Sunday, January 22, 2017

One morning - two apple cakes

The overnight cake going to the refrigerator last night

The overnight cake fresh out of the oven

I noticed I had some apples that needed to be used in my refrigerator last week, so I decided to try one of the recipes on my Baking Project list - Apfelkuchen - this weekend.  Apfelkuchen is a German dessert; the word translates to apple cake.  Normally, this is a yeasted cake that contains - yes, you guessed it - apples.  I have not worked with yeast as a component of cakes before, so I was entering new territory.

I decided last night to give myself an easy start by trying a non-yeasted apple cake that uses buttermilk and both baking powder and soda combined with an overnight proofing time to replicate the traditional yeast method.  You can find the recipe here. I mixed it up and put it in the refrigerator yesterday evening.  This morning, I pulled it out and, after a "warming" period, it went in the oven and started to smell glorious.  This recipe was a big success for my personal tastes.  If I was staying at someone's house and they offered this for breakfast, I would definitely be a happy guest!  However, the apples are not a big part of the overall dish.  The recipe specifies an overall volume to add, but not the size to chop the apples.  I roughly diced them which used 1 1/2 medium sized apples, and a small piece of the cake only contains one or two pieces.  So, not a recipe to use if you are looking for something that tastes strongly of apples.
Adding my homemade vanilla to the yeasted cake

Apples spread over the yeast dough

The first piece out of the yeasted cake

The second cake was a traditional Apfelkuchen - recipe here - I chose this particular recipe because of the comments that it had the same taste as Apfelkuchen that the reviewers had eaten in Germany.  The apples are definitely more of a star in this cake.  I thought the flavor combination was a little faint though - perhaps a bit more cinnamon or lemon peel might have punched it up a bit or even a switch to honey as the sweetener.  It definitely tasted better cooler than fresh out of the oven; most cakes are the opposite in my experience.  The yeast action seemed to work correctly - I had a good rise during the proofing time - but I was left a little unsure of the purpose of choosing yeast over other rising agents in this dessert.  I'll need to do a little more research on this later to satisfy my curiosity.  So, a bit of a mixed review on this one - the recipe worked great, but my personal taste reaction was "meh".

I am hoping to get at least one more cake (possibly two) made this weekend in an effort to push myself forward with my baking project.  So ... off to the kitchen!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

#57 - German Pretzels and my Baking Challenge

Waiting for the water to boil with the German Pretzels
 I've tried a new baking recipe each of the first two weekends this year, and plan to do at least one this weekend as well.  It seemed perfect to start the first recipe for my baking project with German Soft Pretzels since they were already on my DayZero list.  I had decided to make pretzels that used a baking soda bath rather than the strictly traditional lye.  After some searching on the internet, I found a good recipe candidate here.

Pretzels just out of the oven
I had made bagels in the past, so I did have some idea of how to approach the boil, then bake method.  However, I decided to stick strictly with the proofing times provided in the recipe instead of following my instincts.  This was probably a mistake as my kitchen (and house in general) is normally cooler than many people prefer.  I didn't get the best rise, but I did get a lesson in trusting your gut when deciding when something is ready.  Shaping the pretzels was more difficult than I expected; the dough did not want to cooperate with being rolled into ropes (probably due to the too-short proof) and my lengths were on the short side - less material to turn into the traditional knots.  I was VERY happy that I did follow the recipe's advice to stand back as I added the baking soda to the boiling water - I had a mini volcano for a short time that did make me worry if I would have anything left in the stockpot to boil the pretzels.

I thought the taste of the finished product was good; however, this is a recipe that I want to revisit and try to work out some of the kinks in the future.
Starting the soda bread

My second new baked good was Irish Soda Bread.  I've made soda bread before in my bread machine but never from scratch.  I choose a plain recipe from a cookbook that I generally have good results on new recipes.  This was a fairly straight-forward bake; the only wobble was that I didn't have quite enough all-purpose flour in my container when I started.  I did have more all-purpose in the freezer, but didn't want to add it in since (as referenced above) my kitchen tends to be cold already.  So, I changed proportions slightly to include more bread flour.  The end result had a bit more fiber, tasted fine, and smelled lovely as I took it from the oven.
I have heard that deeply scoring soda bread helps the bake

Warm soda bread dusted with flour

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A New Year and a New Project

Though I haven't been keeping up with posting, I have completed 3 more tasks on my DayZero list since I last blogged.  And, I've also set myself a new open-ended challenge to work on that may earn some posts as well.

The first batches of vanilla - started in early June
The same bottles two weeks later

One of the on-going items that I decided was complete was my experiments with making my own vanilla extract.  I started the process in early June with 3 bottles.  I started 12 more smaller bottles in late June to give as gifts and try some different flavor combinations.  I tried using vanilla beans from three different regions - Mexico, Madagascar, and Tahiti - some bottles had a single source of beans and a few had blends from different regions.  I also used a variety of spirits - vodka, bourbon, rum, and even tequila - for the extract agents.  I used a little of the Mexican beans in vodka formula for the last of my Christmas baking, and it seemed to work quite well.  I also gave about half of my bottles away as Christmas gifts.  Though the process does take some time, it is incredibly easy and doesn't require much attention.

I also reorganized all of my recipe clippings before I started my holiday baking.  I went from three 1" binders with lots of loose bits of paper sliding out to six binders - 3 of which are 3" size.  It is SO much easier for me to find the recipes that I am looking for now.  I even separated the cookie recipes - since I have so many - into a binder of things that I have tried (with my notes on how they turned out) and another binder of ideas to try at a future time.

My last completed goal was to keep a gratitude list for a month.  I did this through the month of November in the daily journal that I've kept for years.  It was an interesting task; I did find at least one thing to be thankful for every day (although there were some stressful days in that period).  My conclusion at the end was that I am most grateful for small things in my life - my silly and affectionate cat, my family, small kind gestures from friends and co-workers, etc. - it seems that our culture promotes the big things in life as those to aspire to (winning the lottery, etc.), but I found it is the little day to day moments that really add up to make your life better.  So, I am trying harder to make time for myself and things that make me happy as well as being mindful of those moments when I can add something to someone else's life.

All of these goals are sort of combined into my new big side project - being a better baker!  I love to bake but have resisted watching any sort of food shows until recently when I started using them as a distraction while I exercise.  And, I have succumbed to the charms of the Great British Baking Show; I love how each baker seems to be concentrating on doing their personal best rather than the all out competition aspect, and I learned lots about areas of baking where I don't have personal experience.  I thought "well, maybe I haven't been giving other baking shows a fair chance."  So, I watched some others and was appalled on several levels - so much competition, lots of gimmicks, and the bakers don't seem to be all that knowledgeable about multiple areas of baking.  So, I decided that personal knowledge is a good thing and have made myself a list (which quickly became huge) of skills and recipes that I want to gain to become a better baker.  If I manage to complete a recipe a week, it will take me two years to get through it all ... I actually think it will take even longer than that because some of the things listed are probably going to need multiple attempts and there will certainly be weeks when I don't have time to make something.  Let me be clear - I'm not prepping to be a baking contestant, I just want to be better at something that brings me (and hopefully the individuals who help eat my experiments) joy.  So, expect to see a few baking posts mixed into my Day Zero adventures in the upcoming months.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

#36 - Touring a Distillery

Glengoyne Distillery from the parking lot
Though I have visited several wineries (you can read about my first visit here), I've never gone to a distillery.    And, I only vaguely understood how spirits were made until I took my trip to Scotland; I now have a lot more knowledge about how whisky at least is made.

I'm sure that every distillery in Scotland has their own story.  I was told that Glengoyne calls itself the "prettiest" distillery in Scotland.  However, I found it more interesting that it is in two different whisky regions.  The actual distillery is located in the highlands district - this is where the spirit is actually made.  BUT, the storage facilities (where the aging takes place) are located across the road that marks the boundary between regions, so they are in the lowland region.  This is important more for labeling and marketing purposes (plus tariffs) than for any other reason.  In case you are wondering, the site of the production trumps other buildings, so they are a "highland" whisky producer.
The location was beautiful, a small waterfall is behind the buildings.

Since this tour was included in the daytrip that I took, we had a special small group tour through the facility that included "a wee dram" or two.  I opted for the one taste since I am such a lightweight when it comes to alcohol.  We started with the taste - which I found generous in size - of a 12 year old whisky.  This was accompanied by a short video explaining the history of this distillery.  Moving out to the back deck of the building, our guide explained how the waterfall used to be the source of water for production; however, it would not now give enough water to keep up with demand, so this water source is used as a cooling agent in the production and returned to the waterfall's pool now instead. 

We were not allowed to take photos within the production facility (due to fire risks).  We did get to see inside of each stage of the process and feel or taste if appropriate.  The tanks were huge - much larger than I expected.  At one stop, the guide suggested that we cup our hands to pull out some of the air over the product - smelling this air made it feel like there were bubbles inside of your nose.  The stills were running as we were there, so it was very hot inside.  It was cool to see through the box where the un-aged product was freely running out (a good sized stream) on its way to be put into barrels.

Looking in at two stills from outside the building
After we made it through the production stage, we crossed to an older building which had previously been used for malting (this is now done off-site).  In this area, the guide explained how the aging is affected by the type of barrel that the whisky is stored in.  There was a very interesting display that showed how the color (and amount) of whisky will change in the bottle over a 30 year time span depending on what wood the barrel was made from and what type of alcohol had previously been stored in it.  There was also a small number of casks stored in this area for display purposes (although they do contain whisky that is currently going through the aging process).  Some individuals had a second taste of whisky to end the tour to see the differences that aging brings to the final product.

This was a very interesting learning experience.  I don't generally drink hard alcohol straight, but I like to know what steps go into making a product.  Since this distillery does not use peat as part of their process, I would be interested to directly compare it to a peated product from the same region. I did buy some to bring back with me, so this may be an experiment that I try at a future date.
Each bottle is progressively one year older

Barrels of aging whisky waiting to be opened

Sunday, October 23, 2016

#43 - Museums

Peace Garden on the grounds of the Imperial War Museum
This trip found my museum focus to be primarily historical; I usually mix it up a little more.  I also seemed to spend a lot of time looking at exhibits that focused on war in one way or another - although a variety of time periods.  I was surprised to add up the number of places that I visited when I returned from vacation and realized that I had achieved this goal in one trip.

I must note that I have adopted the habit when visiting larger museums of choosing one or two galleries to focus on.  This lets me linger on all the details in those areas, but still not feel burned out by the experience of visiting that particular museum.
15" Naval guns outside of Imperial War Museum

While in London, I visited the Imperial War Museum.  I had heard that the World War I section was not to be missed and wanted to take a look.  The British experience of the first World War seems like it would be very different than the American one.  Though the Channel separates the United Kingdom from mainland Europe, the closer distances involved (compared to the U.S.) must have made the transitions between home life and the trenches abrupt indeed.  Overall, the parts of the exhibits that focused on the beginnings of the war and life on the home front seemed to reflect a disbelief (even to this day) that the war was beginning.  The walk through the reconstructed trenches (towards the end of the exhibits) gave a very good feel for how exposed (overhead) and confined (in the narrow twisting walls) the soldiers must have simultaneously felt.  A good, but sobering look at this conflict.
I felt a little uneasy about falling objects in the Imperial War Museum lobby

I left the Imperial War Museum and headed forwards in time about 25 years to the Churchill War Rooms.  I thought one of the best parts of these displays were the video monitors that gave comments of people who had worked in these areas ... some of these people - particularly the women who worked as secretaries - had not told even their families about their war work until years later.  There were some interesting anecdotes about what it was like working with Churchill who had some interesting quirks.  I actually found the rooms less interesting than the exhibits about Churchill himself.  I've seen other underground WWII installations, so I did have some ideas going in on what it would look like.  I did not, however, know how devoted Churchill was to his wife or that he had a favorite cat that would lounge on the bed with him as he did morning paperwork.  And, as a purely personal amusement ... one of the war room desks looked EXACTLY the same as the metal one that I had for many years when I started my current job.

This is a two person costume - at the V & A Museum
Having had enough of war for the moment, my next museum was the Victoria and Albert in London.  I chose the jewelry rooms and the temporary theater display to visit.  The jewelry was fascinating; I wish that photography would have been allowed in that area.  The time periods ranged from very early in human civilization to present.  One particular piece was a bodice ornament from about 1850 made of diamonds in the shape of a spray of flowers; the individual blossoms were on tiny springs so that they would bounce as the wearer moved.  I couldn't help but wonder how that affected their dance partner's concentration level.  Even jeweled presentation swords were included among the rings, necklaces, and other bits of jewelry.  The last display was a huge spiral of gemstones showing off color ranges of each.

Costume hat in the shape of the Sydney Opera House - V & A Museum
 I had time to visit the theater exhibit as well.  I have a keen interest in costumes, and there were some fabulous ones on display.  The life-size rhino was so realistic that I actually wondered at first glance if it was a stuffed specimen that had been used as a prop.  Other interesting cases included scale models of famous theaters ... it was fun to notice that I had been in several ... and models of London theaters with the mock-ups for set or lighting design for particular performances.  Unfortunately, these did not photograph well through the cases.
The little white jar held kohl in an Egyptian pyramid

The day that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I had time for a brief stop at the British Museum in the morning.  One of the things that I love about this museum is that every time I have been there I have been allowed to touch real historical artifacts.  If you go, ask at the information desk if there is a specialist located in a particular area or go to the Hall of Enlightenment and look for the docent with a tray of items from different time periods.  Items on the tray this visit ranged from a hand ax that is millions of years old - perhaps even made by Neanderthals rather than early humans - to 14th century Persian tile.  Some of the items were ones that I had seen on my last visit to the British Museum; however, new to me was a tiny white stone jar that was found with Egyptian grave goods in a pyramid and held kohl (cosmetics for use in the afterlife) and a brass instruments used in the Arab deserts for navigating by the stars.  It certainly gives a personal connection to hold something that has lasted for many years and wonder about the people who made and used it.
In the British Museum

One of the museums that I had most anticipated visiting was the Fan Museum in Greenwich.  I learned during my visit that the collection (and the museum itself) was primarily the work of one woman who had donated her collection to start the museum.  Unfortunately, I felt that this meant that there was less variety in the fan styles than I had hoped.  I really love the brise style of fans (where the folding fan is made only of the support sticks) which are generally carved, but there were only a few examples on display.  The majority of the collection seemed to consist of folding fans with a painted panel (made from paper, kidskin, etc.) attached to support sticks.  There were a bare minimum of other styles (like non-folding fans) included.  The time period represented by the collection also seemed fairly focused in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  So, not quite what I had hoped for, but I still did learn a fair amount about fans - terminology and how they are made.

The Cutty Sark
As a counter-balance, my next stop in Greenwich - the Cutty Sark - was much more interesting than I had expected.  This ship had been a working tea clipper and has now been refurbished and placed into permanent dry dock.  After touring through the ship, I have a great respect for the men who spent several months in the tight quarters as it made its way from port to port.  Seeing the tiny area where 20 or more seamen slept and kept their belongings and realizing that it was about the same size as a handicapped bathroom stall made me very grateful for my own home.  Even the master's cabin had a bed much smaller than I would even want to nap on.  It must have been an advantage to be a small person if you were a seaman.  Below the hull of the ship was a collection of figureheads from ships; the variety was amazing.  I had not realized how small some of the carvings were; I always pictured a rather large figurehead or just a plain spar at the front of these vessels.

On the deck of the Cutty Sark

Officer's dining room of Cutty Sark - drinks went in the wooden hangers

The master's room on the Cutty Sark

Rigging ropes on the Cutty Sark

Collection of ship figureheads located under the Cutty Sark
 After my visit to the Cutty Sark, I climbed the hill to the Royal Observatory.  It seemed almost obligatory to take a photo standing at the Prime Meridan.  The view from the top was worth the climb, but I disappointed myself by missing the drop of the time ball by about half an hour. I had not realized until I started going through the exhibits that this was actually a residence as well as a workplace for the Royal Astronomers for many years.
View from the Royal Observatory
Standing over the Prime Meridan

Unique sundial - the point between the shadow of the dolphins' tails points to the time

I also visited the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  However, it was my fourth museum of the day, so I was losing energy at that point.  I was impressed by the number of original paintings that were incorporated into the displays that I visited.  This is unusual in my experience to see a museum with such a mix of paintings and artifacts to tell the story of the past.  I was also pleased to see as I entered the museum that one of the sculptures that I had previously seen on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalger Square has found a permanent - and appropriate - home at this location since it depicts a giant ship in a bottle.

This officer's story was the centerpiece of the Royal Dragoon Guard Museum at Edinburgh Castle
While in Edinburgh Castle, I visited both the Regimental Museum of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard and the Museum of the Royal Scot and the Royal Regiment of Scotland.  I think these would have been more interesting to me if I had a better knowledge of British history since I recognized only a few of the names.  There were some thrilling stories though.  In particular, the tale of Ensign Ewart capturing the French eagle standard at the battle of Waterloo.  I was amazed at how detailed the description was ... every sword thrust and slash was described.  I was even inspired to look this individual up after I returned home since the exhibit did not say what happened to him in later life.  Sadly, I could not find much other than that he lived to the age of 77 and was sort of a shy fellow.
A favorite art piece at the National Museum of Scotland
The last museum I visited was the National Museum of Scotland.  This is sort of a curious blend of museums - science, children's, natural history, historical, etc. - I went through most of the displays on the lower floors which included stuffed animals, historical fashion exhibits, a huge artistic clock that played music and moved on the hour, stories of famous individuals, and a great hall that had science concepts with hands on displays.  I loved the science part; it was very engaging even for adults and definitely drew the kids.  However, I had really gone hoping to find out more about Scottish history.  I did find this wing and started with the oldest time period at the lowest level.  There were some great objects, but I found the layout of the displays puzzling since there was no clear route to follow either ideas or a chronological progress.  So, some great stuff, but I'm sure that I missed a lot of it since I ran out of energy after three floors (went through prehistory to mid 1700s).
Part of a choir stall at the National Museum of Scotland - I loved the differences in the carvings