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.