15 April 2017

Tell Me What You’ve Done That Hell Yawns Before You.

And speaking of blasphemy, heresy, and general poor form, I rarely post anything related to religion or politics. I rarely speak of such topics, except among my closest friends. And Rusty. Rusty loves to hear me grumble about politics . . . or perhaps not.

Anyway, it's the Easter season, or Semana Santa here in Costa Rica. Most commercial enterprises close, and tourists flood our little village. But let's not forget that it's also Passover, without which we'd have no Easter . . . and no Ramadan, which begins next month. We'd also not have Eid al-Adha, aka Tabaski, which, in my experience, is the best party in West Africa. True, sad though it may seem, the massacre of a sheep or lamb is often involved.

And speaking of massacre, on with today's tale. In thinking about springtime religious holidays I realized that most of my friends are either Catholic or High Episcopalian. I have a few Jewish friends in the U.S. and several Muslim friends in Africa. I, myself, tend to embrace all religions with my any excuse for a party ideology; but the reality is that Easter isn't as special for us as is National Pet Day, which was Tuesday. 

There . . . I've said it.

Now don't hold me to each of these facts, but this I believe to be true:
  • As long as I've known Rusty, as far back as our high school years his Episcopalian mom prepared a lamb cake as dessert for Easter dinner. 
  • Jackie was given her lamb cake mold by her mother, so that makes it a valuable antique, circa 1918. Think Downton Abbey
  • As Rusty's mother swooned, Rusty and his brothers would annually massacre that poor coconut-covered lamb nesting in green-dyed coconut that mimicked grass. Since Jackie appeared so surprised and appalled each and every year, why my darling mother-in-law prepared the little lamb for slaughter remains a mystery. Well, to you good Catholics and High Episcopalians, obviously not that much of a mystery. 
  • Rusty and I inherited the original cast iron lamb mold and shipped it to Costa Rica. 
  • Rusty and I shipped the mold more as a sentimental item than as a practical cake pan since neither of us celebrate Easter solely for religious reasons. Granny and Jackie kept hand-baskets for us (knowing even in those early years where we were headed) while the good children and grandchildren in the family received candy-filled Easter baskets.

One cannot fill the lamb mold with just any cake batter. Even pre-massacre, its head and ears are wont to fall without a stiff batter. . . . or without countless toothpicks and/or wooden skewers or dowels. Pound cake batter works best, though it has been tried with red velvet just for the effect of the massacre. You get the idea. 

Oddly enough shredded coconut is not ubiquitous here in this land of coconut palms and pipa fria. But during the Easter season one can find small (really small) bags of shredded coconut, though it's rarely snowy white. So last year we brought out the butter and made a pound cake batter with which to fill the lamb mold. The finished cake was presented to our friends, Cynthia and Lubos, merely to show them a North American Christian tradition (and likely European, too). They looked at us as if we had lobsters coming out of our ears. I cannot vouch for the flavor of that cake, and it barely made the mountainous, rocky-road drive to their home without losing its head and ears . . . even prepared with pound cake. These lamb cakes are trickier than you'd imagine.

This year we discussed baking the traditional cake and decided that we really didn't want to foist an entire baked lamb on any friends. Also, I was not about to make a pound cake in the middle of my sewing mania. So an entire lamb was ruled-out and cake pops were discussed.

What is the deal with cake pops?! I think that the fad was invented by the same person who invented Pinterest . . . meaning that the entire concept is essentially an overblown scheme to make one feel craft-empowered, while in reality it's largely a lie-filled plot to instill some self-deprecating end game. I will concede, however, that cake pops, aka cake balls, when done correctly, do have a place in polite society. Absolutely any party gains that extra wow-factor with cake pops. Why, I made cannon ball cake balls for our annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day party . . . if you can call that polite society

If you can dream it, any design or theme can become a cake pop -- from monsters to bunnies. Here's my complaint about a cake pop: they're nothing but baked-then-completely-crumbled cake mixed oh-so thoroughly with rich frosting. Yuk! Now I'm as fond of a traditional cake or cupcake as the next overweight gal, but the cake pop doesn't qualify as cake. Neither is it a candy, though I have made ganache into truffle balls, inserted the lollipop stick, and decorated them. Talk about wow-factor!

Here's the point: 62-tiny, daintily-piped royal frosting spots later and I had a cake ball with the appearance of fleece. A ball . . . one single ball! Forty-seven to go . . . and by the second ball the dots of fleece on the first lamb had melted in the humidity of an Easter weekend in Samara. What was I thinking?! This called for a quick batch of Italian meringue . . . my newest and favorite delivery system for an instant case of salmonella. I'm kidding . . . in theory the hot simple syrup in an Italian meringue kills any salmonella in the egg whites. 

So the next challenge was the harsh reality that Italian meringue looks nothing like fleece, though any maven of meringue can see the potential. The answer? Swirl those meringue-dipped cake pops in coconut for a fur, if not fleece, effect. I called for Rusty's immediate help; and despite four hands pressing fleece into meringue, it didn't work.  

The only success of the afternoon came from the 30-minutes of uncontrollable laughter as we reminisced about 30-plus years of lamb cake massacres, our blasphemous attitude about this most holy of Christian holidays, and the fact that our darling, deceased Jackie was probably rolling over in her urn at the thought of our blasphemy. We gave the coconut lamb pops to our friend Peter. Hippitus Hoppitus, Naeta, Easter's on its way. Lo que hay.

06 April 2017

Ain't A Thing I Can Do About It.

Our new puppy is a terrier. We often tell Penny that her behavior is tenacious, which it is, though the animal could not care less whether we notice. Penny is going through her "make me" stage, though sometimes it's a "you can't stop me" stage. All we can do is remain firm in her training and love her to bits.

I understand Penny's persistence. My own tenacity simply will not allow me to walk away from a baking failure. Having perfected the cream puff . . . having posted the recipe here with specific instructions that cream puffs absolutely cannot be made without bright light . . . what did I do? I tried to make cream puffs in the dim evening light of our kitchen. Complete failure. So naturally I had to make two more arrays just to confirm that indeed I can make cream puffs . . . in a brightly illuminated kitchen filled with afternoon sunlight. 

And then there was the brioche calamity . . . and the biscotti nightmare . . . and my reproach of Paul Hollywood's recipes, which is neither to impugn Paul's kitchen talent nor The Great British Baking Show -- I'm merely saying that Paul's instructions failed me when using primarily Costa Rican ingredients. So I ran far and fast from Paul's recipes and sought the advice from good ol' U.S.A.'s King Arthur Flour. Mulligan! Now I won't say that it was the best brioche in the land, but I definitely made genuine brioche à tête as well as white chocolate & cranberry biscotti that actually resembled biscotti

Then I triumphed with my chocolate-mocha cream horns. They were worth that battle for puff pastry. And my Pastel de Tres Leches with the Italian meringue topping was so good that I believe Rusty only got two slices. Suddenly I'm an Italian meringue expert.

Anyway, with so many sweets swarming in our home, my shorts are noticeably tighter, which should come as no surprise. I need a mumu . . . thatand a new hobby that doesn't involve sugar, eggs, butter, and cream. I chose sewing.

20 March 2017

I . . . Was . . . Running!

Each day we teach Penny valuable life lessons. I've explained the danger of snapping at flying insects. Penny understands the importance of being seated before dinner. Her grammar, a private matter between only the two of us, is impeccable; and she grasps the concept of too many pronouns and too few antecedents . . . even at her tender age. However, Penny’s real take-away from her grammar lessons is that too many personal pronouns make mommy crazy. The puppy is prodigious, I tell you -- a reliable vocabulary of over 30 words at just four months of age.

Last week Penny learned never to touch any Costa Rican toad . . . a lesson that could save her life. A few days later we all learned the lesson of what a tarantula bite will do to an eight-pound puppy. Yes, a late-night emergency call to Dr. Delgado was involved . . . and as Murphy's Law would have it, the electricity was off so she was cared for in Rusty's arms by lantern light. Luckily I'm good in a crisis and it wasn't until the next day that my melt-down came. A few days prior to the spider lesson I learned how painful is a bee sting smack-dab in the center of my palm. Now I'm not saying that I cried like a little girl . . . but neither would I deny it. So our world has become a small mommy and me learning center.

28 February 2017

Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Week To Stop Sniffing Glue

Back to the subject of the six-plus hour trip to the Auto-Mercado. Puff pastry lives in the freezer at Auto-Mercado. If I had puff pasty I could make lime and ginger cream horns. Recall that I've already made my lime curd and candied lime peel; and although the curd proved overly limey, I can tame that tartness when I make my pastry cream. I can make crème anglaise in my sleep, along with cream puffs; but more on that later. For now I don't have time (okay, I've got nothing but time) and I certainly don't have the inclination to remain away from our puppy for over six hours. That leaves one alternative: make my own puff pastry. 

Now let me say this: though I love a baking challenge, when I see anyone making their own puff pastry (laminated dough), I go bonkers raising my voice to proclaim, "no one makes their own laminated dough -- it's insane -- it would be like trying to make your own phyllo. Insane, I tell you!" 

Notwithstanding our odd Costa Rica butter, the theory of making puff pastry isn’t complicated. It’s a matter of pounding icy cold butter into a large pastry rectangle, then making multiple folds of that pastry while refrigerating between the series of folds to keep that butter icy cold. I just might be able to perform this trick. On the other hand, after the past week’s baking mishaps, do I really want to risk pounds of butter? Definitely not after last week.

21 February 2017

I Ate His Liver With Some Fava Beans And A Nice Chianti

Ah, Neiman Marcus. The Mothership. Just thinking of their cosmetic world creates a visceral longing . . . like an opiate addiction. Say it with me: Tom Ford. . . Chanel. Your muscle memory just unconsciously reached for your credit card, right? For one as poor as I, how did I ever frequent Neiman’s, either on-line or in person at the original Dallas Mothership? Once upon a time I experienced such a desire to return to the Mothership that I ordered a pair of sandals, on-line, from a satellite phone in West Africa. Great sandals. 

Today a grocery store satisfies my shopping addiction. The mere idea saddens me and should serve as a cautionary tale to any Costa Rica resident without a JetBox account who was or is a shoe or perfume lover – how are the mighty fallen?

I don’t know whether Auto-Mercado reigns as the best grocer in Costa Rica, but in my mind there exists nothing better. Is the store truly so full of wonders such as berries and pickling cucumbers, or have I simply lowered the bar? I think of Auto-Mercado as being on par with Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Central Market, and the Food Halls at Harrods. So clearly the bar hasn’t merely lowered, it’s crumbled. Nevertheless.

Our closest Auto-Mercado is a two-hour drive. Add a minimum hour for shopping and 30 minutes for lunch at the Subway® next door and we’re talking about a six-hour outing. And what has, you ask, the Auto-Mercado that our local grocers have not? Let’s list just some of it:

  • Iceberg lettuce. Heck, a variety of lettuces in a real produce section.
  • A deli counter with sliced cheeses and cold-cuts from around the world. Think Boar’s Head. Think Reuben sandwich.
  • An in-store bakery with everything from flat-bread pizza to bagels and warm-from-the-oven French breads.

20 February 2017

One Wrong Move And That Dog Will Tear You To Shreds

I live in a calm, orderly world. I'm happy in this world. I know where every item is in our kitchen. I can tell you precisely where to find any particular size of scissors. I can easily direct you to our SCUBA gear . . . and anything else throughout the house. Counter tops and furniture remain uncluttered, floors are wide-open without items forgotten here and there. I wouldn’t say that I am neurotic about living in an orderly environment . . . but Rusty certainly would. 

When we have house guests Rusty endures my predictable 15-minute meltdown when I must accept that gear belonging to our dearest friends will be strewn about the house. It’s an insignificant price to pay for hosting our pals as guests. Otherwise, when it's just us (and our cat), I use a little unwritten schedule to keep our house and my life very orderly. 

And then one day about a week ago my little universe shifted. The axis of my little world tilted somehow, and what order existed left the building.

23 December 2016

See The Way The Handle On Those Pruning Shears Matches Her Gardening Clogs? That's Not An Accident.

This year Chanukah begins on Christmas Eve . . . right through January 1. This is very exciting for me, and we have plans all weekend with wonderful friends. Rusty doesn’t celebrate Chanukah; I celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas. I'm excited about the holidays, as always. About 2017?  . . . that remains to be seen. Anyway, bitch that I am, my gift to you this year is a typical Kathy rant. Actually I’m still on that volume-versus-weight rant.

Sometimes I just need someone or some authoritative text/entity to agree with me on a fact that I know to be true. For example, in my recent endeavor with lime curd the recipe called for 150 grams of lime juice. This obvious error in the recipe consumes my thoughts. One cannot measure a liquid by weight. Would 10 grams of water occupy the same volume in a measuring cup as 10 grams of honey? Of motor oil? Mercury?! Of course not, and it’s making me crazy that the Internet contains a great recipe with an unforgivable error in a critical measurement. And I wonder why my lime curd is overly tart. Liquids are (or should be) measured by volume, be it milliliters or fluid ounces. I cannot let it go. Naturally my husband was and still is thrilled . . . or not. He simply wanted some authentic French Madeleines.

So it's the holidays and I should play nicely . . . should being the key word. A few days ago I did make Madeleines for that darling man o' mine. And the recipe read, thankfully, fluid ounces of melted butter. Got that? Fluid ounces of melted (i.e., a liquid) butter. Ah, but here in Costa Rica our butter contains so many additives that when one melts the happy product of a happy cow you’ll find all sorts of things floating on top (and, for you true cooks and bakers,  I’m not simply referring to the milk solids). These floaters must be skimmed before measuring the butter. So if I need four fluid ounces of butter, I’d better begin with six-plus ounces from the stick of solid butter. Surely you’re following my reasoning in this rant. No? Well let’s move to another topic . . . one of my favorites: grammar and the misuse of English words.

15 December 2016

I Think This Just Might Be My Masterpiece

Those 15 pounds I lost while in Texas? They're back. Still, 'tis the holiday season, and one anticipates a certain amount of weight gain . . . except perhaps in this land of year-round beach-going and tiny bikinis.

Some people enjoy participation in competitive sports. I am not one of those people. Well, I do enjoy golf; but arguably golf is more of a game than a sport, and a drinking game at that, which explains my love of the game. Baking constitutes my new competition.

My friend Becky introduced me to The Great British Baking Show. It’s baking, not cooking, my friends. Need I explain further? Those Brits . . . unlike so many U.S. Food Network competitions, the bakers of The Great British Baking Show speak with politeness and humor . . . not to mention that delightful accent. You’ll not find aggression – no hostile rivalries as with the U.S. shows. What you will find is pastries and breads galore, beautiful in appearance and with almost unbelievable flavor combinations. Cardamon, masala chai, and basil . . . together in a single dessert -- what genius home-cooks think of this stuff? Nevertheless, while watching in Texas I wanted to scamper away from the T.V., raid Becky’s pantry, and prepare items such as malt-cream and ginger-lime cream horns or marula liqueur and coffee crème brûlée. Then there are the classics: éclairs and cream puffs, for which one needs the pastry dough known as pâte à choux (or choux pastry). Pronounce it with me: pah-ta-shoe.

I’ve never been a baker. Even box cake mixes presented a challenge in my youth. Years ago I tried all that French and Danish and Viennese pastry stuff and became well acquainted with the term epic failure. Why I waited until moving to Costa Rica to perfect my baking skills remains a mystery. I’m baking in a country without good quality (I’m not seeking great) butter, flour, and sugar. And then there’s the challenge of making meringues in a land of high humidity. Adding to the challenge is the absence of seemingly simple items such as bread flour, cake flour, and those items that surely you always keep in your own pantry, muscovado and caster sugars. It gets worse. Recipes from The Great British Baking Show are easy to find, but what on earth is strong white bread flour? Is there a weak white bread flour? Is icing sugar the same as confectioner sugar? [Yeah, it is.]

27 November 2016

The Trick, William Potter, Is Not Minding That It Hurts

Today we’re going to jump around while discussing my experience with the year 2016. Alert one: adult language is involved.
I’m in love with John Oliver. If you don’t know who John Oliver is, you might just stop reading now. Of course I’m truly in love with my husband and friends and family; but John Oliver holds a special place in my heart. 

I understand the Constitution of the United States, but I simply cannot and will not accept that John Oliver should be prevented from being President by something as silly as his birthplace. Again, if you don’t grasp the implication of this opinion, you should certainly stop reading now.

We own flags. We have dear friends here in Costa Rica who tease us about our flag collection. Member of Norway’s royal family celebrating a birthday? We’ve got the flag. Bayern’s futbol team doing well? We’ve got the flag. But when packing all of these flags during our move from Texas, I questioned seriously why I was taking our hurricane flag. After all, Costa Rica is too far south to experience a hurricane. Or is it? 

This week the hurricane flag was hoisted. The prognosticators for Hurricane Otto know little more than those for any tropical depression. Hurricane experts are like the pollsters . . . their work of late is unpredictable. Like snow in Texas . . . I’ll believe it when I see it. Nevertheless, the idea of a hurricane on Thanksgiving day brought a delightful sense of anticipation, which was one of the few delightful things about 2016. Tomorrow I’m going to begin work on a new flag for the year 2016. A flag for whose sentiment I can take no credit – you got it: John Oliver.