Celebrating a Frozen February

In keeping with last month’s theme of official National Days celebrating weird stuff, I took a look at the February calendar to help me figure out what to cook this month. (Yeah, I make a monthly menu…it’s a chef thing.) I have always followed a seasonal and market guide, but using the National Day Calendar as inspiration is a first, and I feel like I have struck inspirational gold.   

Besides putting obscure foods (or those I gave up on long ago) back into my repertoire (such as Tater Tot Day — Feb. 20, Banana Bread Day — Feb. 23 and the [oddly specific] Crab Stuffed Flounder Day — Feb. 18), this calendar also allows me to combine food and nonfood observances for the betterment of mankind. For instance, Feb. 16 is both National Almond Day and National Do a Grouch a Favor Day. (I’m not making any of this up.) So, if you’re feeling generous, you can make the world better by presenting your grouch with a delightful almond cookie (or have him over for trout amandine). Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day, but also National Organ Donor, Ferris Wheel and Cream-Filled Chocolates Day. But, to be clear, when I am up on that Ferris wheel on Valentine’s Day, I’d better be presented with a box of cream-filled chocolates, and not a donated organ.

Feb. 15 is both Singles Awareness Day and No One Eats Alone Day, which I assumed were combined to cancel each other out, until I read their official websites. They explain that Singles Awareness Day champions the benefits of being single on the day after Valentine’s Day — a comfort to depressed singles the world over who spent Valentine’s Day watching everyone else donate organs to each other on Ferris wheels. However, No One Eats Alone Day, as it turns out, is about kids being nice to each other in the lunchroom, which I like and therefore will not mock. 

I assumed Cherry Pie Day was related to George Washington’s birthday, but it falls on Feb. 20, which is neither George Washington’s real nor fake birthday. He was born on Feb. 11, 1731, but the Julian calendar was used at that time. When Britain switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, his birthday moved 1 year and 11 days, to Feb, 22, 1732. I spent several hours in a deep dive into this historical calendar switch, which is fascinating. (But probably only to me, so I’ll spare you the details.) Also, the cherry tree story is a lie. 

Regardless, cherry pie will definitely be on my list of things to bake this month, because I love cherries, pies and George Washington. I never use canned cherries or cherry pie filling. I cannot abide the corn-syrupy gel goop. I will pit real, fresh cherries for this pie when they are in season (not in February) or buy them whole and fresh-frozen, then flavor them with something delightfully subtle, like cardamom, lemon zest and a dash of orange-flower water. 

Nonfood-related days I’m looking forward to this month include Feb. 11 — Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk Day — on which I’m going to be super positive, always look on the bright side and try not to serve anyone a glass of milk, just in case. I’m also super psyched for Feb. 28, which is National Public Sleeping Day, encouraging naps nationwide, as if I needed an excuse.

But my favorite day this month is right out of the gate, on Feb. 1, and it is a day I will most definitely be celebrating culinarily. This is the day that celebrates my favorite dessert to both make and eat — baked Alaska. 

Baked Alaska was created at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City, which opened in the early 1800s and is still open today. (And though it claims to be the oldest restaurant in New York, it has not been operating continuously, as there was a short break in service for about 70 years. Also, another Delmonico’s creation was stretching the truth.)  In addition to baked Alaska, this iconic restaurant originated several classic dishes, including eggs Benedict and the Delmonico steak, which was originally two hearts of boneless ribeye tied together with twine, creating a fattier, more tender version of the filet mignon. Today, however, the Delmonico steak is usually a New York strip.

The baked Alaska, initially named “Alaska-Florida” because of its contrasting temperatures, was first served in 1867 to celebrate our purchase of Alaska from Russia. It consists of a walnut sponge topped with banana ice cream, encased in meringue with an apricot compote on the side.  The entire concoction was then browned under a broiler, the meringue acting to insulate the ice cream and prevent it from melting.

Delmonico’s was a happening place, and this dessert was the epitome of Gilded Age dining, enjoyed by everyone who was anyone, including all the Rockefellers, Samuel Clemens and Charles Dickens. Today Delmonico’s serves the original version, which delighted me but horrified my youngest, as she finds bananas revolting. It is her only character defect. 

I have made this dessert in more variations than I can count. I have served it in every restaurant where I have worked, and included it in every class I ever taught. It can be large and presented to the whole table, or in cute individual portions. It can be drenched in rum and lit aflame tableside, or browned in the kitchen with a torch or under the broiler. I have used all sorts of cakes, brownies and cookies as a base for the rest of the ingredients. The key is to choose something stable that can structurally support the rest of the ensemble. The ice cream can be of any flavor, and I have often used sorbet or sherbet. Some of my favorite flavor combinations include a gingerbread or gingersnap base with eggnog; apple or orange ice cream; brownie base with peppermint or coffee ice cream; or lemon cookie — or even lemon bar — base with tart lemon sorbet. I’m sure you can come up with your own personal favorite. (An easy version includes a graham cracker base with chocolate ice cream, which takes on a s’mores effect when the marshmallow-esque meringue is torched. Magnifique!

The meringue that insulates the ice cream is the tricky part, although after a few tries you’ll find it easy peasy. Most recipes call for the Italian meringue style, which requires cooking sugar syrup to a precise temperature before whisking it into a meringue. I have learned over the years, however, that a Swiss-style meringue is easier, less finicky and faster. Swiss meringue consists of egg whites and sugar combined in a bowl over a bain-marie (simmering water bath), stirred until the sugar dissolves, then whisked into stiff peaks. This meringue is then piped or plopped and spread over the ice cream and cookie, completely concealing it all in a soft, fluffy snowball.

The final step is to brown the Alaska, which I usually do with a propane torch (a pastry chef’s best friend). It can also be popped quickly under a broiler. All of the steps, minus the torching, can be done in advance and the work-in-progress stored in the freezer until the time comes for you to impress your guests with the flame. But don’t wait for guests to make an Alaska. Make it for yourself. If this article is about anything (which I admit is sometimes questionable), it is about year-round celebrating.

Serves 6

This recipe is for the individual-style Alaska, which I prefer. You can, however, bring all these instructions up a notch and assemble it on a 6-to-8-inch cake or cookie base. All of the instructions still apply.

Ingredients

6 cookies (2 to 3 inches) or small slices of
   cake. (The flavor is up to you. Bake them
   yourself or buy ready-made.)

6 scoops of ice cream or sorbet, well frozen.
   (Again, the flavor is up to you.)

4 egg whites (or ½ cup)

¾ cup granulated sugar

Pinch of sea salt

Method

1. Place cookies or cake slices on a baking tray, well spaced. Top each with a generous scoop of ice cream. Try to give the ice cream a flat bottom, so that it will sit securely on the base. Place these into the freezer until very firm. (This step takes several hours; a day ahead is ideal.)

2. Combine the egg whites, sugar and salt in a heatproof mixing bowl, ideally the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Place over a pot of simmering water and stir, gently but continuously, until the mixture is warm and the sugar has dissolved, about 2 minutes. You will know the sugar is dissolved when you touch the mixture and can no longer feel the sugar crystals between your fingers. Immediately remove the egg mixture from the heat and whip it on high speed until it reaches stiff, shiny peaks. Spreading is easier if the meringue is stiff but still a little warm.

3. Pipe or spread the meringue around each ice-cream ball and base. There must be no holes whatsoever. If ice cream is not completely covered it will melt and leak during the browning stage. Best to work with one ice cream/base at a time, pulling it out of the freezer to cover with meringue, then popping it back in when complete. The meringue-covered ice cream can stay in the freezer like this for several hours or overnight.

4. Final preparation requires browning the meringue. If you have a torch, simply pass it across the meringue quickly and evenly until it is browned. (Be sure to do this away from any parchment paper or doilies that might be lying around — another tip brought to you by “learning the hard way.”) To brown in a broiler, preheat the oven, then pop in the entire tray directly from the freezer. (Again, be sure this tray is ovenproof.)

Once browned, the Alaskas must be served immediately. Transfer each one to a serving plate, decorated with sauce or garnish of your choice. You may also ignite your Alaska tableside by sprinkling with a high-proof alcohol and lighting with a match and dramatic flair. When you serve your Alaska, be prepared for a standing ovation. Or just stand and clap for yourself.

Gold and brass tones are returning to fine finishes

Tired of the standard chrome and stainless-steel finishes for your bathroom and kitchen fixtures? According to the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), shades of gold and brass are the hottest hues in today’s kitchens and baths.
If fixtures are the “jewelry” of the bathroom, then gold or brass, depending on your taste and style, might be just the ticket to add some pizzazz, patina and a unique twist to your interior décor. While gold may appeal to those with more formal, luxurious taste, brass is the choice for those who prefer a nautical, industrial or ethnic style.
Pasadena designer Cynthia Bennett, noting that “everything has been white and gray,” has two current projects reflecting the gold and brass trend. “We are doing a powder room with gold fixtures and a gold ceiling and lavish wallpaper that’s an addition for a traditional home built in the 1940s in Pasadena,” she says. “It’s a very opulent look.”
For her other project, a young South Pasadena couple’s Craftsman home, the clients decided to mix it up. “The kitchen is stainless steel, but they wanted brass faucets,” Bennett says, adding that hardware in old houses is often brass. “We’ve always used gold or brass lamps as well as mirrors as accent pieces, which can stand on their own in a room and don’t have to match anything.”

Go for the Gold
If your mind immediately goes to “bling-bling” Las Vegas or flashy Trump Tower when someone mentions gold, you might want to rewire your brain and take a fresh look at this design trend.
California Faucets is seeing “a modern-day gold rush” with an increasing number of orders trending in gold as well as brass. This SoCal manufacturer offers one of the largest varieties of premium gold and brass finishes on the market. Tones dubbed Lifetime Gold, French Gold and Lifetime Polished Gold add a touch of glamor; brass finishes like Satin Brass, Satin Bronze and Polished Brass are less about bling and more about subtle beauty. The artisan finishes, produced by hand at the company’s Huntington Beach factory, allow consumers to venture outside their chrome and nickel comfort zones and experiment with an alternative decorative color spectrum.
Another stand-out is the Venezia faucet collection by Fantini, the Italian design firm founded in 1947 by two brothers. Venezia faucets, designed by Milan-based designers Matteo Thun and Antonio Rodriguez, are architectural in form, with a hexagonal spout and elegant crystal handles embellished with black or white serigraphy. Fantini collaborates with artists and architects on its fine bathroom and kitchen collections crafted with high-quality materials in modern Italian style.
Gold is also turning up in chic kitchens. Consider appliances with gold trim, as shown in this stunning kitchen from Ultra Bathroom & Kitchen (above) in Arcadia. “Chrome is less expensive and popular and always nice, but a lot of manufacturers are expanding their lines to include rose gold and brushed bronze,” says Ultra’s Frank Rojas, adding that wine racks with brass from True Residential are “popular right now.”
You can choose between cobalt-blue or matte-white finishes with gold hardware — we love the pop of blue as an unexpected twist to a kitchen design. Combine gold fixtures with white marble counters or tiles or contrast them against black materials for a sophisticated upgrade. Set them against pale wood for a Scandinavian feel. Just don’t overdo it or your bling could crash like the 1929 stock market.

Natural Brass
Known for its ability to weather the elements, brass was used in Victorian times for streetlamps and subway entrances as well as in the shipping industry. In recent decades, it was almost impossible to source unfinished brass, which develops a natural patina with time. (Not to your taste? Then keep it polished to a brassy shine.) Muted, satin or brushed brass can add warmth to a kitchen or bath design. Mix it with handmade tiles for a French-country or Mexican-inspired look.
Kallista is a great source for unfinished brass fixtures. The Unlacquered Brass finish is available on its Quincy and One kitchen faucet line, as well as its Bellis bathroom products. Inspired by 1920s plumbing, the Bellis collection freshens traditional spaces, offering the familiarity and comfort of traditional design with a twist.

Decorative accents
Brass or gold finishes in lighting and mirrors throughout the home can add decorative pop to an otherwise “metal-free” room. Design within Reach has a variety of smart-looking desk and freestanding lamps — from Flos’ geometric Captain Flint floor lamp (at right) by London-based designer Michael Anastassiades (whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection), to the nautically influenced, vintage-style Oval Bulkhead Light designed by Davey Lighting, a company that traces its origins to the shipyards of 19th-century London. Davey & Co. lights graced the decks of many a famous ocean liner, including the Titanic, and these handcrafted gems are still made in England using century-old techniques.
For a truly unique accent, add an antique gold or brass piece, like the 18th-century Ottoman giltwood turban stand from First Dibs, a distinctive object that transcends centuries of design trends.

A peripatetic art pro reveals some of her favorite hotels that boast their own notable art collections.

I often tell people that I was an art major who turned into a writer. One of my first college jobs was as a studio assistant to contemporary artists (some, now famous) in Los Angeles.

Much later, as a travel writer over the past few decades, I collected and bought and sold art and antiques discovered on my sojourns. (Midcentury furniture salesman’s samples discovered in Brazil or a huge mestizo religious painting brought back from a trip to Buenos Aires, anyone?) More recently, I’ve been working as a fine art and antiques broker, assisting clients around the globe who want to sell their treasures via international auction houses from London and Hong Kong to L.A. and New York. As a result, I have always favored cultural travel, including destinations close to home that engage the artistic senses and provoke both contemplation and conversation.

Here are a few hotels that might be of interest to those of a similar mind.

THE POSH

It may be a European tradition: fill a hotel with fine art from guests who are artists, often in residence, or display important pieces from a savvy (and rich) owner’s private collection. At Amsterdam’s charming Hotel Pulitzer, set in 25 row houses (pulitzeramsterdam.com), the terrific rotating art on display is sourced from the Pulitzer family art collection (yes, the Pulitzer Prize dynasty). Perhaps the first time I became aware of incredible art in public places was in the 1980s, first on a summer holiday to the south of France, then during a New York snowstorm and on a later trip to Holland, where I discovered the Pulitzer collection.

At La Colombe d’Or (colombedor.com) in St. Paul de Vence in the south of France, I marveled at not only the cuisine and setting, but also the art and stories behind the works hanging on the walls of this famous restaurant and pensione, where Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Braque and others would dine and leave works that still grace the walls. Ah, if those walls could talk!

Here in sunny Southern California, you can power dine at The Belvedere in the tony Peninsula Beverly Hills (beverlyhills.peninsula.com) amidst blue-chip artworks. The multimillion-dollar works include a stunning Sean Scully and a bright, at times controversial, Robert Indiana painting, which apparently some guests have objected to (the words “DIE” and “Paris” appear in the work — Indiana, who was living in Paris in the mid-’60s, created it in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy). There are no titles or labels on any of the pieces, so guests who don’t know their Josef Albers Homage to the Square from Yayoi Kusama’s trademark polka dots may just have a pure art experience, devoid of name-dropping.

A lovely black-and-gold calligraphic nine-panel work, Linescape I and Linescape II (2015), was commissioned specifically for the room from Parisian artist Fabienne Verdier — despite the artist’s initial reservations. At first, she rebuked the commission, saying she “doesn’t do hotel art” — until she learned of the caliber of artworks her piece would hang alongside. Bold poppies by Donald Sultan from 2014 hang in one of two private dining rooms. Those celebrating an anniversary might request a table within view of a large figurative work by Alex Katz: Anniversary (2003).

THE GRITTY

Julian Schnabels and Ruth Asawas of the future may be discovered at the Mayfair Hotel (mayfairla.com), a 1926 downtown L.A. venue with a storied history. The 15-story hotel was the site of the first afterparty for the Academy Awards in 1929, and L.A. noir writer Raymond Chandler set his 1939 short story, “I’ll Be Waiting,” at the hotel where he and his mistress resided.

But something new and radical is afoot that may surprise you. The hotel, undergoing a $40 million restoration, is featuring art by resident curator and artist Kelly Graval (a.k.a. RISK), who went from being a graffiti street artist and graduate of the USC Roski School of Art and Design to museum shows. RISK is bringing outdoor art indoors and has reached out to other graffiti artists — Evidence and Jason Revok — whose work will be part of the hotel’s collection. “Graffiti writers have always managed to leave their mark, literally, on the urban landscape in Los Angeles,” Kelly says in a statement. “The pieces I’ve selected for this project symbolize each artist’s cultural imprint on our society.”

Rooms and hallways are decorated in black, white and gray color schemes, and there are two versions of the former, including one with a blow-up mural backdrop of a 1926 map of L.A. that features all sorts of fun details from yesteryear. Public rooms will include a grand lobby, the Speakeasy restaurant, a rooftop pool and even a podcast studio.

Ironically, I did see some graffiti in the ’hood just west of downtown, officially called Central City West. Future collectors, take note: you never know who’s expressing themselves right before your very eyes — inside or out. I’m excited to return and see how the art plays out throughout the historic Mayfair. See you there for a martini in the Speakeasy and some art talk? Be forewarned: you’ve gotta know the passcode.

THE EARTHY

The Inn at the Presidio (innatthepresidio.com) is my favorite hotel in San Francisco for several reasons. The moment you enter the grounds — through one of the national park’s gated entrances — the lovely natural setting, flush with hiking trails, museums, earth art and restaurants, provides a welcome oasis in the bustling city, with plenty of its own temptations.

The inn’s 22 spacious rooms and suites are located in Pershing Hall, the historic three-story building that once served as the bachelor officers’ barracks in the repurposed military complex. They include lovely high-ceilinged bathrooms, flick-on fireplaces and comfy beds. The helpful staff and art curated by Julie Coyle add to the charming ambience.

But it’s what’s outside — the phenomenal nature works by internationally acclaimed sculptor Andy Goldsworthy — that really sets this inn apart from its competitors. Right out the inn’s back door is the Ecology Trail, a scenic, easy hike that leads to Inspiration Point and one of Goldsworthy’s noteworthy installations, Spire, a soaring, 90-foot-high cathedral-like tower built of recycled eucalyptus trees; I consider it California’s version of Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s spectacular church in Barcelona. Goldsworthy’s other earthworks span the globe, but there are four of them tucked in the 1,480 acres that constitute the Presidio of San Francisco. Yup, you heard me right. In addition to Spire, there’s Wood Line, Tree Fall and Earth Wall.

In addition to the outdoor art amidst great hiking trails, there are plenty of other attractions and diversions within The Presidio, including the Disney Museum, a bowling alley and even a YMCA. Ocean cliffs, lakes and miles of trails add to the natural ambience, not to mention all the action that lies just outside the former military base gates in the big city.

I can’t wait to return to this gem of a destination and see the Goldsworthy works I missed on my first visit, as well as the ones I viewed a couple of years ago. Those, like nature and my perceptions of art, will have changed. The disintegration reminds one not only of the beauty of Mother Earth, but the transitory nature of life.