Tag Archives: milk

No Candy Thermometer? No Problem!

I went to high school with a girl named Yoshi Nishibara and today is her birthday. I don’t know why mumble-mumble-mumble years after we graduated, I can still remember this. But I can. (The first boy I ever kissed celebrated *his* 32nd birthday eight days ago. I don’t know why I remember that either.)

Yesterday, however, was my friend’s husband’s birthday. And…since last year at this time, I was all about vegan baking, I’m afraid my friend’s husband (and my friend…whose birthday happens to be at the end of November) got stuck with more than their fair share of my vegan experiments. And…since I’ve had tres leches on the brain, I decided there was really no better way to celebrate my friend’s husband’s birthday than with a cake that is decidedly non-vegan — three milks *and* a whole mess o’ egg whites.

The recipe I found on Epicurious said that tres leches is a Nicaraguan cake often served during the holidays…which I suppose makes it even *more* poetic as I sorta, kinda spent upwards of five minutes *in* Nicaragua while I was in Central America a few weeks back.

I don’t think my cake pan was *quite* big enough…as the sponge cake sort of exploded over the edge, giving itself a muffin top. But…no worries, I guess…you’re supposed to cut off the hardened top layer anyway. (And, for the record, it smelled really, really good…like, almost worth eating on its own?)

I think my favorite part of making this cake was the meringue. I’ve blogged before about how meringues are my nemesis…(damn you, you ridiculously clean bowl!) but this recipe called for making it in a totally new way…and I confess I was transfixed! You get four egg whites ready in a mixer…and they sit around and wait while you bring sugar and water to a boil on the stove. As soon as the sugar/water mixture is boiling, you start up your mixer.

Now, the directions say to keep the sugar/water on the burner until it reaches “soft ball stage” on a candy thermometer…and then add it to the egg whites and turn the mixer on really high until it is shiny and cool. But, alas, I do not *have* a candy thermometer…just a meat thermometer. And, you know, sometimes my ingenious solutions work out really well…and sometimes they are absolute disasters. Luckily, this time it was the former. (I told an old coworker about this and he said, “Sure…I mean, candy? Meat? What’s the difference?”) I Googled “soft ball stage” and learned that it’s 235°F to 240°F. And my meat thermometer goes up to 220 (although the highest cooking temperature it has listed is 180 for poultry…). So…I decided that I would wait until it hit 220 and then leave it on the burner for another minute or two…and then surely it would be at 235ish. And…I gotta say I was a little skeptical about the adding-it-to-mixing-egg-whites part…but, it totally worked. Like a charm. A beautiful meringue. (I don’t think it looked *quite* as pretty ON the cake…and I briefly flirted with the idea of tossing it back in the oven to brown those peaks…but…then I decided I should maybe leave well enough alone…)

(Sidenote: Candy thermometers really make me feel like it’s the holidays. That’s because [I am told] my great-grandmother was a whiz at pie-baking and candy-making…and it was from her that my aunt learned everything she knows about pies [I think — I *may* be taking a little creative license here…] and my mom learned everything she knows about candy. And so, in the Decembers of my youth, my mother would make fudge and penuche to hand out to friends and coworkers…making this the one time of year she used her candy thermometer…)

So…fun fact: The milks in question are sweetened condensed, evaporated and heavy cream. You mix all of that up with two tablespoons of optional rum (and, who are we kidding? I *obviously* included the rum…but had to buy a GIANT bottle of it…and so will theoretically have a little Captain in me for years to come…). Then you just sort of slowly pour it all over the sponge cake with the sawed-off top and it soaks it up. I was a little concerned that I was over-liquefying it because my cake wasn’t big enough…but I didn’t actually end up sampling it in the end…so…dunno.

I made the cranberry compote, too…which I thought was supposed to be more like a sauce…but, according to another quick Google, is whole fruit in syrup. (Although I think it is crazy-ridiculous that the recipe says to add four cloves…and then to remove said cloves before serving. It’s a big fruity glob — one could spend hours searching for individual cloves. And, for whatever reason, I totally just flashed on a movie with Pee Wee Herman and the circus — Big Top Pee Wee? — in which there’s a really tall guy with a super-tiny wife…and she sings a song about being a needle in a haystack…which I can only imagine is sort of like finding cloves in cranberry compote…[why do I remember that all this time later, too?])

I *also* thought it was kind of funny that the recipe said to add just enough water to make the cornstarch “slurry.” I think I added a *little* too much and in fact made it “wet.” (Cornstarch is some crazy stuff…going from liquid to solid to liquid…it’s almost a little trippy.)

Then…my friend gave me a copy of the latest issue of Yoga Journal that has a story entitled, “The Joy of Baking,” and includes — get this — a recipe for a vegan chocolate cake. (Aww…while I was assembling the tres leches cake, I also found my disembodied Santa and snowman heads that are supposed to go on holiday cupcakes…and I briefly thought about repurposing one for a happy December birthday…but, in the end, I decided that the disembodied heads will be fine in their baggie for another year…)

So…the writer talks about growing up in a remote town and receiving cakes from church ladies who would go out of their way to deliver them to cheer someone up or to celebrate something. THEN she goes on to say that through this practice she “learned early on the joys of nourishing the heart through food.” And she quotes a yoga guy from Berkeley who says, “It’s not unlike the kind of nourishment that comes from romantic love. Food prepared with loving intention is spiritual.”

And I’d never thought of that before! (Insert the obvious joke about how I’ve been able to stay single for so long…) But, I mean…I think she’s right. There *is* something sort of deep and meaningful and connecting-you-to-the-Everyman and whatnot that happens when you bake stuff for people. It makes them happy. And making them happy makes you happy. And that makes you feel good…regardless of how often you actually flex your overtly spiritual muscles. (And surely being a spreader of joy buys you some leeway in the eyes of organized religion?)

And, I mean, I’ve long known the therapeutic effects of baking — still one of the only things that always calms me down when I’m upset — and…as I put the finishing touches on my book proposal, I am realizing that baking-as-coping-mechanism is a really big theme. No matter what’s going on, I’ve always been able to turn to it…and it *always* makes me feel better. (I am actually trying to think of a good title with a new spin on a common baking phrase. Suggestions welcome.)

And I *totally* know what she means about interacting with strangers on the street when she’s hauling around giant baked good carriers…and then the warm, fuzzy part: After baking cakes as offerings for a year, she says she learned “…when we offer up our labor, time, energy, love and craft — humble and imperfect as they might be — with no expectation of return, people respond in kind, and tenderness opens up in the space between.” (Which almost makes me think I should tackle a similar experiment in 2010…)

And, while I don’t really get the yoga connection that she goes on to talk about (I am seriously uncoordinated and exercising in public is one of the things I fear more than anything)…I really like what she says right there. It actually reminds me a lot about Julia Child in My Life in France…who says you should never apologize for any mistakes…because 1) you were nice enough to make something for everyone and they should be gracious, dammit (my paraphrase); and 2) if you’re making them eat something gross, they shouldn’t have to boost your ego, too.

And that’s something that I’m still learning how to do…whenever I offer up something, I immediately want to apologize for all the imperfections — watch out for wax paper on the bottom…and be careful of those cloves I didn’t remove…and it may be too watery…and the meringue looks a little funny… — it’s not easy to just say, “Bon appetit,” and leave it at that.

(And, speaking of Julia, my own sister just MET Julia Powell at a book signing…and she was sweet and asked ahead of time if I had any questions…and I, of course, sent over about 1,000…and, wouldn’t you know? My sister got them all answered for me. [And — hey — I suppose I could even go to the Meat Hook tonight myself…if I am feeling particularly brave.])

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Filed under birthdays, books, brown sugar, cake, cupcake, eggs, gadgets, holidays, parties, vegan

If I hadn’t been writing about Frank Bruni, I wouldn’t have known it’s Ann Coulter’s birthday…

So…I got home last night around 8:00ish and all I had consumed was coffee and water on the planes (I had, like, the perfect amount of time to get from Terminal A to Terminal C in Dallas…without a ridiculous amount of waiting time *or* having to run with my cat-in-a-bag…but it *also* meant I didn’t have a chance to procure sustenance). So. All of this is to say that I was pretty hungry by the time I got back to my apartment…but I obviously didn’t have anything on hand. (Except milk that didn’t spoil! Like magic! Coffee was SO GOOD this morning!) So…SeamlessWeb! (And, like silver white winters that melt into springs, it is one of my favorite things…)

And, you know what? I really wanted Thai food, so I ordered Thai food…and the Thai place near me is one that the Bartender liked a lot, but ordering from there didn’t make me sad *at* *all* (See?? Progress!)…*and* I saw this thing with peanut sauce on the menu that I *had* to order because I was reading Frank Bruni’s latest book on the plane(s) — Born Round…in which he discusses what it’s like to be the proverbial fat kid with an endless appetite who grows up to be the restaurant critic at the New York Times…and I’m only up to his stint at the Detroit Free Press, so I certainly don’t know how it ends yet…but he *did* have a torrid relationship with cold noodles and a peanut-y sauce that he discovered during one of two internships at Newsweek…and so when I saw the peanut thing on the menu, I couldn’t not get it.

And…Frank Bruni is fun to bring up because…I had a coworker once who knew a guy who works at the Times…and who was being relocated to a bureau outside of New York and so Frank Bruni threw a going away party for said coworker’s friend at his apartment. And…I was lucky because my coworker said I could come with him…(as if, after meeting me, Bruni would be instantly enchanted and ask me to be his #2. Or something.) So…what a strange moment it was to be in Frank Bruni’s apartment…and marveling at, you know, the framed photos of him with George W. Bush and whatnot…and my coworker and I were in his living room because there were fewer people in there (read: none. I am nothing if not antisocial…)…and Frank came in to talk to us for a little bit and that Lisa Kudrow show — The Comeback — was on in the background and I remember Bruni talking about how he thought it was an underrated show…and then his phone rang and he excused himself…and he came back and said something like, “I have this friend and I’m not sure if she’s going to show up, but I really hope she comes…and if she does, you’ll all know who she is.” And so we said, “Who is it?” and he said, “Oh, I can’t tell you that! But you’ll know as soon as you see her.”

So…fast forward a little bit. Doorbell rings. And who do you suppose it was? Why, none other than Ann Coulter! (Ack! I just Googled her and it turns out that today is her birthday! Weird, right??) And, folks, she was the most freakishly skinny blond woman I have ever seen in my life…

My old coworker *swears* that Ann Coulter proceeded to hit on him…but *my* memory of the exchange is merely that she said, “You look familiar,” or the like. And — who am I to judge? — perhaps in old, skinny, blond, conservative ladyspeak it’s the equivalent of, “What’s your sign?” (And, who am I kidding? If Glenn Beck said something comparable to me, I’d be tweeting all over the place.)

And, I mean, sadly, that’s basically the end of my story: I went to a party at Frank Bruni’s place once and Ann Coulter showed up. And peanut sauce makes me think of him now…which made me think of her. Which turned out to be on her birthday, of all days. That’s it.

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Freelancers = Cheap Cows?

Okay, I’m probably going to get myself into a lot of trouble for this, but…as I sat in my little Brooklyn studio this morning, ever the diligent worker bee for a number of different outlets, I couldn’t help but think of the age-old adage, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

That’s kind of how I feel about my career these days. And I guess it’s not a *completely* accurate analogy as I’m not writing for free, but, I mean, think about it: The milk is cheaper.

And I’m not sure if it’s a function of the economy and that it’s REALLY that there are TONS of places out there that would love to hire me full-time if only they could (but they just got out of a serious relationship? And are just not in the right place right now? And are incapable/unable to give me what I want/need? Or have had plenty of long-lasting, meaningful relationships with writers who are comfortable with non-exclusivity?)…OR…if it’s really that these places like to get together every once in awhile but are really not looking for anything serious…and are happy to string me along as long as they possibly can until the next poor chump comes along.

And, I mean, who are we kidding? A girl’s gotta pay her rent and a girl’s gotta eat, so…until Nora Ephron turns my book into a screenplay (or Mr. Wonderfulpants falls from the sky), I don’t really have a choice. But it did sort of hit me…in a kind of Carrie Bradshaw-esque voiceover with a closeup of typing across a Mac screen: Are freelancers the trollops of the media industry?

I don’t have a ton of time to expound upon this right this red, hot minute (as noted above — I’m a working girl!), but I feel like the past couple of days have been full of epiphanies and whatnot, so let’s maybe push a giant metaphorical pause button and revisit this after my deadline?

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