Friday, January 15, 2021

Stay at Home and Have Cake


 

"Stay at Home."

Back in April I was experimenting with decorating cake using the batter itself, thanks to watching too many episodes of the Great British Baking Show. I was trying a technique that seemed to have many names: joconde imprime, Japanese Jelly-roll, and inlay cake. The writing above was not made with that technique. Rather, I took the  leftover vanilla batter and piped it on top of the chocolate batter to express the concerns of the moment.

I never did write a blog post about the decorating technique, or at least, I never finished one. But the motto is even more relevant now than it was back in April.

Not everyone has the option to stay home, but for those who do, it is a contribution to fighting the pandemic. I know we went over all this back in March and April, but to repeat--if all you can do is avoid getting COVID yourself, you have still done something to help stop the pandemic. You have created one less source of infection, one less draw on the increasingly limited COVID-related resources.

(That should have been "fewer", shouldn't it?)

Everyday life goes on... and on... and it isn't possible to postpone everything. There are dental visits, doctor visits, and sometimes you have to call the plumber in. Sometimes you really want to pick out your own groceries, and sometimes you want to see a friend--even if it has to be from a distance, masked. But you can still choose to be careful and limit your exposure, especially right now when the risk is higher than ever for most people. If it made sense in April, it makes even more sense now, when there is almost ten times the risk, on average, of catching it.

In the interests of ending on a positive note, I'm going to tack on some of the photos from April's baking experimentation. Maybe eventually I'll have another try at the technique, but till then...






 

Till next post!

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Subtle Beauties of Colorful Christmas Lights--reflections, refractions, and shadows.

Holographic glitter in electric candle

 

Reflections, refractions, shadows, and colored lights.

 The winter solstice has come and gone, and the daylight is getting longer. We've enjoyed the light of candles, holiday decorations, and (sometimes) fireworks. So today's post is just a look back at some of the interesting and beautiful effects that light can have.

Let's start with some reflected lights--but colored lights. 


Christmas lights reflected on gold wrap.


Christmas lights reflected on a metal hanging lamp.

 

Not only are colored lights beautiful, but their reflections are also beautiful and interesting. And then there are the interesting shadows they cast along with the reflections.

Christmas tree lights and shadows on ceiling.

Christmas tree lights and shadows on window shade.

 I like the light-and-shadow effects almost as much as I like the tree itself. Almost.

When I was young, "holographic" paper and foil was a very fancy and expensive item. I think I paid a dollar apiece for some postcards with a holographic coating as a teenager--I'm not sure what that equals in today's dollars. Today you can buy wrapping paper that is thin plastic with all sorts of nifty holographic effects, wrap gifts in it, and then throw it away. It's that cheap.

I don't tend to buy the holographic wrap because it doesn't fold neatly and doesn't tape as well as paper, but I do appreciate all the fabulous light effects available with holographic film. I have several electric candles filled with liquid and holographic glitter, and I find them mesmerizing. They also refract and reflect light in interesting ways.



Reflections from glitter-filled electric candle.


 More glitter-filled electric candle effects.
 

I deliberately cropped photos to emphasize the interesting light effects, but in case you want to see where they came from, here are some of the original photos.

 I also have some previous posts on light effects. 

Pelican Shadows and other shadows of interest

Sun and suncatchers: rainbows in my room 

Reflecting on reflections: the stories inside the shine

Scented candles  (look at final photo)

 

Christmas present wrapped in textured gold wrapping paper.


Hanging metal lamp shade with circle reflecting colored lights.


Liquid filled electric candle with holographic glitter.





Till next post.


Friday, January 1, 2021

A Rule of Life for Facebook Posts--thoughts after reading Michael Curry's "Love Is the Way"

 

I recently took part in an Advent book study of Bishop Michael Curry’s Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. Partway through, we were given an assignment: to consider the section on creating a Rule of Life, and think about how we might apply it in our own lives. I ended up missing the subsequent discussion session, but decided to write up my thoughts and use it as a blog post.

A Rule of Life is meant to be a set of personal guidelines to help us do a better job of living in accordance with our own highest values. Rather than try to compose a Rule of Life for my whole life, which is a huge thing to think about and really requires a continuing effort, I decided just to formulate a Rule of Life for Facebook posts. If I want to post on Facebook in a way that accords with my values, what should I do or not do?

I’ve narrowed it down to three rules, more or less: one “Do post,” one “Don’t post,” and one “Maybe post.”

Do: post funny and hopeful things from my life. Silly cat photos, attempts at creative bread-making, a special star, colored lights. These are the kinds of things I enjoy seeing from others, and these are the posts that are more likely to be enjoyed by others and very unlikely to upset them. (Okay, it might be annoying if I actually posted photos of every loaf of bread I ever baked, but I’m assuming common sense here.)

Don’t: rant. Rants should be reserved for people who know and understand me, delivered in person or by phone, and given plenty of context. An out-of-context rant can make a person seem considerably more ugly than they really are. People who know me can sympathize with me or tell me if I am going off the deep end, and either way, won’t hold my rant against me. (Again, I’m assuming common sense here. Choose an appropriate person to rant to.)

There might be an exception for rants about things that don’t involve other people. It might be okay to rant about mosquitoes in summer, or about the way I utterly messed up a loaf of bread.

Maybe post: responses to other people’s posts and comments on current events or world situations, if they can meet three criteria.

First, is the post based on good information? This is a lot like saying, “Is it true?” There have been too many times when I read about something that happened and immediately reacted to it, only to later read a different account and realize that I hadn’t fully understood the situation. Sometimes I think I have informed myself well enough by looking at several articles on-line, and then discover I haven’t actually looked at conflicting views and so have still missed a lot. It isn’t possible to be fully informed—but it’s possible at least to read more than one person’s take on a situation.

Second, is the post courteously worded? In Love Is the Way, Bishop Curry lists MLK, Jr’s Ten Commandments of Nonviolence. Number six is “Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.” When you post on Facebook, you are addressing human beings, mostly friends, but possibly also foes. (Remember, you can never be sure who will end up reading anything you put on-line.) Be courteous. Don’t name-call.

As a practical matter, I find that posts that do a lot of name-calling make me angry with the person who posted, even if I actually agree with the general message of the post. The words come across as venomous and spiteful. There is nothing to be gained in being deliberately offensive.

Third and most difficult to determine, is the post well-intentioned? No matter how politely worded the post may be, is the point of posting it to be helpful, or to be subtly snarky? To inform, or to show off one’s superior knowledge? To encourage someone to think about something differently, or to score a point?

Here I’ll cite Number Two of those ten commandments: “Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.” In posting, am I really trying to do something productive, or do I just want to be right? Or more exactly, am I seeking to make other people admit I am right?

There’s a saying that I think is quite wise when properly interpreted: “You can be right, or you can be married.” I interpret it to mean that if you insist your partner acknowledge that you are right every time you are right, you aren’t going to have much of a relationship. Especially since sometimes you will actually be wrong.

The fact is, people hate being wrong. If you press them hard to admit that they are wrong, they are likely to try to defend their view even if they are having doubts about it. Worse, defending their view will make it even more difficult for them to give it up. If instead you reduce the cost to them of admitting that they are wrong (even just admitting it to themselves), that  makes it easier for them to change their mind.

Going back to the original question, “Is the post well-intentioned?”, I have to admit that sometimes the answer is going to be “Yes…and also, no.” Sometimes I can’t help wanting to show off a little, or be acknowledged right. But at least it’s worth thinking hard about when choosing my words.

A Rule of Life (for Facebook posts or otherwise) is supposed to help you express your highest values in the way you live your life. I haven’t said what those values are, in my case, and it occurs to me that I am doing things backwards—coming up with rules before coming up with the values they are meant to promote. Oh well. Working backwards,  my highest values, at least as far as Facebook posts are concerned, are not clever wit (though that can be fun to read) or the promotion of creative endeavors (though I know some very creative people I would like to promote and know of many more) or making myself look good (though admittedly I’m trying to post from my best side). I guess that when it comes to Facebook and my Facebook friends, I value people working together--hopefully to make the world a better place for everyone.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Cranberries Are Fun--traditional cranberry sauce and a cranberry curd tart

Cranberry curd tart with whipped cream design
Cranberry curd tart
 

Cranberries are fun to cook and I really like the spiced cranberry sauce that I make each year to go with the Thanksgiving turkey and mashed potatoes. So when I saw the recipe for cranberry curd tart in the Nov/Dec issue of Cook's Illustrated, I wanted to try it.

Why do I like cooking with cranberries? For a start, they are one of my favorite colors--a red-violet that I would probably call magenta. Second, they float in water like little corks or tiny round magenta buoys. And then there's the way they bounce if you drop them, instead of squashing. How much cuter can you get?

I also like watching cranberries boil. At the start, you have firm red-purple berries floating in colorless water (with vinegar or sugar added, depending on the recipe.) After things heat up, you can hear the berries bursting--a quiet pop! pop! pop!--and you find you have squashy berries mixed into red-purple water.

Cranberries boiling in a pot of water
Boiling cranberries
 

Long, long ago, I had a friend who made a spiced cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Hers wasn't sweetened, but it was tasty, so years later when I saw a "cranberry catsup" in Fannie Farmer, I tried it, changing some of the measurements. Delicious! Now I make it every year. Here's my recipe, which is loosely based on the one for cranberry catsup in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 17th printing, copyright 1959.

Cranberry Sauce

Boil 12 ounces of cranberries with 1/4 cup white vinegar and 1 cup water. When berries are soft (about five minutes), strain, pressing the mixture against the strainer with a wooden spoon to get it all.

Put it back in the pot with 1/2 cup of brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, 1/4 teaspoon clove, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Stir and heat together for three more minutes. 

(The original recipe has a higher proportion of vinegar and spices, adds paprika, and ends by mixing in 2 teaspoons of butter.)


This year Cook's Illustrated came out with a recipe for a cranberry curd tart with an almond crust. I had to try it. I'm not going to put the recipe here, because this issue is still available in stores and I would feel bad about putting it on the internet. Also, I think it's more fun if you read the description of how its creator developed it. (It may be available from your library on-line.)

I will say a bit about how the recipe goes, though. I used a 12 ounce bag of cranberries, because that appeared to be the standard size. Curiously, the recipe called for a pound. Since my 12 ounces was actually 13+ ounces when I weighed it, I decided not to change anything other than reducing the water very, very slightly. It came out just fine.

First the cranberries were boiled with sugar and water, so I got to watch the berries burst and the water turn crimson. Then they went into the food processor with an egg yolk mixture. There was some processing, some cooling, some added butter and more processing, then through the strainer and into the crust.

Undecorated cranberry curd tart, cooling on rack
The cranberry tart, cooling

The crust. While all that processing and cooling went on, I messed up the crust. I mixed up a greasy, wet paste that baked into a greasy, hard crust. Clearly I must have mismeasured something. The taste was fine, and the crust was softer the next day, but that can't have been the intended texture.

The greasy crust before baking

 Then the whole thing had to cool for four hours. Keep that in mind. Four hours. Fortunately, this was November 3 and I wasn't planning on going to bed early anyway. When the tart was completely cool, it was time to whip the cream, which had been mixed with a bit of filling and chilled. I have to say, the piped design did indeed keep its shape well.

Slice of cranberry curd tart
The final product

How did it taste? It tasted a lot like a lemon bar, except not lemony. Presumably it tasted like cranberry, but cranberry isn't a taste I can easily identify. You might say it tasted like a berry bar--tangy and sweet. I'm glad I made it, but I don't expect to make it all that often. Then again, I wonder what it would taste like if it were spiced like my cranberry sauce? Hmm...

Till next post.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Preparing for Nanowrimo--Ideas, Notebooks, Scrivener, and maybe Sims

 

Spiral notebook with kitten photo for Nanowrimo
My Nanowrimo 2020 notebook

It's late October, which means it's time to prepare for Nanowrimo. If you haven't heard of it before, that's National Novel Writing Month, in which many people attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days while simultaneously preparing their home for Thanksgiving and eating way too much leftover Halloween candy, followed by pumpkin pie.

Okay, this year there isn't so much cleaning involved, since family gatherings are out. That might help my word count, though I'd rather have the gathering.

This year I am starting a new mystery with the working title "The Bunny in the Library." Yes, I was thinking of Agatha Christie. No, the bunny does not get murdered. Really, the only two things I was sure of was that I wanted to use a character from a previous mystery, Tabitha Key, and have a bunny in a library.

Since then I have decided I also want an alien sleuth--alien as in extra-terrestrial. I don't think I've run into one yet, unless you count books that are clearly in the science fiction genre. I guess having an alien sleuth would technically make this mystery science fiction, though no more so than having actual magic classifies a mystery as fantasy. (Well, it does get labeled paranormal. I guess paranormal is a subgenre of fantasy? It seems to depend on the kind of magic.)

Armed with these ideas, I have chosen a spiral notebook to jot them down in (a tabby kitten with yarn--too bad I didn't have a cute rabbit notebook) and started a new Scrivener file. I like using wide-ruled notebooks, which means having covers that appeal to grade-school kids. Fortunately, my tastes do overlap with grade-school tastes, so I have a sufficient number of spiral notebooks for my writing projects (plus extras).

I also really like using Scrivener, which lets me reorganize chapters and scenes at the drop of a hat (or mouse) and also lets me add a brief description to chapters and then print them all out so I can figure out where my plot is going. I cannot say enough good stuff about Scrivener, and on top of that, it is very reasonably priced. (And no, I am not being paid to say that.)

One thing I have trouble with is visualizing my characters and settings. I thought maybe it would help if I used The Sims to create my characters, and then built a house to use as the setting. Unfortunately, it has been years since I played The Sims, so trying to do anything with it takes forever and gets very frustrating. I made some of the characters, but didn't manage to put them all in the same household. I started a house, then realized it would take way more time than it was worth. I should probably just draw a simple floorplan in my notebook. It won't be nearly as much fun as having look-alikes wandering around a Sim house, but it won't steal nearly as much of my time either.

 

Blurry picture of Sims characters for Nanowrimo 2020
These are some of my characters.

The other problem I ran into with The Sims was the limited selection of outfits, most of which were weirdly unappealing to me. I realize my characters aren't going to share my tastes in clothes, but even allowing for that, there wasn't much variety without buying extras.

Still, it was interesting to generate some semi-random Sims and picture them as my characters. Maybe I will stuff them in a too-small house and see what they do.

I'm looking forward to November, and reminding myself that I'm doing this for fun. This project does not have to result in a draft of real, functioning mystery. I can throw in bunnies, and treasure maps, and aliens, and my favorite sleuth, and not worry about the resulting chaos. I just need 50,000 words, plus a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So bring on November!

Till next post.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Blog Writer's Block? Or Just Conflicting Priorities?

 I haven't posted anything new since late March. While I'd like to blame that on the Pandemic, I really can't. I seem to have a case of blog writer's block--in this case, a kind of resistance to finishing any of the the posts I have started.

And I have started quite a few posts. There's one about the difference between actual and virtual activities (particularly with regard to virtual pets), one about decorating cakes with a technique variously called Japanese jellyroll and joconde imprime, one about suburban deer, and one about feuds. I've worked on all of these at various points, but never quite enough to post any of them.

It's true I've spent a lot of time polishing the cozy mystery I wrote last November, getting other people to read it, and polishing some more. I've also tried to increase my letter writing during this time, sending letters to some people I would normally see in person. So I've certainly been writing all this time. It just hasn't been blog posts. 

It doesn't help that the political atmosphere fills my head with all sorts of arguments that I don't really want to post about at the moment, not because I don't want any serious discussion on this blog, but because I want to keep it welcoming and fairly positive in tone. I want to unify, not divide, and I'm not sure I can get the tone right just now.

So why am I writing this post? Is it to excuse myself? Actually, no. I'm hoping that by writing this post, I will somehow break the pattern of not posting. If nothing else, it will remind my inner editor that this blog is not a finished product and I don't need to write something perfect in order to post. Goodness knows this post qualifies as "not perfect".

Till next post.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Making Your Own Flavored Yogurt (From Plain Yogurt) and Making Dalgona Coffee

I remember when regular yogurt came in lots of flavors and brands. That was before Greek yogurt took over, along with the sugar-free, fat-free, everything-free yogurts. The rising interest in full-fat yogurts was a brief respite, but it seems to be passing in favor of various international style yogurts. Regular flavored yogurts make up only a small patch of the yogurt section, and I think this is even more the case for vegetarians, since Yoplait uses gelatin in their yogurts. (They used to, anyway--I haven't checked recently.)

I have long been a fan of Dannon coffee yogurt, and apparently a lot of other people are, too. I can still find it in four-packs in some stores...sometimes. But I can't find it reliably, and Dannon lemon yogurt has been gone for a long time. Fortunately, I can mix up a decent coffee yogurt and a very tasty lemon yogurt using plain yogurt and flavoring. As long as you don't mind stirring your yogurt before eating it, you can get a variety of flavored yogurts from one large tub of plain yogurt. (Some people only like yogurt when it has that perfect jelly-like consistency straight out of the container--I can't think of a good word to describe the texture--and so would not like home-flavored yogurt.)

For lemon yogurt, I have been using a large spoonful of lemon curd. Make sure it hasn't been sitting in your fridge for months--I think the flavor deteriorates. Put the spoonful in a microwaveable bowl and nuke it for 5-7 seconds, just until it softens and stirs easily. Then add plain yogurt and mix.

For coffee yogurt, you can mix up some instant coffee and sugar with a little water, and keep it in the fridge for flavoring yogurt. For maximum entertainment value, make Dalgona Coffee. A friend told me about this, and it really is fun to make if you have an immersion blender with a whisk attachment.


Braun immersion blender with whisk attachment
Immersion blender with whisk attachment

Mix equal parts coffee powder, sugar, and water (hot water works fine.) Whisk until really stiff. It's amazing!

Dalgona coffee, whipped, and the whipping container held upside down.
See how thick it is?
How do you use it? The on-line photos show it spooned onto milk, over ice, for iced coffee. It looks nice, but I just end up stirring it in, and it doesn't taste any different.

Dalgona coffee also makes a nice cafe au lait when stirred into hot milk. And (more to the point) you can also add it to yogurt, though I suggest adding extra sugar. I haven't tried whipping the coffee mix with extra sugar, but that would cut out a step if it whips successfully.
A bowl of plain yogurt with a blob of Dalgona whipped coffee on top
Dalgona coffee on yogurt--remember to stir!

Other flavorings: maple syrup (not maple-flavored pancake syrup, though I suppose that would be a flavor all its own), brown sugar (works well with yogurt), and what about jam? Presumably you could warm up strawberry jam just as easily as lemon curd and make fruit-flavored yogurt.

None of these ideas is particularly original, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded that you have options.

Till next post.