Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Back in the sewing of things

I said before that I would be making a dress, and it was no April Fools’ joke. It took me longer than expected mostly because I had to put the project on the back burner for a while. I decided to have an anti-procrastination burst of motivation (first a weekend, then a week), and ironically, that got me procrastinating on the sewing. What happened was that the anti-procrastination involved, in part, tackling a small home improvement project: we had a nook in which we had put two bookshelves and, obviously, our books. But the shelves left a lot of wasted space in there, and they were not solidly bolted to the wall. So we ended up having a carpenter make a built-in bookshelf, which I then painted to match the original trim. While that was going on, all the books were piled up in the sewing room, and there was no space to work in there. The end result with our bookshelf was totally worth it, though; it fills me with joy every time I look at it! I then got back to sewing and finished the dress.

I used a pattern from Simplicity and got my supplies at Hobby Lobby. I got 7 yards of a nice cotton print on sale at $4.90/yard (same price as the 2.5 yards I got for the napkins); the saleslady seemed to think that was an inordinate amount for a single dress, but I wanted to make sure not to run out, and I’m glad I got that much because as you can see below, I didn’t have much left over after all my pieces were cut. Hobby Lobby sold all Simplicity patterns at $0.99 a piece (I don’t know why they seem to be between $10 and $15 elsewhere); I also bought two spools of thread and a zipper. Total price: $48.85, plus taxes.

There are parts of the dress that didn’t turn out so well, like where the collar meets the front as well as the armholes. I also made a few mistakes, like not measuring myself properly: I had to take in the sides of the top not once but twice, about 3-4 inches in all (so using the seam ripper on the side seams and armhole facing, then starting that part over). I should probably have taken in the front part as well, but that was way more complicated and I didn’t want to get into it (I’ll have to live with the poor fit on this one). That’s why I needed the second spool of thread, but I’m sure an experienced seamstress would have needed only one. I was aware that it might be a smidge big, but I way overshot; it’ll teach me to measure properly, with the right bra, next time. Putting in the zipper was quite an ordeal! I’m not entirely pleased with all the hems, either. But for a first project (well, first clothing from scratch, third project in all), it’s just fine. I love the fabric I chose, and I do love the full skirt with godets! I really enjoyed sewing and I already bought more Simplicity patterns to make shirts. I think the only reason it doesn’t go as fast as knitting is that I have to dedicate time exclusively to it, whereas I always knit while watching television, which I do a few hours each day anyway.

Des trucs que j'aime en ce moment

- De temps en temps, je trouve une petite surprise qui me fait sourire. Comme quand le vieux calepin que j’ai traîné pendant des années et que j’utilise maintenant pour prendre des notes pour mes billets révèle, au beau milieu de pages vierges et seulement sur le recto, un début de dictée écrite quand j’avais neuf ans. Mon écriture est plus jolie maintenant, mais j’étais déjà relativement bonne côté orthographe!

- Découvrir quelque chose que j’ignorais à mon sujet. J’ai toujours pensé que j’étais frileuse, et vu tout le temps que j’ai passé au Québec (ou à des endroits avec des températures hivernales sous zéro suivies d’un été au Québec), c’est normal que j’aie pensé ça. J’étais toujours la première à mettre une petite laine. Mais maintenant que je suis au Texas, je me suis rendue compte que ce n’est pas le froid que je supporte mal. Ce sont les extrêmes de températures! Je supporte beaucoup moins bien la chaleur que l’Ingénieur... Heureusement qu’on va faire une petite pause au Québec cet été, parce qu’ici, ça fait un bon bout que l’été est commencé, et le mercure continue à grimper!

- Le chocolat noir Dove. Ce n’est pas du haut de gamme, on s’entend, mais c’est tellement bon! Le rapport sucre/cacao est parfait, la texture est veloutée, le goût de cacao est bien présent, il ne fond pas trop vite, la forme est agréable en bouche... Vraiment, j’adore!

- Galant, tu perds ton temps. Bon, encore une fois, jouons cartes sur table : il se trouve que je suis parente par alliance avec l’une des chanteuses – oui, la même qui a cofondé Rien ne se perd, tout se crée... Mais tout comme la dernière fois, j’ai entendu parler du groupe et j’ai entendu une de leurs chansons avant de connaître le nom des membres! Pour ceux qui ne connaissent pas, Galant, tu perds ton temps est un groupe a capella féminin, accompagné de percussions, qui chante surtout des chansons traditionnelles québécoises. Ces chanteuses sont excellentes, et je recommande chaudement leur deux albums, peu importe que vous parliez français ou pas!

- De petits jeux amusants comme Angry Birds ou Shaun the Sheep, qui sont gratuits en ligne et n’ont pas de barrière linguistique.

Vegan Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting

I wanted to find a really good yellow cake frosting (better than the first recipe I posted). I still do, actually. Smitten Kitchen’s post about this cake seemed very promising, but in the end, I didn’t like the cake. It tasted quite good, but felt very heavy and dense. I made my usual substitutions (all-purpose flour and cornstarch instead of cake flour, which I even measured by weight instead of volume this time, and margarine instead of butter), but other cakes come out fine, so I’m not sure if that was the problem. I’ll keep looking for a good recipe.

The frosting is what I’ll elaborate on here. I didn’t use sour cream, since I haven’t found a lactose-free one yet. I used Tofutti’s Better Than Sour Cream, which has the same consistency. It lacked the sour, tangy taste the original frosting must have had, but it was still very good. It held together just fine – as a matter of fact, once it’s on the cake, it doesn’t even need to be refrigerated to retain its consistency. There’s also hardly any sugar in it (some in the chocolate, plus a bit of corn syrup)! The recipe makes about 5 cups of frosting, enough for a 9-inch layer cake.

15 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 ¼ tsp instant espresso (optional; I omitted it)
1 tub Better Than Sour Cream (about 2 cups), at room temperature
¼ to ½ cup light corn syrup
¾ tsp vanilla extract

Combine the chocolate and espresso powder, if using, in the top of a double-boiler or in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted. (Alternately, you can melt the chocolate in a microwave for 30 seconds, stirring well, and then heating in 15 second increments, stirring between each, until the chocolate is melted.) Remove from heat and let chocolate cool until tepid.

Whisk together the sour cream, ¼ cup of the corn syrup and vanilla extract until combined (I did this in the stand mixer, but I could see doing it by hand if I had to). Add the tepid chocolate slowly and stir quickly until the mixture is uniform. Taste for sweetness, and if needed, add additional corn syrup in 1 Tbsp increments until desired level of sweetness is achieved.

Let cool in the refrigerator until the frosting is a spreadable consistency. This should take about 30 minutes. Should the frosting become too thick or stiff, just leave it out until it softens again.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Maple-Braised Butternut Squash with Fresh Thyme

This recipe is adapted from one published in the November 2010 issue of Bon Appétit. I added fresh thyme from the garden only at the very end of cooking. I urge you to use real butter here, you won’t regret it. I “cheated” and used a bag of pre-cut squash from the refrigerated section, but it cut way down on prep time and avoided leftovers. As a result, it did increase the ratio of other ingredients in regards to squash, but the end result was absolutely delicious. It stole the show from the duck served alongside it. The braising got all the flavours into the butternut squash, not just in the sauce. I may have said I was “in love with that squash”, and even the Engineer liked it and compared it to candy.

6 Tbsp (¾ stick) butter
a 3- to 3 ½-lb butternut squash, cut lengthwise in half, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 ¼ cups low-salt chicken broth
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
1 tsp coarse kosher salt
¼ tsp (or more) black pepper
1 Tbsp minced fresh thyme

Melt butter in heavy large deep skillet over high heat. Add squash; sauté 1 minute. Add broth, syrup, salt and ¼ tsp pepper; bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook until squash is almost tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer squash to large bowl. Boil liquid in skillet until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Return squash to skillet and add thyme. Cook until tender, turning occasionally, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with more pepper, if desired.

Duck with Cherries

This recipe, originally titled “Duck with Cherries, Spinach and Pine Nuts”, was published in the December 2010 edition of Bon Appétit, but is not available online. It’s from a restaurant called Fornino in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I omitted the pine nuts entirely, because all I could find were pine nuts grown in China, and I’m still avoiding those. I also served the spinach raw, because I don’t actually like wilted leaves and I had three pans on the stovetop already, but you’re free to do as you wish.

I was lucky enough to find magrets de canard the last time we went to Central Market – they are all over the place in Quebec now, but since I moved here, I hadn’t seen anything but whole frozen ducks, and for someone who’s used to eating them on a regular basis, this has been hard. (I also miss pita bread: it’s not something that I really had often, but I’ve only seen them once here; any store has 93 kinds of tortillas, though! And next time I’m in Canada, I’m bringing back cans of maple syrup. What they have here is either not the real thing, or is the real thing but at an outrageous price.) I really loved the duck, and the mix of spices here was unexpected but harmonious. I’m used to making duck breasts with something sweet, or serving them with something sweet. This recipe took me a little out of that comfort zone, but not so far that it was unfamiliar territory. There’s nutmeg, like I’m used to, but also cinnamon, cloves, aniseed and fennel seeds, which go quite well with it. I loved the onions and cherries on the side! I also served it with maple-braised butternut squash, which I have to admit stole the show.

For the sauce
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
½ cup dried cherries
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup white balsamic vinegar (I used regular balsamic vinegar)
1 cup low-salt chicken broth

For the duck
1 ½ tsp fennel seeds
1 ½ tsp aniseed
½ tsp freshly ground pepper
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
4 8-oz boneless duck breasts with skin
fine sea salt
4 Tbsp butter, divided
8 oz fresh spinach
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 Tbsp pine nuts, toasted

For the sauce
Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions; sauté until tender and beginning to turn golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Add dried cherries, wine and vinegar; boil 30 seconds. Add chicken broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until sauce is reduced 2/3 cup, 4 to 5 minutes.

For the duck
Finely grind fennel seeds and aniseed in spice mill; transfer to bowl. Whisk in pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

Using a sharp knife, score duck skin diagonally to create ¾-inch diamond pattern (do not cut into meat). Sprinkle both sides of duck with fine sea salt and spice mixture.

Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add duck, skin side down, to skillet. Cook until skin is browned and crisp and fat is rendered, about 7 minutes. Spoon off some fat from the pan. Turn duck over; cook until browned and cooked to desired doneness, about 3 minutes for medium-rare. (I always cook it longer than that, and most of the cooking is done skin-side down.) Transfer to a plate; tente with foil.

Meanwhile, whisk 3 Tbsp of butter into sauce. (I swear I just now saw this instruction, I completely omitted it when I made it. I stopped reading at this paragraph, since I wasn’t cooking the spinach. Oh well, then it really is lactose-free!) Season sauce with salt and pepper. Melt 1 Tbsp butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add spinach and garlic. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss until wilted, about 2 minutes.

Slice duck breasts. Divide spinach among plates. Place 1 sliced duck breast atop spinach on each plate. Spoon sauce over; sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. (If you are avoiding nuts, you could replace them with sunflower seeds, or omit them entirely.)

Peach Brown Sugar Ice Cream

We started seeing peaches at the store here a few weeks ago, so I was finally able to try one of the recipes about which I had been talking. I adapted it from Dessert First. I used coconut milk instead of cream, as I usually do. The original instructions say to thinly slice the peaches, but they should really be cut into tiny cubes– I ended up mashing mine once they were cooked. Use pasteurized eggs if you don’t want to bother with a thermometer (that’s what I do now). The ice cream took longer to freeze than most, but once it did, it was a hit. This recipe makes about 2 quarts of ice cream.

4 ripe peaches (about 2 lbs)
½ cup sugar
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 ½ cups lactose-free milk
¾ cup brown sugar, divided
3 large eggs
1 can (14 oz) coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Peel and cut the peaches into small pieces. Place in a medium saucepan and combine with the sugar and lemon juice. Cook for about 15 minutes on medium heat. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Combine the milk and ½ cup light brown sugar in a medium saucepan and heat on medium over stove until bubbles form around the edges.

Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and remaining sugar together in a medium bowl. Place the coconut milk in a separate large bowl.

Pour the hot milk into the eggs in a steady stream, whisking constantly to temper the eggs. Pour the mixture back in the saucepan and place back on stove. Cook on medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens slightly and coats back of a spoon. Do not overcook (it will look curdled and you will have to start over).

Strain mixture into the coconut milk and stir to combine. Add vanilla and stir to combine. Chill in an ice bath until it reaches room temperature. Stir in the peaches and chill mixture in refrigerator at least a few hours or overnight.

Freeze in ice cream maker per manufacturer’s instructions.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

And now for something different

I meant to post this link ages ago, then I forgot about it. Apparently, it’s been posted so many times that Facebook considers it spam, so I couldn’t post it to my profile. It’s a recipe for blood chocolate pudding, probably the most unusual chocolate pudding recipe I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot). But it's written very well, and the pictures are Dexter-worthy. I'm too squeamish (and lactose-intolerant) to make it, but I loved experiencing it vicariously! The recipe is on Vanilla Garlic and was nominated for a Best Culinary Essay award in Saveur’s 2011 Best Food Blog Awards. And this is the post where the author mentions the nomination; I think it’s an even better read.

French-Style Warm Lentil Salad

This recipe, from Orangette, was perfect. It was quite fast to make (so fast that I ended up serving dinner early). I doubled the quantities of carrot and celery, but that’s up to you. The Engineer was a little uncertain upon seeing it, but after sampling it, his scepticism melted away and he declared it to have a “harmonious blend of tastes”. I served it alongside sweet potato biscuits with ham, mustard and honey, and it was a delightful meal idea. It works well as a side, but also as a light lunch. I’ll be sure to keep this lentil salad recipe for future reference. These quantities make about 4 servings.

1 cup Puy lentils, picked over and rinsed
3 cups water
1 Turkish bay leaf
½ tsp salt, divided
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
5 Tbsp olive oil, divided
2 Tbsp plus ½ tsp red wine vinegar
½ Tbsp Dijon mustard
crunchy sea salt, for serving
2 Tbsp finely chopped Italian parsley, for serving

In a medium saucepan, bring the lentils, water, and bay leaf to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in ¼ teaspoon salt, and then simmer, covered, for another 3 to 5 minutes, until tender but not falling apart.

While the lentils simmer, warm 1 Tbsp of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, and 1/8 tsp salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just softened, about 7 to 9 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette. In a small bowl, whisk together 2Tbsp vinegar, mustard, and remaining 1/8 tsp salt. Add the remaining 4 Tbsp olive oil, and whisk to emulsify.

When the lentils are ready, drain them in a colander or sieve, and discard the bay leaf. Dump them into the skillet with the vegetables, and add the vinaigrette. Cook over low heat, stirring gently, until heated through. Stir in the remaining ½ tsp vinegar, and serve warm, with crunchy salt and parsley for sprinkling.

Sweet Potato Biscuits with Ham, Mustard and Honey

This biscuit recipe was published by Molly Wizenberg in Bon Appétit (article here and recipe here. I was in the mood for a side dish to complement a warm lentil salad (coincidentally also by Molly Wizenberg and published on Orangette); this fit the bill perfectly. The sweet potato biscuits went very well with the ham, mustard (Dijon or French’s, to taste) and honey; they’d also be great as a snack or as part of a brunch. I originally thought the recipe called for for 1 ¾ lbs of sweet potatoes, but you only need ¾ cup of purée. It turns out I misread the directions; it’s actually one sweet potato weighing ¾ lb! I’ll write it more clearly below. I froze my leftover purée and will probably use it to make something from this book, if not something else I’ve bookmarked. I also recommend greasing two pans instead of one, to make more biscuits. I know I had to improvise for the cookie cutter, but the original recipe says it yields about 25 biscuits, and there’s no way that’ll fit in my 9-inch cake pan (I got 16).

a ¾ pound red-skinned sweet potato, peeled, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
1 Tbsp (packed) dark brown sugar
2 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
a pinch of cayenne pepper
8 Tbsp (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 Tbsp butter, melted
1/3 cup chilled buttermilk (I use lactose-free milk with a splash of lemon juice)
Dijon mustard (or French’s for the profane)
6 oz thinly sliced country ham or Black Forest ham (ideally preservative-free)

Cook sweet potato in medium saucepan of boiling salted water until tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, cool, and mash.

Position rack in lower third of oven; preheat to 425 °F. Butter bottom and sides of two 9-inch cake pans with 1 ½-inch-high sides.

Whisk flour and next 5 ingredients in large bowl. Add cubed butter to flour mixture; toss to coat and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Whisk ¾ cup mashed sweet potatoes and buttermilk substitute in medium bowl. Add to flour mixture; toss with fork. Gather mixture in bowl, kneading until dough comes together. Turn dough out onto floured work surface and pat into 1-inch-thick round. Using 1 ½-inch round biscuit cutter, cut out biscuits, flouring cutter after each cut. Gather scraps; pat into 1-inch-thick round. Cut out additional biscuits (do not reuse scraps more than once).

Arrange biscuits side by side in prepared cake pans. Brush with melted butter. Bake until puffed and golden on top and tester inserted into center biscuit comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in pan. Turn biscuits out and gently pull them apart. Cut each biscuit in half crosswise.

Spread bottom half of each biscuit with mustard, then top each with sliced ham and second half of biscuit. Serve with honey.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Crustless Zucchini and Basil Mini-Quiches

You guys, this was the best recipe of the week! It was a bit of a surprise, because zucchini is hit-or-miss with me, and also because mini-quiches are somewhat hard to work into the menu. They would be great for brunch, or as a side-dish with one or two kinds of salads. You can make them ahead of time and freeze them, or eat them right away too. My mini-muffin pan is made of silicone, and therefore whatever is in the tray pops out very easily with minimal mess; if this is not the case for you and the quiches end up sticking a bit, just put the whole tray in the freezer; the quiches should come out more easily after that.

I used Swiss cheese (usually naturally lactose-free), and it melts in the bottom of the quiche to form a bit of a crust, completely gluten-free of course. As a substitute for cream, I wasn’t sure what to use. Some quiches work out just fine if you omit the cream; with others, you have to increase the amount of cheese or egg yolks. In this case, I wanted to find a lactose-free alternative, and the creamers weren’t going to cut it: I needed something thicker. I did a search online, and the one suggestion that kept coming up was to make “cream” by processing cashews and water together. Since I had cashews left over from a previous recipe, that’s what I did, and it worked out great! Of course, if you’re avoiding nuts, you can use another substitute. And don’t skimp on the fresh basil!

¼ cup cornstarch
1 ¼ cup whole milk
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream substitute (such as ½ cup cashews processed with ½ cup water)
¾ tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp nutmeg
oil for the pan
1 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
2 zucchinis, grated
¼ cup gruyère or Swiss cheese, grated
fresh basil, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 450 °F.

Put the cornstarch in a medium bowl. Whisking steadily, slowly pour in ½ cup of the milk, mixing until quite smooth. Whisk in the whole eggs and egg yolks, mixing again until smooth, then gradually whisk in the rest of the milk, the cream substitute, salt, and nutmeg. Use immediately or refrigerate, covered, for up to one day. If using the next day, be sure to re-whisk.

In a nonstick pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and shallots and stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add grated zucchini, and stir until just softened, another 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Oil mini muffin tins well. Put a pinch grated cheese into each muffin cup, a teaspoon of zucchini mixture, and pinch of chopped fresh basil. Pour 1 tablespoon of the batter into each muffin cup.

Bake until the quiches puff and start to turn golden, 15-18 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes and then carefully run a paring knife around the rim of each muffin cup. Carefully lift each quiche out of its cup.

Mini quiches freeze very well. Let cool, then freeze in a single layer in a covered container. Reheat on a cookie sheet in a 400 °F oven for about 5-10 minutes.

Raspberry Buckle

The buckle is part of a family of easy, homely fruit desserts that includes crisps, crumbles, pandowdies and cobblers (see here for the differences). This particular recipe is from Martha Stewart’s website, but I changed it a bit by substituting brown sugar for half of the granulated sugar, so that’s how I’ll write it below. I also used frozen raspberries, because I wanted to use up what I had in the freezer; I had less than the amount called for, and it looked like the right amount before I baked the buckle, but after baking, I think more berries would have been better. I’m sure you could turn this into a blueberry buckle, too! Don’t forget to put berries close to the edge of the pan, because the dough will puff up and push the berries around (mine all ended up in the center).

½ cup (1 stick) cold margarine, plus more for baking dish (or room temperature butter)
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
2 containers (½-pint each) of raspberries (2 ¾ cups)
confectioners' sugar, for dusting (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 °F. Butter a 2-quart oval or square baking dish. In a large bowl, cream margarine and sugars with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition to combine. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder; with mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture until incorporated.

Spread batter in baking dish. Scatter raspberries on top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean and top is golden brown, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool 20 minutes; dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired. With a large spoon, scoop out onto serving plates.

Tea Cookies

I’ve already posted a recipe for Earl Grey tea cookies, but this one is different. It’s an easier recipe, and it seems a little more versatile. I got it on Ezra Pound Cake, where they were presented as chai butter cookies. I made them lactose-free (so no butter) and I used some Numi organic tea. I absolutely loved the result, though next time I would use 2 bags of tea instead of one. Note also that I used Earth Balance shortening, which is non-hydrogenated.

As you may know, I don’t actually like tea. But when I saw this package of Numi tea, more specifically a velvety chocolate tea that contains puerh, cocoa powder, vanilla beans, theo chocolate cocoa nibs, rooibos, orange peel, nutmeg and cinnamon, I decided that if ever I liked a kind of tea, that would be the one. It smells delicious! In the end, though, my verdict hasn’t changed: the reason I don’t like tea is that it tastes too bland to me. It’s like it lures you in with that beautiful color and fantastic aroma, then it lets you down with a watery taste. It’s like bait-and-switch. I don’t dislike tea, though, I just never seem to enjoy drinking it. Good thing I like it so much in baking! This recipe makes about 3 dozen cookies.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 to 2 tsp chai tea, or tea of your choice (contents of one tea bag or two)
¼ tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cream of tartar
½ cup (1 stick) cold margarine (or butter at room temperature if you can digest it)
½ cup shortening, preferably non-hydrogenated, at room temperature
1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 egg, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

In a large bowl, sift the flour, tea, salt, baking soda and cream of tartar. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the margarine and shortening on medium until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar, and beat on low speed until smooth. Add egg and vanilla, and beat on low until well combined.

On low speed, slowly add the dry ingredients. Beat until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 °F.

Using an ice cream scoop, take some of the dough, and shape it into 1-inch balls. (Keep remaining dough in the refrigerator.) Place the dough balls on an ungreased cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a silpat, and press with the tines of a fork to flatten. (If your dough starts getting sticky, dip the fork tines in a small dish of sugar before pressing. You can also use the bottom of a glass or the heel of your hand.) Bake until pale golden, but not brown, about 10 minutes. Cool slightly on the baking sheet on a rack. Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool.

[Update, June 2013: I made these again, with the exact same recipe, and I’d like to draw your attention to how good they looked this time!]

Lighting at the movies

I wanted to share a few articles regarding the brightness of movies we are shown in theatres. Recently, there was an article in the Boston Globe on the topic: the lenses on the new digital projection equipment, which is usually 3D, are being misused in 2D showings. This results in underlit images that are actually worse in quality than what you can get at home! The digital copies are often being shown in much darker conditions than the analog print copies, despite the fact that even those tend to be underlit in many theatres (managers do this to prolong lightbulbs’ life). This is because Sony projectors (the leading brand across North America) are complicated to operate; removing the 3D lens is time-consuming, is expensive and requires technical knowledge that most employees do not possess. But according to one estimate, “a film projected through a Sony with the 3D lens in place and other adjustments not made can be as much as 85 percent darker than a properly projected film.” That’s huge!

Roger Ebert then wrote an article about this and gave concrete examples from the screenings he organizes himself (let’s just say those are lit properly). But underlighting happens even at professional screenings, like the industry screenings done for awards shows. If a movie shown at a state-of-the-art theater in a context that important isn’t lit properly, what does that tell you about the conditions in regular theaters? It seems your best bet is to go to screenings at theaters that do not show 3D movies, or at least have a different, more user-friendly brand than Sony. As Ebert says, “The film should have a brightness, a crispness and sparkle that makes an impact. It should look like a movie! -- not a mediocre big-screen television.”

My favorite local theater, the Alamo Drafthouse (we have two locations in San Antonio), wrote a reply here. They explain that they check the light levels on all their screens at least monthly and that they boost the light for 3D screenings. They have Sony 4K projectors (which give a better image than the industry-standard 2K ones), but changing the lens is still a huge hassle. If a screen shows only 2D movies, they make sure the 3D lens is off the projector. However, that is not possible when a screen shows both 2D and 3D movies, because it takes 1.5 hours just to change the lens, and they employ only two people with the technical know-how to do this! They do remove the polarizing filters, though, for a 2D screening. That article also goes on to correct something published in both the Boston Globe article and the Roger Ebert article: Sony 3D digital screenings project two continuous images, one in each of the lenses (as opposed to alternating images between the left eye and the right eye with a single lens system). So while Sony is still the best choice for a 3D movie when the light levels are appropriate, the issue posed by the 3D lenses is still very real.

Personally, I was unaware of the issue, because I assumed that movie theaters, which often charge so much for tickets these days, know what they are doing. I avoid 3D when I can just because I think it’s totally overrated. When movies seemed underlit, I always assumed it was just the way the movie was made. It is incredibly frustrating to realize that it may be the theater showing me an inferior product! I guess it really is up to the audience to remain vigilant and complain when necessary.

I now have one more thing to worry about for when I see Tintin (pictures here, teaser trailer here), which was made in 3D motion capture. I’m already apprehensive about the visual aspect of the characters, which can’t be quite the same as in the original albums, of course. Then there’s their voices – why is Tintin British? I know the movie is in English, so obviously he can’t speak French, but still... Now I have to worry about lighting, too? Unless I cave and see it in 3D at the Alamo Drafthouse...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Extreme couponing

I decided to write a post on extreme couponing, since it is such a hot topic right now and since I couldn’t have this blog without trips to various grocery stores (though the phenomenon is not limited to groceries). Extreme couponing refers not only to using coupons (which everyone probably does to some extent), but to using so many coupons in conjunction with special deals and sales that one saves anywhere between 90% and 99% of their total bill. We’re nowhere near that; the most we saved in a single grocery trip was $16.90, which was 13.85% of the total.

I first became aware of the trend on The Nate Berkus Show in January, when Joanie Demer from The Krazy Coupon Lady was on (she and partner Heather Wheeler have been on a few times since). Their book has been out for two years, but I hadn’t heard about this before 2011. Now TLC has jumped on the bandwagon with its new show Extreme Couponing, which gives a lot more concrete examples of how to accomplish this. There are also a lot of blogs and websites that give advice, as well as those that group coupons and deals (a Google search will help you turn up a lot of them).

Here’s how it works: match store sale prices with coupons, then stock up. For example, you have a $1.00 coupon for a snack bar. You wait until the store has a sale along the lines of “2 bars for $1.00”, then use your coupon: you just got two snack bars for free. Or use a manufacturer’s coupon along with a store coupon to save more money on a single item. Extreme couponers don’t just buy one item, though: they’ll get 50 copies of the coupons and buy 50 items at little to no cost, which is how they can get the grocery bill so low. So this isn’t necessarily something you can do each week for only your weekly food; you end up buying 50 jars of mustard, 20 cans of coffee and 60 bottles of soda, which then helps you build a stash of food in your own home.

Our local HEB store has weekly specials that can be interesting, but it depends on your eating habits. This week, for example, if you buy two packages of Ball Park franks, you get 4 items for free with coupons: a 15-oz can of HEB chili (with or without beans), a 2-liter bottle of HEB soda, a 20-oz bottle of HEB ketchup and an 8-oz package of Borden shredded cheese. The Engineer and I occasionally buy franks, but not very often. I make my own chili, we cut back on soda (we both avoid HFCS, I avoid artificial sweeteners, and the Engineer has trouble with carbonated drinks during the local allergy season), we already have a big bottle of ketchup (Heinz is our brand) and we don’t buy shredded cheese, which is always full of lactose and additives. There are also deals where HEB will pit one of their products against the leading brand in the hope that you’ll compare the two and prefer theirs (like buy Fritos corn chips and get HEB corn chips for free) or the store will otherwise entice you with BOGO deals (like buy HEB flavoured tortilla chips and get free Hill Country Fare barbecue sauce); again, we don’t eat any of those products, but if you do, those are some pretty good deals.

While the Engineer and I have started being more careful about how we spend money at the grocery store (after all, his income after taxes and health insurance is lower than last year, I no longer have an income, and we have a lot more expenses), we do not intend to become extreme coupners. That is literally a full-time job: people easily spend 30 to 35 hours a week researching deals, checking out sales and looking for coupons (both paper and electronic), sometimes literally dumpster-diving for them, then organizing said coupons and planning the actual trip to the grocery store. I may be a homemaker, but that is time I do not have. Also, checkout times for them are usually 1 to 2 hours, for a total time in the grocery store that is often 3 to 5 hours, and we’re not willing to do that.

Moreover, I tend to be a brand-loyal person. Once I find something I really like or that works well for me, I want to stick to that brand and not buy another just because it’s on sale that week. This goes for types of products, too: I prefer organic or vegan cane sugar to processed granulated white sugar, despite the price increase, so if the sale is on white sugar, I’m just not interested. And let’s face it, because I’m lactose-intolerant on top of that, some things are just more expensive for me (lactose-free milk is more expensive than regular milk; real parmesan is more expensive than parmesan from a can). Extreme couponers cannot afford to be brand loyal.

Another major hurdle is the fact that in the vast majority of examples I’ve seen on television and online, shoppers went to grocery stores that allowed them to double coupons, that is to say allowed them to use two coupons on the same product. If something is on sale at $0.99 and you have two coupons for $0.50 off, then the product is free. But I don’t know of any stores in my area (here or in Canada) that do that; they certainly don’t do it with manufacturers’ coupons, and store coupons I’ve seen always specifically say it’s forbidden.

While the Engineer and I are all for having a modest stash of non perishable items in case of emergency, we do not wish to stockpile food and toiletries in the year-long (or lifetime) supplies to which extreme couponers resort; that’s border-line hoarding to me. (There were people on Extreme Couponing who bought diapers and antacid tablets just because they got really good deals, but those people did not have children or heartburn!) The space in our house is worth more to us than the coupon savings. If that works for them, fine, but it’s just not what we want to do. That being said, I’ve got to give kudos to the one person on Extreme Couponing who gave his purchases to charity. The first time I saw him, he bought something like $1,200 worth of non perishables and paid a total of $100 thanks to coupons. He then donated everything to a homeless shelter and kept the receipt for his tax credit, worth $1,200! See, I think that charities should employ people who have that talent, and that way they would get more for their money, while the extreme couponers would actually get paid for doing this. Perhaps they would even make more money than they save with coupons!

The way extreme couponers shop is also very different than the way I shop. While we both believe in making a grocery list ahead of time, they make a menu based on what is on sale that week. While that is smart, it doesn’t work for me because I literally have hundreds of recipes I want to try, so I make a menu based on which ones I can see myself doing that week (this depends on seasonal produce, what I already have on hand and the time I have that week). So I often buy ingredients that are not on sale; the peace of mind of checking a recipe off my to-do list is worth it to me.

As the Engineer pointed out, this trend exposes some loopholes that are bound to be closed pretty soon. I can’t imagine grocery stores accepting double coupons if it means losing hundreds of dollars on a single transaction. There is also coupon fraud, admittedly committed by someone on Extreme Couponing – the shopper doesn’t believe it’s a crime, but according to the law, it is. Basically, there is a portion of the coupon’s barcode that matches a portion of the product’s barcode, but as of now, the register will match a coupon to any product containing that portion of barcode. For example, if General Mills makes a $0.75 coupon for Fiber One cereal, the register might accept it instead as a rebate on a box of Cheerios. Both products are by General Mills, but the Fiber One sells for more than the Cheerios; therefore, coupons for Fiber One might be $0.75 while those for Cheerios are usually $0.50. If you use the bigger coupon on the cheaper but mismatched product, despite the fact that the register may not detect it, you’re committing fraud. The manufacturer could ask to see the receipt and then refuse to reimburse the store, since the coupons used did not match the product; then, in essence, the store has been robbed.

Finally, I don’t see extreme couponers buy produce. The bulk of what I see in their carts is pre-packaged or processed, because that’s where the sales and coupons are. But I try to stick to the outer perimeter of the store, with the notable exception of the baking supplies aisle. I did notice that well over half of participants on Extreme Couponing were overweight, but I’m not sure how much of that is due to their couponing habits and how much is just prevalence in the general population.

So, those were my thoughts on the trend, and my explanation as to why I won’t become an extreme couponer. That being said, I still love getting a good deal when I can, and the Engineer and I will continue keeping an eye on the purse strings for the foreseeable future.

Soyatoo! Rice Whip

I’d just like to take this moment to mention Soyatoo!’s Rice Whip. I’ve tried their whippable soy topping before, but this one is really close to whipped cream from a can. It doesn’t quite taste the same, but the texture is there, not to mention the convenience of a can with a piping tip! It contains no sweeteners that I wouldn’t recommend and it appears to be vegan, gluten-free and nut-free. And of course, it is lactose-free. I used it to top the Engineer’s strawberry shortcakes, and his pavlovas the following week, and I really love it. It makes me feel like a “normal” person again to have this can of compressed topping for desserts.

As the instructions say, though, you do have to let it come to room temperature 10 to 15 minutes before using it. There didn’t seem to be that much in the can, but then again I don’t remember whipped cream cans to be bottomless. I’ll definitely buy this again!

Scone inspiration

I recently made cardamom griddle scones, their particularity being that they’re rolled thin and grilled in a heavy skillet instead of baked in the oven. I really liked the combination of cardamom with honey, which was the serving recommendation, but scone-wise, I much prefer my regular baked scones. I will, however, keep this flavour pairing as an inspiration for next time I make them!