Thursday, February 25, 2010

Extract Success!

Following a Cook's Illustrated recipe, I started work on making vanilla bean extract last fall and just now got to bottling it today. Even though, per recipe, I could've strained and bottled it after only a week, the color of the extract had me worried because it wasn't near as dark as my store-bought one. I even reheated it and added an extra vanilla bean at one point. (That's when I took the above photo, and you can see how translucent the extract is in the jars in the background. The store-bought one I was using for comparison let almost no light shine through at all.) Letting it sit for a long time didn't do any harm, in fact you can leave the beans in indefinitely if you want, but it also never got all that much darker. It's in a brown glass jar here, but you can see that its still pretty translucent.

Turns out that didn't matter, but I'd still like to know how they got theirs so much darker than mine. The Mister and I did a taste test in plain milk today, homemade vs. store-bought, and both liked the homemade better. The store-bought flavor was overwhelmed by alcohol, whereas I could barely detect it in the homemade. Not sure why that would be—maybe the grain alcohol in the store-bought is higher proof than the vodka I used in mine? I went with organic vodka, by the way, which I was so happy to find even existed. Turns out there are actually a number of brands of it available. I chose one called "Rain" because it was the least expensive.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I'm really excited about this stuff, as the punctuation indicates. Plus the word "ghee" just naturally seems to lend itself to exclamation, like "whee!"

I usually only cook with butter or coconut oil, sometimes olive oil, because those fats are what I understand to be safest for heating (most of my reasoning is covered in a book I've mentioned before). But I encounter different limitations with each of those things: Butter burns easily, coconut oil often imparts a kind of coconutty flavor (which can be good sometimes, but only sometimes), and olive oil they say is okay to use with moderate heat, but I just don't really like flirting with that line, so I only rarely cook with it. But all those problems are solved with ghee! I haven't personally confirmed anything yet, as this is my first batch and I haven't done any cooking with it yet to speak of. It keeps finding it's way elsewhere besides the kitchen, like on my face and hands (it's good for the skin, too, and it has this exceptional soft silkiness to it), but I'm planning on it being my new go-to oil for frying/sauteing. And I'm curious about baking with it, too...wondering if it will act more like an oil than butter or coconut oil would. What I mean is, like a liquid-y unsaturated oil like canola or vegetable. I just read in Cook's Illustrated (Mar./Apr. 2010) this in-depth analysis of brownie recipes and oil vs. butter, and, to my dismay, it matters more than I'd fully realized. I almost always just sub butter for other oils when baking, but after reading that I'm thinking twice and hoping, hoping, hoping ghee might be the answer (coincidentally, one of my favorite bloggers is discussing basically this same issue right now). If only I weren't doing this stinkin' gluten-free diet, I'd bake something with it right now! Sorry, gluten-free-ers, no offense meant at all, I've actually thought for a long time that wheat was a bit evil, and suspected I might be sensitive to it. But I have to say, experiencing being off of gluten totally combined with how I felt after I had a wheat-filled slip-up (no different) has pretty much confirmed otherwise, atleast as far as me being sensitive to it in a definite, consistent way. At this point, the avoidance just feels unnecessary and because I have no intentions of sticking with it after my resolution period is up, it's like this little buzzing fly of mild annoyance following me around whenever I cook, eat, grocery shop, etc. And driving me to consume massive amounts of tortilla chips. But back to the ghee—yes, I know, I can bake without gluten, but I've heard it can be tricky and I'm just not up to it. So, later will come the ghee baking trials.

Friday, February 19, 2010

First Baby Hat

I was with some fellow mamas the other day and commented on a really cute hat one of thier babies had on. We ended up turning it inside out for closer inspection, and then marvelling at the genius of the simple design. It looked to be made from one single strip cut from a cashmere sweater, folded and sewn together, and used the existing hemline for the bottom edge of the hat. I just happened to already have some moth-eaten cashmeres just waiting for a project like this.

I was able to find a section of the cashmere that was not holey, but it occured to me that had there been a hole I could have strategically placed the embellishment to hide it. The hat I modeled it after actually had three little flower shapes hanging like tassels off each top corner, which was adorable, but I opted instead for a single star anchored in place by a button. I realize now that I'm pretty sure I screwed up the seams compared with the one I was trying to copy. Mine has a side seam, but I think there's an easy way that I could've made it have a back seam instead, and I'm pretty sure that's how the other one was. But that's just me being nit-picky. I will try it with a back seam next time because it seems ideal, but I'm really happy with this one and it was just as easy as I thought it'd be. It left me instantly wanting to make more of them. I was planning on this one being my donation (finally) to the Craft Hope for Haiti Etsy shop, as promised, but it looks like I am too late. I just learned they are not taking any more donations and are soon closing shop (but only after great success!). Lame on my part. It is too small for Zoë, but I actually have three pregnant friends right now, so this hat will not be without a head for long. According to my measurements it is just about newborn+ sized. There is the small issue of what's going to happen if it's washed, and I would like it to be machine-washable. The cashmere I cut it from I already put through a hot wash cycle and machine dried it on high, so I think the hat will keep its shape fine, but the star might curl and fray a bit. I will probably run it through the wash myself just to see, and maybe stitch down the star a bit more if need be, before giving it away. One more consideration: I meant it as a boy's hat, but after a certain comment to the contrary now I am not so sure. Any thoughts?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Camera Update

As you can see, I went with the Olympus E-P1, which actually happened somewhat unexpectedly. Considering the price range I was working with I was actually leaning more towards the compacts, but then I stumbled upon the E-P1 at a local camera store for the amazing price of only $400, atleast a couple hundred below the normal market value (apparently it was significantly marked down because the E-P2 is about to come out, but the price still seems crazy low to me—the camera store could be selling them on Ebay for quite a bit more). So the price tag, backed by my research, basically made up my mind for me. There just didn't seem much point in really considering my other options when faced with this bargain. But although it takes higher quality photos than a more compact camera and I've finally got all those manual controls I was itching for, there are still some cons I'll have to get used to. It's size, for one, since I'm used to something I can fit in my back pocket. And the absence of a built-in flash, but I don't use flash much anyway and I did go ahead and buy an external one for times when I really need it. And, probably the most glaring con for me, no macro option. I normally use macro a ton and it will be sorely missed. I really don't know why it is that compact cameras almost always have a macro capability but full-sized SLR cameras never do. It's like it's an impossibility with SLR, but I can't imagine why, and it's really unfortunate. Of course I can get an awesome macro lens seperately, but the cost is as much as I just paid for the camera (plus the included lens) itself. Sigh. But anyway, I am still really happy with what I've got, and, flash aside, the camera can't be blamed for those gripes, it's just the nature of the SLR beast (or DSLR, really, but I'm not used to saying that). So, happy with, definitely, but it's going to take a bit more familiarizing before I form an official opinion (but I expect it to be a good one).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Caramels, Round Two

In one word, "unburnt." But still could use some work. This time around I used a heavier pot and didn't have an issue with burning, but parts of the caramel crystallized, which wasn't great. I'm not sure why, I'm no candy scientist. Oh, well. Next time I am curious to try a different recipe anyway, these ones are maybe too sweet. Not something I'd really think caramel could be, but I'm close to reconsidering. What's kinda funny, especially considering that I decorated them and everything, is that they're really just for me! (The Mister doesn't really care for caramels.)

And now I'll leave you with a handy kitchen tip: Never eat cooled caramel you find on a stove knob, especially if, when you think about it, you're not really one hundred percent sure it's caramel, and it might in fact be old barbecue sauce that dripped off a pork rib days ago. Just stop eating things off the stove knobs period.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Soup Weather

Well the sun didn't last but that one day. It's rumored to return soon, but for now it's back to wet and gray soup weather. Split pea soup, to be exact. A double batch. Those little whitish floaties you see? Bacon. The recipe called for pork hocks (which I'm not exactly familiar with) but I used a pound of Full Quiver Farms bacon (so good!) from the farmers market instead. And I used fresh marjoram instead of dried. But other than that I stuck to the recipe. Oh, except mine needed an entire extra hour of simmering to get the split peas soft enough. It turned out pretty tasty, perhaps even dangerously so. My mom had some and then a fight broke out when I wouldn't share more. So if your family is also the type that might fight over soup, beware.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Lieu of Cake

Lemon panna cotta from Enoteca. Perfectly sweet, perfectly lemony, and oh so perfectly smooth. Happy Birthday to me! I'm not alone in my obsession with this dessert, and am also not the only one who its inspired to try making it at home. But, alas, in each of our efforts the perfection of this particular panna cotta has eluded us. When I was picking this up today I tried to kind of casually inquire about what's in it, and to my surprise the counter guy just pulled out a piece of paper that had all the ingredients listed and showed it to me (!). I guess it's not quite the guarded information I thought it might be. Of course without the exact amounts and specific directions I'm still largely in the dark, but this is a very good start. More recipe attempts will commence following the completion of my resolutions (which, yes, I broke today with the panna cotta, and I must admit I've actually broken each resolution exactly one time already, but hey, I'm doing pretty good overall and I'm already almost halfway through. Small type=sheepish.).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Downright Dreary

(I actually wrote the following yesterday, but then today—sun!)
This little mushroom is now sitting in a spot previously occupied by a similar one which recently got broken (but is being glued). This newer one is my favorite anyway; I love the crackled top and ruffled edge. It has been wet and gray for days and days, not too unlike this day almost a year ago, but without the spring greenery that brightened up the landscape then. At that time I talked about plans to eventually move back to Oregon. Well guess what? I don't think that's going to happen anymore (sorry Oregon peeps : ( ). As cool of a city as Portland is, I just don't want to commit myself (and a little girl) to that many cloudy days. But that doesn't mean we're staying here in Austin, either. We'd still really like to move, but probably won't know where for sure until we're closer to actually making it happen. But topping the list right now is Sebastopol, California (shhh, don't tell! I want it all to myself!), which is a small town about 50 miles north of San Francisco and 15 miles from the coast and, per Wikipedia, is "known for its liberal politics and small-town charm." Sounds good to me! (Just for the record, I don't necessarily take the liberal stance on every issue across the board, but regardless I know that these types are kind of my kinfolk.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Considering Cameras

I still haven't replaced my camera but am planning on doing so very soon and have been researching like crazy the past couple days. My head is kind of swimming with all the details of the similarities of and differences between the different cameras I've been considering, so for simplicity's sake I'm going to break them down into two basic categories. The first category is compact point-and-shoots and here is what I've been looking at (unless otherwise noted, prices and photos are from Amazon's website):

Canon PowerShot S90 ($399)

Leica D-Lux 4 ($779)

D-Lux 4 carrying case ($129) I just had to include this because it's so nice to look at.

Olympus Stylus 6000 ($212) Shoots underwater!

Panasonic DMC-LX3 ($391) I've read that this is almost the same camera as the Leica D-Lux 4—same lens, same sensor, etc. Not nearly as pretty as the Leica, but significanly cheaper.

And then there's the second category, which includes slightly larger cameras with larger digital sensors than the first bunch, but still made with compactness in mind. The first one here is a Leica that's not actually available yet but should be soon. Way beyond my pocketbook, but I'm so impressed with it's looks! At first glance, I'd likely assume it's a much older camera. And the flash! So cute!

Leica X1 (~$2000, rumored)

(Above photo borrowed from here)

Sigma DP2 ($570)

Olympus E-P1 ($671)

Panasonic GF1 ($860)

I have to admit, I feel kind of dumb/intimidated shopping for a digital camera. I think because of my stint at photography school I feel like I should know these things—the digital terms and jargon—but I really don't barely at all. I never got a stitch of experience with digital the whole time I was at school (it wasn't part of the first-year curriculum), and have done little since to educate myself in that field. But I do feel like that's gradually changing, and this latest camera quest has really helped bring a little more clarity to some things for me.

Unrelated P.S. Ok, so the caramel does not look so ugly after all and it probably would have been dark like that regardless because of the sucanat. But it really didn't taste right.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nothing says I Love You like ugly burnt candy.

I'm not sure where I went wrong, but my suspicion lies with the pot I used. Although it's not the lightest-weight pot ever, I don't think it's quite "heavy-bottomed" either. So I think that's a good candidate for the culprit. Or maybe it was that I subbed sucanat for white sugar, but I can't imagine why that would cause burning. Or maybe the recipe stinks (I'll admit I was a little leery of the source), and I should have been stirring it more as it was cooking. But I was eager to make these and didn't have the rice syrup on hand I would have needed for David Lebovitz's recipe. Having a tolerance for burnt flavor and being the caramel candy lover that I am, I've been munching away at these regardless, so it wasn't a total loss (I should say crunching, really, as they are a little on the hard side). But my vision of cute little wrapped caramel candies adorned with dainty, decorative Valentine hearts is dashed for now. This is not a candy for giving. Oh well.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Treat I Can Eat

The other day I adapted a truffle recipe from the latest (Feb.) issue of Martha Stewart Living to one I could actually eat (per my resolutions). The original recipe (which is not on the Martha website but is almost identical to this one that is) called for chocolate that was already sweetened, so I had to make some adjustments so that I could control the sweetener myself. In place of the pre-sweetened chocolate, I used unsweetened chocolate and sucanat (which is basically just unrefined cane sugar—or, probably more aptly, less refined cane sugar).

The result was a complete success! I have a preference for milk chocolate so would like to try to incorporate even more cream next time, but they really are very good as is, and I think most chocolate lovers would like the cacao content just where it's at.

8 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sucanat
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or orange, peppermint, etc.)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Unsweetened cocoa powder, for rolling
Put chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan, gently heat cream, sucanat, and vanilla, stirring frequently until sucanat granules are dissolved and mixture is just at a simmer. Tip: I forgot to do this when I made these, but you can easily grind the sucanat granules to a fine powder in a coffee grinder, which will greatly help them dissolve more readily in the cream. Once simmering, immediatly remove from heat and pour over chopped chocolate. Let stand 2 minutes, then stir until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, atleast 30 minutes. Once chilled and firm, spoon out chocolate and form into balls with hands, then roll in unsweetened cocoa powder. Store in the refrigerator and serve at room temperature. I'll let you be the judge of how long they're good for—Martha's recipe stated 3 days, but I think they could easily last way longer, just depending on the length of life of the cream.

The cream mixture, before added to the chocolate, is quite reminiscent of caramel and got me wanting to make caramel candies, too. My dad and I went on a candy-making jag one winter, experimenting with caramels, toffees, and brittles, and I'm pretty sure I remember one toffee recipe we tried that was nothing but equal parts butter and sugar. The simplicity of that really appeals to me, and in my search for something similar in a caramel recipe I found this, which I might try but with the addition of salt. This tempting recipe is another candidate that a friend pointed me towards. I'd opt for brown rice syrup in this case, and I am curious how that would turn out. The recipe choice and outcome will likely be posted here soon enough.