Friday, April 28, 2017

Pastry Cream (aka "Boston Cream Pie, part one")

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a Boston Cream Pie recipe with the suggestion that I try to make one. I've never made a Boston Cream Pie before, and Christopher likes it, so I thought I'd look into it. Happily, I found that the ingredients were pretty inexpensive (a lot of it is basic cake-making, after all, so that's pantry stuff for me). So I decided to try my hand at it.

I've learned (as you probably already know if you've been following me for a while) that I really need to read all the way through recipes and not just launch into them. And this was no exception. If you take a quick glance at the second column of the Boston Cream Pie ingredients, you'll see that "1 recipe chilled pastry cream" is required. (That sound you're hearing in the background is me flipping pages upon reading that, trying to figure out what I needed to do - and how long it might take.)

The recipe is from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, as is the recipe for the pastry cream, which follows.
I have to admit that I've never made a pastry cream before. I've eaten them and watched them made on TV, but never made them myself. So I headed to the store for a couple of non-pantry ingredients: whole milk and heavy cream. Eventually, I was ready to go.

I was heartened by the fact that the description says that this is a "custard" filling and correct for what I was making. (Though... really... would a cookbook say that it wasn't the right thing? Consider that as we move forward.)

Basically, the recipe (at least for the first half of it) is the tale of two sets of ingredients, which you kind of have to go back and forth between.

I started with separating my eggs.

Note to self: Don't forget the four egg whites on the bottom shelf of the fridge.
Hot side, part one: bring most of the milk, the sugar, and the salt to a boil. This yields really boring photos, such as: 

Cold side, part two (part one was the egg separating): mix together the rest of the milk, the flour, corn starch, and eggs. This, at least, gives us kind of texturally interesting photos.
As a side note: is there any kitchen ingredient that has a more pleasant texture than corn starch? I got some on my fingers, and it's just so silky. 
Back to watching the milk come to a boil...

Then I whisked together the stuff in the bowl. (Not terribly exciting, but at least it looked different when I was done.)

Finally, we're getting close to a boil.


Unfortunately, one of the more interesting steps takes place as you temper the eggs by pouring just a little of the boiling milk/sugar into the eggs and whisking it together. I did this in three portions, 1/4 cup at a time, and whisked like crazy to avoid making milky scrambled eggs.

Why is this so unfortunate? Because I couldn't take photos while simultaneously pouring and whisking.

When I was done, though, the tempered egg mixture went into the pan with the rest - and magic started to happen.

First, the milk changed color (because, you know, egg yolks).
My thumb looks HUGE!
Almost immediately, it started to thicken, thanks to the eggs, flour, and corn starch. 

Within about 30 seconds, it was the consistency of warm pudding. Unfortunately - at least for me - it simply smelled like scalded milk and scrambled egg. Not exactly what you hope for when you see something like this. 

The next step (pushing it all through a sieve) is an interesting one. I think it might be more important if you are using a full vanilla bean, instead of vanilla extract, but it did remove a few little corn starch/flour lumps (which you can see in the second photo, below).

Happily, the eggy scent changed pretty quickly when I added the vanilla and butter (which, honestly, I didn't think would melt down - but it did).
Is it just me, or does this look like cheese curds gone awry?
Once it was all stirred together, the kitchen smelled amazing. Warm vanilla filled the air. I have to admit that most of the time I would not think of this as a great spring scent, but yesterday we topped out in the low-40s (20 degrees below normal, if you're wondering), with drizzle and light snow. So it was a good, comforting scent.

I was, quite suddenly, in possession of a warm, thick, vanilla custard. I could have eaten it with a spoon and been quite happy. But the recipe had more steps, so I decided to be good and keep going.

You have no idea how much will power it took to butter the top of the custard, put plastic wrap on it, and set it out in the porch to cool. (Since it was in the 40s, this was just as good as putting it in the fridge.)

There are those times when working with new recipes that you think "Are you sure?" as you read through the steps. This was one of those points. I had the incredible thick custard in my bowl, and was reading that I needed to whip up some cream to finish it. I was beginning to wonder if the cookbook writers had missed a notation of "If this is for Boston Cream Pie, you're done, here. If not, keep going." - or maybe they had meant something entirely different. But...

As I've done for most recipes I've tested, I went ahead and followed the directions. Which, again, gave us a few kind of boring photos. Take, for instance "cream in bowl":

And also "whipped cream in a bowl":
I did do it by hand, though. Which - though not exciting - is something I'm always oddly impressed by. Not that I, personally, can do that but that you can turn cream into whipped cream with just a bit of elbow grease.
If you're paying attention, you've noticed that the whipped cream is completely unsweetened. There's also not much sugar in the custard. It's not exactly an overly sweet combo - which you may want to consider if you make this in the future.

So... I was standing in the kitchen with glorious, smooth custard in one bowl and cream whipped to soft peaks in the other. And I was still wondering if I really wanted to mix the two.

I figured, though, that the recipe knew what it was talking about, so I started folding them together, which was looking a little rough at first.
I really kind of expected that the custard would "flatten" the cream and keep everything a bit more dense. It did a little. But not much.
The end result was a slightly dense whipped cream - with a slight vanilla-custard flavor.

It tasted good, but the flavor was no longer as strong as it had been in the custard, alone.

I looked at it and wondered how it would hold up to being the filling between the layers of my Boston Cream Pie. But that would have to wait until I got the rest of the ingredients put together. (Also known as next week's blog post...)

Want me to try out a recipe of yours that sounded good but turned out "meh"? Or some recipe you've always thought about trying but didn't want to make without more information? Let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Learning a New (Food) Language

Travelling (sorry - I know that the American version of that word only uses one "l" but I just hate the way that looks) is good for a lot of things.

It's a great way to learn patience (have you tried to fly anywhere, lately?). It's good for learning about your limits (and whether or not you are willing to push past them to get to the rim of a volcanic caldera). And, assuming you're going more than a couple of hours' drive from your home, it's great for learning new languages (yes - even if you stay in the same country - just consider the differences between the accents in Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Seattle).

I have to admit that I typically have travelled places where I know enough of the language to get around without too many issues. I studied French in college, so I most often travel places where I can use either English or French. (I feel the same way about travelling in the UK - that I know just enough of the language to get by...) I can muddle my way through German and some Italian. But I've never studied Spanish - except for menus and phrases like "Donde esta la biblioteca?" (which shows up in more movies than you'd expect).

Even so, for the past couple of weeks, Christopher and I have been in South America. The land of "Vamanos!" and "Si, gracias." Luckily, we had some great guides. And, along the way, we learned a lot of words - many of which had to do with food.

NOTE: All of the food words listed, below, get their stress/emphasis on the second syllable instead of the (more common in English) first syllable.

We learned about Manicho - an Ecuadorian peanut-filled chocolate bar.

We learned that babaco is a delicious member of the star fruit family.

That Cusqueña is a popular brand of beer in Peru.

And - a discovery that just might have rocked my culinary world - we learned that salsa ají is an amazing vinegary sauce that can include onions and cilantro and, frankly, I now want to try on everything. (The second-syllable stress is especially important on the last one, because an "ah-HEE" sauce is nothing like "AH-he" tuna.)

There was so much information to process while we were travelling - and there is still so much to sift through. (Like why the TSA opened my TSA-approved suitcase lock - but did not replace it on my luggage. TWICE. Instead, when I collected my suitcase at each end of my trip the lock had simply been removed and the suitcase sent through unlocked and not entirely zipped closed. What's up with that?)

I'll admit, though, that upon our return home we were pleasantly reminded that delivery pizza for lunch after about 24 hours of travel (well... a bunch of that was just airport sitting) is amazing. And so is having ice cream for dinner while hanging out on the couch with the pup. Even if I did start to say "gracias" when the woman at the grocery store gave me my receipt.

For those of you waiting for actual food writing - thanks for putting up with these interim posts. Recipes and photos will be back ASAP. (Hopefully soon I'll be including a recipe for ají.)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Writing 101: Pick a Holiday, Any Holiday

Holidays can be challenging. Not just because of the interpersonal dynamics, but also because of the fact that not everyone celebrates them in the same way.

Your family might have grown up with single presents on Christmas morning, while your neighbors had enough presents that they must have started wrapping over Thanksgiving. While, across the street, the folks with the menorah in the window may have spent every Christmas morning cleaning the house before going out for a movie and Chinese food.

When we're growing up - and when we're grown - we sometimes forget that not everyone celebrates the same holidays. And it's not just religious holidays that can get this way.

Consider the recent trend for stores to be open on what have, traditionally, been "no shopping" days - such as Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. It used to be that you could safely assume that the entire family would get together on such holidays, but now there's a good chance someone will be working.

(And, yes, there are some industries - from convenience stores to hospitals to newspapers - where people are always at work. I'm not leaving them out - I'm just working toward a point.)

We all have our own frames of reference when it comes to holidays. And those points of reference color our expectations.

As a writer, you need to consider that when you're crafting your story: Would your main character refer to the holiday you're referencing? And - more importantly - Who is your audience, and do they have the same frame of reference as you?

  • Does your reader know when Ramadan is? (Or does he think it's a hotel chain?)
  • Would your Aussie main character actually know when Memorial Day is in the States? 
  • Would your characters celebrate Mother's Day or Mothering Sunday? 
  • Will your reader know whether Passover is more or less important than Hanukkah? (And will she have a preferred spelling of Hanukkah?)
Of course, you can avoid all of this by simply not talking about holidays in your work. (Some of the ones that move around on the calendar can be a bugger to nail down, anyway.) But, if your characters are living in some version of the real world, you'll want to consider how they celebrate - and not assume that they (or your readers) celebrate the same way you do.

This kind of attention to detail can truly make or break an entire story - even if it's never overtly mentioned in the narrative. I highly recommend working it out early - talk to a writing coach or an editor if you need help.

Friday, April 14, 2017

If You Are What You Eat... I Should Live Forever

We all know that there are way too many chemicals and preservatives in most prepared foods. And, because of this, I do tend to make a lot of things from (relative) scratch.

But there are a lot of recipes that call for ingredients that would be a pain in the tuchus to self-source, so - as we all do - I go for the package. And when the recipe actually says "1/2 cup of canned cherry pie filling" I'm not exactly going to go out and make my own cherry pie filling just to use 1/2 cup of it in a Bundt cake.

(Does everyone remember what I'm referring to at this point? The cherry pie filling was one of the layers in the filling for the Cherry Cheesecake Chocolate Bundt cake.)

Of course, using only a small amount, I was faced with a dilemma: keep the rest or throw it out?

I decided to think positive and keep it - figuring I could whip up something later that would use it. That was a little over six weeks ago. (The post went up on March 10th, but I made the Bundt on February 19th. As a refresher, it's now APRIL.)

Last weekend, I reached into the fridge, where the open can was only partially sealed, covered by the mostly cut out metal lid. I was happy to see that the can does say you can refrigerate it after the can is opened - though it does also recommend use within 10 days (though I'm not sure why).

The date on the lid won't come around for two years:
So I figured I was safe to use them last weekend when I was making biscuits and decided to make a kind of turnover/hand pie thing. (I did not take photos of this, because... well... I ate it. If you like the idea of it, let me know and I can see about doing it again.)

I won't lie - I was a bit nervous about opening the lid to see what was going on inside the can. After all... six weeks is a long time for a fruit of any kind to not go way off.

I had no reason to worry. In fact, the worst thing was that the filling around the edges of the can had started to get a tad rubbery (like old Jell-o).

Okay, that's a lie. The worst thing was the actual flavor of the cherry pie filling. I don't think I'd tasted it before putting it into the cake - and it worked well next to the cream cheese and all - but straight out of the can it was just sweet. Cloyingly sweet. (And this is from me - the guy who didn't spit out Peep Oreos.)

I checked the label to see just which preservatives I was eating, and was fairly surprised to see this:
I know absolutely nothing about food science, but... well... there don't seem to be any real preservatives listed, aside from the one to retain color. But I do know that sugar doesn't ever go bad, and so I'm guessing that the two versions of corn syrup were the ingredients that had kept it from going moldy.

On the plus side, even though I don't eat a ton of really highly processed foods (okay... more than a lot of people do, but not a ton), apparently the amount of sugar in my diet may kill me - but I'm going to be very well preserved.

(I keep promising that I'll get back to more real food discussions. And I will. Soon. Especially now that I've thrown out the rest of that can and made more room in my fridge.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Editing 101: The Case of the Traveling Case

Sometimes a misplaced modifier (those words or phrases that are supposed to talk about one thing, but seem to talk about another) are really just too fun to ignore.

I came across this gem a while back, and it stayed with me (so to speak), so I decided that I had to share it:

"Upon entry into the unnaturally silent apartment, the suitcase was exactly where it was supposed to be."

I love the way that sentence progresses - from the creepy factor of the "unnaturally silent" room, to the kind of joyous feeling of knowing that the suitcase has found its place in the world.

Let us hope that we all find ourselves as contented as that suitcase at least once in our lives.

(Yes, I know that the author intended to say "Upon entry... I found the suitcase..." and, thanks to her editor - that'd be me - her future readers will know that, too.)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Peeps Oreos - Because (You Knew This) I Had To

Unless you've been completely avoiding grocery stores, convenience stores, general stores, and social media for the past couple of months, you probably know that Oreos have come out with a "Peeps" version this year.

Yes, that's right, the kind of Peeps that get made into Easter dioramas when they're not being enjoyed for their overly sugared marshmallow-y goodness.

Now, I'll admit that I prefer the sugar coating-to-marshmallow ration of the Peeps bunnies, instead of the chicks, so I kind of wondered how that would all translate to the Oreos.

I've seen people talking about them and complaining about how they're overly sugary, and that they turn your mouth pink (and, apparently, turn your toilet pink the next day), but I decided I had to go for it.

The package - as with any of the specialty Oreos - is smaller than an average package. (I think someone in R&D at Nabisco was smart enough to realize that most people are going at them for the novelty, and not to eat a full-size package of the latest craze.)

I fully admit that one of my bits of confusion with these comes from the packaging. What is "Marshmallow PEEPS FLAVOR CREME"? Why is it "Creme" instead of "Cream" (or just "filling," for that matter)? I could see them saying, in a slightly more grammatical version, "Marshmallow Peeps-flavored Cream" but what is "PEEPS FLAVOR CREME"?

I decided the best way to get over this was to open the packaging so that I could no longer see the print.

I'm not entirely certain I was ready for the neon.

Before I took a bite, I wanted to know just how much pink I was in for. After all, "regular" Peeps only have color on the outside (from the colored sugar coating) - the interior is white.

No such luck with these. They are highlighter pink throughout.

The taste... well... I must admit that I had heard so many horrible things, that my expectations were pretty low. After all, when your most sugar-addicted friend says "They are WAY too sweet!" (someone in Seattle knows I'm talking about her) you have to wonder.

But... with both Oreo and Peep in their DNA, I was actually not nearly as shocked as I expected I'd be. Yes, the filling is sweeter than regular Oreo filling. Yes, there seem to be sugar crystals in the filling that give it a slight bite (reminiscent of biting into a Peep). But, no, they weren't any worse than I expected.

Of course there is one other topic I have to address: the dye.

At least for part one of this experiment, yes, it did color my tongue bright pink. (You'll forgive me if I don't share what I find tomorrow about the rest.)

Here's my major takeaway from this foray into the fluorescent: They're not bad in small amounts, but even a small package is way too many. I mean... I can power through a good third of a package of regular (or Double-Stuf) Oreos, but after two of these I was pretty much ready to stop, take photos, and write a blog post.

Oh, and there's one other thing about these: their flavor seems to linger. It's not a bad aftertaste, or anything, it's just kind of a diminishing return on sweet marshmallows as time passes. (I would imagine this would be horrible for you, though, if you didn't like them in the first place.)

Am I glad I tried them? Yep. They were fun.

Will I buy them again? (Given that they'll be going away by Easter and probably won't be back until at least next year - if they come back...) I'm not entirely sure. I think I might stick to "regular" Peeps, instead.

Yay! Bunnies!

(I promise to be back to posting about real food, soon. So if you have a recipe you'd like me to try out, send it my way and I'll look into it!)

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Editing 101: Thanks (?), I Think

When you're starting out doing freelance work, you tend to take jobs from pretty much anywhere. So, while my preference is for working with fiction and memoir, I work on a certain amount of book-length non-fiction, as well as short pieces (such as postcards, or two-page brochures, or annual reports, etc.).

This means that I see all sorts of styles and text - some better than others. And, when I look at them, I have to not only try to make them make sense, but I also need to match the brand style.

What is "brand style"? It can refer to the logo of a company, the colors that they use in their materials, or the music played in their ads or in their stores. For my purposes in editing and proofreading and copywriting, it is both the mechanics of style (what words do they capitalize? how do they format headlines? do they use the Oxford comma?), but also the tone of voice in what is written. 

My personal brand style, for instance, uses the Oxford comma, and uses a modified Chicago style for more mechanics. It also includes a conversational, yet teaching, tone with a touch of wit (hopefully) and just a little snark.

This week, I saw something that kind of made me cringe, because I wasn't really sure how to interpret what was being said in a form letter that I was looking at.

Of course, form letters are hard. They have to cover a multitude of issues all in one, while still sounding at least slightly personal. This is even more difficult in a form letter being crafted to be sent out as a rejection letter after someone has applied for a position with the company. I totally understand that.

In prior positions I've had, I have needed to write friendly, "wishing you well in your endeavors" messages to a number of people, and it's always hard to find the right words to say what you want to say - in your brand style - without going too far one way or the other.

Even so, I think this one may have gone a bit awry along the way. I suspect it was written "by committee" and a bunch of people all wanted a say in what the final takeaway from the letter was. In my mind, this was a whole group of people saying:
  • "We want it to be friendly, but firm."
  • "We want them to know we support all artists, in any field."
  • "We definitely want them to know we care about them."
  • "We want to keep the door open for them to donate to us in the future, even if they don't work here."
And (again in my imagination) they then looked to an unpaid intern and said "You can do that, right?" Which resulted in this:

"While we are no longer considering you for this specific position, your interest in exploring what’s next for you within our company is important to us."

So... Okay... We've got the rejection in the first part. That's clear.

In the second part ("your interest in exploring what's next for you") seems nice - warm and fuzzy, and all that.

But when you add on that third part about the "what's next for you" being "within our company" it gets a little odd. I mean... If they're so interested in what's next for an applicant within their company, wouldn't it make more sense for them to be suggesting other open positions, or something? Or maybe rephrasing it to something like "We hope you'll consider applying again in future"? (Of course, they may not want some candidates to do that - which, again, goes back to the difficulty of using form letters.)

Still, when you go back to brand style, this sentence does give us a good feeling about the overall level of "caring" of the company - but the slightly convoluted nature of the phrasing makes me wonder what their personnel handbook is like.

My vote? Next time hire a copywriter before you hire an editor. After all, it's not overkill if it gets the job done right the first time.