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.
By anyone's standards, I am a novice baker . . . an experienced cook, but a novice with anything involving flour and a stove or oven. We know that I'm in love with The Great British Baking Show, right? Its two judges are Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. I've prepared several of Mary's recipes, but last week was my first foray into Paul's world. And incidentally, if my name was Paul Hollywood, I'd change it; but let that not diminish his proven baking skills and talent . . . it's merely that I find the name a bit too . . . well, Hollywood. Anyway, want to guess where this is going?

Somehow last week I accomplished hand-stripping (don't ask) a fluffy and very rowdy puppy; made two visits for I.D. cards to the CAJA (Costa Rica's healthcare offices) that required leaving the house at 3:15 A.M. on two consecutive days (yep, you read that correctly); and I made no less than five (5) epic failures in the dessert and baking arena. My best friend stated that she was certain I over-stated the failures. Becky, rest assured, I did not

Monday was The Great Costa Rican Failed-Brownie Show. Were they underdone or were they fudgey? I’m still shaking my head because they were prepared from a mix. Hello?!? And just when I believed that my skills had improved so that I could consistently tackle anything involving a baking mix. Goes to show you. Was it the addition of coconut that increased the oil; or was it the addition of the walnuts, which also might have contributed to the oil content and thus the soft fudge-like texture? Would a more experienced baker have reduced the 1/3 cup of oil called for by Betty Crocker? Now I say fudge-like, but make no mistake: they tasted raw. Every single one tasted raw -- I know because we ate every single brownie. 

Then came biscotti. Now I'm not blaming Paul Hollywood and his recipe (not necessarily), but my biscotti in no way resembled any biscotti that you've ever seen . . . certainly not during your trips to Starbucks. True, I substituted macadamia nuts for pistachios, but I used precisely 220 grams as Paul insisted, together with Paul's directions for 125 grams of dried cranberries. Now let me tell you, the total of 345 grams (seriously, Paul?) made a concoction comprised of more fruit and nuts than dough. And though biscotti (by its very name) involves a twice-baked process, there was no salvaging these biscuits during any stage of the baking. 

Now in all candor, though not light and airy as shown above, our hard little chunks were delicious . . . but then it's almost impossible to go wrong with 345 grams of tasty macadamias and cranberries. As Rusty suggested, a dentist on standby would not have been out of order . . . or we could have used them as paper weights. And every darn biscotti had the same consistently. Again, we know this because I ate every one. And I wonder why I was horrified to see myself in the beach photographs taken Sunday with Penny.

Next . . . the crème anglaise blackberry tart. In Costa Rica when you see a fruit other than the ubiquitous apple, you grab it at any price. Last week we saw pears, the first mango of the season, strawberries, and blackberries. Blackberries! Now Mary Berry will tell you that the true test of adding any fruit near crème anglaise is not allowing the fruit's color to bleed into the custard-colored cream. No one wants to see burgundy colored juice staining a perfect crème anglaise. So I added a sheet of gelatin when making the thick blackberry coulis; and indeed the blackberry topping my custard showed nary a hint of bleeding. The problem? The pastry dough that housed the tart. What went wrong? Probably something to do with the blind-baking process and the fact that Rusty rushed me out of the house to get to the bank. Could not possibly have been me or my pastry dough recipe – I use Ina Garten’s method and it is foolproof. Nevertheless.

Next failure. Brioche. Why we shipped to Samara two brioche pans remains a mystery, but here in our kitchen they’ve sat for two years. Rusty keeps a clever trick among his arsenal of manipulative tools. He’ll say something such as, “I bet you can’t make a good brioche” or “you can’t really make lemon madeleines,” and I fall for it every time. So who will I blame for the week’s saddest baking failure? Paul, Paul, Paul. Oh, Paul, what the heck were you thinking when you made public your brioche recipe? Suffice to say, it wasn’t the yeast, it wasn’t the butter (not this time), and it wasn’t even the strong flour, which I recently shipped from the U.S. Two brioche a tête – over the cliff for the pizotes.

This brings us to the most epic failure: the pear and apricot frangipane tart, on which I wasted over half a jar of my homemade apricot jam. Yes, you guessed it – Paul’s recipe. Now I must concede that I’m not 100% certain that I used the correct amount of caster sugar and almonds. The filling was too grainy and overly sweet. So, willing to take the blame for this one, it is just possible, however unlikely, that I failed to hit tare on my digital scale and used too much sugar and/or ground almonds. But quite frankly, after Paul’s recipe that caused the brioche disaster, I’m almost convinced that Paul withholds tiny details in his recipes . . . just as he does to those intrepid contestants in the technical challenges of the Great British Baking Show.  And if you're a fan of the show, you know precisely what I'm talkin' about.

So if you’ve waded through the sad tale of the five baking disasters, and if you still believe that I possess any credibility in the realm of desserts, check out my recipe for cream puffs (or éclairs) and crème anglaise -- all are foolproof. Really. I know because I experienced eleven (11) failures before perfecting recipes that even I can't ruin. You'll find the link here

In the meantime I've not given up. What would Mr. White do? I'm simply going to re-think my chemistry. Yes, we'll see more brioche this week, but I am bailing on Mr. Hollywood and going to King Arthur Flour's site. I have the utmost respect for Paul Hollywood, make no mistake. But as for using any more of his recipes . . . not so much. Lo que hay.

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.

I need to stop the list because merely typing it makes me hungry and makes me long for my new Mothership. Anyway, my point is: What the heck do people cook and eat in this country?! It will be a sad and most desperate day when I’ll eat green peas from a can. The inclusion of green in one’s diet, while essential, remains virtually impossible here in Samara. And don't get me started on fruit. In a country with so many limes, why can't the farmers grow a lemon . . . or an orange orange? Sure, frozen peas (good ones) can be found at the Maxi Palí in Nicoya, 40 minutes away, but not at our local Palí. Must be because our local grocer lacks the Maxi in the Palí. So the only way to obtain a plentiful supply of fresh, green veggies involves a six-plus-hour trek to the Auto-Mercado. 

Under the category of been there, done that, we can name and have prepared countless meals of chicken and potatoes, steak and potatoes, pork and potatoes, fajitas, Stroganoff, chili, stew . . . and yes, all of these meals have been prepared both simply and most elaborately. For the past week all dinners were French with plenty of heart-stopping butter and cream (I've been on a French sauce kick). So it’s not that we lack delicious meals; but a good steak au poivre calls for something green. . . . doesn't it? Anything green. For Christ’s sake, how freekin’ difficult is it to find a fresh, worthy green bean or a firm head of broccoli?!

And so I bake . . . because if one can't have asparagus, one can have tarts, pastries, cakes, and brownies. If I can't eat celery, I'll nosh on cream puffs. We hear rumors that Nicoya will soon have its own Auto-Mercado. Sure . . . I'm buying that tale . . . and Neiman Marcus probably has plans for a new Tico flagship store in San Fernando. I’ll hold my breath. Lo que hay.

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.

Our new puppy arrived. Penny is a baby, and it will be many, many months (as in 18-30) before she doesn’t need every puppy accouterment known to dogdom in every room and outdoor space. Leashes are everywhere. After all, we must have a leash quickly at hand as Penny is being house-trained. And remember, we have concrete walls, so placing a hook or a series of hooks on the wall is not an option . . . even for this man (today is his birthday, again), who can over-engineer and construct anything we might need to hang and/or store puppy gear.

Bones, toys, containers of dry chow, containers of freeze-dried turkey bits, containers of probiotic powder, dog crates, collars of varying cute design, containers of training treats, water bowls, mats, exercise pens, brushes, stripping knives (don’t ask) -- these items are everywhere, on every kitchen surface, tossed about the terrace, and on indoor and outdoor tables. Penny believes that her water bowls are merely small pools intended for digging and splashing and rolling. Thus towels and Sham-Wows® require daily washing. 

And ask yourself: How does one house-train a dog when one lives in the house solely for sleeping and cooking? Otherwise, in our world, we live outdoors on the terrace. When Penny awakes in her crate at 4:15 A.M. and cries, her request is a clear indication that she needs to go outside to poop or pee. And who would deny such a request?

Of course a little dog, especially a rocket-fast puppy, can get into a lot of trouble very quickly. If anything is at her eye level, it goes into her mouth. Happily, our yard is far more puppy-proof than our hands, hair, and clothing.

So my calm, orderly world now involves keeping an eye on three-month-old Penny almost 100% of the time. I wouldn't say that I'm neurotic about watching her every movement . . . but Rusty would. If there be typos, grammatical errors, or misspellings in this post it is because I'm too tired to care. Yes, the grammar Nazi has let go . . . at least for today. Lo que hay.

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.

08 March 2016

I Don't Wanna Be A Product Of My Environment. I Want My Environment To Be A Product Of Me.

Today I'd like to lead you on a little guided look at our planet . . . our environment. As with most guided tours, we'll have a quiz or two. 

I am a seriously dedicated Mad Men fan . . . and I've only seen Season One. Am I offended by the roles of women in the show? No, I am not. It is a snap-shot into the 1960s in the United States. And frankly, the women working on Madison Avenue were probably afforded more opportunities than women working in Texas or Mississippi, which still isn't saying much about those opportunities. I'll compare Mad Men to a 1704 map of the Middle East. Am I offended that Israel isn't present on that map? No, because it is merely a snap-shot into the Middle East environment of the early 18th century. Do either of these examples indicate that I approve of the environment captured in such a snap-shot? Of course not. 

Now let's move along on our little tour of the environment that presently exists across the globe. But first, are you a feminist? Let’s take a little quiz.

  1. Do you believe in the radical notion that women are people?
  2. Do you believe in the insane idea that women should be afforded equal opportunities? Crazy things like equal access to education, the right to drive a car, the right to equal pay for equal work?

If you answered Yes, then you, my friend, are a feminist.
Here's another quiz. What's wrong with this image? You know . . . oh, yes . . . you know.

So today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. This is a big deal to me, and it should be to you, too . . . particularly if you have daughters, nieces, or know any women at all. In many countries it is a national holiday. Wait, I’ll go further, even in many developing countries it is a national holiday. So why not in the United States? You know why. 

25 February 2016

This Is Me Taking Back Control Of My Life.What The Fuck Have You Done Lately?

Tomorrow is my birthday. I can say Today is my birthday  in German, French, or Spanish . . . (it’s most fascinating in German) but that doesn’t interest you. Suffice to say, those few days during which Rusty is older than I are ending; and I’m a tad cranky. About many things. For instance, I recently saw Facebook posts from two dear friends/family, and it was all I could do not to correct their grammar. But that would have been considered poor form, right? Right, Sally? Come on . . . work with me here.

On the other hand . . . who writes this crap?! Was it the fault of my friend for posting it? Well, to some extent, yes . . . she could have at the least noted the poor grammar contained within the truism of the meme. But more importantly, who the F is too old, too tired, TOO sober, and lacking the time for proper punctuation and proper grammar? Riddle me that! Rob/Sally, am I correct here, or not?! I wanted to post a FB reply that said precisely that: "Too . . . for what? proper grammar and punctuation?" And it's birthday eve, so I've deemed myself entitled to some genuine derogatory comments because I'm old! I'll go further: yin and yang. Get with it folks. It is never Ying and Yang. It's yin and yang. GOOGLE! Hello? Clearly, I'm on a birthday-eve spiral.

20 February 2016

Anybody Interested In Grabbing A Couple Of Burgers And Hittin' The Cemetery?

Today is this man's birthday. True. 

For years I'd revel in Rusty's birthday. We were born in the same year and even attended the same high school. In years past I'd delight in those few days between our birthdays when Rusty was older than I. This year I announced: Dear God, we're both old . . . let's just spend the day digging a couple of graves and wait. So, no party; and we even cancelled Operation: Dinner Out . . . though we did luncheon on the beach, and I did make Rusty's favorite, coconut cream pie.

Anyway, I thought that I'd take this opportunity to share a few more photos of Rob's visit (my photos, this time), and to make fun of my darling husband . . . and men, generally . . . since we're both old and have so little time remaining.