Jasmine returns

It’s been a wild and annoying couple of weeks. Since my next-to-last post, my wife had a nasty kidney stone that threw our lives out of whack for a while, and in fact it still is, although the stone itself has now been removed and she’s just dealing with a stent for another couple of weeks. Having our schedules upended wasn’t so bad; it was that she was in so much pain during the worst of it. Thank God that part is over. At this time we’ve now crossed midnight, which means it’s officially our tenth anniversary today. Although I still call it tomorrow, because the day doesn’t count as over till you go to bed.

Somehow, I managed to get talked into NaNoWriMo again.

It’s been six years since I wrote The Affix. During that time my site was going through a huge overhaul and I was working late, but somehow I decided it was time to give NaNoWriMo a try. How I found time after work to write, I don’t know. I started the month sick with a cold, and between that and the stress of writing I got shingles by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. I got to spend the last few days of the event writing furiously, because staying at my desk and not moving was the least uncomfortable thing I could do.

This year, somehow the time felt right again, even when it hasn’t for the last several. All I really had to go on was a story germ, one I’ve tried to write a few times but never got off its feet. One thing about NaNoWriMo is it forces you to keep going.

For a while now I’ve wanted to write a sequel to that crazy book, bringing the supporting character Jasmine Treager to center stage as a new protagonist. She’s going to cross paths with a new paranormal “artifact”, one that has an interesting tie-in to the existing lore, and a few familiar faces may come back with her. And as this book opens, it’s been a few years (I’m thinking three), during which she’s risen to the big leagues in her field as a procurer of rare art and strange objects—thanks in large part to fallout from the events of the first book.

Bonus fun fact: This makes Jasmine my first female main character. Not the first POV character though, as the Merchantman Halflight series I’m writing switches POVs all the time. But Jasmine is the first to carry a story all on her own.

As we speak, she’s underslept and on a party bus full of college football fans, headed towards a fictional hipster town in western New York where some seriously weird crap is about to go down. What kind of weird crap exactly, I haven’t decided yet.

The Affix itself will not be making an appearance. Nor will its former keeper and his friends. Time for a little new blood to mingle with some of the old.

There may or may not be a Tuscan amulet.

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Post-Halloween candy auditions

Halloween was a special time growing up, at least once my family moved to a trailer park. I was seven that year (I turned eight right after), and it was the closest we had ever been to living in the suburbs. Here we finally had actual streets to go down, and plenty of places to visit. I’d estimate we hit roughly 80 to 100 places in our quest for edible gold. But what really stands out for me is the after party: the sessions of trading, wheeling and dealing, and then the inevitable sampling and devouring.

Fun-sized chocolate bars were the pick of the litter, usually accounting for about 20% of the lot. These were the high-value trade goods. The top of the line were the holy trinity of Three Musketeers, Milky Way, and Snickers. As you know, these three are basically in a spectrum: nougat, nougat and caramel, or all of the above plus peanuts. Preferences at different ends of the spectrum meant these got traded for other members of the same family as well. (Reese’s peanut butter cups and York peppermint patties occupied similar positions in this pantheon, right at the top but not a very mostly-chocolate kind of experience. And then there were the others: Baby Ruth, Mounds, Almond Joy, straight Hershey bars, sometimes a very rare but wonderful Chunky bar.) Chocolate being considered high-value put me in a very fortunate position, because I can’t stand coconut or almonds, meaning I often had chocolate I was willing to part with in exchange for either a more preferable chocolate, or non-chocolate with the trade skewed in my favor.

Caramels and taffies were odd ducks, but they made a pretty strong statement too. They came in a lot of kinds, some nice and others less so. I never much cared for stuff like Mary Jane at all, but a simple caramel square or better yet the Brach’s filled caramels (especially the orange!) were lovely. Tootsie Rolls were always worth it, especially the big ones and the fruit-flavored ones. Sugar Babies and their worse-on-a-stick cousin the Sugar Daddy were nasty, not in flavor but because it was like biting into a brick and by the time your tooth made penetration, the candy was determined to take the tooth with it. (Thankfully you don’t see much of those anymore.)

The worst of the haul was always raisins. People who give out mini boxes of raisins on Halloween are bad people. You’re better off just leaving the light off. No, you don’t get to say you’re being conscientious about kids’ health or teeth; that isn’t what the holiday is about, and you’re just throwing a wet blanket on it. If you give out raisins on Halloween, you deserve to have your house TPed. Used-TPed.

But the rest was the really interesting part: a wild assortment, mostly fruit-flavored, from Dum Dums (lots of those) to jawbreakers to various Wonka goodies to Mike & Ikes, and all sorts of others. I discovered a lot of very interesting candies in this mix that I wouldn’t otherwise have very often, and some that were regarded as cheap and uninteresting actually turned out to be the most memorable. And because these were largely viewed as fungible slop, they were ripe for the taking by the handful in exchange for an Almond Joy.

I often wonder if these days kids are getting exposed to some of these delightful but cheap options as much as in the past. I mean yeah, at every door we hoped for a Three Musketeers bar, but the C-list candies were different from anything we had at any other time of the year. Some had very unique flavor profiles; like for instance one mini bag of SweeTart clones might have a take on cherry or grape that was nothing like other candies, but in a surprisingly good way.

Now you hardly see this kind of thing; the megapacks you can pick up at warehouse/club stores are typically A- or B-list candy. Maybe it helped that our neighborhood was a trailer park, because while it was the nicest park in that area by far, it was simply the kind of place you expected to get cheap candy. But cheap is not always bad; I found and enjoyed a lot of good stuff among the also-rans.

There’s a life lesson in that. And that lesson is: do what my sister and her friend did one year, which was get two costumes and make the rounds twice. Someone was giving out full-size Hershey bars that year too.

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Craft adjacent

My mom always made crafts when I was a kid. She was a stay-at-home mom and money was tight, but her crafts I think helped a little and she always enjoyed working on them. As a result of this, and the fact that she always began the Christmas season immediately after Labor Day, crafts became a small but inextricable part of my life. On many occasions my sister and I ended up accompanying her to a craft fair, and on several as an adult I ended up driving her there. I did a lot of reading on those occasions, and as I got older I got to immerse myself in computing books. (Somehow the joys of discovering what Windows 3.1 could do are still embedded in my mind as a part of all that.) And yes there was a lot of boredom involved, but I still remember the craft shows fondly.

But I might miss craft stores even more. As an adult I ended up going to those with my mother more often than to craft shows, and often enough it was just for things like scrapbooking, since nowadays she doesn’t really do a lot of craft shows. Even further back, we used to make regular pilgrimages to Switz’s, possibly the greatest craft store that ever existed (especially at Halloween), which funnily enough isn’t that far from where I live now, even though Switz’s itself is long gone.

I was thinking about craft stores today because I ended up passing a couple of them: JoAnn’s Fabrics and AC Moore, which somehow coexist in the same plaza. We used to end up going to AC Moore together quite a lot back when I still lived with my parents, and occasionally JoAnn’s or Michaels. This time of year especially, my soul feels drawn to these places and I wish I was crafty.

I’m not crafty, though, and my wife isn’t either. I am somewhat creative, and enjoy crafting videos on YouTube—really!—but I’ve never made the leap to trying a craft project. The thing is, anything I did craft-wise would result in a net increase in clutter and that’s a very bad thing. I can’t think of any kind of project I could do that wouldn’t end up getting in the way.

At least these days my sister has taken up the crafting spirit, mostly in the vein of creative furniture restoration/alteration which she’s been doing for years. A couple of times I’ve taken her to Michaels, and every time I go there I feel like a little voice is calling me to do something, anything, with the vast wealth of options in front of me.

That little voice is the same one that puts me into Bad Idea Mode for cooking projects, but at least I can justify cooking projects in that they go away when they’re done.

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Pretzel calzone win

Today was the day. I got more mozzarella (which turned out to be unnecessary), ricotta, baking soda (also unnecessary as it turned out; I still had enough), and dough, and so began take two. I can’t call this a recipe as such because I didn’t measure a blessed thing, so I’ll lay this out in steps.

Step 1: The dough

Using a ball of store-bought dough from Wegmans, which funny enough wasn’t frozen this time (maybe the last time I went they had just delivered a fresh batch), I put the dough onto a floured surface and divided it into halves with a bench scraper. One half went into a freezer bag and into the freezer. The other was halved again, and then each half was rolled up into a loose ball and coated in flour, then rolled out as best I could with a mini roller until it was at a pretty good thinness and overall size.

Step 2: The cheese

In a bowl I mixed some shredded mozzarella and ricotta, I want to say about a cup of each, and maybe ¼ cup or less of Parmesan; I didn’t want that to be a dominant flavor. In the future I think I need to skew the ratio further in favor of mozzarella. By eyeballing it I had a mix that could be spooned out onto the dough easily, but more mozzarella would have been better for a firmer middle.

Step 3: Fill and seal

I put enough filling in each to cover about half the rolled-out dough, except for about an inch of space on the edge. To seal the calzones, I wet my fingers and went around the edges of the dough to get them tacky again. Then I took the far end (without filling) and pulled it over the filling, partially onto the edges with about ½” of clearance. After that, I folded up a bit of the edge at a time, then the next bit, etc. all the way around. (This technique is detailed in the Food Wishes calzone video on YouTube.)

Step 4: The bath

Before the filling stage, I started the oven preheating and then began boiling about a quart and a half of water in a saucepan. As the water warmed up I added, bit by bit, just under half a cup of baking soda. More might have been a fine idea, but I think it was enough. Last time I added the baking soda once the water was already boiling, but this time I spread it out a lot more and it seemed to work much better. No spillovers!

Each calzone went in for a minute: thirty seconds to a side. I used a wide spatula to lower each one in, but two to manage the flip and to retrieve them. Using the two spatulas was a very very good idea and it prevented the kind of disaster I had last time. I was a little worried the big one hadn’t sealed all that well after this, but it all worked out.

Step 5: Final prep

Each pretzel went out of the bath, after draining, onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Then I took an egg wash (one egg beaten with about a tablespoon of water) and brushed that liberally on the top of each calzone. Next, I took some pretzel salt—yes I have that, and you can get it on Amazon—and sprinkled it over. I used a spoon to sprinkle the salt, which in hindsight was a stupid idea because it resulted in some very bad clustering, so next time learn from me and just clean off your fingers and grab pinches of the stuff to sprinkle manually.

Bathed, eggwashed, and salted, each calzone now got three slits in the top to release steam during baking, and they went into a 450° oven for 15 minutes. At first that was 10 minutes, but I felt they needed the extra time to brown.


I ate the larger of the two calzones for dinner, cutting it in half first to see if I’d be hungry enough to eat the second half. I was, but with a bit of regret because boy was that a lot of food for me.

The only real problems I had were the ones I mentioned above: the cheese mixture was a little too runny and I think needed more mozzarella to balance it, and the calzone was way too salty because of my sprinkling mishaps. Before putting the second one away for leftovers, I brushed off a lot of the salt to give my mouth a fighting chance. For the cheese, I think maybe a longer cooking time might have firmed it up some more, but the dough was cooked through in 15 minutes so I don’t see a reason to risk burning it rather than simply adjusting some ratios next time.

Otherwise, this turned out spot-on. And now that I have the technique under my belt, I know I can pretzelfy more things.

Prep time turned out a lot better for me this time around, even with rolling out the dough (which didn’t take all that long). I’d say from the time I started to the time they went into the oven, it was only about 35 minutes. A more skilled multitasker with actual counter space could probably knock that way down. You do have to factor in a small amount of cooldown time for these things, though, so give them about 10-15 minutes after leaving the oven before you attempt to eat them, or you’ll be sorry.

Funnily enough, the calzones didn’t smell like pizza dough while baking; they smelled like soft pretzels. I didn’t expect to get that pretzel smell, which was a nice bonus. And the seals held up pretty well as you can see; I had only minor leakage in the small one, which didn’t even get far enough to make it onto the cookie sheet.

Bad Idea Mode successfully conquered!

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Pretzel calzone FAIL

Well that didn’t work.

Per my last post, today I made good on my threat to try making pretzel calzones. The plan was to make them Saturday evening, so that afternoon I went out and picked up supplies: whole milk mozzarella (already shredded to save me some time), whole milk ricotta, shredded Parmesan, and pizza dough. This is where I made my first mistake.

Because my plan was to make these within a few hours, I had to pass up the dough balls available near the ready-made takeout food by Wegmans’ café. (Some stores keep those near the deli.) That dough was frozen, and I didn’t want to try nuking it to thaw it out. So I went with Pillsbury thin-crust dough in a tube. I’ve used their dough before with good results, but never for this kind of application.

As it turned out, I could have bought the frozen dough, because I had forgotten that my wife and I were phone tag hostages that evening at about the worst possible time, making elaborate dinner plans impossible. So I had to make them either tonight or today before the game, and as it happened I had time before the game. I’m glad it was before rather than after.

I floured up a sheet pan as a work surface (for lack of counter space) and unrolled the dough, which was rectangular (not a good calzone shape), and tried to cut it into three equal pieces. Sadly the middle piece was too skinny, so that was another mistake, but I cut that in half again and made a couple of mini calzones out of it. I probably should have trimmed the dough rather than try to make do with the rectangles.

Filling and assembly went reasonably well, except that even with an egg wash as sealant they didn’t seal well. This was again probably because of the nature of the Pillsbury dough, which I think contains a decent amount of oil so it can unroll once it’s released from the cardboard tube.

Then while the oven was preheating, I prepared my baking soda solution. I boiled about a quart and a half of water in a 3 qt. saucepan, and then slowly added ½ cup of baking soda. This was not quite slow enough, as it foamed considerably, and a couple of times it foamed over. Fun! Count that as a third mistake.

Once that was ready, I grabbed a spatula large enough to hold a calzone—the spider I have isn’t really big enough for this application, and maybe that counts as a fourth mistake—and dipped in the first one for about a minute. I didn’t try turning it over. The edges came somewhat unsealed during this process and I was frankly worried about the cheese coming out or getting wet, but the worst came when I tried to remove the calzone from the water. The dough, having partially unfolded and stretched out, drooped over the sides and proceeded to come off almost entirely. The result was unusable.

At this point I said screw it, and abandoned the entire project. The other calzones would not have been salvageable, even by baking without the alkaline bath, because frankly you can’t get a good straight calzone in a home oven; the crust is always, always terrible. The pretzelization was partially intended to overcome that deficiency.

This doesn’t mean I won’t try again. But when I do I’ll need more mozzarella because I used more than half the bag, more ricotta because I used most of that, and a better dough. I am now convinced the Pillsbury thin-crust dough was wrong for this application. That’s no mark against them; it’s just that this dough was a little too oily to seal right (by necessity) and it has a diaphanous quality that I think made it too susceptible to dissolving along weak points while in the alkaline bath. People have used their crescent roll dough for pretzeling without incident, and I suspect others would work for various finger-food purposes as well.

Unfortunately trying again today wasn’t an option. These projects make too much of a mess, and I’m already pissed I’ll have to wash those dishes with nothing to show for it. But next time I’ll be ready, and I’m hoping—barring any unforeseen weekend murderers—that can be next weekend. But for that I’m definitely going to use the regular store dough, portion it out, and roll it out properly with my little mini roller.

On top of that my team lost. To the frelling Bengals.

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Pondering pretzel calzones

Sorry for another unexpected hiatus. Basically I got busy with work stuff over the last few weeks zeroing in on a deadline, and as it turned out I didn’t have much interesting to say for a bit. Then Bad Idea Mode struck the other night, and now I have a new obsession.

I don’t own a stand mixer. This vexes me, because one thing I greatly enjoy is Auntie Anne’s pretzels. Or Wetzel’s pretzels, which are similar. That doughy, buttery bite is a great guilty pleasure, but to enjoy it I have to make a mall run that takes around 30 to 45 minutes altogether. But you can make your own versions of these at home, and it works best if you have ample counter space and, because mixing yeast dough any other way sucks, a stand mixer.

So zero for two.

But regular soft pretzels, the more conventional variety, you can make by using pizza dough as a quick and dirty substitute; like the other kind you still need a hot baking soda solution to dip them in for a bit, followed by an egg wash, to give them that pretzely goodness. Even Chef John of Food Wishes endorses this, so I’m on board. I even have pretzel salt I ordered from Amazon ages ago. But do I really want to make just a batch of soft pretzels, that only I can eat because my wife is low-carb? No, I do not.

This led me down some very dark and dangerous roads. For instance, pretzel cheese bites; pretzel-wrapped hot dogs; and finally, I got to thinking that you could make a pretzel calzone. This is apparently not a new idea, but it’s new to me.

So my current bad idea is to buy some shredded mozzarella, some ricotta, and maybe a little Parmesan, and get a good filling mix, then use some ready-made pizza dough to make several small calzones. And then, I would dip them in an alkaline bath and do the egg wash thing, then make a tiny slit in the top of each for steam to escape, before cooking in a very hot oven. A little pretzel salt, but not a lot, is of course mandatory.

This idea is so stupidly simple, I have to try it.

Also in the cooking sphere, lately I’ve been cooking a lot more bacon in the oven. I just preheat to 325°, line a cookie sheet with two layers of foil (just regular foil, hence two layers), then grab about 9 slices of thick-cut bacon, cut those in half, and arrange the half slices on the sheet. That’s about 3/4 lb. After roughly 27-30 minutes the bacon is perfectly done to my liking, and the fat parts melt in your mouth. The leftover bacon grease is crazy easy to save, which makes for top-notch fried eggs and is also great for coating frozen French fries before cooking (as I mentioned recently).

It occurred to me the other day that I really ought to cook bacon a lot more often, like once every couple weeks at the least, because honestly bacon isn’t all that expensive for this purpose, and having a few slices in the fridge ready to go at a moment’s notice means I have a lot more reason to cook at home and way less to run out for pricey and worse-for-me fast food. Plus, a few slices of bacon covered in melty cheese makes an amazing late-night snack, and it’s way better than going for something carby.

And yes, I am pondering make-ahead breakfast pretzel calzones that can be saved in the freezer. Fall has come and I intend to rule it with an iron fork.

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The Orville

I’m normally not big on reviewing things here, but I had thoughts to share that made this worth a mention. My wife and I watched the premiere episode of The Orville from our DVR last night, and after comparing our impression to some of the critiques online, I find we’re once again at odds with the critics, who seem to have lined up against this show. So I’m going to explain why the critics are wrong.

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room. Family Guy is a deeply polarizing show, as is all of MacFarlane’s other work. As a rule I don’t like his style of humor. I saw about one minute of an American Dad episode once, after the TV was left on that channel the night before, in which he failed to land an easy pot shot at Zamphir and followed up with two pedophilia jokes. So yeah, not a MacFarlane fan. But I am a sci-fi fan, and it looked like he was going to tone things down for this show. It was worth a watch.

Immediately I noticed—and I think this is what set a lot of critics off-kilter—that the show takes itself more seriously than I expected, though not so seriously that it can’t find room for jokes. MacFarlane’s own love of Star Trek comes through loud and clear in the way the show acts as a loving homage to its more serious predecessors. So you get the sweeping majestic music, the fun space battles, the away team missions, but then there’s the dialogue that goes places Star Trek would never have gone because it was just a smidge too stuffy.

Just as MASH and Scrubs were crossover types of shows called dramedy, the Orville is a sci-comedy. It lands more on the sci-fi than comedy side, but that’s okay. And it is a very different beast from anything that came before that blended sci-fi with comic relief. Babylon 5 was dead serious much of the time, but marbled through with occasionally funny or touching moments from its brilliant cast. Firefly was all heart, and reveled in those splashes of wit that made it special. The Orville is less serious than those, putting its humor more up front, and yet the plot is driven by the same conventions as its forebears.

This is where the critics are getting lost, because they’ve never seen anything like it. And rather than roll with it, they’re complaining that it’s not something it was never trying to be.

For a look at how stupid some of these critiques are, check out Katharine Trendacosta’s piece at io9. First she complains about how some parts of the episode are “boring”—which they weren’t at all, really, but they weren’t incredibly fast-paced. Remember this was a premiere episode, and it had a lot of exposition and introductions to get through after all, but during those times there was still humor and it tended toward the socially awkward variety. She also complains about “low-brow sex jokes”, but nothing really came close to that—especially for MacFarlane. (Yes, his character Ed Mercer did talk about how his friend drew penises on things, and there was a sight gag at the beginning, referenced in passing later as a callback, that I guess could sort of qualify as a sex joke, but honestly none of it was bad by modern standards and those jokes actually landed.) Then Katharine goes on to compare The Orville unfavorably to several blatant parodies like Galaxy Quest, Spaceballs, etc. Even Mars Attacks. Anyone who calls themselves a critic who thinks you can just idly compare anything to a Tim Burton weirdfest without getting into the weeds on minutae is an idiot.

The Orville is not Galaxy Quest or Spaceballs. It never meant to be either one. Because it is not a parody at all; it’s a sci-fi that means to stand alone but doesn’t mind making a few clever references to, and occasional well-meaning jabs at, the material that inspired it. Katharine doesn’t get that at all.

Erik Kain of Forbes gets it and had some nice things to say, but I won’t link to Forbes because of the rotten things their site does to paranoid readers. He points out that Kelly Lawler of USA Today—and I’m not linking them either for the same reason—makes many of the same mistakes as Katharine Trendacosta, believing the show has to be a direct parody or a serious sci-fi to work and that mixing the two is somehow bad. It isn’t. And Kelly makes the same egregious comparison to Galaxy Quest, as if there’s some law that the presence of humor demanded it be a parody. Quoth Kelly:

There are too few jokes for it to truly feel like a comedy (despite appearing that way in early promos), but attempts at humor muddy the series’ ambitions as a pure sci-fi adventure.

Indeed there are too few jokes to truly feel like a comedy, which is quite obviously by design because the show isn’t strictly a comedy. And its ambition is just as obviously not to be a pure sci-fi adventure. How did you miss all that, Kelly?

Speaking as a guy who’s actually writing a comic sci-fi series (of novels), I find the attitudes of these critics (except Erik Kain) perplexing. Like they literally can’t understand there’s more than one way to approach humor or science fiction, let alone when combining the two. Especially because normally it’s the other way around: Often it’s the critics who see brilliance in a show that simply never clicks with me. They’ll run rings around the moon to swoon over how wonderful Curb Your Enthusiasm is, a show that approaches humor in very much its own way, yet throw some sci-fi at them and they turn to gibbering morons. These people, supposedly trained to find nuance, are like alien food snobs trying to make sense of a grilled cheese sandwich. They think they know everything there is to know about cheese and bread, but because this isn’t a fondue it baffles them as thoroughly as quantum physics.

Taking that analogy and running with it, basically all of the strong criticism I’ve seen so far boils down to “Not make sense! Why you not fondue?!” Comparing a work to something it never tried to be is ridiculous.

I am an unapologetic sci-fi fan, and I found that in spite of my many, many differences with MacFarlane, he captured the fun feeling of a pre-gritty Star Trek type of show that has been lost for a while. That came from his love for the franchise and especially what it used to be, and as someone who shares that love I felt it hit all the right notes. My wife feels the same way about it.

This is a show that included a bit where a guy was on his way to the bathroom, not because they wanted to go for crude toilet humor (which they didn’t) but because the original Star Trek never once acknowledged that the crew had bodily functions. Throwing that gag into the very first episode was a wink to fellow Trekkies that this show gets it. The parts where it takes itself seriously and wears its heart on its sleeve were the same thing. MacFarlane set out to make a version of Star Trek with all the fun and a little less starch, and at least after one episode I’m prepared to say he succeeded.

Maybe he’ll lose me at some point down the line. Like I said, I don’t trust his humor. But so far I found The Orville surprisingly inoffensive, witty without trying to grab me by the head and say See how witty it is, peasant!, charming without being cloying, and most of all unabashedly fun. Fun is important, and it sometimes gets short shrift on TV these days. Fun was the lifeblood of the ’80s, and of the myriad syndicated shows in the ’90s. So far this show is fun, and I’m in.

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