Friday, December 17, 2010

Lumpy Vanilla Extract Pie

I've been on a cooking kick lately. This happens in cycles. I'll cook dinner for a few months before losing the mojo, get lazy and stop cooking. Inevitably through these cooking phases, I attempt to "bake" something. And without fail, I am reminded that not only is there a difference between baking and cooking, I am not a good baker.

I had a Christmas volunteer luncheon to attend today and I found what I thought was going to be an easy chocolate peanut butter pie recipe. So I thought I'd contribute to the luncheon with this pie.

I usually walk away with a valuable lesson after one of my baking disasters and this incident was no exception. I will preempt this in telling you that I try my best to buy organic food items. Organic fruits, vegetables, jams, cereals etc. While shopping for the ingredients, I was happy to find organic peanut butter. I noticed all of the jars had at least 2 inches of oil at the top. Upon examination, I found the statement Oil separation occurs naturally. To prevent, stir and refrigerate or freeze

"Ok", I thought, "Not a problem. I can do that."


I went home with my ingredients and began to bake. Everything about the pie was made from the scratch, the crust, the filling, everything. I knew the crust was going to be a failure. I know few people who can successfully make a crumb pie crust. What I wasn't prepared for however, was the difficulty in making the filling.

The directions said to whisk the milk, corn starch, eggs and a few other ingredients together over medium heat. Does that mean I dump it all in at once and then whisk? Or gradually add each ingredient as I'm whisking away? I opted for the later and whisked until completely blended.

Then the recipe directed me to begin stirring to prevent lumps once the mix took on a pudding consistency. I peered at my bubbling concoction uncertainly before looking at my whisk. Did I stir with the whisk, or grab a spoon? And how would I know for sure when the mix turned from liquid to pudding?

In the time it took me to grab a spoon, the liquid did turn into pudding and the lumps began to form. I furiously stirred but the lumps multiplied and I couldn't keep up with the multitude of lumps that suddenly appeared in the pot. When the pudding began to boil and I was scraping pudding from the bottom of the pot, I gave up and figured the pie wouldn't LOOK pretty.

Then the recipe called for the addition of a few ingredients, one of which was 1 tablespoon of Vanilla Extract. That seemed like a lot of Vanilla Extract, so I double checked the list, but there was no misreading 1 tablespoon. Maybe that's not an unreasonable amount of Vanilla Extract, I don't know. Again, I don't bake very often.

Anyways, the second inkling of disaster began to dawn when I had to divide the lumpy filling into 2 bowls and add the peanut butter to one of the bowls. I had the unpleasant experience of peanut oil running down my hands when I opened the jar and the horror of finding more oil sloshing around in the jar. I dumped the oil and half the peanut butter into a different bowl and went for the last half of the jar, hoping that took care of the oil problem. There was still a bit of oil swimming amongst the peanut butter, but I could work with it. The consistency and taste of the organic peanut butter was different as well. The peanut butter was extremely thick and wasn't as sweet but the jar did say no sugar was added, and it wasn't a bad taste, just different.

After thoroughly mixing the respective chocolate and peanut butter bowls, I taste tested each one. The peanut butter filling was actually pretty good but the chocolate filling had a strong aftertaste of vanilla extract. It competed with and almost overtook the rich chocolaty taste. Danno offered the thought that perhaps the chocolate filling would taste better once it was combined with the peanut butter filling. Hoping he was right, I went ahead and finished the recipe. The pie looked terrible. Very lumpy and unlike the picture of the pie in the cookbook, which was firm and neat.

I refrigerated the pie overnight and pulled it out this morning for a small sample. Yes, there was a small bit of oil on top of the pie (sigh) but the worst was when I couldn't even cut a slice. The pie sloshed around the knife and I couldn't pull out the perfect pie piece. Instead I had to glop lumps of it on to my plate. The pie still had the vanilla extract after taste, but it wasn't nearly as strong as it was the previous night.

I decided to save myself the humiliation and left the pie at home. But if you want the Lumpy Vanilla Extract pie recipe, let me know.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bird Feeders + Me = OCD

Sometimes I don't realize how neurotic I am until I stop in the middle of the very thing I'm doing that makes me crazy to notice that it makes me crazy and I had that very thing happen this morning. We have had over a week of bone chilling, teeth chattering, cold weather and I have been worrying about keeping the birds outside fed.

We've discussed my Christmas ornament issues, and for those who weren't already aware, the flu season unleashes my germaphobe, hand washing idiosyncrasy (although I'm fairly certain those in the healthcare field would tell me I'm not crazy with all the hand washing). But perhaps the icing on the neurotic cake is my compulsion to keep the bird feeders full during those cold days when the thermometer hovers around the freezing mark.

The fretting doesn't begin until the forecast calls for highs in the mid-30s. Then I begin thinking about the birds in the neighborhood, most of which are insect and seed eaters. The worry kicks into overdrive when I think of the majority of insects that are dead and those few that aren't dead are in diapause and safely overwintering in some remote spot far from the reach of hungry beaks. My thoughts travel to the neighborhood gardens and how the seed supply must be pretty low or nonexistent at this point. Then I think about how much energy it takes for a bird to function during the day and survive a cold night. For example, did you know on a cold winter's night, a Black-capped Chickadee can lose up to 10% of it's body weight? That's OVERNIGHT people. So each day, that tiny bird must eat that much to compensate for what it lost overnight.

This is the point when I try my best to cater to the eating habits of my feathered friends. For example, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are exclusive ground feeders, meaning they will not fly up and eat from a feeder. They will only eat what is on the ground. Cardinals, Blue Jays and most Woodpeckers do not like tube feeders and their tiny perches (well, they're also too big for them as well). American Goldfinches strongly prefer thistle over other types of seeds (although I have seen them eat sunflower seed in very cold conditions). Black oil sunflower seed, peanuts and suet are high in fat which is important for the birds during the winter so I keep a steady stock. Woe is me if I let the supply run out and I see a huge flock of hungry birds pecking at seed crumbs in the feeders.

Every morning I go outside and fill a big feeder with a sunflower seed mix, throw out a few millet sprigs on the ground, check the suet and thistle feeders before tackling the peanut feeder (Picture of this feeder is in this entry). The Blue Jays have a habit of pecking the peanuts to get at the meat and leave the empty shell in the feeder. So I have to throw out the peanut shells before filling the feeder with fresh peanuts.

My neurosis is worst after it snows. All that seed under a layer of snow and/or ice. How are my ground feeding birds going to eat?? That's when I make it a point to scatter seeds on the window ledges and on the steps just outside the sliding glass door. Yes dear readers, I am that crazy. You may wonder what the payback is from all this fretting and feeding and for the non bird lovers, I'm sure it's difficult to understand. But I love watching the Blue Jays swoop down on the peanut feeder and make exaggerated pecking motions as they work to get their food. I enjoy listening to the chips and off-key tune of the White-throated Sparrows. And it's amazing to see at least a dozen or more Cardinals scattered through the yard.

I also like to think I'm contributing somewhat to the survivability of these birds during a time when some of these species struggle to compete for space with habitat fragmentation and urbanization. They need all the help they can get.

I know I'm a worrywart, but I figure this is a productive thing to worry about. I worry, I fill the feeders and the worry disappears...until the feeders are empty or it snows. Then we repeat the cycle.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Oh Christmas Tree

I put my Christmas Tree up Wednesday afternoon and before I launch into the details of this story, I must tell you that I have been struggling with the decision on whether or not to put the tree up since November. I didn't put the tree up last year, or even the year before and I had this odd mixture of guilt for not putting the tree up and relief for the same reason. I like Christmas and the decorations that accompany the holiday. It's just that truth be told, I'm kind of lazy in the housekeeping department. I don't dust or vacuum as nearly as often as I should, the dishes stay in the sink a little longer than they should and I'm embarrassed to let my friends see the clutter that has accumulated on nearly every surface of the house. Putting a tree up means that is one more thing I have to put away.

Then there's the size of the tree and the volume of ornaments. My mom worked for a large department store chain for a while and at least twice a year they would have a "Sample Sale" where employees got dibbs on the merchandise before the public did. Anything that could fit in a large shopping bag was $5. You can fit a LOT of stuff in a bag for 5 bucks. So at least once a year (sometimes more often than once a year) my mom would bring me 2-3 bags filled with ornaments. It got to the point that I needed to buy a bigger Christmas tree. The last time I put the tree up, (which is a 7 footer) I had so many ornaments that I almost ran out of room on the tree. I think at that point I snapped and didn't put the tree up for 2 years.

This year I decided to only put up one box worth of ornaments (as opposed to the 4 boxes of various sizes) and rotate the boxes in the future. The first thing was lugging that huge tree upstairs. I swear that box gets heavier each year. Putting the tree up itself wasn't so bad because the tree is divided into 3 sections with the branches already attached. You just connect the sections, the branches fall into place and viola, you have yourself a tree. The only thing you need to do is fluff the branches and move them around.

The next biggest chore is putting up the lights. This is the part I hate the most because I'm somewhat of a perfectionist and can't just put the lights ANYWHERE on the tree. It took me an hour-and-a-half to string the lights. After putting up the tree and lights, I stopped for the day.

Thursday was ornament day. This is a big production. Each ornament is carefully wrapped in tissue or wrapping paper and must be unwrapped before being placed on the tree. But again, placing ornaments on the tree is no simple endeavor. The tree is divided into sections and each ornament is assigned to a section. The ugly ornaments are relegated to the back section (the one that faces the window to the world outside) of the tree while the iffy ones are in that tiny spot located next to the back of the tree. My prized ornaments, the ornaments that are beautiful or hold great sentimental value go on the front of the tree, that section that is easily seen from a seated position while those that come in a close second are off to the side. For simplicity's sake, I won't go into which ornaments go towards the top, middle or bottom. But yes, I am that neurotic. This took another hour-and-a-half, but I was finished.

So the tree is up and every evening at dusk, I turn the tree lights on and open the window blinds so everyone driving or walking can admire my beautiful tree.

Let's just hope I can get motivated enough to take the dang thing down before spring.