Category Archives: food

On the Road with Students

Last call for the restrooms then faculty, students and tag-alongs piled into the university vans. Our April 2017 Paleogeology field trip to Death Valley was off at last.

4 of crew good

How many years since I went on one of these trips? Too many. I went on one to the Goler Formation when our kid was in elementary school but she’s in graduate school now. Sure, we’d done summer trips to various sites but none had been quite like this, where you set off with a batch of strangers and after three days know each other well enough to be friends, or not….

We found a cottonwood camp site by a dried out arroyo, not a problem since each vehicle had several great jerrycans (bottles these days) of potable water–in fact we carried so much that we dumped several before we set off for home again. I’m sure the cottonwoods enjoyed that. Students had each brought their own tents and sleeping bags, or borrowed from the faculty before we set off. You can see that our own drawtight, a relic from a British arctic expedition, fit right into the landscape. Yes, we do possess something lighter weight and more modern, but in April in the Death Valley desert it can get pretty cold at night and this little friend of ours is a cozy construct.

our tent

My husband and I defined ourselves as camp guards. Outside of the national parks or official national campgrounds, there are of course no stations, no officialdom to protect your possessions, so we pledged to watch over the kit while the students and other faculty went off on site visits. The main purpose of the trip was to give these students a treat– let them camp in the desert and see pre-Cambrian and Cambrian trace fossils and real fossils. Think of burrow traces in mud, and stromatolites, with perhaps occasionally a trilobite in the younger strata.

on a spring evening copy

Wonderful group of students, all obsessed with the mysteries of past life and ecosystems, all willing to recite at the drop of a pen, a list of favorite taxa. I have some familiarity with past life forms, but these kids could describe in passionate detail, creatures I’d never even read about. They were true fans. However I must say that later that night around the little propane ‘firepit’, (the safest source of a bit of warmth and cheer we could manage on a windy night,) the students veered off into realms of the internet, and left the faculty far behind. I noted it with a certain regret, for the other trips I’d been on with department students long years back had students so hungry for more science that they spent the night begging stories and illuminations from the faculty, because they realized that they had a unique opportunity to tap those older brains to their content. Nowhere for the faculty to run away while out camping!

For the first time I cheated over the dinners, and I’d recommend this to any of you going out for a very short trip like this with a sizeable and impatiently hungry group. I pre-cooked. For the first night I had a beef stew, long-simmered well–spiced beef until it was fall-apart tender, plus a load of yesterday’s soft-baked yeast rolls. That with salad, made for fast prep. For the next day I’d made and frozen a load of chicken curry, which with the swift boiling of a load of macaroni made for a good stomach-filler on the brisk second evening.

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I’m not sure anyone, however tired, slept well that first night. The wind was a noisy companion, gusting and rising and falling almost all the night until dawn. There also came a mouse to our tent, scrabbling hopefully at one corner, so that we gave in and zipped the tent up. We came out of our tents at six thirty and everyone fed on good foods from bagels and muffins to instant oatmeal. Cups of coffee and tea, a scramble to make lunch sandwiches, and then the cry went out for a last visit to the bushes before take-off.

Again, my husband and I had set ourselves as camp guards, so all the kit could be left safely. Besides, husband had a lecture to write for the day after our projected return, and it was a gnarly one. I had paintings to paint, sketches to make, lizards and birds and insects to find, draw and identify.

For us it was an idyllic day. After the lecture was under control, we scrambled about the general area looking over the old mine sites with caution, eyes open for rattlers (I am surprised but we never saw even one, though I did spot some snake tracks in the soft sands of the arroyo.) Old settling ponds, deserted collapsed mine shafts and old slag, what had been the site of a town, and remarkable long views across desert and mountains. Phainopeplas whistled incessantly, and the soft wheep wheep of quail erupted with concern every time they came across us and realized we were alive.

The students and other faculty returned and we warmed up food for the team. Another evening around the propane firepit, less wind this time, then all fell into bed and had that good sleep that one often does the second or third night out.

Morning saw us packing out, but on our way headed out of the region we had a morning site visit to some outcrops that gave us all good views of some trace fossils, and an overview of a Tesla commercial being filmed. I noted that the photographer stopped at one point and took a few frames of us time travellers clambering about the slopes of rock. Maybe he or she was envious.

grand

Long drive home, all arrived safe and weary, but full of conversation. I know our vehicle’s talk covered everything from the ethics of diet and alternative medicine to the depiction of science in film.

I hope to work up a few paintings out of my notebook, and if I do, I shall hope to share them here.

 

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Setting the Stage for the Interview Dinner

 

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Our geology department has faculty job candidates coming through and to hold down costs, candidates will not be put up in hotels but in faculty guest accommodations. The advantages? Casual discussions over coffee in the morning and with that a far better sense of what living and working here is like.

As I used to crack when I was involved in interviews for Resident Administrator positions, Attila the Hun could be charming for a twenty minute interview. One wants a lot more than an interview before we invite someone in to our geology family. The increased exposure, thus, is all good.

I’ve offered our house and food for interview dinners, as I have in some past job searches, so each candidate will come and share our home for one evening. Anyone familiar with the whirlwind of interviews knows what it is like to have a dinner interview in a public restaurant. Too-loud, inappropriate music that you have to shout over, polite and necessary but utterly derailing wait staff interruptions, problems with logistics and how to get everyone who shows up at the event a chair close enough to hear and be heard. Cross-chat inevitably ensues, the decibel level rises. The only really useful thing is if the candidate is rude to the wait staff, because if that happens, you know this is not a person you want in the family.

Home dinners can offer quieter conversations and reflection, plus time to observe the candidate when he or she or they are tired and have most guards down. This can be a chance to see personality. After nearly sixty years of meeting and greeting and talking, I would hire on character, not accomplishments. You can still make a mistake, there is no perfect method, but you’re less likely to end up lying awake in bed wondering when the knife will slide into your back. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Now for the good stuff. Food. You bet there will be no caterer. I must make up a set of menus, not too repetitive, because many of the department participants will be coming to most if not all of these dinners. Five dinners, with leeway for the vegetarians among us. Only one candidate is a vegetarian, as if so happens, but I am well-aware that while most of the department are omnivores, some prefer to eat low on the food chain.

Color this picture with an oak fire in the fireplace and everyone sitting casually about in comfy chairs. Quiet light, no need for music or wait staff, for I always do these events buffet style. Anyone who leaves hungry has only him her or their self to blame!

So I’m thinking a North African meal, a vegetarian/pescavorian meal, a Middle Eastern meal derived in part from the Ottolenghi cookbooks, an Italian meal– polenta and mushrooms and then, perhaps a Thai dinner. Always enough vegetarian options so that no vegetarian may go hungry!

In the next few days I will share some specific menus, and perhaps even if you don’t want to make a batch of interview meals you may want to try one of these options for home and family.

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Cinnamon Cookies

Making dinner for the interview candidate and members of the department, I wanted something to go with my little custards in their old-fashioned pots. I had in mind a crisp cookie, strong on the cinnamon, a nice contrast to the creamy texture and quiet profile of the custard. Looking through cookbooks, I simply could not find what I wanted so this is what I made:

cinnamon-snaps

They were better than the custards. Hands kept returning to the bowl long after dessert was supposedly finished, to extract another and another and another. So here is the recipe.

R’s Cinnamon Crisps

1 cup butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 large egg

2 to 4 drops cinnamon oil depending on how you feel about cinnamon

2 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons of psyllium husk, ground (optional)

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

grated nutmeg to taste

——————————————————————

Cream butter and sugar, add and beat in egg and cinnamon oil. Add sifted combined dry ingredients remaining, about 1/4 cup at a go, until all is combined. Shape into 1/2″ high by about 2″ flattened logs, recangular in cross-section, about 10″ long. Wrap and chill about 3 hours, then slice 1/4″ thick and arrange on bakinf sheets. Bake in preheated oven (375 F) about ten minutes, but watch them because they burn quickly! Makes about 40 cookies to 50. If you like them un-crisp you can just barely bake them through. That works too.

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The Woodland Wedding Cake

woodland-wedding-cake2

I do not bake as a professional. I simply like food, and enjoy playing with my food despite my mother’s early strictures, much more than perhaps I ought. When my daughter’s friend Amanda became engaged, she and her fiancé came and requested me to make their wedding cake. I have done a few other wedding cakes over the years, so I asked what they had in mind. Well, they said, the theme is a Woodland Wedding.

Ah, I said, a bit like a Buche de Noel? And what are your flavors? So we worked it out.

The product stands above, a Golden Wedding Cake soaked with a simple syrup to maintain moistness, with a Blackberry Cheesecake filling between the layers, a Burgundy Chocolate Ganache bark, white chocolate and marzipan mushrooms, and fondant roses, violets and leaves. The wedding cake basics came from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s classic  The Cake Bible. However, let me admit up front that not one of her recipes escaped my hands unchanged. For one, I do not like a super fine texture of cake– I find it too powdery to use cake flour. Yet a cake made with all-purpose flour is too coarse. So I made a compromise, and adjusted the ‘cake flour substitution’ formula Berenbaum provides, to my tastes. Less cornstarch, more flour.

What I find most interesting about a cake like the one here — which I sub-sected into twelve layers as I built it with the blackberry filling, is how much of the structural supports do not show at all. Every four layers I inserted four plastic straws to act as “rebar” for that section so the pieces would not slide off when the cake was moved. Atop these straws, who were well-hidden in the cake, went a cardboard round (available from cake decorating sources.) If I didn’t do this, the bottom layers would liquefy into soft pudding under the accumulated weight of the upper layers. So the weight is thus held section on section by the straws which support each major section of four cake layers and fillings on the cardboard round below.

Here’s where it gets interesting. My husband made a dowel support because we worried that even with straws and cardboard rounds we might have a mishap when driving the cake through Los Angeles traffic to the wedding site. Below is his construct.

cake-dowels-2

You see that we pre-drilled the cardboard rounds for the two primary “stumps”. The boat-like object is a nice wooden tray made of plywood (for strength) that I had found months before in a thrift store and claimed with glee for this project in mind. My husband rounded another section of plywood, polished and finished it, then drilled the holes for two food-quality dowels (also from the decorating equipment folk.)

In the twelve days before the wedding I colored batches of fondant and marzipan then cut and shaped leaves, flowers, and made white chocolate mushrooms. For you botanists, yes, I made the woodland eclectic, with everything from beech and Eastern oak, violets, sugar maples and sassafras, to gingko!

fondant-leaves

I ended up using the tablespoon and teaspoon measuring spoons for molds to make the white chocolate mushroom caps.

white-chocolate-mushrooms

I also cast my two milk chocolate hedgehogs using a silicone mold I purchased on ebay. Their faces got painted with white chocolate and I placed black glitter sugar in for the eyes and noses. (Black glitter sugar, you say? Think Halloween.) I made their hats of fondant.

hedgehogs-and-violets

These wedding cakes can be stored if you follow Rose Berenbaum’s directions, so I baked my cakes on Wednesday, cooled and wrapped them and let them chill overnight for easier handling. The next day, Thursday, I took them out, crumbed them, sliced each layer in half so it made two layers, drizzled each layer with the prepared syrup,filled with the blackberry cheesecake filling, then set four layers together on cardboard rounds with straws for rebar. After that, I used a simple frosting to cover the basic cake to prevent crumbs from running loose and to make my next day’s work easier. I wrapped all these in plastic and stored them overnight. The next thing I did was sprain my knee. But that’s another story that includes an x-ray and some fuss, a walker and a cane.

violets-and-roses

Friday morning I made the ganache because it needs to be formulated with nearly boiling cream and then must softly cool — at room temperature is best, until you can beat in the butter and it becomes spreadable. That cooling took about six hours, even though I put the bowl of hot ganache in a larger one of cool water to urge it along a bit. Sure, I could have put it in the fridge but I have never had luck with these things when I’ve been impatient– I end up with half the ganache solid and the other half liquid and then the whole thing becomes too stiff to spread!

The wooden base got covered with a food-safe golden foil, then I used strips of wax paper to protect that from the mess I knew placing the cake layers and spreading the ganache would produce. Yes, I was very very nervous getting the wooden dowels through my cakes, but it all worked. On the big cake I centered the monster well, then came down from the top with the dowel, finding the hole in the base by holding my breath. The slanted smaller second stump, I dared to thread on to the dowel because the smaller cakes had greater structural integrity. The ganache went on like a dream, thick rich and super chocolatey.

By the way, the ‘cut’ tops of the stumps were made with a cheesecake white frosting.

cake-preview-from-top

Here I am, after putting on the bark, having some fun with the fondant leaves. I also placed some but not all of the flowers and a few of the mushrooms, using ganache as a glue.

robin-working-on-cake

Then I wrestled the considerable weight of this assemblage into my cleared fridge. There it chilled for about two hours to set the frosting before I wound it all up in plastic wrap for the night.

cake-in-fridge-setting-icing2

It was important that the entire cake be totally chilled for food safety reasons of course– indeed I worked fast enough that after that initial chilling of the new-baked cakes, the cakes never warmed to room temperature until the time of the serving on Saturday. But it is also important to have the construct cold for transport and we indeed had to drive with the cake for about two and a half hours to get it to its destination.

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So there you have it…and yes, it was a wonderful wedding!

woodland-wedding-cake4

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Cookie Press Instructions and Recipe

Like so many of the rest of us, I don’t remember year to year exactly how the Williams – Sonoma cookie press works. Thus, when I haul it out, I try twisting different parts to get it clean and ready to press cookies. My Williams and Sonoma model came without instructions (as apparently is the norm) and I have found none on line. I am also aware of the cries of frustration from other owners. So let me share some illustrations and pointers about how mine works, now that I have embarked upon the rediscovery of its aspects, and let me share with you also my version of a good Spritz cookie dough for the machine, one that is more tender and flavorful than the old recipe I found in a cookbook. Perhaps most importantly – it extrudes well!

boxes-of-ready-cookies

So as you will see I make boxes of cookies and then assemble many plates for giving to family and friends. Someone asked me last week if I participated in a cookie exchange. No, I’m sorry, I can imagine nothing that would better take the fun out of getting the chance to guiltlessly make every sort of cookie I feel like making! And I have a suite of favorite recipes. I think it’s a rare year that I make fewer than twelve types.

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So here is a photo of my press with all the parts that are supposed to disassemble, separated for cleaning. Next, a series showing how to put the item together.

detail-of-notches-in-holder

The ring at the application end has a series of notches that you must align with the protrusions on the metal barrel before you pull off the plastic base ring. Lefty-loosey, righty tighty.

depress-key-to-pull-out-serrated-plunger

You will want to depress the ‘key’ at the top of the barrel in order to release the plunger to withdraw it to the top of its settings. Now– pack the dough into the cylindrical barrel with your fingers. Use gloves — nitrile gloves are great for this purpose. When the cylinder is well-packed, select your metal pattern and set it on the dough.

assembling-better

Push the ring on to the barrel trapping the metal pattern in place against the dough and screw the ring a half turn on to secure it to the barrel..

When pressing the cookies onto the pan make sure the pan is cool, and not greasy. Either of these issues will make the cookie adhere more to the press than to the cookie sheet! Also, relax, pump the trigger once and wait for a count of three. The first cookie is likely not to be perfect, and you may find that more dough comes out at each pump as you go on, probably due to a slight warming of the cylinder in your hands. Remember that you can give a pump and a half, if you want a bit more dough but you don’t want as much as two pumps would give. It’s an art form!

placing-cookies-on-sheet

I like dusting these cookies with colored sparkling sugars before baking. Sometimes as many as three hues per cookie– this seems to give a very cheerful effect.

cookies-on-pan-and-rack

Here’s the recipe itself– modified substantially from the old one I used to follow, to give a shorter dough and a more tender and fragrant crumb. Makes about six dozen.

SPRITZ                                                                                                                                                              (all ingredients room temperature and oven at 375 Farenheit)

2 cups unsalted butter creamed with 1 1/3 cups sugar. Add one egg and beat until fluffy. Add 1 tablespoon milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract. First sift together, then add by the quarter cup, 4 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and a 1/4 teaspoon salt.

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Haste to the Wedding Cake

 

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…and don’t forget the mushrooms. Here is my first draft, at approximately one third or one quarter size, of the ‘woodsy’ wedding cake I will make for two friends who will marry this January. Raspberry filling, golden wedding cake recipe from Rose Berenbaum’s Cake Bible, a sour cream and milk chocolate ganache to frost and then hold on the black chocolate bark elements, and a cream cheese white frosting dribbled for the cut trunk surfaces. I made some fast punted white chocolate mushrooms, but will do better next time. I scraped a little white chocolate over the bark to brighten the details then dusted the mushrooms and ‘wood’surfaces with cocoa powder, then the bark with confectioner’s sugar. Now my friends will arrive in a few minutes and get to taste. We will discuss what we want to change. I have a LOT of ideas on that…. But it’s a first draft after all!

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Last Comment on All For Pie

concord grapes in box

I must share with you the final tally in our effort to save our concord grapes from the rats. We put up eighteen pies’ worth of concord grapes in the freezer– this is seventy two cups after stemming. So yes, it was worth the labor and the invention of rat proofs!

Grape Pie

Oven 400 F

9″ unbaked pie shell

Topping:

3/4 c flour

1/2 c sugar

cut in 1/3 c butter until crumbly

Filling: Combine these three ingredients thoroughly.

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

dash of salt

————–

1 Tb lemon juice or more

1 Tb melted butter

4 cups concord-type grapes


Slip the skins from the grapes and put the sugar combination with the skins in a bowl. Simmer the grape innards until very soft, soft enough to easily press through a sieve to remove the seeds. I have tried other methods but none work as well as this one. Mix the now seedless grape pulp with the other filling ingredients including the melted butter and lemon juice. Pour into the pie crust and scatter the crumbly topping over the top before baking for 40 to 50 minutes. Best served at room temperature, not hot.

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