Friday, March 31, 2017

Food, Family, and Memory

It's been a while since I missed a Friday Food blog entry - or it least it had been before last week. But the week leading up to the 24th was a little odd and serendipitous, and I think you'll understand. (Oh... Sorry... Although there is a lot of food in this post, there won't be a recipe in it. If that's a deal breaker, then skip this one and come back next week for actual food. I won't hold it against you.)

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time - or if you just know me - you know that food and memory are fairly strongly intertwined for me. So, a few years ago, I was excited to get a Kickstarter notice on a small movie that someone (whom I don't know) was making that dealt with a young restaurant owner reconnecting with his mother over some of her old recipes. I donated just enough to get my name into the closing credits of the movie, and then it kind of slipped my mind.

When the movie came out (in 2014), I added it to my Netflix queue, and - this week - I finally got around to watching it.

It's a sweet movie about the family we are born with and the family we choose, and - frankly - I found myself really craving Chinese dumplings by the time it was over. I watched it on Thursday morning (because I was waiting for a package to arrive that needed a signature, so I couldn't go sit in the basement and do work because I wouldn't have been able to answer the door before the delivery guy would leave), and it seemed to be the perfect week for it.

Not to get all maudlin (or too personal), but I grew up in a really small town - with a graduating high school class of just 33 people - and found out on Wednesday that one of my classmates had passed away after battling cancer. So my home town has been on my mind a lot.

We weren't best friends - and we hadn't been in touch since graduation - but my parents keep me updated on what my classmates are up to, and... well... when there were between 30 and 40 people in your class for 13 years (from kindergarten through graduation), there's a bond - even if you have nothing else in common. 

On Thursday evening, thanks to the miracle of social media, I found myself messaging back and forth with another friend from my home town (who now leaves on the East Coast). We were trying to get caught up - and, although it's been years since we've truly been in touch, it was an easy conversation. We joked about things that only people who grew up where we did would find funny (hot dish, ambrosia salad, and kuchen all came up). And it felt great - even though it was such a short exchange. (To prove that the humor was based in my upbringing, I repeated the conversation that made me laugh for Christopher, and he just looked at me and sighed.)

And I made chislic for dinner, because it seemed like the right thing to do. (Chislic is - according to the packaging from my hometown grocery store - "mutton on a stick," which can be broiled or fried in oil, and is typically served with garlic salt and saltines. We typically bring it back with us after we visit my parents.)

So I was thinking of all of that last week, and - on Friday - I had the chance to meet up for lunch with a good friend of mine, and so instead of blogging I was out talking about all we'd been doing in the past few months (it's amazing how much time can pass between visits - even when you're in the same town).

Long story short:
  • Food = Memory
  • Eat with Me = Good "comfort" movie (rent it if you can)
  • Cyber world = Occasionally comforting, but real life tends to be more so

(I'll do my best to get you some real food discussion next week.)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Editing 101: You Found It Where?

At times, editing can be a bit like a jigsaw puzzle - if the puzzle pieces were scattered around the room like Easter eggs.

Although I work with a lot of first-time authors, I don't think that this is a problem specific to them. After all, if you think about Faulkner or Dickens or Joyce, you know that a lot of famous, established authors were known for convoluted sentences and paragraphs that refer back to things that you didn't think were important before.

So instead of scolding any of my authors or marking their manuscripts up with great big red markers and sending them back, I do my best to search out the through line of the text and put it into an order that will make sense to readers.

Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to be as big a problem with fiction, possibly because people writing fiction often have the "Point A to Point B" in mind when they start. But with non-fiction and memoir... well... that can get more interesting.

I think that's because people writing in those genres are more likely to be writing conversationally - they're putting the stories down on the paper the way they would tell them to other people. Which is great - mostly - because in a lot of non-fiction and memoir what really sets books apart is the "voice" of the author. A conversational tone brings the reader in in the case of memoir. A formal, academic tone (in the case of non-fiction business books, for instance) can add an air of authority.

But, in either case, the author still needs to make sure the puzzle pieces are able to be quickly found and easily placed in the right order by the reader. (Again, this might be different for a piece of fiction with an unreliable narrator, or one where suspense is being built up.)

This past week, I encountered a sentence that left me a bit boggled. It's in a memoir and is describing a crime scene and a witness. Though it might be a bit difficult to tell which is which:

"Lying on the ground, next to his deceased brother's body, he stated that he found a gun."

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to why the speaker was lying on the ground next to his dead brother when he told the officer that he found the weapon?

Or did the author simply mean to say that the speaker had found the gun, which had been on the ground next to the dead brother?

Based on the context of the paragraph (the speaker had been interviewed at the police station, not at the crime scene), I assumed that the gun was lying on the floor - but that the speaker was not. So I reworked the sentence accordingly:

"He stated that he had found the gun where it had been lying on the ground next to his deceased brother's body."

Mystery solved. (At least until the next paragraph.)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Editing 101: Should I Quote You On That?

We've talked about this kind of thing before: the facetiously placed quotation marks that cause us to question what we're reading. (Most recently in this post from December.)

With the latest rounds of political finger pointing in the news lately - and the assertion that we're all supposed to simply understand when people are joking or not - I've actually heard government officials say things like "Well, he made those 'air quotes,' didn't he?" and a reporter say "But the tweet was in ALL CAPS - there weren't any quotation marks."

This kind of thing is often in my head, since I spend about eight hours every work day trying to make sure that what I'm working on is as clear and understandable as possible. And, today, I found something that really made me raise an eyebrow.

The headline on an ad was:

** 2 Brookstone "Massagers" for Sale **

Okay. Is that a euphemism? Or are we just supposed to think the "massage" is only one of the possibilities offered by these items?

I decided to read on to find out what, exactly, was being sold. No jumping to conclusions for me - time for research. I backed up a bit.

To start, I took in the context: A very family-friendly website. Seems to me that a massage might be just a massage on a site like that. I read on...

The first item up for sale is specifically described as a "lower-back massager." Sounds pretty clear. No worries. Obviously, the quotation marks were just an oops, right?

But what about item #2?

"The other is good for many sore areas and has a long cord with various speed/mode adjestments." 

(Benefit of the doubt: I'm just going to go ahead and give them "adjestments" as just a typo for "adjustments" - no kind of "jest" intended.)

Not going to lie. At that point, I kind of gave up trying to figure out what was intended. There are way too many ways to read into that description. If I were working on that as an editor, I would just write a query in the margin and send it back to the author. 

As it stands, I'm just going to leave it alone - keeping my hands (and my opinions) to myself.

Whatever it is that's going on, I hope that the buyer asks enough questions that he/she gets what he/she is hoping for. (Kind of like when you're going through the process of hiring an editor.) 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Can Retro Baking Be Gluten-Free? Shamrock Spritz Say Yes!

If you've been reading along for any length of time, you already know two things about me:
  1. I use a lot of old recipes.
  2. I bake a lot of things without gluten for my friends and family.
Around Christmas, I tried making Spritz cookies - using a classic recipe - with the Bob's Red Mill 1-for-1 flour that I've been using so much. And they turned out really well.

So, when I was asked to produce some gluten-free, nut-free, and soy-free cookies for an event this week, I thought I might as well try them again - with a St. Patrick's Day flair.

You may remember from last fall's post on Beaujolais Nouveau and Cheese Straws that I have an old-style hand-crank dough extruder. (Honestly, it is not only just like the kind I used growing up in my mom's kitchen, but it also reminds me of the Play-Doh factory that I had.)

I know you're probably thinking that it's only good for Christmas wreaths (or cheese straws), but there are TWELVE different "forming plates" in the set, as well as the three larger tips. Let's take a quick look at all of them:

You can see the wreath and Christmas tree in the second-to-bottom row. In the top row, you've got a butterfly, a flat cracker (because you pipe it out in long stretches, and then cut it), and something that kind of looks like a dog (or maybe a horse). In the second row, there are a star (again, for piping out long stretches and then cutting it - or at least that's how I'd use it), a camel (I think), and a pinwheel.

And - in the bottom row - you have the four plates that create playing card suits. Because, of course, most of these sets were sold in the 60s and 70s when people had formal card parties (either Bridge or Poker, probably), and would make crackers or cookies to go along with the theme. 

I've never really understood the camel. I may have to use it sometime, just because.
Oh. Sorry. I was getting a tad overly nostalgic when I was taking pictures. Let's move those two into the 21st century, shall we?

Obviously, if you're paying attention, you can see that none of these is technically a shamrock. But the "club" is awfully close - especially if you make it green. (Sorry. I probably should have prefaced that with "Spoiler Alert.")
Oh. Before I get too far ahead of myself, how about the recipe and some ingredients?
The printout is from a family cookbook that I put together for the wedding of one of my sisters. The recipe comes from the instruction booklet that was actually in with the press when I bought it in the early 1990s. I've never found a better recipe, so I figure there's no point in mucking it up.
Please note: GF flour, real butter (you can't use most margarine if you're trying to avoid Soy), and no nuts anywhere in the vicinity.
If you're working along and truly want all of the ingredients, I should warn you that I also used green sanding sugar before I baked them.

Honestly, this is a really straightforward recipe. Your basic "cream the butter and sugar, then add stuff" recipe. (I love recipes like this - you're in and out of the kitchen in under half an hour, if you don't include clean-up - and if you can hear the kitchen timer from other parts of the house.)

One thing that I do like to do when coloring cookie dough: I like to add the food coloring with the other wet ingredients. It's easier to mix it in at that point, and you don't end up with the streaks you get when you add coloring to the dough.
In case you're wondering, when I'm doing a single recipe of this cookie dough, I don't worry about using a mixer. I honestly think it's faster with just a good spoon and a solid grip on the bowl.

If you add the food coloring with the liquid ingredients, you do need to be careful how much you add. You need it to be more vibrant at this stage than what you want the final product to be, because...

...when you add in the dry ingredients, the color will be tempered by the flour. (In this case, you can see that it's also just a little yellow-er than before. That's because the 1-for-1 flour isn't quite as pure white as all-purpose flour.)

Of course, the dough in the bowl doesn't look anything like shamrocks (though that would be really cool), which means it's time to break out the cookie press!

You actually fill it through the top, and then you crank the dough down until it is just barely coming through the plate, so you can make sure it's coming through evenly. 

Once you've got it going, you stand the press up (can you see the little copper guides?), and start cranking.
Forgive me for going back in time in the next couple of photos. When I work with this process I'm always transported back to the kitchen I grew up in, so the filter on the photos seems appropriate.
Every shape you make (be it shamrock or camel) will take a slightly different amount of dough, so you'll need to kind of twist and test for the first few that you crank out.

Eventually, you'll get your "place, twist, stop, lift, repeat" rhythm going, though, and eventually get to the point where you run out of dough.

How sad does that look when it's empty? Doesn't it deserve to be used more than one month out of the year?
I saw them looking like this and thought "hmm... they need something."
Better, right?
The dough does puff up a bit, so you kind of have to decide what you're more worried about: the way the finished cookies will look, or the way they'll hold together.

With gluten-free cookies, I've found that you usually want to err on the side of just a little too much dough, since they are already prone to more breakage than regular cookies.

You can see that the "split line" is right where the leaves connect to the stem. Slightly bigger cookies come off the pan with fewer crumbles.
Oh. And one photo that really needs to be in true color:
If you look closely, you can see that the very bottom edges of these are starting to brown. That's what you're looking for. I have no science to back me up, but I'm guessing that the carmelization also helps to keep them from breaking upon pan-removal.
Now, the recipe at the top of the page says that it will make 5 dozen wreaths, or about 3.5 dozen trees. I found that, when making shamrocks, I ended up with about 5.5 dozen.

And a really great hour or two of reminiscing.

Have a "family memory recipe" that you're afraid to make because you're not sure it has held up to time? Let me know and I'll see what I can do about making it and reporting back!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Bundt #6 - Cherry Cheesecake Chocolate Bundt Cake

You know how, sometimes, the world just wants you to do something - and won't let you go until you do? That's kind of what the backstory on this Bundt cake was like.

A cousin of mine posted a link to the cake online and I watched it and thought "Looks interesting, but maybe too fussy." Then one of my sisters shared the link with me and suggested that it might be interesting. Then - just when I thought I'd forgotten about it - a friend from college posted an unrelated "Maybe you should make another Bundt cake" comment. So I gave in.

I started by watching the video. Not because I really wanted to, but because it's one of those really annoying autoplay videos that Facebook seems to be so proud of.

(The recipe and video are from "Tip Hero" - though I found the video on YouTube, having been placed there by someone promoting "Healthy Recipes" - which I find incredibly ironic, all things considered.)

Once I clicked through the video, I finally was able to find the actual recipe in the comments on the FoodNetwork Facebook page. I'll save you the hassle by putting it here (you should be able to click on the photos to enlarge them):

So... yeah... as I mentioned earlier - it's a little fussier than I usually go for, but - overall - it looked like it could be good.
As usual, we start by amassing ingredients. There were kind of a lot of them. And I had to actually go out and buy maraschino cherries and cherry pie filling, since they're not things we typically have in the house (unlike the Costo-sized bags of chocolate chips).

If you watched the video, you already have the basic idea of how this all comes together. We start with the dry ingredients:

Then we add butter to water on the stove: 
Not gonna lie. This felt very weird.
Then we realize that the recipe called for bittersweet chocolate, and not semi-sweet, and go dig around in the pantry to find the right kind of chocolate...

...which goes into the pan with the water, butter, espresso powder, and cocoa:

Are you ready for some exciting action shots? Check out the steam rising from the molten chocolate mixture in this next series of pictures!

For the record: that chocolate mixture, on its own, was really bitter, since all of the sugar was with the dry ingredients. Not that I was tasting it. Because that would mean that I put my fingers in it. And that would be bad. So it definitely did not happen. Maybe.
Sour cream goes in...

Eggs go in...

And it all gets beaten together:
At this point, it's the kind of dark chocolate batter you really want to eat with a spoon. Seriously.
In a separate bowl, the cream cheese, other egg, other flour, and vanilla get whipped up.
You know that spoon I mentioned, above? With this mixture, I'd drop the spoon and go for a spatula.
And the layering begins!

We start with the prepped pan getting melted butter, brown sugar, and maraschino cherries in it. I guess this is supposed to make it pretty when you flip it out. But we all know (if you've been paying attention) that nothing stays exactly where you want it to in these cakes. (We'll discuss this more, below.)

Next, I poured in a whole bunch of the batter. Then a "centered" layer of the cream cheese. (The recipe is very specific about making sure it does not touch the sides.) And covered that cream cheese with the canned cherry pie filling.
As we've discussed in the past, sometimes my pan gets a bit close to the edge of the counter. If that bothers you, please don't look.
The final step before baking is to pour in the rest of the batter to cover all of the filling. Unfortunately, since you have to guess at how much batter is going to need to go over the top, it makes it hard to know how much to reserve. (I think practice would help on this.)
That looks pretty good, right?
Well... we've still got a few cherries peaking through.
I was actually kind of amazed that this cooked up in a normal amount of time. The toothpick came out dry at about 55 minutes - right in the middle of the projected timeframe.
The cherries mostly disappeared... mostly.
What didn't work according to plan (and time) was the cooling and flipping out. I was following the recipe to the letter (I always try to do this on the first time through - especially for these blog posts), and I probably should have gone with my gut instinct, instead.

You see, if you don't let a cake cool long enough, the middle of it doesn't hold together when you're trying to flip it out. But... I don't want to take all of the blame on this one. I think that the whole "butter and brown sugar and maraschino cherries" business in the bottom of the pan may have played some part in this sticking to the pan.

Luckily, I'm persistent, so I eventually scraped most of the cake out of the pan and glued it back together. 
Remember how those cherries were placed in the bottom of the pan, ostensibly to decorate the top? Can you see how they migrated to about halfway down the sides? Not pretty.
And, thankfully, the whole thing got glazed, so the cracks disappeared by the time it went onto the table. 

And, even better, it actually held together well when we cut into it at book club that night. 
Now... really... what was the point of the maraschino cherries?
Alright... So... Fate really wanted me to make this cake. But was it worth it?

I think I might have to say yes. The flavors all worked really well together. The chocolate was pretty dark, and the cream cheese filling provided a sweet contrast. And - I'm a fan of chocolate and cherry, so that helped, too.

I would definitely change a few things if I make it again:
  • Get rid of the brown sugar/butter/maraschino cherry "garnish." It didn't add anything.
  • And... okay... that might be it. That stuff just really bugged me.

This was originally promoted as a Christmas/Holiday cake. And it would probably also go great for Valentine's Day. I have to say that it would be a bit dark and heavy for any of the warmer months of the year, so I'd recommend stocking up and making it when the next late-winter snowstorm rolls through. (Or - if you live somewhere warm - crank the A/C and enjoy!)

Thanks to those of you who nudged me into the Bundt cake. Keep the suggestions coming, and I'll see what I can do, next!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Freelance Wordsmith: Who am I? Who do you want me to be?

I've had two occasions, lately, to try to figure out exactly what I do - and what I'm willing to do - in my freelancing.

(Don't let your mind go too far. We're only talking about various kinds of editing, when we really get down to the basics.)

My website says that I'm a writing coach, an editor, and a proofreader. And that's pretty much how I see what I do. When someone comes to me with a manuscript (partial or complete), I can coach to the points that are working (and coach away from the points that aren't); I can edit what has been written to make it better present ideas; and I can proofread what has been written to make sure that it all comes out looking good.

Those are the things I do. They're what my website says I do. But they're not what I've had people asking me about, lately. So I've had to step back a bit and reconsider the intersections between what I am comfortable with and what I'm being asked to do.

One of the two contacts I've had asked if I would work on information gathering for a memoir. I started my college career with an eye on journalism, but soon decided that I didn't have it in me to really go out and hunt down a story. So I worked out a meet-and-chat with this author and we discussed what we might each be able to do.

In the end, we decided that he'd be in charge of gathering all of the info and putting it together. Then I'd be doing a deep edit on it - and would follow-up with any questions where I thought material was missing. This, in essence, is what I do on every edit that goes beyond a surface copyedit or proofread, so it feels like a natural progression.

The second contact I had is just at the start of his work on a new book. It's still "in the idea stages," to use his words. And he's looking for someone to help him along from that zero marker. While I completely understand why he thought that my "writing coach" credential might be what he needs, I had to explain that - at least as it was being described to me - he is looking for more of a co-author (or even a ghostwriter). My skills, on the other hand, would be helpful to him after he translates a certain number of his ideas onto paper (or into pixels), so that I could help him work through where he's going so that he can get to the eventual finish line.

I've been thinking about both of those situations and tumbling them over in my brain for the past week or so. I have to admit that I might have felt differently about each of them if they had been different topics. (The former will be a family memoir; the latter will be a business book.) And, while there's definitely a chance that changes in genres may have resulted in different responses, I feel pretty solid in my decisions.

At my core as a freelancer, I definitely consider myself an editor - someone who works with words already on the page.

If I'm what you're looking for - whether that's someone who can coach you when you hit a rough patch, edit your writing, or proofread your layout - let's talk about what I might be able to do for you.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Fried Dough #5: Non-Dough

There are times when I forget just how long I've been blogging. Today, as I started to write this up, I was digging around for a flashback, and realized it was written in 2010. So... Yeah... I've been blogging for a long time (since August of 2008, to be exact).

What does this mean to today's post? It means that this is not the first time a TV ad campaign prompted me to try a new fast food product - for better or worse.

In fact, the first time was when KFC introduced the Double Down "sandwich" that used two pieces of fried chicken, instead of a bun. (You can read about that adventure - and my opinion of the movie "Avatar" - here.)

In the past seven years, however, I've come to feel that I'm writing this blog more for you than for me. And so this time around, I was trying out something new for you. Also for Science. And for the Greater Good. (And... well... I'm trying to italicize a bunch of things so that I can try to justify eating ridiculous junk food for lunch. Is it working?)

As you may have guessed (if you watch commercials and such), this time around - for you, Science, and the Greater Good - I decided to try the Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chalupa.

Let me introduce you to it via one of their ads:

Basically, like the KFC Double Down, they've replaced the bread component with fried chicken. So... Since all last month we were looking at Fried Dough, I thought it only appropriate to start this month with Fried Non-Dough.

I'd like to start by saying that the worst part of the entire experience was having to ask for a "Naked Chicken Chalupa." It feels a bit odd asking a stranger for anything naked, really, and - frankly - this might be one of the big drawbacks of their marketing.

The price is good, though, and for $5 (plus tax), you can actually get a "Naked Chicken Chalupa Big Box" meal. (Naked... big box... seriously - were the marketers hoping to sell a lot of these in red light districts?)

My $5 got me a big box, as well as a medium soda. (Pepsi. ugh. But that's a whole different issue.)

Yes, I brought this home and staged it all on the same counter I use for all of my cooking. I wanted to make sure the photos were unbiased.
Inside the Big Box, you find:

  • A "Doritos Locos" taco (the shell is literally made of the same stuff as Nacho Cheese Doritos - an interesting idea for flavor, but messy, both due to the nacho cheese dust and the fact that it's not overly sturdy).
  • A regular hard-shell taco.
  • A foil-wrapped Naked Chicken Chalupa.
If I had been at Taco John's, I'd totally have had a side of Potato Oles, but... well... we can dream.
We're not going to discuss the two tacos, here, aside from saying that I will never be choosing to order a Doritos Locos taco on its own. Way too much gimmick for the payoff.

On the other hand, we are talking Naked Chicken Chalupa, so I started by unwrapping it to see whether it looked as scary as it sounded.

Short answer: yes. I mean... it looks like this weird stuffed fried chicken thing. (Which... well... it is.)

I don't know what I expected, but I was happily surprised to see standard Taco Bell lettuce, tomato, and cheese falling out of the side.

Time to put my food where my mouth is, so I went in for a not-as-messy-as-I-expected bite.

Again - plated, so that you can see it as food, instead of as fast food.
Okay. I'm not gonna lie. I really liked it.

They've apparently marinated the chicken in something - it's kind of tangy, like a good lime/cilantro marinade - and the fry on the outside isn't so aggressive that it's painful to bite into.

It actually seemed - and I stressed seemed - kind of healthy, with the light fry, and the lettuce and tomato. (Until, you know, I stopped and thought about the fact that a softshell taco with grilled, marinated chicken would have had most of the same flavor but probably 1/4 of the calories...)

Would I eat it again? Well... umm... I already went back for another one, so - yes.

Should you try it? Honestly, it's up to you. It's definitely a marketing ploy to get people to "make a run for the border." (Hmm... I don't suppose that old marketing line will ever be used during the current presidential administration...) But... I heard this week that the Naked Chicken Chalupa is actually being discontinued sometime in March. So if you do want to try it, you'd better go soon.

(Don't worry... Next week we get back to me actually working in the kitchen - and making a bit of a mess.)

Don't forget that I'm always on the lookout for recipes to try out - whether you're looking for something you've only heard of, or wanting someone else to try a recipe that you're a little afraid of - shoot me a line and I'll see what I can do!