Friday, August 25, 2017

The Dangers of “Updating” Your Décor

In the newspaper awhile ago, I saw an article titled: “Seven Ways to Update Your Décor”. And I said to myself, “Why on earth would I want to ‘update’ my décor?”

It makes sense to update things like computers and cell phones and smoke detectors—newer models are likely to have improved functioning. The same can’t generally be said for the latest thing in flooring or countertops or furniture. Mushroom-colored walls work about as well as walls that are off-white or hyacinth blue. So why “update” your interior?

The implied contrast is a “dated” look. Think of a room with wood paneling, a burnt-orange shag carpet, macrame plant hangers, … do I need to say more? Dated. But why is it “dated”?  Because at one time—I think it was in the seventies?--everyone had wood paneling and orange shag. This also explains why “dated” is a negative word. Like a song that gets played too many times on the radio (ooh—a dated simile, too!), the sheer overexposure burned people out on it.

Therein lies the problem. If you “update” your old flooring and counters to something that is currently popular, then in ten years (or less), your current choices will look “dated.” They will be “so terribly 2017”. So you’ll feel a need to “update” yet again.

Your décor should please you, the person who has to live with it. Admittedly, as a person living at a certain point in history, what pleases you is likely to have some similarity to what pleases other people at that point in history. Maybe your group is all madly into Dr. Who, or Game of Thrones, or a certain rustic look, or whatever.  Okay, take advantage of the availability of blue time-box prints and heraldic signs if you want. Understand that some of your tastes will change over time, and so will some of the things you surround yourself with. Maybe you really like light gray paint, or ice blue. If so, this may be a good year to get out the brushes.

But don’t change your décor simply because it’s fallen out of fashion. If you’re planning to sell your house in the very near future, that’s another story. Then you aren’t doing it for yourself at all. But otherwise, why step onto the “update” treadmill in the first place?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Eclairs I Have Known--trying a gluten-free eclair recipe

I judge a pastry shop by the quality of its eclairs. Supermarket bakeries and other chains tend to fill their eclairs with the same sort of stuff that they put in filled doughnuts--either some sort of pastry "creme" or processed vanilla pudding. I've also had eclairs that were filled with a rather glue-y sort of custard.

When my family lived in Tunis, long ago, the local patisserie had very good eclairs, although strangely enough, I don't remember what the filling was like. I remember that I usually chose an eclair over the other pastries, and I remember that they had two kinds--one was chocolate on top and one was some other flavor. I'm not sure I ever knew what flavor it was. Memory suggests either maple or mocha, and since maple doesn't really seem likely, I'm going with mocha. I do remember that there were lovely rosettes of something like stiff, flavored whipped cream on top.

Now I'm lucky enough to live near a co-op with a good bakery (see The Hows and Whys of My Mini-baguettes). Their eclairs aren't nearly as elegant as those I had in Tunis. They are rather irregular in shape and smeared in chocolate (ganache, I think.) But they are generously filled with a heavenly vanilla pastry cream that goes wonderfully with the ganache on top. With eclairs like that less than ten minutes away, why make my own?

The answer is--to get a gluten-free eclair that the whole family can enjoy.

The recipe I used is from the Faithfully Gluten-free website. The same pate choux recipe is used for cream puffs and eclairs. I made the cream puffs last week and filled them with whipped cream. They turned out pretty well, though I took them out a bit early because they were golden and maybe they could have used a bit longer in the oven. They re-crisped well the next day (the unfilled ones) after ten minutes in the oven, as per instructions.

The recipe calls for white rice flour and sweet rice flour. Whole Foods usually has white rice flour. The sweet white rice flour can be hard to find. I ordered sweet rice flour over the internet for a different recipe, but I think I've seen it in a store since then. Xanthan gum is available now in a lot of stores, usually in the baking area.

The procedure for the gluten-free pate choux is almost exactly like that for regular pate choux. The water and butter (sometimes also sugar and salt) are brought to a boil and the flour mixture is stirred in. Be prepared--you are stirring it till it resembles playdough, which means it takes arm strength to stir. Since I am still having trouble with my right shoulder (frozen, though no longer aching), my husband did the stirring. 

This recipe didn't get quite as playdough-like as the regular flour version, and there seemed to be quite a lot of liquid butter oozing out onto the bottom of the pot. I wonder whether the recipe would work with slightly less butter? Or is it just that rice flour doesn't hold onto butter as well as regular flour? (I have read something to that effect.)

Once you reach playdough (or something thick and well-combined), the stuff goes in the standing mixer for yet more beating. First a bit just to cool it off slightly, then with the eggs, one at a time. The recipe notes that "the dough will look like it breaks apart, but keep mixing it until it comes back together again."

And so it does.  I like recipes that tell you what to look for.

On my last trip to Michael's, I got a 6B piping tip and some 16" disposable piping bags. I was think about cookies more than eclairs, and possibly I should have gotten an even larger tip. Again, I had to get my husband's help as the dough was stiff to pipe. I would have gotten a round tip, but they didn't have one in that size, so I ended up with interestingly ridged eclairs.

The ridges were less pronounced after baking.

Again, I think I took them out a bit early. I also did not pierce them and cool them in the oven. It didn't seem like it made much difference with the cream puffs, where I cooled some in the oven and some on the rack, but maybe I should try that again.

For filling, I made Dangerously Easy Microwave Vanilla Custard. I may not have cooked it quite long enough, as it was a bit liquid even after I speed-cooled some of it. Or it may be that my recipe, while fine for bowls of custard, needs a more thickener in order to be used as a filling. It tasted good, anyway.

Since it was getting late and we wanted to actually eat the eclairs that day, we just smeared Nutella on top rather than mess around with chocolate ganache or some other interesting topping. I should have taken the photo before biting into mine.

Messy, but good.

Till next post.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Whodunits and the Untidiness of Real Life

I like mysteries, both novels and television shows. I am particularly fond of mysteries with a strong “whodunit” element. This isn’t surprising. I love all sorts of puzzles. So naturally when I read a mystery, I want a chance to figure out what happened before the detective does.

Some fictional detectives are particularly good at deducing facts from the crime scene or from the way that suspects present themselves. Sherlock Holmes is famous for his deductions. Even detectives less sharp than Sherlock often draw clever conclusions from little clues--the unfinished cup of tea, the jar of pens on the left side of the desk, the two dirty glasses in the sink.

It’s particularly fun when the fictional detective suddenly realizes the importance of a clue seen earlier, and the reader sees what triggered his realization, without being told what he has finally figured out. In one episode of “Death In Paradise,” for example, Detective Richard Poole opens the blinds onto a sunny Caribbean day and … Aha! It’s time to gather the suspects. And time for the audience to figure out what the detective has just realized.

But there is something that troubles me slightly when it comes to making deductions from the scene of the crime. In real life, there are all sorts of reasons why objects may be left or arranged the way they are—reasons that no outsider could possibly guess.

Consider this photo.

Desk, partially tidied up.

What might a detective make of it? The computer mouse is on the left, but the pencil jar is on the right, as are most of the loose pens. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. The victim is right-handed, but the left-handed murderer stopped to check a file on the victim’s computer, moving the mouse to the left side for convenience.
  2. The victim is left-handed, and the murderer has moved the pencil jar—though it’s harder to explain this answer. Was he searching all the items on the desk for something? Or just trying to find a pen that works?
  3. The victim is right-handed but uses her mouse with her left.
  4. The victim is left-handed but rarely uses pens, so pushed them all out of the way (but then why aren’t they all neatly in the jar?)

The answer is (3). I started mousing with my left when I was having problems with my right wrist. By the time my wrist was better, I had gotten good at it. When I tried putting the mouse back on the right, I discovered something interesting. Since the number pad is on the right of the keyboard, if I put the mouse on the right while centering the letters in front of me, I am forced to extend my arm further out to the side to use the mouse than if I give the job to my left hand. So most of the time, I mouse left-handed.

(What else can you deduce from this photo? I'm curious.)
When detectives make their clever deductions from the scene, they do so against a background of expectations. They assume the victim would not carry around someone else’s lost earring in her pocket and accidentally drop it on the rug. They assume a person doesn’t make herself a pot of tea and then leave it undrunk simply because she had a sudden (but otherwise meaningless) attack of heartburn. If medicine is on the bathroom counter, they would assume the victim had used or planned to use it, rather than that she was making a half-hearted attempt to clean out the medicine cabinet. (People in mysteries are much tidier than I am.)

I love to read mysteries with clever deductions, and I love to guess at what the clues mean, just as the detective in the novel does. But I must admit that when we do so, we are both assuming a world without people’s quirks and particular histories. I wonder if someone has written a mystery that acknowledges this fact?

(On an unrelated note, it is annoying when an author gets his facts wrong. Ellery Queen mysteries are great at letting the reader try to puzzle things out, but in one, there is a colorblind valet. The valet’s master knows this, so he writes “red tie” on the list of what he is wearing that week when he wants the valet to pick out a green one, and vice versa. This not only misunderstands colorblindness—red and green would both have looked vaguely beige-y, I think—but it doesn’t even make sense. If the valet could reliably distinguish red from green--no matter how his subjective experience of them differed from other people’s--he would have learned to label “red” those things that other people called "red" and so on. Fortunately, the solution did not turn out to depend on this.)

Till next post.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Hows and Why of My Mini-baguettes--making French bread just because...

Recently I've been inspired to make bread.

Usually the only bread I make is sandwich bread. We have a Zojirushi bread machine, and I love it. Bread is easy to make, tasty--the only disadvantage compared to store bread is having to slice it. Like Jacob Two-Two, I seem unable to cut a slice of bread that isn't "a foot thick on one end and thin as a sheet of paper on the other."

I think what happened is that I watched one too many episodes of The Great British Baking Show. This led to a couple of failed attempts at ciabatta. I blame this partly on the jar of yeast, partly on our oven's inaccurate temperature readings and... well, the rest is mine. But making the ciabatta reminded me of the class my husband and I took, years ago, in bread-making.

We had actually signed up because I was interested in using different kinds of flour in my bread-machine sandwich breads, but the class turned out to be focused instead on mixing, raising, shaping, and baking types of French bread  (and also some sourdough.) It was a good class, and when I saw that one of our instructors had written a book with all her bread-making knowledge (she was studying bread in graduate school), I naturally bought the book. Bread Science, by Emily Buehler.

The book.

Here I must admit that I have only read parts of it so far. She goes into extensive detail about how bread works. I was interested to learn that the bubbles of gas in the dough are created by mixing--yeast can only enlarge the bubbles, not create new ones. I picked the book up again this week and re-read the sections about mixing, raising, shaping, etc. Then I tried to make the basic bread recipe, which uses a poolish.

A poolish, as we learned in that long-ago class, is a kind of preferment. As in "pre-ferment". As in, something you make before you actually mix the dough and start the first rise. You take some of the flour, some of the water, and a pinch of the yeast and let the mixture rise overnight, basically. Then you mix that in with the rest of the flour, water, yeast, and salt. The point is to increase the flavor.

The poolish, before it increased in volume.

See the scale in the photo? I love my scale for all sorts of baking. Also, it can read in either grams or ounces. Very handy if you are trying to follow a British recipe, or a very precise American recipe.

I remember that the dough we mixed in class was on the sticky side, but my first run-through turned out incredibly wet dough. I reread the recipe and saw that she had warned that less water is needed in humid weather. Hmm, summer in the South... but then, air conditioning... but still at least 50% humidity... For the second batch, I reduced the amount of water and got a dough that was sticky but manageable.

The dough, before the first rise (I think).

Then two rises, a "pre-shape", and finally, time to make baguettes. Or in this case, given that I was making a half-batch and had only a regular size cookie sheet, two mini-baguettes.

The mini-baguettes before proofing.

I did not bake them on my pizza stone, nor did I do anything much toward creating steam in the oven. I was still pretty pleased with the way they tasted and their shape. Maybe next time I'll work on creating a better crust.

The finished bread.

So that's the "how" of my recent bread-making. The other question is "Why?" Why go to all this trouble when I am fortunate enough to live very near a co-op that has an excellent bakery? (Note: this is where we took the bread class in the first place.)

As I said earlier, I don't normally make bread apart from easy sandwich bread in the bread machine. I have good reason to make that--supermarket sandwich bread doesn't taste nearly as good, and while I can get good sandwich bread at the co-op, I have more options if I make it at home. That's a bit like sewing my own grocery bag or mini-backpack, where I am customizing it according to my own needs and preferences. But when I make French bread, I'm not trying to create something different and personalized--I'm trying to make it as French-bread-like as I can.

So why make French bread?

The answer has to be--to see if I can. Or, because it's an interesting challenge. Apparently it falls into that category of things which I do just because it is fun to exercise one's skills. (Crossword puzzles, for instance, or rudimentary juggling.) I suppose if I then got creative with the shaping (braids, crowns, bread alligators) then it would turn into an expression of creativity as well.

So what is the point of this whole post, besides a chance to show off photos of my lovely mini-baguettes? Just that it is a lot of fun to take on a challenge, to exercise skills (must try the ciabatta again), even when it isn't also an expression of individual creativity.

So go forth and exercise some skills. And eat French bread.

Till next post.