Friday, April 29, 2011

I attend a Royal Wedding party in absentia

I am really tickled by this:  Kay McNight, a friend from Salem College (where I taught from 1995 - 2002 and where I was last year for a sabbatical) made scones using my recipe and the rosemary-orange cake that I posted a few weeks ago (that recipe, you'll recall, came from Maryn Lewallen, a reader in Tanzania).  Talk about global!  Kay kindly shared this photo of her results:

On the plate (clockwise from top):  deviled egg, rosemary-orange cake, strawberry jam, Devon cream, and a scone.  (Photo courtesy of Kay McKnight)
Kay has impeccable style, as the photo clearly demonstrates.  I'm glad she didn't just tuck in (it's what I usually do) and actually paused to take the picture.  She and her guests liked the scones and cake very much:  she described the scones as the best she's ever had, and at my suggestion, she asked her guests to try to figure out what was in the cake.  They loved the cake, but didn't figure out that it was made with whole wheat flour and rosemary!

Though I was soundly tucked up in my bed when Kate and William tied the knot, I'm glad to have played a role, however indirectly, in the celebration.  I wish them many years of happiness, and I wish you, the reader, much joy of baking--and eating!  Thanks so much, Kay, for sending this along.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Recipe: "Picnic" Cake

For a dinner party we had here last night, I baked a cake that has long been traditional in Sue's family.  The much-stained recipe card bears the title "Great-Grandma Becker's Picnic Cake."  That makes Sue and me the fourth generation to bake it.  Exactly how old the recipe is, I can't be sure.  I'm inclined to say that it isn't all that old, because of the use of sour cream.  That wasn't widely available commercially until about the first quarter of the 20th century.  Still, a recipe that's been around for a hundred years is pretty venerable.  That it's time-tested is nice; more importantly, it's delicious.

The name "Picnic Cake" is interesting.  Reading the recipe, I'd be inclined to call  this a molasses cake, or maybe a molasses spice cake.  I think the name "Picnic Cake" came about in Sue's family because this was Grandma Becker's standard cake to make for a picnic.  It's the kind of cake--heavy, dense, and not likely to dry out easily--that would hold up well in a picnic basket.

This is not a delicate gateau:  it's a sturdy, hearty cake.  It keeps well; indeed, it tastes better the next day.  I've made a few slight changes to the original recipe; nothing really major.  My version is a tiny bit moister than the original, and I like that about it.  But no matter what, this is a tried and true recipe that you're sure to enjoy.

(click here for a printer-friendly version)

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • pinch of salt
  • 3-1/2 cups white flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch of nutmeg and ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup chopped nuts, such as pecans
  • 1/2 cup very hot water or hot coffee


1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Grease and flour a tube pan or a 9 x 13-inch pan (or spray it with Baker's Joy).

2.  Using a wire whisk, combine the oil, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl.

3.  Stir in the molasses (warm it for a few seconds in the microwave and measure it in the cup you used for the oil--this will make it easy to pour and easy to get from the measuring cup), sour cream, and vanilla.

4.  Add a cup of the flour with the spices, salt, and cocoa, and stir to combine.  Add two more cups of flour, and stir quickly.

5.  Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of flour with the baking soda, and stir that in.  (You could also combine all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and stir them all in at once.  This saves dirtying another bowl, and it works just as well.)  Stir in the hot water or coffee, then the raisins and nuts.

6.  Immediately pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top with a spatula, and tap the pan once sharply on the counter to settle the batter and get rid of any large air bubbles.

7.  Bake in the middle of the preheated oven.  The tube pan will take 1 hour and 20 minutes to 1 hour and 30 minutes.  The 9 x 13-inch pan will take about an hour; less if it's glass.  The cake is done when a toothpick or broom straw inserted into it comes out clean.

8.  Cool 1/2 hour before removing from the pan if using the tube pan.  Dust the top with powdered sugar if you like.  You can serve it directly from the 9 x 13-inch pan while it's still a bit warm, which is also wonderful.

I never met Great-Grandma Becker, but I've met many of her descendants.  There's something very reassuring about baking something that women (and at least one man--me!) in Sue's family have been making for a century or more.  It makes me hope that people we love and their descendants might still be eating this cake at a lovely picnic a hundred years from now.  I'm sure Great-Grandma Becker would be pleased.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Early English

There are ducklings hatching all around us; I see a new brood almost every day when I walk through the park with the dog.  For some reason, seeing the hatchlings this afternoon reminded me of when the girls were little.  One of them--I'm now not sure which--pronounced very solemnly from her crib when she was less than two years old, "I have two ducks."  And she did.  Two stuffed toy ducks.  That I cannot now remember who said that is a testament to their early language skills:  both were pretty good talkers from an early age.  I wonder where they got that?  (I am rumored to have startled the family doctor by correctly identifying a stethoscope and a sphygmomanometer--a thing you use to check blood pressure--sometime before the age of five.  I think this is possibly an exaggeration, as that's an awful lot of Ss and THs for a little kid to get out successfully.  I know a lot of adults who would need surgery to untangle their tongues if they attempted it.)

I can tell you with confidence who declared, "Actually, Daddy, you usually wear a shirt."  This was Elizabeth, sometime between the ages of two and three.  I had gone in early in the morning to get her out of her crib.  I had my trousers on, but I hadn't yet put my shirt on.  Hence the accurate and precociously worded observation.

The early acquisition of language is incredibly fun to watch.  I am sure both kids had a sound for certain objects before they actually had a word--they'd squeal in a particular way when they saw a dog, for instance.  Elizabeth was sometimes hard to understand--Ls and Rs eluded her--but somehow I could always follow what I quickly dubbed Elizabethan English.  Miriam's specialty was referring to things by part of their names.  For instance, spaghetti was "gobby" for a long time.  Eventually, that grew into "spee-gobby," and that made it clear where "gobby" had come from.  Miriam used to like the songs from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.  "Marie!  The speegobby!" she'd exclaim in the opening number.  It took us a while to figure out that she had misheard "baguettes" as "spaghetti." 

That's all a long time ago now.  Both girls, as I still call them, I'm embarrassed to admit, are incredibly articulate and often outspoken young women. (I hope you're reading Elizabeth's blog, "Lizard Breath."  There's a link over there on the right.)  Both speak a couple of languages other than English, and it looks as though Spanish is going to prove to be Elizabeth's meal ticket for a long time.  Not only do they speak well, what they say is usually well worth listening to.  It has been from an early age, for both of them.  Either they were saying something worth hearing, or they were saying it a whole lot more clearly than little children usually do.  Often, it was both.

So whenever I see those little ducklings, I am likely to think of that morning when one of them--it doesn't matter which--proclaimed with both linguistic and arithmetical accuracy, "I have two ducks."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Yesterday was Miriam's 21st birthday.  She is away at college, so in keeping with tradition, I baked some cookies and mailed them to her.  (This always costs more than I think it should; perhaps the post office should create a special rate for food from home.)  I would have posted the recipe sooner, but I wanted the cookies to be a surprise--at least a little.

Let me say that I think it's impossible to make a bad chocolate chip cookie.  (You will disagree if you just don't like chocolate chip cookies, but I've never met anyone like that.)  Further, I think people get pretty definite about what they like in a chocolate chip cookie:  nuts?  no nuts?  chewy?  crispy?  You get my drift.  So I am not saying this is the only way, or even the best way, to make chocolate chip cookies.  But it's a good way, and the fact that Miriam has already eaten something like half of them on her own suggests that I might be right on this topic.

Whether I can say I invented these or not, I'm not really sure.  What I did (and maybe this is what serious recipe inventors do) was to conflate a couple of different recipes--three, to be exact.  First, there's the famous $250 cookie recipe, but that's a bit of a fuss to make, and it comes out very sweet.  Then there's the Nieman-Marcus response to the $250 cookie, which looked pretty good, but not quite what I wanted--for one thing, it didn't make enough cookies!  Finally, there's the traditional Toll House recipe, which, to be fair, is still probably the best one around.   I took what looked the best to me from each and put it together.  This can be a tricky business:  you have to get the proportion of dry to liquid ingredients correct, and you have to get the leavening correct.  I was lucky on both counts.  One goal was to make them somewhat less cloyingly sweet, so these have less sugar in them than any of the other recipes.  Here's the recipe I devised:

(click here to open a printer-friendly version of the recipe)

·  2-1/2 sticks (1-1/4 cup) butter, softened
·  1 cup light brown sugar
·  ½ cup granulated sugar
·  2 large eggs
·  1 tablespoon vanilla extract
·  2 cups all purpose flour
·    1-1/2 cups oatmeal ground in a blender (yields about a cup of oatmeal “flour”)
·  1 teaspoon baking powder
·  1/2 teaspoon baking soda
·  1/2 teaspoon salt
·  1 tablespoon instant espresso coffee powder
·  1 12-oz bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
·    2 3.5-ounce bars bittersweet chocolate (I use Green & Black’s 70% cocoa), roughly chopped in a blender to chocolate chip size
1.  Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream the butter using an electric mixer on medium speed, then add the sugars and beat until fluffy.

2.  Beat in the eggs and the vanilla extract for another 30 seconds.

3.  In another bowl, stir the dry ingredients together.  Stir them into the butter mixture at low speed until well blended. Stir in the chocolate chips and chocolate pieces.  (If you like chopped nuts, you could add some of these too at this point—probably a cup or a bit more.)

4.  Using a 1-ounce scoop or a 2 tablespoon measure, form the dough into balls and place on a greased cookie sheet about 3 inches apart. Gently press down on the dough with the palm of your hand to spread out into a 2 inch circle. Bake for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned around the edges. Bake a little longer for a crispier cookie.  If you put two trays of cookies in the oven at a time (a good idea in this case), be sure to rotate them about halfway through the baking time to ensure that they bake evenly. 

5.  Cool about a minute on the sheet, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.  When thoroughly cool, put in an airtight container, where they will keep for several days—if they last that long.

Yield:  About 4 dozen cookies, depending on the size.

A word about cookie yield:  obviously, if you make the cookies bigger or smaller, you will get fewer or more.  I got about 40 out of this batch, but some of them were on the large side.  My favorite yield in a recipe comes from a book by Sandra Boynton, who made some fabulous children's books and greeting cards back in the 1980s.  (Where she is now or what she's doing, I have no idea.)  She wrote a delightful little book on chocolate, full of all kinds of funny things--the cover is pictured above.  One of the funniest things in it was her chocolate chip cookie recipe.  After mixing, the cook is instructed to taste the batter.  Alongside the recipe, there's a drawing of a hippo wearing a chef's hat pouring the batter down its throat.  The next instruction?  Bake the remaining batter.  Yield:  1 cookie.

If you prefer this as unbaked batter, go for it, as long as you trust your eggs.  I mean, cookies aren't a health food, and there's no right or wrong way to enjoy them.  That's why they're so great.  And if you have a chocolate chip cookie recipe you swear by, go ahead and bake them--don't bother with mine!  But if this inspires you to bake some kind of chocolate chip cookie, I'm sure the people around you will thank you.

ADDENDUM (10-28-2012):   I baked a couple of batches of these this weekend and decided I wanted them a little softer.  So I increased the butter, decreased the flour, and added a little more vanilla.  The proportions in the recipe above are the corrected amounts, because these were A LOT better!  You can just scoop them onto the sheet--no need to shape or flatten them.  They will turn out beautiful and have a much nicer (to my way of thinking) texture.  If you like the sturdier cookie, cut the butter back to 2 sticks, and increase the flour to 2-1/2 cups.  Use 2 or 3 teaspoons of vanilla.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thoughts on Climate Change

Maybe it's the approach of Earth Day (I remember the first time it was observed in 1970), or maybe it's the fact that I paid $3.65 per gallon for gasoline yesterday.  Whatever it is, I've been thinking about climate change recently.

Let me state up front that I believe that climate change is a problem and that it is at least partly human-caused.  I have friends who are equally convinced that the whole thing is a hoax, ginned up by overzealous environmentalists and crackpot scientists.  So let's grant that we can't be absolutely sure, one way or the other, whether the changes we can observe in the climate have a human cause.  (We can see that there is less ice at the poles, for instance--what we can't agree on is the cause, and therefore we can't agree on the response.)

Given that I won't convince my friends that climate change is real and they won't convince me that it's not, it seems pointless to continue that discussion.  So let's have a different conversation.  Let's examine the consequences of adopting one or the other point of view.

One view holds that while the climate might be changing--there is less ice at the poles--it has nothing to do with human action.  If you follow that logic, it means that people don't have to change their behavior:  they don't have to try to use less electricity or gasoline; they can (therefore) stop buying those funny-looking light bulbs, they can drive cars that use lots of gas, and so on.  The benefit of this viewpoint is that we can keep on as we are without worrying about the climate.

The other view holds that people must change their actions--buy the corkscrew-shaped bulbs, figure out how to reduce their "carbon footprint," use less power and less fuel generally--so that we reduce the amount of fossil fuel we burn.  That way, we reduce the amount of stuff we're releasing into the atmosphere that's contributing to the changes in our climate.  There seem to be a lot of costs associated with that one.  We have to make sacrifices, we have to invent new technologies, and possibly worst of all, we have to use those silly light bulbs.

OK, so far so good.  (Although, to be honest, I'm guessing that you're already steamed, no matter which side of this question you're on.)  Now, what happens if we behave as if climate change is real, but it turns out we were wrong?  We use a lot of funky light bulbs.  We build cars that burn less gasoline or that run on something other than gasoline.  We use less electricity and maybe have some to use for other purposes.  We burn less coal, which means we have to put fewer miners at risk of their lives.  We use less oil, which therefore makes our economy and daily life less vulnerable to bad stuff happening in places where they have oil (think Iraq or Libya).  With both coal and oil, we wouldn't have to wreck the landscape as much to get at it or employ expensive technologies to access it (both are increasingly difficult to get at in traditional ways).  We might have fewer opportunities to foul beaches with oil spills.  In short, I see a lot of benefits there that have nothing to do with the climate:  cleaner air and water, less dependence on a resource that is finite, and less dependence on a resource that is subject to volatile politics and economics, to name a few.  It seems to me there's very little risk in behaving as though climate change is real.  Yes, there are some inconveniences (in case you can't tell, I'm not a fan of those ugly light bulbs).  There are costs--retooling to use less fossil fuel means spending money.  I suspect, however, that the costs are more than offset by the innovations.  You need to build new cars, a new fleet of aircraft, etc., etc.  Inventing, designing, and building all that stuff could actually be a spur to the economy, not a drain on it.

And if we go on as we are, assuming that the whole climate change thing is just so much hokum?  Well, we keep releasing stuff into the air air that isn't so good to breathe, we end up with stuff in the water that isn't good to drink, we are dependent on the political whims of some really scary people, and we are relying almost exclusively on something that is bound to run out sooner rather than later.  So there are costs that have nothing to do with climate.  And if that view is wrong, we have all those costs, and we wreak the havoc that climate change will cause.

Unless somebody can convince me that there are really, really good reasons to keep going as we are and risk messing up the climate, it seems to me to be the far wiser choice to assume that climate change is real.  There are benefits to doing so, while the costs of being wrong are small.  On the other side, there are few benefits to keeping on keeping on, and the costs of being wrong are monumental.

In other words, I'm applying the reasoning of Pascal's Wager to climate change.  Pascal basically posited that since it was not possible to prove the existence or non-existence of God through reason, the reasonable choice was to assume that God exists--because you'd be in a real mess if you acted otherwise and it turned out you were wrong.  (By the way, Pascal wasn't making a theological argument, he was really looking at the limitations of reason.) 

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not going to shout "climate change" every time the weather is weird on a particular day.  I know that such things really are possible within the normal variation of weather.  But I am going to continue to worry that we're messing things up irreversibly, that we'd better change our tune, and what's more, I'm willing to be wrong about it, because I think we'll still end up ahead of the game.

Now, I've probably overlooked something, and I'm sure you'll let me know what it is.  For the meanwhile, I am going to continue to drive my relatively fuel-efficient cars, buy appliances that use the least energy possible, and yes, even put up with those stupid-looking light bulbs that take forever to come to full brightness.  I just think the risks of not doing so, should climate change turn out to be real, are too great.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Gilding the Lily (or, pick up my poopy)

I'm just about to head out to walk the dog.  He likes his walk.  Indeed, he lives for it.  He gets antsy for hours before he thinks it's time for it and generally pesters me until I relent.

Like a good citizen, I will pick up after him.  The local homeowner's association even provides bags for the purpose, which is very kind of them.  Yet (as you can imagine) I have a beef.  The bags are labeled "Poopy Pouch Doggy Poo Bags."  The company promotes them by saying, "Dogs love our POOPY POUCH DOGGY POO BAGS, almost as much as their owners do."  (The extra comma before "almost" is their fault, not mine.)  Visit their website if you'd like to see for yourself.

But it's not the minor punctuation error that bugs me.  (It probably won't surprise you to learn that I am a punctuation fanatic.)  It's the euphemisms.  First, Buddy is not a "doggy."  He weighs 65 pounds, he has a low center of gravity, and he packs the punch of a linebacker.  He's good-hearted, but he will knock you to the floor with his enthusiasm if you let him.  Basically, when Buddy comes at you, it's like someone caught you in the solar plexus with a medicine ball traveling about 95 miles an hour.  You won't know what hit you.

And Buddy doesn't leave "doggy poo" behind.  It's nothing that dainty; after all, he's a 65-pound dog.  What he does leave barely fits in the bag, but I'll be polite and not give it the obvious name.  You can supply it for yourself.  Calling the thing you put it in a "poopy pouch" is the last straw.

All this cuteness sends me into a diabetic coma.  Is it somehow supposed to make me feel better about an unpleasant and annoying task?  It has the opposite effect on me, just because of the overdone cute factor.  Why call the bag anything?  Why not just put a sign on the dispenser that says, "We appreciate it when you pick up after your dog."  Period.  No dainty, cuddly labels.  No pictures of paw prints on the bag, no cartoon dogs, no diminutives, just get to the point.

It's bad enough that I have to pick up after the dog--after all, who owns who here?  I think it was George Carlin who noted that if a Martian landed, he'd figure the dog was the leader:  after all, who's carrying whose leavings in a bag?  Surely the one in charge doesn't do that.  So I do my duty as a civic-minded person and clean up, but I don't like doing it, and I don't want somebody to try to jolly me up about it.

While I'm griping about things to do with dogs, let me mention that I didn't sire Buddy and don't wish to be referred to as his father.  Nor is he my child, to the great relief, I'm sure, of my actual children.  So don't call me his daddy or refer to him as my baby.  Ugh.  Do I like Buddy?  Well, I'll answer the way Golde does in Fiddler on the Roof:  I feed him, I walk him, I pick up after him, and I put up with his antics.  If that's not love, what is?  But I don't confuse that with parenthood, just like I don't need somebody to put dainty decorations on the bags I use to pick up after him.

Call me a grouch if you want.  I'm just saying it's OK to call a spade a spade.  And now, off to walk the dog....

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pointing (or giving?) the Finger

When I saw this article by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times asking "Why Pay Congress" if they allow a government shutdown on Friday, I thought, "exactly."  I had been mulling the same question earlier in the evening.  Why should they get paid if they don't do the job?

But really, who's to blame?  The Congress, or the people who elected the Congress?  I think we're too willing to blame "government," as though it were something separate from us.  The US Constitution famously begins, "We, the people..."  Lincoln described our system eloquently at Gettysburg when he called the United States a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."  When government doesn't work, citizens bear a healthy share of the responsibility.  We elected those representatives who aren't doing their job, or we sat on our hands and didn't vote, which is possibly worse.

It's fashionable right now to suggest that the US government is too big and too expensive.  But as I've observed before, we're only willing to cut things that someone else gets:  our government benefits, whatever they may be, are right and proper and can't possibly be cut.  In fact, I suspect that's probably true in most cases, so we should stop carping and pay the bills.  When Noa, my student from Venezuela, was here, I observed, "Everyone wants smaller government until they need something from the government.  If there's a hurricane, or a flood, or an oil spill, or someone gets gravely ill, they want government help.  It's just that we think we can have smaller government all the rest of the time and expect it to work for us in a crisis."

I share the belief that we should count on the government when something really bad happens, but we need to understand that the machinery has to be in place.  You can't expect to invent it on the spot only when you need it.  You see, I think that government is a good way for people to get together to solve problems that would be harder to solve on your own or in small groups.  It's a big-box theory, actually, a bit like those big stores that succeed because they do such a big volume:  spread the problem around among 350 million people, and it has a whole lot less impact on any one person than if a few people had to bear the burden alone.  Unfortunately, beginning around 1980 with election of Ronald Reagan, it has become an article of faith in American politics that government causes problems instead of solving them.  I don't believe that, but it's how we behave now.  We no longer have any faith (if ever we did) in the ability of government to make things better.

My grandmother liked to describe the American way of life as "Hooray for me and the hell with you."  If that was true years ago when she said it, it seems to be more true now.  The mood of a lot of the American electorate boils down to "you're on your own."  Sick and old in the US?  You're on your own.  Poor and uneducated in the US?  You're on your own.  A kid in the US from a poor family?  On your own.  And so on.  This thinking comes from people who've made it.  They say, "Hey, I am doing pretty well, what's wrong with those other people?"  Well, if you're sick or old or poor or uneducated or from a place where it's nearly impossible to get a decent education, how are you supposed to make it on your own?  For me, that's where we come in--as people who, through the instrument of government, extend a helping hand.  Otherwise, Grandma was right:  America is Hooray for Me and the Hell with You.

Some years ago, there was a famous Pogo cartoon with the caption, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."  It originally referred to the mess we're making of the planet, but it just as easily applies to government.  Yes, those folks we elected to Congress should get to work and solve something.  They should remember that government is by, of, and most of all, for the people.  They should remember that government, efficiently and properly run, can be our best way to harness the mass energy that is the American people and put it to work solving problems.  But if they don't, we need to place the blame at least partly with the people who put them in office.  And that, my friends, is no other enemy than the one Pogo identified almost exactly 40 years ago.

The problem isn't (only) Congress.  It's us.