Friday, May 26, 2017

The Great British Baking Show and Grandpere's Recipes--the technical challenge of a dimly remembered cookie

Last year, M and I discovered The Great British Baking Show. I don’t generally watch shows where contestants get eliminated each episode until only a few are left, but the British Baking Show felt different. For one thing, the contestants weren’t voting each other out—they were competing to produce the best baked goods in a given category. For another, they treated each other well, giving their fellow competitors a hand on those occasions when two hands just weren’t enough. And then, of course, they were producing delicious-sounding, highly inventive and often beautiful creations.

In case you haven’t seen it, there are three parts to each show: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. For the first and last challenges, they plan their own version of whatever has been assigned (“please make Paul and Mary sixteen perfect petits fours, in two flavors”, e.g.). Some contestants come up with very unusual flavor combinations, which makes me wish I could taste their results as well as see them.

The Technical Challenge is different. The contestants are all given the same recipe and ingredients, and left to do the best job they can. Usually the recipe is for something that few of them have ever made before, and sometimes it’s a pastry that none of them have even heard of. On top of that, the recipe is deliberately skimpy on details—the temperature for the oven, but not the baking time, for instance. Recipes for yeast-raised dough tend to leave out rising times, and sometimes parts of the recipe just say, “Make a custard” or “Prepare fruit”, leaving the contestant to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge of baking (and some on-the-spot guesswork.)

A cookbook: 1920s edition Cakes For Bakers by Paul RichardsAnd that’s why I love the Technical Challenge. It’s a test of their overall baking know-how. The more broadly they have experimented in baking and the more they have read about different baked goods, the more likely they are to know something about baking the assigned item. Being practiced  in common techniques helps when the recipe leaves out the details. Even being inquisitive in sampling pastry can pay off— if the contestant has eaten the pastry in question, at least they have some idea how it should turn out.

Now onward to Cakes For Bakers, a cookbook for the professional baker, copyright 1923. This book belonged to my Grandpere, who was, indeed, a professional baker. The book in interesting for a number of reasons. It’s old and refers to things like “pastry butterine” and whether the damper should be closed while baking. The selection of recipes is unlike my household cookbooks—it includes “Monte Carlos”, “Stork’s Nests”, and various kinds of Zwieback and honey cake, for example. It offers suggestions on pricing, decoration, and display of goods, and discusses the use of ammonium carbonate in leavening cookies.

Handwritten recipes on scraps of paper in an old cookbookThe most interesting part of the book, however, is not the book itself but the multitude of scraps of paper that have been tucked into it. Scrawled in pencil on the backs of old checks and garden store forms are recipes—lists of ingredients, really—with no explanation of their existence. In at least one case, my grandfather appears to be copying out a recipe from the book for a butter cookie, but with less lemon. Are these notes on how to vary existing recipes? Recipes from other books? Some appear to be calculations for making a different size batch.
Recipes scrawled on old checks and scratch paper
One thing is certain—there is no explanation of  how the listed ingredients are to be mixed and baked. To use these scrawled recipes, a person would either have to know the technique, or look up a similar recipe and work from its instructions.

For a long time before I had this book, I was trying to find a recipe for a certain kind of cookie that Grandpere made. All through my childhood, when we stayed with them, we ate these cookies which were stored in an old coffee can. There were crescents, ovals with scalloped edges, and leaf-shapes, but they all seemed to be basically the same cookie with different toppings—chopped nuts, tiny chocolate chips, whole cashews, or red candied fruit. My father said much later that they were butter cookies, but the butter cookies I tried never tasted quite right.

Eventually I found a butter cookie recipe with a bit of almond flavor that seemed right—but by then it had been so long that the flavor of the cookie was a dim memory. Still, it seemed possible that the cookies might have had a touch of almond—he put almond in the apple pastry and sliced almonds on the sides of cakes. (I wish I had asked my father whether Grandpere was especially fond of almond flavor. It’s too late now.)

So I was excited when I discovered the cookbook some years ago with its scraps of recipes. Could the answer be here? Maybe the recipe for the butter cookie with lemon? (Though I don’t remember any hint of lemon in the cookies he made.) At least that list of ingredients matched with a recipe in the book, which would help with mixing directions.

Page from Cakes For Bakers, showing fancy butter cookie recipe, with handwritten versionThe recipe in the book, however, was less than detailed. “Mix like cakes?” How much is “as much ammonia as will lie on a dime?” (I had to look up bakers’ ammonia and an equivalent in baking powder.) Finally, I guessed at the temperature of the “moderate oven” and the time.

The result, as I recall, was not remarkable. The failing could be in the recipe or in my memory of the cookies or both. But the challenge was an interesting one, and I think about it sometimes when I watch the contestants on the Baking Show attempt to figure out their sketchy instructions, and again when Paul and Mary survey the assorted results and compare them to the picture-perfect version they’ve just been sampling in another tent.

If only I had a Chock Full O’Nuts can filled with Grandpere’s cookies for the purpose of comparison, I could figure out that recipe yet.

Till next post.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fantasy World-building and the History of Technology

One of the things I love about writing fantasy is that you get to create a different world. Since you’re making it up, you can fill the world with all sorts of interesting things that are impossible in the real world. Pet dragons, floating cities, dust that gives you prophetic dreams, … things that would make life very different if they existed.

However, too many imaginary things would overwhelm your reader—and strain your power of invention—so most of the food, clothes, and everyday objects will be borrowed from reality. But even here, you get to choose from a world’s-worth of civilization. Do your characters live in an agrarian kingdom, or are they part of a nomadic tribe? What is the climate where they live—temperate, tropical, or positively arctic? And what sorts of objects and technology do they possess?

But you can’t mix-and-match just any details you like. Cars don’t make sense in a stone-age setting. Where would they come from? How would they be fueled? Similarly, if you have horse-drawn carriages, you need carriage-makers, and they need leather-workers, wood-workers, and blacksmiths. These trades don’t have to play a role in your story, but their existence has to make sense in your setting.

One way to get a sense of what objects and activities can reasonably be combined is to choose a historical period—say, France in the late 1700s. Things that went together in reality are plausible together in fantasy.

For example, in the story I am working on now, The Slipper Ball, the MC’s family traditionally made and sold a really excellent pear preserve. Fruit preserves have been around for a long time, so that aspect isn’t a problem, but being able to bottle and ship them without spoilage is another matter. What equipment is needed? How non-industrial can I make this world while still making the sale of specialty jam plausible?

Glass jars could be hand-blown, but the rings and lids I use for my own jam are probably stamped out of big sheets of metal in some enormous, highly automated factory.  Hmm… a system using wax rings and metal discs existed in the 1830s, and that technology seems within this world’s capabilities. That doesn’t mean I’m going to bore the reader with the details of how the jars are sealed—the technology isn’t wildly out of reach and that’s all I’m looking for. For that matter, I could just have specified that one of the fictional ingredients, lemonroot, has amazing preservative properties.

That brings me to a related point—I want the world to be plausible, but I don’t want to go into a lot of unnecessary detail. I have scenes set in the kitchen, and some baking takes place there, so I probably have to decide whether there is a free-standing oven or just some sort of shelf set into a great hearth. I don’t need to discuss where they get the wood for the fire, since there are trees and forests nearby and the reader can just assume the existence of woodcutters or some equivalent tradesman.

Even if you do simplify your world-building by tying it to a historical period, inventions that coexisted in reality don’t necessarily have to go together in your world. The American colonists had both guns and printing presses, but maybe your world has extensive libraries and no firearms at all. Or maybe there are enough guns for the Wild West, but all the wanted posters and news-sheets are laboriously hand-lettered. Your imaginary world, your choice.

Furthermore, different geographic areas can have different levels and kinds of technology (within reason). The Fourth Kingdom needn't be particularly industrialized if they can import their jam jars and iron stoves from the Second Kingdom. Since the story doesn’t take place in the Second Kingdom, I can skip over exactly how the Second Kingdom has organized its industry. The silk for their ball gowns comes from the First Kingdom, perhaps, which is known for its textiles. But whether that silk comes from silkworms raised on mulberry leaves, or domesticated spiders, or fields of silkweed doesn’t matter—it just matters that the reader knows their finest gowns have the texture and shine of silk.

And finally, no matter how much work you put into it, no imaginary world is going to be perfectly consistent and it isn't worth the time to try to make it so. The important thing is to avoid having the reader stop in the middle of the story and say, "What the heck? You don't weave on a spinning wheel!!* Even I know that!"

*Yes, I really saw this--and in a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, no less.

Friday, May 12, 2017

What Is This Called? Quilt Patterns, Drawing, and Zentangle(tm)

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through images of Zentangle-inspired art and it occurred to me that here was a way to combine two things I like: interesting quilt block patterns, and tangle patterns. (Zentangle™ is basically a form of doodling using patterns that are broken down stroke by stroke so they can be comfortably learned and produced. It can also be a kind of meditative practice.)

I love quilts and quilting, but I haven’t made many because they are (for me) a big time commitment. I have a file full of quilt patterns that I would love to make some day. Now, nothing replaces actual fabric and thread, but perhaps in addition to working on a small number of these patterns in fabric, I could work on a larger number of them on paper. I wouldn’t be able to curl up under the results, but I could put them on the wall and look at them. After all, plenty of quilts end up as wall hangings, too—there are only so many beds in one house.

So I pulled out the file and selected a pattern I’ve very much wanted to use—Storm At Sea. I love the way the straight lines of the triangles and diamonds end up giving the illusion of curves, not to mention the effects possible through different choices of fabric colors. I made a slightly simplified outline and started filling in the spaces with colored pen and filler patterns.

I didn’t get very far before my frozen right shoulder let me know that I would pay for this activity. 

I should explain. I’m talking about adhesive capsulitis, which sometimes occurs for no apparent reason. My left shoulder was the first one to start freezing, back in July or even earlier. After getting quite painful, it moved from the “freezing” to the “frozen” stage and stopped hurting. That was in December. It is now, I hope, moving into the “thawing” stage, though I can’t be sure since it has only regained a tiny bit of its former range of motion so far. 

When one shoulder freezes, there is an increased chance that the other one will also be affected. The right shoulder started to freeze just as the left one stopped hurting, and I think it has probably reached the point of maximum pain and minimum movement about now. I’m hoping it will move on to the next stage before the month is out, but in the meantime, activities like drawing, writing longhand, as well as anything that involves repeated reaching (wiping counters, unloading dishes, etc), is liable to make my entire arm hurt. Filling in an entire quilt design with detailed patterns is out for now.

So I didn’t get far on my Storm At Sea design.

Well, at least I could look at images of designs that other people had done, right? Except… what is this kind of thing called? I started typing words into Google, trying to find out.

I tried “zentangle quilts”, and found actual fabric quilts made of black-and-white prints in patterns resembling Zentangle tiles. I moved to “zen quilt” and discovered a book called Zen Quilting, which deals with using tangle-type patterns in free-motion quilting on fabric. “Paper quilts” gave me collages of patterned paper cut into shapes and pasted down in imitation of traditional quilt block designs.

I tried other combinations of words, but could not find the magic phrase. I’m certain these pictures are out there. Quilting and Zentangle have much in common, and I can’t be the first person to think of using a quilt outline as a “string” (lines outlining the spaces to be filled in).

So what is this called? What is the word for using traditional quilt block designs but drawing them on paper and filling in the spaces with doodles or Zentangle-inspired patterns?

Anyone? Please?

Till next post.