May 2007


Proportions and ratios really do make up the world. Once when I was at Smith, the Lyman Plant House on campus had this bit about mathematics and plants and the Golden Ratio in their gallery area, and it was fun to look at and think about; rather amazing, actually.

Cooking, clearly, is no exception (I can hear those of you who read this staring at the screen and saying ‘duh’). This is true particularly in baking, with all the necessary chemical reactions. While this fascinates me as well, I gotta confess that I wasn’t overly good at chemistry the last time I took it, which was literally seven years ago. I get it mostly, I just don’t really care on a regular basis. Ends justifying the means.

This post is all about ratios, though, and how this past week I’ve used them to make two very awesome edibles. Er…edible and drinkable.

When I was in Scotland, I stumbled across a recipe for Valentine’s shortbread cookies in one of the student magazines. It’s only occasionally that I have the attitude and motivation for fiddly stuff and flights of whimsy like making little hearts, and I didn’t really feel like going out and buying a heart-shaped cookie cutter (biscuit cutter? Matt, plz advise) that I’d just use once and then either leave behind or schlep back to America, where my mother has about five that I could steal. However, the proportions for the recipe are just right, and I made it in a flat pan at least three or four times while I was there, because it was cheap, easy, and tasty…clearly the Scots came up with it.

You can, of course, mess around with this and make little shapes, but you can’t really roll the dough, so don’t even try. Also, everyone says to use real butter instead of margarine, but when I was in Scotland, I never did, because of the exchange rate making me less than flush in cash. It tasted fine. Or maybe that was just because I was a student.

The only problem with this is that it works a lot better in terms of ratios if you do it in grams instead of in US measurements. Unfortunately, sticks of butter come in cup/tablespoon format, and only the hardcore have kitchen scales here in the US (whereas in Glasgow you could get one for under ten quid…I borrowed one from flatmates). This makes the ratio a bit dicey unless you decide to wing it, or just measure everything in tablespoons. Using less flour and butter means the whole thing doesn’t come together right.

Mathematical Shortbread

1 part sugar
2.5 parts butter
3.5 parts flour

Heat your oven to 325 F.
Mix together sugar and flour thoroughly with a fork.
Soften butter and rub the inside of a pan with a little and the wrapper. Put the butter into the bowl with the sugar-flour mixture, then bring it all together with a pastry cutter, scraping it off with the fork as you go. If you don’t have one of those, you’ll have to break up the butter with forks or knives and sort of cut it together and mix.
Pat this into your pan, make those nifty fork marks, and bake for about 8-10 minutes depending on the size you’re making. Once you take it out, cut it right away before it cools, either into wedges (aka ‘petticoat tails’) or rectangles.
Let cool. Eat entirely too much and feel guilty.

To give you some idea of where to start–if you use one stick of butter, you should use just under a quarter cup of sugar and just under three-quarters of a cup of flour. This fits perfectly into a round 9 inch metal pan.

——

But of course, there’s more to life than just butter, much as people like Paula Deen would like us to think otherwise. And with the weather here having been entirely too warm lately, the mind runs to cool things.

Like margaritas.

I had been reading one of the America’s Test Kitchen books, and while I don’t agree with everything they have to say all the time, I did get inspired to make a classic margarita. I mean the kind that doesn’t come in the slushie machine down at Taco Joe’s. Admittedly, I’d only had one once before, thanks to Angela from my house at Smith who was later concerned about corrupting me…but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing anything, does it?

The consensus was that there was a proper ratio for this too, and so I went by that. And, remarkably, it works really well, despite what seems like a lot of tequila–the sweet sour play of the other ingredients sets it off, as does the ice water you get from shaking. And don’t get tequila that comes in plastic bottles or you’ll be nauseated. One part = one ounce should be enough for one drink.

Rolled And Tumbled Til I Saw the Light: A Margarita
with apologies to the Wilburys

3 parts tequila
2 parts triple sec (Cointreau is nice but too expensive for this)
1 part fresh lime juice, or lemon, or a mixture of both
2 ice cubes per drink

Squeeze lime and lemon juice. (You get maybe 1.5 ounces of juice per fruit, depending on how good it is and the time of year.) Remove seeds, and the worst bits of pulp. Put all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, close it up, and shake. Strain into glasses and serve. You can do a little fiddly part with a peel if you want to be all fancy.
Just a warning, this does knock you back on your rear. Two was enough for me.

——

Incidentally for those who read this for the books and feminist commentary, I’m off to WisCon 31 this weekend. Con report will be forthcoming. Provided I remember to write it.

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The concept is fascinating: the last refuge of humanity, bred to forget and to live under a religion that proscribes technology, in order to hide from those who would destroy them. The tough heroine is the only one who remembers the past and can stop this experiment gone horribly wrong. And the book’s compulsively readable despite being military SF, which I’m not always keen on.

So why am I saying that David Weber’s Off Armageddon Reef is so bloody flawed?

(more…)

Dang.

Five months since my last post, and I’m terribly slow on the uptake. In that time I’ve gained a position, lost a position, and read a whole pile of books, most of which were not particularly memorable. Or at least, yours truly with the below-average short term memory can’t remember them.

This is not to mention that RP ate my soul.

Anyway, it’s spring here in Wisconsin, and per my mother’s request this Mother’s Day, I made a rather tasty dessert from a creaky old recipe that’s been in the family for decades. No pictures, this time, as the meringue wasn’t overly pretty, and the rhubarb turned out quite a lot more juicy than I would have liked. Also, we had to buy the rhubarb as ours has already gone to seed…five dollars a pound. Ack. You won’t need more than a pound for this, though, which, I might add, is not nearly as futzy as it sounds.

It’s a tart! It’s a pie! It’s…oh, to heck with it…

Grandma’s* Rhubarb Delight; or, Lutherans Don’t Do Fancy Monikers Dessert

1 c. flour
.5 c. (one stick) butter, softened
1 Tbsp. sugar
a shake of salt

Heat oven to 350 F. Combine together like pastry dough or shortbread; i.e. mush it all up to look like clumpy crumbs. Pat this into a greased 8 inch square pan, fairly firm.

3 c. rhubarb (a little less than a pound, maybe 9/10ths of one), chopped
1.5 c. sugar (yeah, you’ll need it all)
shakes of cinnamon and nutmeg

Combine this all together in a bowl, fairly well. Metal’s not wise, though Mom says she’s done it in one. Don’t let it sit too long or the sugar will draw all the juices out and then there are problems like mine. Put this evenly on top of the crust you made above, and bake it (in the 350 F oven) for about 40 minutes.

While THAT’S going, mix up the following in a microwave-safe bowl:
1 c. milk
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 egg yolks
shake of salt
splash of vanilla

Cook this in your microwave for about three minutes on high. COVER IT FIRST. Stir once every minute or so. Set it aside until the bottom part is done baking.

Make up a meringue in the last ten minutes or so of baking:
remaining 2 egg whites
1 Tbsp. or so sugar
splash of vanilla
shake of cream of tartar if it isn’t coming together

Meringues aren’t as hard as everyone says. Just get a mixer and beat the heck out of it on the highest setting. Hard peaks are when it stands up on its own.

Take out the baked part and pour the pudding you made over the top evenly. It probably won’t spread too well, so a good pouring hand is necessary. Then spread the meringue evenly on top. Put it back in the oven for five minutes or so until the meringue is set. Turn off the oven, let it cool, then cover with wax paper and put in the fridge.
*Incidentally,  I’m not sure who ‘Grandma’ is–my grandma makes this but it’s not her recipe. I think it might be my mother’s grandma, who died about twenty-odd years ago and was, like most of my relatives of a certain era, a dairy farmer from central Wisconsin.

This is best served cold or at room temperature, by the way, and can also be made with apples (use about six of them cut thin, and only use .5 c sugar). It’s a great thing for potlucks if you want everyone to think you’re made of awesome. Only problem is that the crust is hard to cut and not so good for eating with plasticware.

Again, it’s not nearly such a pain in the rear to make as it sounds. Lemme know if you venture a go.