Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pizza and beer FTW.

Slightly less than two hours after I write this, it'll be 2010 in My time zone.

In the meantime, I'm curled up at My desk with a tall glass of Kirin, a nice Japanese beer that features a very good-looking Oriental unicorn on the label.

Downstairs are the remnants of a ham and pineapple pizza (for Myself and Red and the Invisible Pink Unicorn, mHhhnbs!) and a pepperoni pizza for 'Chala. Both are homemade. Here's the recipe:
  1. For two 9" x 13" (cookie-sheet-size) pizzas, you'll need between 1½ and 2 cups of fairly hot but not boiling water. (1½ cups will make a thin crust; adjust upwards according to your preference.)
  2. In a large bowl, dissolve a tablespoon of sugar into the hot water and then slosh it around the bowl. This warms the bowl and cools the water down somewhat. Body temperature or slightly below is perfect.
  3. Sprinkle one package of regular dry yeast onto the sugar water, then set the bowl down in a warm place for about ten minutes.
  4. While you're waiting, throw together some garlic butter: One or two cloves to about a quarter-cup of softened unsalted butter. Mix thoroughly and park off to one side for now.
  5. After ten minutes, the yeast should be foaming in the bowl. Pour in a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil (your choice) and a pinch of salt. Mix vigorously with a fork.
  6. Toss in, all at once, a cup or two of whole wheat flour and at least one cup of white flour. By 'toss in, all at once' I mean 'Dump it into the bowl without bothering to mix it yet'. Then, when the flour's measured in, take your hand and vigorously stir the flour into the water as fast as you possibly can. Don't stop till the original flour is all mixed in and you have the beginnings of bread dough.
  7. Now you can add some more flour. Add ½ a cup at a time, kneading and pressing and flipping the dough over in the bowl until the dough is no longer sticking to your hands. Continue to dust with flour and knead it in until you can still feel moisture but not much stickiness in the dough.
  8. Form the dough into a ball and take it out of the bowl for a moment. Lightly oil the inside of the bowl; put the dough back in (flipping it once to grease it); cover with a lid or a tea towel; and park it in a warm place.
  9. Now, prepare the fillings. Chop up an onion, some mushrooms, and some peppers (any colour) and sautée them in a bit of butter or oil. Drain thoroughly. Grate the cheese, if you didn't buy it pre-grated. (Mozzarella and Edam makes a very nice combination.) Slice or chop the meat. Anything you want on the pizza, get it ready now.
  10. About ten minutes before the fillings are ready, punch down the dough in the bowl; divide it in half, one piece for each pizza; and let it rest.
  11. Finish getting the fillings ready, then shove them off to one side and clean the counter to make room for dough-rolling. Oil the cookie sheets.
  12. Now's also a good time to preheat the oven: I recommend 350℉ and 25-30 minutes for a thicker crust, 375-400℉ and 15-20 minutes for a thin crust. If you're not sure, set the oven at 375℉; you'll be keeping an eye on the pizza as it bakes, anyway.
  13. Dust the counter lightly with whole wheat flour and plunk down one ball of dough. Shape it into a rectangle, then roll it out until it's slightly larger than the cookie sheet. Flip over and dust with flour as required. Place on the cookie sheet and crimp the edges slightly, using overhanging pieces of dough to fill in any sparse areas around the edges. Use a fork to poke lots of holes all over the crust so that rogue air bubbles don't displace the fillings as the pizza bakes.
  14. Cover the entire sheet of dough with garlic butter, or with a mixture of pesto and garlic butter. Not too much, though, or it'll be overpowering and greasy.
  15. Add the toppings. My preferred order (bottom to top) is the meat, then a bit of cheese, then the cooked and drained onion/mushroom/pepper mixture, then any other toppings you want to throw on, then another layer of cheese.
  16. Bake in moderate to moderate-high oven for 15-30 minutes, depending on the initial heat and the dough thickness. After the first ten minutes, check the pizza and turn the heat down if the edge of the crust is browning too fast. While you wait, roll the dough for the second pizza and get it ready to go in the oven.
  17. The pizza is ready when all the cheese is melted and slightly browned, and when a peek under the pizza reveals a firm, lightly toasted crust. Let it sit out of the oven for at least five minutes before cutting and serving.
Red took some lovely pictures of the finished product, which can be viewed here.

(raises Her beer) Happy New Year to all!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The end justifies the mead

Well, I *finally* got around to making that batch of champagne mead.

First, you need one humongous pot:


This one's about 16 litres, a decently heavy gauge of stainless steel, and has a nice, heavy bottom.

Then, you need water:


Já, that'll do. I prefer spring water to reverse-osmosis filtered water. Don't use regular tap water, because it doesn't generally taste good and yeast doesn't do well in it because of chlorine and other chemicals. Feel free to use well water, or glacial water if you happen to have a glacier encroaching on your back yard. I usually buy extra water for hydrating the yeast, and in case I need to top-up the carboy.

Wash and sterilize the pot, using standard brewing methods, then pour in the H2O and start heating it up. While you're waiting for the water to boil, you can get the rest of the tools ready:


Here we have an S-trap (best kind for meadmaking, IMNSHO) and bung; a thermometer; and a hydrometer. All have been washed and sanitized, and set out on a clean paper towel. I also covered them with another piece of toweling to keep them clean until needed.

I also prepared a 3-gallon glass carboy, washing and sanitizing it, and then covering the mouth of the bottle with a sandwich bag to keep it clean, too:


Plus a spoon or two (metal or plastic; not wood), and a siphon hose. I somehow managed to bust the outer tube of My siphon-starter device when cleaning up from the last brewing session, so today I had to resort to manual siphon starting. Thanks to My fish tank, I have lots of experience with this and was not unduly worried.

Okay, right about now the water on the stove has started to boil. To the nearly 10 litres of water, add All the Honey There Is. I usually use 3 kg (just over 6½ pounds), but last time I was at My honey supplier I picked up a 7 kg pail and used half of it today... Closer to 8 pounds of honey.

(pauses to lick some of the sticky stuff off the back of Her hand, then toddles over to the sink to wash up before continuing)

Stir the honey into the hot water until it's well-dissolved. Continue to heat it until it's not quite boiling. You can also add two tablespoons of "acid mix", a blend of edible acidifying agents which can be obtained from your local brewing emporium. This is not 100% necessary, but I've always used it; it lends a bit of character to the finished product.

Now the hard part:
  • Make sure the sink is empty; put in the plug; and partially fill it with cold water.
  • Turn off the burner.
  • Put the lid on the pot, and airlift it from the stove to the sink. Be careful. If you have any doubts about your ability to carry approximately 35 pounds of cooking pot and extremely hot and sticky liquid over to the sink, get someone to help you.
Once the pot is safely ensconced in the sink, keep the lid on while you fill the sink. This is to keep tap water from contaminating the honey-water mixture. Swing the tap safely away from the pot, and toss in the brewing thermometer. Put the lid back on, ever-so-slightly ajar to let steam escape.

And now, you wait. You can't do anything more until the mixture has cooled to nearly room temperature, or else you'll kill the yeast. It usually takes well over an hour to cool down, so set a timer and go off to do something else. Don't worry about it cooling too much. Read a book; do some laundry; head out to the store.

When the mixture is 30℃ (86℉) or lower, it's safe to get the yeast ready. I've always used Lalvin EC-1118 Champagne yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) for My mead because it's extremely alcohol-tolerant and causes the mead to turn effervescent a couple weeks after bottling. Unless you want a sweet and not overly potent mead, stick with a yeast that can handle at least 12% alcohol.

So, what do you do with said yeast? Well, put some more spring water into a clean bowl, and warm it to lukewarm. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the tepid water, and wait another 15 minutes until it's hydrated and foamy; then funnel it into the carboy.

Assuming that the honey-water mixture is now reasonably cool, you can now siphon it into the carboy. If you're going to work directly out of the sink, drain the water away first and put the carboy on the floor right below it. Use a siphon starter if desired.

If you don't have a siphon starter (or broke yours), coil up the siphon hose and hold the whole thing under the surface of the liquid... Especially both the ends. Let the air bubble out, and liquid flow in. (I occasionally lift one end to let air rise and liquid flow to the bottom.) When the hose is full and the large air bubbles are gone, hold one end down at the bottom of the pot and put your thumb over the other end while you lift it out and stick it into the top of the carboy. Remove your thumb, and liquid should start to splash into the bottle. Splashing is good, because it aerates the mixture.

Fill to the bottom of the neck of the carboy, no higher and not much lower. If the carboy isn't quite full enough, feel free to add a bit more spring water. (For today's batch, I didn't need to add water because of the volume provided by the extra pound or so of honey.)

This is a good time to toss in the hydrometer, to get the initial reading for your soon-to-be-alcohol. Put it into the top of the carboy and give it a spin to shake the bubbles off; then record the "potential alcohol" number at the waterline. This batch is showing 11% potential alcohol, assuming that the "end" reading drops all the way to 0%. (Subtract "after" from "before" to get the percentage of alcohol in the finished brew.) I don't usually leave the hydrometer in the mixture, and won't bother reading it again until bottling day.

Just about done now... Insert the S-trap into the bung; insert the bung in the top of the carboy; and pour a small amount of sterilizing solution into the top of the trap. This will allow the mead to bubble out excess gases over the next few months or so, but keep out dust and other undesirable substances.

Carefully move the carboy to any out-of-the-way place where it can sit undisturbed for several months. Mine is currently sitting under a desk, resting on a dish towel, surrounded by a loosely-fitting cardboard box with a hole for the S-trap to stick through. The cats look at it funny, but they leave it alone.

In anywhere from 8 to 36 hours, the yeast will start to ferment the honey water, and you'll hear a satisfying "BLOOP!" as gases percolate out through the S-trap.

And when the blooping finally stops, in anywhere from 3 to 5 months... You'll have mead.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

New Year's resolutions? Make it stop!

It seems like only yesterday that I was staring the dreaded Year 2K in the face, expecting something akin to Magic from the turn of the year.

A decade later, as the year odometer prepares to roll over yet again, My thoughts have turned to plans, expectations, and those nasty things called Resolutions.

I mean, seriously: What is it with these year-end To-Do lists, anyway? Do we honestly think that codifying something as an Official Resolution will make it more likely to happen? I contend that if we wanted it to happen, we'd already be working on it.

Accordingly, My resolutions for 2010 are as follows:
  1. I resolve to measure various parts of my house and go out to purchase sundry tools and building materials, as required.

  2. I will take Red out for coffee whenever the mood hits us.

  3. I will write stuff.

  4. I will pet a cat.

  5. I will brew some mead, clean My fishtank, and generally carry on with Business as Usual.

  6. I will do what needs to be done, reasonably close to when it needs to be done, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
That oughta cover it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Order of the Sacred Cappuccino

Well, I've successfully made it to late night on December 24. That means a number of things:
  1. Jól is over, so we have an ample supply of pastry and leftovers.
  2. Festivus is over, too. (makes mental note to set up unadorned aluminum pole next year, and practice Her arm wrestling)
  3. Christmas Eve is pretty much over, so we're back from dinner at the Parental Units' home (with even more leftovers), and all My presents are wrapped and tucked away in the closet.
  4. There's a duck defrosting in cold water, and a bottle of sparkling wine chilling in the fridge.
  5. Red and I went on the fabled Cappuccino Run this afternoon.
For over a decade now, I have celebrated the end of holiday shopping by plunking Myself down in a coffee shop at the height of the Christmas Eve purchasing frenzy. At one time, I used to do this right in the middle of the mall at about 2:30 p.m. and marvel at the hordes of maniacal shoppers trying to decide between the Electric Nosehair Trimmer (batteries not included) and the Kumquat-and-Durian body scrub.

Nowadays, rather than incurring the wrath of the Parking Gods*, I (and Red and sometimes Chala) find a slightly more out-of-the way refuge. This year, we selected one of our regular donut shops and had a regular coffee and donut. All in all, a suitable anticlimax to several weeks of Extreme Busy.

By the way... This is how My hallway wall turned out:


Eight feet tall, eleven feet long (minus one doorway and one heat register) done with one litre of dark orange paint, a bucket of ready-mixed stipple, and a plastic putty knife an inch and a half wide. Total time to colour, mix, and apply the texture: Nine hours.

Plus an additional two or three hours to cut and lay the floor tiles, and four *more* hours to cut the baseboards, doorway trim, quarter-round, and architrave.

My right elbow *still* isn't speaking to Me.

(Raises glass of single-malt Scotch... Very carefully) Best of the season to all!

* The Parking Gods: Asphaltia (Goddess of directing traffic in parking lots), Squat (Goddess of holding spots till you get there) and Gravél (God of unpaved shoulders, muddy fields, and other unlikely places to park).

Monday, December 14, 2009

C is for Cookie

Sunday's over and done with... Finally... And I'm still on track for Jól.

I did indeed finish the plaster repairs; Red and I did make it out to the karate party; and I did do some baking.

Rather a lot of it, in fact: Twelve tarts (6 cherry, 6 blueberry); about 18 or so whole wheat sugar cookies, baked in a seasonal mould; some brownies; and six dozen of arguably the Best Cookie in the World, Skor™cookies. I've made them every year since the main ingredient (the toffee bits) became available, and this year they turned out extremely well.

The secret of these cookies lies in strict adherence to these simple rules:
  1. Maximum oven temperature of 325℉, no exceptions.
  2. 1" balls of dough, baked on a cookie sheet lined with margarine-greased parchment paper
  3. Bake for exactly 13 minutes.
  4. Let the cookies cool on the tray for 3-5 minutes before unracking them. This is best done by putting the rack upside-down on the cookies while they're still on the cookie sheet, then flipping the whole assembly over. At this point, the parchment paper can be peeled away. You can then grease the opposite side of the paper and do another batch.
All of these principles can be adapted to other types of cookies as well. If you keep in mind that baking soda has a tendency to change into washing soda when overheated, that's a rather strong incentive to keep oven temperatures low and wait two or three extra minutes for each batch of cookies to bake. None of this "bake at 450℉ for 8-10 minutes" nonsense for Me, thankyouverymuch.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Onward to Jól, warp factor eight!

About this time next Saturday evening, My annual winter solstice party will be over for another year. The leftovers will be stowed away; the last of the teabags and coffee grounds will be in the compost bin; people in need of a ride will have been driven home; and Red and Chala and I will be able to relax.

Until then, all bets are off.

Tomorrow I intend to finish plastering the main wall in the downstairs hallway. After that's done, I'm going to bake at least one batch of cookies. Somewhere in the middle, Red and I have a karate holiday party to attend.

Monday is My clarinet lesson. The plaster will still be curing, but after I get home I should be able to put up the rest of the ceiling tiles and fix a few gaps around the edges of the hallway floor. (Oh yes, and bake some butter tarts, too.)

Tuesday I have a dental appointment, but I should be able to pick up some wall-texturing stuff on My way home. (Oh, and whip up some shortbread before bedtime, too.)

Sometime after work on Wednesday, I can finally texture the repaired wall, and do up some brownies or almond cookies if there's time.

Thursday is writers' group, but when I get home I'll throw together a spinach and feta quiche for the Christmas potluck lunch at work.... And snap the chalk lines for the new floor tiles.

By Friday, the house should be looking pretty good, and smelling even better from all the baking and cooking. The roast beef will be roasting, the chicken wings simmering, and one last batch of pastry will be awaiting its turn in the oven.

But in the meantime, can I borrow a cup of dilithium crystals?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Six ceiling tiles and two batches of brownies...

...equals Progress. Yes, My mad dash to Jól has begun in earnest.

Tonight, Red and I went shopping to get a few ingredients and also stopped by a hardware store to grab a fresh batch of finishing nails for My nail gun.

And then I set to work.

At 11 pm CST, we had two batches of Saucepan Brownies cooling, and six more ceiling tiles installed in the hallway. (There's a distinct possibility that I may install the rest of the tiles before the end of the weekend; but I have to buy 'em first.)

Tomorrow night it's the local end-of-NaNoWriMo party, so I get a bit of a break. Come Sunday afternoon, though, it'll be time for The Dreaded Crawlspace.

(assembles Her tools for this onerous task, including a P100 half-mask respirator, a cordless circular saw, and a snow shovel just in case)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Whadya mean, there's only 18 days to Jól?

*eep* Just when I thought I couldn't possibly get any busier... The reality of December has finally hit Me.

This is what I hope to do between now and the onset of the holiday season:
  • Build a weatherproof add-on for the passageway between the house and the Cat Gazebo.

  • Patch, texture and paint the main hallway wall.

  • Tile the hallway floor.

  • Finish putting up the ceiling tiles in the hallway, too.

  • Bake brownies for the local NaNoWriMo wrapup party on Saturday night. (Okay, that should be done before midnight Friday or so.)

  • Put some insulation and concrete board on the south wall of the crawlspace.

  • Cook a spinach and feta quiche for the potluck at work.

  • Shop.

  • Stop for coffee.
    Repeatedly.
    Every chance I get.

  • Shop some more.

  • While I'm in that razzafracking crawlspace, I might as well also add a pony wall to block most of it off from the basement. Oh yes, and put a new, higher, and substantially wider trap door on the outside -- One that I can climb through without resorting to limbo dancing or obscure yoga asanas.

  • Finalize the menu for the Jól party on the 19th of December. Shop. Cook. Bake. Clean.

  • Brew up those two batches of mead that I've been intending to make for about two months now.

  • Somehow find time in the midst of all of this to write, play clarinet, eat, sleep, go to work, and generally do all the things I do when I'm *not* busy.
O Epinephrinia, goddess of the adrenaline rush, I beseech...

...Oh, 'eck; I got Her voicemail. She's out of the office till January.

Smart lady.