» Archive for the 'Homemaking' Category

More yeast-bread whining

Saturday, December 20th, 2008 by kara

My Wonderful Pumpkin is champing at the bit for me to cut this loaf of freshly-baked banana bread:

Freshly-made banana bread

Mmm. Look at that thing. That is a loaf of steamy, hot, banana-y goodness right there. Still too hot to slice, because I just took it out of the oven. The Pumpkin’s gonna have to wait a few minutes.

That’s how we sold our house in Michigan, by the way. Every single time we had a showing scheduled, I’d run through a do a quick cleaning, and then I’d bake something. Sometimes the baking was nothing more than a casserole dish of apples, Splenda, cinnamon and butter, thrown into the microwave for 10 minutes and allowed to stew. Then after the showing, I’d come home and dish them up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and enjoy dessert.

But the banana bread…oh, the banana bread. Heavenly. Does anyone out there NOT like banana bread?? Anyway. The woman who was looking at our house was pregnant, and when she encountered the heavenly scent of freshly-baked fruit loaf, she was hooked. Was that wrong of me? >:)

She even mentioned it at closing: “You know, that banana bread…that was pretty cruel to do to a pregnant woman.” Hmm. That WAS cruel of me. I should have sliced some for them and left it on the breakfast bar with some honey butter.

But if I can make such a celestial loaf of banana bread, WHY can I not make a simple loaf of yeast-risen bread?? Arrgh. I’m going to go make a tuna sandwich and see how well tuna and banana get along.

Static and an alternate use for a useless appliance

Saturday, December 6th, 2008 by kara

It’s kinda sorta cold down here in Tennessee today, and it’s also pretty dry. That means it’s dry inside, too, which brings STATIC ELECTRICITY along with. Our poor dogs pretty much shock each other and themselves, and us, too, when they try to wrestle around and play, or if they’re even coming up to Rick and I to get petted.

Gigi doesn’t even want me to cover her up at night because her polar fleece blankie gets a pretty serious static charge by the time I drape it over her.

So i came up with what I thought was a pretty good idea: I’d plug in my little Crock Pot and heat some water and cinnamon sticks. But the little bastard isn’t heating up very quickly. Mind you, this is the small, two-quart Crock Pot that is always so bloody hot that it burns everything I fix inside it. It only has one setting, ‘On’, which apparently is another word for ‘Incinerate Everything Within.’

Especially if whatever I’m cooking has cheese in it. Cheese, burnt on to the surface of the crockery in this little bitchmaster, will NEVER EVER EVER come off. I don’t know why no one’s hit upon the burnt-cheese compound as a suitable industrial adhesive yet, because it’s extraordinarily effective, and it doesn’t seem to be water, acid, or bleach soluble.

And it seems once you’ve burnt something in crockery, that particular place is a magnet for future burned food.

So I thought this would be a prudent use of this cute little Crock Pot, which is otherwise too juiced-up to use as a slow-cooker. Water can’t burn, although I guess cinnamon sticks could leave a nasty residue if they cooked for a while and the water all boiled off, but I’m really past the point of caring what happens to this Crock Pot anyway.

Ah, crap. It’s Friday again.

Friday, December 5th, 2008 by kara

And that means that I should be cleaning. I don’t know if that’s a good idea right now because I’m still technically sick with this awful cold, so maybe I shouldn’t be stirring up dust and getting myself all worn out with the vacuums and the dusters and cleaning cloths, etc.

But on the other hand, four dogs and two humans make an awful lot of dust, and I know that getting all that dust out of the house will help me recover from this cold quicker.

Where the heck is my cleaning gnome? I want a cleaning gnome, NOW. Let’s face it–even though I’m short, I’m not as short as a gnome, for whom tasks like vacuuming under furniture and dusting mopboards would be a breeze.

Plus I think the dogs would really get a kick out of having a house gnome. They love me, sure, but can they chase me under the sofa? No. Think of the merriment! Imagine how our household would be enriched by having a cleaning gnome!

Okay, maybe the cold and flu medication I’ve been taking is affecting me. I’m gonna go lay down for a few minutes. Maybe the gnome will be here by the time I wake up from my mid-afternoon nap.

My turkey is still frozen. As usual. Dangit.

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 by kara

And sooo Thanksgiving is here again, but as per usual I have a huge turkey in my refrigerator that is not thawed yet. What a surprise. What a change from the normal status quo. NOT.

I love fixing Thanksgiving Dinner. Yes, I DID capitalize ‘dinner’ because Thanksgiving Dinner is iconic, it is a special dinner loaded with meaning for probably everyone in the United States. It’s actually pretty simple, too, compared to some meals. Maybe it just seems more impressive due to the size of the turkey and the amount of mashed potatoes. (Large amounts of food can be mesmerising to me.)

And this year, even though we’ll be away from our families for the holiday (again), we’ll actually have some company. Rick’s coworker Sterling is on call and he’ll be staying here to do his duty while his family visits relatives elsewhere. It will be nice to have someone to spoil along with Rick this holiday. Told Rick to let Sterling know in no uncertain terms that he will be expected to play lots of board games because there aren’t a lot of card games that work with three players. Parcheesi, here we come!

But before the Parcheesi comes the food. That turkey is 20 pounds of joy, frozen joy, to be accurate, but foodie joy none-the-less. I pulled it out of the freezer on Sunday evening, and just like every year before it, it’s still pretty stiff. I think it’s because I’m so paranoid about germs and food safety that I keep my refrigerator VERY VERY cold. Ice crystals do form in milk and iced tea if they’re allowed to sit long enough in my refrigerator, and that’s on the top shelf. I’m guessing that it’s not very far away from the temperature range in the freezer, so even though it’s not 32 degrees Fahreinheit in my fridge, it is cold enough to slow down a thaw. I’ve waited DAYS for a freaking Gladware container of soup to thaw, so you’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now.

But NOOOOO. Come tomorrow morning, along with making the biscuits and the pumpkin pies for Thursday, I’ll also be dunking my turkey in a cold water bath in the sink, hoping against hope to get that little bugger bakeable by Thursday morning. I shoulda known better. I shoulda just come home from the grocery store and chucked that plucked little monkey straight into the fridge. A week in there should have done it.

A turkey that’s even partially frozen will take a lot longer to cook, ya know. Ask our good friends from Ann Arbor, when we had a ‘holiday dinner’ a couple of years ago. Breads, veggies, taties, gravy, pies, everything was done at 7 p.m. except the turkey–even though it had been in the oven for most of the day. Finally I gave up and just started carving from the outermost regions and left the deeper breast meat intact, and flung the carcass back into the oven while we munched on the carved bits.

Cheezwhiz. Maybe I should go get my hairdryer out…no, no, NO, I KNOW that the hairdryer doesn’t work for this. It’s too boneheaded an idea to work, anyway. I might, however try throwing it in the microwave on defrost for a couple of hours tomorrow. BTW, if you DO use the microwave to defrost your turkey, PLEASE make sure there is no metal in the carcass before doing so. Some turkeys have metal clamps to hold their little leg stumps in place, and I guess that there can be metal bits in pop-up timers, and we all know that microwaves and metal are not friendly toward each other.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a little excitement and you have an extra turkey waiting in the wings, go for it. Take pictures and send them to me. Video, too, if you’ve got the capability. We can submit it to America’s Funniest Home Videos and YouTube.

The rest of our menu will include biscuits, asparagus pan-fried in bacon drippings, cornmeal stuffing with celery and onion, and pumpkin and apple pies. Something I’ll be doing differently this year is making my own pie crust. I hope they turn out tender and good, because I’d hate to experiment on Rick’s friend with something as CRUCIAL as pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. But piecrust is almost on par with a loaf of plain white bread–it’s simple and I SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO IT DAMMIT. Yeah, piecrust is up there, but maybe it’s not quite the white whale to me as yeast bread.

I’ll cheat, though. I have a couple of coupons for refrigerated pie crust, so if my own is really inedible, I’ll just throw together another pie with that. I’ll let you know how it all turns out. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving!

Recycling, of a sort

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008 by kara

So Jes and I were just talking about where we get all our useful information these days (why, the interwebz, o’ course) and she asked a rhetorical question: “Who uses a telephone book anymore these days?” And I said “I use mine. The thick ones. I’ve stacked them up to make an elevated water bowl stand for the kids (dogs).”

And when we get the new ones, I’ll get fancy and tape them together with strapping tape, and wrap them in a piece of old vinyl tablecloth to keep them nice & dry. Sooo, it’s kind of sort of recycling, because I wouldn’t be using the phone books any other way.  And it’s being frugal because I won’t have to go spend money on an elevated watering bowl for the dogs–I’m just using what I have here at the house. (Always, Gentle Readers, always keep packing tape on hand in your household.  The uses are myriad.)

My next question would be “does this count as being a craft project?”  I guess it could, if I used a really nice vinyl tablecloth…

Cleaning is easier without excess ‘stuff’

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008 by kara

There were two times in my life when I had a truly clean house, and I loved it. By ‘clean’ I mean that floors and surfaces were uncluttered as well as windows and floors being regularly washed and everything had a storage place. I was ready and pleased to have company come over at any time.

Both those times were when we were selling our first two houses, and we had to make some serious changes in order to do that more efficiently. And clearing out our excess belongings turned out to be a necessary step in that process, but it wasn’t an easy step for either of us. Both my husband and I are packrats, saving many items ‘because we might need them later’ or because they are important mementos.

As a result, we had accumulated waaay too much furniture, clothes, books, old computer equipment, papers, compact disks, movies, cookware…just STUFF. Much of it we weren’t USING, not even on an occasional basis, but we couldn’t picture getting rid of it all. So we ended up storing it, stacking boxes and tables and chairs in the most out-of-the-way places and just sidling past the piles to do our daily living. It wasn’t an optimal, enjoyable use of our living space, but we thought we were coping just fine.

The problem here is the word “coping.” We shouldn’t have BEEN coping, we should have been living comfortably but we didn’t know that until later on.

When we initially put our first home on the market, we bridled against having to deny most of our ‘stuff’, arguing that people wouldn’t be buying our ‘stuff’, they were only buying the house, and if they were so lacking in imagination that they couldn’t see past my kitchen tool crock and breadmaker and coffeemaker and toaster on the counter, then screw them. We were comfortable living in the crowded swapmeet that was our house, and didn’t see any reason to change just because we were selling it.

I should mention here that although I fiercely defended our right to live in a crowded pseudowarehouse that I was also very uncomfortable at the thought of having impromptu company. Whenever the doorbell rang, I would glance around the house and panic. I’d notice the piles of homeless cookware and books stacked on the countertops, and see that the pile of throw pillows and lap rugs on the livingroom furniture prevented guests from having a comfortable seat.

And while we were cool with perching on top of the stacks of throw pillows to get comfortable, I didn’t like asking guests to adapt to our clutter, so we just didn’t have company very often; and when we did I felt compelled to embark on a huge marathon of preparation, which really dampened the joy of having visitors. So I knew we had problems, but didn’t know how to deal with them.

Then we showed the house a few times but none of the people were really interested. As shallow as it seemed, they were more concerned with the colour of the accent paint we’d chosen for trim and the size of the rooms, which looked smaller due to the excess furniture. So we accepted that although some people may have enough imagination to look past everything, it was EASIER for them to imagine their own stuff there if they didn’t have to see ours first. And if it we made it easier for potential buyers to imagine it as their own, we could sell it faster. We acknowledged the wisdom of ‘staging’ our house to sell it more quickly, and packed away everything extra.

It was great. I was amazed at how much easier it was to do housekeeping and just LIVE without having to maneuver around all the crap.  Both times we sold houses, we rented storage facilities to hide our excess furniture, cookware and just plain ol’ STUFF (out of sight, out of mind, eh?) and it was astonishing how much more enjoyable this made many daily tasks. Tidying up was easier because there was always a place available to put ‘stuff’ away. We kept on top of junk mail and magazines/catalogs because we couldn’t have any of them lying about while we were showing the house, so we either read it right away or tossed it out.

We put back just the furniture and cookware that fit, only what we could picture ourselves actually using during this period of ‘roughing it,’ and it was a revelation. Suddenly, our finished basement in the first house because a potential oasis of fun and relaxation. It was designed for living, after all, not for storage, which is how we had been using it. I regretted not having cleared everything out sooner, because we could have been having all kinds of parties, card games, movie screenings, etc. in this wonderful space that we’d just ‘discovered.’

Even emptying the dishwasher and doing laundry was easier, because I could put everything AWAY. I didn’t have to find an alternate storage place for clean towels and end up letting them sit on top of our dresser because the linen closet was too full to put them away. I had actually made room inside the cabinet for all my teapots, and they didn’t need to sit out on the countertop on display.

And when we did have a showing, it was a breeze–all I had to do was to make sure the bed was made and run the vacuum through to “pick up the big chunks,” in the words of my darling mother. On the days we had showings scheduled, I didn’t have to worry about shoving piles of dirty clothes under the bed, and then not having room under there because that was where the Rubbermaid bins of off-season clothes were already stored…didn’t have to haul piles of newspapers out to the garage in a sweat because they were already there in the recycling bins, didn’t have to cram all my pots and pans into the oven to get them out of sight.

With the help of a spotlessly clean house and freshly-baked banana bread, we sold our first two houses and bought a third. But even though we’d already purged a truckload of STUFF during the last two moves, we still have way too much junk in our new house. We have to get rid of just a little bit more in order to be truly comfortable here, and I’m afraid that this last little bit is what’s going to be difficult. It was so much easier just to be able to rent a storage space and pack all these boxes off to exile, but that wasn’t really solving the problem–it just gave us a teasing glimpse of what life in an orderly house COULD be like. And let’s face it–paying to rent storage space for things that we’ll never use again is foolish. We need to face it and get rid of the last of the junk, and be comfortable.

I’ll get started on that tomorrow.

Joy, Joy, JOY! A major triumph in cleaning!

Friday, November 21st, 2008 by kara

Okay, it’s Friday, and by all rights I am SUPPOSED TO BE cleaning my house, but I had to take a break and share this with you, my Gentle Readers. I have just now overcome a major hurdle to my happiness, found a solution to a cleaning conundrum which has been plaguing me ever since we moved into this house!

Dirty light switches. How to clean them safely? Obviously, the SAFE way would be to shut off the electricity and go from there, but I hate doing that and having to reset all the clocks in the house…so I finally figured out a relatively safe way to clean them, using a toothbrush (old one) and some multipurpose cleaner. I spray just a tiny amount of the cleaner onto the bristles of the toothbrush, and then blot most of it onto a microfiber cleaning cloth. Then I brush the daylights out of the switch. It works BEAUTIFULLY!

Switch on the left has been cleaned, and the one on the right is about to get it!

Switch on the left has been cleaned, and the one on the right is about to get it!

This is a small thing, but it’s a huge issue for me because I’ve been obsessing about it for a full year. Finally getting them cleaned up is a big triumph for me! More about cleaning and housekeeping later. Happy Friday!

P.S. Don’t go getting too excited for me yet. This is a baby step toward having a clean house again. My nightstand is covered with a thick protective layer of dust, such that I can hardly see my alarm clock.

Learning to cook and bake with Norma

Thursday, November 20th, 2008 by kara

My mother Norma started me off in the kitchen when I was 8 or 9 years old. Her own mother was very capable in the kitchen and for better or worse insisted on doing everything herself, so my mother and her sister Laurel (better known as Aunt Corky) never got any practical cookery experience while they were growing up. This would come back to bite my mother in the ass, because when she married and left home to start her own household, she’d have to learn how to cook while she was on the job.

Norma was fond of saying that when she and my father first married she was so inexperienced in the kitchen that she “couldn’t boil sh*t for a tramp.” She was exaggerating to be funny and to make her point, that she didn’t even possess the most rudimentary kitchen skills. She managed to teach herself how to cook and bake, but it took quite a while and during her learning curve she had to cope with lots of beginner’s level problems which made life that much more difficult–needlessly. At that point, while she was sweating through the basics, she decided to prepare her own children thoroughly for life out of the nest, so she made sure that we all knew our way around the spice cupboard early in life.

(Apparently my brother did not receive the same level of preparation as did the rest of us girls. One Thanksgiving afternoon when he was living in Arizona, he called home to ask what kind of turkey he should buy to prepare for dinner that night. After explaining that it would take three days to thaw the damn thing, much less prepare it, I think he settled on turkey lunchmeat and instant mashed potatoes with canned gravy.)

My mother had a rare, dry sense of humor, and she practised her wit on all of us kids regularly. Most of the time it was cool to have a mother with such a weird sense of humor, but when she was teaching me to cook it was occasionally frustrating. When I was preparing something I hadn’t done before, I’d ask her “how long do I fry this/cook this/beat this?” she’d reply “Until it’s done.” I thought she was being funny or just trying to annoy me by not answering my questions, but in retrospect I can see that by not answering my question directly she was teaching me to pay attention to the food I was preparing. When I watched it carefully, I could see when it was underdone, when it was done perfectly, and the exact point at which it became overdone.

She taught me to observe my results and to learn as I went along, just like she did, but she did me the favor by starting me out early, before I had the pressure of providing food for my own family. I followed her example and learned to cook, preparing new dishes along the way with an eye on nutrition and frugality. She ended up as an accomplished cook who could also can and preserve foods that she’d grown herself. If there was something she didn’t know how to prepare, she’d learn.

But for all her hard-won expertise, she still had her bugbears, one of which was my grandmother’s recipe for Butterscotch Pie. This pie is essentially a homemade, cooked butterscotch pudding in a pastry crust, with a meringue crown. The recipe itself is only a list of ingredients for the pudding filling–no instructions for what to DO with all those ingredients. That obviously wasn’t a problem for my grandmother, who’d been preparing that pie for special occasions for years and years, most likely from memory.

When I was a child, I remember coming home after school to the heavenly scent of this wonderful, salty-sweet pie cooling on the countertop, honey-like drops of syrup bubbling up on the crown of meringue. It was always such a treat to have her make this pie, and for a while it seemed she’d make it without a special occasion–with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the butterscotch was runny, sometimes it might seem almost curdled, and other times the texture was perfect. It always TASTED fabulous, however, no matter how it looked.

When I think back on it, I realize now that my mother was practising making this pie so she could reliably make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and other special occasions. I think she first began to make this pie just after her mother had died in 1974. Just like any other time when we think we have plenty of opportunities to say the important things or ask the important questions, my mother probably hadn’t asked Grandma how to make the pie. After all, Grandma just made it herself for all the appropriate occasions, so there was no need for my mother to know how to fix it. So Mom had to figure out on her own the proper cooking time for the pudding filling, learning as she went. And like her mother, she kept those steps in her head.

My mother died in 1995, taking lots of important information with her. I still miss her and so often have thought of questions that only she can answer, some as small as “how do I put together these ingredients to make this pie?” and some as large as “what was your father and mother’s childhood like?” And I can’t tell you how often I’ve regretted not asking them. Along with that mysterious pie recipe, I have family pictures of people I don’t recognize and possibly have never even met, and my mother is the only person who could have told me who they were. It’s too late now, by far, but as I’ve discovered, regrets last a lifetime.

That's my Grandma's handwriting, yo!

I’ve kept that same recipe card for Butterscotch Pie, written in my Grandma Mae’s handwriting, and although I’ve not used it yet, I really do want to learn how to make it. I know the logical step is just to gather the ingredients and start experimenting like Norma. Someday I’ll do that, and through trial and error I’ll figure out how to combine these ingredients into that heavenly pie. And even though I don’t have kids to whom to pass this recipe along, I’ll write down the steps and I’ll share it with whoever wants to make it. Hopefully they’ll taste the love that’s such an important ingredient, even though it’s not written on the card.

Cake/brownie mixes and baking bread from scratch

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008 by kara

Just put a pan of brownies into the oven for my Pumpkin. I used a *mix* and I feel kind of dirty about it…after all, it’s JUST brownies. I could probably have done this from scratch. But it’s so QUICK to just be able to open the box, crack the eggs and measure the water and oil…and they smell so goooood while they’re baking…

What say you, Gentle Reader? Are mixes a sop to convenience and thusly the Devil? Or are they valid shortcuts for busy people who don’t need to prove their culinary capability by cooking from scratch?

I thought that I should also be able to bake bread from scratch, too. Bread is SIMPLE. The staff of life, the basis for many different meals and foods. Flour, water, sugar, salt, yeast. Can’t get much simpler than that…but I’ve tried making bread at various times in my life, with varying degrees of failure.

Recently we’ve been trying to spend as little money as possible in preparation for a possible financial Armageddon. As a result I’ve been trying to make as much food as possible from scratch. Prepared foods are expensive and don’t always contain wholesome ingredients, especially commercially produced bread. And now that I have nothing but time, I feel that I should be doing something productive with it.

Cookies are simple for me. I can make a yummy, lovely cookie out of just about anything. Soups, stews, meals from scratch are pretty easy too. Yeast breads are a different story, however. I found a really good recipe for homemade frozen biscuit dough over at http://www.hillbillyhousewife.com/paulasbiscuits.htm , and had reasonable success with edible biscuits using Susanne’s friend Paula’s recipe, but for the most part, the mysteries of yeast-risen white bread have eluded me since the beginning of my cooking career.

I have tried repeatedly, sometimes using the same recipe over and over again, sometimes using a new recipe. But I have been successful in making nothing more than an almost inedibly hard, poorly risen loaf. Each time. I call it “The Breadbrick” because it’s not so much a loaf as it is a brick of very dense bread. It’s probably more suited to being used as a building material.

I may decide to patent the process if I can figure out what I’m doing wrong so that others can follow my lead. Then millions of people can produce their own “Breadbrick(TM),” the portable snack that can also be used as a personal protection device. Keep the Breadbrick(TM) in your purse, and you can nibble on a corner before going in to do your grocery shopping, and if someone tries to take your purse on the way in to the store, you can clonk them on the head with the Breadbrick(TM) and knock them out.

And I KNOW that my bread is less-than-pleasing. My wonderful husband told me the other day “I love bread…and I love the bread that YOU make, too.” Which I interpreted as “I love the stuff that you make that’s SUPPOSED to be bread, because I love you and everything you do for me.”

*Sigh* I owe the man a loaf of pliable, slice-able, honest-to-goodness bread.

It’s just BREAD, for chrissake. I should be able to do this successfully. I’m full of hope at the beginning of every batch, and the house smells wonderful with the proofing dough poofing out its yeasty goodness into the air. And the smell of baking bread? The only smell better than bread baking is toast toasting.

But my failures are wearing me down. Each stiff, compact loaf I produce wounds my soul. I MUST bake a comely loaf of bread! I’m at the point where it’s not even a QUEST any more, it’s my OBSESSION to make an appealing loaf of plain ol’ white bread from scratch. I was pissing and moaning to Jes about it the other day (really, WHY does that woman still listen to me? All I ever do is complain to her!) and she found a great website that describes the breadmaking process in detail: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/lessons/yourfirstloaf .

After poring through the incredibly detailed descriptions and helpful video here, I think I’ve figured out what I’m doing wrong. I believe I’m putting too much flour in while kneading the dough, which would make the dough stiff and dry. I’ve been letting the dough rise (or proof) in my wall-mounted microwave, because I noticed that it’s quite warm inside when I turn on the worklight underneath. Maybe it’s TOO warm for the final proof, causing the bread to collapse in on itself when it goes into the oven, so I’ll try doing the final proof on top of my stove or inside the oven itself. I have made yeast-risen French bread successfully many times in the past, and the main difference between the two processes is that the French bread does its final proof on baking sheets on top of the stove, because the sheets are too big to go back into the microwave.

I’ll try it again and let you know. Hopefully this attempt won’t be another epic FAIL.