Maxwell’s for Hair, getting there…

Okay, so where were we? When we left off, Russell was standing with his hands in the air, a grin on his face, and a giant pile of rubble and mess behind him. Our contractor had just started demo, and the the shop was a frightful glorious mess.

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I have to admit, we really lucked out with a contractor who worked quickly and efficiently, and things (mostly) went nice and smooth all through his work. The demo went well, new drywall went up, things were patched and beginning to take form. To help save a little money I would go in after the crew left to prime and paint the patched up walls and ceilings myself.

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We did run into a little hiccup with the floors, but it wasn’t his fault. We knew there was a concrete slab under the layers of laminate and tile, and we hoped that, best case scenario, we could just clean and polish them up and we’d be good to go. We should have known better! Once the old flooring came up and we saw what shape the concrete was in, we knew we had to find some extra money for new flooring. We did some quick hunting around online and found a sale on engineered hardwood so that’s what we decided to go with. We’d have the contractor install it, but we’d be in charge of picking it up and getting it to the space.

Of course, that was all easier said than done. Russell had to leave for a trip to London that he’d planned and paid for well before the shop was even a glimmer in our eyes, and the flooring order took longer than expected and wasn’t ready until after he left.  Since we don’t have a vehicle, I decided to take the subway to a neighborhood in Queens I’ve never been to before, google maps my way to the warehouse, and once the order was ready and brought out to me, call a taxi service to pick me up and carry me and my 11 cases of wood flooring back to Bushwick. You can’t imagine the looks I got from the warehouse guys when they asked if I wanted help putting my order in my truck and I had to explain that I was calling a car service! It also just happened to be a crazy hot day, and I was so embarrassed that I waited outside in the sun the whole time. Then, of course the driver got stuck in traffic on his way to me, and I sat there sweating my ass off for over 30 minutes!
This whole experience has been just one giant exercise in firsts! Hahahaha!

Anyways, in retrospect I kind of wish we’d shelled out a little bit more for solid hardwood. The engineered wood looks great, and in theory it’s supposed to hold up well to water and wear and tear, but the planks are super thin and the flooring feels a little flimsy underfoot. Since the concrete subfloor isn’t perfectly level (and we couldn’t afford having a new subfloor installed), I’m a little worried that we’re going to have to replace it a few years down the line. Hopefully I’m wrong and I’m sweating it for nothing. I guess only time will tell.

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It does look great though. And it all went in the day after I lugged it back to Bushwick.

Before we knew it, the contractor was nearing the finish line and the place was just about ready for tile. Almost everything had gone seamlessly and Russell and I couldn’t wait to get started on our end of the work.

Of course, as you may have guessed, the key word there was almost. I was at work and Russell was still in London the day I got a call from our contractor. Apparently while trying to get the AC unit working, they’d realized there was a BIG problem that he wasn’t going to be able to fix. I totally freaked out and left work early to run over to the shop and see what was going on. It turned out that the someone, at some point, had done some really really weird and confusing work on the electrical panel in the shop. Unfortunately, the way it was done was difficult to see if you weren’t actually looking for it, which is why it hadn’t come to light until then.
Essentially, they had disconnected one of the electrical input wires coming into the space from outside, and split the other one and bridged it to connect to the panel. What that boiled down to was that the space no longer had the 220 volt power that it was supposed to, and while that didn’t affect the function of the outlets and lights, the AC and heating system in the space didn’t have enough current to actually work.

At this point in the game, we’d already spent a good chunk of our in-case-of-emergencies money, and the idea of needing to have some major electrical work done just made me want to curl up in a ball and cry.

After some incredibly stressful days and a bit of further investigation, it came to light that the disconnected wiring coming into the building wasn’t live, which is probably why it had been disconnected in the first place. We put in a call to our utility company with the help of our landlord and his electrician, and had no other choice but to move forward without any AC and hope we’d get to the bottom of it eventually.

So, onward and upward, and off to pick up our tile and supplies in a rental car!

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We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to cover most of the walls with simple white 3×6 subway tile. I know it’s sort of ubiquitous and “hipster-y”, especially here in Brooklyn, but there’s a reason it’s used so often and in so many applications. It’s attractive, timeless, compliments lots of different design styles, is relatively easy to install, and is even easier to keep clean. Also, most importantly to us, it’s freakin’ CHEAP! $0.22 a tile for American Olean subway tiles from Lowes meant that our whole shop was tiled from floor almost to ceiling on three walls for under $1,000 including the cost of mortar, grout, and all the tools.

I literally have no clue what this job would have cost if we’d paid a professional to do it, but I’m sure it would have been waaaaay more than we would have been willing or able to spend.

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Anyway, well before this whole hair shop adventure, my sister and I were discussing a bluegrass music festival we to go to together when my mom said she’d like to join us this year. We bought our tickets well in advance (they’re cheaper that way) and started planning our family camping adventure. Long story short, they have a weird system for taking time off where my mom works, and even though she only needed off from Wednesday to Monday, she ended up having to take two full weeks off in the middle of the summer. When she first put in the request she figured she’d just use that extra time for some R&R, but as fate would have it she got the exciting opportunity to come down to Brooklyn and spend quality time with me and Russell, doing manual labor in the middle of a heat wave, in a tiny room with no air conditioner! GOOD TIMES!

Neither of us had ever tiled before. I’ve always wanted to tile the backsplash in my kitchen, but every time I think about it I decide after weighing the options that it’s not worth the effort. In this case though, it was absolutely worth the effort if it meant having a gleaming showcase for Russell and his hair shop. And hey, I read Manhattan Nest. How hard could it really be?

So, there we were, my mom and I (from proud, cold-weather German stock), sweating our asses off in 90 degree heat with no AC, learning by trial and error how to tile walls from floor almost to ceiling. We were also trying to keep the whole thing under wraps until we were closer to opening, so we couldn’t even open the door for air!

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At first the whole thing took a little getting used to. We started by making a level line above the baseboard, (which of course wasn’t even close to level) and then cutting each tile lengthwise to ensure our first row would have a completely level top line that all the other rows of tile could build off of. Then we had to figure out the best texture for the thinset, the best way to apply it, whether we preferred to schmear it on the wall or back butter each tile as they went up. (mom’s into the schmear btw, but I prefer to back butter each tile)

We started on one wall to get the hang of the process and slowly started creeping upwards and to the left. Once we got the first row level, the rest was actually surprisingly smooth sailing. By the time you get the hang of mixing and applying the mortar and arranging the tiles, things move along *relatively* quickly. That’s not to say there weren’t any frustrating moments or times I wanted to did throw a fit and/or cry, but for the most part the hardest thing was keeping our lines level, keeping straight rows on wonky 0ld walls, and measuring and cutting corner pieces. Mom and I worked out a pretty good system in the first few days though. She manned the tile cutter while I was in charge of mixing mortar and applying tiles. Of course we took turns and alternated duties sometimes, but we definitely figured out where our strengths and weaknesses lay, and thankfully they were mostly complementary.

Since we were just working with small inexpensive ceramic tiles, we decided we didn’t need to splurge on a wet saw to cut them, and just went for an inexpensive score and snap tile cutter, and a pair of tile nippers for more detailed cuts. There were a few places where a wet saw may have come in handy, but we were fine for about 95% of what we did, and we found ways to make it work everywhere else.

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Before we got too far up the walls with the tile, we took some time to plan out where we wanted the shelves and mirrors for the stations to be hung, and mounted pine cleats (not sure if that’s the right word for what we did btw, so if you know, please share the knowledge!) attached to studs in the walls. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about trying find studs through a layer of ceramic tile, and then having to drill holes through the tiles we just put so much effort into putting up. It looked kind of weird and cheap and crappy while we were in the process, but once we were done and were able to actually attach the stations it all made sense and we were SOOO glad we did it.

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I wasn’t originally planning for this, but mom also insisted that we use bullnose tile for a nice clean finished look at the tops of the walls and on the edges and corners. One day when Russell and I were at work she even took it upon herself to pull the (admittedly crappy) trim off from around the bathroom door and then informed us that we were going to do bullnose trim around the door instead. At the time it just seemed like extra work to me, but in the end looked amazing and I’m so glad she made us do it! Always do what your mama says folks!

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I am so SO glad I got to do this whole project with my mother. Some of it was fun, and some of it was grueling and exhausting and sweaty and disgusting, but most of the time it all overlapped! I know some people might not want to spend so much time in such close quarters with their mother, but I loved every minute of it. I won’t lie and say we didn’t snap at each other a couple times. We were in cramped quarters, exhausted and dripping sweat, and I have a tendency to get snippy when I’m hungry and/or tired and/or frustrated…

Mom, you’re a very patient woman, and we literally would never have gotten this all done, not nearly as perfectly and professionally as we did, without your labor, skill, input, and patience!

Now, sorry friends but I’m not going to go through a whole step-by-step, how-to instructional thing here because, as I’ve already made perfectly clear, we are absolutely not professionals and had no idea what we were doing until we figured it out along the way. We had a little lot of help from the internet, so if you’re interested in taking on a project like this for yourself, I’d suggest you start by looking here, and here, and here.

On the very last day when we hung the very last tile, we finished our work a little earlier than expected so we decided to try our hand at grouting just for fun. (SO DUMB).
The tiling went smoothly, but it was HARD work, so we figured the grouting process couldn’t be any harder right?



The first batch of grout I mixed up was too thick and it was too hot and we were too tired after working all day. I spread the grout over too big an area, and because it was so thick it dried faster than we were able to clean it off and it wouldn’t come off with the soft sponges I’d purchased for the job. It started off okay, but within an hour or two things went downhill fast.

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After hours and hours of wiping and scrubbing to get the dried grout off the walls, I literally laid on the floor and had an honest to goodness temper tantrum, right there in front of my poor mom. I was hot and sleep deprived and hungry and completely depleted and my arms felt like jelly and I was sure that the grout was going to set and permanently ruin our beautiful tile and all I could think about was how stupid I was and how we were going to have to rip out the ruined tile and re-do it.
In a panic I called Russell to come help us, but at that point there wasn’t much he could do either. He did his best to get as much off as he could, but in the end we had to just leave for the day and hope we’d find a better solution to get the grout off when I got home from work the next day.

While I was at work I did a little online research and found that as long as the grout hadn’t been set for too long, it should be possible with to scrub it off with some little nylon scrubby pads and a good bit of elbow grease.

I crossed every piece of my body that I was able to cross, and when I got to the shop I literally did a little dance of joy when the nylon scrubbies worked out and angels sang and rainbows and unicorns shot out of my ears.

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As you can imagine, the next batches of grout I mixed were much thinner and were spread on in much smaller patches at a time. We worked out a system where I’d spread it on and Mom and Russell would come behind me and wipe it off.

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Everything I’d read online said to wipe and wipe and wipe with clean damp sponges until the tile looked completely clean, then to let it dry overnight and come back and wipe it again to remove any film.

The thing is though, that everything I was reading was talking about white or light colored sanded grout, and not only was I using dark grout for contrast, I was also using un-sanded grout to avoid scratching the glossy surface of my tiles.
No matter how much I wiped, the tile never looked “clean”, and if I just kept wiping and wiping and wiping, after a certain point I was just wiping the grout out from where I wanted it to actually stay. So again, thanks to a little trial and error, we learned that with dark, un-sanded grout you just have to wipe until you have a very thin hazy grey layer of grout and you’ll be fine. Then once it dries you can just wipe it off with a clean dry rag to reveal the beautiful shiny tiles beneath.

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Unfortunately, in the middle of the grouting process mom’s vacation was up and she had to head home and leave me and Russell to finish up on our own. After pouring so much of her blood, sweat, and tears into our shop (especially sweat), she was never even able to see the finished product. Poor mom. :(

And sorry friends, but poor you too. Yet again I’ve been blathering and blathering and blathering and I’m pretty sure no one’s even reading this anymore…

I promise you’ll get to see the end results of all our work soon though.

dark chocolate & oreo mini skull cakes

When I was a kid, Halloween was my absolute favorite holiday.

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I mean, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving too, for the food of course, but as a young kid Halloween was the freakin’ best. Turkey and pumpkin pie are great and all but costumes and candy, and running around at night like a little lunatic with fake vampire teeth? Grandma’s cornbread dressing couldn’t hold a candle…

I’ve had countless costumes over the years, but I’ll never forget an especially uncomfortable year dressed as Frankenstein with tons of sticky green makeup and itchy stick-on eyebrows and neck bolts. After that, the simpler and more elegant Dracula was definitely my go to.
Each year I’d get a new costume complete with fangs, cape, and gold medallion, and as a young gay boy I already had all the crisp white button downs and black dress pants that were required but not included with the costume.  (No jeans and T-shirt for this little sissy boy!)
I think it really was the dressed up, fancy man aspect of Dracula that appealed to me most year after year, and it wasn’t until I found my grandma’s old wig in her bathroom closet that the appeal started to wear off…

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These days I usually spend most of the month of October thinking up all sorts of witty, hysterical costumes that I could wear, but never do. The last time I dressed up was for work, about 4 years ago. I’d just started working at Whisk slinging fancy kitchen gear, and we all came up with this hilarious plan to come to work dressed as a Food Network star.
Group costumes are the best! What could go wrong?!?!

A few days later I show up to work in full Ina Garten regalia, and oops! Everyone either forgot or didn’t have time to get their costumes together.  One person, who usually works from home, loved the idea and actually did come in for an hour or two dressed as Alton Brown (essentially dressed as an older, nerdier version of himself) to take pictures, but everyone else either didn’t dress up or threw something else together at the last minute.
As I stood there working my full shift in an oversized navy blouse, huge clip on pearl earrings, lipstick, and an itchy bob wig; I vowed never again to be duped by allure of an amazing group costume idea.

I haven’t dressed up since.
Womp Womp.

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Even though I’m too old for trick-or-treating and haven’t put on a costume in years, I really do still have a special place in my heart for Halloween.

I like to imagine that some day in the future I’ll be the type of adult who’s famous among his circle of friends for hosting amazing costume parties that are talked about for years to come. Basically I dream of one day throwing Halloween parties just like the ones on Roseanne, complete with decorations so elaborate and costumes so perfectly spot-on that everyone I know will try, and fail, to one-up me year after year.
By the way, am I the only one who’s ever wondered how the lower middle class Connor family, who always seemed to have trouble paying their bills on time, came up with all the money for their costumes and decorations?
I guess it doesn’t matter, but, like, that stuff ain’t cheap!

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With all my dreams of Halloween entertaining one-upmanship, the minute I saw this adorable haunted skull cakelet pan, I knew that I HAD to have it.

You all know I love Nordic Ware. I’ve told you more than once twice three times (a lady), but after finally having a chance to use this pan you’ll have to excuse me as I wax poetic once again.

Nordic Ware has been making exceptional cookware and bakeware right here in the US for 70 years now, and even after all this time they’re still a family owned company. The bundt pan is by far their most famous and most popular product, but they also specialize in all sorts of elaborate and festively shaped baking pans. No one can compare to their quality and selection, and ALL of their pans are sturdy, heavy duty, ultra-non-stick, and unbelievably durable.
I should know! I put their pans through the ringer!

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There is so much detail in these little skulls that I was worried it wouldn’t read once the cakes were baked, or that I’d have problems getting the cakes out cleanly from all the intricate details face and teeth. At this point I should have known that I had no need to worry. These little cakes released like a dream and all that detail came across with amazing definition in the finished cakes.

There’s actually so much detail in these little cakes, that even though I tried decorating them in several ways, I found that my favorite cakes were the simplest, with just a double coat of thin sugary glaze. Of course you can decorate them however you choose, but I really think the simpler, the better. In fact, as much as I love the creepy look of the bright red chocolate candy eyes, I worry that even they take away from the scary perfection of the little cakes as they were straight out of the pan.

dark chocolate & oreo mini skull cakes | Brooklyn Homemaker

The recipe below, simply adapted from my favorite chocolate bundt cake recipe, makes 12 mini skulls, or 2 pans worth. If you only have 1 pan, make sure you wash the pan really well between batches. I also recommend that you dry it well and throw it in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes before reapplying the butter and cocoa. Otherwise the pan will be warm from being washed and the butter will melt and make a mess when you try to dust it with cocoa.
If you don’t have this pan at all, you can get it here, or you can just make this recipe in one 10 cup bundt pan. It won’t be as scary to look at, but it’ll certainly taste just as chocolatey and delicious!

By the way, if you’ve never tried this trick before, using cocoa powder works just as well as flour to prevent the cakes from sticking to the pan, but helps the cakes look extra dark and chocolatey, rather than the dusty uneven look flour sometimes gives to the outside of chocolate cakes.

dark chocolate & oreo mini skull cakes | Brooklyn Homemaker

The flavor of these little cakes is deep dark chocolate perfect with a super tender and moist crumb. Thanks to that simple powdered sugar glaze, these little cakes almost taste like a reeeeeally good moist chocolate doughnut.

The Oreos, complete with cream (don’t use boxed crumbs!), add a really nice touch, especially if you leave some in nice big chunks so they don’t melt and disappear into the batter. Essentially you just want to put them in a plastic bag and crush ’em up with your hands or whack at them with a rolling-pin until there are no whole cookies left, but you still have lots of bigger pieces.

Now tell me, what kid (or adult) could resist a super moist chocolate cake filled with oreo cookie crumbs? Especially one in the shape of a cute-yet-terrifying little skull???

dark chocolate & oreo mini skull cakes | Brooklyn Homemaker

Dark Chocolate & Oreo Mini Skull Cakes

adapted from Joy the Baker

For the Cake:
1 1/4 cups strong hot coffee
3/4 cup Dutch process cocoa powder (I used “Double Dutch Cocoa“) plus extra for pan
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 cup peanut oil or any neutral vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups (about 1 package) roughly crushed oreos (NOT oreo cookie crumbs, you want the cream too)

For the Glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For decorating (all optional):
Red M&Ms
Sanding or decorating sugar (black, red, or silver)
white mini nonpareils
More crushed Oreos

Place an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.
Brush a skull cakelet pan (* see note) with softened butter, and dust with cocoa powder, tapping out any excess.

Whisk coffee and cocoa together in a bowl together until free of lumps and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, mix together sugar, salt, baking soda, eggs and egg yolk on low for just one minute. Add the buttermilk, oil and vanilla extract and mix on low again for another minute.
Add the flour and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes more. Add the cocoa mixture and mix on medium speed for 3 minutes. Finally, stir in the roughly crushed Oreos just until evenly distributed throughout. The batter will seem quite loose and liquid, it’s supposed to, don’t worry.
Pour half of the batter into the prepared cake pan, filling each cavity about 3/4 of the way up. This recipe makes two pans worth of batter. If you have two pans, you can bake them both at once, or once the first batch is out of the pan you can wash, dry, and cool the pan in the fridge before reapplying butter and cocoa and baking the remaining batter.
Bake for 20-30, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool for at least 15 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack.

To make the glaze:
Whisk the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla together in a medium bowl until smooth and free of lumps.

To glaze and decorate:
After some trial and error I found that the easiest way to glaze the cakelets was to pick up them up by the base and dip them into the glaze like a doughnut. Remove from the glaze, let drip dry, and turn over to dry on a cooling rack. I actually liked the look of the glaze best when the cakes were glazed twice. If you want to double glaze, wait for the first coat to dry five minutes or so before dipping again.
If you’d like to decorate with sanding sugar, crushed Oreos, or mini nonpareils, sprinkle them over the cakes before your final coat of glaze has dried. If desired, add red chocolate candies in the eye sockets.

*Note: If you don’t have a skull cakelet pan this recipe makes 1 (less spooky but equally delicious) bundt cake in a 10 cup bundt pan. A bundt will need to bake for about 55 to 65 minutes .

Maxwell’s for hair, the beginning

I was at work about two and a half years ago when I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket. It was my beloved husband Russell, so I stepped outside to take the call.

“I think I just quit my job.”…


I picked my jaw up off the sidewalk, dusted it off, and resisted the urge to reach through the phone and smack some sense into my darling spouse.

I don’t remember exactly what words were exchanged in the minutes that followed, but along with plenty of colorful language that I shouldn’t repeat here, I can assure you that our conversation was filled with pointed questions such as, “What on earth are you thinking?”, “What are we supposed to do now?”, and “Are you out of your #@*%-ing mind?”

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When Russell and I first met, he was working in a doctor’s office that specialized in ophthalmology and cosmetic surgery. He was great at his job, and had a way of making customers feel welcome and completely comfortable in spite of whatever procedure they were having done. He’s always had a special gift, the ability to make people fall in love with him from the moment they meet.

While he was good at his job, his job wasn’t necessarily good for him. The pay was okay and it could be fun sometimes, but it didn’t particularly interest him and they didn’t treat their employees with nearly as much kindness and respect as they deserved. (I know, it probably sounds like just about everyone’s job.) It wasn’t his dream job by any stretch, but he was comfortable and it was easier to stay than to start over.

Little by little though, for many reasons I won’t get into here, he became more and more unhappy. I knew that he wanted to find something else, but by that point we were newlyweds with two dogs, no savings, and plenty of wedding-related debt. I wanted to be rational and realistic about it. Of course I wanted him to be happy, but I also wanted a roof over our heads and plenty flour, sugar, and cocoa in the cupboard.

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About a year earlier, Russell had found us a new barber after our former barber (and dear friend) moved away, and it didn’t take her long to recognize what an outgoing and friendly personality Russell had. One day he mentioned that he was unhappy at work and she said she’d be willing to train him in her shop if he ever left. Ever the enterprising business owner, she knew that anyone could learn how to cut hair, but the real skill was knowing how to talk to people and get them to come back to you again and and again. She already owned two shops, was opening a third, and was always on the lookout for new people, so she tried to help cement the deal by mentioning how much money he could be making.

We discussed it for a bit and as tempting as it sounded, we decided that an apprenticeship would take too long, and the faster option of going to barber school was just out of financial reach for us. Russell wasn’t sure he’d like it any more than where he already was, and while she promised easy money, we had no idea what the reality would be.
So, level heads prevailed and he decided to keep pushing along where he was and try to find something in a line of work he was already trained to do.

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Then, on that fateful day, there was a great big heavy straw and a frail old camel with an overloaded back.

I was furious (and absolutely terrified) at first but I knew why Russell had to quit and what a relief it was to him. I also knew hoped that everything would work out in the end and we’d be just fine when the dust settled.

Finding ourselves between a rock and a hard place, we reached out to some friends and family to borrow a little money. Within a few days, Russell enrolled in barber school and we were off to the races. He got his license, started learning the ropes and building up his clientele, and before I knew it he’d paid back all the money we’d borrowed in those scary first days. In less than a year he was one of the busiest and most requested barbers in the company.

Even since that fateful phone call, Russell’s been happier and better off than he’d been for all the time that I’d known him. Things have been going just swell for over two years now, but you’ve probably guessed by now that that’s not where the story ends.

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Earlier this summer Russell mentioned that he’d like to start considering, one day in the distant and unknown future, opening a shop of his very own. While we were definitely better off than we’d been two years earlier, we still had very little money in savings and hadn’t really ever considered the idea before, so this discussion was entirely hypothetical. We ultimately decided to start putting away a little extra money here and there and open ourselves up to the possibility that this might, just might, eventually happen way down the line.

Just to get an idea of what it might take to make this dream a financial reality, he started looking at commercial real estate online. He wanted to see what kind of spaces were available where, and for how much. About a week later he found a listing that was so close to our house, and so reasonably priced, that he couldn’t get it out of his head. Mind you, this wasn’t supposed to happen for another year or two at least, and we were in no way prepared for what we were about to get ourselves in to, but once he knew the address there was no stopping him. He started by walking by just to see what the foot traffic was like and what else was around it, and within a few days he contacted the listing agent.

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The day we saw the space was a complete emotional whirlwind. We saw it in the morning and even though the agent was there the whole time and we couldn’t speak privately, thanks to a few excited glances we knew exactly what was going through one another’s minds.

First, the space was much smaller in person than we imagined from the photos. Second, it was absolutely disgusting beyond belief and needed a ton of work. Third, it had an obvious pest problem that the listing agent tried to cover up in the most hilarious way ever. Fourth, it was barely over a block from our house, in a great location, and really well priced.

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

We saw it, took some photos, and told the agent we’d get back to him if we were still interested. We tried to play it cool but we were both wrecks. The space required soooo much more work than we had originally anticipated and we didn’t know if we could afford it or handle making it happen. Holes in the front facade, big chunks of missing drywall, weird blue plastic covering where the drywall had once been, and piles of whole acorns inside the framing behind said missing drywall. When we casually mentioned the acorns, the listing agent, with a completely straight face, said that they were probably just left there by the previous tenants who were probably just eating a lot of nuts before vacating the space.


After ripping out an entire panel of drywall exposing the framing and exterior brick for some reason, then covering the hole with thin blue plastic, the previous tenants decide to sit down for a nut break in the vacant space and toss (whole) acorns inside the wall cavity exactly behind the framing.
There were more holes in his explanation than there were in the walls, and I had to bite my tongue not to laugh in his face.
Cool story Bro, but civilized human beings don’t eat raw acorns…

But I digress.

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

In the following 24 hours we both flipped positions for and against the idea multiple times. Ever the realist, I was against it at first. It was too much work, it would be too expensive, and we had no significant savings to speak of. Russell was all for it. It was so close, so affordable, and was such a perfect (small) size for his first shop on his own. He called a friend of his who specializes in commercial real estate in Manhattan, told her about the shape the space was in, and I could sense that he was beginning to realize that we might be in over our heads with this place. Oddly enough, as reality was setting in for Russell, my imagination was beginning to run wild. I’m a handy guy. I love DIY projects, and this would (eventually) be the ultimate blank slate for me to put my touch on. What was left of the drywall was in rough shape under the crappy crumbling cabinets and cheap chippy mirrors, but that wasn’t anything a little white subway tile and a splash of hutzpah couldn’t fix. Was it?

By the end of the day me and my imagination had talked him back into it.

The next step was to get an estimate from a contractor to help us with the things I couldn’t do myself. To our novice eyes, this was a daunting job, but our contractor actually said differently. The space had previously been set up as a nail salon, so much of the plumbing and electrical we’d need was already in place (or so we thought…). A bit of demo, a bit of drywall, and figuring out what to do with the floor. Everything else we planned to do ourselves.
We ran some numbers, figured some figures, and started considering our options. Our situation definitely wasn’t ideal, but we could put some of it on credit cards, and between family and friends we hoped we could scare up the rest.

Of course there was also the uncomfortable task of actually asking for money, but once we’d figured that out we were off to the races. Thank you thank you thank you to everyone who believed in us enough to help us out, especially you Mom! Seriously, there aren’t enough words in the English language for us to thank you properly.

And then things really got moving…

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

Once we’d finished with the lease negotiations (UGH!), it was time to finalize our plans with the contractor and figure out a timeline.

To our extreme surprise (and delight), he was able to start the day we got the keys! It all happened so fast in fact, that I never even had a chance to take any official “before” photos, besides the quick iPhone snaps I took the first day we saw the space. (SORRY FRIENDS.) After that, there was so much dust and debris and commotion that I was afraid to bring my camera over until it was all done. So, unfortunately, the only evidence I have of this whole crazy process exists in the form of grainy, poorly lit iPhone photos taken at bizarre angles.

Maxwell's for Hair | Brooklyn Homemaker

I know things look totally crazytown in these pictures, but to us, this was progress. Sweet, chaotic, tangible progress. There was no turning back, and every piece of debris pulled from down from the walls, and every heap of rubble piled in the corner, was one step closer to independence. The weeks and months that followed were some of the longest, most hectic, and most stressful of my life, but now that it’s all behind us it seems like it came and went in a flash!

I know this is one hell of a place to end things, but there’s still soooo much more ground to cover and I’ve been rambling for way too long already.
Sorry friends! But I promise I’ll be back in the next couple weeks to show you some actual progress and pretty stuff!

nectarines and cream icebox cake

Why hello there friends! Remember me???

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Yes it’s me! Tux!

I’m back! (well, sort of.)

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Russell and I are still plugging away at the project I mentioned in my last post, and while we’re (hopefully) nearing the finish line, we’ve still got plenty of work to do so I’m not exactly back for good. I just happened to get a little down time recently and I couldn’t bare to stay away from you for one more second!

I’ve missed you guys SO MUCH that I jumped at the opportunity to get back in the kitchen when I finally had a moment to myself. We’ve been so completely consumed with our project in the past few months that my poor kitchen has felt almost as neglected as all of you probably have.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

As it turns out though, my little bit of down time just happened to fall smack dab in the middle of our SECOND heat wave in the past couple months. For almost two weeks the daily weather forecast included “Excessive Heat Warnings”, and the city even set up “cooling stations” for the sick and elderly without air conditioning to be able to escape (and survive) the oppressive daytime temperatures.

To make matters even worse, unlike my brown-lawned family upstate, we’ve also had plenty of rain (and thunder and lightning) here in Brooklyn so along with the heat we’ve also had plenty of soupy, steamy, thick, and swampy humidity. In other words, we’ve just been sweating our butts off here in Brooklyn!

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

As you can imagine, that meant that turning the oven on to bake a cake has been sort of out of the question.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

With actual baking off the table, my first thought was to make some kind of ice cream or frozen something-or-other to help cool us off and keep me as far as possible from the oven. It didn’t take me long to realize though, that I hadn’t thought far enough ahead and my ice cream maker bowl requires overnight freezing before I could even get started.
I briefly considered popsicles but I couldn’t seem to get inspired. What I really wanted to do was bakeor at least make something that felt as homey and satisfying as something fresh from the oven. I’d been out of the kitchen and away from my oven for so long that my head kept going back to the idea of a fruity crisp or crumble or skillet cake.

Then it suddenly hit me!

Icebox cake!

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

If you’re not familiar with an icebox cake, the concept is fairly simple. You layer thin crisp cookies with whipped cream and let the whole thing set up in the refrigerator (or icebox as it were). While the cake sets up, moisture is pulled from the whipped cream, softening the cookies and firming the cream until the whole thing is transformed into a dreamy, wonderful, lick-the-plate-clean dessert with a perfectly cake-like sliceable texture.

The original recipe has been around since the first world war and was most likely inspired by similar desserts like the Charlotte or the Trifle. The first icebox cakes were made with thin chocolate wafer cookies that are increasingly difficult to find (Smitten Kitchen has a recipe if you want to make your own), but these days you can basically make them with any thin, crisp cookies you like.
The filling options these days are just as limitless as the cookies, so I knew I’d find a way to make something bright and summery and satisfying.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I wish I had some sepia-colored story about the nostalgic icebox cakes my grandmother used to make me as a boy growing up in the countryside in 1764, but the truth is that I’d never even tasted icebox cake until I made one with gingersnaps and maple cream this past December.

Even though I didn’t grow up with them, they feel every bit as homey and comforting as the bundt cakes that I actually did grow up eating in grandma’s kitchen in the country. While they’re relatively new to me, I would bet that a few more icebox cakes will turn up on the pages of Brooklyn Homemaker in the years to come. They just have that folksy days-of-yore feeling that lets me wistfully imagine joyful, touching family moments that never actually happened.

Not to mention they’re also freakin’ delicious, and crazy simple to put together.
If you can whip cream and open a box of cookies, you can make an icebox cake. They’re actually much simpler than I myself would normally go for, and the last time I made one I went the extra mile and made my own gingersnaps as the base of the cake. (You know I’m a glutton for punishment.)

This time around though, I wanted to take it easy, keep it simple, and highlight the other ingredients I wanted to feature in this simple summery creation.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Russell and I signed up for a CSA from Local Roots earlier this summer, but of course that was before we knew how busy we were about to get. We’ve been loving every ounce of fresh, local, seasonal produce, but it can sometimes be a challenge to find uses for everything without letting anything go to waste.

We’ve been getting pounds and pounds of white nectarines in the past few weeks, so I really wanted to do something special with them. What could be better than giving them the peaches and cream treatment with vanilla wafer cookies and mascarpone thickened whipped cream?

Nectarines and peaches are so similar in flavor and texture that you could substitute peaches without affecting the flavor of the recipe much at all. The white nectarines we had from our CSA though had a crisper, slightly more acidic zing to them than a standard peach, which I thought was a nice compliment to the richness of the cream. Honestly though, you could swap them out for strawberries or cherries and this cake would still be a little summery slice of heaven.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Nectarines and Cream Icebox Cake

2 lbs nectarines (or peaches), peeled, pitted, and roughly chopped
3/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Cointreau (optional) *see note
2 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
8 oz mascarpone at room temperature
Two 11 oz packages of vanilla wafer cookies, such as Nilla Wafers

Combine roughly chopped nectarines with sugar, salt, and orange liqueur in a medium bowl. Stir to combine and macerate for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream on high just until it begins to thicken and form soft peaks. Add the mascarpone and beat on low speed until almost smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and fold to incorporate. Add the macerated chopped nectarines and beat on low for 30 to 60 seconds and scrape down the sides and fold again. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until the mixture is thick and holds firm peaks, another 30 to 60 seconds. Do NOT over-beat or the cream can become waxy and the mascarpone can become grainy.

On an 8″ cake board, or a cake stand or serving plate, arrange a layer of vanilla wafer cookies into three tight circles. I used 19 cookies per layer, with 1 cookie in the center, then one circle of 6 cookies and another circle of 12, but that’ll depend on the size of the cookie you use. Once you’ve arranged your first layer of cookies, place about a cup of cream over them and smooth it out with an offset icing spatula. Spread the cream almost to the outer edge, leaving just a small edge of cookies showing. Arrange another layer of cookies, trying to alternate the layers so they appear staggered above one another. Repeat another layer of cream and then another layer of cookies, again and again until you have as many layers as you desire or until you run out of cookies or cream. Finish the top of the cake with a final layer of cream. My cake was 8 layers tall, but again, this may depend on the size of the cookies you use.

If you have a cookie or two left over, garnish the cake by crumbling them in the center of the top if desired.

Try to delicately tent the cake with plastic wrap or cover with a large inverted bowl or cake dome before transferring to the refrigerator to set up.
Place cake to refrigerator for an absolute minimum of 6 hours (but ideally 12 to 24 hours) before serving. This cake will continue to improve the longer you can wait. As it sets, the cream will get firmer as the cookies get softer, and the flavors will distribute more evenly. Patience is a virtue!

Once set, the cake can be sliced and served much like a regular cake. If possible, it’s best to use a sharp serrated knife with a gentle sawing motion to avoid smooshing the cake and to get the best looking slices possible. Really though, you could dish it into bowls with a spoon if you wanted, and everyone would love it just as much.
Cake can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for 3 or 4 days.

Peach schnapps would be great too if you have it, or you could also substitute rum or bourbon for a bit of extra warmth.
If you’d prefer to keep it completely non-alcoholic, a teaspoon or two of orange blossom water or rose water would be a lovely substitution. That stuff is potent though so start with just a little and taste to see if you’d like to add more.