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.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Crumpets and Tea--trying out a treat I've only read about

Buttered crumpets and tea. Crumpets always sounded appealing when they showed up in a novel, but for a long time I had no idea what a crumpet even looked like. I assumed it was a baked good (not exactly), and apparently good with butter (true), and I also vaguely assumed it was sweet.

Not so, apparently. When Cook's Illustrated offered a crumpet recipe in their March/April 2020 issue, I decided I would have to try it. A few weeks ago, I did.

As I mixed the batter, I realized there was no sugar in the recipe. Well, there's no sugar in a lot of French bread recipes either, but French bread works beautifully with butter and jam, as well as with savory toppings. So I just figured I would have to put jam on them.

Watching the crumpets cook was interesting. They got bubbles all over, which was almost disturbing, and the recipe advised touching the surface with a spatula to turn the bubbles into little holes, then flip the crumpet to cook the other side. The result, then, is something like a pancake absolutely full of little holes.

Crumpets have holes on top and a smooth side below
These many little holes are good at trapping the butter that melts on a hot crumpet, and that helps me understand one of the descriptions of buttered crumpets found in House of Many Ways, an excellent book by Diana Wynne Jones.

To set the scene--Charmain is at the palace, where she is unexpectedly invited to tea with the king and some newly arrived visitors.
     Charmain thanked the gentleman again and took two. They were the most buttery crumpets she had ever encountered. Waif's nose swiveled to dab gently against Charmain's hand. "All right, all right," Charmain muttered, trying to break off a piece without dripping butter on the sofa. Butter ran down her fingers and threatened to trickle up her sleeves. She was trying to get rid of it on her handkerchief, when the lady-in-waiting finished saying all anyone could possibly say about the weather, and turned to Mrs. Pendragon. (p. 178)
 Charmain isn't the only one having a problem. The lady-in-waiting asks about Mrs. Pendragon's little boy.
    "Yes, Morgan," Mrs. Pendragon said. She seemed to be having trouble with butter too and was mopping her fingers with her handkerchief and looking flustered.
    "How old will Morgan be now, Sophie?" Princess Hilda asked. "When I saw him he was just a baby."
    "Oh, nearly two," Mrs. Pendragon replied, catching a big golden drip of butter before it fell on her skirt. "I left him with--"
And now we'll leave Charmain and Mrs. Pendragon to struggle with their hot buttered crumpets and other, as yet unmentioned, problems.

Back to my homemade crumpets. We toasted the crumpets (one was slightly underdone, one slightly overdone, one seemed about right) and buttered them.

Buttered homemade crumpet (with a bite missing)

So what did these particular buttered crumpets taste like? Slightly salty. And buttery. It made me think about the appeal of plain bagels grilled in salted butter. Not sweet, but wonderfully buttery and chewy and slightly salty. The texture was different, of course, but the comparison helped me understand why they would be appealing.

I should add that I don't like my sweets to be particularly salty. When I have bread and butter and jam, I always use unsalted butter. Salted butter puts me off jam almost completely. So perhaps for other people, crumpets and jam is a better combination than it is for me.

All in all, I'm not sure I'll bother to make them again. It was fun, but there are so many other exciting things to make that I like better. I'm glad I tried it, though.

Till next post.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Too Many Books, Too Little Time--writers want to write, not do marketing

A friend’s book is being published this year, so I’ve been learning from her about all the work expected of a debut author. It isn’t enough to have written the book. No, one must also be active on social media, do blog tours, notify contacts, seek out opportunities to do book talks, and I-forget-what-all-else.

But writers just want to write! Most of us don’t want to do marketing. We’d rather spend the time holed up in our cubbies with our laptops, lost in imaginary worlds, coming up with new books.

The problem? Basically, there are lots and lots of new books out there. There are lots and lots of readers as well, but readers all want to read the “best” books, books that are a guaranteed good read. Readers have easy access now to books from all over the English-speaking world, so they can pick just the books that they’ve heard are really good, and these tend to be the same books that other readers have also heard are very good. So a small number of  books get read by lots of readers, and the rest of the new books (including some that are also very good) tend to go unread.

It’s a depressing situation if one of those new books is yours. Thus the need to market your book.

Shouldn’t the publisher do the marketing? Certainly they want your book to sell. But whether they sell a total umpteen copies of a wide variety of books or umpteen copies of the same book, they’ll still make money. It might be more efficient for them to focus their efforts on a few books, in that case. At any rate, that’s how it is. Unless they’re expecting great things, they probably won’t do that much.

Is there any way around this? The problem seems to be with our filtering system. There are several levels to it. First, the author writes the book. Agents filter out a lot of the books that are written, though some books are self-published and skip that filter. Then publishers filter the books presented by agents, accepting only some of them. Then the books go out into the world, where…

I think that’s where it turns into a combination of luck and money. Luck in who happens to pick the book up and how much influence they have with other readers. Money, because people are more likely to pick up a book if they’ve heard of it or seen it, and advertising can do that. Obviously the quality of the book also matters. If the people who read it don’t like it, they won’t recommend it to others. But a good book that never gets read won’t get recommended either.

So now I’m fantasizing about a system where new books enter a database and are assigned to readers to evaluate. Every book gets a chance, regardless of its author’s ability to generate interest on Twitter or lack thereof. Readers aren’t deluged with attempts to pique their interest, attempts that lead to their becoming more and more overwhelmed by the demands on their attention, and their having less and less time to actually read books.

The problem with this idea is that readers want to choose their books, not be assigned them as though they were in school. Some might volunteer to be assigned books, hoping for a serendipitous discovery, but more likely they’d rather browse the shelves and try only books that look appealing to them.

So that’s not promising. Well, who has the most reason to want such a system to work? Probably the writers themselves. So instead of assigning new books to random readers, assign them to other authors. Maybe their book gets as many reads as the number of others’ books they are willing to be assigned. This would provide a preliminary filter and ensure that at least a few people sample their books—and maybe go on to recommend them to friends.

Some further rules would be necessary. First, no reciprocal reading. If I am an author and I want fifteen people to read my book, I do not get assigned books by any of the fifteen who are reading mine. Nor do I get assigned any books by people I know. There can’t be any pressure to like the book.

Second, these aren’t book reviews. The only thing the reader has to do is respond, “I like it and would probably read another book like this,” or “I don’t like it and wouldn’t choose to read a book like this.” No discussion of merits, no details, no reasons why.

Third, given that people occasionally cheat (shock! gasp!), there would probably need to be some factual question that the reader has to answer to prove that they actually read the book. The author of the book could provide one. Otherwise, unscrupulous people could get their books read without reading anyone else’s in return.

Fourth, complete confidentiality. You don’t want to meet another author and have them know that you didn’t like their book—or the other way around. Too awkward. Again, there can’t be any pressure to like the book.

Given that there is nothing new under the sun, and especially no new ideas that aren’t already on the internet, there is probably something wrong with this imaginary system. Maybe it wouldn’t be of any use, or maybe not enough authors would participate, or maybe people would try to game the system by reading lots of competing books and saying they dislike all of them, in the hope of making their own book look better.

Or maybe it would work and is already in use somewhere on the web. There are lots of book-related organizations out there that I don’t know about, and maybe there are genre-specific groups that do this. If so, I hope I find out some day.

I hope I have reason to.

Till next post.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Athelas, Lembas, and Butterbeer--impossible delights in fiction

For February’s project, I’m working on a second draft of the cozy mystery I wrote in November for NaNoWriMo, currently titled Warnings at the Waterfront. In this story, I describe an award-winning lemon éclair as being 

“a pastry oblong about five inches long, glazed with a streak of chocolate and dotted with yellow icing flowers… She took a bite and gooey lemony custard squeezed out the sides. It was sharp, sweet, and creamy all at once…”


But could a lemon éclair be that good? It’s one thing to describe an item so that it sounds appealing to our sense of taste, smell, or sight. It’s quite another for such an item to exist, or even be possible. Lemon and chocolate is a tricky combination, and I’ve been experimenting with combinations of lemon curd and vanilla custard in an attempt to come up with an actual lemon éclair. So far, it falls significantly short of its fictional version.

Homemade lemon eclair with chocolate glaze
An attempt at a lemon eclair

There are plenty of wonderful things in books; things that I would like to exist, but which don’t. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I was much impressed with athelas, aka kingsfoil, and its fragrance when crushed in the king’s hands and cast into water. Its fragrance is described as follows:

“and then he crushed them, and straightaway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy. And then he cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”  (The Return of the King, p.173)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an herb so deliciously fragrant that it could banish the Black Breath? Or, in our world, depression?

What would such an herb smell like? In my mind, athelas was a sort of combination of parsley (crisp and fresh) and peppermint (cool and sharp), without being either. I guess peppermint comes closest, at least for me, but I’d still like an athelas plant of my own.

There were plenty of other non-existent entities to long for in The Lord of the Rings. Lembas, the elves’ waybread, are described as  “very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream.” Not only do lembas taste better than the best of honeycakes, but 

“the cakes will keep sweet for many, many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings, as we have brought them. One will keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour, even if he be one of the tall Men of Minas Tirith.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 478-479)

 Maybe someone could come up with something that resembles lembas in flavor and texture, but they are unlikely to duplicate its nourishing qualities and long shelf-life. 

A more modern example of a fictional delight is butterbeer. A mug of hot butterbeer on a cold day sounds like a great treat, but how would it actually taste? The name itself calls up the taste of butterscotch and root beer. I haven’t had the butterbeer that was created for Harry Potter fans, but I gather that butterscotch is one of the flavors involved. I suspect that if their version had turned out to be as good as the fictional version, it would be more widely available by now. And while I like butterscotch, it seems like a very strong, very sweet flavor for something you’re going to drink an entire mugful of. (Then again, perhaps I would have said the same of root beer, if I’d only ever had it in the form of candy.)

But back to my fictional lemon éclair. It just may not be a genuine possibility. One solution is to change the pastry in the book to something that could be genuinely wonderful (and so be able to include a recipe for it, should the book ever get that far.) That’s probably the best solution.

But that isn’t always the solution. Some books, especially fantasy, are better with a few impossibly wonderful things in them. We just have to accept that description outpaces possibility. Not every longing we have can be satisfied.

At least I’ve got peppermint.

Till next post.

P.S. Page numbers are from the 1965 paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Khipus--knotty writing and knotty puzzles

I’ve been watching a video lecture on the Inca and their system of record-keeping on knotted cords (khipus, or quipus). There’s some disagreement among historians (or is it archaeologists?) over whether this was a system of writing, or whether khipus were limited to keeping records of inventory and service and such. Apparently the Inca did send messages in the form of khipus and also had libraries of them, which suggests that it really was writing.

(By “writing”, I assume they mean a way of representing language. If “writing” meant marks on a surface to represent language, then knots wouldn’t qualify. But that’s sort of beside the point.)

I’m fascinated by the different ways people have found to communicate information and then store the information. First there are the languages themselves: spoken languages, tonal or not, and also sign languages. One way of preserving information is to memorize it, but the memorized information only lasts as long as the memorizer (if not passed on) and only exists where the memorizer does.

Visible marks on a surface can last beyond a person’s lifetime (sometimes), can be seen equally well by many people, and are portable (sometimes). I said “visible” marks, but then there’s braille, which is meant to be felt. Braille depends on the previous existence of our alphabet, but history could have gone differently and something like braille could have been our form of writing. We would feel our messages and records of inventory, instead of looking at them. Such a system wouldn’t have been useful for inscriptions that were meant to be seen from a distance, though.

I said things could have gone differently, and apparently they did go differently in South America (though not resulting in braille). Instead of painting or scratching marks on surfaces, they knotted cords in complicated arrangements, with various colors and twists. The information lasted pretty well—there would be a lot more khipus to look at if the Spanish hadn’t burned so  many—and was very portable. On the other hand, this system doesn’t lend itself to official inscriptions and mottos carved ostentatiously into stone. The Inca could represent important events in architecture, sculpture, and paint, but archaeologists would probably have liked some inscriptions to go with them.

If the Spanish hadn’t shown up when they did, would the Inca have eventually created a visual representation of a khipu? That is, marks on a surface to represent knots that represent language? Or would they have done something different, something that I can’t imagine, just as I wouldn’t have thought of using knots as writing in the first place? (Nor would I have thought of magnetized media, etc., to represent marks that represent language, but other people did.)

One further idle thought—why did their history go as it did? Why and how did someone, long, long ago, start keeping records on a cord? 

We’ll never know.

Till next post.