30 March 2008

Dorie's Perfect Party Cake *OR* When Buttermilk Isn't Buttermilk

It's that time of the month again. Time to post the Daring Bakers' Challenge. This month Morven hosted and gave us our assignment: Perfect Party Cake from the book Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan.
Coincidentally, one of my favorite blogs, Brownie Points, had a post recently on making your own butter from whipping cream. The end result is equal parts butter and buttermilk. Since I needed unsalted butter and buttermilk for this recipe, I thought it would be the perfect time to try it out. I'm always excited for frontier-like recipes anyway. I whipped up the cream and some minutes later we had a lump of butter and about two cups of buttermilk. It was super easy and the fresh butter tasted waaaaaay better than the organic stuff I had just bought and opened that day.

Since we didn't have anything on our schedule for the day (Friday) except to anticipate Daddy's return from working the week in Atlanta, I decided that this party cake wasn't for a party, but would be made with a party of people. Feeling super laid-back, I invited the kids to help. They were ecstatic. Of course, a fight broke out immediately about who got to juice the lemons. But after my wise mediation (four halves, four kids, do you see the solution?) we were on our way. I must say that my favorite technique of Dorie's is to put the lemon zest into the sugar and rub them together until the sugar is fragrant and moist. The sugar I had bought was super sparkly and with the lemon, it was just gorgeous. (Click on picture for the beautiful details.)The cakes turned out great, albeit a little thin. Especially considering that they needed to be sliced in half.

Dug returned home from the airport Saturday morning at 1:30am. After a good chunk of sleep, he woke up to make us his Saturday Morning Pancakes. I gave him my precious cup of leftover buttermilk to use with the store-bought carton and told him of my frontier exploits in the butter/buttermilk department. Then he dropped his bombshell.
The leftover-from-butter-making liquid is not buttermilk. What!? But...but...but Brownie Points told me so. Then he reminded me that we used to make buttermilk by mixing a little buttermilk in with milk and letting it sit for a few days. (Another one of our frontier experiments.) Fermentation gave it that yogurt-like tartness. Dang it! I had forgotten that. Did I just ruin my cakes? Is that why they were flat-ish?

I couldn't turn my back on Brownie Points. I believed in her. She wouldn't post something that wasn't true, would she? While pancakes cooked in the background, I got online and searched for answers. First, I checked the butter-making post again, to be sure that I hadn't misread anything. Nope, it was all as I remembered. Then I googled. Of course, the first response was Wikipedia. And from there I learned that there are two types of buttermilk. Traditional and Cultured. Cultured is the type we buy in the store and is made with a, you guessed it, culture. Traditional is what is left over from the butter making process. I let out a sigh of relief. Hooray! Reading further, I found that, in the traditional method, fresh whole milk is left standing to separate the cream from the milk and during that time, some fermentation takes place. This means that when the butter is made, the leftover buttermilk is fermented. Not so hooray. I'm positive that my pasteurized whipping cream is a vast deal different than the slightly fermented, un-cooked cream from Bessy. Technically, my byproduct was buttermilk, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the buttermilk my recipe was calling for. Oh well. What's done is done. Too late now. (To clarify, I would be careful in which recipe you use your freshly made buttermilk, but I don't blame mine for my flat cakes since the recipe said I could used regular milk as well.)

The cakes finished, cooled and ready for me, I moved on to the frosting. I loved this recipe. It only required one cup of granulated sugar, as opposed to four cups of powdered that most recipes call for. First, in a double boiler, you whisk the sugar and egg whites until the sugar dissolves. (pictured above on left) Then you beat its brains out in a mixer until it is this beautiful glossy, meringue-y stuff. (pictured above on right. click on it, it's so perdy.) Once this gorgeous stage is reached, you add the butter and continue to beat, beat, beat. After the butter is incorporated you add the lemon juice and vanilla and...beat, beat, beat. It seemed like my mixer was on forever. Only after all this abuse is heaped upon these ingredients, do you get the light, fluffy, mildly sweetness that is Dorie's buttercream frosting.

My only change to the entire recipe was that it called for seedless raspberry preserves. I'm a lazy canner and my raspberry jam has seeds. Other than the seeds, I followed the instructions down to the coconut pressed into the sides.

Results? After scraping off the coconut, one daughter gave it a YUM. One son had two slices and said that it was good except for the jam. "I don't like jam in cakes, Mom." Another daughter said, "I liked it some. Only a tiny bit." The fourth son didn't want any, since he is just over being sick. That was last night. Between now and then, two more got sick and throughout the night puked a total of seven times. With that in mind, I'm thinking their lack of cake-tasting enthusiasm had a deeper cause.

Dug and I both thought the cake moist, flavorful and perfectly un-super sweet. It was delicious in its faint lemony flavor and the raspberry complimented it perfectly.

So there you have it. I've heard of Dorie Greenspan, but now that I've tried one of her recipes, I want to check her book out for myself. Below is a silly little movie I made of my assembly of Dorie's Perfect Party Cake. Enjoy!

28 March 2008

Factoid Friday!

Earlier this week I was reading the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Right after, Mary pours a butt-load of super-expensive nard on his feet. Judas is mad because he sees this as a waste of money that could otherwise be in his keeping. He says it was a year's wages worth.

If you know me at all, which of course some of you don't, I had to know. So I got onto my not-so-trusty world wide web and searched for nard. Apparently this is some intense stuff taken from the root of nardostachys jatamansi (pictured at right). Horace offered to send Virgil a whole barrel of his best wine in exchange for a phial of nard. (reference here) So it was obviously pretty valuable. It was considered the perfume of the lost Garden of Eden.

Now that I knew what nard was, I wanted to compare the act to nowadays. How much is the most expensive perfume? Is it still a year's wages? What I found astounded me. I was thinking $10,000 or so. Probably as much as a poor man's wage, right? Wrong! The most expensive bottle of perfume is Clive Christian's Imperial Majesty at a measly $215,000!

Technically, the perfume is Clive Christian No. 1 and sells for $2150 an ounce. Imperial Majesty is No. 1 in the ultimate pay-more-for-the-packaging situation. The Baccarat crystal bottle has a five-carat diamond and an 18-carat gold collar. Ay-chee-wah-wah. So let's just pretend it is the perfume in a "normal" bottle. For 19 oz (that's how much is in the Imperial Majesty bottle) it would still be $40,850! And for your middle class American, that seems to me like an entire years' wage. Crazy, huh? Can you imagine pouring $40,850 worth of perfume on somebody's feet? Put the whole story in a new perspective for me.

There you go. You got to know what nard was and all about the most expensive perfume in the world. Now, granted that's a whole bunch of factoids and it is Factoid Friday not Factoids Friday, but if you will be gracious and forgive me, I'll try not to do it again.

P.S. Cleopatra would drench her sails in the most exquisite scents so that their fragrance would herald her approach along the banks of the Nile. I think that's pretty cool. If you're going to be a Pharoah, do it with panache, right? Dang it! That's another factoid!

26 March 2008

Choice Goods Wednesday!

The few minutes that it took me to get to sleep last night were spent deciding today's choice good: St Ives Apricot Scrub.

There. I've admitted it. No, it's not organic. No, it doesn't cost more than a Starbucks. And, yes, you can even buy it in Walmart.

Another admission: I use it every day. I know you only need to exfoliate once a week. But I don't care. I love the scrubbing. I love those little bits that beat the dry skin into submission. You can psycho-analyze that and get back to me on what it means. But there is something about literally scrubbing the dirt off my face that is very pleasing to me. Plus, I get the added benefit of softening my fingers at the same time.

The cool thing about it being so cheap is that I can actually use a decent amount and not feel bad. I've had spendy exfoliants before, but I had to be so miserly to make them last as long as possible. With Apricot Scrub, I have the freedom to exfoliate my whole body if I want.

I've also tried Burt's Bees Peach and Willowbark Scrub and Alba Pineapple Enzyme Scrub and they are both amazing. But they also cost three times as much for half the amount and the whole issue of freedom is called into question again. So, yes, I definitely recommend them, but for our household right now, we're lovers of St. Ives. (Notice I say "we." Dug is a scrubber of his face, too. There's something manly about using the equivalent of sandpaper on your face, right?)

Say what you will, St Ives Apricot Scrub...it's choice.

24 March 2008

Dug and Tricia vs The World, part 2 - Never trust a smiling gate agent.

Our plan was simple. Arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport, take the Metro over to the Capitol and spend our 12-hr layover seeing the sights. It's always simple in theory, isn't it?

Our troubles first started when we arrived at the check-in counter at Portland International Airport. Since we had a 12-hr layover in DC and the actual flight to South Africa was still over 24 hours away, they couldn't check us in for that flight yet, although they had no issues checking our luggage all the way to Johannesburg, South Africa. "No problem," said Ms. Gate Agent, "when you arrive in Denver you can check in." And naively, we believed her.

Since we were traveling internationally, we had arrived two hours prior to departure. But when we arrived, they decided to delay our flight an hour. After the flight check-in and the security checkpoint, we were sitting with 2 hours and 45 minutes to kill in our home airport. Not only that, but Portland is designed with all the restaurants and shops before the security checkpoints, so once you've passed through, it's just coffee stands and magazine racks. Luckily, Dug has a membership to the Red Carpet Lounge. (It was such a good idea to travel with him!) We went in, pulled up to the bar and spent the next couple hours downing free ginger ales, mini-packets of brie and crackers and filling our brains with Discovery channel knowledge.

Fly, fly, fly...we arrived in Denver. No, United can't check us in to the South African Flight, but I'm sure there will be no problem in Dulles. Fine. We grabbed a late dinner.

Fly, fly, fly...we arrived in Dulles at 530 am. No, United can't check us in to the South African Flight. You have to go to the South African counter. We go to the SA counter, no agents. Back to United. We found that SA has only one flight a day and they don't open the counter until 1pm. Our flight was at 5pm. Once again the
"International Flight" rules applied and we would have to come in two hours early. Augh! Feeling helpless and rather upset at United for their inability to check us in earlier, we decided to get on with our plans. We caught the Washington Flyer bus which took us to the Metro station and an hour and a half after we landed in Dulles, found ourselves on Pennsylvania Avenue at the National Archives.

I was amazed. I'm such a small town girl and there I was, suddenly in the middle of our nation's capitol. The buildings are old and beautiful and ornate and as much as I tried not to look touristy, I kept finding myself staring with my mouth agape. First things first. Breakfast.

Dug and I employed our golden standard for finding anything in an unknown city. We started walking. We always figure that we'll find something eventually, right? Let's turn here...that street doesn't look as promising...let's try this one. And lo and behold, I saw it. Teaism. I could tell right away this was where I wanted to eat. After perusing the posted menu, Dug agreed and we went in. It was perfect. They have four million billion types of tea and delicious, mostly savory breakfast choices. (I'm not a fan of the sweet breakfast.) I ordered cilantro scrambled eggs, naan, raita and some Earl Grey. (I know, I know, not very imaginative. But there were so many tea choices, I froze up.) Dug had a waffle and a smoked chicken and apple sausage with some Japanese sweet green tea. It was divine. We ate and watched the businessmen and women rush in and rush out. Teaism. Highly recommended if you're in DC. Now that our bellies were full of deliciousness, we decided to see what we could see.

Oh! I forgot to mention one detail. It was cold! Literally freezing cold. Remember we were heading to an African summer? I had on some heavy cotton pants, a short sleeved shirt and a cotton jacket. That's it. For added warmth I wrapped my long, sheer scarf around my neck. The local Washingtonites (Washington DCers? Washingtonians?) had down-filled parkas, hats, mittens and scarfs on. They weren't messing around. The wind was biting any exposed skin and the sun, having just came up, wasn't fulfilling his warming duties yet. (I'm looking fine in the picture, but I only had to hold that pose for a second before I was wrapping my jacket back around me and hiding my hands in my armpits!) But we soldiered on. The National Gallery of Art (and everything else, for that matter) didn't open for another hour so we decided to walk the National Mall. If you don't know, it is the grassy area from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. We didn't know what was what, but we decided to try and find the Vietnam Memorial. So we started walking. That's our way.

One thing I found very interesting was that the mall is unpaved. It is grassy areas surrounded by gravel roadways. It isn't manicured other than mowing and keeping weeds out of the gravel. (If you click on the picture of me with the Capitol in the background, you can kind of see what I'm talking about.) I was so surprised. I had envisioned this perfectly manicured area, but it wasn't. I loved it. It wasn't that difficult to imagine the area a hundred years ago, with horse-drawn carriages on the paths that we were walking. I really can't explain how much history I felt the few short hours we were there.

We walked around the Washington Monument and down to the World War II Memorial. It is rather lovely. The Monument has a Pacific side and an Atlantic side. The two are separated by a gap that allows you to see the Lincoln Memorial at the far end of the Mall. I thought it was beautifully created since it blends in perfectly with its surroundings and yet was only added in 2004. We had walked almost a mile and still hadn't found "the Wall" but we needed to turn back. The Gallery would be open and since we had to return to the airport sooner than we had originally planned, we couldn't dawdle.

The National Gallery...one word: amazing. Amazing that I was able to see actual sketches by da Vinci and Michaelangelo. Amazing that I could look at paintings three hundred years older than our country. Amazing that things I had previously seen in books I was now looking at in real life! (The picture at left is one of Degas' sculptures. Click on it and you can actually see his fingerprints!) Simply amazing!

Our favorite piece was "The Reading Girl" by Pietro Magni. For me, it defines "work of art." We stood there staring at her, willing ourselves to believe that she was truly made of marble. Her coat looked as if someone had taken it and dipped it in resin, not like it was carved out of stone. It was so realistic, I wanted to reach out and touch the stone, just to make sure it wasn't really fabric. Nothing else compared to her in my opinion.

Dug had some shoe troubles (read: no support + miles of walking = bruised feet) and took a little break by a fountain while I traipsed around the Gallery taking it all in sans children! It was wonderful. (I added one more picture of The Reading Girl, below. I hope it doesn't offend. I just wanted you to see the detail on the necklace. It is amazing! Click on it for a better view.)

After lunch we jumped back on the Metro, caught the Washington Flyer and found ourselves at the SA counter, this time with a gate agent. We checked in our requisite two hours early, again, shuffled our way through the huge security line and then waited (no Red Carpet Lounge in our terminal this time, wah!) for our international journey to truly begin...

Stay tuned for the next installment of Dug and Tricia vs The World.

22 March 2008

Dug and Tricia vs The World, part 1 - Who says miracles still don't happen?

See, I believe that God wants me to have plenty to blog about. I have to. Or else I might think that God has a cruel sense of humor and I definitely don't believe that. So with the attitude of "if nothing happens, you don't have a great story," I begin.

I start on the night before we leave. If you have read any posts before this one, you will know that I had a hectic month prior to my trip to Swaziland. I had four major obligations I had to fulfill ahead of time as they were due after I left. One of them being securing childcare for my children for the two and a half weeks we would be gone. This included finding six child-care providers, coordinating eleven drop-offs/pick-ups, creating/filling out four medical consent forms, making four copies of our insurance cards, pre-packing two suitcases for four children, which included washing every article of clothing in the house, spending a large, undisclosed sum at Costco on easy-to-prepare/Uncle-proof meals, typing up and distributing schedules, emergency numbers, school assignments and confirming all the above. I am a procrastinator. The fact that I actually completed this task is a miracle of God. The fact that I accomplished three other major obligations as well is on par with the mystery of the creation of the universe.

But back to my story. It is the night before. Dug and I pack light in general. But since we are going to an African summer, we don't need as many clothes and the clothes we do need have much less fabric. My parents have been traveling back and forth between Swaziland and Oregon for the last six years. We've accumulated quite a collection of suitcases of varying sizes. So Dug asks me to go check what we have in the garage. Happily I skip over our soggy, boggy lawn in the rain (The gray doesn't bother me, we're going to sunny climes and cloudless skies.) and open the door. What I see, or rather don't see, is a bit of a shock. Apparently my parents have been taking suitcases back with them. Because we don't have any left.

It is 11pm the night before we leave and, up until now, I have overlooked this crucial article. It's just not something you write on your "to pack" list. Of course we have suitcases, everyone has suitcases. I think when you are born, you have a suitcase and it just follows you the rest of your life. Where was mine?!

Now we don't actually take off until noon the next day, but Dug has a major catastrophe happen at work in which a lot of information was lost and things need to be rebuilt and he literally can't leave until it is fixed. Computers!!

Without spending a ton of money in a specialty shop or wasting our money buying a super cheap suitcase, we're a bit "screwed," as they say. Our city council, in order to preserve local business, is a bit stingy with building permits to stores that actually sell things at decent prices. It's too late to get something tonight and we're isolated enough that we can't get something until we're "on our way." I begin to search the house over and, lo and behold, I find a really, really large duffel bag that I have never seen before. I mean it. I have no idea where it came from and how it got into our house, but it is unmistakably there and looks almost brand new. Did I mention it was HUGE!? (The duffel below is just a stock picture, ours was waaay bigger than that.)

Dug's first thought is this: Let's just bring carry-on luggage! No need for suitcases at all. Then we don't have to deal with checking our luggage at the airport. When I lead him to our bed and show him how completely it is covered, not only with our clothes (which really isn't that much), but with all the items we are bringing to my parents that they can't get on that side of the world, he realizes that carry-on might not cut it. Our next thought is to pack the duffel, stop on the way to the airport and buy a new suitcase and then pack the suitcase with the duffel bag contents. See, the duffel bag has no wheels and it is going to be very heavy. And Dug, being Mr. Traveler, does not like this. I don't like it either, but what can you do?

So while Dug is working away, I decide to go to sleep and deal with it in the morning. I clear off the bed, lay down my head and can't go to sleep! But I am tenacious and for two hours lie there. Eventually I doze and bam! it's morning. Up I go, packing away. I can get by with very little sleep when I have anticipation, an upcoming trip and a little caffeine. I am on fire. I have a ton of stuff to get done, but I'm right on schedule, drop the kids off with the first sitter, and am ready to go. Dug isn't. But he actually finishes rather promptly. (That was another miracle. He got everything done that he needed to and we left just a tad bit late. If you know us and the nature of computers when you have a deadline, it was like we just witnessed the parting of the Red Sea.)

Since we were a teeny, weeny bit behind schedule, we decided to just live with the duffel. I know you're asking, "What's the big deal?! You check your luggage and don't have to carry it from airport to airport. Heck, you don't have to deal with it at all until it arrives at your destination!" Well, that's why we were okay with bringing the duffel. Not ideal, but do-able.

What we didn't know was that Johannesburg, South Africa, where we were landing and where my parents were picking us up, was five hours from where they live in Swaziland. And since they don't drive at night (I'll have to post about that, too) we were spending the night at a hotel. This is only relevant because in South Africa and Swaziland it is very unwise to leave anything that could be perceived as valuable in your car overnight. So poor Duggy had to drag that 50+ pound bag from the car to our fourth story hotel room and back again, and then drag it from the car up to our second-floor room in my parents' house. Not an unbearable ordeal, but definitely would have been easier if it was a wheeled-suitcase...

And that was the beginning of our journey...stay tuned for the next installment of "Dug and Tricia vs The World."

21 March 2008

Factoid Friday!

Today we will be clearing up a small misunderstood bit of information regarding the Great Wall of China.

Many times I have heard and read the following statement, "The Great Wall of China is so large, it is the only man-made object visible from the moon." It's been quoted so many times it's got to be true, right? Wrong!

This commonly accepted statement, my dear readers, is false. I'm sorry to be the one to pop your bubble, but I must.

Yes, the Great Wall of China is 4000 miles long, and 4000 miles is definitely visible from the moon. But in the widest sections, it is only 30 feet wide, a measurement too small for our eyes to make out if we were standing on that big round of cheese floating in space.

To explain it simply, think of it in this situation. Two people are standing on opposite sides of a football field. One is holding a rather long piece of string in his outstretched arms. (That string is the Great Wall.) Can the person on the other side of the field see the string? Nope. It just isn't wide enough to see. He could get a longer and longer piece of string, but it wouldn't make a difference. It's just too thin.

Now to be honest, there is a general consensus that from a very low orbit, the wall is just barely visible if you know exactly where to look and the atmospheric conditions are perfect. But even then there are astronauts that dispute it.

So take this bit of knowledge with you and spread the word, because that, my friends, is a factoid.

Got a lot of my info from our friends at Wikipedia.

19 March 2008

Choice Goods Wednesday!

Hello world! I'm back! Funny that the last meaty post I wrote was a "choice good" and now here I am with another.

So after traveling from Oregon, USA to Southern Africa up to Western Europe and back again in 2 1/2 weeks and arriving home yesterday morning at 1am, can you forgive me for this abbreviated post? I thought you might.

I'll unload my adventures when my house looks a litle more liveable (1 uncle + 4 kids under 9 + 3 weekends = Webster's 3b definition of chaos).

So what's choice for today? Well, friends, I wasn't sure until I went to my Google Reader page and saw the 511 posts I would have to read in order to catch up on all my favorite blogs. In the words of my new Swazi (as in Swaziland) friends, EESH!

In light of that, I realized what today's choice good had to be. It is something free, stress-relieving and indispensible when you are unable to check your favorite blogs for a few days:

The MARK ALL AS READ button!

I need to be able to start afresh and let go. Five hundred and eleven is a big number (it has seven syllables for goodness sake!) and without the MARK ALL AS READ button, I would be unable to read any blogs. I would be overwhelmed and avoid my Reader because of the pressure that 511 brings with it.

But with a single click of a single button, I can "read" all back posts and have the cycloptic number 0 looking back at me. Of course, in time, I can truly read all those left behind, but with no pressure from that huge number.


The MARK ALL AS READ button...it's choice!