting on the one little bare wall using salvaged wood that used to be the stair risers from the section of staircase we had to demolish, and installed them so you can see the marks of the saws that were used to rip the boards, as well as the signatures of the contractors who installed them back in 1907.  The wainscot and door are trimmed out with wood that was also salvaged from the house, which makes it look finished, but not polished...rough and rugged, just what CS imagined.

It is so gratifying when you work with people who really embrace the feel you are going for, and bring their own creativity and expertise to the table.  We could not have had a more perfect team for this cellar than Vinotemp and King Konstruction!

Today, the wine is being carefully removed from the storage unit, and will be brought to the house, where we can use the Vintotemp drawings to carefully nestle every delicious bottle in a place specifically designed to keep it safe and drinkable.  And yes, I can promise you that tonight?  There will be a little bit of drinking!

In other news, I have just finished my ninth novel, Wedding Girl, which will be out in May 2016.  As such, I'm sure you can understand, my brain is total mush.  So I'll be taking a brief blogcation until after the holiday weekend.  I wish you all a terrific next week, and hope that your celebrations are full of everything delicious, and I will be back after July 6 to give you some more exciting updates as we leave the basement and head up to the second floor!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath