Friday, January 30, 2009

The Castle Crier: Valentine classes are here!

For everyone who loves to visit Castle in the Air's upstairs studio for classes with our amazing crafting and art teachers, the wait is over! If you're on our mailing list, you can expect your copy of the spring class flier within a few days. And if you can't wait that long (and if you've signed up on our email list), check your inbox for your copy of The Castle Crier, the Castle in the Air's brand new email newsletter!

The first issue of The Castle Crier includes information on five special Valentine's Day-themed classes that begin next week. There are plenty of seats still available for the classes, in which you can learn these fun and festive crafts (pictured left to right):

* A deliciously lovely needlefelted strawberry cake box (taught by Caron Dunn)
* A papier-mache heart box with delicate paper cut decoration (taught by Ulla Milbrath)
* A "lover's eye" brooch to remind you of your sweetheart (taught by Ulla Milbrath)
* A Valentine optique to celebrate romantic love (taught by John McRae)
* An antique-inspired velvet heart box (taught by John McRae)

Because not everyone who wants to join in the fun can make it to our store classes, every issue of The Castle Crier also features a special craft that you can make at home. This issue's project is by our needlefelting queen Caron Dunn, who will teach you how to make the precious little Valentine's heart charms pictured at the top of this post. You can attach them to a charm chain, a love letter, or anything that could use a little more love. Visit The Castle Crier for all the details!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Aside from the wonderful shops and restaurants we have for neighbors on Fourth Street, we're blessed to have regular celebrations of local culture right here on our doorstep. One such party is coming up this Saturday, as Fourth Street rings in the Chinese New Year. The full day of excitement and fun is sponsored by Teance, the elegant Chinese tea room located across the street from us, and welcomes prosperity, health, and good luck all around. The highlight will be a colorful lion dance, which is meant to scare away ill fortune, by Kei Lun Martial Arts. Even the Pasta Shop is getting in on the festivities by serving up a full menu of Chinese New Year foods for lunch, and selling freshly made Jiao Zi (Dumplings) all day.

Chinese New Year Schedule of Events
1:15 pm: Children's Story Telling & Lucky Candy Giveaway
2 pm: Traditional Lion Dance featuring Kei Lun Martial Arts
3 pm: Martial Arts demonstration by Golden Lion Kung Fu
4 pm: Classical Chinese Music from the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery
4:30 - 6 pm: Fortune-telling for the Year of the Ox upstairs in Teance's tea room

For more information on the day's events, visit the Fourth Street Shops website. We hope to see you there!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Spaetzle Treat

Whoever reads this blog post today can visualize me rushing around preparing for my upcoming trip to Germany, where I'll be buying a literal boatload of new marvels and wonders for Castle in the Air. Every time I visit Germany, I always partake of one of my favorite dishes -- spaetzle! Here's a truly authentic version that I sometimes make with my spaetzle maker when a bunch of friends spontaneously drop by. It replicates a memorable meal I had in my favorite smoky German pub.

Spaetzle - A Taste of Germany
3 eggs
3 cups of flour
1 cup of milk
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg

Beat eggs until foamy and then combine with milk. Mix together flour and salt. Add to eggs and milk gradually. The dough will be very stiff and elastic.

Fill square basket of the spaetzle maker with dough and place over a pot of boiling water or cooking soup. Slide the basket back and forth over the pot and dumplings will drop into the liquid. When done, they will rise to the surface (in about 2 or 3 minutes).

Use a large slotted spoon to remove the dumplings from the liquid. Repeat until all the dough is used. Spaetzle is quite versatile and
can be used in place of noodles, rice, or potatoes.

My favorite preparation is spaetzle in cheese. When the dumplings are done cooking in the broth, toss the whole lot into a frying pan with a quarter stick of butter and approximately one pound of grated sharp cheddar cheese. Fry the spaetzle in the cheese until there are plenty of crispy bits. Serve in a large bowl and top with lots of pepper. Add wine to the table and you have a party.

Mmm -- comfort food!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tea Time!

We can all remember those magical moments when, as kids, we got to do the things that were usually only for grown-ups. This weekend, my mom is taking my daughters and some of their friends for one such special outing -- a traditional tea party at the Crown & Crumpet Tea Salon in San Francisco.

The Crown & Crumpet is owned by my friends Amy and Christopher Dean, real tea aficionados who bring style, wit, and charm to everything they do. They've retained all the traditions of English tea parties, but serve up each cup in a room decorated in a bright, colorful, modern style. The girls' party will have a fairy theme, with tea, scones, crumpets, fairy cakes, crafts, and more, including the chance to learn some of the etiquette and traditions surrounding tea time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"Medieval Times"

My family loves few things more than an inspired theme party, so when my older daughter -- who turns seven this week -- asked to have a "medieval times" birthday celebration, I was on a mission.

We sent out invitations she drew and lettered in the style of illuminated manuscript pages and, before the guests arrived, hung streamers from the ceiling and arrayed ourselves in finery of the Middle Ages. Duncan and I wore robes and adornments we found at a local Shakespeare festival costume sale, and the girls put on favorite party dresses. Our younger daughter added to her look with a felted dragon headdress from a few Halloweens ago. We were so thrilled as we welcomed the guests to see that many other people had decided to dress the part too. There was even another baby dragon for ours to play with!

For refreshments, we provided simple foods such as figs, pears, kumquats, cheese, and bread, with wine and tea for the grownups. One friend of ours prov
ided the party with minstrel-style guitar playing, and there was a dancing revue by the girls (and at least one adult).

The pièce de résistance, however
, was the birthday cake. Set on a board decorated to look like a medieval meadow, complete with castle in the background, the cake itself was made in the shape of a running unicorn. It was the creation of a dear Castle in the Air customer, my friend Jeff Gosche. As enchanting as the unicorn was to adults and children alike, once it was time for cake, the birthday girl wasted no time in carving up the fabulous creature for us all to enjoy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Painting with Dad

For Christmas, I gave my dad a gift that he and I could enjoy for years to come -- my personal set of watercolors, some brushes, and a promise to teach him how to use them. I'd given him some leather-bound journals with Arches paper a while back, and once he had the paint set and some Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes he had all he needed to get started. We're beginning with some color gradients and other technique exercises.

It's really been a treat to revisit an old skill and take it from the beginning again. Teaching my dad watercolor gives me a chance to see the art not only through the eyes of the teacher, but also through the eyes of the new artist. Surprisingly, it's the latter perspective that helps me to see new possibilities in painting. In learning any kind of art, one of the challenges is retaining openness and vulnerability, remaining humble before our own aptitude and the nature of the medium we're working with. All of this is to say that even in the short time I've been painting with my dad, I see that somewhere over the past 25 years my skill surpassed that necessary humility. So I'm learning too, and as he and I bond over this holiday gift it's been a bit of a present to myself as well.

Yesterday we took the Castle in the Air spring class mailer to press, and if you're on the mailing list you can expect it in your mailbox within a few weeks. I'll be co-teaching some painting classes, and of course we'll have dozens of other courses in a variety of arts, all taught by the best instructors. I hope to see you in the studio!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wax Elegant

Before the advent of plastic, wax was sometimes used as a medium for the heads on children's dolls. It couldn't stand up to rough play, but then again neither could porcelain. Wax was also popular as a material to make Nativity creche characters, and full-sized wax figures were used as shop mannequins well into the 20th century. What was most lovely about all of them was how pigments, hair, and glass eyes could be used to really bring them to life. Although they've fallen out of favor commercially, wax figures are still beloved by artists as focal points for altars and other projects.

We've got some lovely wax doll's heads and Christ child sets at Castle in the Air. I commissioned them to be made from antique molds when I was in Germany last winter -- they're a Castle in the Air exclusive. John McRae took the decorating chalks we sell at the store and put a little color in their cheeks, painted their lips and eyes, and otherwise rejuvenated these reminders of a distant time. People have been excited to see the cherubic heads here, so we're planning to expand our selection of embellishments soon.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Masks of Mitchell Walker

If you've ever attended the Dickens Fair, local Renaissance festivals, or other historical recreation events, you may have seen the work of mask-maker Mitchell Walker. His designs of birds, beasties, goblins, and Green Men are as unmistakable as they are breathtaking.

All of Mitchell's masks are one-of-a-kind, made from pieces of leather that he stretches, dyes, tools, and stains by hand. The attention to detail and individual touches give each mask a personality of its own. You don't really meet the mask until you put it on--then once you're acquainted the two of you can have some fun!

Mitchell came by Castle in the Air this morning to drop off a motley menagerie of masks. Try one on and transform yourself next time you visit us!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"What if the mightiest word is love..."

These words were asked today by the inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander in her poem "Praise Song for the Day."

It does feel as though Valentine's Day has come early for me this year. But instead of a person, my beloved is our great country and its wonderful believers in hope.

It has been an incredible experience today watching strangers hugging in the streets, celebrating the diversity and strength of "us." This experience has been echoed in reading the wonderful comments left by fellow participants in One World-One Heart.

All of this gives one a great deal of faith in the power of lovers and dreamers in action.

Friday, January 16, 2009

One World - One Heart

Before I started this blog, I was convinced that it was the perfectly wrong thing to do. Here I was, running a bricks-and-mortar store where I get to have face-to-face conversations with all of the wonderful artists who visit Castle in the Air. What sort of online experience could hope to match that?

While there isn't anything that can trul
y compete with real world friendships, it didn't take long for me to see that the store's blog was putting me in touch with all sorts of people whom I would never get to meet otherwise. Alongside our Online Shoppe, the blog lets people from around the world get a taste of what we do at Castle in the Air, and we can get to know each other through email or through visiting each other's blogs.

Someone who understands this power of the Internet to bring artists together is Lisa "Oceandreamer" Swifka. For three years now, Lisa has organized One World-One Heart, an annual festival that takes place across any number of blogs. Participants simply list an item they'd like to give to a lucky reader, then go and enter similar drawings for prizes at other participants' blogs.

For our entry, we're giving away a signed and numbered copy of Castle in the Air, the first book from my publishing company, Dromedary Press. The story in the book was a surprise gift from my husband on our first wedding anniversary (the paper anniversary). It tells the tale of a queen who has countless suitors, but pledges to give her heart only to the one who can build her "a castle in the air." While Duncan was secretly writing the story, I was furtively painting a picture for him, a picture of a queen waiting to meet the one who would sweep her off her feet.

When we exchanged gifts and saw h
ow well they went together, Duncan and I decided to celebrate by combining the story and the painting into the most romantic little book. We engaged letterpress printer Richard Seibert and bookbinder Victoria Heifner to create it in limited hardcover and pamphlet editions. The forty-page book includes the full-color image of the queen and five line illustrations of the marvelous castles proposed to her.

Do you want your very own copy? We sell them at Castle in the Air as well as through our Online Shoppe, of course, but we're giving away one copy of the Castle in the Air
hardcover to a lucky reader -- it could be you!

All you have to do to enter the drawing is to leave a (non-anonymous) comment on this blog post. You don't have to be a fellow participant in One World-One Heart, you don't even need to have your own blog -- the festival is just about getting people to say hello and get to know each other in this brave new online world. We'll draw a winner's name at random on Thursday, February 12 and announce it here!

To learn more about One World-One Heart and see who else is participating, please visit Lisa's blog.

Birds in Berkeley

My dear friend Aimée Baldwin has been with Castle in the Air since the beginning, supplying us with outstanding paper flora and fauna and teaching amazing papercrafting classes. One of the main reasons I'm so involved in the crepe paper business is to supply Aimée with material for her projects. Her brilliant phoenix watches over the store, and her crepe paper flowers adorn the cabinets in our upstairs classroom studio.

Local fans of
Aimée's "vegan taxidermy" are in for a treat tonight and in the coming weeks, as she's got a gallery show in Berkeley with an opening night party this evening. We hope you can make it!

Aimée Baldwin -- Vegan Taxidermy
Opening Reception
Friday, January 16, 2009
6 - 9 p.m.

Do Hands Arts Gallery
2970 Adeline Street (at Ashby, next to Lacis and near Ashby BART)

After tonight, the gallery will be open Thursdays, Fridays, and Sat
urdays from noon to 4 p.m.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

This week we received a very special selection of Tarot cards from Magic Realist Press. Made in Prague, the decks follow the standard composition of Trumps and Suits (Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins), but the illustrations are are adaptations of none other than those of my beloved J.J. Grandville!

Back in November, I mentioned that the French caricaturist Grandville served as a catalyst when I traded my life a
s a young scientist for that of an artist and shopkeeper. Artists Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov are obviously big fans of Grandville, too. They worked with an 1847 edition of his book, The Public and Private Life of Animals, to create their "Fantastic Menagerie" Tarot deck, and the results are magnifique!

For Grandville historians, the deck is also available as part of a kit that includes a highly informative and fun book by Sophie Nussle. The Tarot represents a journey and so, after giving historical background on the cards and Grandville, Nussle takes us on not one journey but two. Each card is described as to its place in the greater story of the Tarot, and then Nussle writes a short "magic realist" story involving Grandville or the characters pictured on the card. The effect is pure immersive delight!

Mahony and Ukolov have also created a 40-card deck using Grandville's floral illustrations. It's between printings now, but rest assured we will have it at Castle in the Air when it is available again!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Little Polka Dot...! That's exactly what I found on Sandra Evertson's blog last month, and her photographs took me right back to being a kid myself, when I spent hours porcelain painting. I told Sandra about it, and before I knew it she had mailed me two of the little chubbies!

It was so special to see some of my "pocket friends" again. Holding them I am transported back to the days of my after-school doll making classes when I was eight years old. Digging around at my mom's house, I was able to find a tiny tea set from that era. Bradshaw Hedgehog was kind enough to help me set up a little display of them all so you could take a peek for yourself.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Trade Card Trade

Beginning in the late 18th century, merchants in Europe and America advertised their shops and wares on small cards they would hand to customers. With the rise of lithography printing in the Victorian age, producing colorful trade cards became very inexpensive, and collecting these cards grew into a popular hobby. Collectors would swap their favorites among friends or paste them into their scrapbooks.

Collecting trade cards is hobby that was wildly popular in the Victorian era, but the phenomenon didn't last very far into the 20th century, as retailers took advantage of newer forms of advertising such as catalogs and magazine advertising.

We've got our own secret stash of vintage trade cards at Castle in the Air, and this month we've begun reissuing them for our customers as part of our postcard selection. And as a special treat for our regular visitors, we are giving away our own series of free trade cards -- one for each month -- with a calendar of that month printed on it. The first one is pictured at the top of this post. Come by and collect them all!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fanciful and Fresh for 2009

We got a request from a faraway friend for some photos of Castle in the Air now that inventory's done. Happy to oblige!

To me, inv
entory is a natural and necessary extension of the holiday season. Without resting from the buildup to Christmas and New Year's Eve, every January we dive right into the transformation of Castle in the Air from a Yuletide fairytale back into an everyday (albeit marvelous) shop. In fact, for the past three days the store has looked just like a living room on Christmas afternoon, with exploded paper and boxes everywhere and fantastic treasures scattered underfoot, just waiting for someone to find them a home. We welcome the new year by restoring our house--the shop--to order. It was after midnight last night when we put the final touches on the new displays, and this morning we opened our doors to the world once more.

The end of inventory always leaves me feeling a sense of spaciousness and refreshing calm. Castle in the Air is now something speci
al and new not because of visions of razzle-dazzle, but because after weeks of the blinding glitz of Christmas we can finally regain sight of the quieter, simpler objects in the store. The shelves are cleaned and restocked with new wonders. Sometimes these are old favorites, but there are always a few fantastic products that somehow slipped between the cracks during the course of the year. Now is the time for them to all get a new lease on life. Our front window now features a delightfully whimsical seller of baskets and birds. Simple wickerworks and sweet warblers are just the right speed for the beginning of the year!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Whatta Zoo!

Things are crackin' late into the night at Castle in the Air as the staff and I put the finishing touches on our three-day New Year's inventory and transformation of the store. In the past few days we've taken down hundreds of glass ornaments from the tree and packed them carefully away, counted every item in the store, and made new displays in the front window and throughout the shop.

With nine people, one beagle, and countless gnomes trying to stay on top of the piles of boxes, packing tissue, and products, it's been quite a zoo down here. But it's not the only amazing zoo I've seen this week. On Sunday, my friend Laurey and I and our families were invited to visit the miniature menagerie built by our friends Joe and Ronna in Benicia, a bayside town about a half-hour drive from Berkeley. Ronna's mother first put together her collection of creatures as a Christmas celebration in the 1930s. Ronna and her sisters have been sharing the tradition since then, each taking a turn putting the zoo together during the Christmas season.

New animals are added every year, and there's so much joy in seeing how the recent acquisitions blend with the antique animals.
What a zoo it is!

I took this picture of the zoo using a special 3D iPhone application that Joe shared with us.

If you look at the vertical line in the center of the above photo and then focus your eyes beyond the surface of your monitor screen, you might be able to see the two halves of the picture come together and reveal the scene in all its three-dimensional glory!

After enjoying our trip to the zoo, we adjourned to the kitchen for another Christmas tradition -- feasting our eyes on Laurey's amazing gingerbread cookies.

It wasn't long before our appetites got the better of us. Ronna's and zoo will return next year (albeit at her sister's house), but this year's batch of Laurey's wonderful cookies live on only in our imaginations!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Epiphany Delights

After all the glitz and sparkle of Christmas and New Year's Eve fades, I have one more night of celebration with my family and a few close friends every year on the night of January 5. Epiphany is a quiet holiday which marks the coming of the Wise Men to see the Christ child and is also the end of the Christmas season.

On this night, my family takes the ornaments off the tree and observes a sweet and simple ritual I'd like to share with you -- the baking and the eating of a King Cake. Into the cake is baked a small porcelain trinket, or
feve. Whoever finds the feve in her or his slice gets to wear a paper crown and be queen or king for a day! Although it's traditional for the feve to be shaped like a bean or the baby Jesus, Castle in the Air has a collection of hundreds that I sourced in France that I can choose from each year. We have feves featuring characters from Jules Verne novels, psychedelic mushrooms, postcards of Paris, Carnivale maskes (King Cakes are also popular at Mardi Gras), fairies, and so forth.

No matter who is crowned, we all enjoy a peaceful night of singing Christmas carols, looking at the bare tree, and drinking cider by the fire.

For my cake, I like to use a wonderful recipe for almond torte from the book Chez Panisse Desserts (quite my favorite desserts book!), by Lindsey Shere, with a pastry crust from Martha Stewart. I have combined the two recipes to make a cake that reminds me of the rich flaky cakes one can buy in Paris during the month of January.

Pastry Crust
(Makes 1 double-crust or 2 single-crust 9- to 10-inch pies)

2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
¼ to ½ cup ice water

In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.

With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream through feed tube. Pulse until dough holds together without being wet or sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. To test, squeeze a small amount together: If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Divide dough into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill at least 1 hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to 1 month.

Almond Torte

1¼ cups sugar
⅞ cup (about 8 oz.) soft almond paste
1¼ cups softened unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
6 eggs
1 cup flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

Beat the sugar with the almond paste until the almond paste is in fine pieces. Or, better, pulverize it in a food processor. Beat in the butter and the vanilla, then cream the mixture until it is light and fluffy. Beat in the whole eggs, one at a time — the eggs should be at room temperature — beating well after each addition so the eggs are thoroughly mixed in. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt, and beat in just until thoroughly blended.

To make as a simple torte: Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan and turn the batter into it, smoothing the top evenly. Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 1 to 1¼ hours or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the center feels springy when you push it gently.

To make as a King Cake: Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Roll out one of the pastry disks until it is large enough to line the pan, covering the bottom and the sides. Turn the batter into the pastry-lined pan, and smooth the top evenly. Hide the feve in the batter. Roll out the second pastry disk and use it to cover the top of the cake. Pinch along the edge where the two crusts meet to make an attractive, sealed join. With a sharp knife, cut a star of Bethlehem design into the top crust. Make the cuts large and open so that the cake has space to rise and vent. Bake for 10 minutes in a preheated 400 degree oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake about an hour until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. The crust should be a buttery golden yellow and the cake soft. Cool and wrap in a paper crown. Serve with whip cream.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Little Help from Our Friends

Every January, just after the New Year's confetti is swept up and the party hats are put away, we roust the gnomes for help with the first big job of the new year. Because it's every January that Castle in the Air closes for three days to sort and stack and count absolutely everything in the store.

You might not think that fairy creatures would be into helping modern-day retailers with inventory, but the gnomes have a natural knack for this sort of work. The little workers love gathering knowledge -- in fact, they are thought to have been named by the 16th-century alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus, who derived the word "gnome" from the Greek word for "intelligence." And besides, they're small enough to get into all the corners of the store and count all the wonderful things we'll be bringing out in the new year.

So, Monday, January 5 through Wednesday, January 7, Castle in the Air will be closed for inventory. Come by on Thursday to see the new displays!