The Zen of Chandelier Cleaning

How odd to notice
My hands channeling my mom:
Sweet inheritance.
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I have many memories, only some of them fond, of helping my mom clean the gi-normous chandelier that hung in the hallway of the home I grew up in. Once a year or two, she would devote an entire day to cleaning the beast, usually a few weeks preceding Thanksgiving. Here is a picture of a chandelier like it.

A83-52/2MT/24+1  Maria Theresa CHANDELIER Chandeliers, Crystal Chandelier, Crystal Chandeliers, Lighting

Mom would do half at a time, so that she could use the other half as a template. There were at least 10 different prism designs (I would guess 250+ prisms?) and figuring out what went where was a nightmare. The process was long: Remove them to a bucket in stages.  Then, soak the crystals in ammonia and water to clean them before laying them out to dry, with some manual drying assistance. Then back to hang them up before starting the second half. To this day, I can’t smell ammonia without being instantly transported back to Rogers Avenue and a mind-numbingly long day up and down a 10 foot ladder (did I mention the ceilings were 12 feet tall?), nervous the whole time I would drop something.

I have a crystal chandelier in my house, a marriage of two small ones that once hung in that same house. Two and a half years ago when we moved in to our current home, I washed it with loving care… the kind of love present when you first clean things in your new home.  I enjoyed bringing it back to life, as it had been in a box for many years. Today I washed it again, but I discovered something that I hadn’t known before – not the first time I washed this one, nor in any of the times I helped my mom. There is something peaceful and zen-like when you wash a chandelier, and I enjoyed it very much.

I think the main cause of this is the fact that your attention must be 100% focused on what you are doing at that moment in time. Each prism has metal bits (sometimes several), that will snag your cloth easily and go flying away.  Getting each dry with no fingerprints requires dexterity (often carpal-tunnel-inducing). Wiping down the naked fixture, ensuring no dust or cleaner is left behind is a rigorous, meticulous affair. All done on a ladder, your arms raised.

And I loved it. I now feel at peace and satisfied at a job well done. I am sure my blood pressure is lower than when I started.  Granted, my chandelier is small, so I’m not sure this now Mom felt… Here is a picture of mine naked and dirty.

2012-12-26 14.54.41

It only has 72 crystals and 4 swags across its 8 arms and center pillar. Took me about 2-3 hours across the afternoon to complete the work.  Here it is clean and dressed:2012-12-26 16.57.08 

Beautiful! I had been avoiding cleaning it for a while, but next year I will remember how I feel now, and gladly set the time aside. It’s easy to forget the power of being present.

My Aga – Not just an oven…

My Aga greets me.
Its warmth melts the weariness
Of a long journey.
………………………………………..
My friends closest to me probably do not want to read this post. They know all about my Aga and likely aren’t interested in hearing more. But for those of you who don’t know what an Aga is, or why I’m so nuts about it, this post is for you.

So, what exactly is an Aga? First, it is pronounced like gaga (as in lady gaga), with the first G missing and the emphasis on the first ‘a’.  Here is a picture of my Aga.

My Aga... (notice the beautiful tile work, all done by Frank-the-wonderful)

A beauty, isn’t she? We first encountered one when we lived in England and our rental home had one. We didn’t know that some people find them intimidating – we just thought it was really cool and it’s why we picked that particular home to live in. And boy am I glad we did. My cooking will never be the same. They are very popular in England and other parts of Europe, and can also be found in the northern parts of the US (that is more my guess based on where we go for parts…).

An Aga is defined as a large iron cooker [it’s make of cast iron] which keeps its heat (from the Cambridge Dictionaries online). It has 4 ovens, each at a different temperature range: Roasting (~400 plus), Baking (~325-375), Simmering (~250) and Warming (~125).  On top there are two covered “plates” – the boiling plate and the simmering plate. There is also the “top plate” on the top left – not a cooking surface, just a warm area.

       

Open wide - the 4 ovens, clockwise from bottom left: warming, simmering, roasting, baking; center bottom door opens to the controls

boiling plate on left, simmering plate on right. Not sure why the right lid is always a mess - grilled cheese dross I think.

An Aga stores heat (although it is always warm, it only “runs” to make up for any lost heat). The goal in cooking on an Aga is to retain its heat and cook as much as you can in the ovens. That means often you start a dish on one of the plates, but you finish it in an oven. For example, you could boil the potatoes on the stove until your windows are running with condensation. Or, in the Aga, you bring the potatoes to boil on the boiling plate, pour off the water, cover it, put it into the Simmering Oven and then 30 minutes later your potatoes are steam-cooked and ready for mashing.  The house isn’t a humid mess and the potatoes are perfect.  The ovens too are designed for you to get a dish started in one place (the roasting oven for instance) and finished in another (the simmering oven). You need to fiddle with the time, but it is fairly straight forward.

You can use all areas inside of each oven – near the top it is warmer, or you can put it directly on the floor of an oven. You can put your whole pan in there, handle an all (assuming no plastic handles…).

I know this sounds really complicated, and you might wonder why bother. I’ll tell you why: it makes the world’s best bacon. This is not an exaggeration. You will not find better bacon anywhere. And the best part? The bacon fries in a pan on the floor of the roasting oven so you don’t have to clean up spattered grease. (Take note on the door of the top right oven (the roasting oven) in the picture above – see all that? That is from all the cooking and would be on my counters and in my hair if not in the oven. Don’t get disgusted, the door gets cleaned regularly and inside the oven is so hot that it carbonizes any spills.) When we finally got the Aga installed (my wonderful handy amazing husband Frank did all the work), Christmas Day 2010, guess what the first thing I cooked in the Aga was… yes, bacon.

Other wonderful things about my Aga:

  • Boiling plate boils a kettle faster than an electric kettle. In seconds it will start to make that happy boiling “tinkle” sound.
  • It is always warm, so when you are cold, you just need to stand near it or lay over the top and you’ll warm right up.
  • Great place to lay coats on cold winter mornings before going out. (Note – some parts are too hot to handle clothing, so you do need to be careful.)
  • You can warm plates on the top while the cooking finishes. You can see white plates on the top left side in the first picture, waiting for something to come out of an oven, get filled and then taken to the table. Makes me seem like a much more accomplished cook than I am.
  • All parts are handy… melt butter in a small pan on the top somewhere; soften cream cheese next to it or on top of it… toss all your leftovers in the simmering oven about an hour before dinner and they’ll all be warm at the same time – no more microwave shuffling of multiple dishes. You cook pancakes directly on the simmering plate – no pan needed, so less mess to clean up.
  • We compost fruit and veg scrap… and we keep the container right on top of the Aga (see the canister in the first picture again). The heat dries out the scraps and extends the time before we have to put them in the compost bin.
  • I find it easier to cook healthy dishes. Cut up some veg, toss in some herbs and olive oil, throw in the top of the roasting oven – 30 minutes later, perfectly roasted veggies. Almost as easy as opening a can of veggies and putting them in the microwave.
  • It has elimimated nearly all my other appliances. No toaster, no crock pot, no bread maker, no microwave bacon cooker, no electric skillet, no rice cooker. Truth be told, I still sometimes use the  rice cooker (my Aga rice is meh), but not very often. I also limit my microwave usage.
  • You can cook a ton of food at once because each oven can handle a lot of pans.  When living in England, I hosted Thanksgiving for nearly 20 people. I did all the food: turkey, side dishes and desserts. Everything was warm when it was served because the Aga is so versatile — cook in one oven, keep warm in another or on top. The turkey itself was finished at around 5pm, but I just put it on top of the oven (on the left side), covered it with a ski jacket, and 2 hours later when it was carved it was piping hot and delicious.

Issues or questions you might wonder about…

  • Is it safe for kids? Yes. My kids have never once burned themselves. They know where it is warm and where it is too hot to touch, and therefore to respect it, but that should be true of all appliances, right?
  • You put food in there and forget it is there, for several days. This is true. The smells vent outside so if you have left something, you often don’t realize it. This has had good results before (when we left soup in there for a day and a half… just had to add some water to the uber-concentrated veggie sludge and it was the best soup ever!) and bad (the broccoli looked like dried out flowers, ick).  Just makes it a little more fun and exciting each time you open an oven door.
  • I’ve failed miserably making caramels. Had to use the top plates to make it, which drains the heat over the 45 minutes required for cooking caramels. I kept moving the pan to the hotter plate because it was taking too long, but eventually scorched the candy. Dagnabbit. I haven’t tried again, but I will, and this time I’ll have more patience and perhaps not double the recipe…
  • They are expensive to buy and run. We purchased ours while still in the UK over eBay… got a great deal. I wouldn’t buy a new one – couldn’t afford it – but used worked for us. They do show up on eBay in the US at times.  Monthly, we think it costs us maybe $30-40 to run it (gas), so that’s clearly a choice. But the other benefits (warm kitchen, warm coats, great bacon) more than make up for it. For the “greenies” out there, you could heat a significant portion of your house with this. We didn’t go that far, but when we rehabbed our current house and kitchen, we designed the new HVAC systems (up and down) so that we could balance out the extra Aga heat as efficiently as possible. Not perfect, but better.
  • Isn’t the house always hot/warm? Can you run it in the summer? It does make the kitchen warmer than the rest of the house. But the heat isn’t too bad in the summer. Interestingly, we had it off for a week last summer to clean and service it and I will tell you, the kitchen just felt weird. It wasn’t right that it was cool/normal. This oven is the heart of our home and when it was “cold”, the house felt sad and the family was a little “off”. So, the little extra heat is worth it. (I’m not saying I’d run it in summers in my hometown in middle Georgia, but Cincinnati isn’t too bad…)

That’s it, my Aga. I love it – it makes me very happy. I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for not just an oven, but something that enriches your life. And I’d be happy to make you bacon anytime.

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