Monday, October 28, 2013

Baking Bad

Larry often says that cooking is interpretive and experimental, but baking is like chemistry – you have to have the ingredients just right, or it doesn’t work out.

I’ve never been much of a cook. I have a few culinary tricks up my sleeve, but for the most part my food preparation is utilitarian in nature. If I were a single woman, I’d probably live on bologna sandwiches and Captain Crunch. Fortunately for me, Larry enjoys cooking and usually takes the helm in the kitchen.

Once in a while, though, I get an urge to bake, especially in the fall. I found a recipe for Impossible Pumpkin Cookies that, despite their name, seemed pretty easy. After starting to mix the ingredients, however, I realized I had purchased a can of sweetened milk and not condensed milk. There was no conversion or swapping mentioned in my standby Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. So I called my friend and baking guru, Dianne Johnstone.
Dianne said no, you really can’t use one in place of the other, and there wasn’t any real workaround. She asked what I was making and I said Impossible Pumpkin Cookies, the impossible part apparently being the cook’s ability to pick up the right ingredients from the store.
In the end, the cookies proved impossible for me, as they had a weird timeframe of cooking 10 minutes, then sitting out for 10 minutes, then going in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Behind the eight ball now because of having to run to the store again and having to be somewhere shortly, I fudged the time sitting to 5 minutes and time in the fridge to half a day. Let’s just say the chickens were the beneficiaries of that particular attempt.

This weekend I had a herd of bananas on my counter that were growing blacker by the day, slowly inching their way towards the compost pail. I decided to wash the dead bugs out of my bread pans and try some banana bread. I utilized the basics of a new recipe in my cookbook with some of my favorite components from a banana muffin recipe.
But when I started putting all the dry ingredients in the bowl I realized I was looking at the wrong recipe in the cookbook (I have GOT to get new glasses), so I pulled out a pinch of what looked like the baking powder here and some of what looked like the baking soda there. Instead of one monster loaf, I split it between two pans and hoped for the best. I warned Larry this was a compilation recipe, there were no guarantees.
To my surprise, they came out great – no small feat for me - cooked through perfectly, moist and delicious, as good banana bread should be. Welcome Fall! Sometimes mad science in the kitchen wields wonderfully tasty results.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Operator, Can You Help Me Make This Call?

Telephone:  an instrument for reproducing sounds at a distance; specif: one in which sound is converted into electrical impulses for transmission (as by wire) – Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

I had to get a new telephone for the house. As much as I prefer our old black rotary phone, which can double as a weapon against intruders, telephone transmissions no longer play nice with them. The cordless unit we had was beginning to act up, and we were never

happy with the clarity of the answering machine recording. It always sounded like a bad fast food drive-through.

Best Buy can be intimidating to us just-fell-off-the-turnip-truckers: cavernous, flashy and overstimulating. There are too many options. Sales people are either over exuberant (which is quickly followed by exasperation when they see I have no idea what they’re talking about, and they have to dumb everything down) or they try to keep two displays away and avoid eye contact so they don’t have to deal with me.

I wandered the store for a while unsuccessfully trying to find regular telephones. I dawdled by the iPods and mp3 players, something I’ve been thinking about getting for a while but I’m 1) too cheap and 2) too intimated to learn how to use them. You’d think that the adult education folks would offer something useful like "Portable Music for Dummies." What struck me was their size; the last time I looked at them they were something you could put down without losing. Now, they’re the size of a graham cracker. The label actual included the word "Walkman" (well, that I could relate to) and "video." How are you supposed to view video on such a tiny screen? Are optometrists in on this?

Unable to find unmobile telephones, I reluctantly approached a team of three cell phone salespersons. "I’m almost afraid to ask this," I said, "but do you have regular telephones, you know, for landlines?" The inner struggle between being helpful and being condescending showed on the young guy’s face. "Sure," he smiled. "Follow me."

He practically jogged to a far wall of the store, while I hobbled after him, trying to keep up. He led me to a cobwebby and dusty shelving display, to the technological Island of Misfit Toys. "Here you go!" he announced and promptly disappeared. These phones were unpromoted and unannounced, no "Outdated Technology For Losers" signage which would have been helpful. The five display phones looked sad and neglected, spaces between them on the shelves where their brethren had been removed, never to be restocked again. All I wanted was a phone with an answering machine built it. Most of the options were a phone base with six offspring so every room in our house could have telecommunications.

I finally zeroed in on one. The box read "Communication Answering System." The word telephone was nowhere on the package. I suppose that word is now obsolete as well. Its proudly listed features included large, backlit buttons and caller ID that announced who was calling. I suppose these are helpful for us old people, who are the only ones buying these archaic things anymore. I’m surprised it didn’t come with a sample of Lipitor or a coupon for Depends.

When I approached the cashier, I joked that it was called an answering system versus a telephone. She gave me a sad, tolerant smile. "Hardly anyone has landlines anymore," she said. Yeah, well, I live in the country, honey, I kept from saying. I’d like to see how well your ass stacks firewood.

This weekend I will fortify myself with some tequila and take a run at getting our new communication answering system hooked up, charged, and programmed properly. I can always hope for a power outage, where I'll have no choice but to plug in the rotary phone.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Clearing the Channels

Greetings from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where hubby and I are taking our annual vacation with a wide array of his relatives.  Normally I’m happy to hang with the large assortment of cool cousins and extended family, but right now there is a visiting herd of little kids running amok in the house.  It sounds like a pack of wild Indians out there (which probably isn’t so far from the truth), so I took this moment to hole up in my room and figuratively put pen to paper.

There was an interesting post on the writer’s blog Write to Done about writer’s block.  The brilliance of the post was in the different angle it took on this topic.  It viewed it not as “writer’s block,” but as a “log jam.”  The problem isn’t being blocked, but being so overwhelmed with ideas, thoughts, etc., that our brain jams up.  This was a real eye opener.  One, it made me feel better.  Two, it made perfect sense.  Instead of being an unproductive dolt, I’m really just too flush with ideas for my own good.  Recognizing the problem is halfway to a cure.  Looked at in the right light, it isn’t even really a problem.

This enlightening post came on the heels of a one-day workshop sponsored by the Adirondack Center for Writing.  It was on nature writing and was facilitated by the lovely Robin Zimmerer who published a book entirely about moss.  Seriously.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it’s important to keep an open mind about such things and to be willing to try new experiences.

A campground in Old Forge was the great setting for the workshop. It was more about the intuitive, warm and fuzzy aspect of writing, whereas I’m more of a nuts and bolts kind of gal.  Still, where I didn’t think I’d be able to write anything remotely decent and felt embarrassingly blocked, I surprised myself by coming out of the
writing exercises with interesting, decent stuff.  About moss.  Seriously.

The best part of the weekend was spending time with fellow writer Nancy Scarzello, a Ticonderoga herbalist and naturalist whom I had corresponded with briefly in the spring.  The Summer of the Broken Leg flew by and I unexpectedly received an email from her telling me about the ACW workshop and asking if I would like to share a rented cabin with her in Old Forge while attending the workshop.  It was the perfect little getaway and a tonic to my writer’s soul to spend time with such a kindred spirit. 

Sometimes you just need to let the natural currents break up that log jam.