Eating (With A) Crow

Last week I went through the MacDonald’s drive-through for a quick bite. Not wanting to be disturbed by passersby, I parked at the farthest corner of the lot, next to a tall hedge. With my window open to admit the sweetly scented breeze, I chowed down.

I hadn’t taken more than a couple of bites before a large crow flapped over and landed on top of the hedge. After inspecting me with bright black eyes, he flew down to perch on the curb. There he cocked his head and watched every movement of the burger to my mouth.

Recognizing a mooch, I shook my head and said, “Sorry, buddy. Bread isn’t good for birds.”

He hopped closer, still watching my burger like a hawk… or, more accurately, like a mooching crow.

I repeated, “Nope, nothing for you.”

Undeterred, he hopped closer and flirted some more.

When I finished my burger without sharing, he shot me a disgusted look and flew up to the top of the hedge again. But then I started eating my sundae.

Down he came to the curb again, turning his head coquettishly this way and that so I could admire his glossy ebony feathers. How could I possibly deny him a taste?

I chuckled and said, “Sorry, buddy. You’re a handsome guy, but I’m not giving you ice cream, either.”

As if he’d understood me, he puffed out his feathers and let out a barrage of angry caws. After he had thoroughly cussed me up one side and down the other, he departed in a snit.

Later, I was telling Hubby about my mercurial dinner companion. “I was a little worried that he might fly up into my window,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to tangle with that sharp beak.”

Hubby smirked. “Well, if he had, you could have hit him with your crowbar.”

It took me an instant, because I do actually carry a crowbar in my vehicle. But then the terrible/terrific pun exploded in my brain.

GROAN!

At least he didn’t suggest that I could have eaten my burger’s condiments with my pickle fork…

*

P.S. I just realized that you have to be a gearhead to get that last sentence. A ‘pickle fork’ is an automotive tool used to separate ball joints and tie rod ends.

P.P.S. I further just realized that if you’re not a gearhead, ‘ball joints’ and ‘tie rod ends’ are equally obscure. And now that I’ve completely over-explained it, maybe it would be better to just pretend I made a dirty joke about balls and rods. ’Nuff said.

Book 17 update: I’m on Chapter 51, and Aydan is in a desperate race against time to save someone she cares about. But is it already too late?

Cooking with Diane

I love creating new recipes, but experiments always carry a certain risk of failure. And sometimes my failures are *ahem* …notable. (Don’t worry, it’s still safe to eat at our place — I don’t experiment when I’ve invited company to dinner.)

Recently, I’ve been wrangling with brownies. I’ve used Hubby’s mum’s recipe for years, but one day Hubby said, “You know, these are great; but they’d be even better if they weren’t quite so sweet.”

“Easy,” said I in a burst of delusional optimism. “I’ll just reduce the sugar a bit.”

So I did. And instead of brownies, I got dense cake. It was tasty; but the texture was meh. Over the next several weeks I churned out more variations, but none of them achieved the fabulously chewy texture of the original recipe.

By then we were (much to our own surprise) sick of eating brownies, so I shelved the project. But a few months ago I was researching ways to make my homemade ice cream softer, and I discovered maltodextrin. It’s used in myriad foods, but particularly in beer and ice cream to provide a good mouthfeel without adding a lot of sweetness.

Inspiration struck: Texture. Without sweetness. Aha! The brownie project was revived.

Our local winemaking store carried maltodextrin, so I got some and mixed up my ingredients in a burst of misplaced confidence. This would be the perfect batch of chewy, delicious, not-too-sweet brownies!

Except

It turns out maltodextrin isn’t particularly soluble. It’ll dissolve in water, but the only moisture in this recipe is provided by eggs. Not the same thing at all.

Unaware of the impending disaster, I beat the butter and eggs, added the sugar and maltodextrin and stared in horror as the mixture curdled into pea-sized lumps.

I cranked up the mixer to its highest setting, but the lumps had the texture of finely-grated leather mixed with half-solidified glue. I could break one apart if I rubbed it between my fingers, but I didn’t feel like doing that for hours. So I got out my blender and set it to Turbo.

No dice. The lumps were impervious.

But I hated to waste half a pound of butter, four eggs, and two cups of sugar. As I was staring at the pox-riddled batter, Hubby passed through the kitchen. After considerable discussion and some hilarity, we decided to strain out the lumps and carry on. I’ll spare you a description of the mess that resulted; but in the end we did get tasty chewy brownies.

The only problem is, I have no idea how much maltodextrin actually got mixed in; and a considerable amount of butter and eggs got subtracted during the straining process. So I had to reduce the flour to compensate and well, let’s just say that I still haven’t perfected that brownie recipe. But if I ever need leather glue, I’m all set! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.) 😉

Any other creative cooks out there? What’s your most notable culinary ‘oops’?

Book 17 update: I’m on Chapter 39 and Aydan’s evidence trail has just hit a dead end. But the killers keep coming, so she’d better figure it out soon!

Feeding My Inner Brat

I usually try to eat a healthy diet (except for a once-a-week indulgence in beer and deep-fried food on Friday evenings). But I adore all types of food, and I especially love that glorious full-tummy feeling after a big luxurious meal.

So my food intake has always been a balancing act. I’m lucky to have a forgiving metabolism, so I rarely gain more than a few pounds before realizing it’s time to (re)adjust. But I have a definite cycle:

  1. Healthy food in healthy portions
  2. Healthy food in portions that slowly increase until the plate looks comfortably full
  3. Generous portions of mostly-healthy food with frequent treats
  4. Big satisfying portions, with unlimited snacks and treats, woohoo!
  5. *sound of squealing brakes* …and back to healthy food in healthy portions

Unfortunately, there’s a big ‘culture shock’ between steps 4 and 5. When my portions are suddenly reduced to normal, the plate looks sadly empty; and it takes a while for my brain to adjust to how ‘normal’ looks.

Part of the problem is that I don’t actually want to adjust. My inner spoiled brat is perfectly happy with lots and lots of food and treats, so she constantly tries to undermine the efforts of my inner (and rarely-displayed) adult. Last week I thought I had everything under control, but then this happened:

My inner brat is definitely getting trickier, but I think I’ve got her subdued… this time. Please tell me I’m not the only one with an inner spoiled brat!

Book 17 update: I’m on Chapter 26 — over half finished the book, hooray! Bullets are flying, and the guy Aydan just saved might turn out to be an enemy. There’s always something…

Beware the Dough-Snake!

Sunday evening I was making myself a cup of herbal tea, with my brain completely fried after a grueling weekend spent putting on the conference I mentioned in my last post.  I steeped my tea in the pleasantly dim kitchen, then groped for the compost bucket to dump my tea leaves.

But instead of the expected plastic lid, my hand contacted the soft bulge of something.  A cool, moist, yielding something that moved under my hand like a sleepy snake.

I yelped and recoiled, only to burst out laughing when I discovered that the ‘snake’ was… pizza dough.

We’d made pizza for supper, but as I was pressing the dough into the pan I discovered tiny metal flakes in it.  (Yes, that flour went back to the store ASAP!)  So I remade our pizza crusts from a fresh bag of flour and chucked the contaminated dough into the compost bucket.

But it’s a small bucket.  And yeast rises.  So by the time I zombie-shuffled over there in the late evening, the dough had pushed up the lid of the bucket and escaped, clearly bent on world (or at least garbage-bin) domination.

After patting my thumping heart back into my chest and wiping away my tears of laughter, I dumped the compost bucket out into the recycling green-bin we keep in the garage.  It’s a big bin; but nevertheless, the next morning I opened the door to the garage with caution… just in case the dough-snake had devoured the tasty contents of the bin and grown into a giant man-eating serpent overnight.

Fortunately, it hadn’t; and on Monday the dough-snake went into the collection truck with the rest of the recycling.  So I think we’re safe from compost serpents for now… but I’m still chuckling over my momentary adrenaline burst.

Any surprises in your world this week?

Writing update: I’m (finally!) putting the last of the conference stuff to bed today, and then I’ll start plotting Book 17, woohoo! Soon, soon…

Cracking Up

People have occasionally questioned my sanity; although (being slightly delusional) I’m usually convinced that I’m okay and everybody else has the problem.  But where others have failed, a common household food actually succeeded in making me question my own sanity:  Soda crackers (also known as Saltines or water crackers, depending on where you live).  And yes, I realize it’s ironic that crackers would make me think I’m cracking up.

For years, I’ve bought the same brand of soda crackers.  Even though I experimented occasionally with other brands, I always came back to my favourite.  So, fine.

Until it wasn’t.

One day I bought a box of my usual crackers, but they tasted… blah.  I checked the box, but there was no “New And Improved” label.  (“New and Improved” is the kiss of death for me:  If I liked it before, I usually hate it after they’ve “improved” it.) But there was nothing noted on the box, so I chalked it up to a temporary aberration in my taste buds and/or a batch that had slipped through their quality control.

Until I bought the next box.  By then, I had none of the original tasty crackers to compare; only the growing conviction that they’d sneakily changed the recipe.  That’s when I started to wonder:  Maybe it was all in my head.  Maybe I was just getting old and my taste buds were packing it in.  As one of my friends used to demand when she was questioning my sanity:  “Are you on crack?!?”  I was beginning to think I might be.

But then Hubby mentioned it too.  Those damn crackers did taste different!  And not in a good way.  So I was stuck with a giant box of crackers that tasted like flour-and-water paste.  Blech.

But I solved the problem:  I got hooked on crack instead. It’s just as addictive as everybody says — I can’t leave it alone.  I promise myself I’ll avoid it, just for a day, but the need gets too strong and I succumb.  The world is a wonderful place while I’m ingesting it; and because I want to share the euphoria, I’m going to let you in on how to cook crack.  You can thank me later.  (Or hunt me down and smack me.  It could go either way.)

Crack

About 40 soda crackers
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chocolate chips

Line a large shallow pan with parchment paper (be sure to go up the sides a bit – this stuff flows) and lay out the soda crackers edge to edge in a single layer on the paper.

Melt the butter, add the brown sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Then pour the hot mixture evenly over the soda crackers, covering every cracker. Bake at 350F for 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and sprinkle chocolate chips over the hot caramel crackers. Let them stand a minute or two until the chocolate chips soften, then spread the melted chocolate over the crackers. Let the crack cool, then break it into pieces to eat.

Options: Use milk, semi-sweet, white, or dark chocolate chips, and/or peanut butter chips; and/or sprinkle nuts and/or candy over the chocolate layer while it’s still soft.

And now I’ve used up those crappy crackers!  I like to keep my crack in the freezer – it stays lovely and crunchy, plus there are no calories in frozen food.  (Or so I prefer to believe. See ‘delusional’ above.)

Let me know how you like it… and whether I should duck the next time I see you!

It Tastes Like Sh… ampagne…?

This is it:  The grand unveiling of the tomato cider I started fermenting back in October!

I’ve made several batches of cider over the years, and the process has been pretty similar each time:

  1. Go through the long painstaking process of sterilizing, fermenting, racking, back-sweetening, and bottling.
  2. Wait.
  3. Wait, wait, wait, waitwaitwait…
  4. Proudly bring out the inaugural bottle, pop the top, and pour it out.
  5. Admire the beautiful clarity of the fizzy contents.
  6. Eagerly taste it.
  7. *sound of disappointed crowd booing, accompanied by derisive minor-key music: ‘wah-wah-waaaahhhh’*

Until this year, I’d only made cider out of apples, which is theoretically supposed to give palatable results.  Even so, I’ve never managed to produce anything I’d offer to anyone else; except maybe as a practical joke.

Apparently I’m either optimistic or delusional, because I keep trying despite repeated disappointments.  (Note:  No matter how bad it is, I drink the rotgut myself because I fear the Irish legend of Judgement Day*.)

Since the tomato cider was a crapshoot to start with, my usual optimism was slightly subdued, but there was still some anticipation.

The ‘pop’:

It sounds like champagne!

The pour:

It fizzes like champagne.

The beautifully clear contents:

It looks like champagne!

And the taste test:

Despite its promising appearance, I was afraid it was going to taste like something that starts with that ‘sh-’ sound.  It definitely isn’t champagne, but amazingly, it’s okay!  (You can see my surprise.)

It’s a bit weird because it has a faint but distinct tomato flavour.  Not as much as tomato juice, though, so you might not be able to identify the taste if you didn’t know what it was.  It’s fruity and smooth and pleasantly carbonated.  In short, it’s nothing like the godawful rocket fuel I’ve made in previous years!

I hate to admit it, but this is probably the best result I’ve had out of all my cider-making thus far.  Maybe I’m getting better at it.

Or maybe it only seems better because I drank the whole pint and it’s almost as alcoholic as champagne…

What’s the oddest flavour of cider you’ve ever tried?

*

* On Judgement Day, you’ll be suspended head-down in a barrel containing all the booze you’ve ever wasted; and if you drown, to Hell with you.

Book 15 update:  The last couple of weeks have been full of research and revisions!  Aydan and Arnie’s run-ins with the police will be as accurate as I can make them, thanks to the patience and generosity of the constable from Regina Police Service who answered my MANY questions.

 

Never Mind, It’s ‘Gourmet’

This weekend we had a family birthday, and as usual I made a birthday cake. I love making birthday cakes; partly because, hello, it’s cake, and I get to make lots of different flavours throughout the year; and partly because it’s usually divided among a large enough group that I can’t pig out on it.  (Much.)

This time it was confetti cake.  The cake turned out fine, and after it cooled I mixed up the ermine frosting and started spreading it on.

Sometimes I wonder whether it’s better to wear my glasses so that I notice oddball details; or not to wear them and be happily oblivious. But for better or worse, I was wearing my glasses, so I noticed the odd little… things making lumps in my frosting.

I hadn’t put any things in it when I mixed it up, so I tasted one and determined that it was a tiny dumpling of over-cooked flour. (Ermine frosting is a velvety-smooth, not-too-sweet frosting that starts with milk and flour cooked together.)  And there were lots of those little rubbery bits, ranging in size from a pinhead to a popcorn kernel. Grrr!

I’ve been making birthday cakes for years without a problem, so I have standards.  I scraped that batch of frosting off the cake and relegated it to the fridge for non-public use. (Hey, it was still yummy buttery frosting — I wasn’t going to throw it away!)

I mixed up a second batch, only to discover to my chagrin that it had things in it, too. (I blame the flour – it wasn’t my usual brand.)  Fortunately the things were smaller, so I slapped the frosting on the cake and served it up, and nobody noticed. Or they were too polite to comment. Either way, I’ll call it a win.

When I confessed the debacle to Hubby later, he laughed. “I’ve seen weirder stuff on a menu,” he said. “If anybody notices, just tell them it’s ‘gourmet’.”

So that’s my new go-to excuse for failed recipes, to be spoken in a tone of utmost snootiness: “It’s gourmet cuisine. I don’t expect you to understand.”

Now, please excuse me while I sneak into the kitchen and help myself to that tub of ‘gourmet frosting’.  😉

What’s your favourite birthday cake and frosting combo?

I’m no professional, but I have fun decorating cakes anyway!

Big news:  The audiobook version of The Spy Is Cast (Book 2) has just been completed!  It should be available through Amazon /Audible within a few weeks; and the audiobook for Reach For The Spy (Book 3) is in production now.

Book 15 update:  I’m halfway through Chapter 16, and Arnie’s loyalty is being tested…

Going Bananas

You know how you’ll be cheerfully going on with life, and suddenly the fates deliver a spate of occurrences related to the same obscure item?  Well, for the last couple of weeks it’s been bananas.  Actual bananas; although things have been a bit bananas in the metaphorical sense, too.

Digression:  Why do we say ‘going bananas’?  What makes bananas crazier than any other fruit?  We don’t ‘go apples’ or ‘go peaches’.  Although now that I think of it, I kinda like ‘going kumquats’.

Back to my point:

I realize bananas aren’t particularly obscure. They’re always in fruit baskets and grocery stores; but they lurk unobtrusively in the background (at least, as unobtrusively as any large yellow phallic object can lurk).  But lately they’ve been popping up in my life repeatedly.

It all started with Hubby. And no, I’m not going to make an off-colour reference to his banana popping up; though the temptation is strong. (Yikes, maybe I’m finally growing up! But probably not.)

Anyway, you may recall that we’ve been experimenting with tomato wine and cider. It’s too soon to tell whether any of it will be palatable, but as a preemptive (or maybe defensive) action Hubby has been researching wine conditioners, i.e. ‘anything that will make vile rotgut tolerable enough to swallow’.

And guess what? A lot of people condition their fruit wines with banana wine.  To me, that sounds like starting with shit and adding new shit in the hope of creating something that doesn’t taste like shit; but what do I know?

That was the first banana-related occurrence.  Next I went out to visit my step-mom. One morning as I reached for the fruit basket, she said, “You do know how to open a banana correctly, don’t you?”

I hesitated, wondering if this was the setup for a joke or the introduction to an etiquette lesson (because everybody knows that ‘ladies’ eat bananas sideways in public). Turned out it was neither.

“I saw it on TV,” she said. “You hold them by the stem, parallel to the floor with the tip curving up, and then snap your wrist down and the banana will open.”

And damn, she was right.  After more than fifty years on this earth, I finally know how to open a banana.

Flushed with my new knowledge, I suggested to Hubby that it would be an efficient way to peel a bunch of bananas if he decides to go ahead with the banana wine.

He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What if the bananas are really ripe?” he inquired. “Like they are when you make banana bread.  Because that’s how ripe they need to be for wine.”

“Oh,” said I, crestfallen. “No, that would probably end up more like ‘squish-splat’.”

From there the conversation devolved into speculations about banana-bombs and other forms of domestic warfare.  We never did get back to banana wine; but it’s probably for the best.  The smell of fermenting bananas would drive me kumquats.

Have any bananas popped up in your life lately?

Book 15 update:  At last, some quality writing time!  I’m halfway through Chapter 12 and John has just saved the day… for now…

Tomato Wine

My dad grew up in the Depression years, so if anything could be conserved and/or reused, our family did it.  Wasting food wasn’t quite a cardinal sin, but we mourned the occasional demise of a leftover with the regret most people would feel over losing a $5 bill.

I inherited the food-conservation compulsion.

So.  You may recall that Hubby and I grew a gigantic and successful veggie garden this year.  The tomatoes were particularly prolific.  We ate fresh tomatoes with almost every meal, and I canned quarts and quarts of them.  Then I made salsa, ketchup, tomato paste, and green tomato pickle.  I gave away tomatoes to friends, neighbours, and the food bank; and the tomatoes just kept coming.

We still have so many tomatoes that for once in my life, I’ve stopped worrying about wasting them.  (Okay, not really; but at least I’m slightly less obsessive about it.)  So I’m trying something new:  Tomato wine and tomato cider.

It may not be as weird as it sounds; or at least we’re not the first to attempt it.  I have no idea whether it will be tasty, barely drinkable, or vile rocket fuel; but at this point I have nothing to lose but a couple of pounds of sugar and a package of yeast.

Wine-making vocabulary always makes me wonder whether I’m fermenting a beverage or describing some kind of medieval torture: Pitching the yeast, racking off… it all sounds painful and barbaric.  But drinking our tomato hooch might actually turn out to be akin to medieval torture; so maybe the vocabulary is more appropriate than I realize.

Even if it fails, it’s an interesting experiment; and at least I tried to Not Waste Food.  I think my dad would be pleased:  His chokecherry wine was legendary.  (Keeping in mind that ‘legendary’ can be astoundingly good or abysmally bad.  It was definitely memorable.)

Anybody else ever made tomato wine or cider?  Or have more ideas for using another twenty pounds of tomatoes?  Maybe tomato ice cream…?

Book 15 update:  Another good writing week!  I’m in the middle of Chapter 9 with flashing lights and sirens, and Arnie’s found another feline friend.

Bruce Can Fly!

In my previous post I introduced Bruce, our newly-minted sourdough culture.  At the time, I mentioned his godlike power of raising the bread; but I didn’t realize that was only a fraction of his abilities.  Last week, I discovered that Bruce can fly.

As you might guess, this was not a happy revelation.

For the last forty-some years I’ve made my bread by hand; but Graubrot is new territory for me, so I was following the recipe.  And the recipe said ‘It’s best to use a stand mixer with dough hooks’.

Right there:  That’s when I should have asked some probing questions.

“It’s best” implies “it’s better than something else”; but the recipe didn’t specify “better than what”.  The whole fiasco was probably better than undergoing a root canal performed by a drunken chimpanzee; but since I’ve never had a simian dentist (inebriated or otherwise), I can’t accurately state that the dough hook experience was “best”.

Blindly optimistic, I scraped my rye starter dough and wheat starter dough into the mixing bowl and added the liquid and seasonings.

(Useful knowledge:  Wheat flour has a lot of gluten, which makes its dough elastic.  Rye has very little gluten, and its dough is like modelling clay.  Bruce occupied the rye starter dough.)

Even at their lowest speed, the dough hooks rapidly churned the wheat starter into a compact springy ball while the rye starter formed a slurry with the liquid.

Then (in a fit of temper or maybe malicious glee), the dough hooks seized the ball of wheat dough, flung it high, and slapped it down into the slurry at approximately thirty miles per hour.

And Bruce flew.

Oh, my, did he fly.  Ev-er-y-where.

That would have been bad enough, but the starter doughs have to ripen for at least eighteen hours before use.  So if I wanted to bake that day (and I did), I had to salvage the slurry.

It took about half an hour, but I managed to scrape most of Bruce off various surfaces and back into the mixing bowl.  I did try to use the dough hooks again, but when the mixer started to smell like burnt wiring (did I mention that Graubrot is VERY heavy?) I turned the dough out on the counter and kneaded it by hand, as I should have done in the first place.

After all that foolishness, the bread turned out fine; but I’m haunted by the knowledge that there are probably still microscopic particles of Bruce throughout my kitchen.  And now that he’s both all-powerful and omnipresent, I’m really hoping he turns out to be a benevolent deity.

But if there’s no blog post next week, you’ll know what happened…

Book 15 update:  In between rounds of company and dicing with death atop a 30-foot ladder (because our brand-new house needs most of its exterior re-caulked, grrr, don’t get me started), I didn’t make much writing progress this week.  But I’m nearly finished Chapter 5, and hoping for more writing time this week.  Fingers crossed!