Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Non-Food Post - A Tangential Matter

Sundays are beautiful, glorious days of the week.  A time for leisure and work, the promise of success and fortune lie right at Sunday's feet. 

Anyway, it's almost November.  And you know what that means!

Or...maybe you don't?

NaNoWriMo!!!  Wheeeee!  One month of craziness, scaryashell laughs and fist pounds as me and millions of other writers across the planet try to pound out 50,000 words of unadulterated crap in 30 days.

As if I don't have enough to do.  I know.  But as Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) says in The Shawshank Redemption, Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.

That's about damn right.

I'm on year five, and I've won all previous years (winning = hitting 50k+), so I expect this year to be the same, except...

my genre of choice this year is "Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense", which sounds great, but a.) I've never written a mystery before, and b.) I don't read a lot of mysteries.

But hey, I'm not going to get bogged down in the details.

I'm writing what's called a "cozy" mystery...very little violence (graphic, anyway), a little romance, a lot of funniness, small town setting and characters, amateur sleuth.  And - it's taking place mostly at a community a Culinary Arts program...most of the book's characters are culinary students or chefs/bakers.

Write what you know, people, write what you know.  And that's what I know.  For right now, anyway.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cake Plus Eight

Two weeks of unrelenting and uncompromising cake decorating ended today in the bakery.

And while I'm rather relieved that the ordeal is over, I admit to being a little sad about its conclusion.  Here's what I've learned...

1. Cake decorating is art.  Anyone who tries to argue that it's not knows nothing about its processes and procedures.

2. It will make you cry.  Check that, it will make me cry.

3. It will test your limits of patience.

4. You'll find out how much of a "satisficer" you are (at which point you say meh, good enough)

5. It will make you feel like you really accomplished something, when it's all said and done.

6. Some people just walk in the light, you know, when it comes to this form of artistry.  Accept it and move on.  You won't be good at everything.

7. Cake decorators (the good ones) are totally justified in asking for hundreds (thousands) of dollars for their wedding cakes.

8. Marshmallow fondant is easy to make, color, roll out, and cover cakes with.

Today, our final project was due: a two-tiered, fondant-covered dummy cake (not edible) that uses some of the decorating techniques we've learned the last two weeks. 

Cake layers covered, stacked, and bordered.  We went with a buttercream piped bead border, then with wet fingers, we made them to look like pearls.

Sunlight streaming in through the bakery window, this is our tipped-over wine glass and cascading roses and petals effect.

At the suggestion of the guest cake decorator, my partner (who possesses the more creative hand by far) painted gold scroll detail on the bare sides.

And that's it.  Let them eat cake...or well, not really in this's not edible.  You'd choke and maybe even die.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Keeping It Short, Keeping It Real

Today marked the penultimate day of Cake Decorating...and it was by far the most stressful of the last three weeks...and I mean, to quote the youth, I was a hater.

But, that time is done and gone.  Here's what happening right now:

A glass (which may turn into a bottle) of a Riesling I have not had in quite some time (read about that here), and a episode (or more) of AMC's The Walking Dead.

Let me clarify...quickly because TechMeat's got the Netflix cued.  School friends of mine went on and on about this TV show, so I got nuts one night and watched the first episode (with Brent, natch)...and now, we're kinda interested.  We're on episode 4 of Season One, so yeah, a long ways to go to catchup.

Honestly, the last time we had this much interest in a TV show was Spin City and Dharma and Greg in the early 2000s.  For real.  We don't do a lot of TV around here.  Movies, yes.  TV, no.

I'm going now.  To recover my strength and gear up for the final day of CD...stay tuned for pictures of our final project.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Frankly, My Dear, I'm Trying to Give a Damn

Today we say hello to the one reader in the United Arab Emirates.  Thank you for your (accidental, likely) readership.  I am ashamed to admit that I didn't know where the UAE was until I Googled it.

Which brings me to today's blog post.  My ignorance and and subsequent Google search, that is.  But really, I have something far more scary to talk about.


Many of the people I go to school with and are very much in contact with are afflicted with this particular disease.  Of which there may be no cure.  Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road, has perhaps said it best, "It's a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little Goddamn mediocrity.” 

I would amend Mr. Yates's statement by attaching two words to the very end: "...and entitlement."

By nature, I am not an optimist.  I have rather high expectations of people, and naturally, they don't get met very often.  In some ways, this has morphed me into quite the cynic, which is depressing, because I'm just too damn young to be there yet.  So, I fight the cynicism, and I'm afraid I come out a bit righteous and condescending.

(There it is.  I hope my dear readers will not flee at this rather scathing self-portrayal...just remember, this is all tempered by a good, healthy dose of hopefulness)

I suppose I could go on here and grouse about the indifferent nimrods I come into contact with frequently...but what would be the point?  Will they read this and change their dispassionate ways?  Not likely.  Am I going to feel better?  No.

But another author has some wise words for us...and I'll try to keep them in mind as I go out and do my thing...

"The opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."   - Elie Wiesel

If you don't give a shit, then you're not living.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Almost Paradise

Cue your 'Footloose' soundtrack, readers!  Get that Mike Reno cranked up loud!

Almost Paradiiise...we're knockin' on Heaven's door... could we ask for more....?

I know that Mike and Ann (Wilson) was talking about Lori Singer and Kevin Bacon, but the moniker applies to my adventure.

Des Moines.

Farmer's Market

A chilly, sunny (mostly) October Saturday morning.

Yep.  You probably know where I'm going now.  Fresh, local produce.  Free samples.  An general goodwill camaraderie of like-minded people.  Free samples.  And the vegetables!  Vegetables, I tell you!  Vegetables that became my dinner.

Iowa pork chops.  With a salt, pepper, and sage dry rubs.  Grilled until yummy!

Parsnips.  Peeled, cubed, and boiled...much in the same vein as potatoes.  Butter, milk, chives, and garlic added to the puree.

Brussel sprouts (Spencer seen scoring in the background) that would later be parboiled, shocked, then sauteed with a pecan butter.

The entire entree.  Amazing flavors of fall and beyond.

My only regret (as it is every mid-October)...the Farmer's Market closes next weekend...and I wish I'd gone more.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fondant Is Me!

I've been chronicling my cake-decorating adventures in the bakery here at Be Food.

And it's been interesting and riveting, to be sure.

Today, however, I find is not a day for words, but instead, pictures.  Today I achieved a great milestone, and I will trumpet my joyousness here on the Internets through pictures.

We've had a guest in our bakery class, a professional wedding cake designer and maker.  She's shared some recipes, tricks of the trade, as well as her tools and skills. 

And today, for the first time ever, I covered and decorated my first fondant cake.  This has always been a daunting thing for me. Fondant has always seemed scary.  Until today.

Probably hard to tell, color-wise, what exactly is happening here.  A bright yellow fondant-covered cake, purple fondant pearls there at the bottom, purple and yellow fondant flowers on the sides.

I had my daughter, Kirby, in mind when I did this, and she will turn 13 (I know, I know, next March...however, why not think about these things now?).  I used cutters for the flowers, but I free-handed the 13. 

Birthdays (and all other cake-appropriate holidays) will never be the same at the Nelson house.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Salisbury Steak Haunts Me...

Let's jog the ol' memory tonight.

Nah...let's more like shake the crapness out of my memory until it wets itself and surrenders any and all information I ask it for.

If you read between the lines (not the Blurred Lines) on my Kenny Rogers-related post, you'll get that my childhood family meals were pretty Amurican.  Beef stew, pot roast, pan-fried pork chops.  I do recall cans of La Choy Chop Suey and chow mein noodles, and in the later years, tacos (and that was ethnic food at our house).  But, for the most part, Hamburger Helper (and this was long before Tuna, Chicken, or Asian Helper) and Swanson's made up the bulk of my childhood eating.

And here's where things get even more murky: What in world did I eat for lunch when I was a kid?

Take a moment to ponder this very question for yourselves.  Are you having as much trouble as I did answering this question?  Or am I just getting old?  Or have I repressed it?

I know I did not get the cafeteria lunch very often when I was in elementary.  So...what did I bring to school to eat?  Did I have a metal lunch box?  A plastic one?  A paper sack?  Manky old Tupperware?  Gods, did I even eat anything?  Were my parents that horrible!?  I cannot recall! 

The few cafeteria lunches I do remember from the younger years include: instant potatoes with chicken gravy, salisbury steak, beef and noodles, and that kick-ass rectangle-shaped pizza with the diced "pepperoni".  I also remember canned fruit (cocktail, peaches, pears).  Maybe tater tots in middle school.  No salad bars, though, that's for sure. 

In the early 90s, when we weren't as worried about childhood obesity, Type II diabetes, and trans-fats...I remember a new pasta bar, hamburger line, and even better colossal pizza offered at the high school.  However, I don't think I ate these very often, but I'm drawing a big-arse blank when it comes to recalling what I did eat for lunch instead.

I think of all this tonight as I'm brainstorming school lunch cafeteria ideas.  The Food and Nutrition Director here in town (someone I know personally as well) has asked me to collaborate on a project with her: Come up with a "signature dish" or some cool ways to make vegetables.  Of course I wanted to get in on the action!

Whoa, first.  This is the age of government-influenced nutrition and healthy eating.  I don't even so much as I think about bacon-wrapped asparagus until I check the USDA Standards for School Lunches.  To meet guidelines, I must watch the calories, sodium, and trans-fats; also, I need to make sure the kiddos get a specific amount of fruits, vegetables (now broken down into Dark Green, Red/Orange, Beans/Peas, Starchy, Other, and Additional), grains, meat/meat alternative, and fluid milk (Hey - where the hell's the cheese?).

But wait.  Here's what else: Calorie-wise, meals must be between 550-650 (Elementary), 600-700 (Middle Grades), or 750-850 (High School).  Saturated fat must be less that 10% for every meal served, and sodium cannot be more than 640, 710, or 740 milligrams (elem, middle, and high school, respectively).  And - nutrition label must indicate zero grams of trans fat per serving in all cases.

Oh, how times have changed.

Indeed, a great and grueling work lies ahead.  It shall be the first of my Herculean Labors.

Okay, I'll bring down the supercilious, elevated tone.  But still...this is going to be hard.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mortality: I Now Have It

Achilles' Heel.  Soft spot. Kryptonite.  Dragon's Underbelly.

I have a chink in my armor, and it is called Cake Decorating.

I don't mean the general icing and frosting of cakes and tortes (as reported earlier this month).  I mean this kind of stuff...

This right here is the laborious and meticulous work for all the cake decorating lovers out there.  It requires the precision and patience of a surgeon...and I'm ashamed to say I'm often not any of those things.

It depends, of course, on what I'm doing.  If I'm writing or planning a dinner, I'm precise and meticulous to the very core of my being. 

And patient, no.  I can't think of a situation in which patience comes naturally to me.

Wait.  2004.  The birth of my third child.  I was almost two weeks days past Elliot's due date, and I opted not to induce labor with drugs (like I had with the previous two).  That was the last time I remember being patient.

After the last two days in which I've practiced the above handiwork, I am humbled, awed, and reverent of cake artisans who do endless amounts of shell, reverse shell, rope, rosette, and zigzag borders for us devouring consumers.

And I am mortal.  I am not good at everything.  Everything does not come easy to me.  Out of a class of 14, I was one of the last three students who finally got the okay to start the "final board" (the one you see above).  Everyone else had passed the muster and moved on to rosebud and sweetpeas.

And it hurt, people.  A nice, smarting slap to the ol' ego.  But, in the words of John (Cougar) hurt so good.  It did.  I'm humbled.  I have my weaknesses.  It's good to know it.  Because, like Socrates said, all we know is that we don't know anything.

Friday, October 4, 2013

When It Comes to Your Parents...Remember the Kenny Rogers' song "The Gambler"

In the sense that,

"You gotta know when to hold 'em,
know when to fold 'em.
Know when to walk away,
know when to run."

Gods bless my baby boomer parents: products of Great-Depression era, hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-living parenting themselves.

Anyone my age has lived in confusing times - what with growing up with VCRs, rotary phones, microwaves, cell phones, and the Internet...but, my generation has embraced all those changes rather well.

Then I consider my parents, who've lived with those same technological advances, but their archives reach way back further than mine do.  I mean, we're talking wood-burning furnaces, hot water bottles, stay-at-home moms and cooking from scratch!  They grew up with mothers and grandmothers who made their own pies, gravy, canned their own goods, etc.  Life was simple, it was rough, and everyone did their share - nobody was exempt.

So that's my parents' frame of reference when they had me and my brother, right?  But, somewhere in the 1980s, our family moved to a new house, and that purchase was only feasible if my mom left her "job" as a stay-at-home mom and went back to work, which she did.  That move, which happened when I was in the 4th grade, is when I began to remember the foods of my childhood being pork chops in the crockpot, instant mashed potatoes, Hamburger Helper, and Swanson's salisbury steak.

My supposedly awesome-baker grandmother died in the early 80s, when I was 6.  My other grandmother, who allegedly could make out of this world gravy, died in 1976.  I was one year old.  So, I never grew up like countless other women my age, in the kitchen with their grandmothers...and I never really grew up in the kitchen with my mother, either.  Cooking was a chore, and a tiring one for her at that.  Hence, the crockpot, Hamburger Helper, etc.  She wasn't much of a baker, either, so I have no real memories of making cupcakes or cookies with her.

It's a wonder, really, how I ended up in culinary school, with a passion for food and wellness, at the age of 37.

Thankfully, my parents are good sports about my culinary endeavors, and my mother, especially, is always very willing to try whatever dish I've put together.  She and I talk shop a little bit, and I suspect cooking is still not her thing, but she supports me, and that's good.  She's very adventurous, and will eat just about anything.

Dad, though.  Very much a creature of habit.  Very much a "meat-and-potatoes" guy.  I discovered in the last few years that he really loves fried chicken, but because my mom doesn't like to make it, he doesn't get it often.  He informed me last night that I make "healthy" food (whatever that means), and I only convinced him to stay for dinner with us last night when I told him I'd heat up a can of Van Camp's Pork and Beans***, as well as make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese***, for him

And so, there it is.  Kenny Rogers' famous mantra, for my purposes:

You gotta know when to hold em,
know when to fold em,
when to make Pork and Beans,
and know when to refrain from lecturing your dad on his crappy eating habits.

***Incidentally, I did not purchase these two items.  They somehow ended up in my inventory after my husband did the groceries about three months ago.  They are gone now, and my husband has been banned from food shopping.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

No Fakin'...I'm Bakin' and Decoratin'

You know me and my rhymes.

But first, let's have a good news sharing moment.  Today shall be known as The Day In Which Technology And I Play Nicely In The Sandbox.

I discovered something today, and its name is Bluetooth.  I know, I know, this wireless technology has been around awhile and is practically Stone Age, but for me, it is a momentous, pivotal thing.

I'm stuck in 2006, you see.  I carry a Verizon slide-phone with a QWERTY keypad.  I don't have access to the Internets on my cellular device, and I don't have the fancy Steve Jobs-o-Rama widgets and wadgets and gizmosthingies.  And for the most part, I've gotten along just fine.  There's a certain amount of pride that comes with being a relic, you know?

But.  Any pictures I've ever taken of food (which, for the past year, have been a lot) get sort of lost in space.  I'm the only one who sees these pictures of my creations - I have no digital portfolio, really, to speak of.  And well, in this day and age, I can't help feeling like I'd better remedy that.

With the help of TechMeat (a.k.a my husband), I learned how to transfer my cell phone pictures to my laptop with Bluetooth, where I can then upload them here for your viewing diversions.

Oh, glorious day!

This week in the bakery, we're doing Specialty Cakes, Gateaux, and Torten (all the same thing, really), and after finishing a Mocha Roll with my partner, I started in on my Mocha and Black Forest Tortes.

A quick note, though, about the Mocha Roll.  Imagine a two-foot long, four-inch wide Hostess HoHo, frosted with a coffee buttercream, rolled up with chocolate shavings, and topped with chocolate drizzle.  Imagine it.  Then, try to restart your heart.

For all practical purposes, tortes (gateaux, etc.) are layered cakes that have various frostings and fillings.  Above is my Mocha Torte in progress.  You'll notice how sloppy and unsexy it looks...much like most of us first thing in the morning.

Previous to this day in the bakery, I've attempted a layered cake about twice in my life, both of them for the consumption of my family.  They're very forgiving people, you see, and will eat just about anything I set in front of them.  But today, I made cakes I feel actual pride in...cakes that I would, you know, serve to real people.  It's an amazing feeling.

Here's the Mocha Torte, finito.  Two vanilla cake layers, one pecan sponge cake layer, and filled and frosting with the leftover coffee buttercream.  Sliced almonds mask the sides and I did chocolate shavings on top before piping on the rosettes.

I like coffee and I like chocolate.  I also like Bluetooth...whose personal area network capabilities have made these pictures possible.

After the Mocha Torte, I tackled this Black Forest.  I have extremely fond memories of Black Forest Cake from my college days, and as it's one of Brent's favorites as well it makes for a prime candidate for honing my new skills.  Unfortunately, I did not take a picture in progress, but what you're looking at is three layers of chocolate genoise cake that have been brushed with a kirsch dessert syrup before being iced with a whipped cream.  There's a layer of cherries in between the second and bottom layer.

My baking instructor had me try the icing comb on the sides, which accounts for the lines there, but as you can probably see, I still need practice with that particular tool.

A milestone day for me, to be honest.  I'm no decorator, and today was my first day (really) in assembling and frosting cakes like these.  And now I have the means to share my progress here at Be Food...until I get myself one of those SmartPhone thingies.