In the kitchen with a kitten

How regular people bake, who don’t have a foot-attacking Godzilla wannabe foster kitten careening around the house: move around kitchen with ease, never having to double-check cabinets or extricate anything small and fuzzy from drawers.

How I currently have to bake: move around in an abbreviated hobble because there is a small critter launching herself gleefully at my ankles and I am trying very hard to avoid stepping on her; double-check every cabinet I open to make sure she hasn’t dashed inside (in a way, having her attached to my ankle makes it easier for me to know where she is); be super careful not to drop anything because while this little fuzz turns up her adorable little nose at canned food, she LOVES her some carbs and she will be RIGHT THERE, a little one-kitten cleanup crew, if you, say, drop a tiny tart shell on the floor while making these, to hoover that up before you ever have a chance to react.

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Tracking

A while back, we decided that, being nerds and all, that we would get ourselves a wireless bathroom scale – the sort which syncs itself to our Fitbit accounts, and lets us track things online. Each of us set up our profile, so that when we step onto the scale, it knows who we are, and then stores that weight into the appropriate account. However, if someone it doesn’t recognize steps onto the scale, then it records the weight under the name ‘Guest’.

The other day, I was going through the list of weights to make sure it had assigned everything appropriately (sometimes it doesn’t) and I noticed a series of Guest weigh-ins. What was odd about these, however, is that they were all pretty consistently for someone about 11 and a half pounds.

So…in other words, apparently at least one of the cats has been hanging out on the scale, and it’s been dutifully capturing the weight each time. Based on who insists on being in the bathroom with us any time one of us is using the facilities, I’m going to guess it’s one of the grey boys (Sherman and Rupert both weigh roughly the same).

* * * * *

In other news, hey, look, I made another pair of socks. The pattern is Lorentz, which I picked firstly because of the interesting texture pattern, and secondly because it’s yet another version of a toe-up sock that, unlike the others I’ve tried, actually seems to account for the fact that one’s foot tends to widen around the ankle, and one’s sock should reflect that.

Despite my best efforts I couldn’t get a picture that shows the texture clearly, so click the pattern link above to see what they really look like.

(Oh, and by the way, I can now share two more pairs of socks I’ve made – as test knits – since the patterns have been released. Both of these were done in November of last year.

Transversal socks – I really like the texture patterning on these.

Swirl Sampler Socks – these incorporate lace and texture, and are mirror images of each other.

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Deep fried

This month, for our #BakingSisters event, my sister suggested we do a Doughnut Day. I was immediately on board, because for one thing, doughnuts (!!), and also I’ve actually never deep-fried anything before (with one minor exception), so I figured this would be fun. Over the past few weeks we’ve both been poking around, looking for interesting recipes to try (because why do boring regular donuts when there’s so many other options out there?). For the purposes of this challenge, any fried dough counts as a doughnut, and we each made three fried varieties and one baked one, although not all of them were the same.

To kick things off, Friday night we each put together the dough for beignets, since it needs to chill at least overnight. And then this morning, before we even got together online, I made Peanut Butter Doughnuts for breakfast, because I was getting hungry.

Technically I might have been cheating a bit, since I’ve made these doughnuts lots of times before – they’re one of the very few baked doughnut recipes I’ve tried that has the close texture and consistency of an real cake doughnut, instead of just being a muffin baked in a ring instead of a muffin tin, like the majority of the ‘baked doughnut’ recipes actually are. You can go through the hassle of making the chocolate glaze for these, if you really want, or you can just take the easy way out and smear them with Nutella prior to stuffing them into your face.

Once we connected via Google Hangouts, my sister immediately set to work making these Maple-Glazed Bacon Doughnuts, while I put together the dough for Koeksisters, which are a South African treat. I also got the oil started – first in my old Rival crockpot which technically could be used for frying (it even came with a fryer basket), but which never got up to temperature, so eventually I just dumped all the oil into a big pot on the oven and popped in my thermometer and hoped for the best.

Next, while my sister then put together the dough for Sopaipillas – a snack I remember my mom making back when we were kids – I rolled out my beignet dough and cut it into little 2-inch squares, and started dropping them into the oil to fry.

A quick digression. A couple years ago, for a Sisters Weekend, my sisters and I spent a couple days in an intensive baking class, where we made, among a plethora of other types of baked goods, beignets. They’re basically a brioche dough, fried and then rolled in vast quantities of powdered sugar. So technically I *have* deep-fried things before, except it was in someone else’s deep fryer gadget and i wasn’t responsible for tracking temperature of the oil and so on. Having never been to New Orleans, my memory of beignets is based solely on those, which were fluffy and soft and absolutely delightful.

These, however, weren’t quite the same. I’m not sure if it was because my oil was too hot (it was a royal pain trying to get it to stick to a consistent temperature), or if the dough was too dense, or some other factor, but while they were tasty enough, they didn’t in any way resemble the light, fluffy things we made in that class, lo those many years ago. Ah well.

Powdered sugar can cover up all *kinds* of things, like the fact that some of them were probably a little overdone.

That done, it was time to return to the Koeksisters, now that the dough had rested enough. I rolled it out, then cut it into pieces and cut those into thin strips, which were then braided together.

I took this picture after braiding them but before frying because I was worried they’d come apart in the oil.

Into the fryer they went. By this time I had gotten a better handle on maintaining the temperature, so these fried up a lovely golden brown, unlike with the beignets. Once out of the fryer, they got a quick few seconds to drain on some paper towels, before being immediately placed into a lightly spiced syrup. I actually made that earlier in the morning because it needed to cool completely prior to dropping in the hot doughnuts, and I was concerned it otherwise wouldn’t have enough time to chill.

A couple of the koeksisters fell apart in the syrup (all the better for taste-testing!), but most of them held together. I was pleased to see that braiding was still clearly visible after being fried.

These are actually quite tasty. The spices didn’t come through – it’s possible I just didn’t use enough – but the dough is crunchy on the outside, yet soft in the middle, and the syrup adds a delightful sticky sweetness to the mix. I wondered about the fiddlyness of braiding the dough beforehand, except that I suspect doing this creates more nooks and crannies for the syrup to soak.

Finally, it was time to tackle the fourth recipe: Ponchiki. There are numerous variations out there for this doughnut, depending on if you want the Hungarian version (Turofank, which I made) or the Russian version (Ponchiki, which my sister made). In all the variations, the common denominator is the inclusion of cheese – either cottage cheese (which is what we used) or ricotta, or something similar. It’s just stirred directly into the batter when you make it, which sounds really odd, except that once it’s fried, you would seriously never guess it was there to begin with.

This was a much wetter dough than any of the others, more like fritter batter than something shaped. They rolled and bounced around a bit like angry puffer fish in the oil, and occasionally spewed out little blorps of dough here and there. And when you’re done you have a pile of strangely shaped little brown puffs.

I know they don’t look like much in this picture, but, still warm from the fryer, they were delightfully light and airy, with just the faintest hint of sweetness. Alas, the version my sister made didn’t turn out as delicious for her; she said they were a bit stodgy and not at all interesting.

My sister and I with our various fried goodies.

All in all, it was a fun morning, despite the mess of oil splatters all over my counter, and I got to try some new-to-me recipes. My favorite of the three new ones were the koeksisters and I’m pondering whether I could mimic the texture by baking the braids instead of frying them, prior to dipping them in the syrup. As for the beignets, I’ll leave those to New Orleans. It was fun to make them, but they were more trouble than they were worth, and, much like the Ponchiki, they were only good when fresh and warm, and they’re not the sort of thing that tastes good when reheated.

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Just don’t ask me to pronounce it

As noted earlier, for April’s #BakingSisters project, my sister and I did liege waffles, but since the bulk of the work for those was done the day before, we decided to also make Kvaefjordkake.

This is a Norwegian cake (the internets tells me it’s the Official Cake of Norway, although as I am not Norweigian, I can’t attest to that being the truth or not), and it’s comprised of layers of cake, meringue, and pastry cream. It is also a shockingly simple cake to make, for all its various components.

First you make the pastry cream. Here is where I admit that while my sister went the full from-scratch direction, I took advantage of the ‘cheater’ method espoused by King Arthur Flour (that link goes to their version of this cake) and made mine from a box of vanilla pudding and some heavy cream and the insides of a vanilla bean.

Once the pastry cream is chilling in the fridge, then you make the cake, which is nothing more than a very thin vanilla sponge. My sister made the King Arthur Flour version of this cake, so she spread hers into two round tins, while I dutifully followed the instructions in the version I was using, and spread mine out on a baking tray lined with parchment paper.

Then you make meringue, which is really nothing more than egg whites whipped until stiff, with sugar stirred in, and you spread that on top of the cake batter.

It looks a bit like it’s been topped with marshmallow fluff.

Then that gets sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and chopped almonds (or in the case of my sister, who is unfortunately allergic to nuts, feuilletine), and popped into the oven to bake until the meringue is dry and crispy on the outside.

While that cooled, we took a short kitten break (or rather, I took the laptop into the foster room and held up both kitten and momma to the camera so my sister could see them). And then finally it was time to assemble.

For the sheet pan version, that meant just cutting the thing in half. For the round version, that required a little more effort in order to extricate the cakes from the tins. Luckily the fact that the meringue is topped with cinnamon sugar and almonds means it already looks a bit rustic, so if the meringue gets a little cracked or smooshed during the process, that’s okay.

For the final step, you spread one half with the pastry cream, and then top that with the second half. My sister added berries to hers, but as I do not like berries, I kept mine plain. I also followed a suggestion I found in the comments and put the bottom layer meringue-side down, so that the pastry cream was sandwiched between the cake layers, in order to help keep the meringue crisp.

Verdict: This thing is incredibly delicious (and incredibly rich), and I can easily see why it’s earned the nickname of World’s Best Cake. The flavors of each layer are very delicate but they all work well together. The meringue provides a crisp, yet chewy texture and the almonds provide a much-needed crunch. Many yummy noises were made on both sides of the camera, from all four taste testers involved (both husbands eagerly took part in this).

My sister’s looks so pretty with the berries!

I did not actually assemble the whole thing on the day of baking, because I really didn’t want to have that much cake sitting around, tempting us. So instead I only layered two small pieces for the initial tasting, and then carefully wrapped up the remaining pieces of cake for later. The rest was fully assembled and taken to a meeting a few days later, where it was devoured with much enthusiasm. I think it’s safe to say I’ll definitely be making this one again.

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Fit for kings

Many, many years ago, when my older sister and her husband were first married, my brother-in-law was accepted for a year’s study at the Von Karman Institute of Fluid Dynamics in Belgium. This was a huge opportunity for him, so since they were still young and unencumbered, they packed up all their stuff and stashed it in a storage shed in my parents’ back yard, found a friend to live in their apartment and take care of the cats, and headed off to Belgium.

My parents and my younger sister and I flew out to visit them, because how could we not? It was a wonderful trip – wandering around all these amazing, historic sites, wandering through buildings that were older than my own country and trying to soak in as much as we could in just a few days. The trip spoiled me completely for chocolate, because there is no comparing the chocolate over there with the waxy, too-sweet stuff I could get back home (although in the decades since, that has thankfully been slowly changing), and for bread (there is no comparing the tasteless packaged loaves sold in major grocery stores with what you can get from the tiny bakeries that were everywhere). And of course, there were the waffles.

When you think waffles in the US, you think of breakfast food. But in Belgium, they were snack food, and there were little street cart vendors everywhere, selling sticky-sweet waffles wrapped in grease paper. They were at once crunchy and chewy and absolutely divine.

On returning to the US, we started noticing some restaurants advertising that they offered Belgian waffles. Alas, much to our disappointment, these were not what we had had in Belgium. These, instead, were soft, floppy things with extra-deep pockets, but otherwise made of the same dough as any other ordinary breakfast waffle. My understanding is that ‘Belgian’ is the brand name of the original waffle iron with those deep pockets, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the country.

Decades later, the internets tell me that we were not the only ones who were let down by waffles of a similar name. What we didn’t know at the time, but since have learned, is that the things we had in Belgium are actually known as liege waffles. Not that it would have helped us much, since liege waffles are, alas, not a ‘thing’ in the US, but at least knowing the name pointed us in the direction of recipes to try to make them ourselves for this month’s #BakingSisters project.

There are a lot of recipes out there, but we used this one. This is a yeasted dough, and the recipe linked above had all sorts of extra steps, which meant that in order to actually cook waffles on our #BakingSisters day, we had to do a whole lot of prep work the day before.

First, you mix up a sponge of flour and water and yeast and let that sit for an hour, and then you mix in all the rest of the ingredients, including a whopping 11 tablespoons (no I am not kdding) of butter. That creates a lovely soft and silky dough that sits for four hours to rise, and then then goes into the fridge to rest overnight.

The next morning, the dough comes out of the fridge, and then – here’s where it got messy – you take this very soft and sticky dough and you knead in pearl sugar. In some recipes you could probably swap sugar types with ease, but here, you really have to have the pearl sugar, because that’s what gives liege waffles their signature texture and flavor.

After the pearl sugar is all kneaded in, next you divide the batter into six pieces and let it sit for another 90 minutes.

And then, finally, you are ready to cook them.

It took a couple waffles to get the hang of how best to cook them. My sister did hers in a Belgian iron (the kind with the deep pockets) but I just used a regular waffle iron. The first one or two were a bit misshapen and it was hard to tell quite how long to cook them (the recipe says 2 to 4 minutes). I started using the bottom of a pan to help press the top of the waffle iron down on the last few, in order to spread the dough out more uniformly, and that seemed to help.

So were they everything we remembered, lo those many years ago?

Yes, I think so. A couple of mine got a little overdone, but they were still a good representation of what we remembered. The pearl sugar melts and creates these little pockets of caramel goodness on the outside of the waffle. It’s not something I’m likely to make again, or at least not for a very long time (since it’s time consuming and messy) but it was fun to take the first bite, and to reminisce about a trip, so many years ago.

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Looking back; looking forward

Three years ago I got new glasses, because part of the joy of getting older is your eyesight slowly begins to deteriorate. These particular glasses took me an awfully long time to adjust to, since I got bifocals, and a specific type that slowly transition instead of having a definite, visible line, but I stuck it out until they weren’t so much of an annoyance. I wasn’t really crazy about them, but I figured it was just something I’d have to deal with as part of the whole process of getting older.

But lately I noticed I was having a harder and harder time reading small print, and I was taking the glasses off to do close-up work. I’m really not sure how long I’ve been doing that, to be honest, but eventually it got to the point where I realized I really needed to go in and get my eyes re-checked.

Turns out that, first of all, my eyes have shifted just enough to make my previous prescription no longer relevant. Also turns out that the specific type of lenses I had were problematic for other people too.

I picked up my new glasses today. It is amazing what a difference they make. Unlike the previous ones, it didn’t take me any time at all to get used to them. I’m not taking them off all the time when I’m trying to read or do any close-up work, and I’m not struggling to read things far away.

Perhaps this will help me be more vigilant about getting more regular eye exams. Hmm. Yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath either.

Three years ago is also when we took in Ruby and her six tiny kittens. We had fun with that, and have tossed around the idea of doing it again from time to time, but never really did much about it until recently. We chatted with the folks at Happy Tails, had them come for a home visit (where they got to meet Sherman, because *everyone* meets Sherman when they come over, whether they want to or not), and then waited for the call.

This past Tuesday evening, Richard came home from work to find me dashing out the door, carrier in hand. While he set up the library for the new arrivals, I picked up our current fosters – a sweet, but nervous (and *very* protective) tabby mom and her (very large) two-week old kitten.

We’re posting pictures and updates here. Feel free to follow their progress there.

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Knot worth it

What’s that, you say, you’ve been missing all my rambles on baking since the end of this year’s Thingadailies? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for another #BakingSisters bake!

This weekend my parents were up in Seattle in order to visit with my sister and also see my niece play a mermaid in her last high school play (because somehow she is now a senior, even though I can’t figure out how that happened because the rest of us certainly haven’t aged that much since she was born, right? Oh, wait….

Anyway, because they were visiting and because things were going to be busy with the play, this month we decided to do cookies – specifically Tudor Jumbles. These were a recent Technical Challenge recipe on the Great British Bake Off, should the name sound familiar.

The dough itself is pretty basic – flour, sugar, butter, some flavorings, and an egg. Where it gets complicated is with the shaping, because you can’t just plop a lump of dough onto a sheet pan and call it done. No, these had to be carefully knotted into complicated shapes, then brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with sugar before baking.

My sister (with my mom joining in) made the dough in that recipe above. I, however, do not like either caraway seeds or anise (licorice) flavoring, so I went a bit off script. I made two half-batches of dough – one with ginger, and one with some almond flour (primarily because I had some that needed using up) and almond extract.

The first shape is a circular knot. The dough I flavored with ginger was really, really dry and it was actually pretty hard to ‘knot’ the rope of dough without it cracking into a million little pieces.

The second shape is a triangle ‘knot’. I know that technically I should have figure out a way to do it all with one single continuous rope of dough, but this one was a nightmare to shape to begin with (the almond dough was a lot softer than the ginger dough, to the point where I actually ended up kneading in a whole lot more flour prior to shaping, just so it would be firm enough to work with), and any attempts to weave the circle through the triangle points just ended up with broken dough and a lot of under-the-breath swearing.

Shaping these cookies was not a quick process, and it seems rather anticlimactic that for all that work, you only end up with 12 cookies in total. They’re also *big* cookies – each one is a couple inches across.

Verdict: Eh. The flavor’s not bad, but it certainly wasn’t worth all the effort of making the knots for just an okay cookie. My sister did comment that it might be fun to try the knots again with a different type of dough – perhaps a gingerbread – that had a little more pliability, and a lot more flavor. So we’ll see – maybe come Christmas time I’ll feel the urge to wrap dough into stupid little knots again. Or maybe….not.

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A brief tutorial

How to photograph a finished knitted item, without cats:

  1. Lay out your knitted item on a flat surface, preferably with a solid color sheet of cloth or paper underneath.
  2. Stand on stool, or chair, so as to be able to best photograph the item from above.
  3. Take the picture.

How to photograph a finished knitted item, with cats:

  1. Lay out the background sheet, carefully smoothing out the surface so as to minimize any wrinkles or lumps.
  2. Remove the cat who has come out of nowhere to tunnel underneath the sheet.
  3. Re-smooth the sheet with one hand, while flinging a toy with the other so as to distract the cat.
  4. Lay out your knitted item, smoothing it out carefully.
  5. Remove the cat who has flopped on top of the knitted item because if it’s there, it *must* be a thing for cats.
  6. Re-smooth the knitted item.
  7. Climb up on top of a stool or chair to take the picture.
  8. Climb back down to rescue the item from cat who reached up with one paw and stealthily snagged a corner of the knitted item, which is now rapidly disappearing underneath the table.
  9. Try to distract cats with toys, empty boxes, packing paper.
  10. Repeat steps 1 through 9 several times more.
  11. Give up and take a picture that includes the cats and call it artsy.
  12. Eventually manage to snap hasty shot of item once cats get bored and wander off to wreak havoc somewhere else. 

 

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Light as air

Do you know what today is? It is February 28th! That means it’s the last day of Thingadailies.

We started the month with chocolate, in the form of baked Alaska, so I suppose it’s only fitting that we end the month with chocolate as well. Conveniently, today is National Chocolate Souffle Day. I hope you all pulled out the whisks and celebrated appropriately.

Souffle is one of those fussy sort of recipes that I’ve tried in the past (in both sweet and savory forms) with varying levels of success. If you’re not careful, you end up with something that tastes overly eggy, or lumpy with bits of cooked egg. It’s also not a food that I get excited about in general, so it’s not like I’ve spent much time trying to perfect it. Nevertheless, I figured I’d give it a shot. Considering that chocolate souffles were a Technical Challenge on one season of Great British Bake-off, I went into this with a bit of trepidation.

I used this recipe. It calls for two six-ounce souffle dishes but we’re not that fancy around here, so I used two tiny little Pyrex bowls that are 5 ounces each, and hoped for the best.

It’s a recipe with several fiddly steps – melting chocolate and then stirring in butter, whipping egg whites, and then carefully combining the two mixtures together in such a way that you minimize the loss of any volume you just whipped into the egg whites. The dishes are buttered and then sugared, and then filled to the brim, and then they get stuck into the oven on the lowest rack for fifteen minutes.

We kept careful watch on the oven as the souffles cooked and both of us gave a little cheer when it started to puff up over the sides of the bowl. When the timer went off I pulled them out, and then hurriedly poured the creme anglais over the top so I could take a picture.

It’s not very impressive-looking, I know, but it turned out really, really well. Shockingly, I managed to make two perfect little souffles. The inside was smooth and literally just melted in the mouth, with no little bits of egg, or graininess from the chocolate. I even managed to do justice to the creme anglaise, which was smooth and sweet and a nice accompaniment to the chocolate.

Definitely nice to end this year’s Thingadailies on a high note.

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Fit for a polar bear

Today is, among many other things, National Strawberry Day, National Polar Bear Day, and yet another National Pancake Day (there are so very many of them!). However, I decided I really didn’t want to do yet more pancakes or pancake-type items for this challenge, plus I do not like berries (no, I am not kidding, yes, I have tried all of them many times and I don’t like *any* of them), and we live in the wrong place for polar bears. Luckily today is also National Kahlua Day. So I decided to celebrate that by making some ice cream. Because when *isn’t* it a good time for ice cream?

Years and years ago, Ben & Jerry’s brought out a Dublin Mudslide ice cream, which had a delicious mix of Kahlua, Irish Cream, and chocolate all swirled inside, much like the drink by the same name. I loved it, but as is often the case, they eventually stopped carrying it, and also there are no more Ben & Jerry’s stores anywhere near us, so even if they brought it back, there’s no way for me to know. So I haven’t had that in a very long time.

However, that was before I picked my challenge for this Thingadailies month. I asked Google what it could do for me, and Google very nicely supplied this recipe. Conveniently, we have both Kahlua and Irish Cream in the fridge (the remains of the single batch of each that I make every winter), so this morning I whipped some heavy cream in the stand mixer, and then folded in some sweetened condensed milk, and some chopped up chocolate, and a couple tablespoons each of the Kahlua and the Irish Cream. Then that got poured into a container and stashed in the freezer, because this is a no-churn recipe.

Ice cream is good, but it’s even better if it’s alongside something else. Plus I still had some Kahlua and some Irish Cream that needed using up. So I cast out my question to the internets, and lo, the Googles, they did offer back this recipe. And thus it was that I made both ice cream and cake for the occasion.

The ice cream is a bit on the sweet side – I think if i were to make this again, I’d use a bittersweet chocolate to help counteract that. The cake, however, is delicious and moist. Trust the recipe – I know the batter looks super thin after you stir in the Kahlua, but it totally works. Also I may or may not have used Irish Cream instead of the milk in order to use that all up. And also we may or may not have had this for dinner instead of the not-very-exciting leftover clam chowder from yesterday as planned.

Making a thing a day for Thingadailies.

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