Sunday, January 29, 2017

Writing 101: Details - and Facts - Matter

We've all read a book where the author neglects to mention a crucial detail, right? This has happened to me when I've been reading along and wondering what city the characters were supposed to be in.

Cultural norms vary from location to location, so to truly engage in a book, we need to know whether we're in Dubai or Detroit. We're going to have a different visual in mind if we hear that a character goes to the market Paris or Los Angeles.

Although this can color the way we read when working with fiction, it is especially important when working with any of the non-fiction genres. 

A quick diversion into a genre discussion. We all know that there are two main camps of writing and publishing: Fiction and Nonfiction. And we know that fiction is broken up into things like Romance, Science Fiction, Westerns, Fantasy. And each of those are broken into smaller pieces (such as Regency Romance, Modern Romance, LGBT Romance, Futuristic Romance, etc.). (You can find the full list of codes from the Book Industry Study Group, here, if you want to poke around.) OH - and I should probably mention that this doesn't even begin to take into account the listings of genres and subgenres and sub-subgenres that appear in classification systems on sites like

On the Nonfiction side, you'll find exponentially more options, because each is broken down into its field, first, and then goes into specific sub-groupings. (Again, the link above will show you how many there are.)

One of the very important things to note, here, is that Fiction and Nonfiction are separate. The intent is that authors can tell their readers whether what they are writing about it truth or lies. Though this does get a little hazy in the Memoir area, where books labelled Autobiography and Biography tend to be held to a tighter non-fiction standard than do books labelled as Memoirs (with the idea that memoirs are stories told through recollection, while the others are told through researched facts).

Did you catch that last bit about Memoirs? Basically, they can be the same as that one story that your uncle tells about jumping out of the barn's hay loft every winter into the snowbank below. Only every year when you hear the story the snowbank is a different height - and when you ask your other uncle about it he's quick to point out that it only happened one year - and it was a first-floor window, not the second-story. The idea is that the memoir is based on facts, which might just be a bit fuzzy. And - assuming the author admits that at the outset - that's pretty much okay with most readers.

But let's get back to why facts - even fuzzy ones - are incredibly important to writing. I'm currently working on two very different memoirs. Though both (at least in part) cover the same time period (basically 1935-1965), one is set in the American Midwest, while the other is set in Germany. And, while they both discuss both urban and rural life, those lifestyles have very little in common. (Only one of them discusses air raid sirens, for instance.) If I didn't know going into them where they were set, that would make a huge difference to the story I was reading.

Each of the stories is rooted in very specific facts - pieces of information that can be proven to be true - though. For instance: We can look at a history book and find out when the majority of the Allied bombing attacks on Berlin took place. We can pull a yearbook from the Hamline University library and find out when a specific student was attending.

These are facts. They cannot be disputed, because they are known, verifiable quantities - and they make the story much more grounded and much more tangible to its readers.

Of course, we are living in "interesting" times, when facts are often disputed. There are people who believe anything they find on the Internet - just as they might believe any gossip they hear at their local coffee shop - and they insist that it's true even though it can't be verified in any way.

Consider a cook book - one of the ultimate "verifiable, nonfiction" book types. If the recipe says that it will feed 40 people, but when you make it it only has enough for 10, that's a problem. You're probably going to tell people about that issue every time you talk about the recipe - even if the flavors were great and it was simple and quick to make. And the 30 people who didn't get to eat will probably mention it, too.

Let's say that you're reading a piece of literature (fiction or nonfiction) and someone who says she was born in 1930 also says that her older brother was born in 1937. You instinctively know that one of those details is wrong. (Don't you? I mean... unless there is some time travel aspect going on.) And, most likely, your reading of the rest of the book will be colored by that realization. You'll wonder for the rest of the time which of the two dates is wrong - and whether you can "trust" the narrator. You may even end up going online and posting a bad review on Amazon or Goodreads because of that messed-up detail.

A fact-checking sidenote: Wikipedia, though much better vetted than it used to be, should not be your main fact-checking source. It is a constantly evolving document, with people going in and altering it almost as fast as it can be re-uploaded. Yes, it's a good place to verify things you think you already know, but consider it to be the same as asking a dinner party for the answer to your question. The longest-lasting response may not be the right one - it might simply be the loudest.

So, if you know that you'd go through all of that as a reader, that should probably also make it obvious that you should do your utmost to avoid those same situations in your own writing.

Check your details. Make sure that your character's three-month trip doesn't go from April to August. Make sure that the caption you put beneath an image saying "three siblings and the bear" doesn't accompany a photo of two kids and a peacock. Verify your details to the best of your ability - and if (as in the case of many memoirs) you can't verify them completely, let your readers know.

After all, we've all read the reviews by people who get great glee in pointing out a book's flaws - let's try to make sure that doesn't happen to you.

**If you want to have an editor do a fact check on your book, you'll probably end up paying more than if he or she is only working on grammar and punctuation. Why? Because it takes more time - much more time. After all, if it were a quick and easy task to do, every author would already be doing it.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Frothy Challenge for the New Year - Third Time's a...

I feel that, before I go on, I should explain my connection to making these meringues, and why I feel the need to try multiple versions over the course of multiple weeks.

Here are a few reasons, in mostly chronological order:
  1. I'm the youngest of four kids - three of whom were born in May. Of the three in May, I was the third. But my parents insisted that we should each have our own birthday celebrations. And - well - there came a time when we got to the point where we didn't necessarily want to have all that cake in one month, so Mom had to get creative. (Since then, I've outgrown that ridiculous aversion to multiple cakes in one month.)
  2. My brother-in-law's mom had a wheat allergy way back before gluten-free was a thing. They would frequently spend Christmas with us, and so my Mom would make a layered "frozen meringue torte" to use as a birthday cake, since it has no wheat in it. 
  3. When I was in my late-20s/early-30s, I got invited to my first Passover Seder, and was asked to bring a dessert, since they knew I baked a lot. No leavening could be used, and since I hadn't grown up around that kind of baking restriction in small-town South Dakota, I was a little stumped, until I thought about the frozen meringue torte.
  4. We now have a bunch of friends who - for one reason or another - are avoiding gluten. And some who are avoiding dairy. And, well, desserts made of pretty much just egg whites and sugar tend to avoid most allergens. (Umm... no... I don't have an alternative for people who are also egg-allergic.)
There's also a great family story from when I was in high school and one of my cousins was staying with us on a "gap year" and we were making meringues in my mother's electric range and... well... my cousin blew up the oven. Or, rather, the element was old and somehow it split while the meringues were in the oven and arced. Either way, it was pretty spectacular. And I kind of always associate meringues with sparkly times in the kitchen.

So, with all that in mind, we come to this week, when I checked the barometer and pulled the egg whites out of the fridge good and early. (Timing note: I may have done this just a day or two after the last batch, as opposed to a full week later, so that the whites didn't go bad - but don't tell anyone, because I don't want to ruin the immediate feel of the blog posts.) 

The recipe is actually a word-of-mouth recipe that I got from my mom way back when, and which I put into a family cookbook that I put together for my sister's wedding a few years back.

As with the past two weeks' attempts, we'll only be focusing on the meringues - not the toppings.
A couple of things you might notice if you compare this prep photo with those from the past couple of weeks: 1) no vinegar; 2) the cornstarch has been replaced by cream of tartar - which goes in at the beginning; 3) less than half the sugar.

I once again measured out the egg whites, then added the cream of tartar and let the mixer go. I figured it would be a little while, but in moments I had frothy egg whites.

I'm debating whether I like the square images better than rectangle. Hmm...
I added the sugar in, bit by bit, along with the vanilla, and - again - thought I'd be waiting a few minutes. Within about 45 seconds, they had whipped up to this:
Seriously - at least 5 minutes faster than the other method!

I wasn't ready to be convinced, though - it seemed too easy - so I put the mixer head back down and let it run for another minute or so.

At which point I had to admit that I couldn't see the peaks getting much stiffer than that. I mean - straight up against gravity is about as stiff as you can hope for.

Although I wanted to stick with the "scoop it onto the parchment paper" technique, since I'd done that with the previous two batches, I found that this was an incredibly shape-able batch. I could make "walls" on the sides of the dollops, adjust the top peaks, and - had I wanted to - probably could have piped it out.
See the cylindrical shape on the one at the front left? I did that!
The one catch? Since there's only about a third as much sugar, you don't get as much "batter" - just nine of these this time, and I think there were twelve with the other batches.

These went into a 275-degree oven for 45 minutes, and then the oven got turned off and they had to stay in for another hour until they were completely cooled off. 

You can see a few holes in the sides, but no large cracks - so far, that's better, right?
I took them out of the oven after the hour of cooling, and since they were still just a hair warm (I suspect this is more of an issue with a gas range than with an electric range due to the pilot light), I left them on the pan on a rack to cool all the way.

Okay... the square photo works for this shot.

When I picked one up to see how the bottom was, I noticed how incredibly light it was compared to the last batch. (Again - 1/3 the sugar for the same amount of egg - so that's a lot of weight taken out of the mix.) As with the others, these had a nice solid base that I could tap with a fingernail, and my hopes were rising as I set it down and grabbed my knife.

Okay. Yes. The top - which was much thinner than that of the other batches - shattered upon contact with the knife. But, inside, along with the air pocket, there was a kind of frothy "marshmallow with a shell."

Biting into it, I got the crisp outer shell, the slightly dry/firm outer layer of the marshmallow, and then the springy interior. It's an odd sensation to bite into, really. Whereas all of the previous meringues have been a bit chalky throughout, this was almost doughy.

Is that the marshmallow-y interior I've been aiming for all along? If so, was it worth the work?

I've got to admit that I'm not sure how to answer that.

These, obviously, were also not as sweet as the last two batches. I'm more used to the "just barely sweet" version, so I appreciate that - though over the past two bakes I've gotten kind of used to the "oversweet" version, which did make these a bit of a surprise.

Here's the thing, though: I think the temperature of the bake may have been a larger factor than the extra ingredients (the vinegar and corn starch) that put me on this sample path in the first place.

I also have to stop and consider that each of the recipes states that you're supposed to be making a relatively large disk compared to the forms I've been making (8 or 9 inches, as opposed to 3 inches). That could be making a difference to the interior texture, too.

For now, I think I'll let the froth die down on this challenge and declare it a bit of a draw - though I may take it up again sometime later, when I don't already have 3 dozen random meringues in the kitchen.


Quick! What should my next kitchen trial be? Any ideas?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sorry. No Meringues Today.

Inauguration day 2017.

Doesn't seem like a day to be talking about frothy egg whites and sugar shells.

I'll post my findings about the other recipe next Friday.

Thanks for understanding.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Writing 101: The Editing Month

I know that most people talk about the month of January as a month to start new things. Everyone wants to make resolutions to start fresh, or to begin new projects.

To me, though - in a totally non-chronological way - January is the perfect editing month.

Let's look at the year as it compares to writing a book:

Spring - Everything is new. We're planting seeds and hoping that, with some tender loving care, great things will come from them. This is what it feels like when you first get your inspiration to write and you first put pen to paper (or pixels to screen), isn't it?

When you come to summer, if you've been putting in your work (and not just hoping that the rains will come and Mother Nature will take care of everything for you), you start to see what you've been working on take shape. Everything begins making sense. The days are long, and they give you the chance to expand and really get a feel for your work.

Fall comes along and all of the colors change. The amount of work you've been putting in begins to result in richer hues. Your harvest (if we really want to belabor the metaphor) becomes tangible. You find you can share it with others and not feel embarrassed by it.

As you come to the end of the writing "year" you get the holidays. That point in your writing where you feel like you've reached a conclusion point. A place to celebrate what you've done, to pat yourself on the back, to raise a glass, and to reflect.


Then you come to January. The celebrating is over. The candles get blown out. The lights come down. All of the relatives who have been piling the praise on you have left, and you're left in the dark. Just you and your manuscript, which you're beginning to realize may not be perfect. It may feel like the perfect time to curl up under a blanket and ignore the world for a while.

But January is also - at least in the colder climates - one of the sunniest months of the year. (Frigid temps have to have some benefit, right?) And just ask any sports enthusiast and you can get a list of things to do outside (or in) during the month. You just have to know where to look.

Editing - which so many authors hate - is a lot like January. If you're open to it, once you get done celebrating the "completion" of your manuscript, that's when you get to enjoy taking a fresh look in the bright, clear light of the next stages of work.

"January" - in this sense - is the time when you can get cozy under your blanket and read a good book - yours - while also taking the time to look at it again and try to figure out what it will be like to go back at it with the new ideas that spring will give you.

January - it's not just for hibernation any more.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Frothy Challenge for the New Year - Part the Second

Who knew that there were so many people with "pavlovian meringue experiences"?

After my post last week, I received some tips about what I may have done wrong with the first recipe, so I waited a couple of days and then tried again.

I'd like to note, here, that I checked the barometric pressure both days, and it was almost identical. I know that the air pressure can be a problem for some items (though I think it mainly has to do with things being boiled, not whisked), and so I wanted to make sure that each batch got an equal shot at success.

Following the most common tip I was given, I started out by getting my egg whites out really early to make sure they were all the way to room temperature (which, okay, it's January in Minneapolis, so our room temperature is typically about 67 degrees, if our thermostat is to be believed).

I measured everything out, again. (As explanation: normally, I'd have just gone with "that amount came out of the egg, so it's one egg white," but Christopher had simply put all of the leftover whites in a bowl after making his creme brulee, so I had no way of just pulling out four egg whites and had to use the "two tablespoons of liquid goop per egg white" method.)

And I started beating. Fairly quickly, the egg whites got all happy and frothy.

So I started to add the sugar and wait for the magic to happen.

Action shot!
Remember how long the first attempt took? This didn't take nearly as long. After two or three minutes, I had this:
I was getting pretty excited at this point - the peaks weren't perfect, but they had come together so fast.
I tried a couple more minutes of mixing, and I ended up with this:

This was very cool - the mix stayed "attached" when I pulled the whisk out.
Not a perfect stiff peak, but very close - and only about 1/3 the time it took during attempt number one.
Which scooped up pretty nicely, too.
Still, though, I would not have been able to pipe and shape these - they were way too soft for that. Though they did hold the little curlicues on top.
Into the oven at 350 degrees, which was then immediately turned down to 300 degrees before they were left in for an hour.

They baked up, again, just as they had before - getting all puffy - and still with the odd, slightly decorative, cracks on the sides.
Once again, the house had that very slight smell of fish and chips as they were baking, thanks to the vinegar.
I was feeling pretty excited when I pulled them out of the oven. I had followed the directions - and the tips I'd been given, and was sure that they were going to be great.

Then I cut into one...
I'd love to say it was just a bad camera angle, but it really did pretty much just shatter and split apart.
Once again, they tasted great (sugar and vanilla - really what do you expect?), and they did have just the slightest hint that they might have wanted to consider offering the possibility of a marshmallow-y interior. But... no... these weren't fluffy inside, either. They had thick, solid - very tasty - shells, with air pockets on the interior and thicker bottom layers.

My next guess? Maybe an oven temperature issue - though I just made it through a season of Christmas cookies without issue, so I don't think that's the issue.

My current decision? It's definitely now time to move on to the next version - the one I grew up with - with no vinegar or cornstarch.

Stay tuned!

Want me to try out a recipe that you can't seem to get to work? Let me know! I'm open to most not-too-expensive suggestions!

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Frothy Challenge for the New Year - Part One

This week's blog post comes to you from the crossroads of two phenomena: 1) watching a cooking show and thinking "I've been making those for years and I don't do that - I wonder if it works;" and 2) having a whole lot of egg whites in the fridge because Christopher made crème brûlée, which only uses yolks.

We were watching "The Great American Baking Show" (which, like so many American shows comes to us as a re-do version of a British show), and one of the contestants mentioned using vinegar and cornstarch to keep the center fluffy in his Pavlova. I've never done that in my meringues (okay, really, pavlovas are meringues with a fancy name), and so I dug around in one of my Nigella Lawson cookbooks (How to Eat) and found her pavlova recipe. It does include cornstarch and vinegar. So I was on my way.
Don't get your hopes up. This post is all about the meringue portion of this stuff - no fruit will be involved.
I pulled the bowl o' egg whites out of the fridge, and realized that I had no idea how to measure a bowl of egg whites.
No, I don't have actual photos of me using a tablespoon to count out 8 tablespoons of egg whites - I'm not that handy with my camera.

Luckily, Google helped me with that:

The next issue I had to face was that... well... 8 tablespoons of egg whites (or of anything, really) doesn't do much to fill a 4.5-quart mixing bowl. Only the tip of the beater actually went into the egg whites when I put it down. But I had faith in chemistry (or maybe physics), and figured that it would work out once I started whipping them.

See how the beater is just barely making a ripple?
A minute or so of "just barely making a ripple" yielded this.
Eventually, they did whip up, and so I got out the rest of the ingredients. I added the super-fine sugar in three parts, and then started beating for the long haul.

And beating...

At least, at this point, the gloss was right, and it was definitely holding its form - albeit a slightly floppier than desired form.
And eventually I decided I had gone far enough, because it had been nearly half an hour and I was bored with it. I knew full well looking into the mixer that the mix had not reached a "stiff and shiny" stage, but I just couldn't deal with it any more.

Putting this here, again, so you can look at the ingredients as we move into the next step and see what I almost did wrong.
So I turned it off, removed the bowl from the mixer, scraped everything down, and sprinkled in the cornstarch, vanilla, and - oh, crap - it was supposed to be white wine vinegar, not just white vinegar. No problem. I reached into the cupboard for the right bottle. But... umm... white wine vinegar shouldn't be "cloudy."

No, that's not a trick of the light in the middle bottle. It had seriously gone "gray."
So... two bottles down, and I was shuffling through the cupboard. I figured that red wine vinegar was definitely out of the question, and I wasn't going to try balsamic (though after the fact, I wonder if chocolate balsamic might have worked) so I went for the rice wine vinegar, figuring it's still acidic, but lighter than straight white vinegar.

On TV, the contestants all put their meringue into piping bags and made lovely round nests into which they added fillings. Since I had no plan to use fillings - and since I had given up and not beaten the meringue to the proper level of stiffness - I went for the "plop it in scoops onto the parchment-lined pan" method. (Which, frankly, is what I usually use.)

Sorry for the sideways photo. It's late, though, and this gives you the idea.
Into the oven they went, and the preheated-to-350 oven was quickly shifted to 300 degrees and they hung out in there for a full hour.

I'm not going to lie. As they were baking, they gave off the faintest vinegar aroma. It was kind of like the smell that's left after you have Fish and Chips and wash your hands, but the vinegar still lingers. Not a bad smell - it's fairly clean, really - but not what you expect when baking something sweet.
Moments like these you're reminded that egg whites can be used as a leavening agent. Just look how those puffed up!
Then - the weirdest part of meringue making - I turned off the oven and left them there until they had cooled all the way down.

I pulled them out this evening after dinner and... well... they looked really good.

But when I cut into the first one there was no "fluffy marshmallow-y middle" like they're apparently supposed to have. Even though that's what the cornstarch and vinegar are supposed to ensure. In fact, they almost seemed drier than usual.

Dry and hollow on the inside - perfect for a cream puff, really, but not what the instructions say for the interior of a pavlova/meringue.
I'm considering three factors in this: 1) the extra ingredients; 2) the recipe is for a single 8- or 9-inch pavlova, and there's a chance that the smaller ones simply bake through faster; and/or 3) the barometric pressure - which was just over 30 inches, and may have caused the issues with the egg whites beating so oddly, as well.

Of course, to truly complete this challenge, I have to do the other side of the equation. So I'm going to also be baking up a batch using the recipe I've had for years. (I had planned to do them all at the same time, but they are supposed to bake at different temperatures, so that wouldn't have worked. And by the time the first batch had fully cooled it was too late to start the second ones.)

Tune in next time and we'll see how they compare!

Have a recipe you'd like me to experiment on? Let me know and I'll see what I can do!