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Remembering Christmas (2/2)

Posted by Ted on Dec 13, 2009 in Food & Drinks, Memories

There are a few tastes that remind me of childhood. Two of them happen to be donuts.

The first was Morton’s frozen cinnamon donuts. I lived on these when I was a kid. They came in a brown box, and they were OMG good. Small, they could be eaten in a single bite, but I usually took two. Pop a few of them in the toaster oven for a few minutes, and they were cakey and soft on the inside, crispy and coated in cinnamon sugar on the outside. They haven’t been around in a long time, but there are those like me who remember them fondly. The closest that I’ve found have been the occasional apple cider donut from a New England farmstand in autumn, but really, these were like crack. Even more so than Krispy Kreme.

The second donuts of childhood were my grandma’s chocolate donuts. There was just something about them that was special. They didn’t taste like any other chocolate donut that I’ve ever had. When I was a kid, I remember watching her make them, eager to make sure that they were good enough for everyone else. They were often in the Christmas box along with cookies and pound cake. To be true, I never had eyes for anything but the donuts. It wouldn’t matter what else was in the box, even if it were a toy that I’d had on my wishlist compiled from the Sears catalog.

I’m sure they were made with love, but it wouldn’t be until my aunt gave me the recipe that I realized they were made with potato flakes and buttermilk. How odd! That would certainly explain the unique flavor. Even after my grandma passed away, my aunt would still send them to me at Christmas. Not having had them for a number of years now, I’ve meant to make them, but living a healthier life now I’ve shied away from their deep fat fried temptation.

Feeling inspired and unemployed, I decided this was the year to do try my hand at them, and share the calories with my family at Christmas. I bought a candy thermometer and a quart of canola oil, and tried to recreate my childhood. The recipe card that I have has ingredients, but not directions, so I looked to the net. What I found interesting was that very quickly I found similar recipes involving mashed potatoes or buttermilk. Opting to stay true to grandma, I followed the card;
Ingredients

* 1/4 cup shortening (butter)
* 1/2 cup sugar
* 1 cup potato flakes (Add 1/2 cup boiling water to reconstitute)
* Pinch of salt
* 1 Egg
* 1/2 cup buttermilk
* 1 1/2 cups flour
* 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
* 2 squares melted chocolate
* Vanilla (I used a teaspoon)

Preparation

* Beat the sugar and eggs together until creamy.
* Melt the butter and chocolate together in a small saucepan or double-boiler over low heat. Then beat into the sugar and egg mixture.
* Add the vanilla, buttermilk, and potatoes into the sugar mixture.
* Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Stir into the liquid mixture.
* Chill the dough for an hour to make it easier to handle.
* Roll out half the dough on a lightly floured board to a 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into doughnuts. Allow the cut doughnuts to dry for 10 minutes.
* Heat 2 inches of oil to 370 degrees F (185 degrees C) in a large skillet or pot. The dough should be at room temperature before frying.
* Transfer the doughnuts to the skillet, one every 15 seconds. Fry each doughnut about 2 minutes per side. Remove the doughnuts and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining dough.
* Roll the doughnuts in powdered sugar after they have cooled.

After the first test batch, I was eager to see how close they were to the ideal seen through the chocolate-colored glasses of my childhood. Sadly, they were not as amazing as I knew that they could be. I could detect a hint of the distinctive taste that I loved, but they were not the same. Assuming the recipe to be correct, the difference must be in the ingredients. Maybe she used shortening instead of butter. Potato flakes probably have no discernable difference, but I can imagine that there is variation in buttermilk flavor. Maybe they need more salt.

Clearly, more research needs to be done.

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Remembering Christmas (1/2)

Posted by Ted on Dec 13, 2009 in Food & Drinks, Memories

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice, or Kwanzaa, one thing unites them all, and that is the gathering of family and friends to celebrate being together. Lights play prominently in the form of candles or blinking trees, in part as a counterpoint to the shortest days of the year. Another commonality that goes hand-in-hand with celebrations is the food that is painstakingly prepared for days ahead of time, and is usually consumed all too quickly. This year I decided to remember my mom and grandma, making holiday treats to share with my new family.

The first memory was of bourbon balls that my mother made a few times. I’ve wanted to make them for years, but they are best when left to “age” for a couple of weeks, and I would never remember in time. Bourbon is not only my spirit of choice, but it was my mom’s as well. Her favorite was Wild Turkey. Mine happens to be Old Rip van Winkle. However, given that it is somewhat expensive and hard to get, I settled for an old standby, Maker’s Mark. If you google for bourbon balls, you’ll find a couple of divergent recipes – made with Nilla Wafers or not (most recipes call for it), and whether there is chocolate or not, and whether it is in the mix, or simply used as a coating. After trying two variations, my third attempt is as follows;
Ingredients

* 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
* 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
* 2 1/2 cups vanilla-wafer crumbs (from about 75 cookies)
* 3/4 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, and chopped fine
* 1/3 cup bourbon
* 1 teaspoon vanilla
* 3 tablespoons honey

Preparation

* In a small deep bowl whisk together 2 tablespoons cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar until combined well.
* In a medium bowl stir together wafer crumbs and pecans. There are many methods one might use to crush these, I used a gallon ziplock bag and a rolling pin, which worked perfectly.
* In a small bowl whisk together bourbon, remaining 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, vanilla, and honey. Then pour into crumb mixture, stirring with a fork until combined well.
* Form mixture into balls about an inch or so in diameter and shake, 3 at a time, in cocoa mixture.
* Bourbon balls may be kept, in layers separated by wax paper or plastic wrap, in an airtight container in a cool dry place for at least 1 week. Not having a basement, I added a packet of Do Not Eat to the tupperware and put it in the fridge.

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White stuff falling from the sky by any other name is still snow.

Posted by Ted on Dec 7, 2009 in Memories
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Courtesy of M. Amidon, MA

This past weekend, we began hearing reports of our friends on the east coast having the first decent snowfall of the winter season. There were some beautiful pictures that were posted that almost made me pine for that feeling of seeing snow fall, reflecting the streetlights, covering the world in a blanket of white.

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Courtesy of C. Sandifer, VA

Growing up in Cleveland and moving to Boston, winter, and snow, have always been a part of my world.  I still remember building snow tunnels in our front yard during the Blizzard of ’79.  I remember a certain party back in ’92 at Fandom House where one of the guests arrived on cross-country skis.  I enjoyed being stuck in the hotel during Arisia ’05, getting room service as the world outside the 9th story window turned white.  There’s just something magical about the falling of snow, and the way that the landscape changes, bringing to mind childhood images of sleighs and roasty fires.

3236856342_4225eee4caAlmost a year ago now, we escaped the two feet of snow that had been piled on top of cars, shoved to the side of the street, and filling every yard. We tell people about that here in the Bay Area, and you can see them visually shiver at the very thought of it.  I do miss the image of snow and that feeling, but I won’t miss the shoveling, the trying to find a parking space, the crazy drivers, the dirty slush, the stepping in a cold puddle, or the slipping on the ice.

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What we found interesting when we woke up this morning was that even here, just a few minutes away, there is still snow. The difference now is that we have to drive to it, albeit not as far today as other days.

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Home

Posted by Ted on Nov 16, 2009 in Memories

I was in Boston a year ago, having just voted in the most important election of my 36 year lifetime and being excited for the future. I’d just had a small birthday/election celebration party, and had no idea that in a year I would be living on the other side of the country.

Yesterday I watched a dirigible land and take off again as I passed the Oakland airport just before sunset. This was after going to the Fruitvale farmers market (every Thursday and Sunday, year round), and an East Bay Bicycle Coalition appreciation BBQ, where I may have volunteered to help promote the building of a bike/pedestrian path across the western span of the Bay Bridge. Saturday, we drove down to Glen Park for brunch, and then made our way up to the Sutro Baths to walk around and through the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, watching a huge cargo ship come out of the horizon, probably from China, and most likely bound for the Port of Oakland, the fourth busiest container port in the United States. Then we met some of Liz’ school friends for Burmese dinner in the Richmond district, before heading back across the bay to Fruitvale, where we enjoy being a minority in a latino neighborhood with at least a dozen taco trucks within a mile radius.

Everywhere we go, we discover new nooks of the Bay Area that make us fall in love again and again. There is so much good food to be had, both in the groceries and farmers markets, and at thousands of restaurants of every nationality. I’m sure we could never eat in the same place twice for years if we wanted to. The geography continues to take our breaths away, from the majestic redwoods to the expansive Pacific and the sometimes rolling, sometimes leaping hills that permeate the bay area. There are 7 regional parks in Oakland alone, 51 in the bay area, and 280 in the state of California. We love it here.

We miss our friends and family in Boston and New York more than any of them probably realize. We left a vibrant community, closely-knit and deep-rooted, to pursue our dreams to head west. The ache we feel in being so far away is often palpable, and yet this has very quickly become our home. It’s been reminding me lately of my first burn. After the culture shock wore off, I felt completely at home in less than a day. There is a very good reason that Burning Man evolved out of San Francisco; we have everything here, it seems. Great local food, stunning scenery, and more going on than you’ll ever be able to go to. We have schools like the Crucible and Trapeze Arts, festivals like the Fire Arts Festival, Fleet Week, and Folsom Street Fair. We have blooming flowers in November, and a palm tree in our back yard.

I wonder when the honeymoon will wear off?

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I’ll take “things I didn’t want to do tonight” for 1000, Alex..

Posted by Ted on Oct 21, 2009 in Memories

Tonight we came home to an odd fooshing sound.  It was also strangely tropical.  We quickly discovered that the hot water hose to the washing machine had burst and was spraying the pantry with water.

I turned off the pipe easily enough, and ran the overfull washer through a spin cycle, but everything was dripping wet.  I opened up a drawer in my toolbox, and water spilled onto the wet floor.  I grabbed a headlamp and headed down under the house to see what the damage was.  We don’t have a basement, we have supports off of a dirt floor holding up the house.  There was six inches of muddy water, and on the far side I could barely see my worst fear — all 3000 issues of my 25+ year old comic book collection just happened to be underneath what had clearly been a waterfall minutes before.  Those of you who have similar collections may go ahead and cringe now.

Not having any galoshes, I wrapped my legs and shoes in trash bags and sloshed through the mud to start handing them out to Liz to put outside where it was thankfully not raining.  It turns out that an early religious practice of bagging 99% of my comics has saved most of the collection.  The long-boxes, however, are a soggy heap of corrugated cardboard.  The only real casualties appear to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4 and The Tick #1.

While this was perhaps a collectors worst nightmare narrowly avoided, what peered at me after removing the comics was a black plastic file box bulging with a broken clasp.  My heart stopped.  I whispered pitifully “Oh, no..”  This was one of two “made like a tank” compact file boxes that I’ve used to put every important thing that I’ve ever wanted to keep track of.  Apparently, tanks have no problem sinking.  In this case, water somehow got in through a crack or a hinge just right, and with no exit except for the top, proceeded to fill up and the paper wicked more and more water in until the swelled paper burst the clasp, causing even more water to get in.  I tipped it and water poured out.  It was heavy.  A lifetime of memories weighing a ton in water-logged paper.

Upon getting it inside, I could not pull anything out of it for I had packed it so tightly to begin with — I had to use a screwdriver and hammer to crack it open like stone surrounding an ancient artifact.  For the next 6 hours, Liz and I hung, laid, and trashed the contents of that box.  As I look around at our dining room, with every surface covered in papers, two clothing lines of cards hanging from the picture rails, and three paper sacks full of soggy pamphlets and cards with ink too run to read, I can’t believe how much was in a box just under 1 cubic foot in volume.

I am surrounded by 37 years of soggy memories.  My entire life is represented here.  There is my birth card complete with stamped foot and finger prints, and my first immunization record.  There are grade and high school papers and grades, letters from my dad, and the eulogy that I never got to read for my mom.  There are condolence cards from when my Siamese cats died 8 and 5 years ago, and from when my father-in-law died last year.  There are countless letters from or to lovers, menus from special dinners, and a treasure map.  I have lists of MTV music videos that I recorded onto Betamax, and the one and only AD&D game that I ever ran.  There is a patch and mission report from Adult Space Camp, the race track at Loudon, and a piece of mail sent from the Albuquerque balloon fiesta.  I have the music from Taiko class, and how to draw a bouncing ball from the Disney Institute.

Most of what got tossed were pamphlets from my travels, the kinds of things one might cobble together into a scrapbook, but I never did, and just put them in the Box of Holding +3.  London, Japan, Sydney, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Costa Rica, Burning Man.  As I tossed a pamphlet from the bar in North Sydney where I’d first heard Psycho Zydeco, I remarked that I would never again remember which bar it was.  These were the days before I carried a Moleskine everywhere I go.

I’ve spent most of the night in a fugue state, separating memories from one another, and trying to find an empty piece of floor, table, or chair.  My patient wife helped me, kept me focused, telling me that it would be all right.  And it will be.  No one is hurt, our home wasn’t consumed by fire, and most of the important stuff is salvageable.  Knowing that doesn’t take away the sense of being emotionally flayed open, strewing the guts of my life across the floor.

Obviously there is yet another lesson to be learned about the transience and relative unimportance of things.  I have not needed the contents of that box on any sort of daily or even yearly basis, and yet their emotional weight is so much more than the paper on which these memories lie.  (Besides the water, that is.)  I feel drained and numb.  Tomorrow will come, the papers will dry, and I will figure out how to re-store them until I start the scanning project that I’d been saving for the next time I’m between jobs.

Unfortunately, one rarely has the luxury of choosing when these life lessons will be learned, such as never storing your paper valuables underneath your washing machine.