Kitchen Adventures

Today I made caramel from scratch for the first time, and it was the most delicious failure I’ve ever made.

Let me explain.

I really like to cook, but I hesitate to say I love to cook, because I feel like that statement conjures forth an image of someone who is always in the kitchen, always looking out for new recipes, and most importantly, always fiddling with those recipes, adjusting them and experimenting with them and sometimes inventing new ones when the ones they have don’t fit the bill.

That’s not me.

I love trying new recipes. I have a shameless love affair with Smitten Kitchen and I love reading her rhapsodic and funny commentaries on the new recipes (probably the reason I try so many of her recipes–she just makes them sound so good). I love trying a batter or a sauce or whatever you just made and having that moment of “oh my GOD that is so good. Did I make that?” I love cooking food for my family and friends, especially when it involves chocolate.

But I’m the kind of cook who cooks when the mood hits (and sometimes it deserts me for weeks at a time), and then almost always cooks from recipes. I’m not the cook who tastes something and says, “oh, it needs more [insert ingredient here]”. I’m not the sort of cook who improvises. I tend to follow the recipe, but I also tend to be super-cautious when it comes to cooking. I’m always afraid of over-cooking or under-cooking or burning something, and sometimes that caution is good, but sometimes it messes things up. And when I mess something up, I tend to beat myself up about it.

And this brings us back to the caramel.

I made it as part of a recipe for caramel brownies (smitten kitchen, of course), in which you basically make caramel candies that you then fold into and sprinkle atop the brownie batter. As soon as I saw the pictures of these brownies on her site (and seriously, if you haven’t been there yet, go now, it’s amazing) I knew I wanted to make them. The fact that you made your own caramel made it even more attractive–I always want to try to make things like that from scratch, but I usually chicken out because it takes too much time or too many ingredients I don’t have. This took about ten minutes and four ingredients, and it looked delicious. What could go wrong?

Making the caramel was super easy, so easy that I wondered whether I was missing something somewhere. Near the end, when I was supposed to cook the caramel several minutes “until it’s a shade darker” (whatever that means), but I smelled something burning and feared for my caramel, so I took it off the stove. It looked and smelled like caramel, and I figured it would be fine.

But alas, my caution came back to bite me yet again. The caramel was supposed to firm up after about half an hour in the freezer, but when I checked it was still soft. So I waited. And waited. After over an hour it seemed to have firmed up, so I took it out and began cutting it–only to discover that it was quickly devolving into a sticky, totally-not-solid mass, definitely not the sort of thing you can easily cut into squares. I scooped it up in sticky spoonfuls and put it in the batter anyway, because at this point I figured nothing was going to change. I must have taken it off too soon, and whatever chemistry goes on inside candy that makes it harden hadn’t had a chance to occur.

But before I could get too down on myself about my sad non-candies, I tasted the caramel.

Oh my GOD it was so good. Did I make that?

Everything Deb from smitten kitchen said about homemade salted caramel is true. It is amazing, and if you have sugar, butter, heavy cream and sea salt, and any affinity for cooking, you should make it. Because it’s delicious. I haven’t tasted the brownies yet (amazing feat of self-control!), but I’m betting they’ll still taste pretty good too.

It feels like this post should have some sort of moral at the end, like “I shouldn’t be so afraid to make mistakes in the kitchen, because sometimes the food’s awesome anyway, and even if it’s not, you still learn something”.

But mostly I’m just thinking that, thanks to my delicious failure, I have an excuse to make these brownies again. You know, so I can learn from my mistakes, and get it right. For science.

On the subject of titles

A few days ago the daily prompt from WordPress was to talk about your blog title and what it means to you. I figured now was as good a time as any to explain my title, especially for those of you who may be wondering whether I was just too lazy to think of a real title.

If you’ve been thinking that, then you might be partially right, but I felt I could justify it because…well, I have something of a history when it comes to brackets and [insert blank here]’s. Just ask my roommates. When I wrote papers in college, I got in the habit of just adding brackets whenever I was stuck on a certain section, so I could go on to the next and have a way to find all the places I needed to fix. So if my friends or roommates ever had the misfortune to read a first draft of one of my papers, it would be peppered with brackets saying [transition], [conclusion], or, on the really bad days [insert argument here]. And of course, at the top would almost always be [insert title here], because one of the things I hate most about writing is coming up with titles. It became kind of a running joke. So when I couldn’t think of a title for this blog, I thought that [Insert Title Here] would be an appropriate choice, and a fun inside joke for those of my friends who have been long acquainted with my bracket use.

[Insert witty joke, observation, and conclusion here.]

It’s a hard habit to break.

Leyendo en español

This month seems to be the Month Where I Talk About Books (not to say that March, or April or May won’t also be Months Where I Talk About Books. If you hadn’t noticed, books are kind of a big deal for me).

Anyway, for the past few weeks I’ve been having kind of an adventure in reading. For the first time in about a year and a half I’m attempting to read a novel in Spanish: La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.It’s been simultaneously exciting and discouraging. I’ve always been better at reading Spanish than speaking it (or writing it or listening to it), and even after essentially taking a few years off from Spanish I was comfortable enough that I could get the gist without looking up too many words.

But getting the gist and getting involved in the story are two different things, and that’s where I have the most trouble reading in Spanish. When I read, I read for the story and all that, but I also often read a particular book because I like the author’s style; I like the particular way they put words together, in a way that I would never have thought of, but which seems to capture whatever they’re trying to express perfectly. If there’s one thing in common with all of my favorite authors, it’s that they have very expressive styles.

In a foreign language, style is a lot harder to pick up, because I’m not familiar with the language and its quirks and idioms. It often makes it harder to read; I can usually do okay with dialogue (although there is one character in La Sombra del Viento who tends to pontificate, and I don’t always get everything), but the rich descriptions of places and people don’t have the same power when you have to look up every third word. On the other hand, every time I look up one of those words or an idiom I expand my vocabulary, and that’s the whole reason I’m reading in Spanish at all–to improve my skill with the language.

There’s also the joy of finding idioms in another language and figuring out what they’re meant to mean. Some I can figure out from context, and some I have to look up, but they’re always fun.

A few examples:

  • “tiene el alma de pan bendito”, or roughly “he has a soul of good bread”  means “he has a good heart” (The Spanish are very into using bread in their idioms. A variation of this one is “mas bueno que el pan” (better than bread), and someone worth their salt is “worth the bread they eat”- “merecer el pan que se come”)
  • “Flor y nata”, or “flower and cream”, means basically “creme de la creme” (incidentally, an idiom we seem to have appropriated from the French)
  • And my favorite, “dar calabazas a alguien”, or “to give pumpkins to someone”, means to reject them. I just picture someone solemnly handing someone a pumpkin when they reject them. I have no idea where this idiom came from, but I like it.

I wonder if part of the reason I enjoy the idioms and little jokes and turns of phrase so much is that I’m so thrilled when I actually understand them. It’s like when I read xkcd and laugh at a science joke–part of me is laughing at the joke, but the other part is just so happy that I know enough to get it, that the joke seems funnier than it might otherwise. So, when I’m reading in Spanish and I come across a bit where the author is spelling out an accent phonetically, or makes a reference to the unreliability of Spanish trains (“el fin de la infancia, como la Renfe, llegaba cuando llegaba”), I’m especially delighted because I understand enough to recognize an accent, or to get the reference to the Renfe. It’s like a little prize saying, “Hey, you’re getting more than just the gist!”

This is just one of the reasons that I’m really enjoying reading this book in the original Spanish, instead of the English translation. Another is that reading the Spanish, I get a chance to see the rhythms of the language as the author wrote them (back to the style thing again). I found a copy of the English version, which has been great for when I’m totally lost, but I’ve noticed when I look at passages in the English version that it just doesn’t have the same feeling, the same flow. Translation can never really capture the rhythms of a language, and phrases that sound great in one language can often come out sort of clunky when they’re translated. It’s great to be able to get at least some of the author’s original voice, even if I can’t understand every word.

I’m about halfway through the book right now. Maybe when I’m finished I’ll go back through the English version, and see how it’s different. But right now I’m really enjoying the challenge of the Spanish.

The question of e-books

In which I wax slightly lyrical on my love of books, but eventually return to the main point.

I was having a bit of trouble picking a topic for this post, so I turned to WordPress’s handy Daily Post blog for help. The weekly writing challenge this week is about ebooks–specifically, the ongoing question of whether we readers prefer e-books or a good old-fashioned paperback. I think it’s interesting that despite the fact that all of us who looked at and responded to this prompt are obviously in touch with technology (being on a blogging site and all), the poll still falls enormously in favor of old-fashioned, paper books. For all the convenience of e-readers, many of us seem to still prefer the feel of a paper book, even if it is heavier to lug around.

I myself fall with the majority on this one (are we really surprised?). There’s something about holding a book, flipping through the pages, feeling the solid weight of it. Physical books are individual objects, and they collect memories like any other object. When I open my copy of any given book, I remember when I bought it, or who gave it to me. Sometimes I have memories of where I was or what I was doing when I read a specific part. Sometimes it’s just the memory of a particular atmosphere or time of year–Dandelion Wine will always be a book for summer and hammocks; Cloud Atlas brings back the light of early November and the smell of coffee from the Starbucks in the Almaden Barnes and Noble.

I get to know the particular feel of my copy of a book, the sound the spine makes when it opens, so that if I ever read a different copy of that book, it feels kind of weird, even if the story is exactly the same. The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, it was my dad’s old copies that he bought in the 70s, when paperbacks were still about $1. The pages are yellowed and the type is thick and old-looking, and I will never be able to read The Lord of the Rings in any other form. When I get my own copies I’m going to have to try to find some used set with yellow pages, because any modern copy will feel strange.

E-books, bless them, just don’t have that individuality. They’re all the same–the same weight, the same font, the same size. You don’t pick an e-book from your library or the store just because of how it feels. You can’t browse the Nook store and grab a random book just because it’s the sort of book you like to hold in your hands. You kind of have to already know what you want.

BUT, if you do know what you want, then an e-reader can be a really excellent, really convenient way to read in situations when you wouldn’t want to bring a big fat book. Despite the above ode (and I realize I rambled a bit; I just really like books, okay?), my love of books doesn’t mean I hate e-readers.

I wonder sometimes why we feel we have to take unequivocal sides on this issue. I got a Nook for Christmas this year, and although I don’t think it’s ever going to replace my bookshelves, I did find myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. I discovered some compilations of classic novels for 99 cents in the Nook store, so now I have something like 50 classic books stored on my e-reader, many of which I’ve never read, but might actually now that they’re easily accessible. I also was able to put a Word document of a friend’s story on my Nook, so I can read it just like any other book. I even checked out a book from my library’s e-book collection.

The point is, people talk about “switching” to ebooks and “giving up” hardcovers, but I see no reason that using one should preclude the use of the other. It seems to me that ebooks would get a much more friendly reception if we thought of them as a supplement, or simply a different, more convenient way of reading books (much like paperbacks were to hardbacks when they first came out), rather than some new, be-all-end-all form that is intent on exterminating books as we know them.

I think it’s pretty obvious that paper books aren’t going anywhere just yet. There are too many people like those who voted on the Daily Post’s poll that still prefer the heft of a thick book, the smell of the pages, the ability to amble through a bookstore for hours, letting your eyes wander the shelves waiting for something to catch your eye. But those same people might also enjoy the convenience of being able to bring three books on a trip in a device that weighs less than a paperback, or being able to have all their textbooks in one place.

I love physical books and I’ll always prefer them to e-books. But I don’t think it’s a betrayal of that love to own an e-reader. Reading is reading, no matter what, and if e-readers get more people reading, I say more power to them. I’m just not getting rid of my bookshelves anytime soon.

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome

And if you’re not singing that song in your head now, then you need to go and watch Cabaret immediately.

Sorry, my musical theatre nerd is showing.

Let’s try again.

Hello, and welcome to my shiny new blog.

As my About page states (or will state, since as of this post I haven’t actually written it yet), this blog is in part an effort to kick myself in the pants and actually get myself to stick to something for an entire year. A sort or month-late new year’s resolution, if you will. My hope is that by making myself update this blog once  a week for the rest of 2013 with a post about something (and literally, at this stage, it could be about anything), I will get better at motivating myself to do other, more important things.

See, I have discovered that, like many others (at least, I hope other people have this problem), I have tons of ambitious ideas and no follow-through. I want to do everything: travel to Europe, go hiking in the hills around my town, learn to make cheese, bake bread, cook on a regular basis, exercise more. I think about things like this all the time, and I even make plans to do some of it. But often, when it comes time to actually take a step towards doing any one of those things, my brain stalls, and I find myself watching yet another episode of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, because Darcy’s going to show up soon and I just want to get there okay???

If I happen to get past the thinking-about-it stage to the beginning-to-actually-do-it stage, the chances of my forgetting about it/giving up on it within a month are still pretty high–thus the half-finished scarf, half-finished novel, and many other abandoned projects currently cluttering up my room. Without a deadline and a teacher/employer waiting for me to actually deliver something, I’m rubbish at motivating myself to do all the things I would like to do.

So this is where the Internet and you, dear reader, come in.

My hope is that if I tell people that this blog exists, some few of them might look at it. Even if it’s only my mom or my best friend, that’s still one or two more people who expect something to appear here every week. And if it doesn’t, I have someone other than myself to rag on me about it–someone who won’t be so easily swayed by the usual lame excuses I give myself.

This also is a chance to keep my writing skills sharp, to express my thoughts about things in my life and in the world (mostly the latter, because at the moment my life is woefully uninteresting), and maybe give my friends a laugh or something to think about now and then.

So, that’s the plan, the goal, the hope, the dream.

One year. Fifty-two blog posts (at least). And the revitalization of one college graduate’s dying motivation.

Let’s do this.

Next Week: Stay tuned for a post with actual content.