Category Archives: Unicorn Kitchen

Unicorn Kisses, Or Adventures In Cookie Baking

To celebrate that the final piece of the Unicorn Kitchen was put into place on Friday morning — only 14 months after the actual work on the project started — we decided to make something special. Something special that could also serve to kick-off a new series that we’re very excited about here at stately IPB Living manor: Cookie of the Month! We’re going to not take the beautiful kitchen for granted and not get stuck in a peanut butter cookie rut by trying out a new cookie recipe every month. Kicking off this project is August’s cookie, Baci di Dama, or Chocolate-Filled Hazelnut Cookies.

These little sandwich cookies had everything a special baking event requires. Fancy ingredients? Check!

New techniques? Check!

Potentially disastrously annoying fussy steps? Check!

FAN-tastic! We couldn’t wait to try them!

Schnookie kicked things of by toasting the hazelnuts. We had directions that said to toast them for 12-14 minutes or until lightly toasted. What exactly constituted “lightly toasted” was a little unclear. Were the nuts going to be slurring their speech? Perhaps they’d knock over a priceless Ming vase when stumbling through the living room. Or maybe they’d make an awkward pass at a co-worker they’d regret in the morning. It was tough to tell, since when we looked in on the oven, they were all just sitting around. Finally when they got fairly aromatic we decided they were done. Schnookie tucked them in between some paper towels and closed them in a sealable plastic baggie to steam. Meanwhile, I decided to get a head start on the rest of the recipe.

While the nuts were cooling I mixed 1 cup of flour, 1/8 of a tsp of salt, and 1/4 tsp of lemon zest in a bowl. Then I read the recipe. Heh. Starting over, I mixed the softened butter, the salt, and the zest, and then filled a cup measure with cake flour. I then saw my hand lifting the measuring cup and moving it towards the bowl. I apparently could not handle the fact that the flour didn’t get mixed in with the salt. Cookie of the Month is a necessary thing for me — I’m obviously brainwashed by Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies! I’m a disaster! Fortunately, I stopped myself and things could proceed.

The nuts were cool at this point, so we each took half of them and placed them in a kitchen towel. I had been assuming that this step would take forever and would involve lots of hazelnuts being thrown violently across the room out of frustration. Turns out, once they’ve been toasted and steamed, hazelnuts are remarkably eager to molt. There were a staggered few that were a tad ornery, but skinning the hazelnuts was considerably easier than it sounds. So into the food processor they went! Once again, the directions were a tad vague. Very nervous about over-working the ingredients, Schnookie veered on the side of caution with the food processor. We were both convinced the mixture would turn to the dreaded paste in the blink of a an eye. So as soon as it looked powdery, we added the mixture to the butter, salt, and zest. (That’s butter, salt, and zest. Pookie.)

The directions said to mix with a wooden spoon or spatula. I went for the old school wooden spoon and waved it around a bit ineffectually. Schnookie, Miss CIA Baking Boot Camp Graduate, stepped in with the spatula and two seconds later the dough was perfectly combined. I tried to console myself with the knowledge that Schnookie hates the process of actually baking cookies, and thus couldn’t banish me completely from the kitchen. We added the flour and it was time to load up the trays. The directions said to make dough balls that were 1/2 tsp big, aka “the size of a marble”. A few moments later it was established someone (it rhymes with “Blnookie”) seems to think marbles are huge. My tray was lined with delicate marble-sized balls, while hers was groaning under the weight of, well, slightly larger-marble-sized balls. There was much bickering over whose would be better.

This bickering was most likely born out of the anticipation that filling the trays with miniature cookies would take forever. Once again, though, we discovered the teaspoons clattering against the empty mixing bowl considerably earlier than we expected. It was time for Miss Never Been To The CIA Except For That Failed Fruit And Vegetable Carving Class to step in to do the baking. The directions said 12-14 minutes or until lightly golden. How eerily familiar. It turned out it was almost as hard to judge when the cookies were done as it was the nuts. Still, after about 10 or 11 minutes, the cookies looked to be lightly brown on the bottoms. They weren’t, however, the adorably puffy cookies in the picture that accompanied the recipe on Epicurious. Rats.

We decided it was either that the nuts weren’t mixed enough or the humidity of New Jersey in August was too much for the dough. Yeah, we’ll go with the latter. After the cookies had thoroughly cooled, it was time for the last step we were both secretly fearing. Filling them with melted chocolate. Schnookie had a recipe ages ago for chocolate-espresso sandwich cookies, filled with ganache. Possibly one of Earth’s tastiest cookies, they were also the single most annoying kitchen experience ever. Filling sandwich cookies sucks, no ifs, ands or buts about it. But this was a celebratory event, so filled cookies it was! I took control of the piping bag, and Schnookie signed up for sandwiching duty. Between the two of us, it took… you guessed it, considerably less time than we were expecting!

It’s a new kitchen miracle! Everything about making these cookies was a blast! But how do they taste, you ask. Delicious! Crisp, crunchy, nutty and sweet, these little cookies pack a huge punch. They taste a little like the most delicious Pepperidge Farm Brussels cookie you’ll ever have.

The recipe suggested serving them with coffee, so out came the coffee grinder, the French press, and the Small World House Blend beans. As delicious as the cookies are on their own, with coffee? They’re phenomenal. Even in their lumpy, misshapen, non-puffy state, these cookies had a perfect ratio of fancy-looking to easy-prep. In short, they were a delightfully different and refreshing way to celebrate the completed kitchen.

Recipe:

3/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted, any loose skins rubbed off in a kitchen towel, and cooled
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, well softened
1/4 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup cake flour (not self-rising)
3 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened; preferably 70% cacao), chopped

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Grind nuts with confectioners sugar in a food processor until powdery (be careful not to process to a paste).

Beat together butter, zest, salt, and nut mixture in a large bowl with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until creamy, then add flour, stirring until just incorporated (do not overwork).

Roll level 1/2 teaspoons of dough into tiny balls (the size of marbles) and arrange 1 inch apart on baking sheets. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until very pale golden, 12 to 14 minutes, then slide parchment with cookies onto a rack to cool completely.

Melt chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Spoon melted chocolate into a small plastic bag and seal bag, forcing out excess air. Snip off 1 bottom corner of bag with scissors to form a small hole.

Pipe a small mound (about 1/8 teaspoon) of melted chocolate onto flat sides of cookies, then top with matching cookies, pressing flat sides together to help adhere.

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Filed under Baked Goods, Celebratory!, Cookie Of The Month, Cookie, Cookie, Cookie Starts With C, Pictures Worth A Thousand Words, Unicorn Kitchen

Unicorn As Gallery

Long before we even started the actual plans for the Unicorn Kitchen, before we’d even closed on Maple Hoo, we started collecting artwork for the kitchen walls. Our seminal inspiration kitchen is our Aunt Cindy’s in Manhattan Beach, where she has two tiny canvases on her wide windowsill. One is of an intricate, elegant blossoming branch and the other is a painterly representation of a pear. Ever since we first saw those two canvases (before we moved back east), we’ve wanted to have something like that in our own kitchen. And, as we tend to, once we start to think about having one painting in our kitchen, we start thinking about having all kinds of art pieces in the kitchen. So here’s a closer look at the cohesive, visionary elements hanging on the Unicorn Kitchen’s walls.

First and perhaps most cherished is the set of apples our friend Paul painted for us:

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For our last kitchen remodel, we commissioned a pear painting from him, in honor of our aunt’s pear canvas, and he surprised us with a series of three. We knew Paul is a fantastic artist, but these paintings just took our breath away:

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Here’s a closer look at one of them:

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These paintings make me so incredibly happy — I just love how the colors and textures look, how warm and homey they are while still having a stylish modernity. But when we moved into Maple Hoo there was nowhere to put them in the kitchen, and we ended up falling in love when them where we hung them in the dining room. Thus the commission of the apples for the new space.

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The two sets are clearly complimentary, but Paul decided to have fun with more dramatic lighting and contrast in the apple set, a choice that turned out wonderfully. I adore how they have an almost Northern Renaissance feel with the stark light. I think he outdid himself with these six canvases, and aside from having such beautiful paintings in our favorite rooms, they’re made that much more special that they were made for us by a friend.

Our next most special, beloved piece that hangs in the kitchen is a souvenir from our travels (doesn’t that make us sound super-sophisticated?). While we were in the process of closing on Maple Hoo, we took a vacation to London, the first time Boomer had been out of the country. We went there without much of a plan of what we wanted to see or do, so upon arrival we flipped through a few guidebooks and read about the Chelsea Physic Garden. Tucked away behind high walls in Chelsea, open only a few days of the week, this was, per everything we read, a hidden gem that draws few tourists but offers one of the most magical experiences a person can find in London. It just so happened that it was open that day, so off we went in search of it. The garden was, as advertised, not easy to find, but once we did, we weren’t sorry. It was like an enchanted spot — we weren’t garden people then, and we didn’t really care about plants, but it didn’t matter. After spending an afternoon inside the garden walls, wandering through the centuries-old landscaping, feeling a lifetime away from the outside world, we agreed it was the single most wonderful spot we’d ever been. So when we poked into the tea room before leaving, we were delighted to discover they were selling reproduction prints of an 18th-century survey of the garden. We plunked down a few pounds for one, and then waited two years before framing it and finally getting to hang it:

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And in other “souvenirs of England” artwork, Kate the Great absolutely amazed us with the most exquisite gift from one of her business trips to Europe, a reproduction of an architectural detail at St. Martin in the Fields. It is, simply put, perfect:

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Of course, not everything in our Unicorn gallery is a souvenir of fun. Some of it is a souvenir of work. Take, for example, the page Pookie found in a book she was throwing out at her library. The picture delighted all of us, and then, after waiting for months and months for the kitchen walls to be complete, an ornate framing job made it even better:

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We’ve got the “Giant Bug” piece hanging on our telephone wall with a couple of other elements we love:

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Above it is the “Cherry Thief” I stitched:

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And to the side is a little enameled tile Boomer and I found at an art fair in Arizona shortly after we moved there. It’s San Pasquale, the patron saint of the kitchen:

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Going around the horn, then, is the little metal wreath we found for Boomer last Christmas — we love how it looks on the back door, where it casts ornate shadows on the floor:

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It’s a very unified look, we know. And if you’re wondering about the tin “Peanuts” sign hanging among the apple paintings in that first picture, that’s in honor of Rollie the cat, whose face is shaped like a peanut. Of course.

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The “Never In Our Wildest Dreams” Dream Pantry

I’m pretty sure we’ve mentioned in this space before that we’re slobs. I’m also pretty sure that it’s become apparent that we’re people who enjoy having lots of stuff. When we moved into Maple Hoo we thought we were going to be starting a remodel right away, and so the convergence of our fondness for stuff with our slobbishness created a truly horrific “temporary” pantry arrangement that we lived with for two years.

Old Nook

And as terrifying as it looks from a “dysfunctional clutter” standpoint, what that picture doesn’t show is that the door to the patio was opposite that side window, and hanging in the middle of the room, at eye level, was a pointy chandelier. Every single day we’d look at that room (often rubbing our heads where we’d just knocked them on the chandelier) and dream of the time when we’d be able to put all that crap away somewhere nicely.

Of course, we were thinking “cabinets”. We’ve never had a nice pantry. It just seemed like something other people would have in their kitchens that were nicer than anything we could ever imagine having ourselves. When our designer first showed us his plans for the big expansion, which basically removed all kitcheny stuff from the part of the room that was currently housing it, we wondered what was happening to the load-bearing nook-ish area that was the current “heart” of the kitchen. It had a chimney behind it! It couldn’t be messed with!

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Our designer’s eyes lit up as he realized he was about to reveal a detail that would put us over the top: he was going to enclose it all and make it into a pantry. Commence swooning.

The construction of the pantry walls was, in my opinion, the most exciting part of the whole remodel. I loved looking into the new space and trying to imagine it as a closet, filled with my neatly-stowed things. And then our designer off-handedly mentioned something that was nearly incomprehensible: five lazy susans. What??? We were thinking, like, wire shelves purchased at Home Depot. Well, it turns out our plans were including some serious built-ins in the pantry, stained to match our cabinetry, to boot. The day the shelves went in, we all nearly died. Seriously, this is a pantry unlike anything I ever thought I would possess.

Behold, the stack of lazy susans!

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The wall of totally manageable shelves!

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The surprisingly helpful above-head-height top shelf!

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The skinny little tier of shelves that is the perfect place for the trays we didn’t have tray dividers built in for!

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And finally — finally — a place to put away my string grocery bags!

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Yes, those are just 3M hooks, but the point is that the back of the door is there for this job, and this job only.

We haven’t even made any effort yet to organize the pantry. It is so capacious that we haven’t had to. This pantry is just… it just… it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

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Newer, Better Life, Unicorn-Style

One of the driving forces in our lives is the pursuit of what we call the “Newer, Better Life” feeling. Sometimes Newer, Better Life manifests itself as an actual activity (like the time we impulsively decided while in London to attend a free outdoor screening of Charlie Chaplin shorts with live music on a drizzly night in Trafalgar Square, something unlike anything we’d normally do), but most often it presents itself as atmosphere. It’s difficult to describe, but maybe the best way to put it is that NBL is a combination of the feeling of that perfect-weather day that you know didn’t actually happen but which you remember vividly from your youth, with the idea of what you wish the most perfect “everyday you” could be. This is a long-winded way of saying that we often look at houses, or furniture, or design elements and decide they are especially Newer, Better Life, and it leaves us with this wonderful yearning sort of feeling.

When we lived in Arizona there was an especially glaring lack of NBL in our world. We didn’t have downtown Princeton to wander on a crisp fall night, peering in the windows at the book-filled rooms of our professorial neighbors. We didn’t have the friscalating wintry dusks. We didn’t have leafy backdrops outside big, sunny windows. Hell, we didn’t have mullions. Moving back East was like an explosion of NBL, except we ended up owning a dark, cavelike townhouse with eight windows total, a northern exposure, and a little paved “backyard” that opened onto I-95. So one day we went out for a Sunday drive and spotted an open house in a tree-filled neighborhood. We thought the house didn’t look like much, but as soon as we walked into the backyard, we knew we were home. It was Newer, Better Life embodied. It was the yard in which every day is the perfect, archetypal day of that season, and it’s impossible to live in such a yard without being the people we’d always wished we could be.

Old View of Back of House

(This picture really doesn’t do it justice at all, in case you were wondering.) The back of Maple Hoo has a whole bunch of strange additions on it, starting at the left in that shot with the sunroom, then there was the strange little alleyway of deck, then the infamous breakfast nook/pantry room. The kitchen was nestled into the middle of all that, with a window over the sink overlooking the narrow spit of deck and down the canyon created between the sunroom and nook walls. We originally anticipated being saddened by the loss of several windows (on the side of the nook and on the canyon sunroom wall) in this remodel, and never really put a lot of thought into what the new windows would be like. When construction started, it was hard to get much of a grasp on what the changes were going to leave us with:

Outside View of Old Sink

When the new exterior walls were finished off and the old one taken down, we started to get antsy. It was like we were creeping toward Christmas morning or something!

Old Sink from Outside

Then… the new window went in. And we were disappointed. Here’s the view from the old sink, where you can see the framing from the old window:

Old Sink from Inside

It just seemed cavernous. And dark. For three months we tried to keep our worries to ourselves that we had made a terrible mistake in turning our kitchen into the world’s most elaborate reenactment of our cavelike townhouse. Of course, part of the problem was that we’re not very smart. We were never factoring in for the door, which we knew was going to be a full window, but which was, during construction, a sheet of plywood. That really cut down on the amount of natural light and the view into the backyard. In the end, our worries were for naught.

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With the sink now under a window that much closer to the yard, it’s like you’re standing under the canopy of our beloved maple tree. Hey, look! It’s one of our woodland friends, traipsing through the backyard in search of plants we’d rather she didn’t eat:

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(It should be noted that I only took that picture because I was trying out my iPhone, not because it’s at all remarkable that there was a deer under our maple tree. Just today, Boomer counted 12 of them in the yard. We hate the deer. We have to fence everything to keep them from eating it, but our township won’t let us fence our entire yard, so we’ve got little tents of deer netting propped up around all 10 of our fruit trees in the front yard. It’s very attractive.)

And the door? Well, that was a bone of contention with our designer in the early days of this project. He drew up a glorious, symmetrical plan originally with cabinets wrapping entirely around the perimeter of the room, leaving no spot for a door. However, the door is kind of essential, because after the maple tree, the second best thing about our backyard is the giant deck.

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John kept trying to tell us we could just go through the dining room and out the sunroom if we needed access to the deck, but that simply would not do. So we insisted, and we got this door.

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Perhaps the thing we most often find ourselves spontaneously exclaiming about in the kitchen now is that these windows are the very embodiment of Newer, Better Life. The way they frame our backyard, the way they have a leafy backdrop of the season, the way they let our kitchen be entirely unlike a cave and instead take the changing (and dare we say friscalating?) light of the day… well, it makes the heart of our home feel like the room we always wished we had.

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What Lies Beneath

So we don’t think we’re bragging, per se, when we say our kitchen is quite the looker.

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But the beauty of this unicorn kitchen isn’t just skin deep. Of course, when we walked into our designer’s showroom with our wallets open, he got all excited about selling us all the bells and whistles — how about a built-in espresso machine? A foot-pedal operated sink? A pull-out cabinet fitted with garbage/recycling cans? Spice cabinet inserts on an upper cabinet door? Tray dividers? Admittedly, a lot of this stuff is tempting, but the fact is, our nasty extant kitchen had its share of those features, too. And they were proving to be more of a hindrance than a help. There were five lower cabinets on the surround in the old kitchen; one was a wide drawer cabinet that was shoddily built, but held all my pots, one was a difficult-to-reach-into corner cabinet, two were tray dividers, and one was a sticky, grungy built-in garbage can cabinet that no longer had a garbage can in it, and which did not fit our garbage can. In other words, it was wasted space. And as nice as it was to have two tray dividers, it would have been nicer to have some flexibility. With that in mind, we told our designer to keep a lid on his enthusiasm for single-use built-ins. We didn’t even want a designated silverware drawer, because what if we ended up changing our mind about where that should go?

In the end, we got a whole lot of usefulness, with open-ended utility. There are the wide drawers next to the big oven, that fit my pots with room to spare:

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And on the other side of the oven are a couple of encabinetted pull-out shelves, for strainers and salad spinners and oversized mixer attachments and other misfit gewgaws:

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What of the dreaded corner cabinet, though? After spending two years digging through our tupperwares in the impossible corner cabinet in the old kitchen, we’ve got the mother of all lazy susans (our designer called them “super susans”) to hold our behemoth collection of reusable containers.

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One of the really nice features of the cabinetry we’ve got is that the drawers pull all the way out (they also automatically finish closing themselves once you’ve started the job, thereby sparing me my worst kitchen pet peeve, the slightly ajar drawer). This made it possible for us to move our cumbersome store of loose teas into a drawer next to our tea-making station, rather than stacking them in the pantry like we used to.

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And in place of an expensive insert to hold spice jars in place, a drawer next to the oven works just fine on its own:

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One thing that seemed kind of gimmicky and useless to us was the pull-out shelf for dishsoap that our designer insisted we would love. We seriously doubted him, but he won us over by pointing out that he was putting it in because he needed that width of cabinet to make the layout of everything else along the sink wall work the way we wanted it to. We expected to hate it. We were wrong.

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So even though it’s not overly gadgety, the kitchen just feels smart and useful. Even the fridge gets into the act, with our favorite feature of this entire remodel: the icons on the Biofresh doors. Here, the crisper tells you what setting to put its humidity release lever thingy at for, say, elk. Or lobster. Or sausage link:

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And here the freezer tells you how long you should keep your fully feathered chicken. Or your pig. Or pretzel:

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Our previous kitchen remodel had ended up giving us towering walls of 42-inch tall upper cabinets, and an enveloping expanse of lower ones. We fretted at the start of this project that somehow, despite the size of the kitchen, it wasn’t going to have as much storage space as our last remodeled one did. Well, while we were tidying up for this photo shoot, imagine our surprise when Pookie pulled open a cupboard door next to the sink and exclaimed, “You guys, are we using this cabinet for anything?” Boomer and I were stunned — we’d never even noticed that cabinet was there.

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For now, it will be our “hiding things that normally live on the counter that we want out of the way when we take pictures of it” cabinet. But it’s flexible, and that could change.

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So, How Does She Handle?

It’s all well and good for a Unicorn Kitchen to look good — in fact, it’s really hard for a new kitchen not to look good — but the real test of a remodel is how it works. Our designer, John, was very excited when we first came to him with our project because he had grandiose visions of this massive, symmetrical design with breakfast bar and no point of egress to the deck, and a breakfast bar, and did we mention a breakfast bar? With every successive reworking of our plans, he kept making the changes we asked for but seemed loathe to listen to our insistence that we didn’t want an eat-in part in the kitchen. For me, a kitchen is all about performance; I don’t want a television, I don’t want a desk (or any expanse of countertop that encourages a pile-up of mail or other day-to-day non-kitchen detritus), and I don’t want seating. John had a very hard time wrapping his brain around that, but the fact is, a barstool area consumes otherwise work-only counterspace and clutters up the traffic patterns around wherever the stools are going. Considering our kitchen involves a huge island around which the hallway-to-dining-room and hallway/dining room-to-back-door traffic wraps, barstools anywhere around the outside of the island seemed to us to be just stubbed toes waiting to happen. It wasn’t an easy fight to win, but in the end, John relented. And I am eternally happy for that.

Meanwhile, the rest of the kitchen is zoning itself with time, as our daily usage patterns are making it all work out. For starters, we’ve got the island element that we insisted on in place of a breakfast bar — a book case.

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I was concerned that it would be too small, because my cookbooks have been, for the last two years, taking up most of the shelves in the living room. But, not surprisingly, I discovered that I was willing to self-edit when it came time to shelve them in the kitchen proper. Rollie, however, was not pleased to have to give up some of her favorite climbing-and-hiding space.

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To compensate for the imagined shortfall of bookshelfy storage, we sought out and found the perfect Modwardian bookcase pretty much right after John drew up our first plans. For a while after the kitchen was finished we considered not putting the bookcase in it, but in the end, we decided the space between the pantry and the dining room door looked empty, so our bookcase was deployed as a display case until the time when my cookbook collection becomes as unwieldy as I think it is.

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Here’s the side detail that made us fall in love with this bookcase:

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The next “zone” we designated, after the cookbook section, was the tea area. The little stretch of counter between the sink and the door to the deck is one of those danger zones that has the chance to end up that spot where you just randomly drop crap because it’s not a high-traffic area, nor is it big enough to be set aside for something vastly important. Pookie brilliantly declared that we could stop ourselves from doing that by making it into the station for our morning tea prep.

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The angled edge of the counter has a panel on the front of it that looks decorative, but is, in fact, a cabinet for reals.

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Elsewhere, I staked out the deep corner of the surround countertop for my canisters of baking ingredients (apothecary jars that hold ten pounds of flour, five pounds of sugar, and several pounds of chocolate pieces) and for the stand mixer. In my experience, even though that’s a lot of acreage of counter, the upper cabinets make it hard to use because you can’t really get a good lean over what you’re doing, so I didn’t feel like I was wasting any great space this way.

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Now, the difficult space to delegate was the power alley and functional heart of the kitchen, the space where all the appliances are. We’ve got the 36-inch oven and the cooktop on the surround, and facing them on the island are the 30-inch oven and the microwave (which is not something I use often, and which is, awesomely, a drawer).

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I had originally anticipated making that enormous island into my primary workspace, where I could spread out my hundreds of prep bowls and my heaps of waiting-to-be-chopped produce and whatnot. But the truth is that I have a cumbersome knife block, and I like chopping right next to my cooktop. So, while it isn’t the hugest workspace in a kitchen that has huge to offer, I ended up designating the space between the fridge and the cooktop as my primary prep area.

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For Christmas this year Pookie gave me a bamboo skewer knife block for the fancy damascene knives that have recently been added to my collection, and as it turns out, it’s a delightful little shelf-y addition to the work area for my various and sundry sea salts.

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So basically what all this sector designating has done is leave the huge slab of island open for a wide array of activities, like secondary chopping station when there’s meat going into a meal, or when Pookie picks up a knife to join into the fun. Or cooling baked goods while dinner’s cooking. Or being an out-of-the-way space for ripening tomatoes in the summertime. And having all that floor space around it, without any barstools, or seating section, or “this space is to be used for [Purpose X]” area, makes the island into an inviting space for kitchen passengers. While someone’s cooking at the stove, and someone else is tidying up at the sink, the “outer” sides of the island beckon for everyone else to comfortably socialize while out from underfoot. It’s a space that naturally welcomes everyone’s dream of that dinner party where all your guests end up in the kitchen, without crowding, and without a single stubbed toe.

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The Unicorn Is In The Details

About four years ago we engaged in our first foray into the wonderful world of kitchen redesigns. At the time, we took an early-90’s builder-grade townhouse kitchen, with its indeterminate-origin wood cabinets and laminate floor, and turned it into what we thought was the pinnacle of individualistic design. We wanted white cabinets, dark stone countertops and stainless appliances. After our designer got through yawning hugely, he suggested we consider doing the little island in — gasp! — a different finish. This totally rocked our worlds, and we got wild and crazy by adding a dark cherry island to go with our white surround cabinets. Then we realized that every single other kitchen looks exactly like that.

This time around, we wanted something a bit more unique, and our designer was visibly relieved when the first thing we said to him was, “No white cabinets.” What we really wanted, though, was black painted cabinets. That notion was quickly torpedoed when we discovered that even with an astronomical budget, we couldn’t afford paint. Apparently they paint black kitchen cabinets with solid gold or something. So our designer suggested we go with a dark cherry base wood with a black stain, and we were really taken with how it was as dark as what we were looking for, but had the pleasing warmth of natural wood.

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The only problem with this finish is that we couldn’t think of a single thing we wanted to off-set it with. We’d liked the look in our last kitchen of the island being like its own piece of furniture, but in this new design, if we went with the dark wood in the surround, we couldn’t imagine what finish would make the island and hutch look even more sophisticated. The thought of having a lighter wood or, heaven forbid, white, was too much to bear. So with no small reluctance, we decided the only thing to do was have every single cabinet in the cavernous kitchen be made of exactly the same thing.

After scaling back our dreams of painted cabinetry, we had to move on to our dreams of having ornate cabinetry. We hate, hate, hate shaker-front cabinets. HATE. We have a personal style we like to call “Modwardian”, a combination of our taste for masculine Victorian/Edwardian design and fondness for extremely modern style elements. (We also like just about everything in between, so we just call anything we like “Modwardian”. Hey, we invented the style, so we make the rules.) In this case, we wanted all kinds of fancy working on the cabinet panels, but, alas, we couldn’t afford to have that on the acres and acres of cabinetry that the new design was going to incorporate. So our designer suggested we get back into the mindset of the island and hutch not matching the surround, but in a more subtle way, with the difference being the style of the cabinets.

It seemed so easy, and so brilliant! We could totally swallow the idea of Shaker front (read: “cheaper”) cabinets on the surround if we could ratchet up the Modwardian with each other element of the kitchen. As it turns out, the wood finish we picked ends up making the Shaker front look more modern than plain:

surroundcabinetssmall.jpg

So we painstakingly selected two other styles of cabinet fronts, and then, in the 18 months before the job actually started, our designer lost the paper on which he’d written down our choices. Muttering under our breath the whole time, we hastily tried to re-create what we wanted, going with a moderately ornate front for the hutch, and a super-swanky panel for the island. After the order was placed, our designer found the paper with our original choices, and it turns out we’d flipped the swankiness — our original thought had been to make the hutch fancy and the island more plain, but in the end, there’s more cabinetry on the island, so we’re happier with the really detailed stuff on there.

Here’s the hutch’s cabinet front:

hutchcabinetsmall.jpg

And here’s what we went with on the island:

islandcabinetdetailsmall.jpg

Our designer’s big thing is that his wife has a storefront design business that specializes in knobs and drawer pulls. So when you work with him, you have to put in hours of selecting drawer pulls. We nearly cried when he told us he’d lost the paper with our choices, because really, who can go through 10 million drawer pulls twice? Thank heavens we didn’t go through the process a second time before he stumbled upon our choices.

With the Shaker front, on the surrounds, we picked something we thought screamed “Modwardian!”:

surroundpullssmall.jpg

With the medium-swanky hutch we decided to take our inspiration from the bathroom at our grandmother’s house in the Chicago suburbs:

hutchpullsmall.jpg

And on the island, we opted for fancy:

islandpullsmall.jpg

We’d be lying if we said our designer didn’t try to beat us into giving up on the “multiple cabinet fronts” thing after he forgot our original choices. In fact, he ordered all Shaker-front, and it was only after much protestation on our parts that he started straightening things out. At this moment, we’re still waiting on two of the correct drawer fronts. But we’re glad we stuck to our guns, because this kitchen totally wouldn’t be Modwardian if it wasn’t just a bit more complicated than it needs to be.

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