Saturday, March 14, 2015

Switching Gears: Making Minecraft Cupcakes

I have always enjoyed making special cakes for the kids' birthdays.  Part of it is that I love the look on their face when a cake turns out well.  Another part is that I want to prove to myself that I can do these things!

I love cooking...but I might be the world's worst baker!  Something about having to precisely measure ingredients seems oppressive and style-cramping.  So with cakes, I have always deferred to using mixes and focusing my energy on the decorating.

Here are some of my past creations.  Some were free hand, for others I used a Wilton Pan.  The Star Wars Lego cakes were fondant.  Some turned out well, others, well...turned out.

 Wil turned 12 this month and his mother planned his birthday party at Dave and Buster's, which seems like a Chuck E. Cheese's for older kids and adults.  (Don't even get me started on the evils of Chuck E. Cheese!)  He said he didn't want to waste time with a big cake because he didn't want to take away from the game-playing, but that he wanted Minecraft cupcakes.  Contradictions in his thought process aside, I now had to figure out how to make cupcakes out of these ridiculously primitive, pixelated monsters.  So I did what any other 42 year-old man would do...go right to Pinterest! (Sigh, yes my life has come to this.  In fact, I am now in the process of buying a minivan to complete the dissolution of my soul.)

Pinterest surprisingly wasn't very helpful to me.  Most of the ideas were for using fondant and cutting it into hundreds of little squares and decorating the cakes with them.  I don't mind fondant if I have to use it, but it tastes pretty much like, well, absolutely nothing.  And it has been a long week and ain't nobody got time to color, roll, and cut 1500 fondant squares.  At least not in my world.  Sorry, kid, but we have to figure out another plan.

Next step in the complete eradication of my masculinity was a visit to Michael's.  I joke about the masculinity because I secretly really like this store, though not nearly as much as Home Depot.  I was shopping and brainstorming at the same time.  Do I use sugar paper? Do I make a sheet cake and cut mini squares and assemble them?  Do I realize that, while thousands of others are out enjoying happy hour on a friday afternoon, I'm wandering the cake aisles at a craft store?  I try to imagine I'm Indiana Jones searching for an ancient relic, but it is not helping.  This is my life.  I must embrace it.  Ok, ok...yes, I love it.  Just don't tell anyone.

Finally, inspiration struck me.  High on a shelf, almost out of view, was the perfect solution.  A pan that bakes cubic brownies or cupcakes!  This could work!  I did some quick math in my head, figuring out how many pixels across and down this bizarre creatures had.  I was working off of these pictures I took from the interweb.

I figured 8x8, give or take some.  If I used 16 cupcakes for each monster, and frosted four squares on each, we could be in business!  Well, I needed to get to Niagara Cafe for to pick up dinner before Annie and Olivia had a meltdown, so I went with this plan.  I bought two pans, each was listed at about $15 each, some cardboard cake bases, some Wilton gel colors, and some icing bags.  By the way, if you shop at Michael's, download their app.  They have coupons you can use right off your phone.  I had one for 40% off all bakeware and another for 40% off one item.  They knocked almost $30 off the final bill!

After I finally made it home, and after we recovered from our pernil, yellow rice and beans induced coma, we got Olivia to bed and got cracking on the cakes.  Annie was kind enough to help with the baking so I could do some frosting planning.  Yes, I had to plan out the steps on graph paper because if you're going to be a nerd, go all out at it!

We made two pans of chocolate cake and one pan of yellow cake because Wil wanted to make sure his friends that didn't like chocolate had options.  He's a pretty sweet kid.

Next, I had to make the frosting.  I counted about 10-12 colors so I decided to make three batches of Wilton Buttercream Icing.  This is my favorite and is extremely easy to make, especially if you have a Kitchen Aid mixer. (Three batches ended up being too much, I probably could have made two work but I didn't want to run out in the middle of decorating.)

I then colored the icing using Wilton gel colors.  These are very easy to use and make brilliant, consistent colors.  Three shades of gray, three of pink and three of green, plus white.

Next, I laid out the cupcakes and started frosting.  I used a variety of tips because I didn't have 9 identical tips for the icing bags. No biggie...i planned on using a small frosting spatula to smooth the squares out.

I want to pause a moment to give credit to one of my favorite assistants.  He has been with me from the very beginning, but in many different forms.  I never even attempt to decorate a cake without him. He is my good friend, beer.  He makes all things better.  Tonight, I had Blue Light in a Jim Craig Can.  Life was pretty good.

Ok, I finished the Zombie Pig Man thing first.  I followed my instructions, each pixel was colored correctly, the cakes were well aligned...and it still didn't look like anything other than pixelated vomit.  I used Hershey's chocolate bars for the eyes and mouth and still...nothing.  But it DID look like the picture from the Google, so whatever.  It's what he wanted, that weird, disturbed child.

Next I had to do the creeper, but luckily I had enough of the green from the thing above to do the thing below. I didn't have to make and color any more frosting!  Sweet!  Come celebrate with me like it was 1980, Jim...he always seems to get me.  Ok, here's the Creeper:

Well, clean up can wait until morning.  We're going to bed!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The House in it's Original Form

On top of the McDonough family photo and the picture of Catherine McDonough in her garden, Mary also provided us with with a photo of the front of the house in what we think may be a fairly intact form. This, of course, is the ultimate goal for anyone interested in this sort of thing but we do still have questions about what we can't see in the shadows and behind the tree branches. What did the window trim look like? Were there fish scales or gingerbread work on the peak? What did the front door look like? What has been put to rest though is the long battle that Jeff and I used to have about whether the current porch was original or not and if the porch was the typical ornate type that you saw in the late 1800's. You guessed it. I was right, Jeff was wrong. ;)

The best we can do at this point is to look to other houses in the neighborhood with similar porches, These are some of the ones we've found so far.

Bulls eye rosettes like this could have been removed at some point.

Similar bay window as ours. And a small side porch- something that we know used to exit.

We think this might be the most similar to our porch. Very simple brackets and turned spandrels. And the double instead of triple windows.

Another similar style
We can only hope that someday we may see other pictures of our porch.  Until then, we will have to use our imagination and take our best guess at the finer details.  That is okay, though.  It's all part of the fun!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Victorian Summer Kitchen

As mentioned in our previous post, we have learned quite a bit about the history of our house and what it used to look like from a recent visit with the granddaughter of one of the previous owners.

Catherine McDonough in her garden c. 1940
This is Catherine McDonough c. 1940 in her garden. Mary says that her grandmother had quite a large English-style garden in the back yard with several winding foot paths. She said that she had never known anyone who could propagate roses as well as her. From the looks of this picture it looks like she was great with peonies too. Makes me wonder why mine never came up last year!

Mary thinks the structure behind her is the old barn that was where our garage is currently but after looking more closely at the picture and standing in the yard looking at multiple different perspectives we feel that this structure is actually the original summer kitchen where our mud room is currently. Many homes in the Victorian era used a summer kitchen adjacent to the regular kitchen to prevent overheating in the main part of the house. It was also used as additional prep space and storage for items that were often bought in bulk like sugar and flour.

It's difficult to say for sure but the roof line of the house in the distance and the two shorter houses in between make it look like it's the correct angle. I've always thought that the walls on the exterior of the mud room were odd- the way that they extend beyond the roof line. Is it possible that part of the original structure still exists? Mary's memory of the back staircase was also a bit fuzzy. She told us at one point that the stairs turned into the kitchen but then when she got into the house she was sure that they were straight but she didn't have much recollection of the mudroom just that she knew the stairs never went to the outdoors as a separate entrance.  It's possible that the stairs did both- fork off at a landing and turn into the kitchen but also go straight into the summer kitchen. If so, Mary's memory would make a little more sense if the mud room used to be a summer kitchen.

An original summer kitchen with a similar roof line to what ours may have been

Below are a couple more examples of these kitchen additions here in Buffalo.

And here is a series of "telescope houses" typical of Buffalo's west side, where there is a summer kitchen and in some cases, an addition beyond that.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Prospect Hill 1918-1943- The McDonough Family

Recently we had the pleasure of meeting a woman named Mary who may have the oldest memory of our house that we can find. Her Grandmother and Grandfather (Ma and Pa as she calls them) used to live in our house between the years of 1918 and 1943. Below is a picture of the family that she was kind enough to share with us.

The McDonough Family c. 1910

We had started researching the families starting with Selah Smead who built the house back in 1885. From our understanding, his family died out with his grandchildren. The same thing happened to the Hall family who came after them. I was both shocked and saddened to think that a whole branch of a family tree could die out like that.

At this point we dug the deed back out and looked up the third family who lived here. Catherine McDonough was the only one listed on the deed at this point which seemed odd for the time period . The house was also granted to her by the Halls which makes me wonder if there is a relation there. Once we got onto and began searching we soon learned that she lived here with her husband and four of her five children- the second oldest girl had passed away around the same time they moved here.

Mary's father is the older boy in the above picture of the family. He lived here until he married Mary's mother, the neighbor girl two doors down. Later, they raised their family in a house a few blocks down which Mary's great-grandfather once lived.

We find it fascinating how small the world was back then and really enjoyed listening to Mary's stories. She was also able to tell us quite a it bit about the rest of the house. Including the fact that there were pocket doors between our living room, dining room and family rooms. We had already discovered this but it was nice to be reassured. She also told us that what we are now using as a guest bedroom used to be a music room. Her Grandmother did not allow her to go into the front parlor and the room was always closed off by the pocket doors so the music room was always the first room entered past the front hall. She used to sit on a small couch and listen to her grandmother play piano.

She also informed us that there was a side door off of the kitchen that went to a narrow side porch that no longer exists and that the back stair case used to exit into the kitchen. Upstairs, the only major difference was the master bedroom's small side room. Apparently it used to be an entirely separate bedroom and the closet in the hall used to be it's entrance.

Below are the old and current downstairs floor plans showing the uses of all the existing rooms and the addition of the side porch.

We are so grateful to Mary for sharing a bit of her family's history with us and helping us research the genealogy of our home. We hope to stay in touch and continue to share as we unearth new findings! 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gaslight Conversion: Part Two (It's Electrifying!)

Sorry this post took so long to finish...but here, finally, is the conclusion to the light restoration / conversion project.

Now that the gas chandelier is disassembled, it was time to run the wire and attach sockets. I had some help from the Google, but also from some experts that I met along the way. The first thing I had to do was determine which wire was right to use. The helpful staff at Home Depot advised me that 16 gauge primary wire would be sufficient and I felt the diameter of the pipes were wide enough to fit two of these wires. I bought one package of black and one of white wire.

Next, I turned to the "spine", the pipe that forms a "T" in the main body of the light and feeds to the decorative arms, eventually into the burners. I needed to drill some holes into the pipe to feed the wire through and split the wires to head in each direction.  A carbide bit on my drill press did the trick and things were progressing nicely.

I fed a white and black wire down the main spine and pulled it through the small hole.  Next, the most difficult part of the whole job, was to feed a wire through the curved tubing leading to the burner. This was a challenge because there were several tight bends and one valve that needed to be navigated.

The first thing I did was disassemble as much as I could.  I disconnected the valve on the arm and then heated the soldered joints and separated the arms into three parts.

Wiring this light involved a lot of trial and error.  One website suggested using a ball pull chain to fish through the curves and pull the wire through.  This seemed brilliant, at first anyway. The pull chain slid right through the bends and openings and came out the other end.  Unfortunately, the tubes were barely wide enough to fit two wires and made it difficult to pull through while staying attached to the chain. While it may work on other similar projects, it was not to be on this one. Slowly and carefully, the wire had to be fed through each bend and pulled through the openings with a fine needle nosed pliers.

Look at the pictures about.  That round thing that I separated is a valve that turns the gas to the light on and off.  People used to have poles with special ends on them to reach up and turn the valve off.  Essentially, a quarter turn blocks the flow of gas. You can see this in action in the movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis".

Quite the gentleman, turning down the lights for her.
This movie has many brilliant examples of Victorian life and is worth watching for that reason alone.

With this valve closed, wire could not be fed through. However, even when it was open, it was too narrow to fit both wires.  I had to head back down to the drill press and carefully enlarge the existing valve opening to allow for the wires.

More feeding of the wire through to the end so that only attaching and wiring the burner remained.

When I looked at where the wire needed to go through the burner, I was faced with this view:

More valves, more brass through which to drill. On a side note, this project brought back many childhood memories.  My father worked for Sherwood Selpac, a company in Lockport, New York that made brass valves for propane and other gas cylinders. My summers during college were spent working on the assembly line there and we drilled and stamped thousands of brass valves.

My dad gave me this old drill press, it may have been his father's, about a decade ago. I only recently brought it out of storage and set it up in my workshop and it has been a Godsend. I was able to drill straight down through two valves to open a clear passageway to the the burner opening.

The next step called for attaching a light socket. This is where I sought the input of the experts. We discovered this antique light store on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, right around the corner from our first apartment together. The Antique Lamp Co. & Gift Emporium is a hidden little treasure in Buffalo's "Little Italy". The owner, John, was exceedingly helpful finding some old brass sockets and a couple of brass adapters. These allowed me to attach the socket to the tube that once held the ceramic burners.  If you get a chance, stop in to this shop...if you like antique lighting and Victorian decor, you won't regret it.  It's especially beautiful when decorated for Christmas.

Once the sockets were wired and attached, all that was left was to assemble all the parts and hang the lamp.

A new hole in the ceiling, a new box spanning the rafters and the wire from the switch ready to be connected to the lamp. I used a bar that spanned the electrical box and had a large enough opening to fit the pipe on the chandelier.  I attached the light to this bar with a galvanized pipe cap that I drilled a hole into for pulling the wire through.

Before I attached the lamp to the electrical box and hooked up the power, we placed a ceiling medallion over the hole and then connected and hung the light. A few ceiling touch ups to go, but for the most part, the light was ready to show off!

Until we found the right globes, we chose to use 40W edison bulbs.  They gave a great, warm glow which played well off the brass and wood of the staircase.