Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bake Yourself Beautiful

Baking is big these days, or at least that's the vibe I get from some of my friends. I have a handful of friends and relatives who are not trained chefs by profession, but can bake a real kick-ass chocolate cake, perfectly delectable apple pies with apples fresh from the garden, sophisticated, beautiful fondant-covered birthday cakes, and pretty, luscious strawberry cupcakes. Then there is my husband, who makes the hands-down, best damn banana bread and red-velvet cake in the world! As for me, I am no baker, but I have a cultivated a small repertoire of goodies I have learned to make really well with practice: to-die-for chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies, an assortment of scones, chocolate crinkle cookies, orange-chocolate biscotti, and the latest, espresso brownies, using my own recipe. Cakes are out of my league though, I could never get it right; maybe because everything is too precise. Don't even talk about cake decorating! Once upon a time I made a cake with chocolate ganache frosting and decided to swirl some yellow icing on it. Though I'm quite a visual and artistic person and the design was clear in my head, executing it on the cake was another matter! My wrists hurt and the swirls were not going where I wanted them to go, and in the end I decided to remedy the disaster by swirling the yellow icing onto the ganache. I had thought making marble swirls would disguise the catastrophe, but when my kids saw it they promptly yelled, "Wow, look at that, a monster cake!" After that day, I put away my Wilton icing tips and never took them out again. 
Lately though, all these talk of cupcakes, and icing, is well, making me hungry. Frankly, I could just buy a cupcake, but most of the commercially sold ones are overpriced and covered in artery-clogging Crisco. I wanted one covered in fresh, yummy real butter! The cupcake I have in mind is lemon poppy-seed, sweet and tart at the same time, slathered with buttercream icing. It will melt in my mouth and together the moist cake and creamy butter will be the sweet equivalent of a warm piece bread kissed by plain butter. Hence, I have done my research, and between Shirley Corrier (Bakewise) and Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa), I think I am ready. This weekend, armed with some tips from my baker friends and a can of Wilton Meringue Powder (another tip I got from a couple of baking relatives), I will attempt to make a decent cupcake.
I have pure admiration for all these folks who have the artistic desire and skill for making something that is already sweet to begin with, even sweeter by being so pretty. It's a great way to release creative juices, and it's wonderful to have something so lovely to behold at the end (or beginning) of a meal. When the wonderful smell of baking scones fill my kitchen in the morning, the day is off to a great start.
Here, some worthwhile investments and tools for great, enjoyable baking.

Baking includes some specialized tasks apart from regular cooking, as well as adequate storage for equipment. A minimum of 36-54 inches of counter space is desirable for mixing and kneading dough. Kneading dough or rolling out pastries requires more arm movement, so a lower, 32-inch high counter (36 inched is the standard) is more ergonomically correct for most users. This lowered countertop set-up is great as part of an island. You can have your island custom-made to include an end that is lowered to 32 inches, and keep everything else at the standard 36 inches. This mix of counter heights is also great for accommodating a variety of users; children included! As for countertop materials, natural stone and quarts are smooth and cool to the touch, good for working with dough. Granite should be sealed to protect from corrosive substances such as lemon juice. 
Above: Photo credit: Better Homes and Gardens Kitchen and Bath Ideas

Special cabinet features like pull-outs make the best storage mixing bowls and pans. Small appliances like blenders and stand mixers are can also stored in an appliance garage (see picture below), where they can just be pulled out and not have to be lifted. 
Left: Base Mixer Shelf Caddy by Kraftmaid Cabinetry, Below: Photo credit: Elle Decor


Williams Sonoma Buttercup Cakelet Pan by Nordicware
Bakes six festive mini cakes with delicate floral details

       Kuhn Rikon Frosting DecoratingPen                     
Set includes three frosting cartridges, one color mixer, three filler plates, five decorating tips and a nozzle for filling cupcakes. Durable plastic construction. Hand wash. Uses two AA batteries, not included. 9½" with tip.

Slice Solutions Brownie Pan
No cutting needed. Just insert divider before baking and remove after cooling. 

                    Heritage Bundt Cake Pan by Nordicware
                    Use this swirling cast-aluminum pan to create
                    Bundt cakes in  the original 1950 shape.

Emile Henry Artisan Ruffled Pie Dish
Each pie dish is shaped from Burgundian clay, which absorbs, distributes and retains heat evenly, so pies bake and brown to perfection. The dish's generous proportions and scalloped rim make it ideal for baking deep-dish fruit and savory pies that will be served at the table. 

          Ateco Rectangular Revolving Cake Decorating Stand
           Stainless steel ball bearings allow for smooth rotation,
           so icing and decorating are easy. Durable aluminum
           construction for years of use.

Zebra and Jaguar print Bake Cups, set of 32
Really cute. 
         Kuhn Rikon Dual-Chamber Squeezable Decorating Kit
         Set includes a special dual-chamber bottle for two
         colors at once, plus 1 tall bottle, 3 short bottles, 5
         decorating caps, 5 steel decorating tips (round, ribbon,
         leaf, star and basket-weave) and a frosting
         spat—everything you need. 

Floral (left) and Retro (below) Measuring Cups
Makes a great gift for bakers!


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Great Frame Trade-In Event at Aaron Brothers!

Now until April 17, bring in any frame and receive
$5.00 toward the purchase of any photo frame $10 or higher
$10.00 toward the purchase of any photo frame $20 or higher
$50.00 toward the purchase of any photo frame $150 or higher

Click here for more details:

A Colorful Confession

I have a dirty secret. When I was in kindergarten I stole a box of crayons. It was the big box of 64s, much bigger than the my own box of 24. In our classroom, we had our own cubbies that had a little door, and one day, I opened the wrong one by mistake and spotted the box of treasures. I reached for it out of sheer curiosity and when I opened the box and saw the the colorful, shiny pointed tips, I was hooked. That was the moment when I first fell in love with color, a turning point in my life, but of course like all criminal acts it had to end badly. My parents were dismayed and angry and I was made to return it and confess to my crime the very next day. I had since gone on to become an honest citizen, and had never stolen anything since that day. However, I am still addicted to colorful things. Color is the first thing I notice when I have to pick something out, whether it's a chair, a purse, or a scarf. I have gone on countless and many a fruitless shopping trips, coming home empty-handed because the shirt I wanted was not available in the exact color I had in mind. I have also been stuck with far too many things like eye shadows and bangles that I never use, but I keep them because I just like looking at all the colors.
As a designer, one of my favorite challenges is trying to convince somebody to pick out a color other than white (which is not a color, by the way). Somebody will come to me and ask for help in revamping a room, getting new flooring, new drapes, new everything, but the walls have to stay white. I also tell the same people that many times, you can spend a fortune on furnishings and still the room feels cold and bare, and that's because of all the white on the walls. Unless a room is spectacularly blessed with the good bones of architectural details like wooden beams and high windows, a standard square room will benefit from even just a little color.
Pastels As Starter Colors
Pastels are big for 2010, and they are certainly not the ones from 80s past. Benjamin Moore's Envision Color 2010 has a collection called Simple Indulgences, and one of the standout colors is a pretty lilac hue called 'Violetta' (see picture below). It's as pretty as a bottle of expensive nail polish, and on a wall is serene and sophisticated. Somewhere in between the predictability of blue and the girlishness of pink, this color has all the outstanding qualities of both colors--cool and calm and very feminine. Yet, because it is neither, you can select it without compromising anything. 

Lavender is an ingenious color that has a little bit of blue and a little bit of pink with some gray added to it. It lends itself to various applications, brighter versions are what little girls who don't want pink choose for their rooms, and very grayed-down versions work well in powder rooms and even master bedrooms.

Watery greens have that endless look that make your eyes glaze over. It visually expands the room. A pastel green has all the lightness of a pastel color without all the fuss. A green is green and that is that. Guilford Green, also from Benjamin Moore's Envision 2010 would be great for a study or a bathroom. It has minty-fresh, clean look. Like Violetta, it is a pastel that gains sophistication from a shot of gray added to it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Note on Designing Species

Note: Here's the note. This won't be about interior design, but read on anyway. If you're not satisfied at the end of it, send me a note in return and maybe I can find you the best and prettiest dusters out there, you'll know what I mean
The day dawned with strong winds that sent our backyard trees swaying and bending. It's pretty strange weather for Southern CA--mostly I'm used to hot Santa Ana winds that blow hot and dry in the early fall, but not this chilly blast of wind in early spring. Well, these winds, like any other, have a way of blowing in all all sorts of things from near and far. Pieces of paper, sticks and twigs, leaves and spores, which I first noticed as a fairly thick buildup of yellow dust on my car. I knew weather systems carry winds far, but still I thought it strange that such dust could build up overnight. Then upon close inspection, I saw it was a fine kind of  yellow 'dust', and my son enlightened my that it was not dust, rather it was 'spores!'.
Wikipedia says that spores, in biology, is a reproductive structure adapted for dispersal and survival for extended periods of time in unfavorable conditions. The yellow stuff is composed of spores and pollen, produced during the reproduction of land plants. They are really small cells that plants disperse over long distances to reproduce. The winds carry them over cities and towns, settling on patio furniture and cars, irritating our eyes and noses. With the amount of pollen we have been getting lately, it's surprising we aren't  growing anything in our bodies yet.
Well, another thing blew into our house today, a computer game my son had ordered arrived in the mail. Whaddya know, the game is called Spore! He has been playing with a trial version of it, and liked it so much he decided to buy the whole package. Ecstatic with the new toy, he sat at the computer for hours that day, and I had to do my obligatory parental cease and desist, and haul his butt outside for a walk. All through the windy but pleasant mile and a half we walked and he talked to me about the game.

Here is how it goes. The player gets to be a creator in the game and the goal is to develop a species from a microscopic organism and watch it evolve into a complex animal, and raise it to eventually become a 'social, intelligent being'. Success is measured by the degree to which your creature achieves mastery of the planet and ascension into space, where it interacts with alien species across the galaxy. Whew.

It's interesting stuff, and the whole time he was talking about it I could not help thinking it was a lot like raising children. I thought the analogy/metaphor was so clever and undeniable. The game even had stages such as the 'cell stage' (the part where something super-tiny grows bigger and bigger that needs no further explanation), the 'creature stage' (where the grown spore starts to interact with other species friendly or hostile--sandbox days, preschool?), the 'tribal stage' (where physical development ceases, as does the player's exclusive control over the creature--adolescent years?), the 'civilization stage' (which is basically like the time when the kids finally move out and start their own lives), and lastly, the 'space stage' (when they are well on their way to galactic domination). There is even an 'album' that lets you revisit the miracle that is the physical evolution of your creature.

From the day they start to develop from the 'spores' that they were, all our living and breathing is dedicated to growing them into the best individuals they can be. We spend a good part of our lives raising them, watering them with love and care until such time when they are ready to be 'released' and blown into places hopefully somewhere near, and not too far.

That evening, as the spores sat on the deck eating ice cream, the winds were still at it. It seemed to blow from every corner, and brought a slight chill to the air. Earlier that day my husband dutifully dusted my van free of the yellow dust, but surely in the morning the windows will be thick with it again.

Much later into the night, the winds finally died down and everything grew quiet. The spores had finished their ice cream, asked for a movie and are now safe in their beds. The winds hadn't yet taken them away, and I am thankful for everyday that they are still young and with us, and all I can hope for is that on such a day when the winds pick up again and carry them far, they will land in a good place and bloom where they are planted. Social, intelligent beings, masters of the planet.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Odd Couple

 "What is she doing with him?" When the laws of attraction aren't so obvious, couples become the object of much curiosity and scrutiny. In the reality show, Beauty and the Geek, seven good-looking but academically challenged women are paired with seven brilliant men who are socially challenged. The object of the game is to be the couple who will walk away with "everything"--gorgeous, smart and rich ($250,000). 

One would think such a show would be rife with stereotypes and inevitable double-standards, but maybe there is something to that idea. After all, why shouldn't a couple have it all? The most successful couples I know in life are great together because the man and the woman have at least one or two extremely conflicting characteristics that makes them complete as a couple. They compliment each other. The same principle applies to why Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas works and Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag do not. In the case of the latter, they are both full of pretty much the same things yet even that put together gives them nothing substantial to offer the world.

                 "Why can't you see that our living room looks like a doctor's waiting room?"            Photo credit:

Moving on. In our living rooms as in life, the same laws of complimentary attributes can apply. If you have had the pleasure of knowing at least one boring couple in your life, you will understand what I mean. There has to be enough similarity there to keep two people together, yet there also needs to be just the right amount of uniqueness between the two, so that their physical and mental attributes bounce off each other. Sparks will fly.

Invest in a good, basic, substantial sofa. Get one that will stand up to years of TV, popcorn, kids, and wanted (or unwanted) guests. Then, get a funky or pretty chair to go with it. Whatever you do, don't get the chair-reincarnation of your sofa. What can be more boring? A standard-issue, solid-color couch needs an interesting chair. Keep things interesting and have fun with a chair with colors and patterns you would not otherwise use on a sofa. 

Couple of the mid-century: Serious couch meets funky yet pedigreed chair, Le Corbusier lc4 lounge chair,, Reese leather sofa, $2,899,

Beauty and brains?: No-nonsense sofa meets dainty slipper chair, Leonardo chair, $799, Dublin sofa, $1,199,


Thursday, March 25, 2010

New Beginnings: Easter Tablescape

When you just feel like having a little something new, try going for something old.  If you can believe it, all the items shown here (with the exception of the bird, the grape vine napkin holder and the fresh flowers) are from Goodwill! Browsing the shelves there is such a fun treasure-hunting activity. There are really nice items in stock, and at the location where I go, in pretty good condition. Reusing durable goods is a worthy cause--if anything, it keeps things out of the burgeoning landfills. There are great items there that you can get for a fraction of the price of something new. It's good for your pocket and good for the earth. When you donate to Goodwill, you are helping a good cause and helping the landfill problem. Goodwill sells items that are in good condition, and whatever they can't sell, they bring to a de-manufacturing plant for recycling.
A Feathery Scene
Last March 20, the swallows have come back to Capistrano. So, maybe it's the season or the popularity of Twitter, but these days, birds and bird motifs seem to be everywhere. The first time I noticed them was last year, on come colorful Old Navy sweaters. For Spring 2010, Pottery Barn came out birds and nests on accessories and linens, and the trend has trickled down to Target.The little creatures are everywhere.
 It was not my intention to go bird-watching at Goodwill that day, but when I saw this glass the deal was sealed. All it needed were some other items to carry the natural/organic theme. 
 The times call for a paring-down of sorts, for doing things a little differently. So shop your closets, shop your cupboards and china cabinets. Shop your attics and garages. It's certainly a good theme for Spring/Easter: "New beginnings". Make that "Giving old things new beginnings."

Resist the urge to buy cheap, throw-away holiday decor.
The feathered friend, grape vine bird's nest and the grape vine mini-wreath used as napkin holder here are from Michael's. They can all be reused for different seasons (use them on wreaths or your tree come Christmas). 

To find a Goodwill store near you:                                           

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring Eternal

Spring is a feast spread before us. Whether we notice the signs of its arrival or not, it comes back each year, with a riot of blooms, a sudden swathe of warm sunshine cutting into the still-nippy air, noisy cacophonies of birds. It also brings a barrage of pollen, blanketing tables set outside, settling on our cars, invading our eyes and our nostrils and making us sneeze. It's pretty hard not to notice, and it does a good job of putting on a show, just to get our attention.
These lovely tufts of white blossoms are from flowering tree called White Pear. When in full bloom in early spring, the flowering is so dense one can get completely lost in its branches. It is like a pretty bride.

When they line a street like this, their splendor is hard to ignore. A single flower offers no great beauty, in fact it is pretty basic--like one you would draw in a science class. Yet together, the masses of flowers become spectacular, giving the tree a frilly pristine quality, like a piece of lace or embroidery. What a perfect tree for spring, pretty, frilly and pure. For it is in spring that we are suddenly struck with that fever that takes hold of us and drives us to clean out our homes, let the air in and bring in something new.

White is a perfect color for spring because nothing else looks as clean and crisp, and is a perfect foil for all the colors that can come in. Renew your bed in soft, white sheets for the season. Nothing can be simpler yet luxurious. 

Citrusy, clean scents echo the freshness of spring. Swap winter's headier scents for something light. Bath & Body Works White Citrus Collection ( blends lemon, grapefruit, waterlily and ginger flower in a modern interpretation of classic citrus.

Left: Not your grandmother's lace. Martha Stewart Collection Trousseau bedding, 


It is said that spring fever strikes when the days lengthen and the temperatures begin to climb. For some reason, beings become restless, distracted, impulsive and suddenly given to lovestruck spells and amorous behavior. Scientifically, our bodies secrete less of the hormones that make us sleepy and more of the ones that keep us awake and energetic. It's an evolutionary thing. 

Consider the Cherry Blossom tree with its delicate pink blooms proclaiming a shy kind of romanticism. The way the soft, slight pink graduates into deeper and redder shades in the flower interior and leaves is a beautiful composition. A decidedly feminine tree, it is the kind that makes us think of our little girls and one still hidden inside us.

Left: Nothing else says "Pretty little girl." Cherry Blossom sheeting,

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Morocco is only nine miles away from Spain and high speed ferries can take you there in 30 choppy minutes. 
That is all it takes to witness how the regular trappings of Europe give way to the sun-baked, ultra-colorful sensory extravaganza of Africa. A colorful fusion of European-Mediterranean and African geography and a rich Islamic cultural background makes for a totally different and exotically dizzying experience. 

The desire for rooms echoing old, enduring cultures prevail. When we think of faraway places, somewhere exotic and warm where we can orb ourselves to by way of our bedroom, Morocco comes to mind. The mere mention of its name evokes potent images of colorful swathes of silky and gauzy fabrics flying in the breeze, aromatic spices and seductive Andalusian music. 

Here, ideas how to transform your space into a Moroccan oasis. Ilsa would be proud.

Feeling bold? Take colors right off a Moroccan spice rack. This bathroom transports without being too obvious by using just colors to depict the scene. While it may overwhelm in a more public room, using the bright colors in a bath is less of a commitment.

Warm African breezes enter the room through windows wrapped in sheer, gauzy fabrics. Ornate and carved mirrors and furniture ground beautifully embroidered silk pillows.

Pick your favorite Moroccan element and use that as a starting point. Colorful spices? Think brightly-hued walls. Love the Moroccan motif? Look for them on rugs and pillows.

Top to bottom, L-R: Sheer Linen Window Panel, $24-44, Andalusian Rug, $39-649, Morocco Headboard, $329-459,, Adara Mirror, $175,, Lazo Throw, $59-95, Sunburst Pillow, $49.95, Marrone Frame, $39, Zebra art, $349,, Handcrafted Moroccan Poof, $165,, Sunflower mirror, $40,

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Whole Lot of Nothing

Sometimes I just have those days that are so busy and so exhausting, full of errands and chores backed up against each other. There is so much to do that the entire day goes by so quickly, and everything is a blur. So much activity and yet at the end of the day a sinking feeling comes unbidden and when I ask myself what I did that day I find myself saying, "A whole lot of nothing."

How can so many things add up to nothing? A long list of things to do, all accomplished in time and yet so mundane and ordinary, you can't remember any of it at the end of the day. I guess it's like that as we get older, the more we do things the less remarkable they become. Often there are no great accomplishments, just the expected results. To usher my family out into the day and walk them through it pretty much sums up the daily job description, and  to bring them all back in one piece at day's end is pretty much the highlight of it. Maybe that's what makes a day so unremarkable; when everything goes on so smoothly there is nothing to remember it by.

When there is nothing that catches, and everything goes without a hitch, that day hardly makes an impression. You do not look back at it years after and say, "Ah that was a great day." The days I clearly remember are those punctuated with little mishaps. When I was a kid I once stuck a red ballpoint pen in my school uniform pocket, it leaked and I had to spend the rest of the day with a huge red stain on the front of my dress. For some reason the memory of that day is burned into my memory, as indelible as that red ink.

Often the answer to the question is the one we least expect. When  my son was in third grade, their class had to write a paragraph about their Christmas vacation. After jotting down the awesome toys from Santa, the Disneyland parade and a weekend spent sledding, he wrote that the best thing he did was being allowed to spend a whole day in his pajamas. Boy, he could have just come straight to us and saved his father and I a whole lot of money.

I was glad his teacher made him write that journal, now I know that my children do not expect us to bring in the circus each time; sometimes what they really want is just a long day to not have to do the expected things, a long day to simply just be. I will always treasure that little nugget of wisdom, and remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong with "a whole lot of nothin'." My son sure knew better, and I can only hope that he wouldn't change, that he will always remember that there was a time when he knew that sometimes a day spent doing a whole lot nothing is not boring nor unsatisfying. Sometimes, it's just the thing.

When nothing is better: Some practical applications:
--A bare wall is better than a wall painted the wrong color, or filled with unattractive "art."
--Know the value of "negative space," on walls, on shelves, or just rooms in general. These places need spaces with nothing in them, so that our eyes can appreciate those with something in them.
--Sometimes a vase can stand on its own beauty, even without flowers in them.
--In a working family room, a coffee table will have more purpose when not piled with unnecessary accessories. With nothing on it,  it can be a surface for putting puzzles together or simply putting your feet up.
--The wrong accessory can ruin an entire outfit, or an entire room. As Jackie O would say, "When in doubt, take it off."

Above, right: It would be wrong to further mess with the inherent beauty of a vase like this. Zanzibar vase, $44.95, Left: Ottomans are great for family rooms--leave it bare to provide additional seating, impromptu Scrabble sessions or putting your feet up. Sullivan Leather Rectangular Ottoman, $899,

Friday, March 19, 2010


Everything old is new again. As a final note on this series on wood, I must say that nothing matches the beauty and appeal of reclaimed wood. I have said before that the appeal of wood comes from the fact that it came from something that was living, so breathing new life into old wood is just sheer poetry and genius. 

Here, I've collected some of the best furniture and fixtures, all made from recycled or reclaimed wood. Rather than contribute to landfills, wood is collected from fallen logs, wood stumps, demolished buildings and the like is repurposed into something new. Nothing matches the character of reclaimed wood. Each hand hewn face, surface, nail hole, weathered patina and grain has depth and meaning. These woods that have been to different times and places, when into something new, tells a new story all over again. Just like wine and people that gets better with time, reclaimed wood is not only sustainable and unique, but durable as well, because it's been dried and seasoned over the years.

Reclaimed wood flooring from Elmwood Reclaimed Timber
It is the belief of this company that wood is just like us, "we hope to still be useful when we are old, and look really, really good."(Elmwood website)
Recycled Ash wood stairs from Citilogs
Citilogs creates finished wood products from trees that have fallen, are being removed for construction or are
saved from demolished buildings. 

 Reclaimed wood paneling from Elmwood Reclaimed Timber
Kitchen cabinets from recycled maple from Citilogs

Was: Wooden beams from old barns
Is: Slab Dining Table, $1800
 Was: An old wine barrel
Is: Half Wine Barrel Cocktail Table (made popular by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello!)

Was: Discarded railroad tie from India
Is: Bench (perfect for watching the world go by)
Was: Driftwood off the beaches of Asia
 Is: (Quite pricey, yet statement-making) Trash bin