Monday, December 31, 2012

A Year and a Word: My 400th Post

I awoke early with the cats this morning and watched the light outside my kitchen window shift from deep blue to grey-blue to soft white as I ate my steel-cut oats and almond milk.  It was a morning like any other, except this one was the last of its year.  I had some thinking to do.  What would be my word for 2013?  I still hadn't decided.

And then I was smacked by a stomach bug.  It's one that I think I've been fighting since Christmas Eve.  It finally won, and I climbed back in bed, where I was joined by wild dreams of traveling to Paris, only to find that I was in a high school gymnasium and I had to cheerlead again, decades after my cheerleading days.  I had, of course, forgotten all the words and motions, and everyone was furious with me.  Not a promising sign for 2013.

And yet I woke up with the word for the year in my head.  "Persevere."  I've had to persevere through some pretty terrible times over the past several years, and I've managed to do it, but I have been wondering whether I could do it this time.  I must persevere as a writer now more than ever when I have two manuscripts trying to find homes and a whole bag of worries and fears to carry with me as I move forward.  

"Persevere" is not as pretty as "inspire" or "grace," my words from 2012 and 2011, but it is real, and it's what I tell my students to do all the time.  It's also what I need.  Perseverance gets harder for me as I grow older and I fear I won't achieve many of the things of which I've dreamed.  I am not as patient in the face of rejection now, something I see loads and loads of as a writer.  I see successes, too, but I don't linger on those.  I tend to linger on my failures.  "Persevere" will require a whole slew of other words like "hope" and "optimism" and "try" to come along for the ride.  

As Samuel Beckett writes: "Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better."

Here's to 2012 and to failing better.  I wish you all love and adventure and a dose of perseverance in the coming year.  

xo Gigi 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Just a Bit Longer

I admit it.  I enjoy the tree even more after Christmas is over, during that little window before New Year's.  We are, after all, waiting for the epiphany, so why not keep the decorations up a while more?

And here in Maine we've had loads of snow . . . with more predicted over the weekend.  Time to light a fire, turn on the tree, and enjoy a bit more sparkle.

Here's a closeup of my pinecone garland.  I showed you the wreath a while back, but the garland was fun to make, too.  I wired cones to a long length of chain I found at the craft store, then I added keys from my ever-growing vintage key collection.  Especially pretty are the brass ones, I think.  I ended up loving this garland so much that I doubt I'll take it down after New Year's.  It will make a lovely winter decoration even after the rest of Christmas is tucked safely away.

We spent the day today painting our condo in preparation for new renters.  Here's hoping the next ones will be better than the last.  We are having to refinish the floors, replace the carpets, and paint all the walls, to name a few things that they ruined, but on the upside, the place will look gorgeous when we are through.  I'm trying hard to focus on the blessings to be found in even the most trying of situations.  They are always there, and perhaps it will be my New Year's resolution to discover them with a bit more grace and patience than I have in the past.

Thinking of you, my friends, and hoping you enjoyed a beautiful Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Homemade Needhams: A Maine Christmas Treat

Okay, my lovelies, this is going to be quick because, like many of you, I am rushing this morning to finish a million and one last-minute tasks, but I really, really wanted to get that Needham recipe out to you.

We made a double batch, but I'll give you the single recipe.  Just know that it doubles beautifully, if you want to make loads of them for, say, your New Years party.  Needhams are a Maine tradition at Christmas, and there are lots of recipes for them out there, most of them including paraffin wax to help the chocolate harden and give it a bit of sheen.  I don't like putting wax in chocolate, so my recipe has a bit of shortening instead.  They set beautifully, and I usually store them in the fridge in plastic.  I love them either cold or at room temperature.

You see that little bump on the top of each one?  That's a roasted, salted almond.  Traditional Needhams don't have them, but I love to gild the lily.  If you love Almond Joys, make these, and you will never settle for a store bought one again!

The Maine Magpie's Needhams 
  • 1 1-pound box of confectioner's sugar
  • 1/2 cup plain smooth mashed potato (I use a russet.  I peel the potato, boil it, then throw it in the food processor and whip it until it's basically a smooth paste.  This is how you'll want it for the recipe.)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 14-ounce bag shredded, sweetened coconut
  • 1- 1 1/2 pounds bittersweet chocolate, chopped or broken into pieces (I use a little over over a pound.)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
  • About 30-40 almonds (depending on how big you make your squares)
Pour the confectioner's sugar into a large heatproof bowl.  Make a well in the middle, then add the potato, butter, vanilla, and salt.

Place bowl over a pot of barely simmering water.  Stir from the center of the well, gradually incorporating the sugar.  After a few minutes, you'll end up with a thick, smooth paste.  

Remove from the heat and stir in the coconut.  Taste.  Yum.

At this point some folks spread the mixture on a jellyroll pan and freeze it.  Once chilled for about 20 minutes, they cut it into 1" squares to dip in the chocolate.  Others freeze it right in the bowl and then form each square individually by hand.  The choice is yours.  I molded each one by hand because I wanted them to have a very homemade look.  If you do it this way, it's important to freeze them one more time after shaping them and before dipping them.

Melt the chocolate in a microwave safe bowl.  I do 30-second intervals, stirring between each one.  Be careful not to scorch the precious chocolate!

Once the chocolate is smooth and melty, stir in the shortening.  Be sure to incorporate it completely.

Now you're ready to dip!  I use a fork to dip each square in the chocolate, but first I press a roasted, salted almond into the top of each square.  I can't stress enough how much this extra little touch adds to the Needhams. 

Let the candies cool and harden at room temperature on parchment covered cookie sheets for at least an hour.

I so hope you'll  enjoy these traditional Maine treats, my friends.  Sending you and yours all best wishes for a very Merry Christmas.  May you spend it just the way you wish, and may you discover moments of peace amidst the rush of the season.  

xo Gigi

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blue (and White) Christmas

I hope all my friends here in the northern hemisphere are safe and warm on this winter solstice.  It is very dark, very windy, and very rainy on the coast of Maine tonight.  The wind is so strong that it's pushing the smoke right back down our chimney, but we are warm and dry inside, and I could not ask for more.  The Christmas tree is twinkling and the candles are flickering on the mantle.  I've made a huge batch of needhams, that very special Maine Christmas candy treat made with potatoes, coconut, and dark chocolate.  I promise to share the recipe later in the weekend, but for tonight I thought I'd finally share a few shots of our bedroom.

We decided to decorate it for Christmas with a lovely branch that had been blown down from one of our trees during a storm.  The branch strung with a few lights was all we needed to bring a little sparkle to this dark time of year.  I had planned to hang crystal icicles from the branches, but once the lights were on, I loved it as it was.

The bed we bought locally at The Furniture Market in South Portland, where the fabulous Mimi helped us decide on this rich navy blue color.  We ordered a model with drawers underneath, and I am so, so glad that we did!  Between those drawers and that big old chest next to the bed (bought cheap from friends who were moving), we have tons of storage.  The bolster on the bed is an old French grain sack that I found at Montsweag Flea Market this past summer.  I made the smaller pillow from a very sweet tea towel.  That wonderful ladder leaning against the chimney in the first shot was a gift from my sister, who bought it a couple of years ago at the Bath Antiques Show (formerly owned and operated by my mum, now run by her friend Paul Fuller).

The walls and ceiling of the bedroom were never really finished off, as this was once the attic of the cottage, so we simply painted over the knots in the pine with sealer and then whitewashed everything.  We wanted it to feel rustic, but also bright and clean.

On another painting note, I wanted to mention the white paint on the chimney.  The chimney was not painted when we moved in.  If you've ever considered painting brick but were unsure about how it would work, have no fear.  As long as you prime it correctly and use the proper masonry paint, you will have no problems at all!  Benjamin Moore has everything you need to to the job beautifully.

Our bedroom is really more of a sleeping loft, with our two studies just off to one side.  One end of the loft has this wonderful, beat-up old dresser that we bought from some friends, plus our now infamous boot collection, and our old suitcases full of CDs.  

The floor is hardwood, but it was in terrible shape when we moved in, so we decided to paint it a very soft grey, which we couldn't love more.  I found the blue and ivory shades for next to nothing at Christmas Tree Shop a few years ago.  We hung them in our last apartment, then brought them along with us to the house.  I'm so glad we did, as they fit this room perfectly!

Above is a detail of the old trunk beside the bed.  That mirror is a lovely vintage one I found in a junk shop in Bloomington, Indiana, about a hundred years ago.  The ironstone pitcher is one from my collection.  I love tucking eucalyptus into my ironstone pitchers this time of year and just letting it dry around the house. 

If you look closely, you'll notice that the trunk has pencil and marker lines on it.  These were scribbled by our friends' daughters before they sold us the trunk.  I don't have the heart to paint over them.  Somehow they add to the trunk's charm for me.   

Ah, and then there are the lockers.  Mr. Magpie and I bought these three years ago at a great antiques shop in Hallowell.  If you like antiques and plan to visit Maine anytime soon, Hallowell is a must.  I've written about it before, because I love that little town, plus you can always grab lunch at Slates.  Yum.

I should mention that the lockers were bright orange when we bought them, but they cost almost nothing, and I just spray painted them white.  Easy peasy.

The doctor's bag I bought at a flea market--probably Montsweag--and the old French house number I found in London at Spitalfield's Market.  Is it obvious by now that I am a flea market kind of magpie?  The shot below should seal the deal.  I love sparkle, and so you can always find bits of vintage sparkle around our bedroom, as well as the rest of the house.  Here it's hanging from an old metal hook in the wall.

Hope you enjoyed this peek into the sleeping loft.  I have a few more Christmasy photos to share later in the weekend, plus that Needham recipe, which probably sounds just awful, but I promise is delightful!  

Until then, sending a sleighful of Christmas cheer to you and yours.  xo Gigi

Monday, December 10, 2012

News, Shameless Self-Promotion, and Heartfelt Thanks

I hope you all had beautiful weekends.  Here in Portland, Maine, it was all about local crafts, local food, and great local shops.  The highlight for me was attending the Picnic Holiday Sale.  Click here for links to many of the amazing craftspeople and artisans who were selling their wares.  Most of them have online shops where you can buy their glorious work.

I also wanted to share a little of my own publishing and photography news with you.  Have been meaning to for ages, but as Mr. Magpie will tell you, I stink at self-promotion.

A piece I wrote on Polish Gypsy poet Papusza was published online in The Gypsy Chronicles.  If you head over to read it, you'll learn a bit about this fascinating woman.  She was very much the center of my academic research and work for an important period in my life, and I'm thrilled to be able to share some of her story on such a fantastic site.  Thank you, Alison Mackie, for publishing this essay.

Art Prints

And finally, I just wanted to let you know that one of my photographs, "Peonies," is available for purchase at Fine Art America.  Prints start at $22.00, but you can purchase a greeting card for $4.95, a pack of 10 cards for $2.45/card, or a pack of 25 cards for $1.75/card.  I'm thinking it might make a nice holiday gift for peony lovers.  :)

Thanks for reading along with me, and for offering such wonderful comments, here and via email and face-to-face.  I love this online community of ours, especially when it spills over into our snail mailboxes and our everyday lives.  Blogging has changed a great deal since many of us started back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but as we redefine ourselves and our blogs in relation to the onslaught of social media, I'm finding that the true blue friends I've made along the way are just that--friends--and this makes me happier than I can possibly say.  

xo Gigi

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wreaths and Trees

Hello, chickadees!  Just wanted to touch base, because I've been away for so long.  I'm planning a holiday post to show you a few pictures of the new house all decked out for the season, but today I thought I'd share a teeny sneak peek of a little bit of the tree plus a pinecone wreath I made from the gazillions of them we have in our backyard.  Some people might not like having to pick up all those cones, but I consider every last one of them a gift from our massive white pine.  And when I say massive, I mean it's branches begin higher up than the the tops of many of our other trees.

I promise not to post a tutorial on how to make the pinecone wreath.  Why not?  Well, because when I set out to make mine, I did a Pinterest search and a Google search (I like to be thorough) for pinecone wreath tutorials, and guess what?  There are almost as many pinecone wreath tutorials online as there are pinecones in my backyard, so you don't need me to add to the pile.  I will say this: while a pinecone wreath is simple to make, it is time-consuming, and it takes many, many cones to create a full wreath.  Oh, and yards and yards and yards of wire.  I used a very thin gauge wire, so I didn't hurt my fingers too much, and I used a grapevine wreath as the base.  Some tutorials I read said to sort the cones by size first, but I just eyeballed them as I went along, using larger cones for the outside ring, smaller cones for the inside ring, and cones somewhere in-between for the middle ring.  This approach seemed to work well with the longish cones of the white pine.  If you had shorter cones, you'd be making a very different kind of wreath with very different results.  Equally pretty, but quite different.  

Okay, I said no tutorial, but the above paragraph was starting to veer into tutorial territory.  Sorry about that.  I just get so excited about Christmas.  It was my father's favorite time of year, and it is still a magical time at my mother's house.  Last weekend, Mr. Magpie and I went and bought a tree for my mother to have outside on her back deck where she can see it when she's in her kitchen as well as when she pulls into her driveway.  This has become an annual tradition for us.  We brace it with twine to hold up during storms, string it with white lights, et c'est tout!  Beautiful simplicity to enjoy through the New Year holiday.  Of course she has her inside tree, too, and her amazing collection of vintage Santas, all of which I love.

Back here at home, our annual tradition is now to cut down our own tree.  If you're local and like wild-looking trees rather than perfectly pruned ones, I'll let you in on our secret: we go to Staples Tree Farm in Windham on Christmas Tree Way, just off Webb Road.  It's $30 for any size tree, no matter how tall, and they have gorgeous specimens to choose from, plus handmade wreaths and kissing balls at prices well below any others I've seen in the Portland area.  True, some get a little Dr. Seussical, as you can see in my Instagram photo, but that's just part of the fun!  

I'll be back soon with holiday musings and other news, but in the meantime, I wish you a Happy Holiday Season, whatever you celebrate, and however you celebrate it.  

xo Gigi

P.S. I'd love to hear from you about your favorite annual holiday traditions, especially the ones that kind of snuck up on you and became traditions without your even realizing it at first.