28 May 2008

The Assembly of Decadence...er...I mean...an Opera Cake

The Daring Baker challenge this month was Opera Cake. (Recipe morphed from the recipes in Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets and Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty's Chocolate Passion.) It is a decadent, super rich dessert traditionally flavored with chocolate and coffee. As per their prerogative, the hosts, Fran of Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie, Shea of Whiskful, Lisa of La Mia Cucina, and Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice, declared that dark flavors/colors were outlawed.

Sooooo...I chose almond and white chocolate! Did I say decadent? Let me just describe the layers:
1. joconde (cake made from almond meal)
2. almond-flavored syrup
3. white chocolate-flavored buttercream
4. joconde
5. almond syrup
6. white chocolate buttercream
7. joconde
8. almond syrup
9. white chocolate mousse
10. white chocolate/almond glaze

Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I figured I would just make a little video for you. 37,000 words worth of video! (Credit for the pictures is split between me and my eldest daughter. And yes, that is a couch in the background. The assembly was done in the living room. What can you do when it has the best natural light in the house?)

26 May 2008

"life as i know it" meme

Until now the mysterious blog powers that be have kept me clear from the tagging of silly memes. Apparently, they have removed their protection. Bethany tagged me, so here goes:

Four Jobs I've had:
1. Babysitter
2. Weather Observer in the now-closed National Weather Service Office in Astoria
3. Concession Worker at Oregon State University games
4. Homeschooling Stay-at-home Mom

Four movies I've watched more than once:
1. Lord of the Rings Trilogy (that counts as one epic film)
2. Pride and Prejudice miniseries (A&E version)
3. Princess Bride
4. Starship Troopers

Four Places I've lived:
1. & 2. I've lived in 2 towns in Oregon, that's it.

Four places I've been:
1. Yellowstone National Park
2. Haines, Alaska
3. Mbabane, Swaziland
4. Brussels, Belgium

Four TV shows I watch:
1. 24
2. Scrubs
3. the Office
4. that's it...and I watch all of the above downloaded from the internet.

Four people who email me regularly:
1. Amy W
2. Quentin C
3. Mom
4. Melaroo L

Four of my favorite foods:
1. Mashed potatoes and gravy
2. Curry (anything as long as it's hot)
3. Sushi ( link goes to the best sushi rice recipe I've found)
4. Falafel (link goes to my favorite falafel recipe)

Four places I would like to visit:
1. Ireland
2. Japan
3. Thailand
4. China

Four things I'm looking forward to in the coming year:
1. moving to Texas
2. learning to ride a motorcycle
3. camping
4. finishing the renovation of our house

Four people I've tagged:
1. Liz-dear of Jackson Family
2. Michelle-darling of Daily Happenings of Mr. and Mrs. Smith
3. Paris-sweet of Rambling Rose
4. Kati-love of So Anyways...

22 May 2008

Floral Macros

The flowers this time of the year are too beautiful. I know it is super cheesy but I'm mesmerized by them and love the challenge of capturing their beauty without the photo looking like a greeting card. It's pretty hard and I fail miserably every time. But I keep trying. And have I mentioned that I love my macro lens? I give it the credit for any picture that looks great. Macro lens + flowers = incredible detail.

This is a gorgeous tulip that grows in an abandoned flower pot in the corner of our yard. I didn't plant it. I don't know who did. But it grows every spring. It is probably my favorite color of tulip.

These tiny yet gorgeous flowers are from some random weed. Weird, huh?

My kids each have a patch of ground where they planted their own tulips. These beauties are my eldest's.

Just a lovely rose.

I know you're supposed to hate them but I can't. I love dandelions. I think they are especially beautiful when they are in this, their most irresistable state. (Click on it and you can see a bit more detail. They really are amazing aerodynamically.)

20 May 2008

Belated Mother's Day Report

I've been wanting a bike trailer for at least half a decade, but for some reason or another have never got one. On Mother's Day, Dug and the kids announced that they were getting me a trailer! (This is how we do it in our house. You find out what you're getting on the special day, not necessarily getting it then.)

I had already tried to buy two Burley d'Lite's off of craigslist with no luck. Dug asked if we could buy one online cheaper than locally. Of course we could, but with shipping the difference wasn't going to be as great and, more importantly, we wouldn't be getting it that day. So we all trucked over to our favorite bike store and bought the beautiful little ditty. (Thank you Mr. Tax Rebate!)

The 3- and 5-year olds ride in the trailer while the olders bike along with me. It's been a blast and I love it. We've been biking everywhere we can: piano lessons, church, short shopping trips.

What I'm trying to figure out is how to go grocery shopping on bikes. See, I go to three different stores, accumulating approx. 8 bags of groceries, and the store are too far to drop off the groceries after each store. The d'Lite has cargo space for two bags. The two olders and I could each carry backpacks, but they obviously couldn't handle carrying an entire bag of groceries as they bike. And I don't necessarily want to go grocery shopping three different days of the week to get everything. I could probably figure out some way to hang some bags off the handle on the back of the trailer... Oh wait! I didn't even think of people stealing my groceries while I'm in another store. Sheesh! Is there no solution here?!

If you've got some ideas, hand them over. I want to bike as much as possible. Not just to win the battle of the bulge, but to lower our monthly gas bill and reduce pollution. Plus, it introduces happy daily exercise into the minds of my tots. It's good stuff all around.

PS Look behind my bicycle and you will see a super-sweet Honda CBR 600. Come June 5, I'm heading over to the community college and taking the Basic Rider Training course! That baby is sitting there just waiting for me to figure out what all her levers are for. This summer is two-wheels only! (I told Dug we should get two motorcycles, and two side-cars that each sit two people. Then we could go as a family on little trips. Him with the boys, me with the girls. It would be so much fun, I said. He just looked at me and smiled in that way he does when I come up with crazy ideas that he knows are best to not agree to nor argue over.)

17 May 2008

31 Easy Steps To Test Your New Bathtub For Leaks and Bathe Your Children at the Same Time

  1. Adjust overflow/drain contraption to fit tub.
  2. Attach above-mentioned thing-a-ma-jig to tub. (Keep in mind that the drain for the tub is only about six inches long, is not attached to anything and ends mid-air in the basement.)
  3. Construct tub-filling gizmo from pvc pipe, tape, kitchen faucet and kitchenaid. (pic at left and below)
  4. Fill tub with water to check for leaks. (Probably should have done this before we poured cement...)
  5. After only a half-gallon, notice leak at drain/tub junction.
  6. Jerry-rig temporary solution to drain tub using a corner pipe, a bucket and Tricia's biceps.
  7. Drain water into bucket, fix leaky junction.
  8. Clean up water mess.
  9. Begin filling tub again, so far so good.
  10. Wonder if water really needs to be above whirlpool jets before testing.
  11. Test jets prematurely, confirm that yes, water must be above jets.
  12. Clean up water mess.
  13. Get kids in tub for "test run."
  14. Kids happy, love the whirlpool. Comment "This is big enough to swim in!"
  15. Realize that Water Level High Enough to Cover Jets + 4 Kids in Tub + Overflow Drain Pipe Not Attached to Anything and Ending in Mid-Air = Big Water Mess in Basement.
  16. Tell kids to be perfectly still. (I know. Try not to laugh too hard.)
  17. Dug opens drain, Tricia holds bucket under pipe in basement until full. Dug closes drain, Tricia dumps bucket into toilet. The plan is to drain the water low enough so that we can finish bathing the kids without the water sloshing into the overflow. (This level is actually hypothetical and doesn't exist, by the way.)
  18. Inform children that if they really want to finish their bath they better not move another muscle.
  19. Continue draining by bucket.
  20. Threaten kids with bodily harm if they move a muscle again. (No, I still don't know why we didn't have them get out.)
  21. Discover that if Dug opens the drain fully, the makeshift pipe system can't handle all the water and it overflows onto Tricia.
  22. Dug finds that he "just can't help himself."
  23. Tricia threatens Dug with bodily harm if he does it again.
  24. Tub now drained low enough to finish bathing children if they "don't act crazy."
  25. Discover that kids are incapable of non-crazy action in a body of water.
  26. Clean up water mess.
  27. Water sits in tub for a day and a half because Tricia can't/won't finish draining the tub via the bucket method.
  28. Dug and Chris set up a temporary (read: unglued, shoved-together pipes) drain system.
  29. Dug and Chris find that their system is insufficient for dealing with the massive amount of water that drains from a tub at once.
  30. Clean up water mess.
  31. Tub sufficiently tested, found without leak and in perfect-working order. Basement floors very clean.
Here's a "bonus" image for you. Sorry if you find it offensive. I just couldn't help myself. (Chris, what's the point of taking pictures, if you don't share them?)

10 May 2008

Tools of the Trade - Two Great Ways to Use Your Kitchen Scales

DISCLAIMER: This post will confirm what most of you suspect: I am a complete nerd. I am an incredibly anal cook/baker. I like math and scales. As with all my advice, I encourage you to use the intestinal method: take what works for you and "pass" the rest. (I know, it's gross, but I love how true it is!)

As promised in my Choice Goods post, I'm going to share with you how I use the kitchen scale to my advantage. Warning to Math Haters: using scales requires you to use your math skills. The good side is that you only have to dredge up the stuff you learned between first and third grades.

1. Measuring "sticky" stuff
I hate measuring shortening, peanut butter, honey, molasses, etc. They are a pain to get into the measuring cup, a pain to get out and a pain to clean up. But that was the old way. Now I put my mixing bowl on the scale, hit the "zero" button and simply add the ingredient until it gets to the right weight. The only thing I get dirty is the spoon. It's wonderful! If I have another ingredient to add, I hit zero again and then add it. Easy peasy!

*TIP* When measuring an ingredient into the bowl, pile it on top of itself. Be like a little kid and make a "mountain." That way, if you accidentally put too much in, you can take some out without scooping other ingredients along with it. This doesn't work with molasses though. Molasses is like hot lava and melts all the other ingredients. If you get too much molasses, well...I just hope you like molasses.

I can hear you asking, "But what if I don't know the weight of my ingredient?" My friends, there are two approaches to answering this question. First approach: Most labels have the number of grams a serving weighs. For example, my sour cream says "Serving Size 2 Tbsp (31g)." If I need one cup I just multiple the 31g by 8 since there are 16 Tb in a cup. I have a quick-reference measurement conversion sheet taped on the inside of my cupboard door for times such as these. (Click on picture at right to read labels.)

*WATCH OUT!* Stop pouring liquids about 20 g away from your desired weight. Scales tend to have a delay in them, so you need to let them catch up. If you pour until your desired weight and stop, you'll inevitably go over. Not easy to remove honey from that bowl full eggs and flour now, is it?

The second approach is this: Every time I use an ingredient for the first time, I weigh it and write it on a reference sheet. For instance, if I'm going to use molasses (it's serving size is in mL, not useful for my purposes) I place the measuring cup on the scale, zero it, fill it with molasses and record the weight. Sure it's messy this time, but next time I won't have to measure it out, I can just weigh it directly into the mixing bowl. I've done this in one-cup measurements for most of my commonly used ingredients. (One cup is easier to convert, as opposed to changing a 1/4 c serving size into 2/3 c, for example) Alternatively, you can record how much specific ingredients weigh on a recipe, but the disadvantage is that you have to find that recipe again to know the weight of that ingredient. If the one-cup weights are all in one easy-to-access place, you can use them for any recipe. Once you have calculated the recipe-specific weight, by all means, write it on the recipe for future use.

2. Dividing cake batter
If you bake and have to divide your batter, it's important for the pans to have an equal amount. This is not only for aesthetic reasons, but so they can bake at the same rate and come out equally moist in the end. Once again...math! For this to work, you need to use identical cake pans.

I have recorded the weight of my most commonly used bowls (including my Kitchenaide one!) and have them written on the reference sheet with the ingredient weights. (click on picture at left for details) After I make the batter, I weigh the bowl + batter. I then subtract the already-known weight of the bowl. This gives me the weight of the batter. I divide this number in half. This is how much batter should make it into each pan if I could get every tiny bit of batter out of the bowl. I never can. So use it more as a guideline.

Now you need to put your cake pan on the scale and zero it. Pour the batter in until you're about ten grams below the amount that should be in the pan. Take that pan off and put the second, empty one on the scale. Dump the remaining batter into this pan. If it's too much, scoop some into the other. If it's too little, grab some from the other pan. Your goal is to have the two pans weigh almost the same as each other. You don't have to be too anal. Within ten or fifteen grams is close enough.

These are my two great tips for kitchen-scale usage. My husband makes pancakes every Saturday and since I showed him my handy-dandy reference weights, he weighs every ingredient except the smaller ones that use measuring spoons. He loves it, I love it, we love it. See? The kitchen scales are helping to fill our house with love.

Do you have any tips on putting your kitchen scales to work? Share them! Believe me, I want to know! Also, if any of this in confusing, let me know! I'll try to clear it up.

06 May 2008

Short But Not Sweet

After the long, formidable Cat's Eye, my next book from the Reading Dangerously challenge was the short, formidable Transformations by Anne Sexton.

As a book of poetry and having only 112 pages, it was a refreshingly quick read. (It took me an hour or so.) Anne Sexton chose seventeen of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales and put them to verse with such a distinct voice, having never read Sexton before, I can imagine that I would be able to recognize her work. I found the poems engrossingly entertaining, but also knew that I was missing a lot with only a first reading.

The format is this: you are given the title, Anne gives a sort of intro about whatever she feels is the poignant aspect of the tale (in verse, of course) and then you read her poetic transformation of the well known story. Before Snow White she speaks of virgins, before Iron Hans she describes how people can not bear the insane, before The Little Peasant she paints lust. As far as being a novice poetry reader goes, I felt that this allowed me to better understand her poetry. The stories themselves were easy enough to understand, it was the intro verses that, without knowing they were discussing the tales, would have been far more difficult to "get."

And this stuff ain't light, either. Sexton is funny, sarcastic, disturbing and blunt. I loved how she treated certain aspects of the stories. For example, in Rumpelstiltskin, we already know the same scene is re-enacted between the little man and the princess on three consecutive nights. Sexton cuts to the chase,
"Again she cried.
Again the dwarf came.
Again he spun the straw into gold."
No embellishment, no descriptors, just the facts. It's like she's saying, "Yeah, yeah, we know, let's get on with it." I also enjoyed how she would comment on certain aspects that only occur in fairy tales. For instance, in the White Snake she writes,
"At the next town
the local princess was having a contest.
A common way for princesses to marry."
I couldn't help but smile.

Even though it is funny, it's not. She's pretty biting and cynical, in general, with some pretty disturbing ways of looking at Rapunzel (the old witch was her lesbian lover) and The Frog Prince (insinuates a bit much went on when the frog shared the princess' bed). You can see her disdain for the common ending of these stories:
"So, of course,
they were placed in a box
and painted identically blue
and thus passed their days
living happily ever after --
a kind of coffin,
a kind of blue funk.
Is it not?"

So what did I really think? While I don't agree with her, it was an interesting view on the Grimm Brothers' work. Enough so that I want to reread them and really dissect what she was trying to say. While her opinions are mostly obvious, there were some things that were just too abstract for me to "get." So I guess, in the end, I didn't so much like it, as I was intrigued. (And, to be honest, disturbed. But mostly intrigued.)

05 May 2008

How do you feel when you finish a marathon?

Finally...FINALLY...I finished Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood.

In order to review this honestly, I didn't read any other review of it. That can be scary. For what if I missed the main, obvious premise of the book and I look like an idiot? I'm trying to be brave here and hopefully give a one-of-the-normal-folk type of reviews as opposed to a literary one.

How do I describe this book? Hmmmm...let's see...I guess there are two ways.
  1. If it didn't satisfy two reading challenges: My Year of Reading Dangerously and Orbis Terrarum, I wouldn't have finished it. It took until page 126 for me to even care about the main character and finally by page 328 (of 446 total) I found that I was intrigued and wanted to know how it would end.
  2. Difficult to finish, but once it is over, you want to have a discussion with others who have read it so you can figure out the many things that you don't quite get. Great, great book for a book club to discuss.
Elaine, is our main character. The story hops back and forth between the present and her past, working from her young childhood in the '40's, until the two merge in the "now" of the '80's. The problem is that she is never happy. Never. Nothing makes her happy. Her childhood girlfriends terrorized her and from that point on...nothing but this gray film on life. She goes through the motions but every thought is cynical and every smile suspected.

The ringleader of these "friends" and subtle-tactic bully, Cordelia, oddly enough ends up being Elaine's best friend later on. It is her relationship with Cordelia, specifically, and her childhood home, Toronto, in general, that torments Elaine onward through adulthood.

I really enjoyed Atwood's style of writing. The hopscotch forward/backward in time method that she used was a perfect medium for telling this story since Elaine's present is so entwined with her past. A bit confusing at times, but a brilliant move.

Atwood has an amazing way of describing things without being verbose. Reading a lot of classics, I'm always skimming and skipping whole paragraphs of descriptions. Not so with this book. The things she describes are not only important to the story, but are done in such a way as to keep my interest. One of my favorite lines from this book is conveyed in just this sparse way.
"This landscape is empty now, a place for Sunday runners. Or not empty: filled with whatever it is by itself, when I'm not looking."

I find myself wanting to dissect this novel with someone else. I want to bounce ideas of what I think the different symbols mean off of another. In that sense, I feel that this book was extraordinary. It evokes discussion and I think that is one of the necessary components of a good book.

Just be aware: this book is gray. By that I mean that when I think of how I feel when I read it, I could only envision the characters in black and white. Different items were in color but the people are all gray. My feelings were gray. I felt that Elaine was walking around dusted in gray.

For what it's worth...the above is what I came out of Cat's Eye with. It was difficult to get through, but in the end I'm glad I did. Not sure if I would attempt it again, though. Sort of like finishing a marathon.

PS - Yes, you do understand the cover picture by the end of the book.

PPS - Anyone who has read this before: When Elaine is arguing with her then-husband Jon, he says,"Trisha, Monica is just a friend." Is this a typo or was she going by Trisha before this? See, my name is Tricia and I'm pretty sure I would have seen another one previous. Please relieve my anxious confusion...EDIT: I feel pretty silly now. After talking it over with my husband, I realized that Jon was answering her question. She asked if he was going to see Monica. His response was misinterpreted by me. I thought he was calling Elaine Trisha like some sort of nickname and then letting her know she was being paranoid because Monica was just a friend. But in actuality he is answering her question that he is going to see Trisha and that she got the "other woman" wrong because Monica is just a friend. Funny how you can read the printed word in different ways isn't it?

03 May 2008

Choice Goods - Kitchen Scale

One thing that I highly recommend for anyone to have in their kitchen is a scale. Sure, I got along without one for nine of my eleven cooking years, but those nine years could have been so much more.

Why this love, you ask? Well, for starters, have you ever had the recipes that ask for a specific weight of ingredient...say, pasta? I usually buy my pasta in bulk and since weights only come on pre-packaged labels, I was clueless as to what six oz of orzo or 12 oz of elbow macaroni looked like. Or what about meats? or vegetables? or cheese? Now when my polenta calls for 2 oz of parmesan, I can use my scale and KNOW.

Another reason is that I am a lover of trying new ethnicities of foods, but many times they are in metric. (Makes sense since almost the entirety of the world is metric...but I digress.) Liquid measurements are done in mL and many measuring cups and spoons are marked for these. Solid/dry ingredients are stated in weight or, more specifically, grams. For those, you have to find a metric equivalents page and convert the ingredient-specific grams into cups. Good luck. Wouldn't it be easier to just use your handy-dandy scale? Why, yes, it would be.

I did some research on kitchen scales back before I bought mine and found some specific things to look out for.
  1. Easy conversion switch - Most, if not all, scales come with a switch to jump from grams to ounces. Many are not in easy to get to places. For instance, one scale I know of has its switch on the bottom. So if you are measuring and realize you're using the wrong units, you have to take off the item and flip the whole thing over to switch it. Pain in the hobbity-hoo, if you ask me.
  2. High weight max - You want to have a scale that is able to handle what you throw at it. A little portion scale is not going to be able to measure a large pot full of potatoes, if for some reason you need its weight. Mine has a 5kg/11lb max. I've never had anything that I've needed to weigh max it out.
  3. Large enough weighing-thing - I don't know what it's called, but make sure the platform where you put the stuff to be weighed is able to accommodate large mixing bowls, Kitchenaid bowls, dinner plates, pie pans, etc.
  4. Intuitive - Some scales, believe it or not, are a bit complicated. They've got a lot of buttons that can be confusing. You want simple. You want to be able to figure it out without having to refer to the owner's manual.
  5. Cool Factor - Okay, so this isn't a real necessity. But if you are going to use your scale as much as me, you're going to leave it out on the counter and you are going to be a little happier if it looks cool. I mean, sure, we can all be happy with practical and durable. But what if you get practical, durable, and kick-butt sweet-looking?! Huh? You're not going to tell me that if you had to pick between two equally sturdy, great-working scales, you wouldn't choose the sweet, almost a decorative option choice, are you? I didn't think so.
  6. Digital - This one holds some room for contention. There are those who are lovers of the mechanical scale. To them I say this: Go with what you love. Personally, I think digital is more accurate because it is less reliant on me. If you know me, you would agree. I think the general consensus is digital is better, but mechanicals don't run out of batteries.
The scale that met all the above-criteria for me was Model 6300 by Salter. (pictured at left) We got her at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I think. Sorry, I don't have it's model name anymore. But it's a beaut. I mean, as far as modern, sleekness goes she's just lovely. It wouldn't appeal to those romantic, vintage lovers out there. (You know who you are!!!) But we can't please everyone, can we? You guys can stick it in the cabinet. (For the record, I love vintage-y stuff in decor, just not for my active-use, modern-does-it-better items.) Also, the cooler vintage-looking scales tend to be mechanical, while the digital scales have a more modern design. I'm a digital girl, what can I say?

I use my little scale daily. It is invaluable to me. It makes me a more accurate baker (which you must agree is an accuracy-devout field) and a happier cook. I've got a bunch of tips on how scales can make your life easier but that info needs its own post. So for now I leave you with this:

Kitchen scales...they're choice!