Friday, December 23, 2016

Vintage Baking Pitfalls - A Sizeable Issue

This time of year, about 80% of what I do in the kitchen is based in tradition.

Most of the baking I do for the holidays is based in family favorite cookie and bar recipes. (I'll be honest: I don't do a lot of cooking around the holidays, it's mainly just baking.)
Actual recipes tucked into the front of my binder-ed cookbook.
The trouble with this is that old recipes (and a certain number of new ones, for that matter) tend to list ingredients by the way you used to be able to buy them. You often see recipes calling for "a can of sweetened condensed milk" or "a package of chocolate chips." And all of those probably made perfect sense to the people writing them - and their contemporaries.

The Betty Crocker is from 1950, my copy of Joy is from the 80s. No idea the age on the plaid-covered one on the far right.
Don't get me wrong: the recipes in my older cookbooks are incredible. I probably use them about 70/30 over new cookbooks (though that doesn't stop me from acquiring new cookbooks...).

Today, though, as companies ever-so-subtly shrink - or enlarge - the contents of their packages, there can be all sorts of issues when you're in the kitchen.

Not sure what I mean? Well...
  • The can of tuna I opened for lunch, yesterday, was 5 ounces - the ones I grew up with (which, really, looked the same) were 6 ounces.
  • The standard package of chocolate chips I buy (when not shopping at Costco) is 12 ounces, but the chocolate chip cookie recipe I use calls for "one 6-ounce package" of chocolate chips.
  • The boxed cake mix the mother of a friend of mine uses as her standard base for Christmas cakes has - at least in some areas - changed from 18 ounces to 15 ounces.
I've gotten good (or at least better) at trying to check actual quantities before beginning a recipe, but in some cases it's pretty difficult. I think we've all heard the stories of a great aunt saying that the only measuring cup she ever used was a teacup that she kept in the pantry - and all of her hand-written recipes are based on that. How in the world can you replicate that?

I'm a firm believer that time in the kitchen passing recipes from generation to generation is incredible - I know that I feel much more tethered to my past when I'm using the recipes that were handed down, possibly a little worn around the edges, and hand-written or typed out. I'm also a firm believer in making sure that the next generation can actually use the recipes.

So, please, as you're in the kitchen this season (or any time in the year), and you come across a "one can of..." or "one packet of..." notation in one of your recipes, do yourself - and everyone who will be asking you for the recipe - a favor and make a quantity note.

Unless, of course, it's a secret recipe - or the one ingredient that no one knows about but your great aunt. Obviously. There are some things that do need to be left to tradition.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Publishing 101 - Know Your Calendar

I know that most of what I've talked about in here is the mechanics of completing a book, but I was having a conversation earlier this week about publishing deadlines, and thought I should at least mention something, here:

Books take time. 

Not just the writing and editing and formatting and all that, but the printing, too. It all takes time.

Sure, on some sites you can almost-instantly go from uploading your manuscript to someone being able to buy it, but whether you're working with a download or an actual physical book there is going to be some time between those two steps for things like file verifications and maybe even proofing.

If you're going a more traditional route - either through a "traditional" publisher or one of the self-publishing/publishing-service-provider companies, it can be months (or even years) from the time you start to the time that you have a finished product.

If you want books for Christmas, you typically can't just start in October. In fact, if you want your "traditionally" published book to be online - or possibly even in stores - for the Christmas season, some calendars would say that you have to have them completed and ready to leave the warehouse by as early as July. And this is true even if the book's publication date is December.

My big advice to you, then, is to look at your calendar and see when you want your books. (Do you want to have them on sale in time to become Holiday gifts? Are you planning to hand them out at the next family reunion?) Then do your research into your possible different methods for getting them in hand and start working backward from there.

If you find that the publisher you really like can't meet your deadline, you're going to want to decide which of those two things is more important to you and proceed accordingly (by changing one or the other of them).

Do you need people to have access to your work ASAP? Maybe an online ebook seller is right for you.

Have all the time in the world, because you were smart and didn't try to make plans before you knew your deadlines? Feel free to consider longer processes.

Above all - as with anything else in publishing - knowing what you want, what you must have, and what you can live without will be the first step in a successful publishing process.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Candy Cane Bundt with Chocolate Surprise - What Could Go Wrong?

As I mentioned last week, I was kind of challenged to do the Bundt Cake that follows. Well... sort of. It was suggested that I try out the "Bigfoot Bundt Cake" found on the Nerdist website, which is where this photo comes from:

I thought it looked interesting, but had an issue with it: I have a ton of cookie cutters and didn't want to go out and buy a Bigfoot cutter just for this.

So I decided to accept the spirit of the challenge, if not the exactitude of it.

About the same time, I realized that a peppermint chocolate cake sounded really good. So I did a little research, and came up with this one on a blog site called "Crunchy Creamy Sweet" - where I found this photo:

So I thought "Why not combine the two?" and thus this came into being.

Because I worked directly from the recipe on Crunchy Creamy Sweet, I'm not going to reprint the full recipe here. But let's look at the steps that I took:

We start with a pre-made cake. I used a 9x13 pan, but I think I should have used a half-sheet, instead (you'll see why, below).

The ingredients for the Peppermint Bundt.

Checking to see whether the cookie cutters I wanted to use would fit within the confines of the Bundt pan.

Can you see why I probably should have made this in a sheet pan? The cake was so thick that cutting out shapes was pretty difficult. Many of the star points broke off along the way.

Here are the filler shapes - though most of them didn't look like much, honestly. I have no idea how the Bigfoot turned out as well as it did on the Nerdist site. (Don't worry - the rest didn't go to waste. We had a container of frosting in the pantry, and had "bowls of cake.")

It seemed odd to mix the oil and sugar - though you frequently cream butter and sugar, so I guess it shouldn't have been so strange.

Almost everything is in there, now.

Tinting half the cake batter to get the candy cane effect.

Okay. Here's where it gets tricky. You're supposed to put in half the white batter, then the red batter, then the white again, to get the swirls. But I also wanted to add in the chocolate shapes.

Chocolate shapes going in. They need to be in far enough to "stand up." But you also need them to not touch the edges of the pan so that they don't show before the cake is cut.

Okay. Here's how it looked with the white, red, white batter layers. Somewhere around here I started to think this was not going to turn out like the Nerdist insinuated.

Not gonna lie: I don't understand the physics behind the chocolate cake "floating up" as the Bundt cake baked. Maybe my box chocolate cake was too light for the Bundt, and they need to be more similar in density? (Did Archimedes do studies on such things?)

This is how it looked in the pan when it came out of the oven.

Honestly, though, it looked pretty darned good from the top when I flipped it out.

Except for the one spot where the chocolate got too close to the outer edge, so the cake broke away. (This is part of why I'm really not sure how that Bigfoot cake worked - at least without the benefit of Photoshop.)

With no white chocolate or candy canes in the house, a dusting of powdered sugar was as festive as I could manage.

I cut into the part where that chunk was falling off, just to see how it turned out. You can see that the star kind of didn't make it.

On the other hand, the cake had a great texture, and next to a nice glass of milk was really festive - and would probably be great for Santa...

Do I think that this was a fail? No. I just think it wasn't as easy as the recipes might have made me expect. But, let's face it: Finding any kind of craft online and trying to get a good result on the first try is pretty much always a crap shoot. I think that with a better combination of cakes - and possibly smaller cookie cutter shapes - this might have turned out. I also think that the cutouts probably ought to be completely covered by the Bundt batter before baking. But since I've only done it once, I don't know if that would guarantee a good result.

On the other hand, though, it was a really tasty Peppermint Bundt, and Christopher's coworkers enjoyed it. It may or may not be attempted again in future - without the chocolate shapes inside.

Do you have a recipe you'd like to see made - without having to do it yourself - let me know and I'll try it out!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Writing 101: Retail Rhetoric, or Who's Your Dictionary?

As we get closer to the Holidays and survive the "every day is Black Friday" sales period, I'm constantly amazed by one phrase which has become more and more common in advertising over the past few years: BOGO.

Technically, as I'm sure everyone knows, "BOGO" stands for "Buy One, Get One" - but what confuses me is: if you're buying one, then shouldn't you assume that you're getting one?

I won't lie: since what they really mean is "Buy One (at full price), Get Another (at some reduced rate)," I kind of wish they had to say that.

Okay. I realize that I'm being a bit pedantic in this, but in a world where TV ads frequently have huge, long disclaimers - and when store coupons frequently have more "not good for..." sections than "good for..." sections - doesn't it seem odd that advertisers can get away with this? 

Here's the thing, though: advertisers assume (mostly correctly) that their audience will understand exactly what they mean. In other words, their connotation (context-based understanding) of the word/phrase is more important than the denotation (dictionary defined meaning) of the actual word/phrase.

(Sorry. I know this is a nerdy bit. I'd apologize, but I put in a lot of hours in English classes and this is one of the strange bits that seems to have really stuck.)

How does this apply to writing (whether for advertising or a novel)? Because if you and your audience have the same points of view, then you'll probably have matching connotations (contextual meanings) for almost all words.

On the other hand, if you have different points of reference, although the words you're using may have the same denotations (dictionary meanings), they may not have the same connotations (contextual meanings).

Consider the meaning of "cool" and "hot." The denotative meanings would certainly label each of them as having to do with scales of temperature. But connotations are obviously different. A "cool" woman doesn't necessarily have a lower body temperature than a "hot" man.

Even so, if you're reader doesn't know that those words have secondary meanings he or she could be incredibly confused by what you mean. This gets even more confusing when you start working with technical jargon or language which is very specific to the genre you're writing in.

If you're not sure how to work explanations into your writing to make certain that you and your readers are all speaking the same language, it can often be as easy as adding a parenthetical comment (as I've done above), or by having a character (or the narrator) explain it. (And, of course, an editor can always help with this.)

All things being equal - which is seldom true when speaking of language - everyone will come out the other side with exactly what they expected. Much like when you buy one, and get ... well... whatever it is you're expecting to get.

Friday, December 9, 2016

'Tis the Season of Antici-Preparation

There is something about the month leading up to Christmas that, for me, is all about "antici-preparation."

When you're a kid - and, if you're lucky, when you're an adult - you spend much of the time leading up to any big event filled with anticipation. Hoping for everything to turn out right - and assuming that, some how, it will.

Then, when you get older, you start to realize that not everything comes together magically. Someone has to buy and place the flowers. Someone has to wrap the presents. Someone has to remember just how many pounds of chocolate chips you need to make all of the recipes.

I feel like I've always been a bit of a planner. Don't get me wrong - I still love the anticipation side of things, and a little mystery can be a lot of fun - but I'm probably happier if I can have a hand in the preparation, too. (Which is why I'm often found in the kitchen before - and during - any party.)

So, as we're entering this most antici-preparatory season, if you walk into the kitchen on any given day you'll probably see this on top of the fridge:

Yes, that's margarine (for most of my baking) and butter (for my soy-free baking) softening in the warmest place in the kitchen. Did you know that margarine now has a "keep refrigerated for safety" warning on it? I guess all the years we had it in a butter dish in the cupboard we were just taking our lives in our own hands...
This "everything on the fridge to soften" set-up is especially noticeable on days when I've started to bake something and realized that I had no softened shortening. Which explains the three pounds of margarine in this picture taken earlier today. (Because I started to make some cookies yesterday, only to find out that I had nothing softened.)

I'm also antici-preparing for a new Bundt adventure which I plan to undertake on Sunday (so that I can send the resulting cake to work with Christopher on Monday). The recipe (which I'll be posting about next Friday) is a bit of a mashup of two different recipes, but the idea came from a friend of mine when I was in the midst of my all-Bundt-all-the-time posting.

Here's a teaser for you:

That's a 9x13 cake pan with a chocolate cake in it (minus one corner for quality testing). And, yes, those are cookie cutters on top of it. Ooohhh... intriguing, isn't it?
I have to admit that I'm both mostly prepared and incredibly anxious to try it out. And I promise I'm going to do my best to take all the right photos along the way so we can all see whether or not it turns out.

I'm not going to lie. Having to wait until Sunday is going to be hard - the antici-preparation may be too much to hold back!

Want to see me try out a recipe that you've seen somewhere? Let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Is "Now" Good for You? - quotation marks revisited

A few weeks ago, we talked about questionable usages of quotation marks, and how they can really lend themselves to making otherwise normal sentences seem strangely magical - or just weird.

What does it mean when the sign outside a butcher shop says:

Our hamburger is ground "fresh" every day!

Should we question the dealership if the sign out front promotes:

Huge discounts on all "new" cars!

Where do we go when the sign says:

Turn "right" at the light.

Yet, as I was driving last week, I passed a sign where the ambiguous quotation marks actually seemed to make sense. Sadly, I was driving at the time - so I didn't take any photos.

Here's the set-up: I was driving along Interstate 90, having just entered South Dakota from Minnesota. The billboard - which was advertising something I no longer remember - was located about 3/4 of a mile before the next exit, calling drivers to: 

Exit right "now"!

I looked at that, and thought "well, there's a bad use of quotation marks!" But then I thought about it a little more and decided to give the sign maker the benefit of the doubt. After all, if a driver literally exited where the sign said to exit ("right now!"), that driver would have ended up driving through a ditch, through a fence, and across some farmland. 

If, on the other hand, the driving reader realized that "now" was in quotation marks to suggest that it was indicating a relative immediacy, as opposed to a concrete immediacy, he or she would also realize that turning off at the next paved exit was the way to go. 

With that in mind - and with the forgiveness that comes with Thanksgiving (yet seems to quickly go away on Black Friday) - I have opted to applaud the sign maker's use of the quotation marks. 

Okay, yes, I may be over-thinking this just a tad. But I had pumpkin pie on my mind at the time, and so the benefit of the doubt seemed like a good way to go. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Over the River, Through the Woods, and Into the Kitchen

With Thanksgiving behind us, and a whole lot of holidays ahead of us (I mean... really... just google "How many holidays are in December?" and you can find 30+ holidays covering pretty much every continent), there's probably about a 50/50 chance that you'll be travelling.

And, if you're someone who cooks (or bakes) there's an even better chance that you'll be expected to cook (or bake) something while travelling.

Most of the time this means you're taking something that is already done. So you wrap your casserole dish in layers of kitchen towels and put it in the car hoping it doesn't get too cold by the time you get across town. Or you gingerly wrap a layered set of waxed paper, plastic wrap, and foil around your cake so it doesn't crumble by the time you get out of the car six hours later.

Sometimes, though, you're heading somewhere where you'll have enough time - and maybe even enough space - to put something together on the other end of the trip. This is what we did over Thanksgiving.

You see, my parents' house is about six hours away from where Christopher and I live (less if I'm driving alone, more if we're driving with the pup in the car), and since we were driving down on Thursday my parents agreed to do "Thanksgiving dinner" on Friday. Mom was all set to make the main meal, but I volunteered to make the pumpkin pie.

I grew up in my mom's kitchen. And, although a few things have moved since I left home in the late '80s, I still feel pretty much at home when I'm in that kitchen. I know where the bowls are. I know where the measuring spoons are. And I know where the spices used to be. But I've also learned over the past few years that as Mom and Dad have scaled back their cooking, some ingredients haven't been getting restocked. So I had to plan ahead.

I didn't want to try to bake the pie in advance and take it with us (the car was already going to be filled with everything we have to take to keep the pooch safe and happy in their house), so I opted to take almost everything with me.

Canned pumpkin? check. Lard for the crust? check. Spices and sugars? check. The only things I didn't plan to take were the flour (for the crust) and eggs - which I knew they'd have. (Oddly enough, although I had planned to take evaporated milk, I forgot it - luckily there was some in the pantry.)

I won't lie - it felt a little strange just dumping the entire bag of ingredients into the pumpkin without measuring it. But it turned out great (even with a slight hiccup due to the fact that when I thought I was turning off the oven timer I actually turned off the oven, itself). So great, in fact, that I have no photos to share of the finished product.

Gee... It's almost like there could be a whole industry out there of prepared foods and mixes. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of that.

**For the record: The recipe I always use for pumpkin pie is from The Joy of Cooking. It's not overly sweet, and the spices - cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves - really play nicely with the flavor of the pumpkin.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Writing 101: Rhetoric, aka "Word Choices Matter"

If you're like me, you've heard a lot of talk, lately, about all of the "political rhetoric" both pre- and post-election. And although the newscasters always make it very clear that this has something to do with the way the candidates are speaking, no one ever seems to talk about what it has to do with what their saying. So here's a quick lesson in the actual - non-political - meaning of "rhetoric."

When I was in grad school, my field of study was "Composition and Rhetoric." Of course, whenever I told someone I was a grad student in English, people would immediately assume that I was either studying Literature or Creative Writing. When I would say "I'm studying Composition and Rhetoric" I would watch fear flash across their faces - fearful that I'd be grading their conversation style, I guess - and the brave few would ask what that meant. My short answer was - and still is: "Composition is how you put words together to form sentences. Rhetoric is how you choose the words."

In other words, at it's most basic, Rhetoric is all about word choice. It's not a political field. It's bipartisan. It's neutral. It is clay to be molded.

But, yes, once that clay is in someone's hands, it could be molded into a dinner plate or a club - depending on which choices are made. (See also: political rhetoric.)

Most of us really don't think much about rhetoric, though it impacts us every day.

Let's say that you've purchased a new TV, and you're not sure how to hook it up. Which of the following would you be more inclined to contact?
  1. The Customer Care Hotline
  2. The Customer Service Line
  3. The Post-purchase Assistance Line
  4. The Customer Helpline
They're all the same, right? They would probably all ring through to the same really tired person named Britney in a call center in Topeka. But which one would you be more likely to call to help you hook up your TV?

If you ask me, the one I'd want to call for help setting up my TV would be #3. Because, you know, it's after my purchase, and I need assistance. #1 sounds like it probably has someone on the other end who will pat me on the head and say calmly "there, there" - but who won't help me with my TV; #2 seems to indicate that they can help me if something is wrong with my invoice; and, frankly, #4 sounds like the people you call to help you with your turkey on Thanksgiving.

The differences are subtle, but they're important. That's rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the difference between saying that "the losing team put up a great fight" and saying "the losers fought hard." In both cases, they didn't win, but a "losing team" is emotionally different from "losers."

And, yes, rhetoric can become a powerful tool. 

Consider the difference between the phrases: "the children of immigrants" and "first-generation Americans." They can both refer to the exact same group of people - people whose parents arrived in the United States before they were born - but they have very different connotations. The first sounds like the children may or may not be invested in the American culture, while the second sounds like they're wearing red, white, and blue every day. But - again - they can both describe the same demographic. When a news report (broadcast, online, print, wherever) chooses one phrase or the other, that automatically colors how we hear the news.

There is a huge difference in perception between someone who is said to be "mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive" and someone who is simply called "a bully" - and both are far removed from the tone of someone being called "an emotional terrorist." And, trust me, every good lawyer knows which phrase to use in court depending upon how he/she wants to trial to go.

When you're writing - whether it's a novel, a non-fiction report, or a Facebook post - the words you choose really do matter. They determine how you (or your characters) will be perceived by the rest of the world. Make sure your rhetoric represents you well. (An editor can help you with that.)

Friday, November 18, 2016

Beaujolais Nouveau and the "Joy of..." Cheese Straws

Let's start with some pertinent info right out of the gate: I know very little about wine. I know that I like some of it and that I don't like some of it. That's pretty much it.

I know a little bit more about Beaujolais Nouveau: It's French. It comes out in the fall of every year. It doesn't really age well, so you need to drink it fairly soon. It's red, and kind of fruity or berry-y. And - I just learned this this week - although liquor stores may get it in early, it can't go out on the shelf until a mandated specific day (much like the latest Harry Potter book, or a Black Friday television).

Here is a bottle of this year's vintage:

You can tell it's from this year, because it's November 18th, and there's just a little rain outside, no snow. (You can also tell because it says "2016" right on the label.)

Oh, and one other thing: people tend to have parties to celebrate the release of the new vintage. And, in fact, Christopher and I were invited to one for tonight. We were asked to cheese or crackers along with our bottle, and so - as we are wont to do - we decided I should whip up some "cheese straws" for the occasion.

Cheese straws are... well... they're like a homemade cross between crunchy Cheetohs and Cheese-Its. And, really, they're pretty easy to make, especially if you can reach over and pull The Joy of Cooking off your shelf (and you happen to have a pound or two of Cheddar cheese in the fridge left over from your last Costco run).
I love this cookbook! It was a Christmas gift from my parents in 1988 - when I was living off campus during my senior year of college. It's beginning to fall apart, but I will not replace it, because the newer editions changed the way recipes are presented.
So, here's the basic recipe for what we're doing (which I doubled):
"4 dozen" is a bit optimistic, I think.
The first step - which I had completely forgotten about until this morning - is to soften your butter. As you know if you read last week's post, I tend to be pretty old school about some things in my kitchen. So, for about an hour and a half this morning, this was the scene on the top of our fridge:
Six tablespoons of butter, just hanging out and softening...
While the butter was limbering up, I headed for the grater and started in on the rest of the ingredients. I mainly used the small grating side, and combined half medium Cheddar with half "extra sharp" aged Cheddar. Since the recipe is a little loose on how much to use, I shot right down the middle and ended up with about twelve ounces of cheese.

With the butter softened (and yesterday's dishes washed... and insulating film put up on the bedroom windows... and the dog walked - it's amazing what you can do while waiting for butter to soften), I started working everything together. Yes, with my hands.

I worked the butter and cheese together, first, then dumped everything else on top.

I know that it kind of looks like I murdered something in there, but it's the Cholula hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce on top of the flour.

I don't have a photo of what it looked like when it was all mixed. Imagine a large ball of pale orange Play-Doh, though, and you'd be pretty much right.

It's kind of strange, though - I put in a lot more than a "dash" of hot sauce, and followed the rest of the instructions, but the "dough" still mainly tasted of cheese. So... well... I'll tell you about that later.

Not quite as old as the cookbook, I've had this press since grad school - so maybe 1991?
Christopher and I debated which size tube to use, and although the small circle would probably have been the most appropriate (and probably would have resulted in the "4 dozen" per batch, honestly), we opted for the semi-circular tip.

I'm not going to lie - I'm glad we chose the mid-sized tip, because the cheese dough was hard enough to get through that one. I can only imagine what it would have been like to get it through the smaller one.

I started out by piping the dough out in long strips on my ungreased cookie sheets (I contemplated using parchment paper, which I might do in future), then cut each to approximately two inches in length (leaning very heavily on the "approximately" factor).

They headed into a 475-degree oven, and - after making the entire house smell like cheese - came out about twelve minutes later looking (mostly) like this:

Remember how I said the dough was a little bland? Well, we remedied that by sprinkling them with some flavored salt right as they came out of the oven. There was a quick debate between salt or cayenne pepper, but I found a "five pepper salt" (really, it's mainly salt, but has cayenne, chipotle, red pepper, and some other things in it) in the cupboard, and so I used that. It added just enough extra zing to really make these work.

I feel this should have one of those box cover notices that says "enlarged to show texture" - but I'm guessing you all figured that out, already.
Christopher (who is working from home today - I'm not running stuff back and forth to him at his office) tried one and had the same reaction I did: they're nicely crisp on the outside, but slightly soft/chewy on the interior.

Now, assuming that we're not piled under a foot of snow in the next 6 hours, we'll be able to celebrate the Beaujolais Nouveau with cheese straw style.

REMINDER: I'm on the lookout for random things to bake/cook. If you've got a recipe that you're afraid of because you're not sure how it will turn out, or if you have a recipe that turned out odd and you want someone else to try it, let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Editing 101: Is That What You Mean?

We've talked a lot about the issues that Spellcheck can bring to the table.

Foremost in those issues is the fact that you tend to get complacent and not closely read what's on the page when you finish. You do a quick scan, think "No little red squiggles, I must be good" and move on.

But you'd be amazed at the number of problems trusting Spellcheck can pack in. Why, if I had a dime for every time a "soundalike" word or visually similar word snuck through and showed up in a manuscript I was editing (or - unfortunately more often - an email I was sending out), I'd be as rich as that guy with the castle in California.

Sometimes, though, people are just moving too fast, and so they push things through, ending up with sentences that might be interesting - but probably weren't intended. With that in mind, I offer you this gem I found recently:

"You will never see a Hearst pulling a U-Haul behind it."

While I'm fairly certain that William Randolph Hearst - or Patty, even - never drove anywhere pulling a U-Haul, my guess is that the author of that quip meant it to be a "hearse."

Don't worry, though. We caught it early, so it certainly won't be the death of him. 


Friday, November 11, 2016

Tales of a Kitchen Luddite

Alright, so I'm not really a Luddite, obviously, and you've seen a lot of photos of my kitchen, so you know that I'm not trying to cook or bake over a hearth.

But there are some recipes that just work better when you get your hands dirty, and so I do a lot of mixing with my hands or with wooden spoons and leave the KitchenAid mixer (which I love - we actually have two in the house because Christopher and I each had one before we got together) for bigger projects. This usually works out fine, because most recipes say things like "beat until smooth" or "mix until well combined." And you can do that by hand just as well as (or sometimes better than) you can with a mixer.

This explains why, less than two weeks after getting married, my ring was already covered with flour as I baked scones:

Cake mix boxes even have a number of strokes listed, for when you're mixing by hand instead of using a mixer for a set amount of time.

Or at least they used to. Then they shifted to descriptions like "Mix on high for 30 seconds (by hand for 30 seconds)" - which, really makes no sense, since there is no way that those two things would give equivalent mixing to whatever you were supposed to be combining.

One of the last cake mixes I used (the streusel Bundt), didn't offer any hand mixing directions. Only electric mixer ones.

Not a huge deal, since I've made cakes and know - in general - what I'm looking for.

But then I came across an Internet recipe that I wanted to use, which gave specific instructions on how to melt/combine sugar, corn syrup, and peanut butter in the microwave ("for 2-3 minutes, removing it to stir every 30 seconds"). Easy enough, right?

Unless you don't have a microwave.

Honestly, we're not living in the Stone Age, I promise. But we are living in a 1950s house with a 1950s kitchen. It's long and narrow with very little counter and cabinet space. We've opted to use some of that space for a toaster oven (which, really, we probably use five or more times each week), and the microwave lives a very peaceful life on a bottom shelf in our secondary pantry (in the basement - you need a secondary pantry when you both love to cook and one of you has worked in multiple kitchen stores). It's on the same shelf as our bread machine, right below the warming tray and the plastic bin of supplies we break out every time we have a big brunch.

See? I know where it is - and I'm not afraid to use it, but I just can't really get to it easily, so I don't.

Unfortunately, that meant that I had to figure out what a basic equivalence would be for the microwave portion of the recipe. Fortunately, I have non-Luddite Internet and social media, and so I asked a group that I belong to and was advised that the equivalent would be "bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently." And, to make sure the consensus had some backing (not that I doubted anyone), I grabbed a favorite recipe that turns out about how I suspected the new recipe should be, and verified that that is what it said, as well.

And, yes, it turned out about how I thought it would (even though the sugar mixture came to a boil while my back was turned, so it probably boiled longer than I would have planned to do).

Someday - in a different house - I'm sure I'll have a microwave back at hand. Until then, I'll be hand-mixing and stovetop-heating - and you'll hear about it whenever it goes wrong (and even sometimes when it goes right).

Oh - if you're wondering what it was that I was making with the boiling sugar and corn syrup, it was these decadent little peanut butter rice treats.*

*Did you know there's a difference between a standard Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and a "Snack Size" one? I thought it was just that the snack size ones were wrapped individually, but I was wrong. They actually are smaller than standard ones. The things you learn without meaning to...

REMINDER: I'm still hoping for recipes to try out that you'd like to see posted about. Let me know if you've got one for me!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Bundt #5 - Streusel with a Glaze Fix

I was home in South Dakota visiting my folks this week, and before I headed home my mom asked if I could possibly make a Bundt cake for us to have, since I've been talking about them so much. Never quite sure what you'll find in someone else's kitchen (though I do know where everything is in Mom's kitchen), I decided to hedge my Bundt bets and take home a mix. 

The folks at Nordic Ware actually make a whole line of Bundt cake mixes, and so I took home a Cinnamon Streusel Cake mix, which has this recipe on the back:

There's a lot fewer ingredients to get together for this, which was nice:

You can tell I'm in my mom's kitchen due to the different utensils - and the Indonesian Batik table cloth.
I decided that it made sense to use a caramelized sugar crust on a this cake, so I buttered and sugared the pan, and added a dash of cinnamon just because.

I realize that you don't really need to see me making a boxed cake, but I took the following picture because my folks get their eggs from a local farm, and the yolks are so much more yellow than the ones I would usually get from the grocery store in Minneapolis.

So... 3/4 of the batter goes into the pan, and then you add the streusel to the remaining batter...

Then that goes into the pan...

And you swirl...

And then you bake it, and take it out of the oven to let it cool for 10 minutes before flipping it out...

Which, if you're in your own kitchen, you instinctively do on the prep table over by the window, where it's much cooler. In your mom's kitchen, though - when the baking cabinet counter is covered with other things and you weren't able to find the cooling racks before taking it out so you don't want to set it on the table or the top of the dishwasher - you simply set it on top of the stove. Which seems like a fine idea, because the stove is cool. Except that you forget that this is a glass-top stove which retains heat much longer than the gas range you have at home.

So you wait your 10 minutes, and you see that the "bottom" edge of the cake has caramelized and is beginning to pull away from the pan, and you think "Perfect! Time to put a (now-found) cooling rack on top of it, try not to burn your fingers, and flip it out.

But, when you flip it, it feels wrong. There's not that satisfying "whump" of the cake coming out of the pan and landing on the rack. There are two options at this point: flip it back the other way, hope that it all stayed in the pan, and wait another 10 minutes; or lift the pan up and see what happens.

Guess which one I did...

Had this been a "normal" cake, I'd have probably just broken it up and made a trifle out of it. But I wasn't sure how a cinnamon streusel Bundt trifle would have turned out, so I went on an excavation adventure and eventually dug all of the cake out of the pan to form it into some semblance of a cake. At which point I decided that some glaze was necessary.

It looks a bit more like a "coffee cake" than a Bundt cake - but at least it's still a ring.

Was it pretty? God no.

Did it taste good? Well... After having it for dessert on Wednesday night, I also had it for breakfast on Thursday... and lunch...

Have you had your own kitchen disaster, and you're not sure whether it was the recipe or user error? Send me the recipe and I'll try it out and let you know what I find!