Friday, December 30, 2016

Predictions and the New Year

We don't go to New Year's Eve parties, resplendent in sparkling attire, and dance the year in. We don't brave the chill and the crowds (probably more crowds than chill, given where we are) to enjoy First Night or watch an illuminated acorn drop. Our New Year's Eve is more along the lines of chocolate chip cookies and a game of Scrabble.

We do, however, like to make New Year's predictions. At least I do, and the rest go along with me.
After making new predictions, we can read last year's and see how completely we missed the mark.

The first step is to come up with some questions, then print out a copy for each person. Some questions may be about family and friends--"Will (name of person not in immediate family) get a new baby/dog/car this year?" Others are about the larger world and its events--lots of options for questions there, especially this New Year's. And usually we have questions like "What will be the big medical discovery/invention of the year?" "What food or ingredient will become the new thing and show up everywhere?" People who like to follow the doings of particular celebrities could add questions about their coming year as well.

After everyone writes down their answers, the papers should probably be put away, unread, till next New Year's Eve. We are too curious about each other's predictions to wait, though, so we compare answers right away. Then the papers get folded and forgotten till next year.

Just make sure you put the papers somewhere you'll look come December 31st. Our Scrabble box is getting a bit full.

Happy New Year.



Friday, December 23, 2016

Every tree tells a tale... and every ornament



I favor the sentimental, eclectic school of Christmas tree decorating.

old clear red glass Christmas ballSomeone in a book I once read was thrilled when a visitor told her that her Christmas tree looked like it belonged in a department store. I guess that means the colors and shapes were all coordinated. Personally, I would hate to have a tree like that at home.

No danger of that. The ornaments on our tree span decades of ornament styles (not a full century, as far as I know) and were not chosen with any color scheme in mind. They do, however, have a lot of stories to go with them. And even the ones that don’t actually have stories, often suggest stories.

oddly shaped ornament with stripesOne of the oldest came from my father’s parents’ tree—a clear, red glass ball. My father told me that during the war, they didn’t sell silvered ornaments because they were saving metals for the war. At some point, he tried to make one of clear red balls shiny by putting scrunched aluminum foil in it. It didn’t really work.

Other ornaments of indeterminate age came from Tom’s parents—a lot of baubles of interesting colors (pink, lime, peach) as well as some odd shapes. Though age is slowly taking away some of their shine, they add some interest to the red, green, blue, gold, silver of our more recent baubles.

wooden skier Christmas ornamentThere are ornaments that I remember choosing with my brother when we were young. He got Mrs. Santa and an angel on a sled (long gone now), while I chose an angel on a horse and a pink bell. We used some of those to mark out our places under the tree, and later on there were ornaments to stand for other people: a skier for my father, an angel on a piano (of course) for my mother.

silvery wire Christmas tree ornament on treeSome ornaments came as gifts—or attached to gifts. When M was a baby, relatives gave us an elf. Though I hear elves tend to roam about most people’s houses in December, ours likes to take up a spot on the tree and stay there the whole time. And when Tom and I decorated a tree together for the first time (which is when we got a lot of the more recent colored balls as well as the clear “soap bubbles”), I gave him a silvery wire tree ornament.

We keep picking up ornaments here and there. There’s a Moravian star from Old Salem, a gourd decorated like a cat from a museum gift shop, an owl I found when visiting a friend in Indianapolis, a scrollwork penguin from the State Fair, and quite a variety from Holden Beach.

With all these ornaments, we have new problem. We have more ornaments than tree. The most favored ornaments are guaranteed a spot, but the rest just have to hope that this is their year. If not, well, there’s always next year.

Till next post.
Christmas elf on the tree

Friday, December 16, 2016

Wall of Quotations



When I was in high school, I liked to post quotations on my walls. There were funny mottos that I borrowed from the pin-buttons at the science-fiction bookstore, inspirational lines from my favorite poems, and memorable words from books I’d read a million times.

But I didn’t just scribble the words on a card and stick it on the wall. No, I wrote them out in my best calligraphy so they’d be a pleasure to look at.

Like these:



Several quotations written out in calligraphy

For years I’ve been meaning to do this again. For instance, I wanted to write out “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe—maybe blackletter would look appropriate?—and stick it on the pantry door. Of course, it would probably take up the entire available space. I never even got started on the first verse.

They say “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Sometimes it’s better to scribble a few quotations on index cards and stick them up with painters’ tape than it is to wait until you finally pull out the italic nibs and ink bottle.

The other advantage of the casual approach is that the whole family can get into it.  Set out the index cards, some Sharpies, and off they go.

Here are some photos of the results. I’ve made the photos larger than usual in the hope that you can make out some of the words.

top left


 top right


lower left

lower right

You may have noticed that there aren’t any attributions on these cards. That’s deliberate. It’s a great feeling to see the spark of recognition in someone else’s eyes and hear, “Oh, yeah! I love when he says that!”  It’s also fun to answer the question, “Now, where does that come from?”

Eventually these cards will have to come down to make way for some other display. I’ve been told that they must remain up until the new year—but apparently it’s okay if we switch to song lyrics some time in January…

Till next post.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Homemade Vegetarian Marshmallows—a quest



Several years ago, my daughter became a vegetarian and discovered that marshmallows—so necessary for s’mores—are made with gelatin. Since gelatin comes from hides and bones, she needed an alternative.

At the time, I couldn’t find vegetarian marshmallows in the stores. (I think they are slightly easier to find now.) We had made marshmallows at home once or twice before, so I started looking for a vegetarian marshmallow recipe on-line.

The recipe that kept coming up basically substituted agar for the gelatin in a standard recipe, with few other changes. The person whose blog I got it from said it made great marshmallows—but after trying it twice (the first time I used flaky agar instead of powder), all I got was a nasty slimy goo.

I tried looking for other versions of the recipe, then for recipes using other thickeners. I found a recipe for marshmallows that used xanthan gum and egg whites, and lo!—it produced marshmallows!

homemade vegetarian marshmallows



 I was so thrilled that out of sheer gratitude, I immediately ordered the book that the recipe had come from: Demolition Desserts, by Elizabeth Falkner.

I made these again last week. Out of curiosity, I looked on-line for the website where I had discovered the recipe. I found a source of recipes using exotic thickeners from Agar to Xanthan gum, but it also listed that same unsuccessful agar recipe that I’d started with! And the source was a company that produced agar! Doesn't anyone test these recipes? (If you have gotten the agar-only recipe to work, please tell me how you did it.)

So is it possible to make marshmallows using agar? Another source of a recipe using agar, Serious Eats, added a protein source, such as soy protein, and explained that the protein is needed to make it work. Gelatin is a source of protein, as well as a thickener, and egg whites provide protein in the recipe that worked for me. So maybe that is the answer and those other agar recipes were missing a key component.

Before deciding whether to list the recipe here, I checked into copyright law on recipes. Apparently lists of ingredients and basic instructions cannot be copyrighted (though it is only fair to list the source, if you know it.) Photos and elaborations on the instructions and comments about the recipe, however, are copyrighted. I also checked to see that this recipe is already available at various sites, though the quantities of water, corn syrup, etc. vary slightly.

So here is the version I use, with my own comments. If you want step-by-step photos, you'll have to check other sites.

Ingredients

Cornstarch and powdered sugar for dusting
Oil
2 tsp xanthan gum
¼ cup water
Pinch cream of tartar
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
¾ cup corn syrup
3 egg whites
½ tablespoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Prepare a 50:50 mix of cornstarch and powdered sugar for dusting the pan and the finished marshmallows. I suggest ¼ cup of each. (Some versions use plain cornstarch, but ick!)
  2. Oil and liberally dust a jelly-roll pan (for thinner marshmallows) or a smaller, deeper pan (I assume it works equally well to make thick marshmallows, though they may be more difficult to cut.) You may wish to line the pan with parchment first and oil and dust that instead.
  3. Mix xanthan gum with 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar. Set aside. (You can get xanthan gum at supermarkets now—it is also used in gluten-free baking.)
  4. Set eggs out to reach room temperature. (I used pasteurized egg white product, which doesn’t whip quite as well but was adequate. You could also use powdered egg white, or real egg white. I’m not sure if there is a safety concern here or not, given that you are going to pour hot syrup into it later.)
  5. Start whipping the egg whites before the syrup boils. I recommend a stand mixer with a whisk attachment—marshmallow is thick stuff to whip. Whip the whites till they make soft peaks, about 2 minutes. (I’m not sure how soft, really—I may have stopped too soon.)
  6. Put water, cream of tartar, the rest of the granulated sugar, and the corn syrup into a pot. Leave room for it to foam up as it boils. Stir and heat to 248 degrees. (One recipe said not to stir it, but stirring worked fine for me.) You also will notice that the syrup goes from looking somewhat foamy to looking clear with bigger bubbles at around this point.
  7. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly and carefully pour sugar syrup onto egg whites. Avoid hitting the whisk—you don’t want hot syrup splashing around.
  8. Sprinkle on the xanthan gum-sugar mixture, and add vanilla extract or any other flavoring and coloring you want. Then turn up the speed to high and mix for 2-3 minutes till the marshmallow pulls away from the sides and clumps up in the whisk.
  9. Using an oiled spatula, scrape the marshmallow into the pan and try to spread it. Ha! Now give up trying to spread it, dust it with more powdered sugar/cornstarch, and pat it into shape with well-dusted hands. Dust it a bit more, cover it with plastic, and refrigerate for 4 hours.
  10. Then cut them with a powdered knife or pizza cutter or cookie cutter, dust the cut edges, and enjoy.


cutting board with knife and homemade vegetarian marshmallow squares

I store these in the fridge, but apparently the gelatin version can be stored at room temperature for a week. This makes me wonder if I actually need to refrigerate them. Recipes involving both egg white and lots of sugar, like royal icing, always leave me perplexed. At what point does the sugar make refrigeration unnecessary? So I’ll continue to play it safe and keep these in the fridge.

I’m not sure how these marshmallow do under fire (or on fire), but I can testify that they make perfectly good microwave s’mores.

Till next post.

Note: make sure your bowl, whisk, and the nearby areas of your mixer are free of any grease (butter, oil) from previous recipes, or the egg whites won't whip.

Monday, November 14, 2016

On Failing a Caramel Taste-test




While at Trader Joe’s, I saw a skinny box that said it was a caramel taste-test. Twelve caramels, from vanilla to chili to fig & honey, lined up and labeled from one to twelve. It was too intriguing to resist. I brought it home and we gave it a try.


The box consisted of a cardboard sleeve that showed the caramels (each of which had a distinctive top decoration) in order. A cardboard tray slid out of the sleeve and the caramels sat in individual compartments of a plastic insert. The outer sleeve listed the twelve flavors: vanilla, maple, double espresso, toffee apple, strawberry black pepper, butterscotch, fig & honey, chili, himalayan salted, blood orange & balsamic, coconut, and stem ginger. The answers as to which caramel was which were on the underside of the cardboard tray—no peeking!

As the instructions suggested, we cut each caramel into quarters (this part was a bit messy). Since there were three of us, this left an extra piece to be eaten later after we’d checked the answers. One by one we sampled each caramel and wrote down our guesses. In some cases, the top decoration gave a bit of a hint as to what it was.

I was amazed at how difficult it was to guess some of the most familiar flavors. I got completely befuddled by vanilla, maple, and butterscotch caramels. A few of the flavors were quite clear and all three of us immediately said, “Oh, yes, I know this one!”, but there were others where one or two people felt certain of the answer and the other two or one remained utterly confused.

In the end, I got the lowest score: 6 out of 12 right. Only 50%. I’ve always thought I was pretty good at distinguishing smells, and should therefore be good at distinguishing tastes, but apparently I’m not nearly as good at this as I thought.

Maybe I need to eat more flavored caramels this year, just for practice?

Till next post.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why is this blog called "Ravens and Pears"?

There are really two reasons why this blog is called "Ravens and Pears." The first reason is that I write children's fiction and one of my stories (the one for which I'm currently sending out queries) is about a boy and his raven (and a Great Flood). Another story, the one I'm currently revising, is set in a kingdom where a Fairy's Curse has blighted all the pears for which the kingdom used to be famous.

The second reason, which may be the reason why I have ravens and pears in my stories to begin with, is that both are interesting of their kind.

 I don't know any ravens personally, but I have read about them and watched videos. Ravens (and crows and other corvids) are very intelligent birds. And like many intelligent animals, they are prone to causing trouble. They are also interesting because they can mimic speech and other sounds, though I think this mainly happens in ravens that live with people. Perhaps for these reasons, ravens appear in myths and folk tales.

Pears look a bit like apples, but--in my kitchen, at least--are much more temperamental. Apples are usually ready to eat when I buy them, and still ready to eat after sitting in the fridge for a few weeks. Pears, on the other hand, are rarely ripe when I buy them, and after checking them every day to see if they are ready, I sometimes find I have missed the magic moment and they are already going rotten. But when I eat a perfectly ripe pear, it is heavenly--and I can't say the same for an apple.

I'm hoping to post about things that I find interesting--unusual craft techniques, books that make me think, new ideas for dealing with everyday life, and maybe even some recipes. I expect I'll also post about things that make me cranky, and other things that make me happy. I might even throw in some photos.

Till next post.