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Cooking in Clay: Gratin dishes

“There are as many ‘authentic’ versions of gratin dauphinois as there are of bouillabaisse.”
— Julia Child

Überbackenes Kassler

An au gratined Kassler. By kaʁstn Disk/Cat via Wikimedia Commons

I have four gratin dishes, two different sets and I find them useful because of their size. Shallow and elongated, they allow food to cook and brown evenly. Usually, cheese or bread crumbs and butter are part of traditional recipes and the dish is placed under a broiler in the final stages of cooking. While they all have the same oval shape, gratin dishes come in different sizes and are made of different clays, some heavier, some lighter. This set of Rachael Ray dishes have a light, modern look and I can imagine how pretty they’d look with fresh sliced tomatoes peeking through the browned bread crumbs and cheese. Gratin cookware can be fancy, delicate, or designed for heavy use. It also tends toward cheerful colors and the most gloomy day can be pepped up by using them. Besides, what’s more homey and inviting than the crackle and pop, the mouth-watering aroma, and the rustic appeal of a dish cooked au gratin?

Barking Spider Pottery’s Rust Au Gratin Dishes

The stoneware dishes at the right, made by Barking Spider Pottery in North Carolina, are quite lovely and look like they would hold heat well and be a long-lasting addition to your kitchen. I wouldn’t mind having a set of these myself!  Many companies carry mass-produced gratin dishes, including Le Creuset and French Home. As far as recipes, here are 19 from Emeril’s site, which are bound to please! What follows is a YouTube video of Jacques Pépin demonstrating how to make Gratin of Tomato and Bread. Julia Child was prone to teasing Pépin and would often irk him on camera. That won’t happen in this video, as the master chef will be making the dish with his daughter, the lovely Claudine Pépin.


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Bonsai figurines: mudmen, mudwomen, penjing

Trident Maple bonsai 52, October 10, 2008

A Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum) bonsai, Japanese Collection 52, on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum. According to the tree’s display placard, it has been in training since 1895. It was donated by Prince Takamatsu. By Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons

The tiny figurines are called mudmen and mudwomen and they are used with bonsai to emphasize scale. There are many websites devoted to bonsai and one can find these ceramic figurines on most of them. Traditional figures show elderly men and women in native dress, sitting or walking, or performing tasks. Also common are buildings, bridges, and lanterns. The figure to the right is from a site called Bonsai Boy of New York. It is four inches tall. The figure below, showing a woman trimming a bonsai, is from the same site. In addition to the figurines, the dishes bonsai are grown in are also ceramic…some rustic looking earthenware, others elegantly decorated porcelain.

As we know, the art of bonsai is ancient. “The container known as the pen originated in Neolithic China in the Yangshao culture as an earthenware shallow dish with a foot,” according to Wikipedia. “Penjing generally fall into one of three categories classified by subject matter: Tree Penjing, Landscape Penjing, and Water and Land Penjing. Japan’s bonsai tradition (bonsai being the Japanese pronunciation of penzai) is derived from penjing.” The origins of the art of growing tiny trees is shrouded in myth, but the most recent knowledge that is certain comes from the Tang Dynasty. “Penjing seeks to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts,” according to the site. Taoist ethics and its sense of opposites are involved, too, through the receptive yin and dynamic yang. One site that sells bonsai figurines is Mini Forest. In addition, the Bonsai Exhibition of the Hong Kong Flower Show is a good place to see these assemblages, created by people who are experts in the tradition. Here are some photos from a 2011 bonsai show, Figurines in Penjing.

I was very curious about the production end, though. Most of these figures today are mass-made and the prices can be embarrassingly low. I fear what the workers are making because the figurines go for so little, as with the ones offered on this site.  According to Arts by Hand, traditional hand building of bonsai figurines gave way to slipcasting and the use of press molds. Also, “Pen’Jing is apparently experiencing a revival in modern day China,” states collector Myron Redding. “It is a nearly lost art form that is once again becoming popular with Chinese bonsai enthusiasts.” Redding states that the figures that were originally made by press mold sometimes show the fingerprints of people long gone. Describing the pieces, he says, “After the torso was released from the mould, the head, hands and legs or feet would be added.” He explains that “hair, hats, beards and other items would complete the ensemble. As a finishing touch, eyes, nose and ears would be pierced to add further detail.” The article by Redding is quite good. It is clear that he is a collector who has a great love for the craftmanship of antique penjing. If you are interested, take a look, as he goes on to talk about types and colors of clay and glazes originally used. Evidently, the mudwomen are highly sought after and are a rarity. If you are interested in collecting antique mud figures, click here for a how-to. Further, I am posting a video of a man making fine figurines.



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Good Impressions Part 4: Saggar firing with Terry Shepherd

Terry Shepherd is an expert in saggar firing and the videos we’re seeing today are from a workshop he taught. His site, Shepherd Clay Works, shows his range of work. Shepherd is the artist-in-residence and director of the ceramics program at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts. His site states that Shepherd “has become known for introducing students to low-fire saggar and thin shell saggar, with fuming techniques utilizing natural combustibles such as tamarisk , salt brined fescue grasses, salt, copper and cobalt sulphate to produce a unique surface embellishment.” Shepherd does beautiful work and I like how he uses material like tamarisk and seaweed. One of my most beloved pieces (photo on right) was made by my teacher Mr. Takehara’s assistant, George. It’s a small porcelain bowl. The interplay of celadon, orange, and impressions from organic matter make it a vessel that has the hallmarks of perfection. George’s technique differs from Shepherd’s but they both create masterpieces. This is a worthwhile series and a person can learn much by watching Shepherd speak and demonstrate his techniques in this workshop. Think about saggar firing some of your own work. You won’t be let down by the results. It’s summertime…perfect weather for such work!

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Video Tutorial: Sculpting open eyes in clay, by Joanna Mozdzen


A look at downtown London (Ontario) during a winter morning. By Mathew Campbell via Wikimedia Commons

I hope you enjoy this video tutorial as much as I do! It is one of the best I’ve seen and sculptor Joanna Mozdzen is indeed a master. She immigrated to London, Ontario, Canada from Poland, having also spent a year and a half in Italy absorbing the art and architecture. In her artist statement, she says, “In 2007, I overcame my personal fears and dedicated myself to a full-time career as a Sculptor/Mask maker.” I think this is something to which we can all relate: the fact that we must surmount our fears in order to pursue our art. And surmount it she did, as evidenced by the amazing body of work she has created.  “As a young child I loved to draw and the main themes of my artistic endeavours have mostly focused on the human face, with an emphasis on its varied facial expressions,” states Mozdzen. She recently taught an introduction to sculpting the human figure at the Arts Project  in London, Ontario. Please take a look at this beautiful video tutorial, complete with a tasteful and unobtrusive soundtrack.


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