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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Happy Place

Okay... This is a bad picture, but it's the only one I have of the two of us up at the house.  What's with my bangs?  A little "aggressive".  It's a good thing I've had my hair cut since this was taken.

Sadly, we are back in Pittsburgh.  Sadly, I will have a few weeks of keeping in touch with progress on the house remotely.  Sadly, the Maine fall will turn to winter and I'll probably miss the first snowfall.  Sadly, sadly, sadly.

The funny thing is that I never really thought we would be lucky enough to have a place up there in  the far reaches of where rational, logical people live.  In fact, I was pretty much convinced that we would just never get around to leaving Pittsburgh, even once Ted retired.  You know how it is.  You get wrapped up in life and time passes and then, well, the magic window passes for doing something you always wanted to do.

I used to say to Ted, "Oh, we'll never leave Pittsburgh and buy a place in Maine".  He would tell me I was wrong.  Well, I'll now admit publicly that Ted was right and I was wrong.  We did do it.  We are doing it.  (Note to Ted:  You may want to paste and copy this paragraph because me admitting that I was wrong just doesn't come around all that often.)

We are about to embark (and I do mean embark), on a major kitchen and bathroom remodel up in Maine.  We are removing a fireplace in order to build me my dream kitchen, renovating two bathrooms, and adding one.  We have hired ourselves a general contractor, and I am ready, cell phone in hand, to get this party started.

The first step is to go before the Historical Preservation Society to get authorization to remove a chimney at the back of the house.  Hopefully they will see things the way Jonathan, my contractor and new bestie, and I do.  Jonathan, who has experience with this group of historical zealots, refers to them as the Hysterical Preservation Society.  This could be fun.  Or it could be unbelievably frustrating -- or both.  Either way, I'm sure I'll have lots to report to all of you.

I have finally come to really understand the meaning of the phrase "happy place".  Maine is my happy place.  This house, with all its weirdnesses and quirkiness, is my happy place.  This house, with all of its historical limitations, is my happy place.  My team of craftsmen (yes, including Tree Hugging Bob, and my antique roof specialist Victor), all contribute to making this my happy place.  This is the place Ted and I see our family gathering in years to come.  Our kids, their families.  All of us.  In the happiest of places.

Thank you Ted.  You were right.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tree Hugger

This is a sneaky picture I took of Bob, my arborist. As you can see, he's so wrapped up in his description of my abused trees that he barely notices the photo taking. I claimed to be taking pics of the trees -- which he loved.

I have an arborist.  How many people can say that?  Who has an arborist anyway?  Apparently I do.

Yup.  We now have an arborist as one of our it takes a village to renovate a house built in the mid-1800's.

As I mentioned in the past, we purchased our Maine house from a couple of fledgling DIYers.  The net result of said DIYing is that most everything they did, they did the wrong way.  To say they were shortcutters would not begin to describe their approach to home repair.

Such was the case with the beautiful trees growing on the property.  Let's just start by saying that there is absolutely no chance that either Ted or I would ever, in a million years, willingly (or even unwillingly) hoist ourselves into a tree to perform tree trimming or even a cat rescue.  This is why there are tree trimmers and firemen.

Unfortunately, the previous owner of my house did not share our views.

So, this morning Bob came over to consult on the shockingly detailed (and expensive) proposal he put together for us to Save the Trees.  

I think I'm safe in saying that  Bob has never met a tree he didn't love.  In fact, I think it's pretty safe  to assume that Bob has never met a living thing that he didn't want to rescue.  This includes bugs, house plants, and weeds.  Bob truly loves all things great and small.

I have to admit that I have, without so much as a second thought,  killed bugs that I've found in my house.  I have used bug spray to rid my immediate environment of pesky visitors, and have coated myself in deet to avoid being eaten alive sitting on my patio.  I have thrown plants out rather than coaxing them back to life.  I've most certainly killed my fair share of indoor trees from sheer neglect. Clearly Bob and I have a philosophical difference in our approach to all creatures great and small.

Several (very long) hours later, I knew things about trees that  I never 1) knew were possible to know, and 2) barely knew I cared about.  Bob went on (at considerable length) about fungus (which, of course we have and which, of course, it is essential to treat), pruning (which I have learned is an essential part of maintaining not only beautiful trees, but healthy trees as well), and all manner of other tree disease.

In addition to the tree rescue and maintenance, it seems that when my DIYers trimmed the trees, they would just throw all the limbs into the woods behind the manicured part of the yard.  Apparently this is not the proper way to do things.  Bob is bringing in a chipper.  I really wish I was going to be here for that.  Talk about satisfying!  Cleaning out the woods is an organizer such as myself dream scenario.
Tree limb graveyard.
And did I mention is was a whooping 40-ish degrees outside and raining?  Super fun.

Fun fact:  The optimal time to do tree maintenance is in December, just as the ground is freezing and all the leaves have fallen.  Who knew?  

Bob has a game plan.  I have a (rapidly diminishing balance in my) checkbook.  Together we can make healthier trees together.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Leave and Learn

This is what fall in Maine looks like... Leaves as far as the eye can see..
As previously noted, our house in Maine sits on a large piece of property with lots of (abused) trees.  Well, just because some of my trees are the horticultural equivalent of domestic violence doesn't mean that they don't shed their leaves come autumn.

I cannot even express the flood of leaves I witnessed when we arrived on Saturday.  So.  Many.  Leaves.  Zillions of leaves.  So many leaves that to walk through them required kind of a marching motion.  Children may scamper through leaves.  Middle aged people like me apparently march through leaves.

Needless to say, the OCD aspects of my personality required that the leave situation be dealt with immediately.  A quick call to my landscaper Brad -- do I need him on speed dial too? -- revealed that his guys had cleared the leaves about a week ago and that we were on the schedule for another visit this week.  Holy Moly.

So, this morning, bright and early, the guys were here with their leaf removal equipment.
A kid's dream leaf pile.
Blowing in the wind...
The leaf pile is as tall as the leaf collector.
Let's just say that leaf removal in Maine is not a job for a 12 year old and a rake.  Leaf removal in Maine requires a team of six big guys, various tractor like vehicles that push the leaves into gigantic piles, blowers, and two GIANT vacuum trucks to suck up all the leaves once they've been scooted into piles.  No number of Costco leaf bags could adequately tackle this job.

Okay, maybe six 12 year olds and six rakes could get the job done but there would, no doubt, be way more pile jumping and way less actual leaf maintenance going on.

So I'm a killjoy.  I have leaves to deal with.  Bring on the vacuum truck.  And the guys.  And the blowers.  And the tractor like vehicles that scoot the leaves into big piles.

The guys have now been working for a couple of hours.  They have already filled one vacuum truck and are now awaiting a second.  They are on their lunch break, totally unfazed by the mountains of dried leaves surrounding them.  Things are starting to look a little better.  That was until the foreman, Tim remarked "Gee, that oak hasn't really begun to shed yet. "  I guess they'll be back next week.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Live from Maine... It's You Little Tarte

The Horatio Moody House, Built in 1866,
Kennebunk, Maine

Well, we did it.  We finally did it.

For years we have been talking about buying a house in Maine.  We have looked at dozens of houses over the years when we've been up here visiting camp or college, but mostly we've been looking just to look.  Call it residential sightseeing.  We always talked about eventually retiring to Maine, but I really thought that it was just that: talk.

Well, Ted called my bluff.  We found the perfect "retirement" house.  (Note:  For now this will be our summer and whenever else we can get here house.)  And it's as perfect as a house built in 1866 can be.  Let's just say that we bought the house from  do-it-yourselfers who had only limited DIY skills.  Let's also just say that the house needed more work that we thought, despite having what we thought was an in-depth home inspection.  (For the record, we probably would have bought the house even if we had known that the whole place was held together with thumbtacks and masking tape, but it would have been good information to have.  Also for the record, the thumbtack industry was kept alive by the previous owners of this house -- I kid you not.)

I am excited that we are putting in a new kitchen, and it appears that it is going to be my dream kitchen.  Clearly I will have no excuse not to cook every night.  We are also adding one bathroom and re-doing two others.  Clearly I will have ample choices of where to shower every morning.  There's painting, floor refinishing, carpet, and the rest of the standard stuff going on as well.  There is also far less glamorous stuff going on like septic tie-ins to the city sewer, and a whole lot of electrical updating.  Super fun.  Really.  My organizational skills are being put to good use.  And just a note, there is nothing I cannot accomplish if I have a mini legal pad and a cell phone.  I am locked and loaded and am enjoying my unofficial role as co-general contractor.  (I have not actually established that the actual general contractor will be all that thrilled with this.)

Fun fact: Slate roofs, while really beautiful and really long lasting, need a certain amount of, shall we say, upkeep.  This upkeep is 1) best not performed by a DIYer with only limited roofing skills, and 2) requires not just a roofer but a craftsman to properly do the job.  A slate roof repair also requires scaffolding the entire house.  Yes.  Not only do I now have a slate craftsman listed in the contacts on my phone, I also have the name of a scaffolding company.  I'm going to leave to your imagination what such a repair might cost.  Hint: Double whatever your thinking.
A view of the house from the backyard. Yes, that is a gazebo (people in Maine like gazebos), and yes, that is a vegetable garden.  
I also have an arborist on my contact list.  When meeting with our new gardening service, I was informed that one of my birch trees didn't look good.  Could the owner of the gardening company recommend an arborist?  This is Maine.  I didn't want to be known as "that woman who didn't care about her 150 year old birch tree".  Jump ahead to my meeting with said arborist.  I have abused trees.  Yes, apparently my super handy DIYers liked to get up in the trees and trim them.  Whenever the spirit moved them.  (Fun fact:  tress in Maine are trimmed in December, after all the leaves have fallen and they are bare.  Apparently my DIYers didn't adhere to that wisdom so if the tree looked a little lopsided in say, April, they just chopped off a limb.  I guess trees don't like that and they rebel by getting sick.)  A good tree trimming is a lot like an really good haircut.  It needs to be done properly and with precision.  Again, not so much here.   Now I have abused trees.  They need treatment.  I thought Ted was going to have a coronary when I called with that bit of news.

And on and on.

The good news is that this really is my dream house.  It's a gorgeous Victorian built in 1866.  It even has a name: The Horatio Moody House.  The house is reputed to have two ghosts, though I have not yet "met" them.  So cool.  Kate, but the way, is less than thrilled with this fact, which leads me to think of all the fun scary things I can do when she's in residence.  Okay... maybe not.  The house sits on over 2 acres of beautiful property on a beautiful street in a seriously rigid historical district.  The houses around us are all stunning.  So we need craftsmen and arborists.  I have my dream house.  And someday I will succeed in working through all the repairs the previous owner did himself.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hidden Treasure

Truth be told, I've never been all that fond of hiding vegetables in other foods.  I know Jessica Seinfeld has made a career of hiding carrots and spinach in brownies, but I'm just not that sneaky.  (For the record,  I tried Jessica's recipe for "Healthy Brownies" and all I could taste was vegetables.  Maybe it was because I knew there was spinach hiding in the batter, or maybe it was because the very idea of tainting something as truly delicious as a brownie with spinach was offensive and distasteful to me... I'm not sure.)

So we have established that I am not a vegetables in cakes kind of gal.  That is until I tried this really absurdly good recipe from my go-to bundt cake cookbook Cake Keeper Cakes by Lauren Chattman.

This chocolate-zucchini bundt cake reminds me a little of a chocolate chip bundt my mother used to make.  It was really chocolatey and had lots of chocolate chips scattered throughout.  One thing I can be sure was not on the ingredient list was zucchini.  (Until I was an adult, I actually thought zucchini was a soft and mushy vegetable because my mother, once she discovered it, cooked it to within an inch of its life.  I think I am safe in assuming that zucchini would never have made an appearance in a chocolate cake, or any other cake for that matter.)

Here's the thing about zucchini.  Because it has such a high water content, and because it doesn't have a particularly strong taste,  really the only thing it adds to this cake is moisture.  The end result is the most chocolately, rich, delicious, moist cake around.

The really good news is that we can all pretend that we're eating something far better for us than your average chocolate cake.  Or we can all pretend that there isn't anything green  in the cake.  Either way, it works for me.

Recipe:  Chocolate-Zucchini Bundt Cake
Cake Keepers Cakes, by Lauren Chattman


1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder plus more for dusting the pan
1/2 cup sour cream
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 cups coarsely shredded zucchini
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup sliced almonds


Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 12-cup Bundt pan and dust with unsweetened cocoa powder.
Whisk together the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla in a large glass measuring cup. Whisk together the flour, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and espresso powder in a medium bowl.

Combine the butter and sugars in a large mixing bowl and cream with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice as necessary.

With the mixer on low speed, add 1/3 of the flour mixture and beat until incorporated. Add 1/2 of the sour cream mixture. Repeat, alternating flour and sour cream mixtures and ending with the flour mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl between additions.Stir in the zucchini, chocolate chips, and nuts.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely. Slice and serve.

Store uneaten cake in a cake keeper or wrap in plastic and store at room temperature for up to 3 days.