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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Strange Signs of Spring and Red Velvet Cupcakes

At work the other day, the tree outside my window all of a sudden became full with fat, feathery robins.

"Look, look!" I exclaim to my coworkers. "Robins are here! Spring is coming!"



They just looked at each other and laughed. I guess every single day I'm going to say something that sounds like common sense and learn that over here, it is pretty much the opposite. 

"Where do you think the robins were back in December?"

I don't know where they went, but I'm pretty sure they weren't around here. I mean, I think I would know. I watch out for birds a lot. But I didn't say anything.

"Come here. Let me show you something." Now my self-doubt has moved to full on coworker-skepticism, but I follow him into the office next door. He points to a tree full of red berries. "You see that tree? When spring is REALLY coming, all the robins will start eating the berries off that tree. They aren't eating them now, because the berries aren't ready. They need to be fermented to a certain degree. The robins eat them, get drunk, and lay around on the ground. THAT'S when you know spring is coming."

"So you're telling me that seeing robins alone is not an indication of spring, its a group of robins getting collectively drunk."

"Yes."

I was fairly certain he had made the whole thing up when wouldn't you know it, a day or two later the woman from the next office -- who wasn't there the day of our discussion-- shouts out: "They're eating the berries! They're doing it!"

I guess it's really going to take at least a full year before I can start to understand the strange norms and traditions of the Palouse. Also, I'm less inclined to believe them now that it's been snowing for the past 14 hours.

Anyway, I like hanging out with the girls in Rob's program because they all come from seemingly more normal places and can understand the adjustments it takes to live out here. So when it was a new friend's birthday, obviously I felt inclined to make some cupcakes, something way better than what you can get at the town's only bakery, Sweet Mutiny. 

I did some research into what would make the perfect red velvet cupcake. I wanted a recipe that had a good technique for making that bright red color. I liked the idea of making a paste from cocoa powder, vanilla extract and red food coloring to get the chocolate nice and bright before adding red to an already-chocolatey-brown cake batter. Only a scant amount of white vinegar. Buttermilk was fine, but I'd have to make my own with lemon juice and milk. No other weird ingredients aside from the sugar, eggs, flour basics. I decided on this recipe from Brown Eyed Baker, which came out great. 

As for the frosting, I didn't want the cream cheese kind. I read that the real traditional frosting for red velvet cakes were "cooked", but I didn't know what that meant. So a little further investigation proved that indeed, you cook down milk and flour into a non-buttery roux, cool it completely and add it to a whipped butter-sugar mixture. It's alluring because it winds up super fluffy, like whipped cream, and only slightly sweet, as the milk/flour tempers that pure sweet flavor of regular icing. I went with this recipe because I liked the pictures and the step-by-step instructions, which I needed because I was doing this on my lunch break and needed these done stat.

Anyway, I sort of botched this whole thing because after one batch of cupcakes I realized I'd need to make another, but I didn't think I had any more red food coloring, so I made them regular. Of course I found more red food coloring tucked away a few days later. And as for the frosting, all my butter was frozen, and I'm not the best at defrosting the proper way. So the consistency was all wrong. But boy I know the potential is there. 



Don't let my semi-failure deter you and try this cake+frosting combination out! Because regardless of what the drunk robins are telling you, spring's not here and bikini diets can wait.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Snowy Befuddlements and Homemade Candles

I know I've already done that blog post ranting about how bad the roads are here in the winter. But the winter's still not over and I'm still not done complaining about it.

"You made it!" They might say when I huff into the office in the morning, looking like an angry Eskimo wrapped in way more winter gear than anyone else. "Yeah," I'd grunt. "I'm a little late because I got stuck behind a zamboni on my way here." They'll look at me funny because they don't quite get my humor yet, and I don't make it any easier by not smiling.

Obviously, there is no street-zamboni. But after it snows and melts a little and then freezes again, the roads are about as slippery as the skating rink I could never stay upright on as a teenager. And when everyone lives on a steep hill, they close down the super steep ones and you just have to pray your way down the lesser -- but still very scary -- ski jump of a neighborhood road.

Last week I learned that it's not even safe to leave the parking lot for lunch! Because they don't shovel or salt the parking lot. Well, they don't salt ANYTHING, because salt might ruin the crops in the springtime, and we can't risk not having wheat or garbanzos come spring! We must risk every human life in favor of a few more legumes, lest the Lentil Festival become just another lackluster day! But I digress, the parking lot was iced to this fun degree where the harder you break the faster you move forward? So as I'm barreling towards the road there is, of course, a very unaware pedestrian walking down the sidewalk, minding his own business, maybe playing with his phone, maybe looking at his shoes.

And I can't stop!

BEEP BEEP BEEEEP.

Frantically tapping on the horn is all I can think of to do, since the whole pumping-the-brakes thing doesn't seem to stick.


He hops out of the way just in time, and my car brushes his side on his warpath back to the street. I gain control of the car and check my rear view mirror. He's waving me on as if to say, I'm fine, this happens every day, don't worry about me. Kind of like the British guy in European Vacation who acts like everything's kosher even though blood is spurting out of his wrist. In England and in Pullman, before all else, you gotta be polite. 

The whole townwide and collegewide refusal to handle snow here will probably never stop baffling me.

But to prove I'm not all moans and groans, here's a fun soy candle recipe to try! Because if you're not a fan of ice, might as well make a little fire.

HOW TO MAKE SOY CANDLES

You'll need:

  • Soy chips
  • Thermometer
  • Essential Oil
  • Wicks
  • Jars
Put jars in the oven at 125 degrees to pre-heat them. I like squat mason jars.


 
Set up a double boiler. Pour in the soy chips into the bowl and stir as they melt. I've found that measuring or weighing gets confusing, and who has time for that anyway? So instead, use the jar or container as a measuring cup and multiply by about four (so four jars of soy chips would equal about one jar of melted wax). Better to overestimate than underestimate. You can always put the extra wax in tea light candles, if you have those laying around.



Melt the wax to 185 degrees. In that time, the wax will go from melted and soapy, to clear with dollops of cloudiness, to straight up clear liquid. It's all normal.




Now turn off the heat! And take the bowl off the double boiler to bring it back down to temperature quicker. Now is when you want to add your essential oil. They usually say about an ounce of fragrance per pound of wax, but if you ask me, that's not enough! Pour that stuff in with a confident and steady hand. Some of it will evaporate anyway, even though you aren't still heating the wax. I used orange, which doesn't have the medicinal stink of teatree or eucalyptus. 



Wait til you're down to 125 before you pour wax into the pre-heated jars. Stick the wicks in. It's hard to keep them centered, but before you buy something dumb like a wick bar, just place scissors and pens and other miscellany around them to keep them in place. 


Let dry overnight, and hurray! A little ray of light to keep you warm until spring. Just make sure you cut down the wick so you don't burn the house down.


Stay tuned! Your favorite Brooklynite-turned-Pullmanite might try cheesemaking next.


*If you noticed that I was going for four candles and only had enough wax for three, maybe you'll remember why I said its best to overestimate a tad.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Brunch in Spokane

If there's anything I need to really stress about living here, it is this: It is REALLY tough to be a food-loving transplant living in Pullman. All the Chinese restaurants here in Pullman are oversauced and undersalted, the Thai places mess up on balance, even the simple sandwich places slog through with underwhelming deli meat (which, considering the lack of decent meat around here, isn't entirely their fault, I guess). I've been getting better at cooking at home and it's certainly become more natural. 

But I miss brunch. I miss that big heavy meal that I eat early in the day to fuel the shopping and running around that lies ahead on the weekends.

Thank God that Spokane is only about an hour and a half away, a drive that seems to get shorter and more reasonable the longer I live here. I'm starting to understand that time is a totally different thing out here in the middle of nowhere. I'm reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time right now and maybe I can explain it soon. But for now, all I can say is that having restaurant eggs less than two hours away is suddenly not unreasonable.

The other weekend we finally made it to Sante, one of the more highly recommended restaurants in the Spokane area. It's as close to Brooklyn as it can be with its nose-to-tail, farm-to-table approach to food. Everything we got was heavy and creamy and made us just a liiiittle too slow for me to make it back for my gym class in time, which was just fine with me. 

We started with a latte and a mocha. The caffeinated indulgence necessary to any decent brunch.




Then we got a shared a heavenly gnocci dish with guanciale, sweet potato and sage. The creamy sauce made it even more disgustingly delicious.


I had a benedict of some sort, which despite the presence of another heavy topping in the hollandaise, was much welcomed after a canned hollandaise at the (sadly much-loved) Breakfast Club in Moscow the weekend or so before. Rob had some kind of shirred eggs which were really tasty but also strangely fishy considering they didn't list anything seafoody on the menu. Hrmm.



Well, it was like old times again, heading off from brunch and walking straight for some shopping, albeit in a mall and not Bedford or the Brooklyn flea. It was better for the wedding shopping we needed to do, anyway.

Before heading home we did a crazy free-for-all spree at Trader Joe's, as we usually do when we're in Spokane. It always seems indulgent at the time, but I thank myself weeks and weeks later as I'm making awesome berry smoothies or snacking on vanilla bean flecked yogurt or reheating frozen pizza when we're in a pinch. And this time we've discovered something amazing, thanks to a tipoff from some Pullmanite friends: Trader Joe's frozen chocolate and almond croissants! Look how they puff up overnight and then bake into buttery perfection!




This morning we noshed on these puppies as we perused online stores for registry items in our PJs. Not quite as good as a brunch/shopping weekend in Spokane, but pretty close.