Excuse Me, It’s Baking Time

11 Aug

Apple & Oat Muffins

In the US, we get new seasons of “The Great British Bake Off” a long time after they air in Britain, which means a couple things:

  1. I spend weeks ignoring the “GBBO Bakers: Where are they now?” articles my British friend Angcha sends me because she’s already seen them.
  2. I have bursts of binge baking, which during summer is not the best idea.

The binge baking is good for my friends though–a few years ago for Christmas, I started giving friends empty mason jars. The deal is that I fill them with a recipe I’ve been wanting to try. They eat it and give it back. I refill them throughout the year–usually this is randomly, and sometimes I go for months without doing anything, but then Bake Off is on, and out come the baking tins and GBBO-related cookbooks. It’s a decent system though–the jar method of sharing certainly makes it easier on my waistline, and it’s fun to share the bakes.

Over the last few weeks I’ve made my first tart, done my first blind-bake of a pastry crust and made English muffins. Last night I did my first hot water crust and put together my first meat pie (we’ll find out tonight if it’s any good). Today I’m attempting meringue for the first time as well.

Some friends have asked if I’d ever want to be on a Bake-Off show, but honestly, I’d be petrified. I’ve been a “tried and true recipe” kind of baker. When I make cookies, it’s pretty much just chocolate chip. For bread, I stick to pretzel. For cake, I use the Boy’s vegan chocolate cake recipe, which is plenty tasty and gets around a lot of allergies. It’s not that I don’t mind trying new things–I ventured out into whoopie pies, for instance, but even then, I haven’t ventured into the pages of the whoopie pie cookbook I got as a gift. Yet.

While it’s easier to stay with the tried and true, sometimes they become tired and true (which, incidentally, is how I typed it at first). Sure, I know how to do them well, but it really is exciting to attempt a new recipe–which, even if it fails, is fun because then the challenge is figuring out where it went wrong and correcting those mistakes.

So, maybe I would do Bake-Off someday, given the chance. Just not today–I have a lot more to learn before I’d consider myself an all-around Star Baker. And that starts right now with Italian meringue.

The Phrase that Pays

4 Aug

Poison Ivy display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

This week, the Boy and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and while the animal galleries were fantastic and the glass flowers were pretty unbelievable (really, the flowers don’t look like glass at all), what really caught my eye was a little interactive quiz about poison ivy.

The purpose of the quiz was to show you how poison ivy is a pretty wily plant, but I was more fascinated by the sheer number of rhymes to help you remember what to look for:

Red leaflets in spring, it’s a dangerous thing.”

“Longer middle stem, stay away from them.”

“Side leaflets like mittens will itch like the dickens.”

“Berries white, run in fright!”

“Hairy vine, no friend of mine!”

I said as much to the Boy, who responded, “Well, have you ever had poison ivy? It’s really bad!”

That evening, I was reading some of David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding, and I came across a similar rhyming  warning:

“Beer on wine, you’re fine. Wine on beer, stand clear.”

To which I thought, Huh. I haven’t heard that one. Because I know:

“Wine before beer, you’re in the clear. Beer before wine is not so fine.”

“Hard before beer, you’re in the clear. Beer before hard, you’re in the yard.”

“Wine before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before wine, you’re doing fine.”

I guess sometimes you need all those rhymes to help you remember not to do something stupid. The effects of the latter though are maybe not as itchy.

Unexpected Art?

28 Jul

found art

Found on my phone.

Likely taken at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale.

I know it’s an accidental picture, but I really like looking at it–it makes me happy.

Sometimes it’s good to be all thumbs.

Postcard from Vermont

21 Jul

Green Mountain Adventure Challenge #vermonttime

Can you uncover a hidden treasure in the woods of Vermont? The Boy and I thought we could, so a couple of weekends ago we hightailed it up to Dover to participate in the Green Mountain Adventure Challenge.

The challenge runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day and is meant to be something you and another person (or group of people) do in a weekend, but if you don’t get it done in the weekend, you can keep coming back until you finish (or just simply quit).

We got one of the challenge’s travel packages, which included a couple of nights at a local inn–we highly recommend the Cooper Hill Inn–lovely proprietors, comfortable rooms, stunning view, and we were off. Checked in on Friday afternoon and then started the hunt.

The challenge is tough–let’s just get that out there. It’s mentally challenging (I might still be working on it today if it wasn’t for the Boy, since my brain didn’t really think a certain way for the last part of the puzzle). It’s physically challenging.

But it’s worth it.

Friday was a scramble in trying to figure out what we were looking for. We figured out the clue that would set us on the right path, but then we were stumped. Wandered around a field and found nothing. Made a short hike much longer. Went back to the field and paired up with a group that helped us realize just what we were supposed to find, which meant we had to redo that short hike–and the sun was going down.

We drove like crazy and ran through the woods. The Boy lost his glasses at one point, and luckily I found them before it got any darker–or he stepped on them. Found our clue, hightailed out of there. Drove to another part of the area and found some more in-town clues until we realized we’d better stop for dinner before all the restaurants closed.

Saturday was hiking day–we knew we’d have at least one “moderate” hike. Hiking levels always make me laugh–this was hilly, so it wasn’t moderate to me. It was also rainy, so all of the roots and rocks covering the path were pretty slippery. Still, the walk was fun, and the view at the top was foggy, but beautiful of what we could see.

Coming down, we were walking through clouds, which was cool until they opened up, and it started pouring. Tree cover kept us from being completely soaked, but we were definitely pretty wet.

We got to dry off when the weather moved out and we discovered that we had to do another, much steeper hike to reach another clue. Tough, but rewarding, both in the view (this post’s cover photo) and in the physical accomplishment.

Still, by the end of Saturday, we didn’t really know where we stood on actually completing the challenge, and it felt like we weren’t going to finish before we had to leave. Then we saw this on the way to dinner:

Double Rainbow during #vermontime

And knew that we would.

It took a couple more hours on Sunday–and we ended up collaborating with others who were in our same boat–but we finished. We solved it!

I believe that means we get a share in the final jackpot, but honestly, getting through it was reward enough. Plus, we got the reward of a weekend in a beautiful part of the country.

You should try it.

 

 

This Kitchen Accessory Tugs on Your Heartstrings

14 Jul

Last weekend, the Boy and I went up to Vermont (report to come), and on the way we stopped at Saxtons River Distillery in Brattleboro–well, more like, we read about it at the Vermont Welcome Center on I-91, and when we happened to be driving past, we took a hard right into the parking lot.

While the Boy was talking with the owner, I wandered around the shop and saw these cutting boards on a little display with a series of notes telling the story of why a distillery was selling unbranded cutting boards.

The boards happen to the be the work of the owner’s kids, who started selling them because they wanted to get a beta fish and a hamster. “Also save some to pay for our colleges.”

In the first update, they’d ended up buying gerbils (and thank you for the help, customers); however, gerbils need ongoing care, so they’re still selling the boards to pay for their upkeep. Then in the second update, disaster! While they’re still trying to earn money for college, they need to replace one of their gerbils because their cat killed it. “So we need to buy a new one. Also buy a new lid for the cage.”

How can you not want to help?

The owner told us the backstory–The kids want extra pets, but the household rule is that they’re going to have to pay for them. He actually cuts the boards because the kids are too young to work the saw, but they attach feet and put on the finish. The gerbils are fun, but they like to chew on things and are masters of getting out of their cages, so that’s how one of them met an unfortunate end with the cat.

The cutting board itself is quite nice (cherry wood) and is a decent size–and when I use it, I think of these kids and their quest for pets (and college). Makes me smile thinking that I’ve helped a little bit–and I’ve helped a parent teach his children a good lesson about work and money, which will definitely help them in the future.

 

What’s Your Four?

7 Jul

Summer Reading 2017 - Bring me all of the books!

Have you seen that LitHub story about the book hoarders that’s been floating around the web? Both the Boy and I read it, which got us wondering how many books we actually own. I mean, we have a lot of books, but we also live in a smallish apartment, so there’s not a ton of space to really, you know, have a library.

And then we did a little bit of counting and a lot of estimating….and figured that we have probably close to 1,000 books.

Wow.

Considering that we have a problem with tsundoku, I’m feeling compelled to make a dent in reading what’s on the shelves. Luckily, it’s summer reading time in this part of the world, and I thought that this year, I’d take part in a little summer reading effort Massachusetts is promoting called Read Four.

Read Four is really targeted toward children and teens to keep them reading during the summer so they don’t fall behind when school starts up again; however, I will take their proclamation, “The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners is challenging all [my emphasis] residents of Massachusetts to read four books this summer,” to heart, so I plan to read as much as I can this summer to stoke my creativity and feel less guilty whenever I look at the bookshelves in my home.

The stack above is what I’m hoping to finish in good time, and it includes the books I started reading at the beginning of summer. I’m actually on my fourth book now: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I read a book by her sister Nicola earlier this year, but I picked up this book last Christmas during the annual family day-after-Christmas trip to Barnes & Noble. I’m hoping it’s equally as fun and escapist as my first three reads have been: the Sophie Kinsella, Rollergirl and Desperate in Dubai. All three have been breezy and entertaining–the last one particularly was fun for the cultural insight into Dubai, which made me want to go back even more (and also because I spent a fair amount of time looking up the Arabic phrases sprinkled throughout).

So those are my four–or nine, as the case might be. What are your four?

 

This DIY Trick Can Suck It

30 Jun
Make your own powdered sugar!

What do you think? Can we make this work?

A few weeks ago, I had a little baking crisis. We were having people over to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and in the middle of making the cake (THE CAKE), I realized I didn’t have enough powdered sugar to make all of the frosting we’d need for it.

On top of this, it was a holiday weekend and the stores were full, and I’d pretty much promised the Boy, No, we really aren’t going to need to go to the store to pick up anything else. I’ve got it all under control.

Ha!

At the point I realized I needed more powdered sugar, the Boy asked, “Do you want me to go to the store and get some more?”

“Well, I don’t….no, it’ll be fine….we’ll just go with–wait! I can make some!”

Now, I’d read about making your own powdered sugar. It saves you so much money! It’s so quick to make! Why would anyone in their right mind buy powdered sugar when you can do it yourself?!

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes! It’s supposed to be easy!” And I scuttled around the kitchen to make this flash of genius happen.

The recipes I found do vary (some add corn starch to prevent clumping), but basically, you put a cup of regular sugar into a blender and blend it until it’s the fine consistency of powdered sugar. This is supposed to take all of 30 seconds. Here’s how it went down for me:

Blender - circa late 1990s. It still works!

Here’s the blender. This blender is likely at least 20 years old. We don’t use it much.

Blender -- Yes, you need to see this angle too!

In case you didn’t know, here’s the inside of a blender. I just thought I’d show you.

We're gonna make our own powdered sugar! This is gonna be great!

Put on your imagination caps here, readers. Pretend that I’m pouring some Sugar in the Raw into the blender. I forgot to document the entire process for you, as I was in kind of a rush that day, but as successful cooking blogs show, more pictures are necessary to guide your readers through every step of the process.

If you’re ready to say, “Jill! Sugar in the Raw?! That’s not going to work–the granules are too big!” I’d like to respond that according to the package, this Sugar in the Raw was “great for baking.” Why, then, wouldn’t it be just as great for making powdered sugar?

Not-so-powdered sugar

This is what it looked like when it was done. You’d think it’s fine, but then you taste-test it….

Not-so-powdered sugar is not going to make tasty frosting.

….and you discover that it’s really gritty and is nothing like the consistency of powdered sugar. It’s close though. So you put it back in the blender and keep blending until either your ears give out or you start to smell a smoking blender motor.

And yet, it doesn’t get finer.

Will this mock me from the pantry?

At some point, you say, “Fuck it! I’m done with this!” and you slap a lid onto the container of semi-powdered sugar and throw it into a cabinet because you just can’t bear to throw it out yet. It can either sit in the pantry and mock you, or perhaps on a different day, you’ll finish off the project.

At the first sign of swearing, the Boy hears his cue that it’s time to go to the store. In no time, he’s back with your true friend:

Real powdered sugar!

 

Which makes excellent frosting. And costs $1.89, which is close to what you’ve just spent on regular sugar, electricity to make the blender run, and soap and water to clean it. Plus I have enough leftover to use on another recipe.

This isn’t a DIY trick, my friends, it’s DIY trickery. Don’t believe the hype.

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Update-o-rama!

23 Jun

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my writing accomplishments, so this week I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve published recently. April, May and June have been busy–some of the busiest months in my writing career–and exciting months in terms of how my career has grown. I’ve gotten the chance to work on a number of different writing styles, and I appreciate getting experience that expands my skills and has given me some interesting insight into a number of different topics. Here’s a look at the new types of work I’ve been doing:

Whitepapers

I’ve published my first whitepaper, “Managing ATM Security: Layered Approaches for 21st Century Issues,” with ATM Marketplace. First off, ATM security is tough these days–the kinds of attacks criminals and hackers develop are pretty amazing (and if they applied that creativity in a positive way, how would that help society?!), so financial institutions (or FIs, if you want to use some industry lingo) really need to develop multifaceted security approaches to ward them off.

Stringing

I’m really excited about my new gig as a stringer with GateHouse Media, the owner of WickedLocal-branded papers in the Boston area, because I’m redeveloping my skills in covering local news, writing on tighter deadlines and getting harder journalism experience. So far I’ve published pieces on Cambridge’s new retail strategy plan and its redevelopment of the Foundry Building. Gaining more insight on the region has been a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to writing more–future stories are in the works!

Content Producing

In May I had the opportunity to produce the copy for U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Low-Interest Credit Cards of 2017.” This project gave me a chance to work with a content producer, and I had a great experience with a collaborative editing process. Although it’s not a bylined piece, I’m really pleased with the finished product and got some insight into content production and how it helps publications in a world that requires constant content.

If you’re interested in learning more or have needs for a writer in these areas, please drop me a line!

 

Postcard from Ohio

16 Jun
Pressed Penny machine in an Ohio rest stop along I-90. What a monstrosity! Click through to find out why!

What’s wrong with this picture?

Oh, Ohio.

I used to look forward to finding a great pressed penny machine at your I-90 rest areas. But this? This newfangled “penny press” machine? No.

First off, it’s electric. What a waste of energy. Traditional pressed penny machines with a hand crank don’t need electricity–people make them work! Do these break down more (I’m sure there’s got to be some issue with active kids overturning a handle until it breaks, but still)?

Secondly, pressing a button and watching the machine do its thing is boring. Part of the fun of the machine is getting to make the penny yourself. Not that you have a ton of control over what it looks like, but it’s a lot of fun to crank that handle and see what comes out. Sometimes the penny comes out long, sometimes it’s fat. It’s always a surprise. Passively watching the machine work disconnects you from the process. The penny becomes something you gather, not something you’ve made.

Thirdly, it’s a buck. I realize that pressed penny prices for the most part haven’t changed much over the years — most machines are two quarters and one penny, except for those lame machines that are four quarters, or even worse, the machines at Lincoln Park Zoo that are five quarters, one of which is pressed. Why do I want a pressed quarter? It doesn’t fit into a pressed penny wallet! A quarter is actually useful to buy other things!

At any rate, it’s expensive for a tiny souvenir. I get that people might have a dollar in their wallet versus 51 cents, but still. If pressed pennies are going to cost a dollar, that’s something I might take a pass on–well, actually, I did. My philosophy has always been that whenever I see a pressed penny machine, I get one design. If I don’t like the design (“lucky penny” and “I love you” designs are lame in my book–a pressed penny should say something about a particular place), or by some fluke, have all of the designs, I skip the machine. Driving across Ohio, I should’ve picked up three or four pennies. Instead, I got one, because only saw one design I liked enough to spend a dollar on. Who’s losing here?

Let’s not make this a trend, Ohio. Modernity isn’t always progress. Other owners of these machines, you’re on notice.

Your pal,

Jill

Well, That Was Quick

2 Jun

While folding a load of laundry today, I discovered this:

A sad moment, considering that I’d just written about them, but maybe this guy couldn’t handle the pressures of fame, the pressure of living up to the dream of being the ultimate sock in the drawer–that sole sock that knew the history of my feet better than I did.

But I have at least one other pair just like this–and it’s continuing with the dream of eternal sock longevity.

[Hopefully my grandiose dreams won’t result in another follow-up post next week with another sad picture of holey socks. I’d take that as a sure sign.]

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