The word of the day.

A long time ago the fats of choice for baking (and for cooking) primarily came from animals, because frankly, that’s what was available. It wasn’t until more recent history that we decided that animal fats were bad and started making fake fats that act the same as animal fats (and turn out to actually be worse than the original anyway), and the good stuff (at least in America) fell out of favor.

Yes, I’m talking about lard here. Lard, lard, larrrrrrrd (let’s face it, now you’re saying it in your head, ha, my work here is done!). I’ve played with it ever so briefly before, when a friend sent me a jar rendered from her own animals, and as long as that jar lasted I had a fierce discussion in my head every time I used it, which consisted mainly of ‘is this baked good lard-worthy?’ Because lard, I am here to tell you, makes some *delightful* baked goods. You want a super flaky crust? Bring on the lard! Biscuits that are soft as pillows and yet still flaky? Lard is your friend. Hooray for the lard!

Anyway! All this is to say that ever since I watched my first season of the Great British Bake Off I have been wanting to try hot water crust pastry, which uses lard but also hot water, which as any baker knows is the antithesis to flaky food. Except that apparently it isn’t! Because lard? I don’t know! We just don’t do this sort of thing in this country!

So for this month’s #BakingSisters challenge, we decided to tackle hot water crust pastry. And not only that, but we decided if we were going to do this, we were going to go all out, and so we did free-form, hand-raised pies, of the sort that are baked without any mold at all, just like they did back in the old days.

Cat interlude #1: Here, have a picture of a Sherman being cute!

So. We made our hot water crust pastry, which was really, really, *really* weird to work with. Since neither of us has ever done this before, we have no idea if we were doing it right, or if the consistency was correct, but we mixed up the weird goo anyway and then dutifully formed it over some pint jars, as per Paul Hollywood’s excellent instructions. Because the beauty of doing this sort of thing when one is *not* on a baking competition is that one has access to a recipe with *all* the steps, and not just vague hints.

I didn’t take a picture of the jars before they were chilled (that was the next step) but here are the pies after I carefully peeled them off their jars (easier said than done) and then spent about fifteen minutes doing clumsy patchwork so as to avoid any structural failures later, and then stuffed them with filling. My sister made one around a jar, and then put the other into a tiny springform pan so technically only one of hers was truly free-form, but okay, if I actually owned a tiny springform maybe I would have done that too.

The filling was from a different recipe and is really just meat, meat, and more meat, with some salt and pepper and a bunch of other spices mixed in. This is because these things were originally designed for people who were heading off to do a full day of manual labor so they needed something that would be calorie dense and would also keep in decent condition wrapped in a cloth and stuffed in a pocket or a sack. Also meat is less likely to lose a lot of water and lead to a soggy bottom and we all know that the *last* thing you want is a soggy bottom!

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, building my pies. Next you stick lids on top of the pies, into which you have carefully cut holes for the steam to escape, and you crimp (HA HA HA) it into place (the laughing is because neither of us actually *measured* our lids so they didn’t fit but luckily they were too big and thus provided extra dough for the structural spackling required earlier). Pro tip – make sure you cover the plate on which you were chilling the lids with plastic wrap or else you might have to chisel it off said plate prior to placing it atop the world’s ugliest hand raised pies. Ahem.

Then into the oven they go, for roughly an hour, during which you realize that the recipe makes wayyy too much meat filling, so then you decide to use the lard (lard, lard, larrrrd!) to make *more* pastry dough. Except without the hot water because that was just nasty.

Interlude #2! Here’s a cat in a box! Said cat spent the majority of the entire baking session *whining* because I have no idea why except cats.

Finally the pies came out of the oven. I am pleased to report that my pies did not leak, nor did I have any significant structural failure (unlike my sister’s free-standing pie, which had a rather impressive blow-out on one side).

So. Once the pies are out of the oven, you are supposed to then pour in a mixture of broth and gelatin, which is supposed to fill in all the nooks and crannies to keep the meat moist or the pie from collapsing or something. I have no idea. All I know is that mixing broth and gelatin creates a concoction that smells absolutely *foul*. And also there was literally no room at the top of my pie in which to insert a funnel so that I could pour in the meat jello in the first place. So I didn’t end up doing that part.

And how, you may ask, did they taste?

Eh.

The filling was fine – a bit on the peppery side, but otherwise about what you’d expect if you mix sausage, bacon, and poultry together in a bowl and smash it into a pie crust. The crust is sturdy and yet still a bit flaky.

Overall, it was fun to try, although I have a feeling neither of us is going to be dashing off to work with hot water crust pastry again any time soon. And I am quite happy to report that were no soggy bottoms on either side of the webcam (Mary Berry would be so proud).

Mmm. Lard.

Posted in Baking | 1 Comment

So that happened

You may (or may not!) have noticed that I failed rather spectacularly at Holidailies this year, but this time I actually had a reason!

A year or so ago I noticed I was getting all these weird ads popping up all over my site. Richard dug around in the code, found the problem, removed it (took a couple times to make it ‘stick’) and installed a new plug-in that would hopefully prevent this from happening again. But we are now wondering if maybe we missed something because last month, Norton started popping up giant warning signs, and yeah, turns out the site got hacked.

So over the past few weeks Richard’s cleared out code, and then there’d be another problem, and then he’d go digging and find yet *more* code, and then we got our host company involved, and they dug out even *more* corrupted files, and then we decided to install SSL certificates or whatever they’re called to hopefully prevent this from happening again (we applied those to all the domains we host, because why not!) but meanwhile Google Chrome keeps insisting that my site is dangerous (even though all the other browsers now seem happy with it, as well as Norton) so hopefully that’s just because their system holds on to suspicious URLs for a bit and that’ll eventually clear out, and not because there’s something still lurking.

But I guess in the grand scheme of things, after running this thing for holy crap 18 years now, getting hacked only once isn’t so surprising.

So! I’m back (I hope, fingers crossed!) and I’ll be playing a little bit of catch-up over the next couple weeks on some stuff that’s happened the last month or two, and also meanwhile I hope whoever wrote the bot that messed things up develops an incurable itch in their private parts that NEVER, EVER goes away.

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How to make peanut brittle in three easy steps

First you collect all your ingredients*.

And you stick them in the microwave**.

And then a short time later, you get this***.

Ta da!

*Okay, there’s measuring implements and a greased baking tray and also a large bowl involved.

**Some steps may have been omitted for the sake of this post, so you should probably follow the actual recipe.

***Total time is about an hour but most of that is spent impatiently waiting for the molten sugar concoction to cool.

Happy Holidailies!

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Two tales (or tails, as the case may be)

While Sherman was confined in the library this past week, I set up the extra pet heating pad in one of the cat beds and lined the edges with a rolled up knit afghan, thus creating a cozy little nest because I was worried he might get cold in there all by himself oh shut up, you spoil your pets too, don’t deny it.

Anyway, where was I. So we let Sherman out of the room this morning because CLEARLY he is feeling just fine, but I didn’t get a chance to dismantle everything I’d set up for him. Turns out I may not be able to any time soon, because pretty much the nanosecond the door was open, Nutmeg waddled in, spotted a new heated bed, and claimed it for her own.

It’s a hard life these cats lead. Apparently that ‘new’ bed is going to stay right where it is.

And speaking of Sherman, last night I had a group of friends over, and while we were all sitting in the living room, nibbling cookies and chatting, I mentioned that we were feeling a little bit disappointed that none of the cats were showing any interest in climbing the tree this year.

No sooner had I uttered those words than Sherman came charging into the room at top speed, and dove into the tree, settling in about halfway up so he could keep an eye on us. It was as if he’d been lurking, waiting for me to bring up just that topic so he could prove me wrong.

Happy Holidailies!

Posted in Life | 3 Comments

Five and done

Continuing the ‘Tour de Sock’ catch-up, fresh from the ‘joy’ (HA HA HA) of beaded socks, my team all eagerly awaited the final pattern. I was excited because it was to drop the weekend of Labor Day, which means I’d have three whole days to work on just these socks, and surely that would be plenty of time.

And then the pattern dropped and….wow. Um. yeah.

So I’m normally a fan of colorwork – I can do it pretty quickly and it can turn out some really lovely things. But this one…this one had places where you were to carry 3 strands, and sometimes even 4, at a time. This was going to be one really, really dense sock.

I started working on this, my enthusiasm significantly dampened, but still determined to make it work. Three hours later, the time it usually would have taken me to whip up half a plain vanilla sock, I had barely made it past the cuff. I checked in with the rest of my team, and one by one, they were all chiming in. Nope. Not happening. They tried it, they hated it, they were done.

And I looked at that stupid cuff and pondered spending the next several days swearing at a stupid pair of socks that I was never, ever going to wear anyway because of the thickness, and I remembered that I signed up for Tour de Sock because it was going to be fun and (yes, even with the stupid beads) so far it had been, but not if I kept going. There was no penalty for just saying enough is enough. I’d already knit five pairs of socks, and taken ninth place for two of them, which is really great (sleep is for the weak!), and nothing would happen if I just said ‘screw it’ and made something else instead.

So I did. I joined the rest of my team in declining to take part in the triple- and quadruple-stranded insanity (and considering that by the time the deadline had hit, only 36 people had finished, out of nearly a thousand participants who’d originally signed up, we clearly weren’t the only ones who took a look at that pattern and said ‘oh hell no’). And then I cast on for a completely different pair of socks by plucking a mosaic pattern out of one of my stitch books, and I made these socks for Richard. And thus the Summer of Socks was concluded for the year. Huzzah.

(I haven’t a clue what the yarn was that I used because *someone* whose name either rhymes with Herman or Schubert knocked the balls out of the bag where they were carefully placed to be safe from cats, and the balls fell on Nutmeg’s head, startling her so that she then proceeded to pee on them before skittering off, and I just gave up and threw the leftovers away, and also I’m too lazy to go try to figure out where I found the stitch pattern in the first place, but people, there’s a bazillion patterns on Ravelry so just go there and don’t ask me questions, okay?)

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Catching up

So…I realized I never finished posting about Tour de Sock and my ‘Summer of Socks’ plan, primarily because things got busy (as they usually do) and I was knitting things that can’t actually be talked about (the only downside to test knitting). But then I remembered it’d be December soon and I would definitely need things to post about so…hooray for filler!

The fifth pattern for Tour de Sock had beads. I was not looking forward to this, as knitting with beads is super annoying and fiddly and the potential for certain cats (cough cough Rupert) to come along and tip over the container of beads, thus spilling them all over the floor, is always high. But I dutifully picked some yarn and went to the bead store that is located in convenient walking distance from my office, and got ready to play.

And then the pattern dropped. First of all, it has beads that go down far enough that if one is wearing shoes, they will rub. How is this even remotely a good idea? Beads under the toe of a shoe are going to rub, and cause your socks to develop holes! Secondly, the pattern charts were all in eye-bleeding colors, using non-standard stitch notation that made it both a) super annoying to have to print (hint to pattern designers – not everyone has access to a color printer), and b) even *when* printed (either in color or in black and white), the colors were sometimes so dark that it was almost impossible to see the stitch notation in the first place.

No surprise, I suppose, that there was a huge outburst of ‘are you *kidding* me?’ from a large majority of the other Tour de Sock participants – to the point where the organizer finally posted a ‘you don’t have to do the bottom half of the beads’ note, plus the next sock pattern was apparently then hastily modified to include no color at all on the charts (despite it being a colorwork pattern, where using color actually makes sense….but more on that later because I have to have *something* to write about for tomorrow!).

After all of that, of course, since I am a super fast knitter, I ended up doing all the damn beads anyway – primarily because by the time I *saw* the ‘you don’t have to do the bottom half of the beads’ comment, it was too late – I’d already done them on the first sock, and I wasn’t about to have non-matching socks so I grit my teeth and did them for the second one as well.

Here they are. If it weren’t for the beads, I would really love these socks, because I do love me some cables, and this pattern is *all* about the cables.

View of the back.

The designer has a plethora of other patterns available, so apparently there are enough people out there who don’t mind reading from eye-bleeding color charts and using beads on their socks to make it worth her while, but I suspect that if I ever do another of her patterns, I’ll take the time to re-chart them first. And (short of another Tour de Sock pattern in the future), I can’t see myself ever voluntarily adding beads to a sock again, because seriously, no. Just…no.

Happy Holidailies.

Posted in Knitting, Life | 2 Comments

Moving along

Today was the ‘yay it’s over’ party for the Sacramento region of Nanowrimo, so we hastily cleaned the house and I pulled a loaf of pumpkin bread out of the freezer, and then while the house was full of cheerful Nanowrimers, I camped out in the kitchen and made cookies. There’s a cookie exchange coming up and rehearsals for the concerts next weekend and long days at work and I just wasn’t sure when else I’d have time to do the baking, so I figured I’d just lurk quietly in the kitchen while the party went on in the other rooms.

Heh. I should have remembered that our kitchen always ends up a prime hang-out space any time we’ve got a crowd over. So I busily rolled dough and cut out shapes and cycled pans through the oven, all the while chatting with folks. I had two different types of dough because there was a recipe I wanted to try, but it turned out I wasn’t all that crazy about it (although apparently it made a hit with a lot of the other people), so I’m glad I had the second cookie dough all ready in the fridge. By the time I was done I had plenty of cookies to carefully stash in the freezer for the cookie exchange, and even had time to join some of the others in recording a song for the Finnish Nanowrimo group (long story that will make no sense if you’re not an active member of the Sac Nano pages, so just nod and smile).

Sherman, by the way, is acting perfectly fine, if a bit dopey from the meds, because that is the way of cats, of course. I scrounged up an extra heating pad and stuck it into one of the cat beds along with some afghans and he’s been happily purring in his little heated nest, and demanding plenty of attention every time one of us walks in the room.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

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Audible

Here is the thing pet owners know: pets make noises.

Some are normal noises – in our house, Rupert is a narrator and Azzie and Ingrid are whiners and Ruby beeps, and Nutmeg only squeaks imperiously when I’m not going fast enough to lift her from the floor to the counter so she can drink out of the sink, and all of them chitter at birds.

But there are other cries that a pet makes that are *not* normal. So when I heard one of those sounds this afternoon, I flew downstairs to find Sherman hunched over, and backing into a corner.

At first, after he proceeded to hork all over the floor, I figured it was just a hairball. But then he went into a litter box and started straining and cried again, that horrible sad sound, and he tried another litter box, and when I went to pick him up, the second I touched his side he yelled and hissed and that is so very *not* normal for Sherman.

Richard called our regular vet but they didn’t have any slots available, plus they close early on Saturdays, so I called the local emergency vet, and once I described the situation they said bring him in.

Sherman hollered non-stop the entire drive. In the waiting room he calmed down enough to charm a nearby couple who were there waiting for news on their dog (and were, like me, anxious for anything to take their minds off the reason they were there – this isn’t a clinic you go to for regular care, so if you’re there, it’s for very bad reasons). But eventually that passed and by the time they’d stuck us in an exam room, Sherman was back to yelling that horrible, wrong cry that made it clear he didn’t feel well at *all*.

There is no clear diagnosis as of yet. It could be any one of a whole host of things. Because he was perfectly fine last night it’s not likely to be something chronic, and if he ate something he shouldn’t have (I remind you all that he’s the culprit in this story) there’s no guarantee it’d show up on x-rays.

They gave him some fluids and an antibiotic shot in case it’s an infection, and sent me home with pain killers that are apparently a controlled substance because I had to sign a form and provide my date of birth. He’s now locked up in the library, a little bit stoned from the pain meds, and at some point later today I’ll head off to the grocery store to buy up their available stock of baby food meat since he’s only allowed a bland diet.

And now we just cross our fingers, and wait.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

Posted in Cats | 2 Comments

It’s the most wonderful time of year

Happy Holidailies! Yes, indeedy, it’s that time of year again, where a bunch of us diehard bloggers do our best to blog on a daily basis throughout the month of December. My success on this has been…um…mediocre at best the last few years (which is sad considering that Richard and I *run* the thing) but hope springs ever eternal, so away we go!

To kick off the month of December (and let’s be honest, to provide fodder for a blog entry) we waited until today to pull out the tree. It’s always an ordeal, moving all the stuff in the storage closet out until the tree can be extracted, removing the cats, pulling out the tree box, removing the cats, remembering where we stashed the ornaments, removing the cats, attempting to stuff everything non-holiday related back into the storage closet, removing the cats, shutting the door, hearing a suspicious noise and reopening it to, you guessed it, remove the cats. Fun times.

Nutmeg’s excitement about the whole process was, as usual, palpable.

In years past this has been more exciting, because ever since we got Rupert and Ingrid in 2009, we’ve had cats climbing the tree. However, except for a brief dash by Sherman….

…..while we were assembling the pieces, none of the cats really seemed to care much at all. In fact the box the tree came in was far more interesting.

I suppose we ought to be happy about this, since it means we might finally be able to drag out all the nice, breakable ornaments that have been lurking in boxes in the attic for the past eight years, but in a way, it’s a little bit sad. It feels like the end of an era. We got so used to the amusement of having cats in the Christmas tree – in fact we actually looked *forward* to it each year – that it feels strange to think that we’re going to be back to having a plain, ordinary tree.

Well. Maybe not *completely* ordinary (yes, that is Cthulhu wearing a Santa hat at the top).

Ah well. To everything there is a season and all that. The tree is up and so now it’s starting to feel a little more festive around here. These days (especially with Rupert and Sherman) that’s just about the extent of the decorating we do.

Okay, except for one other thing. But for some reason these don’t stay put very long.

Happy Holidailies!

Posted in Cats, Life | 1 Comment

This time around we came up with a hashtag

Because we had so much fun making Stroopwafels, my sister and I started immediately working on what we wanted to bake next. She was in the mood to do something with yeast dough, so a flurry of possible recipes flew back and forth. Since I picked the recipe the last time, I told her she had to pick it this time, so finally she decided on these, which are yeasted buns filled with cinnamon and chocolate, and plaited into a complicated shape. Due to the fact that it’s a yeast dough, we decided we’d both make the dough and set it aside for its first proof, and then join up via Google Hangouts for the next half of the process.

Looking at the recipe, I noted that we were going to be otherwise twiddling our thumbs for an hour during the second rise, which is why we then also decided to make the Cinnamon Star from King Arthur Flour. Conveniently enough, that happens to be the current monthly bake-along from King Arthur Flour (although I hadn’t realized it at the time I suggested it), so that link actually includes lots of details and pictures of the entire process, if anyone else wants to play along.

I made both doughs last night and popped them into the fridge, but the dough for the buns didn’t work out, so this morning I hastily remade it…which is why we ended up swapping the order for what we made, since my dough needed extra time to rise.

Anyway. First up – the cinnamon star. My sister’s made that one before, and she happens to have a lot of apples so she decided to add some chopped apples to her cinnamon mixture, whereas I stuck exactly to the recipe.

Here is my star, prior to baking.

It looks way more impressive than it has any right to be (trust me when I say this was a hot mess prior to the cutting and the twisting step).

So once we had the stars formed and resting under towels, next we tackled the buns.

These were…a pain. The instructions are text only, so both of us were reading them aloud, trying to figure out what, exactly, we were supposed to be doing with the plaiting and the stuffing. At one point I was holding up the laptop, so that the camera was facing down at my worktop, trying to plait the dough one-handed (not very successfully) so she could see what I was doing. Suffice it to say, neither of us has a clue whether we did it correctly or not. But we got them all plaited and stuffed, in one form or another. Here they are, rising.

So once *that* was done, and all the snickering and inevitable comments about ‘playing with our buns’ were out of our system (I kid, those will *never* be out of our system!), it was time to bake the stars.

Here is my cinnamon star, after baking.

It smells as delightful as it looks, and tastes even better!

Here are my sister and I, with our respective stars.

Hers spread out a bit more due to the apples (and took a lot longer to bake because the apples made the dough a lot wetter).

Verdict from both sides of the Google Hangout – yum!

And then about 20 minutes after those came out of the oven, it was time to pop in the buns. Which then proceeded to grow to ginormous size in the oven.

Think I’m kidding about the size? Here we are, both of us posing with buns almost as big as our faces. One of us may or may not have quoted modified lyrics to Baby’s Got Back at this point. Mayyyybe.

Naturally we allowed these to cool completely before we, oh who am I kidding, you all know darn well we cut one of those suckers open and tried it immediately.

The dough itself is quite lovely – it’s a nice light texture and has some good flavor. The filling was…eh. I suspect next time I need to try to get a lot more of the sugar mixture into there (or else don’t use as dark a chocolate as I did). Verdict – tasty, and fun to try, not something either of us will likely do again.

So overall, the second #BakingSisters day was a success.

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