Friday, July 28, 2017

A Butter/Margarine Post

I grew up in a house that almost entirely used margarine. Let's get that out in the open right away.

I grew up in a small town in South Dakota. I had friends in school who grew up on dairy farms. I know where butter comes from and how to make it from milk. But, in the house when I was growing up, we pretty much never had butter - we had margarine.

We had tubs of margarine in the fridge. We had sticks of margarine for baking (or for making Kraft Macaroni & Cheese).

And, well, that's what I use in about 90% of my baking as an adult (Blue Bonnet, to be exact). Except... well... I occasionally bake for people who are allergic to soy - which is typically the first ingredient in margarine.

This week, I was baking to send some soy-free (and gluten-free) cookies to work with Christopher, and decided to work with a sugar cookie recipe that uses two cups of "shortening." The recipe says that you can use either butter or margarine for half of that, but that you should use actual vegetable shortening for the other half.

No worries. Butter and Crisco. I had both of those. But... yeah... Crisco's first ingredient is soy-based.

So, for the first time ever (and the second - but that's another allergy-related story involving moving too fast and grabbing the wrong flour), I made the cookies with all butter.

The version of the recipe I was working with has lemon and lavender in it, and I worked with the same ratios I always do, figuring that the butter shouldn't alter the flavor enough to muck up the other flavors.

Yeah. I was wrong.

Now, don't worry too much - the cookies still came out really well. They're just so... buttery.

I know. Many of you are probably thinking "Really buttery sugar cookies? What is he complaining about?" But, while I was expecting the nice background of the sugar cookie side by side with the lemon and lavender, the additions kind of got swamped by the butter.*

And the cookies - though they came out of the oven just fine - feel a little odd when you bite into them (compared to how they've been for the previous decades of my life).

I've heard stories about people who avoid sugar for a few weeks and then find that anything sweetened seems too sweet after a while, because they're just not used to it any more. I'm guessing this is my issue with the butter - I'm just not around it enough.

Will I make them this way again? Sure - if I'm baking for someone who can't do soy.

Otherwise, I'm sticking to the margarine and Crisco.

*Yes, in batch two - the actual gluten-free batch - I did up the ratios of lavender and lemon. And they tasted a little closer to what I'm used to. Still not quite right, but much closer.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Writing 101: Be Careful when Slinging Slang

Remember how, a couple of years ago, everywhere you turned someone was using the word "fleek" or the phrase "on fleek"? And remember how - about the time it started to show up in mainstream culture on TV and in social media - it was already going away?

This is one of the big problems I have with using full-on slang in a book.

Yes, having your characters use words like "fleek" will definitely let your readers know that your book was written by a hip, trendy, and oh so au courant author in 2015. But what if your book didn't go to print until 2016? By the time the book was out, your oh-so-cool terms had already become last year's news.

Honestly, the same can be said - to a lesser degree - about using current bands, current trends (in fashion or food, for instance), or current cars - but for today we're going to try to stay focused on word choices.

There is definitely a time and a place for using jargon and lingo (two words, which, according to my 1954 Funk & Wagnall dictionary used to mean "gibberish") to set a scene or establish your characters.

Doctors need to use appropriate medical terms. They're not going to say that they need a "tube thing with ear pieces to listen to a heart" instead of saying "stethoscope." (Well, we hope, at least.) And the high school football captain might be expected to talk about plays involving end runs and Hail Mary passes, and not foul shots or homers.

Those kinds of job/person-specific language are important to establishing a character's character, as well as letting us know whether or not we should have faith in what is being said.

When you're writing these characters, you need to be able to talk their talk and walk their walk - even if they talk and walk in different universes (or different genders) than your own.

Unfortunately, this can be a slippery slope when you're working with characters that you're nothing like. It can sometimes feel like the easiest way to make your readers believe you is to throw in a lot of lingo and hope that that makes all the difference. (Drop in a "hematoma" here and a "forceps" there and - poof - you've got a doctor. Right?)

One of the most dangerous - in my opinion - groups for this kind of "slang writing" is teenagers, kids, and young adults.

While doctors have, for years, discussed hematomas and forceps, this is because they are terms that have been around for a while. On the other hand, while you may have heard some teenager on TV use the term "on fleek" while you were writing - there's a good chance that you didn't hear it again.

So what can you do? How can you make your main characters fit in 2018 while writing in 2017?

My recommendation: Start by not trying so hard.

Remember the first time you heard your mom call something "gnarly" and you knew she didn't have any idea what it meant? Or the first time your teacher tried to use the word "groovy" and you cringed? They really wanted to fit in. But they tried too hard.

Instead, aim a bit more for the middle-of-the-road. Try for terms that you've heard enough that they've become slightly mainstream. (After all, that means they might stay around longer than just a month or two on social media.) For instance, oddly enough, "cool" seems to keep standing the test of time if you listen to teenaged conversation.

Want your main character to be someone on the outside or a trailblazer? Maybe throw in some retro terms like "nifty" or "swell." Want her to be completely out on her own? Try making up a new term for her to throw around (Lewis Carroll invented all sorts of new words in describing Alice's adventures, J. M. Barrie - according to some sources, if not all - even invented the name Wendy for Peter Pan, and Shakespeare practically made a living making up words).

The main point, here, is to not mire yourself in terms that will hold your book back in six months. Don't use "Yasss...." when "He shook his head, winked, and gave an approving 'Yes'" could work without making readers cringe about how mid-2017 your book is.

Your editor - and your future readers - will thank you.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Boston Cream Pie - the rematch (Part Two)

(If you missed part one, please see last week's post, because I'm not re-posting the recipe for the sponge cake this week.)

Since we dealt with the cake portion of the Boston Cream Pie last week, that means that this week we'll be talking about the pastry cream and the chocolate glaze.

I'm going to come right out and say it: the cream was so much better than the last recipe I tried. This one really had the correct feel to it - luscious, decadent, creamy. (I can't say "smooth" because... well... you'll see.) The glaze... hmm... I kind of think that it's a bit of a toss-up between the two, but I get ahead of myself (and we have many photos to get through).

Step one: The pastry cream:

I'm not going to lie - much of this we've done before, so it may seem a bit repetitive.
In case you're wondering, the egg whites went into the fridge with a label listing the date and how many egg whites were in it. (They eventually became thickener in some fried rice.)
I also feel the need to admit that I crack my eggs directly into whatever I'm using, even when I'm separating them. I know a bunch of people who would get upset with me if they were around while I'm doing it (including my junior high Home Ec teacher), but since we don't have a dishwasher I have no patience for the extra thirty-two bowls that you have to wash after that. 

A little whisking, and that bit of modern art became a cohesive liquid in the pan.

Even better, it gradually thickened, until whisking it left lines in the mixture. 

A bit more whisking and the addition of the cornstarch, and we had frothing, which looked a bit odd. 

The recipe says to sift the cornstarch. In retrospect, that probably would have been a good idea, but instead I just whisked a bunch more.
We then moved on to pouring in the milk. Which, as we all know, leads to one action shot and a lot of very similar "this is what heating milk looks like" photos:
The action shot.
Heating milk #1
Heating milk #2
I will say, though, that the milk mixture did eventually thicken quite nicely. The recipe says you're supposed to continue with this until the cornstarch "loses all trace of raw starch flavor." I have no idea what that means, though (what, exactly, does "raw starch" taste like?), so I just went for the "thick pudding" consistency.

Adding in the rum, vanilla and (optional??) butter looked a bit unappetizing, but it looked fine once it got fully mixed in.
It's not just me, right? That looks really unpleasant.
And, there we go! Pastry cream that was all ready to go into a bowl with plastic pushed down over it and then into the fridge until we were ready for it.
Why the plastic over the top? To keep it from forming a really nasty film on the top that can really ruin the "mouth feel" of pastry cream - or pudding.
Step two: The chocolate glaze:
Does anyone have any tricks for getting the last of the corn syrup out of the bottle? Mine truly sits upside down in the cupboard when it gets low, so that I can more easily empty it. It usually doesn't leak all over the shelf...
As you might have noticed, there aren't many ingredients to this. And, thankfully, there also aren't many steps.
Random comparison of 8oz (by weight) of chocolate chips and 8oz (by volume) of cream.
 Hold onto your hats! More cooking-milk photos!

Okay. I know I mock my own photos of pans filled with white liquids not doing anything, but between the cream and the corn syrup this did thicken pretty niftily - and even enough to show in the next photo:

Chocolate chips (because I'm too lazy/cheap to go out and buy a massive hunk of semisweet chocolate and chop it into small pieces) go in, and then the melty magic begins:

Okay... it may not look all that pleasant in the middle of melting, but it smelled great.
 And it gradually became this:
Yes, you can still see lumps in that, because the chocolate chips hadn't melted down all the way. When you come right down to it, the high wax content in them probably wasn't the best - and I probably should have gone for the block o' chocolate, after all.
Exciting photo of a covered pan filled with chocolaty goodness.
After sitting, covered, for a while, it definitely looked better - smoother - though looks may have been a tad bit deceiving.
And, there we have it! One "foolproof" sponge cake, some pastry cream, and a rich chocolate glaze:
I like to think of the mush/tear in the side of the cake as an homage to Jupiter's Great Red Spot.
In case you haven't guessed, we're now to the point of assembly, which is kind of like making a cake and cream sandwich. 

You spread the pastry cream on the bottom layer...

And then you put the second layer on top, sandwich-style.

But, unlike most sandwiches, this gets covered with chocolate... 

You're supposed to glaze it on a cooling rack, so that the chocolate can drip through and not pool around the edge and make the cake soggy. I didn't want to have to cover my entire counter with waxed paper - and lose all of that chocolate - so I just started with it on the serving plate. 
As you might have guessed... it pooled.
You might have noticed, too, that the chocolate kind of ran off the edges of the cake. That's one of the problems of working with a warm glaze - it's runny. I probably could have waited a bit for it to cool so that I'd have had more control, but was trying to follow the directions, and... there you have it.

After this, you have to let it sit for a while for the glaze to set (otherwise, honestly, it would pour all over the place), and - eventually - you get this:

The pastry cream mooshes out the sides just a bit, since you have to press down to cut through it all. And so you kind of feel like you're getting extra cream - which is not a bad thing.

Oh, and after we cut into it, we covered the cut section with waxed paper so that it wouldn't dry out.

So, how did this one go?

As I mentioned at the start, the pastry cream was much better than the last one. And the glaze was good - though (totally my fault) it had a few chunks in it, and as time passed it got a little gummy and hard to cut through.

If you remember from last week, I had some doubts about when to take the cake out of the oven, and so I left it in a little longer than the recipe called for. This was a bad idea. It turned out a little tough - verging on a tad rubbery. The flavor was great, though.

(Interesting random fact: A friend of one of my sisters recently met Ina Garten. As part of their discussion, Garten was asked if there was one recipe she had never put into a cookbook that she was frustrated by. Her response: Boston Cream Pie. She apparently said that she just hadn't found "the right recipe" yet. So... having only tried two, I feel okay.)

Would I make it again? Maybe. But we have some really good bakeries in the area, so... for my time and effort that might actually be the less-expensive way to go.


If I had gone to the grocery store, I wouldn't have been able to offer you this amazing little slo-mo video. (Cover your keyboard with a towel before watching - it's pretty drool-worthy.)

So what do you want to see me make a studied mess of on my blog? Let me know!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Publishing 101: Font Smatter

I debated for a while on what to call this post. To give you an idea of what we'll be discussing, here are two of my other options:

Graphic Smatter
Space Smatter

Yep. We're talking about unfortunate font/graphic/space choices that can truly alter how your reader sees (and understands) what you're working on.

On the most basic level, this can be something like the choice you make when offered Times New Roman, Calibri, and Comic Sans. Each has a purpose and a place - and they're not entirely interchangeable.

For most fiction works, a serif font (like Times New Roman) is used. For a lot of non-fiction works (or online web pages), a sans-serif font (like Calibri) is used. For comic books (or for comic relief), a font like Comic Sans can be used. But there aren't really any hard-and-fast rules. Mainly, you just want to make sure that your readers are able to read what they are being presented (and, in the event of misplaced usage of Comic Sans, avoid ridicule).

When we move on to design elements - such as cover art - it becomes important that the font chosen not only be legible, but also be evocative of what is inside the book. Good graphic designers know a lot about how fonts impact viewers - and many of them have even created their own fonts along the way. (There's a very cool story about fonts in a book called Marcel's Letters - which is part history, part memoir, part font-creation. And, okay, I'm especially partial to that particular font because we used it for all of our wedding materials.)

When fonts get artsy, though, they can also become hard to read. Think of graffiti that - to many of us - might look like blobs or scribbles, but actually contains names. Or think of the doodles you used to put in the margins of your notebooks in junior high, where your name became a dragon or a daisy. Those may look great as finished products, but could you really still read them?

Oh - and I should mention, of course, that spacing is incredibly important. If you've ever looked at a page of text where the words are spread from side to side without ragged right-hand margins, you've probably also noticed that the spacing between words - and even letters - might be different from line to line. This adjustment of the amount of space before and after a character of type is referred to as "kerning." [CLARIFICATION: While "kerning" refers to the space between individual pairs of characters, "tracking" is a better term to use when discussing the spacing either between words or of an entire line of text.]*

(I won't lie: "justified" text - where the text fills the whole line - makes proofreading a pain, because it's really hard to see exactly how many spaces have been left between words and after punctuation. But that's a story for another day.)

So what does this all have to do with the title of this post? Well, as you may have guessed by now, the title (and the alternative titles) all have to do with reading a piece of text wrong because of how it was originally presented. In other words, what we're talking about today is the fact that:

Fonts Matter
Graphics Matter
Spaces Matter.

This was brought to mind a week ago when I was with some friends and we saw a piece of public art in the Union Depot in Saint Paul. It's a really cool piece, and as you look at it you realize that there is text on it. Which, due to the spacing of the letters - and the placement of the split line between the panels - seems to say: 

Forevers Aint Paul

Even though I was standing in Saint Paul at the time, I first read that and thought "Wow. Someone really doubts Paul's ability to commit." It took me a moment to realize that the intended sentiment was "Forever Saint Paul." 

Think I'm exaggerating? Check it out, and let me know what you think:

Personally, I think it means that fonts, graphics, and spaces all matter. Which is why, along with your editor and proofreader, you probably want to hire a professional to do your artwork. Otherwise, you may just end up dealing with smatter. 

*I'd like to thank my husband for the clarification in the terms used, here. I like to think of this as added proof that you probably don't want your editors doing your typesetting.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Boston Cream Pie - the rematch

As some of you may remember, back at the end of April/beginning of May, I tried to make a Boston Cream Pie on the recommendation of a friend and reader. (The first of those two posts is here; the second is here.)

I'll save you the trouble of going back and reading all the way through both of those (though - the photos are pretty-ish) and let you know that the final product was a tad underwhelming.

So I immediately set to work searching cookbooks for a better version. And - since the person who had originally spurred on my attempts is in town this week - I decided it was time to try again.

This time, I broke out The Best Recipe cookbook, which is from the America's Test Kitchen people, who also put out Cook's Illustrated magazine.

I'm not going to lie. I'm a little leery of some their recipes. They can veer wildly from deceptively simple to way-too-detailed (I encountered both of these while working on this cake). But the one thing they do have going for them is tons of testing - so the recipes will honestly produce good results almost every time if you follow their directions.

I was happy to see the name of the first half of this recipe (the part we'll be going through today), though - it gave me a bit of hope:

After all, who doesn't love to be told that a recipe is "foolproof"?

So, with ingredients gathered... I set out on my second attempt at Boston Cream Pie...

Why yes, there are two different kinds of flour in that picture! How observant of you!
Before really getting into the cooking, I got to do some arts and crafts. You see, the recipe calls for greasing your pans, and then lining them with parchment circles. But, since we seldom actually do this (I don't often use round cake pans, and when I do I typically grease-and-flour), we don't have any of those on hand. We do, however, have a Costco-sized roll of parchment paper, so I got out the roll and my handy scissors and set to work making a circle-type liner.

First, I verified what size the pan was.
Then I cut squares of parchment that were just a hair smaller than the pan.
Then I folded it in the same way that you fold paper to make an eight-pointed paper snowflake. (Does everyone know how to do that? I remember being very confused by it when I was a little kid. 
Minor problem: If you get too carried away with the snowflake cutting, you end up with a pan liner that really won't do you much good.
Luckily, I was able to restrain myself for the second one (and the third one).
You still grease the bottom of the pan, even though it's going to be lined. This is so the parchment won't stick.
Yippee! Two non-snowflake-lined nine-inch pans!
Okay. Now on to the actual baking.
I think we have a sifter, though I'm not sure where it is. So this is the dry ingredients all being whisked together.
This is the milk and butter being heated/melted. Such a tiny little saucepan.
Now we're talking! Egg whites in the mixer, whole eggs (and extra whites) in a bowl, and dry ingredients hanging out near the blender (which has nothing to do with this recipe).

This is where some things started to get a bit weird.
Action shot!
For instance: The amount of time it took for the eggs to reach soft peaks seemed longer than usual (not sure what was up with that), and the recipe calls for one-quarter cup of sugar, but you actually use it in two portions (three tablespoons at a time) - and I kind of wish it had just said "3 tablespoons" twice, so I hadn't scooped out a quarter cup and then had to try to scoop out the tablespoons out of that.
Eventually, though, I had my soft-peak egg whites and was ready to move on to the rest.

This is one of those places where you really need to read the full recipe. It talks about beating the eggs and sugar until they are "very thick and a pale yellow color." Now, I don't know about you, but when I mix sugar and egg together, it tends to turn yellow pretty fast - and get really thick at the same time.

But the recipe goes on to say "about 5 minutes." So I went with the recipe. And, yes, it was eventually very pale yellow - and even thickened up more than I expected it to.

Alright. We have progress. And it was time to slam everything into the same bowl. Very carefully.
Can you see the two different colors of the eggs?
You see, the flour mixture is kind of heavy. And you've just spent ten minutes or so trying to get your eggs all light and airy (and, yet, thick), so you don't want to just drop the flour in and flatten it all. 

I won't lie: I laughed when I read the very precise "fold 12 times... fold 8 times" for this step and the next one. 
It kind of looks like a tiny, inverted, double boiler.
Remember our poor little saucepan? Well... It needed to be covered and kept warm (really - how much more like a street urchin can it be?), and we don't have a lid for it. So I covered it with a small bowl.

You're supposed to make a "well" in one area of the batter, and then pour in the dairy mixture. But - um - it's a liquid. How do you make a well in a liquid? I ended up with a kind of "fast-closing crease" and decided to go with it.
No-well, No-well...
I'm probably as surprised as anyone that another eight "folds" actually seemed to get us where we needed to be:

Into the pan and oven we go with our "foolproof sponge."
Do they look even? I can never tell if they're even. Especially when I'm holding a bowl in one hand and a spatula in the other and just trying not to drop everything on the counter.
Just a hair over the prescribed time, they looked like this: 

Contrary to the recipe, they didn't really feel "firm" - but they did have a nice spring to them when I touched them. So I figured they were good to go.

Okay. You're supposed to run a knife around the edge to loosen it from the pan. And I did. But the knife bumped against the parchment and kind of gouged into the cake layers. (Yes, both of them. I cannot believe I did it to both cakes. >sigh<)

Following their directions, I inverted a plate onto the pan, covered it with a towel, and then...

Flipped that bad boy out of the pan in one swift bam on the counter.

Moment of truth: peeling the parchment off the bottom and hoping it comes off without any issues. 
Some of the light spots are actually caused by the parchment insulating the cake from the direct heat of the pan. I think this is another reason that greasing the pan is so important - it helps to conduct the heat.
From pan to plate, and then from plate to cooling rack:

And, yes, the whole parchment-lined-pan thing really did its job. Just look at the difference between the sides (just greased) and the bottom (greased and parchment-ed). 

I realize that this is a really horribly mean place to leave off, but it's already almost three dozen photos, and my laptop isn't quite sure what to do with me.

Next week we'll make the pastry cream (spoiler alert: there's booze in it!) and the chocolate glaze (spoiler alert: you get to figure out what it means for something - other than a first date - to be "tepid"), and put the whole thing together!

See what can happen if you send me a recipe idea? (And - even better - what happens if you send me a recipe idea and then come to visit!?) Let me know if there's something you want me to try, and I'll see if I can work it up into a blog post (or four).