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!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Baking by Request - Pumpkin Spice Bundt (aka "To Sift or Not to Sift")

Sorry the title on this one got so long, but I wanted everyone to be clear on what we're getting into in this Bundt post.

An author friend of mine who "writes food" better than pretty much anyone I know (and who just had another Regency romance novella come out in a collection, which you can find here) asked me if I had any recipes for a good Pumpkin Spice cake.

I started digging around, and in the same book that brought us the Apple Bundt from a few days ago, I found this Pumpkin Spice Bundt. I liked that the write-up the author included seemed to summarize my concerns about pumpkin cakes ("some tasted like pumpkin bread, others lacked zing"), and so I decided to try it. And, overall, I'm really glad I did (and, yes, I'll explain why there's a qualifier on that).

I decided to do a couple of things at the outset: I decided to make it with Gluten-free flour (so that I could send it to work with Christopher - whose team has some GF people on it), and I also decided to use a 10-cup pan, and then make smaller side-Bundts with the extra batter, so that those could also be walnut free.

Oh - a funny thing about nuts and recipes and grammar/punctuation. Did you know that there is supposed to be a difference between "1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts" and "1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped"? The first version would mean that the nuts were measured AFTER being chopped, while the second would say that they should be measured BEFORE being chopped. Does that make a huge difference? Maybe not in a half cup of walnuts, but if you were doing a larger quantity it probably would. And - well - it does make a slight difference in the half cup, too:

Exhibit A: 1/2 cup toasted walnuts (You can kind of see that they come up to the edge of the measuring cup in places.)
Exhibit B: 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped (They don't quite reach the top of the cup any more.)
Unfortunately, I don't think all cookbook writers/editors/testers really pay attention to the grammar rules, but there you go.

Once my walnuts were all toasty and chopped, I moved on to the rest of the ingredients.

Yes, that's the same mini bottle of Bourbon that I used for the Bourbon Bundt.

The Food Lover's Companion came out because I needed to figure out a substitute for Allspice. Apparently it is so named because it tastes like "Nutmeg, Cinnamon, and Cloves combined" - all of which were in my jar of Pumpkin Pie Spice (along with some Allspice).
And now we come to the point where I took a wrong turn.

I know people talk about the changing leaves and the smell of dry leaves and all that as the color and scent of autumn, but the spices in this bowl are fall to me.
The dry ingredients - oddly - included the sugar. And they were all supposed to be sifted together. If you've been reading along, you know that I don't really care to sift things. And I wasn't entirely sure that the sugar would actually go through the sifter (okay - I'm pretty sure it would have, but I was feeling contrary), so I didn't sift my dry ingredients. Instead, I just whisked them well.

I don't know how much of a difference that truly made, but when I got done mixing everything together the batter was pretty thick.

I really started to second guess myself when I moved the batter to the pans, where it took up much less space than I'd expected.

The cake... well... it didn't rise a whole lot, which probably would have been fine if I had been working with lighter, sifted dry ingredients.

Unfortunately, since I had stacked the density cards against myself, the cake came out pretty thick.

What I will say, though, is that the house smelled a-MA-zing, and that the flavor was good. (I will say that I prefer pumpkin spice desserts when they've had a chance to cool - I think that the flavors of the spices come out more that way.)

The folks at Christopher's office all seemed to like it (at least they said nice things about it, and nothing was left at the end of the day), and I'm not sorry I made it.

Next time, though, I'm going to sift.

Do you have a recipe you'd like me to try? Let me know and I'll see what I can do!