30 January 2013

Pull me up!


I have a love/hate relationship with the kitchen. I sometimes resent how much time I spend there because it takes me out of the studioand once I get started, it can be hours before I'm 'free' againyet I am attracted to ingredients & kitchen tools in the same way that I adore paper, my T-square & X-Acto knife. I love the shapes, the colors, the textures of the 'materials' found in the kitchen...curvaceous pears, the orange yolk of a fresh egg, the silkiness of '00' flour and the coarseness of hand-ground cornmeal. And there's something appealing about the rhythmic motion of dicing a crisp red onion, slicing a ruffled summer tomato or deseeding a pomegranate...about the scent released as I strip the tiny leaves from a cluster of thyme stems, zest a lemon, or crush coriander seeds with the mortar & pestle. I actually find that, once I get in there, preparing meals can be a meditative process, and am often surprised by how something on my mind can somehow resolve itself as I go about doing these kitchen tasks. And I have definitely begun to notice more overlap between the kitchen and the studio in the last several months, in part through working with my Book Art Object title, Mise en place, but also because the ingredientsespecially fruits & vegetablesoften inspire me to get out my camera or consider them in a creative way.


One of the elements of my '12x12' project is recipes. Last year I shared a few here, but I'm hoping to make it a more regular thing. In keeping with white being January's 'color of the month', this time I chose tiramisù—the exquisite Italian dessert that, as you may already know, derives from the words 'tirami su!', or 'pull me up!' Some say the name is attributed to the fact that the recipe contains coffee (though I don't think it's really enough to have much of an effect).

I have been wanting to make tiramisù for years. After being served the first piece of a freshly made one in a restaurant in Montepulciano last fall—and regular reminders from my daughterwe finally got ourselves organized in the New Year. I did some research into the way it's traditionally made here, and found that the ratio of egg to mascarpone is typically one egg for every 100g of mascarpone (though this can vary). I was also surprised to find that alcohol is not necessarily used; I don't generally like alcohol in desserts, so my version does not include it. A dash of something would not be out of place though...

We found some lovely artisan Savoiardi (ladyfingers), and the egg & mascarpone mixture was exquisitethough I realized only later that we'd had a little miscommunication and only put in two eggs. My daughter was thrilled when I told her I wanted to try the recipe again with more eggs. We used different biscuits (smaller & a bit more 'uniform'), and ended up needing more coffee for dipping that time. Capturing the tiramisù with the camera proved to be a challenge, partly due to the lack of natural light when I needed it, so I made it yet a third time! Initially, the mascarpone mixture wasn't quite as thick in the second & third tries, though it did firm up nicely once chilled. (Note that the photo shows a portion of tiramisù served out before it was chilled, since it would have been dark by the time it was ready.) Taste-wise, it was equally delicious each timemy point being that, whether you use two, four or five eggs, the tiramisù should be lovely!

Recipe ~

~1 cup strong coffee/~6 shots of medium-strong espresso (i.e. brewed in a stovetop Moka)
4 eggs
120g (⅔ cup) sugar, divided into two equal portions
500g mascarpone, softened a bit with a rubber spatula
~400g Savoiardi (ladyfingers)
cocoa powder 

Brew coffee, then pour into a shallow bowl or pan and set aside to cool.

Separate the eggs, putting the whites in a medium-sized bowl and the yolks in a large bowl.
Beat the yolks with an electric mixer (high speed) until they are creamy & pale in color; add half of the sugar and continue beating until incorporated.
With the mixer on low (or with a whisk), add the mascarpone to the yolk/sugar mixture a little at a time, gently, but thoroughly, mixing together until you have a lovely, creamy zabaione. Put the mixture in the fridge while you whip the whites.
Add a pinch of salt to the whites & whip into stiff peaks, then add the other half of the sugar and incorporate.

Gently fold the egg white mixture into your zabaione.

Now it's time to dip the Savoiardi into the coffee. Quickly do one side and then the other, placing them one at a time into your serving dish to create the first layer.

Depending on the size of your dish, you should be able to do two or three layers: dollop either half or one-third of the mascarpone mixture onto the first layer of biscuits, then then sift enough cocoa powder to cover, and repeat until the biscuits and the mascarpone mixture are used up. You may want to do the final/top sifting of cocoa when you serve the tiramisù.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill for at least three hours, and even longer if you can manage to wait (the next day is best). Dust with cocoa powder before serving. Serves 8-10.

A few notes ~

- The eggs should be as fresh as you can get, as they are not cooked.
- Savoiardi are the biscuits traditionally used here, but a simple sponge cake can also be used. The Savoiardi are like sponges, so keep this in mind as you dip them in the coffee: first the top & then the bottom, deliberately, but quickly.
- I use very fine (i.e. castor) sugar.
- Any container (or combination of containers) will work; just try out the placement of the Savoiardi first so you know how to arrange them once they've been dipped in the coffee. It's important that they fit tightly so that the biscuits don't 'escape' under the weight of the mascarpone mixture as it chills & firms up.
- You may want to experiment with just the right amount of mascarpone-mixture-to-biscuit for your own taste.

I've also heard of fruit (or other) variations, and can imagine endless possibilities. Maybe there will have to be a summer version!


{My One-Year-on Blogger drawing will be on Friday, 1 February, so please check back then if you've left a comment/sent me an email since I announced it earlier this month...and it's still not too late to 'enter'!}

28 January 2013

Circles of orange

There are few things making me happier this month than the three-kilo bags of tarocchi we've been buying. The tarocco (sing.) is a type of blood orange that often has red-tinged flesh & skin, but the color doesn't tend to be as intense as the other varieties of blood oranges. It is very sweet, easy to peel, and makes a beautiful juice. Lots of Vitamin C and other good stuff...

I love the patterns found when you cut through an orange: you get a starburst effect from slicing it around the midsection (i.e. horizontally), and then there's the more linear pattern that happens from slicing off an edge vertically (shown in the upper left image, below). These interior designs are such an interesting contrast to the simple (near) spherical shape of the uncut orange, with its fairly uniform surface. I suppose one appeal of the tarocco in particular is the mottled color; the skin seems to have been sponge-painted, and the flesh looks as though someone may have squeezed in a few drops of vermillion paint, which then proceeded to seep into the different 'sections'. 

Part of the '12x12' project I've mentioned a few times recently includes focusing on a fruit or vegetable that's in season each month, and exploring different ways to interpret it. These days, 'getting to know something' often seems to begin with the camera, but ultimately my hope is to also draw, paint, collageor cook with itas well. This month, I considered somehow using the 'net' bags I have been collectingmaybe for splattering paint?but so far have only cut some circles from them. I'm not so sure about their plastic-y-ness. Along with circles of orange & red Canson paper, the net circles appear scattered through some of the images below, and I'll see where else they may take me.


This seems like a perfect opportunity to show off the gorgeous 'Orange' fabric that I won from Julie Booth last summer...she created the print blocks herself. I just love the colors (which are actually a little darker & richer than shown in the photo). She likes to experiment with using things from the kitchen in her printmaking, and includes details on her techniques in a monthly newsletter. I am really looking forward to trying out some of the ideas one of these days...

Orange by Julie Booth

26 January 2013

Paperwhites (+)

These are some of the Paperwhites photos I mentioned taking a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately there wasn't much sun in the studio during their brief stay—not until the blossoms had finally begun to shrivel, that is...but I even liked the faded paper-thin petals scattered along the piece of creamy Fabriano Ingres (shown in the last image).

I adore everything about Paperwhites...the masses of unpretentious little flowers, their whiteness, the perky stems, that insistent, somewhat spicy perfume. (I find that not everyone is drawn to the scentincluding my daughterbut I think it's delightful.) When we used to live in the US, I would buy a few pots-worth of Paperwhite bulbs in December. Some time after the New Year arrived, when I was just beginning to get used to the emptiness left in the wake of the Christmas tree's disappearance, the bulbs would begin to sprout. Soon their stalks were shooting up so fast you could probably see them grow if you wanted to, and the flowers didn't keep you waiting for long.

I haven't experienced the joys of watching the scraggly bulbs come to life for several years, as I have never seen any here—not even the florist could tell me where to look for them...daffodil & hyacinth bulbs, yes, but no Paperwhites. She does have a supplier for cut Paperwhites, so that heady fragrance I associate with the month of January still fills the studio for a little while. It never seems long enough to study them as much as I would like, but I do have some photos from this year's bunch.

The two images fourth from the top (the sort of 'foggy' glimpses) show the Paperwhites reflected in my roasting pan. As I was getting ready to scrub it recently, I noticed how much character the combination of repeated heat, not-very-well-cleaned olive oil remnants (and heaven knows what else) had given it, so I took the pan into the studio to see what the camera thought. The dappled surface happened to catch the reflection of the paperwhites, reminding me of one of those speckled old mirrors found atop antique bureaus. So the pan ended up getting its own photo session too (I'll post a some of the images one of these days). I just love where things like washing the dishes can lead...




As it turns out, I didn't have a chance to publish this entry yesterday, and had some time to look through the roasting pan photos on the train today as I was taking my daughter to the Milano airport to meet her father for what is known here as a settimana bianca ('white week', i.e. a ski holiday). It was an easy seven-hour round-trip that got me home just in time for that lovely golden hour of the sunniest day Florence has seen in a long while. Funny that, no matter how brief a period I am away from Florence, it always makes me feel so happy to see the Cupola's shiny gold ball (the highest thing in the whole city) coming into view again...

My daughter was as enthusiastic about the photos as I was, but said she hopes that child services doesn't see them. (I do line the pan when I use it!) A couple of notes: the photo on the left of the second row shows another reflection of the Paperwhites, and the right-hand image in the bottom row is of a different pan, which has taken on an actual silvery patina in places.

As I photographed the pan(s), I was fascinated by the effects that occurred depending on what was positioned in the backgroundthe mostly overcast sky, the ocher plaster of the building across from us, the terracotta rooftops—and how the pan was angled in relationship to the light. I applied auto-contrast to the images (then in some cases toned it down); this brought out the patina in an unexpected, almost surreal, way. One explanation for the metal's unusual coloration may be that, for lack of enough kitchen storage, these two pans make their permanent home in the oven and are therefore exposed to heat more often than is normal. In any case, they have provided me with quite a bit of amusement!

Below is a manipulated version of one of the shots...I really liked the palette that emerged when I played with the colors. (The original is shown below it.)

22 January 2013

Black & white and red all over

I couldn't resist the play on words with the riddle that children take such delight in. Even though the answer is traditionally 'newspaper', it also could apply to many books...any certainly to those I'd like to write about today, which even have red covers.

The books in question are part of a series conceived by Christopher Alexander and his team at the Center for Environmental Structure in Berkley, California. If I could take only one book to a deserted island, it would have to be the second volume in the series, A Pattern Language (and it is the book I have given most often as a gift). A passage I wrote for The Piazzas of Florence gives a little background on the patterns:
My introduction to Alexander came when I was earning my architecture degree, but [A Pattern Language] is much more than a book about architecture: facets of sociology, psychology and culture that comprise built form have been taken into consideration to create two hundred and fifty-three patterns, resulting in a specific ‘language’—a language of building and, even more significantly, a language for living.

It begins with the larger patterns that define a community, such as FOUR STORY LIMIT, which allows people to have a sense of connection to the rest of the world even when they are in their homes and offices, a connection that tends to disappear with high rises; NINE PERCENT PARKING, which limits parking to no more than nine per cent of a given area, as it destroys human scale and contact in cities; SMALL PUBLIC SQUARES, which highlights the importance of public outdoor rooms, and reminds us to consider the number of people who will use them so they won’t be too big—and therefore go unused; and HIGH PLACES, which emphasizes our need for landmarks—and a chance to get perspective on our world.

Next Alexander moves onto patterns that should characterize individual buildings, and then comes a section on finishing the details of the building and its outdoor space. As I read through the patterns, even the names of many of them evoke appealing images, of the kinds of places where you want to curl up with your thoughts, a good book, have a nap, chat with friends, eat a celebratory meal.

The series of patterns concludes with THINGS FROM YOUR LIFE—a reminder to surround ourselves with things we love, that tell our story. Of course, following a list of patterns does not ensure good design—in the first volume of the series, A Timeless Way of Building, Alexander spends over five hundred pages trying to define the elusive ‘quality without a name’ that makes for good architecture—but it’s a starting point. I recognize that one reason why I so enjoy living in Florence is for its PUBLIC OUTDOOR ROOMS, INDIVIDUALLY OWNED SHOPS, STREET CAFÉS and CORNER GROCERIES, to name a few; they all add up to a congenial and fulfilling environment. Some day I would like to count how many of the patterns are part of my life here.


Well, I still haven't formally enumerated every pattern that I encounter in my daily life in Florence, but I have been spending more time exploring the patterns; they are part of my ongoing '12x12' project (which I will reveal more of this year). Many of the patterns are common sensethings that may seem very simplebut they are often overlooked in architecture and urban planning. As Alexander points out, we seem to have 'forgotten' this intuitive language of building. I'd like to focus on at least one pattern each month of 2013—something that's relevant to the time of year/what's going on around me.

For January I've chosen pattern 252: POOLS OF LIGHT. I love even the imagery conjured up by the phrase 'pools of light'...it makes me think of a small pond of deep, perfectly still water reflecting the sky in the clearing of a thickly wooded area...or the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel, drawing us closer. Found nearly at the end of the book (among the most 'intimately'-scaled patterns), this one feels especially important during these months of short days and minimal sunshine.

'POOLS OF LIGHT' examines the appeal and role of individual, concentrated light sources (as opposed to a stark, uniform light source), and explains how they can concentrate individual activities as well as define social groups. For example, in the social context, uniform illumination may discourage people from forming groups that would tend to occur more naturally within boundaries marked out by a 'pool of light'. Alexander also cites a study showing that concentrated lighting allows work to be more focused (I know I find this to be true). I love some of the illustrations, for example how a lamp suspended over dining table "seems almost to act like a glue for all of the people sitting round the table."

The pattern concludes with these instructions:
Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can't have pools of light without the darker places in between.

Studies, experiments and rationalizations aside, I know I find few things more inviting than a desk lit by a lamp—or an armchair sitting in a cozy pool of light, enticing me to curl up with a book. Likewise, as the light changes each season, I reorganize the most important activities to be in the sunniest part of the room (though of course there are times when it's so hot that cool darkness is more appealing). For me, light defines, encourages, and can even inspire, my daily activities.

I don't seem to be very successful with nighttime photography, but last night I tried to capture the studio table lit by only the desk lamp. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to keep working late into the night...

On my original blog I wrote an entry that gives more details about the premise for the patterns found in volume one of the series, The Timeless Way of Building, and have just re-posted it here for those of you who might like to read it. 

While Alexander may take several hundred pages to define the 'quality with no name'a fact that some readers have taken issue withafter trying to convey the essence of POOLS OF LIGHT, I will say that I'm beginning to understand how describing such a simple concept can be so complicated! Though perhaps, as Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Hmm. I will keep working on it...

Here are a few photos of some of Alexander & Co's books, taken in scant moments of cold winter sunshine—a sort of Day Three of the 'black & white' photo challenge...

{Just another reminder that I'm still collecting names for the one-year-on-Blogger drawing. In case you didn't see the original mention of it...anyone who leaves a comment or emails me by the end of January will be eligible to win the item of their choice from my shop. Thanks again for your patience on the long wait until the drawing takes place...I am hoping that a new collection—the embossed maps—will be in the shop by then...}

18 January 2013

Black & white, continued

So...today is my promised Day Two of the black & white images inspired by Jennifer & Julie's ROY G BIV+ photo challenge. As I mentioned yesterday, I took my camera along when I went out to run a few errands earlier in the week, hoping to photograph some of the black & white my daughter and I had noticed the week before. It wasn't the kind of day I'd usually bother to take the camera, since there was very little light in the wake of the morning drizzle, but I didn't know if I would have another/better chance before the end of the week.

There are few activities I like less than fare lo shopping (though books and art supplies are an exception), but I do enjoy seeing the creative displays in the windows. And I appreciate the inherent contrast between the current designers' fashions being housed in palazzi that are several hundred years old. In The Piazzas of Florence, I wrote about the vignettes that are often found in the windows...how they seem to paint a portrait of a certain person, who loves to travel, or to writeand daydreamed about how my personal vignette might be set up in a stationery shop:

There would be a journal covered with marbled paper, with a tooled leather spine, my fountain pen with the luster of brown- and black-speckled tortoise shell, the brown leather book bag I bought at the Mercato Nuovo on my first visit to Florence, a shelf of favorite books… Perhaps this concept of the vignette is a contemporary version of the Renaissance portrait, in which the subjects were often painted with significant items from their lives. Long before that, when art was mostly religious, saints were often identified by a relevant symbol, and even in ancient times, people were inclined to enter the afterlife accompanied by meaningful objects from their earthly lives.


This first quartet features photos from Stefanel—as I walked from window to window, I began to wonder if they might also be playing along with the black & white challenge (!)...every single one of the shop's seven windows was designed around black & white graphic symbols.

As I wandered along the streets of the city center, I couldn't believe how just many mannequins were dressed in black and/or white. And for the first time, I realized just how much signage is done in black and/or white (which of course makes sense for a number of reasons). All in all, it was an entertaining outing, though I must say that the reflections on the windows, and the context itself, i.e. the historic buildings, were much more fascinating to me than the goods for sale...beyond wondering about things like who might purchase the polka-dotted ensemble (upper right of second quartet)and where she would wear it?

By the time I crossed over Ponte Santa Trìnita to return home, some swathes of blue sky had permeated the clouds and were reflecting onto the river. A couple of birds with black, grey & white feathers stood on one of the bridge's supporting piers; I love how the one is so perfectly centered, as if he'd been asked to pose for a photo.

A screenshot of the excursion's images...


17 January 2013

Capturing shadows

On sunny days, I'm always happy to see that first sliver of sun light up the studio wall (shown in the upper left image), and it was my inspiration/starting point for January's 'addendum' to the ROY G BIV challenge: classic black & white. The silhouette cast by the Paperwhites I mentioned in my last entry also enticed me, but good old fashioned sunlight has been hard to come by in the last week, and they began to shrivel before I got to fully explore their potential. When I saw that the forecast called for rain every day this week—which would make shadows a scarce commodity indeed—I took along my camera on an errand-session on Monday so I could photograph a few splashes of black & white that my daughter and I had noticed on an outing last week (yes, she is also keeping her eyes open for me each month). Just as Montepulciano obliged for 'VIOLET' in November, black & white was in abundance in the streets of Florence, and it wasn't hard to find a thread to hold together the collection of images.

But then the grey blanket of clouds began to dissipate for a spell on Tuesday, so I balanced a blank canvas adjacent to the studio window and, between bursts of sunlight, started grabbing random objects to create shadows. The sun played a fast-paced game of hide-and-seek with the clouds, testing my patience, but soon I slowed down and started to enjoy the process itself: as always, there's plenty to capture the imagination in the little street below, and the swiftly moving clouds created some magic moments of their own.

All images below are shadows on canvas—with the exception of the leftover paper cuttings, which are scattered on a piece of Fabriano Ingres. I am quite enamored by 'scraps' from projects, and took quite a few photos of the paper strips, but the shadows weren't very striking compared to the effect of the larger objects projected onto the vertical surface of the canvas.

Waiting for the sun to strengthen the shadow of my pruning shears...

A few items in the studio: drafting brush; paper strips leftover from trimming a project; scissors; T-square & triangle...

Things from around the house: lamp; gingerbread man cookie cutter; hangers...

And the Paperwhites...



The images from Monday's excursion are so different in spirit that I will post them tomorrow (though here's a peek)...

And, meanwhile, another idea for capturing black & white came to mind; they will make a good introduction to one of the elements of my 12x12 project, so I'll post them in a few days. Here's a sneak peak...


{I am still collecting names for the one-year-on-Blogger drawing. In case
you didn't see my last entry, anyone who leaves a comment or emails me by
the end of January will be eligible to win the item of their choice from my shop.
At the time, the end of January didn't seem that far away, though now I'm
realizing how long a wait is actually is! Thanks for your patience...}

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