Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas holidays: Away December 23-Jan. 5

I'll be spending time with friends and family; the next post will be Tuesday, January 5 .

Warm wishes for a restorative and joyful holiday season! Your presence and comments have been a continuing pleasure and inspiration. I look forward to hearing from you in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No time to shop? Caramel to the rescue!

When you receive a last-minute invitation or realize you're a gift short, make a luscious treat yourself. Beats a tense trip to a frenzied shop or mobbed mall.

Who doesn't adore caramels, except maybe kids with braces?

This recipe for stylish, decadent
salted caramels makes enough two or three gifts.


You'll need about a four-hour window

Though they ta
ke less than one hour to produce, the candy has to cool 30 minutes before you score it, and another 2 hrs before lifting the cut caramels from the pan. Then you have to place them on squares of wax paper as shown.

Run out to a fancy grocery and buy the fleur de sel.
It will matter and you can feel absolutely confident that your candies have cachet. A candy thermometer helps but is not essential if you have some idea of what a "firm ball stage" is. (If you made fudge as a teenager you'll be fine.) Hey, if you blow it, give it as caramel sauce!

Salted Caramel
s
Makes 64 pieces, 2-3 gifts


Ingredients:

2 cups (500 mL) granulated sugar

2 cups (500 mL) whipping cream

1 cup (250 mL) corn syrup

1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt

1/3 cup (75 mL) butter

1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla

3
/4 tsp (4 mL) fleur de sel

Preparation:

1. Line 9-inch (2.5 L) square metal cake pan with parchment paper; set aside.

2. In large saucepan, stir together sugar, 1 cup (250 mL) of the cream, corn syrup and salt; bring to boil over medium heat, sti
rring constantly. In thin steady stream, add remaining cream, making sure mixture keeps boiling. Reduce heat to medium-low; boil, without stirring, for 5 minutes.

3. Stir in butter, 1 tsp (5 mL) at a time. Boil, stirring occasionally, until candy thermometer registers firm-ball stage of 250°F (121°C), 25 to 35 minutes.

4. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla.
Pour into prepared pan; let cool until surface is slightly firm, 30 minutes. Score into 1-inch (2.5 cm) squares.

5. Sprinkle with fleur de sel. Let cool uncovered until firm, about 2
hours.

Remove from pan; cut into squares. Place each on squares of waxed paper (unless you have those little fluted candy cups, but who does?) (Make-ahead: Store wrapped candies in airtight container for up to 1 week.)
Present in a tin, glass bowl, or cello bag.

SOS! If you have only one hour

I'm reprinting my candied nut recipe from last year, because it takes less than 20 minutes to throw together (plus baking time) to make an addictive confection. Young children can make this. If you have only handfuls of various nuts in the pantry, use a mix– raw almonds and peanuts are also delicious.

Sugar and Spice Candied Nuts

Makes one to two gifts

Ingredients:

1/3 cup (75 mL) dark brown sugar

2/3 cup (150 mL) white granulated sugar

1 tsp (5 mL) kosher or coarse salt

Generous pinch cayenne pepper

1 tsp (5mL) ground raw cinnamon

1 pound (455 grams) raw (unroasted) walnut or pecan halves, or whole peeled hazelnuts

1 egg white, room temperature

1 Tbsp (15 mL) water

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 300F. Mix sugars, salt, cayenne and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside.

2. Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add nuts, stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, toss till evenly coated.

3. Spread nuts in single layer on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 30 min., stirring occasionally.

4. Remove from oven and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cook, pour nuts into a bowl or mason jar for giving, breaking up any pieces that stick together. (I also like to make a cone of gift paper to hold the nuts, that way you don't even need to find a container.)


Monday, December 21, 2009

Regifting: Lessons from The Nuge

I invoke the famously blunt language of my Michigan compatriot, Ted Nugent, aka "The Motor City Madman" to capture I think of regifting. As The Nuge would say, regifting "sucks giant amounts of dead penguin d---s".

First, The Nuge would want me to define terms. Regifting is neither giving someone something used, such as a vintage bag, nor giving one of your possessions, like your antique marble bookends, to your friend who loves them. It's passing on a gift you got from someone else, as a gift.

Reasons why a person might regift include:

1. The item is wrong for her, but she figures it might be 'right' for someone else.
It is only right for someone else if it is the identical item she would buy for the recipient, and is in mint condition. Example: She was given a bottle of Lagavulin by a grateful client, but doesn't like scotch– and it's her friend Jay's favourite treat.


2. She is watching her spending.
Fine. She can bake a batch of cookies. (The N
uge would suggest you shoot a mallard, but I'm not behind all his gift ideas. Picking buckshot out of your dinner is no fun.) Or she could give her time or skills.

3. She has no idea what to give you, and short of time or energy, wraps up something on hand.
Come on, that's why they invented express shipping.

4. She does not really want to give a gift, a ritual which embodies celebration, affection, respect, and gratitude, especially gratitude.
Insincerity is the mother of regifting.
In these moments, she might reflect on why she has accepted the invitation or maintained this relationship.


OK, there are frickin' exceptions

You could regift if the item is exactly what you would buy for the person anyway.
But let's face it, most regifts are those dumb (OK, Ted, dumbass) candles-and-paper napkin sets that people bring as hostess gifts, bland, bitsy department store earrings or a remaindered science fiction novel received at an office gift exchange.

Someone (I'm not saying it's Ted, but I'm not saying it's not) would regift something so awful it's clearly a joke. So, he says, wrap up that rockin' tee shirt you got from your brother and hope your mother in law laughs till she spews.


Why regifting riles me


Ted says, "If you don't crush evil, then evil will get you."


I may have been fooled a time or two, but 90% of the time I can spot a regift. I once observed a museum gift store appointment book given three times before it passed from my circle of acquaintances.

The regift represents obligation rather than celebration. LPC, on her blog Privilege, writes that her father once received four pairs of sheepskin slippers from his children. But at least they knew what he liked.

The regift reveals that the giver paid cursory to zero attention to the receiver. The driving thought of the giver is, "On whom can I offload
this gradoo?" Regifting negates the attentional aspect of gift-giving.

And therefore, the gift has as much chance of delighting the receiver as The Nuge has of turning vegan.

As Ted says, "There is no bag li
mit on happiness." How much happiness is in a regift of "The Last Lecture", complete with the business card of the giver's insurance agent, which he forgot to remove?

Finally, before I get comments apprising me of The Nuge's politics and attitudes, I
know his scene. (He was once the boy who hung out at Mom's best friend Sue's house.) Ted's views are not, in any respect other than the regifting issue, endorsed by this blogger.

Tomorrow's post, the last till Jan. 4, supplies a useful last-minute gift idea.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Merry Christmas, you're laid off

I'm so confused that I've rewritten this post four times. Maybe you can help me.

Job losses continue...

Two nights a
go, I met one of my best friends, "Sonia", at a neighbourhood bistro for our annual holiday dinner. But it was not an evening of cheer.

She cried, telling me she had to terminate her dedicated, hard-working admin assistant, "Kelly". No reason other than "corporate restructuring". Sonia cannot deliver her department's work without that role, which Kelly had performed brilliantly for six years. Perhaps, Sonia thought, the company might grant her a temporary contract employee in the new year. (Swell, a temp job with no benefits.)

But before herself, she thought of Kelly, who had recently moved her mother-in-law into her family home, at considerable expense.


but we are told to spend...

The Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney and other economists both here and in the US advise people to spend, both to stimulate the economy and prevent the chance of a deflationary spiral.

In the US, the Associated Press' Philip Elliott reported on December 8 that "President Barack Obama outlined new multibillion-dollar stimulus and jobs proposals Tuesday, saying the nation must continue to 'spend our way out of this recession' until more Americans are back at work."

...even though that's counterintuitive.

With food banks beseeching the public for donations, and anecdotal evidence everywhere (young adults moving back in with parents, colleagues and friends' continuing job loss, new jobs that pay far less and don't provide benefits, university enrollment down), who feels like spending?

Even friends with well-paying, secure jobs are subdued in their consumption, and far more apt to write a cheque to Meals on Wheels than to Prada.

The questions

1. Can we spend ourselves out of this situation? If you're spending, on what?
2. Do you believe that these layoffs are, in all cases, necessary to the survival of organizations?
3. And do you think layoffs should happen on Dec. 16?





Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Comfort and joy

Lashings of sleet and snow, late this year, herald winter in Canada. I have to push myself to leave the house, but when I do, the wind braces and the snow is sparkling, if as they say, you're dressed for it.

What are your favourite cold weather comforts? If they don't involve triple-digit clicks on designer sample sites,
I will try them.

This winter's short list:

Ever
y Little Step

I rented this terrific doc on the casting of the revival of A Chorus Line, one of my all-time favourite shows. Warning: "I Hope I Get It" and the uh, bouncy "Dance Ten, Looks Three" will program your brain to auto-repeat. And five, six seven, eight!


Lindt
Fleur de Sel
Chocolate bar
with nuggets of fleur de sel. Powerless. Whatever they want to charge for it, I don't care.


Hanro Wool and Silk Warmwear

The gentlest luxurious layer; Hanro's wool and sillk blend cami vanishes under clothes and caresses me in an all-important
extra layer. To see more styles, visit Underwear Options. Warmwear is also made in pure silk; the wool/silk blend lends extra snuggliness.

Thai silk shawl

Silk is both warm and ligfht; a Thai silk shawl tucks into a pocket or handbag and a snag or pen mark is not a heart-stopper. And the colours are luscious. Buy the shawl (not scarf) size to get enough insulation and drape.

About $10-$15 plus shipping for the 29" x 65" shawl size from various sellers such as arawanna77 on eBay, or in import stores
.

The dependable comforts of cashmere

The life support system for those in chilly climes. I will patiently wait for Eric Bompard's winter sale, usually the start of the second week of January, to order this ultra-fine maxi mariniere sweater, €225 right now.

I just want them, that's all: 70% cashmere, 30% silk fingerless gloves, also from EB, €58. If these are sold out, next year I'll order them in September.

A good read

I deeply enjoyed A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert, which the New York Times named one of the best books of 2009: "wickedly smart and wrenching". It's not a straightforward story, more like dipping into a remarkable family's unsentimental scrapbook, maintained for four generations.

Snuggled down

Is there anything more divine for sleep than a lofty down duvet? Permabaffle box goosedown comforter from LL Bean, from $189; international shipping.


Hair rescue

L'Oreal's Everpure line contains no colour-stripping sulfates, and the moisture conditioner delivers fast, minty penetrating conditioning and shine. About $7 at drugstores.


An accessory pick-up

Some days it's so unremittingly gray, you have to fight back. A cheeky accessory like this Bottega Veneta sterling and fuscia lizard skin ring would make me smile every time I look down. $450 from Net-a-porter.


Getting tights

Here, you cannot wear hose, regular ones, and survive unless you are carried on a palanquin, heated. J. Crew's nylon-wool blend tights are machine washable and come in good colours for only $26.50 which is peanuts when you can't feel your toes in regular stockings.


35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum)

Claire Denis' subtle, elliptical meditation about what composes a family, the salvation of work and the intricacies of intimacy, set in a banlieue of Paris.

A terrific cast, including the mesmerizing neighbours and tentative lovers, Mati Diop and Grégoire Colin. Slow to give up its stories, absolutely sure in its emotions, I found this film impossible to shake off. (French with English subtitles, released on DVD.)


The thermometer slides into negatives (in Celsius) as the holidays approach. My vintage fur will hold up for another year and so, I hope, will our car. We got the H1N1 shots, new snow tires, and everyone's well. Wishing the same for you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In appreciation of conversation

I've recently had the gift of long conversations with several friends, and am grateful to them.

Good conversation is a dying art. When I enjoy an engrossing exchange, I realize how deeply discourse nourishes me, especially around a table.

Canadians in conversation: we could do better

Our character, famously that of moderation and restraint, does not generate sparkling raconteurs or compelling conversationalists. (Le Duc says this charge is more apt for anglophones than francophones.) One of the classic bits of Canadiana concerns a contest run by the CBC. The task: to submit an ending for the simile "As Canadian as..."; the winner was "As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances".

We qualify habitually: an art exhibit might be described as "quite lovely". We overuse bland adjectives: "I saw some nice plays at Stratford." Too often, we call anything not within our immediate ken different or interesting, substituting safe, meaningless generalities for assertive opinion.

And yet, I know plenty of great Canadian talkers. My friend Marla, who grew up between Manchester, England and Vancouver, BC, for example. One of the delights of dining with her every few weeks
is hearing her deliver every shade of uncensored emotion with fluency and wit– never mind who overhears. She is an avid reader, which informs her verbal skills.

If I crave controversy, J-G wades in. He opposes conventional thinking, and as the articulate defender of countervailing perspectives, floats the boat at a party. But he doesn't attack the person, just the logic. He watches another guest's eyebrows recede into his hairline, grins, and claps him on the shoulder with genuine affection. (You guessed right, in Canada forty-five years, but originally a Spaniard.)

How do women conversationalists compare to men?

Robin Tolmach Lakoff, in her book "Talking Power" lists fourteen characteristics of womens' language (in North America) including
  • Women won't commit themselves to an opinion
  • Women are more indirect and polite than men, and
  • In conversation, women are more likely to be interrupted, less likely to introduce successful topics.
Because she writes in the academic passive voice ("Numerous traits have been said to characterize women's forms of speech in this culture"), I can't cite her sources. The characteristics are not (as Tolmach Lakoff agrees) displayed by all women, or to the same extent.

My mother's friends said what they thought and launched into amplifying detail, whatever the topic. They were peppery, straight-talking broads who liked a highball as they chatted– which may have disinhibited them. They had something to say and said it, even if there were occasional phone calls the next day to apologize for their candour.

At one point, my father tried to ban my mother from discussing politics, but she would agree only if the deal were reciprocal. End of discussion.

Maybe that's a factor:
in Canada, with diversity a fact of life, perhaps we're leery of offending. Our respect for difference might (oh yes, yet another Canuck qualifier) lead us to water down forthright opinion out of respect for "all kinds".

When a great conversation comes my way, I'm inspired and invigorated. Sometimes I scramble to hold up my end, which differs from monopolizing or scoring points. Real conversation is communion, not competition. Both parties feel alive.

The blogs I read regularly often resemble conversation in their provocative and fervent exchanges. I sometimes want to drop everything and just talk with the writer. Good thing there's not a phone number on some of your posts!


Thursday, December 10, 2009

There will be gifts: The romantic type

What's a 'romantic' gift? Though any gift given from the heart can be romantic, the fact is that women think of some gifts as more infused with romance with others.

Sheila received a license plate bearing the name of her business from her boyfriend. For her, this was romantic.

But then again, most women would sympathize with my friend Diane, whose husband gave her a Swiss Army knife for their 25th wedding anniversary.
She burst into tears. He said, "But I had it engraved with your initials."

Some women enjoy receiving practical gifts as a token of affection. Even I appreciate a good book from Le Duc. But sometimes, a gift needs to say more than "best wishes", to whisper of desire, deep admiration, celebration of a woman's essence.

The classics, lingerie, perfume and flowers, are time-honoured ways to trump the Swiss Army knife. Gifts that adorn beloved's person are most romantic, though art or decorative objects (such as an antique crystal perfume bottle or an etching) are also intensely romantic if well-chosen.

The basic guideline is, "Don't be practical" though many women will add "but don't give me something I'll never use, either". New fencing for the yard is not romantic even though "she really wanted it".

Here are a few ideas, should your sweetie ask for hints. Or don't wait for someone else to provide; celebrate a milestone or just celebrate the moment with a sensuous, memorable gift to yourself!

One approach that works well: pick a favourite feature and celebrate it.

That hair...


Vintage marcasite and tortoise (celluloid) hair comb in excellent condition, $100 from Susannah's Combs.


Those lips...

Yves St. Laurent Roughe Voluptué Silky Sensual Radiant Lipstick, $34 from Sephora.


Tho
se eyes...

Chloe Heloise sunglasses, $329 from Eyegoodies.


Those legs...


Depend
ing on her taste,
La Canadienne Gavin boot,


or
Opening Ceremony shearling ankle boot, $430 from Saks Fifth Avenue.




Loved for her mind, as well?


A pair of tickets to the theatre, opera, or lecture series can charm a beloved who delights in these experiences. A bound set of her favourite author can thrill- but be careful, as a cookbook is not usually read as romantic.


Romantic jewels


Jewelry given by a lover is by definition romantic, but some pieces are more so than others.


Love and P
rotection Bracelet by Macolm Appleby

This
eloquent piece combines the image of the thistle, the ancient Scottish symbol of protection, and the classic Luckenbooth brooch motif of intertwined hearts, exchanged by lovers on betrothal or pinned to a baby's blanket for luck.

In lavish, romantic expression, the exterior of the bracelet features cast thistles and stems with two interlocking hearts, the interior is decorated with engraved ancient spirals, cups and rings, capturing the unknown meaning of the rock carvings at Baluachraig. £340 from Thistle and Broom.


If I were looking
for a special piece of jewelry for a romantic occasion, vintage would be my first choice. So much of today's design, though functional, misses the mark.

A romantic piece has history, mystery, and an emotional tone that speaks of your love.
This Victorian 14k rose gold bracelet, with 24k rose gold overlay is a magnificent example. $1,350 from Carol Lane Antiques.

Nothing like a Dane

Italic Henning Koppel for Georg Jensen sterling modernist heart-design pin, $525 from Carol Lane Antiques.

Perfect choice for a woman who would not wear the typical 'heart' jewelry, but who has a place in yours.


A locket is an especially romantic piece of jewelry, worn near the heart. This exquisite Victorian black enamel locket has a hand-etched design enhanced by tiny seed pearls, and comes on a 20-inch gold chain, $895 from BeladoraII. There's some minor wear to the enamel which to me just makes it a more elegant witness to a past century.

In the language of gems, each stone is associated with an emotion, and motifs carry messages. (See the International Colored Gemstone Association article, "The Language of Love in Gems and Jewels".)

Someone with a
modest budget and big heart could give a knot, symbol of strength in a relationship. Etsy seller thebeside, based in London, England, makes a striking knot ring in silver or gold plate, $240, perfect for the woman who likes bold pieces.


Isn't it romantic...



When someone who loves you gives you someone to love?


Or makes y
ou something delicious with his or her own hands?





Or surprises you with an unforgettable experience? On her birthday
, Sandra's husband gave her a parade!


What about spa visits? Pleasant and restorative they may be– but not romantic.

G
etaway weekend for two, kids in the kennel? Now you're talking.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Letting go: Musings on Pseu's "Laissez-faire" post

Deja Pseu wrote a terrific post about the notion of "she's let herself go", that mean-spirited censure of a woman who does not look as perfectly-put-together as she did at one time or another. If you haven't read Pseu's post, it's here.


She got me to thinking, what if "She's let herself go" was a compliment? I was inspired by Lenny Bruce's famous bit, his notion that f--- you should be a sincere best wish, as in "I love you, Mom, f---- you! And f--- Dad, too!"

In this parallel universe, a woman would be lauded for looking her age, feeling satisfied rather than starving, being comfortable in a somewhat more ample body, displaying wrinkles or grey hair. "Have you seen Meredith? Wow! Let herself go!"

What if a woman let herself go... on?
On to wisdom, grace, service to her community and loved ones. On to owning the beauty of her age rather than grasping at decades past. On to choosing the clothes she likes, rather than what a magazine tells her she must buy to look younger.

Pseu said that if a woman's grooming is minimal, it likely signals a crisis in her life. It astounded me, during my divorce, that I received endless compliments on my whippet figure. I had lost over 30 lbs from stress and sadness, yet I was envied. Skinny and morose was better? I didn't think so. Only one friend's elderly mother thought to say, "Oh my dear, are you all right?"

Criticism about "letting herself go" is an unco
nscious expression of our culture's fear of the ultimate letting go, of the end of life itself. Physical aging terrifies some with its reminder that time is limited and passes quickly. But will looking 50 at 58 via fillers and this season's me-too bag extend one's years?

While I dutifully
do the cardio, book the mammos, try to restrict empty-calorie treats– unceasing, sensible compliance– I'm not willing to buy ridiculously expensive cream just to delude myself that my skin "glows, refreshed and tightened".

If a woman's appearance is noticeably different from her usual due to a difficult life situation, what can we do?

Hug her, take her to lunch, or, as a friend did for a woman whose husband is gravely ill, treat her to an afternoon's salon visit while you keep watch.

She likely knows how she looks. Who hasn't caught a glimpse in the mirror during a hard year, and though, "I look like hell"? The last thing that helps is censure; this is time for caring, generosity and seeing past the ragged nails or lank hair, to the person inside the package.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Simply silver jewelry

Silver jewelry puts delightful pieces on our hands or ears at a fraction of the price of more precious metals. But because so many lacklustre pieces are made of silver– market stall junk that's cheaply fabricated or set with dull, badly-cut stones– it doesn't always get its due admiration.

Pure silver is soft, so metal alloys (usually copper, sometimes nickel or zinc and rarely, platinum) are added to harden it. Silver jewelry must contain at least 92.5% silver to be considered real, or sterling, silver. Some jewelry is 95% silver, stamped 950.

Exceptional silver pieces have weight and fine workmanship that rival the best goldsmith's.
Here are a few of my bracelets and rings made entirely of silver.

1. Georg Jensen Biomorphic bracelet, designed by Henning Koppel, circa 1960.

An iconic pi
ece purchased on eBay about 12 years ago.

I've also
shot it held open so you can see the array of links, each different.



2. Sans-Titre silver ring, by Violaine Ulmer, bought in Paris ca. 2007. Five concentric stacked rings slide freely under the concave-disc top. A local silversmith told me this is a demanding ring to make. The face has a finely-etched irregular grid pattern.


3. Art deco bee bracelet by Toronto jeweler Susan Cockburn, who now lives in Dubai; bought around 15 years ago.

The clasp cleverly hides under one bee so it looks seamless.



4. Corset ring by Vancouver's Anat Basanta. The chased work of a vaguely Persian-style pattern seems to harmonize with whatever I wear. You can't quite see the delicate tracery of vines and leaves– our shy, senior tabby was unwilling to pose any longer.


5. One of the first pieces of jewelry I ever bought. I might have been twelve when an ad in a catalog for a silver ring made of your initials incited my first case of jewelry lust.

Think it was $35, which represented a lot of babysitting. Once, this ring fit my ring finger, now it fits the pinky.
Forgot about it for forty years and found it in my mother's jewelry box when disbursing her estate.


What I'd buy today

William Spratling Silver Bracelet, ca. 1940. Stunning example of the famous designer's art. $1,850 from Go Antiques.


Bamboo Drop Earrings, 1 3/8” long x 5/8” wide, from
Gump's, $150.

Salsa
earrings, below, £35 (including VAT) from Braybrook & Britten.








Hoorsenbuhs Phantom bracelet, 1 1/2" wide, $1,550 from
Barneys.

Scots Pine Bracelet by Malcolm Appleby, £625 from Thistle and Broom.




Vintage Diagonal Oval Silver Ring, ca. 1960s, by Torun for Georg Jensen, size 7, $350 from 20th Obsession.

For any occasion, a piece of vintage silver jewelry is a marvelous gift idea.