Of pumpkin bread and parades

Program note: My annual live-blog of the Macy’s parade starts tomorrow (er, today) at 9 AM EST. That’s less than eight hours from now. Tradition demands commitment, especially (or maybe only) when it’s fun.

Because it’s also tradition to have a pumpkin muffin for breakfast while I watch, I decided to go big this year. Normally I stop by my parents’ house and pick up a bag of muffins that my mother has baked, because she’s been baking awesome pumpkin bread for years and years for the holidays. She always has a fresh batch for Thanksgiving. But this year I got her recipe, and although I still haven’t managed to get her recipes for butter cream frosting or banana bread (not because she’s unwilling to, but because any time I bring it up it’s never convenient for her to go find them), I can now make pumpkin bread.

I’ll post the recipe in a later post, pending permission to do so.

This was my first attempt baking anything from scratch, ever. I doubled the recipe, which normally covers one loaf or about six large muffins, because a 15 oz. can of pumpkin has enough for that plus a little extra, and I didn’t want to deal with wasting more pumpkin than I had to. (Also, conveniently, one bag of chocolate chips was a cup and a half, just enough for two batches.)

My intent was to make muffins only, but I only have the one muffin pan: a silicone one I had not yet used, but had ordered some time ago on Amazon. (The silicone pan stank up the house a bit when it first went in, so pro tip: when you get a new silicone muffin pan, give it a wash and then bake it for a short while to make it offgas, while no one’s around.) Since I did have some loaf pans, I decided to make a loaf with the second half of the batter.

This was also my first time using my hand mixer that I’ve had for a while; I haven’t had occasion to bake, but I wanted to have one on hand for when I finally did. I will say this is probably a crapload easier to make with a stand mixer, but it worked out well enough—especially considering that I forgot I needed to bring my butter up to room temperature before creaming.

All told, my first run at baking went fantastically well. One muffin split in half when I removed it, but it may have been a structural defect from an abnormally strong fault line of chocolate chips. The others came out fine, and when I went to remove the loaf I carefully ran a knife around the edge of the pan before turning it out, and it came out smoothly after that. The muffin that broke became my taste test, and the flavor and texture were right where I wanted them to be. I got a result every bit as good as what my mother makes.

Tomorrow: Snark and frivolity! Check back soon for the live-blog.

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RIP, Dust Bunny

Before there was Grumpy Cat, there was Dust Bunny: the original and the greatest.

Dust Bunny was 17 years old this year. Born in 1998 and taken away from her litter much too young, she came to my family as a tiny gray kitten (hence the name) and we bottle-fed her kitten formula in her early days. Probably as a result of not having littermates to play with, she ended up with no sense of proportion about anything she did and was therefore bitey, ornery, and kind of mean. But I loved her anyway.

A few years ago she came to live with me and my wife, having stayed with my parents after we got married. After a waiting period—because we had leukemia cats in the house and it was best to wait—my three cats came to live with us one by one, with Bunny being the last. Unlike the other cats that came to our house, there was no integrating her. She was too freaked out by the other cats and insisted on staying in the basement. So for quite a while now, we’ve had an inadequate number of litter boxes upstairs and Bunny has had basement to herself. We put a plug-in heating pad down there for her to sleep on, and put an ottoman over it with a blanket over that, forming a nice little tent that she liked. During nicer bouts of weather, she enjoyed sacking out on a giant dog bed.

About a year ago, Bunny was diagnosed with diabetes. She’s not the kind of cat we could medicate or give insulin too, so we put her on low-carb food in the hopes that would help her. Nevertheless if she ever ventured upstairs and was brave enough to interact with the other cats, she’d help herself to the regular food and we’d let her. And for as long as she’s been with us she’s had the same wet food treat every night as everyone else, and we’d give her occasional plates with scraps of chicken, ham, turkey, or steak.

Starting about a month ago, Bunny started coming upstairs a lot more, and even exploring as far as the living room—sometimes even daring to go partway up the steps to the second floor. She growled at the other cats, but gradually came to deal with them. She’d come up a lot at lunchtime, so we’d feed her things she liked: bits of chicken, cheese (a favorite), bacon, turkey. It became a new routine.

This past weekend, though, she went downhill. She showed less interest in food, and seemed uncomfortable. Maybe it was because the weather is getting colder and she felt it more, but when we took her to the vet on Tuesday she had lost weight, and was down below six pounds. They gave her fluids and some medication to stimulate her appetite and control nausea, because we figured she at least deserved a fighting chance to get back to normal and have a few more good months in her if she could. She ate again right after she got home, but yesterday was spotty, and today when she came up at lunch, she acted like she wanted food but would eat nothing at all.

After weighing all our options, we decided the best course was to let her go. Dust Bunny had lived a full life, and although she didn’t really bond with anyone much (except, I think, for Hershey, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 12), we still loved her for what she was. It was harder than I expected, even knowing she was at the end of her life, to bring her in. She didn’t make it any easier by being alert and interested, but the fact that she didn’t fight being picked up, didn’t try to bite anyone, hardly even complained about anything even during the car ride, convinced us she was hurting and it would be unkind to wait out the inevitable.

If there’s an afterlife for cats, and I’d like to think that’s as true for them as it is for us, hopefully they don’t face judgment, and she’s in a better place now. But if she needs an advocate from this end of the rainbow bridge, I can say this: Although she was a difficult cat, she was loved, and I was glad to have known her. I’ll miss those days we spent on the crappy red chair, while I watched MST3K and fed her a bottle of formula while she chewed on the nipple.

Farewell, Dust Bunny.

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Sick brain

My father came down with a cold the other day, and after visiting the other night my wife and I managed to catch it too. This sucker’s extra-virulent, because apparently it took very little contact to spread, and it incubated in less than 48 hours.

I made chicken soup Saturday evening, but I forgot that I had planned to add whey to the soup this time, since I had some frozen from the last time I made cheese. The soup turned out okay (this time I pan-fried the chicken in ghee before adding it to the soup), but my stomach has been so messed up since then that I’ve mostly been eating rice instead.

But that’s not what I came to talk about. When I’m sick, especially with a chest cold as this rapidly became, my sleep suffers enormously. I did due diligence and took NyQuil before bed, but in spite of that, for the past two nights I’ve barely been able to rest. The reason is, my subconscious is convinced that there must be a way to fix the level of discomfort I’m in, and by shifting just so or turning over or who knows what, things will improve. So all night long my brain races, trying to solve a puzzle it won’t accept is futile. I call this sick brain.

What I’ve begun to wonder is whether this happens to anyone else. As a programmer I have an extremely analytical mind, and the process it goes through when I’m sick is very similar to the process of debugging. The only real difference is, applied debugging can lead to breakthroughs that solve the problem, and here there’s nothing to solve.

Someday I hope to find a cure for sick brain. Maybe it involves chasing the NyQuil with some stronger booze. I don’t drink, but when going to bed sick I really have no qualms about it. It might well be that the only way to stop my brain from racing is to kick it in the teeth.

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What I did this summer

Apologies for the long hiatus. Life took a number of weird turns on my this summer, and I ended up with a lot fewer interesting things to say that weren’t also mostly depressing. But my favorite season has come, and it’s a time of contemplation and cooking and watching way too much TV.

So first, summer in one paragraph: Became my own boss: good, though the added responsibility sometimes sucks. Became sole breadwinner: my wife had a nasty run of mystery health issues right around that same time, and while she’s better now the mystery was never really solved. This included an all-nighter in the ER on a night of epic rain, and when we got home I found out the next day that an old abandoned septic tank in our yard caved in. (It’s filled in now.) Went to Canada for vacation; it was too hot. Went to the Great New York State Fair, but only a few times before I somehow injured my foot and couldn’t bring myself to do so much walking, so I missed out on a lot of yummy food. (The place that made fried mashed potatoes was gone. Huge disappointment.) I haven’t used my grill too much lately in spite of the fairly decent weather, but then it’s also in bad shape because the heat tent is corroded and near death.

Lately I’ve been more about the home cooking, as being able to set my own hours means that I can mostly plan out how and when I’ll cook dinner—with the caveat that my wife gives the cats their wet food treat right around when I’d normally want to start cooking. (That’s pinned to certain times of day mostly because one of our cats has been on medication forever.) But with football season upon us, I had to start making some good stuff for game days.

I made chicken Parmesan meatballs for the first time in a while recently. When making them for myself I usually do half a batch, but this time I did two half-batches: one for me and one for my wife. She’s eating low-carb, with the extra wrinkle that she’s also redeveloped a childhood sensitivity to wheat. (Not gluten, just wheat; it tends to cause nosebleeds, especially when she takes vitamin D3.) I’d tried to make them for her before by using pork rinds as the filler in place of bread crumbs, but this time I used almond flour. Surprisingly, almond flour did the job pretty well; I used it as a 1:1 replacement for the bread crumbs, and added about half a tablespoon of Italian seasoning and a pinch of garlic.

Stuffed shells were on the menu again too, and this time I got smart about it. I made up an extra big batch using 30 shells—though I actually had a little more filling than I needed, and it was still looser than I wanted even after I tried to correct my original recipe. Oops. Instead of cooking the whole batch, I only cooked 10 of them for right away, and for the rest I bagged them up and used the FoodSaver so I could freeze them. A lot of filling oozed out of the shells that I froze, but honestly they were overstuffed anyway. Now I have a couple of awesome meals that will be easy to make when the weather gets colder and I don’t feel like putting in a ton of effort. Yay preparation!

The last time I made cheese I took a similar approach. I wanted a mozzarella and prosciutto roll for one of the football games that was coming up early on this season, and you can’t find those in Wegmans at all anymore. Sure I can find other brands if I look in Walmart or BJ’s, but they’re smaller and don’t look as good, and I like mine better than the ones I used to buy in the store anyway. So this time I got smart and portioned my mozzarella batch into three parts, made a roll out of each of them, and put two in the freezer in FoodSaver bags.

Sometime this summer I got back into writing again, here and there. Below is in the can, and next in the pipeline is Merchantman Halflight: Get a Crew, the first book of my long-overdue comic sci-fi series. I’m excited to get both of those out, but it’s been a frustrating run in a lot of ways and I’m still stuck for covers. Covers are the absolute worst, and that’s made worse by the fact that I now have to consider the problem of series covers. Those are a whole different animal, because you have to coordinate across multiple books.

What especially prompted me to write a catch-up post tonight was that I’ve finally finished the first draft of the second book in the series. This is a pretty good place for most series writers to be, except I only write when I find time and as I can get my brain to engage. Adapting the second book from my original webcomic script material was hugely difficult, as so many jokes simply didn’t work, and the comic at a few points suffered from pacing issues. The basic plot arcs are all there, but a number of things had to be shifted around a little at the detail level to keep things fresh and interesting. But at a glance, and having gone over the early parts of book 2 quite a few times, I like how it’s looking: revenge plots, character growth, selfish schemes, more aliens, a few more of Chekhov’s guns lying about, and more running gags about the former cook.

It’s a real sense of accomplishment when a first draft gets finished. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can get a cover for Below and get it published, and by then I hope to also have started on book 3. This series route is kind of interesting, but what I like best about it is revisiting old friends and learning new things about them as the adaptation progresses. Going into fall, it’s nice having old friends around.

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Wanted: Summer

It’s supposed to be June.

The weather this month has been maddening. If we get any sunshine, it’s because it either just rained or it’s going to rain in a few hours. We’ve even had extra showers the useless weather goons never even predicted. Even for Syracuse this variability is a bit much. Ulgh. Send some of our rain California’s way; they need it.

Between that, and crazy hectic weekends, I haven’t had a chance yet to try my next mad science idea. What I want to do is butterfly open some big boneless chicken breasts, put in a couple folded slices of American cheese, and close them back up with meat glue. (Why American cheese? It’s fairly mild and melts nicely. I suppose Swiss is more of a classic choice, but I’ve never cared for Swiss.) Then, I want to also use meat glue to wrap, oh, maybe three strips of bacon around the whole thing. After wrapping tightly and leaving them in the fridge for a day, they should become one solid piece of meat with cheese inside, ready to throw on the grill. If I ever get a chance to do this, I’ll post how it turned out.

In other miscellany, one reason blogging has been sparse is that my job has been in transition—and so has my wife’s. My new job is the same as my old job, except I’m the boss now. Unfortunately my new boss is a jerk who won’t let me take road trips to nowhere in particular for absolutely no reason during our brief interludes of sunshine, or just blow off the day to read a book, so I have to ply him with promises of popcorn chicken to get him out of the house.

Oh, and recently there was the little incident with my car. A woman across the street (pretty sure she doesn’t live there) decided to back out seconds after I did, and ended up backing into my front end as I was not able to accelerate away in time. Long story short, my insurance company totaled the car but the payout was more than the repair cost, and the damage didn’t impact the car’s internals except for a headlight mount. No damage to the other vehicle, an SUV. I’m trying to get collision and comprehensive reinstated, because even though the car is 15 years old it’s in great shape. (Seriously, make your next car a Civic.)

I’m trying to get back into writing. Below has been stuck in limbo for a while for lack of beta readers. My sister started the book but found the dialogue was throwing her off, so I need to figure out what I can do to clarify who’s saying what. (This has never been a big issue for me before, so I’m also wondering if the fact that she just came off reading through the entire Harry Potter series had any bearing on her perception. Still, can’t hurt to check.) I’ve also been looking again at Gray Area, which I think is in better shape than I originally thought, but there are some rough edges I’m still working to sand down.

To the KBoards folks, sorry, I haven’t been on in quite a while now, so for now the blurb doctor is still out. Other priorities have pulled my attention. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll get back to something like normal here. Hopefully the weather gets back to normal first.

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Fried rice au gratin bites

Posting has been a little off lately because of a bit of a change in my day job—it’s a good thing, though—but this past weekend I finally managed to try something I’ve been dying to do for ages: Fried rice au gratin bites. This is a variation on the classic rice au gratin recipe I learned from my mother.

Of course because I was lazy, I only baked them the first time around, and that was stupid. They really, really needed to be fried. So I pan-fried the leftovers tonight, and got a much better result.

Rice au gratin bites

  • 3 cups cooked rice (from 1 cup rice, 2 cups water)
  • 10 oz. Velveeta
  • McCormick curry powder
  • Flour
  • Eggs
  • Bread crumbs (unseasoned)
  • Clarified butter (ghee) or oil

Cook rice, then mix with chunks of Velveeta. Microwave to melt cheese, then stir, repeating until well combined. Place plastic wrap on a cookie sheet and spread rice mixture on top. Spread out as much as possible, then cover with a second piece of plastic wrap and smooth by hand or with a roller. Transfer to freezer for about ½ hour.

Remove from freezer and cut rice mix into squares, about 1½ inches to a side. Prepare breading station: One bowl of flour, one bowl with beaten eggs mixed with ½ tsp. curry powder per egg, and one bowl with bread crumbs mixed with a little salt. Dip each square in flour, egg mix, then crumbs, and set aside. When finished, refrigerate (or freeze, if deep frying) for at least ½ hour. Pan fry with clarified butter, or deep fry.

As I mentioned I baked these first, and it really didn’t do them justice; they didn’t crisp properly and the bread crumbs didn’t get properly toasted. Pan frying fixed all that. I tried to do some of them in panko, and found that while panko made up for some of the sins of baking, it actually was inferior in the fried version. Your mileage may vary, but for my two cents just stick with regular bread crumbs.

Pan frying in ghee meant that the bites took on a buttery flavor, which actually made it taste very close to the original recipe. Other oils like peanut might be fine, and probably better for deep frying. Just don’t wuss out and try to fry these with an oil that’s supposedly healthy but isn’t, like vegetable oil or canola. (The oils the health “experts” have been pushing for ages have lower smoke points and are more likely to develop trans fats when cooking.) Lard probably would have been nice for this, although since I love to pair rice au gratin with steak, I think tallow would be even better. I’d love to start cooking more things with tallow.

As it happens I only cooked up half the recipe, and still have a bunch of pre-cut squares in my freezer. That’s a good thing, since I can snap them apart and try this whole process again sometime, but try deep frying. I haven’t done a lot of breading and frying, so I want to get more comfortable with the technique. Even though frying isn’t an everyday thing for me and I don’t see it becoming so, it’d be nice to be able to whip up some of my favorite snacks and freeze them for whenever impulse strikes.

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More fun with sodium citrate

I’ve continued experimenting with sodium citrate, because I want to master this ingredient so I can do all kinds of wonderful things with cheese. It’s so awesome I don’t even mind having to measure everything in grams. After experiencing success with a mac-n-cheese sauce, I decided the next thing to attempt would be loaded fries. I also thought it would be good to see if the recipe calling for less liquid—although intended for cheese slices—would work.

Using a small batch of shredded sharp cheddar (133 g, a number I chose to make the math easier), I used 5 g of sodium citrate and 30% of that weight (40 g) in water. Right away I noticed a problem: 40 g isn’t a lot of water, and wasn’t a good base for mixing a sauce. If that ratio is followed, the whole thing needs to be scaled up.

As it happened I decided to add more liquid, eyeballing it, and just kept whisking instead of ever getting out the immersion blender. This worked better than I was led to believe, which tells me sodium citrate is forgiving as long as it’s kept proportional to the cheese. In the end I probably ended up much closer to the cheese sauce recipe I’d used before, except this was with water instead of milk. The final cheese sauce came out nicely in spite of my needing to adjust it so much.

So much of this was by eyeball, it’s hard to give an exact recipe, but I’ll do my best.

Loaded French fries

  • Crinkle-cut French fries, enough to fill about a 3-cup bowl
  • 133 g shredded sharp cheddar
  • 120-125 g water
  • 5 g sodium citrate
  • Bacon bits

Prepare French fries according to package directions. While fries cook, add sodium citrate to water (whisk well) and bring quickly to a simmer. Whisk in cheese in small handfuls at a time to allow it to melt. Continue whisking until all the cheese is incorporated and sauce is smooth. Salt cooked fries to taste, and put them in a bowl or on a plate. Smother with cheese sauce. Top with bacon bits.

Yes the fries have to be crinkle-cut. If you buy straight-cut fries you’re a monster. Waffle fries are okay though.

Cheddar was ideal for this recipe, but anything goes. Use whatever kind of cheese you like best that you think would work well on fries. I found this cheese sauce to be far superior to anything I’ve ever managed to accomplish by nuking Velveeta, mostly because of its texture. (When you nuke Velveeta, parts tend to burn and other parts don’t melt.)

The liquid portion of the basic cheese sauce recipe apparently isn’t only forgiving of variations in quantity, but composition as well. You can use any liquid you like: water, beer, wine, milk, cider.

Lesson learned: For any given weight of cheese, use about 93% of that for liquid and a hair under 4% for sodium citrate, and you can’t go far wrong for a killer cheese sauce. Or maybe you can, but it seems hard to screw up, which is one thing I love in a good recipe.

With that out of the way, I decided to try something more ambitious: melty cheese slices. The recipe for that called for 380 g of cheese, 115 g of liquid, and 14 g of sodium citrate. I tried this with extra sharp cheddar and cider, even though I was concerned that the acidity of cider might throw this off somehow.

I discovered two things right away: 380 g is a crapload of cheese, and this ratio of liquid to cheese did in fact work when using a higher volume—although it still took new additions of cheese a while to smooth out. I hit it repeatedly with an immersion blender, but a whisk did most of the heavy lifting.

When the mixture was all ready, I spread it out onto a cookie sheet I’d covered with plastic wrap. After getting that as thin as I could with a spatula—it was so viscous it didn’t want to spread much on its own—I covered it with more plastic wrap, and then I decided to try smooshing it out a bit. This worked well, but I’d use a roller the next time around.

After chilling the tray in the fridge for a couple of hours, I took it out and sliced the cheese (plastic and all) into 12 pieces. At this point, I discovered that the cheese slices were thicker than I wanted: about 1/8″, instead of a nicer 1/16″.

In spite of its thickness and strong flavor, I found that on a freshly grilled burger (with bacon of course), the cheese was surprisingly not overpowering. It melted very nicely on the grill, but I might have gotten slightly better results with a little more cider. The apple flavor was subtle but noticeable. (Next to try: grilled cheese!)

The next time I try making melty cheese slices—oh yes, there will be a next time, because this was fairly easy—I’m going to go off-book. What I’ve learned so far is that the liquid amount doesn’t seem to matter very much, and largely depends on the final consistency you want. So I think I’d scale this back on the cheese and sodium citrate proportionally, but leave the liquid alone or even add more. At 227 g for an 8 oz. block of cheese, the proper amount of sodium citrate is a little over 8 g. If I left the liquid at 115 g, that’s roughly 67% more liquid in the mix. (The percentage out of the total isn’t all that drastic a shift, of course.) My goal would be to get cheese slices that are bendier, and make them very thin. Actually, even 8 oz. may be too much cheese for that end.

Now for something that sounds a little weird: My wife has long had a habit of eating peanut butter and American cheese together (she rolls up the cheese after spreading), which I used to think was weird. Eventually she talked me into trying it, and I have to say it’s awesome. Given how well peanut butter pairs with apples, I thought I could manage the holy trifecta by spreading peanut butter on this apple cheddar. Turns out the extra sharp is just too powerful to go with the peanut butter, suggesting the ideal choice to achieve a peanut butter-friendly slice would be a mild white cheddar instead.

Now for random ideas. I recently discovered garlic basil cheese being sold at Walmart, by a company called Sincerely, Brigitte. It’s a prairie Jack (I didn’t know that was a thing) mixed with, of course, garlic and basil, and it’s beyond fantastic. Something like this seems like it’s doable using the melty cheese method: 30% liquid, forming the thick “sauce”, then folding in herbs. But that also got me thinking: You can probably do this with fruit, like strawberries or blueberries. Crazy people might enjoy mixing in nuts. The best of us would give serious thought to folding in bacon bits.

Update: Having tried this in grilled cheese (with bacon of course), I have to say the extra sharp is too strong for grilled cheese alone. It needs bacon or a burger to stand up to it. I remain, however, suitably impressed with its melting properties. I added it to a microwave bacon cheeseburger because they always skimp on the cheese, and it was just as gooey as I wanted it to be. The texture of the cheese slices is also just like what you get with American slices: shiny and smooth, not hard and dry like the cheese was when it started life as a brick. So the technique is sound, but next time I’m definitely using less cheese (and proportionally less sodium citrate), and upping the liquid ratio slightly. The apple flavor is present but it’s very subtle, and I wouldn’t mind it being a little less subtle with the cheese part being a little more so.

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