Monthly Archives: January 2012

Recipe: Homemade Soft Pretzels.

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Seriously: these are super easy to make, and fun — even when you’re in a hurry; even when you’ve got three kids underfoot.  This is a basic bread dough, really. What makes a pretzel a pretzel is the key step of boiling them in baking soda water, so don’t skip it.

Soft Pretzels

  • 2 packets active dry yeast (0.5 oz. total)
  • 2 cups warm water (110-115 degrees)
  • 1/2 cup + 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • sea salt

Dissolve yeast and 1 tsp. sugar in warm water until bubbly, about 10 minutes.  Beat together egg, butter, salt and sugar.  Add in 2 cups flour and yeast/water solution and blend well.  Gradually add in  remaining 4 1/2 cups flour, switching from spoon to hands for mixing when necessary.  Knead for 5-10 minutes or until sort of rubbery and flexible: bread dough tells you when it’s ready.  Allow to rise 1 hour in large bowl covered with a dishcloth.

When dough has doubled in size, punch down and divide into 16 equal portions.  Roll each portion into a 20″ rope and twist into pretzel shape.  Boil 6 cups water with 1/2 cup baking soda added in.  Toss each finished pretzel into boiling water until it rises to the surface, <5 minutes.  Remove each pretzel and sprinkle with sea salt.

Bake pretzels 4 at a time on oiled baking sheet on top rack of oven, or various bits will burn, for 10-15 minutes or until nicely browned.  Transfer to rack for cooling. Makes 16 awesomely delicious soft pretzels.

The Olfactory Thing.

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Tony is usually hovering around while I’m in the kitchen dicking around with sugar scrubs, and his reaction brings to mind the reason I don’t use commercial perfumes and only anoint my body with natural substances: Men can’t stand the smell of perfume.

Women often don’t get this.  You walk through a department store — I tend to pass through at more of a trot, when I’m forced to do it — and synthetic scents pelt you from every side. It brings on a faint and instantaneous nausea, and the smells swirling about do not comfort or please.  They are intimidating smells.  They have the smell of ladies, and that is not a good smell.

You know what I mean by ladies, or at least you do if you grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in small-town America.  Ladies were your mother’s friends who came over for bridge or Tupperware or whatever the hell women were gathering to do in those days.  They carried pocketbooks and used hankies; the latter were often embroidered and scented.  And they smelled like . . . ladies.  That confusing smell of aerosol hairspray and Chanel No. 5, with a dash of hairy twat thrown in.  It wasn’t a smell that made you want to come closer.  It was a smell that obfuscated any kind of home truth, if you know what I mean. Those women didn’t smell like women.

The men of my generation remember what those ladies were like, too.  They didn’t represent anything sexual.  If you want to not attract a man, to not arouse him, then go ahead and smell like those ladies.  Douse yourself in artificial scent. He’ll recognize the smell as a signal that you are available, that you are sending out a message.  He will just be confused and disquieted by that particular message.

So what do men want us to smell like?  All available data points to vanilla.  Vanilla, with the boring reputation and the rich lavish bouquet.  Vanilla can come dressed up like a duchess, but she can also roll in the hayfields like a whore.  She’s the smell of the kitchen, of the sugar cookies at Christmas,  of creme brulee and warm sweet things.  And men are drawn to it like bees to honey. Unlike the chemical scent of those ladies, the smell of vanilla makes men feel warm and secure, as if they’ve encountered something familiar and beloved.  Now that is a far better way to kick off a sexual relationship, wouldn’t you say?

There’s more.  Men want us to smell like baked goods! I remember hearing anecdotally that the smell of pumpkin pie trumped out all other scents for male appeal.  I can totally dig that.  It’s why I used to use the Philosophy Pumpkin Pie shower gel back when it still existed, back before I refined my nose to the point where Philosophy products are just too synthetic to bear.  I can still handle their Cinnamon Sugar Icing shower gel, though.  It smells like French toast and syrup! Tony loves it, of course.

So long ago I started tying the things I put on my own body to the natural world.  In winter I smell like cinnamon and vanilla and chocolate.  In summer, when the natural world’s perspective shifts, I smell like coconut, mango and pineapple.  I’ll indulge in a floral or two in the summer, but it has to be of the utmost quality: there is nothing as gag-inducing on earth as a synthetic floral scent.  Annick Goutal’s Gardenia Passion smells exactly like real gardenias, but it comes from Paris and I absolutely cannot afford it.  Jasmine is another candidate, but again only if it’s a true jasmine.  Anoint yourself with cheap jasmine and you’ll smell worse than a French whorehouse: you’ll smell like a Harbor Boulevard whorehouse.  And I am here to tell you that is all kinds of bad.

So that’s why these days I am up to my elbows in vanilla.  Does anyone really remember what vanilla really smells like on a woman?  The market is inundated with synthetic vanilla scents, some of which smell quite nice but none of which approach the actual smell of real vanilla.  So I’ve been making vanilla absolute in my kitchen.  Two beans of Singing Dog vanilla, a little coconut or olive oil, some indirect heat and a few weeks to steep, and I’ve got a gorgeous little vanilla scent that just doesn’t quit.  And me in the kitchen, marrying it off to maple and brown sugar with one hand and to coconut with the other.

And as I walk away, the smell of real vanilla clings to me, as it always does.  It makes my kids hug me and draws a kiss on my cheek from Tony.  You want to be a lady?  Go on down to Bloomies and pick up the latest designer scent with all the other unlaid wallflowers.  But if you want to be an earth angel, a domestic goddess, the source of comfort and good, the sort of girl who gets laid at the drop of a hat — be warm. Be comforting. Be vanilla.

Startup.

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Doesn’t everyone want to go into business for himself? God knows I always have.  I’m a little too unconventional for the law firm environment, and just when I think I’m blending in I use a word like draconian in conversation and everybody starts looking at me funny. The problem is that I’m too yellow and too spoiled to go into business.  I see what Tony goes through with his receivables and his hired divers and so on, and I just don’t have the strength to sign on for it. I like having that steady paycheck and health insurance, even if it means I die a little bit every day. It’s only a little bit. I can handle it.

I’m back in the law firm environment after two months of unemployment, but while I was out of work I was one busy little beaver. I think I mentioned I was making sugar scrubs in my kitchen.  Those sugar scrubs have taken on a life of their own.  The first couple of weeks back at full-time employment, I could often be found in the kitchen at 1 a.m. concocting scrubs.  I couldn’t keep up that schedule for long, of course, so most of my unemployment projects have gone by the wayside.  But the sugar scrubs are going strong, and I think I may have developed my first keeper, the prototype.

And I’m thinking about trying to sell them locally on a small scale.  The marketing would have to be geared toward quality and economy — department store bath and body products at food co-op prices.  Something like that.  I have a package design in mind, and a brand name: Beach Hippie Botanicals.  Made by a hippie in a kitchen, not a corporate researcher in a lab! Something like that.

It’s a tempting sideline, because it’s pretty much a no-cost startup. The scrub I’m starting with is made from brown sugar, raw sugar, a touch of maple sugar (that shit is expensive), coconut, olive and hazelnut oils,vanilla and maple syrup.  Stuff from my kitchen.  My first batch was just too subtle as far as scent, so I boiled down my maple syrup and vanilla until it was thick and dense, and that made the difference. (Caveat: mix the syrup into the scrub as soon as it starts to cool, because it hardens into something like taffy and you’ll break your arm trying to blend it.)

So I have my first product: Beach Hippie Maple Blondie sugar scrub.  It’s named for my friend Tina, who is blonde and Canadian.  I’ll slap a maple leaf on the jar if I can afford it!  So now I have to develop some other varieties.  Pure vanilla, of course, although I have to make my own essential oils and it’ll be a while before they’re ready.  (I can make vanilla absolute for about $5 a fluid ounce; it costs about $15/ounce if purchased commercially.) Coconut.  And an all-purpose skin oil called Boolie Oil, because I dream big.  If this ever gets off the ground, it’s all for Boolie to have someday, so I want our little trick product to have her name.

And when they’re all perfected, I’ll get some packaging and start making ’em up — right here in my kitchen.  I have the jars all picked out; they cost $0.80 each, less if you buy in bulk.  The labels I believe will be in black and white, to keep costs down, and I have a vision of what that’s going to look like, although I will probably have to hire someone to do the actual artwork.  I have to get some brochures together or whatnot. I’ll probably start with the swap meets and Fish Fry, local stuff — I hope the tables don’t cost too much. For swap meet sales, I’m imagining a “design your own scrub” option — choose your sugar (white, brown, raw, turbinado, coconut, maple), your oils (coconut, hazelnut, jojoba, almond, shea) and your scents.  Come back in 15 minutes and pick up your custom scrub.  Ah, hell, it might sell.  Sugar scrubs are the best thing on earth for your skin, especially if you live in So Cal and are forever bombarded by the sun.

It’s a no-lose situation.  I’ll start out with small batches and keep it simple.  I’ll try a few tricks to get them to sell: see if a few of the local New Age or health food shops will carry the stuff, go to a few bed and breakfasts with free trial size scrubs they can leave in the guest rooms. Quaint local products: tourists like that. And if no one gives a damn, I’ll stash my stock and have enough sugar scrub to last me the rest of my life.

If, on the other hand, it was to take off — oh, I dream of it sometimes, although I don’t dare to dream very much. Getting out of the legal business couldn’t possibly be that simple.  But then I look at a number of other small local businesses: Hurley, Volcom, Urban Decay. They all started out the same way, and now they’re huge. Nationwide. It can be done, and if I don’t roll the dice, I can’t win.

Now to find the time to finish working on the damned things. And take out a fictitious business name. And run my little product up the flagpole. Maybe someone will salute. Project! I’m stoked.

Baby Snails!

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They are hatching as I write, plopping without a sound into the water from the egg sac above.  I can’t even post a photo; the tank has way too much algae, result of me insisting that no one disturb the snail eggs.  Or the pregnant guppies.

The baby snails are a translucent white, all of them; their colors won’t come in till later.  I think they’re the progeny of a gold snail and a black one, so it will be fun to see what sort of rainbow we get.  They’re about the size of a matchhead.  They remind me oddly of tiny toenails; that was what popped into my mind when I saw them scattered about the glass.  And then I noticed that they were moving.  New life!  Mazel tov.

All this unfettered reproduction in the house makes Tony a bit edgy, and of course I have no idea what to do with a slew of baby snails.  So far I count eight snaillets, but there were three egg clusters in all, laid at different times, so you can bet there are more to come.  In fact, just this evening I suddenly thought There are a hell of a lot of snails in that tank, and went on to count five full-grown snails.  We started with three.  So the shtupping and the toenails have been going on longer than I thought.

We have three pregnant guppies who have looked on the verge of popping for over a week, but the guppy fry have yet to be born.  The silvery guppy mama is so swollen she can hardly swim, so it won’t be long now.  And I have thirteen guppy fry, born on New Year’s Eve, in a little fry cup.  One of them looks like a cull — meaning a runt, one which probably won’t survive.  But the rest, if I let them get big enough before I put them into the main tank, look like keepers.  The generation of fry previous to that (of which three survived) included one little girl, who is of course pregnant already.  And did you know a guppy can get pregnant again within a few hours of giving birth?

Meanwhile, the snails shtup on the glass as their toenail babies glide past so slowly you have to really stop and look to see the movement.  To be honest, there’s something a little obscene about all this fertilization and birth going on in my tank.  Imagine running an analysis on that water!  Twenty percent snail semen, ten percent placenta.  But I sort of like it.  Through all the bullshit of daily living, there is always fucking.  There is always birth.  There is always life.

Journeys.

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for Behan and Boolie

I want to get Boolie involved with Girl Scouts, if she’s willing; Erika, already very much herself at a very young age, refused to have anything to do with them. But I was a Girl Scout for years and years with my mom often as the troop leader, and those are some of the best memories of my childhood. More importantly, Girl Scouts does a great job teaching girls the practical skills they will need as adult women. When I was a kid, those were things such as sewing, cooking and needlework. Today, they are teaching them such things as financial competence. I’ve been thinking a lot lately that Boolie will inevitably assume the role of female head of Ben’s household — hell, I think in a lot of ways she’s assumed it already. So I’m setting out to teach her practical life skills. I hope the Girl Scouts didn’t go completely insane after Women’s Lib and stop teaching them housewifery.

Looking through the Daisy Scout summary, I noticed a new feature that didn’t exist back in my Scouting days: the girls each choose one of three “journeys” for their Scouting experience. Those are It’s Your Planet — Love It! which involves conservation and animal life; It’s Your Story — Tell It! which explores personal identity along with writing and storytelling;  and It’s Your World — Change It! which is . . . a little scary.

Do I really want my strong, smart, loving daughter to set out to change the world? It paints rather a depressing picture of strident Right to Lifers and sullen Occupiers, people who are perpetually discontented with everything. Oh yes, there are people who have changed the world, but they never do have a very easy time of it and quite frequently end up dead before their time. Not the life I would choose for my beloved girl.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a program more like It’s Your World — Live In It? If Boolie’s personal contentment and fulfillment are put first, I’d like to see her learn to live gracefully in the world, to learn to look inside for answers, to accept other people for who and what they are, and to be a responsible and loving citizen of the Universe. Changing the world — well, that’s a tall and rather miserable order. I find more and more that being truly content involves getting your Tao on in a big way.

But then my mind turned to my friend Behan, who played the corporate game and played it well until the day she and her husband and their children chucked it all away to live on a boat sailing around the world. You can read about their life on the Totem here. Isn’t that the most wonderful thing you have ever heard? Everyone has daydreamed about it. Behan, ever the captain of her own ship, said Make it so. This makes her one of my heroes right then and there.

And of course, going from living in suburban consumer heaven to living in the middle of the South Pacific takes a lot of simplification: getting rid of unneeded possessions; learning to economize, improvise, make do, and do without. Behan’s kids are getting a taste of what most American kids could never imagine: a life not informed by consumerism and personal ambition. The way the Gifford kids are learning to live on the Totem will bless them with the twin traits of pragmatism and perspective. That’s an incredible gift to give to anyone’s kids.

Behan didn’t change the world, except for the bit where she totally did: she changed her world. Who doesn’t want to run off and live on a boat instead of in the tedium of everyday American working life? We say it as though it’s an impossible dream. Behan made it happen. She knew what she wanted and what she valued, made an intelligent plan to bring it about, and was strong and true enough to actually follow the plan, make the changes, and grab the dream. Behan isn’t occupying anything other than her body. She’s not protesting anything. She’s not strident. She simply knows that the only way to gracefully change the world is to change oneself.

So that’s what I want for Boolie, and I hope I’m a good enough mom to give her at least some of it; I can’t see doing what Behan did, but the values and lessons Behan is imparting to her kids through her choices and their family life are the ones I want Boolie to have. This doesn’t help me whatsoever with the Girl Scout question, of course, but it surer than hell made me stop and think. And now I think of the Gifford family on the deck of their boat at nights, with fireworks over Sydney Harbour above their heads and the world at their feet, and I wish them the very sweetest of journeys.

O Brave New World!

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I have recently developed a bit of a dietary fixation on bread pudding, much as a toddler might eat nothing but Cheerios one week followed by nothing but Barbie shoes the next.  I think unemployment brought it on; I was baking a lot, sometimes two or three complete projects in one day, and decided I was sick of cookies.  I forget the exact thought process that brought me to bread pudding, but it was a flash of genius, because I’ve always loved it. Unfortunately, my mama and my mama’s mama have passed on, so I hadn’t been running into a whole lot of bread pudding. So finding myself with a lot of free time and suddenly remembering bread pudding!!! was a bit of an epiphany.

Dude, I practically live on the shit.  I bake a bread pudding about every three days and usually give some to Ben, although I’m usually sorry I did afterward when I run out of bread pudding.  The part of the pudding I don’t give away lies in state in the fridge, awaiting the hour for the midnight snack.

Last night I headed to the fridge in the small hours and suddenly remembered there wasn’t any bread pudding left.  This is a lot like a junkie discovering he already finished that bindle after all, I’m betting.  I paced around for a few minutes in a funk, determined to have bread pudding or starve to death where I stood.

And this is where the deus ex machina comes in, because isn’t the Internet a bit of that? I adore the Internet, research junkie that I am, because I can get the answer to any question in seconds anytime, anywhere.  And any recipe.  So I Googled instant bread pudding and came back with a nearly perfect recipe which took me 10 minutes to throw together and which was perfectly serviceable. And then I marched my satisfied ass to bed. And here is the tweaked version of the recipe. Don’t skimp on the vanilla. Trust me.

Microwave Bread Pudding

  • 1 cup cubed bread, preferably sourdough or French (1-2 slices)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 half & half or cream (use milk only if there is no cream and you are absolutely jonesin’)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar (or you can skip this and use 3 TB of white sugar instead of 2)
  • Chocolate or butterscotch chips if desired; cinnamon if you must; fruit at your peril

(1) Put the bread in a fairly shallow, single-serving, microwave-safe bowl.

(2) Whisk together the egg, milk, vanilla, and sugar. Pour over the bread in the bowl, stirring gently to combine.

(3) Stir in chocolate chips and/or other add-ins if any

(4) Microwave for 3 minutes, uncovered. The very center can look slightly wet, but it shouldn’t be liquid.

(5) Remove from the microwave. Unless you are a complete oaf, serve piping hot in a shallow bowl with half & half poured over top and/or whipped cream.

(6) Put that fucking cinnamon down. I can see that.

Dorky Dilettante.

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Anyone who knows me well knows that the thing I love probably more than anything else — more than the NHL, more than Elvis Costello, perhaps more even than salted caramel mochas from Starbucks — is a research project.  I dive into them at the drop of a hat, and it’s impossible to stop me.  Anytime a question of information or trivia comes up in a conversation, and no one in the group knows the answer, I will inevitably frown and say Shit. Now I have to go research that. Because I truly do have to. I can’t help it.

This week, for instance, it started with the mystery snail eggs. One day last week I found a white sort of honeycomb-looking thing in my tank, sort of oval shaped, an inch and a half long. I knew immediately it was some sort of egg formation, but from which animals in the tank? Not the guppies, because they’re live bearers. I suspected the corydora catfish or the algae eaters, as cats are known to be egg layers. But none of the images I found looked right. Finally, at my wits’ end, I Googled honeycomb thing in my aquarium. This is how completely clueless I was. One of the links which resulted mentioned mystery snails, and I thought Hmm, I’ve got some of those.  I quickly concluded that mystery snail eggs were indeed what we had.  The water level in our tank was down a couple of inches from me forever sucking out water for the guppy fry, and as it transpires, these snails lay their eggs above the waterline.  If the tank is full, there is no space above the waterline and therefore no eggs.

The floating pod I found wasn’t viable, but I knew the snails had been fucking like bunny rabbits.  I knew this because just the other night Tony had wondered What the heck is that long thing coming out of the big snail?  And here we had thought they were playing piggyback all this time. Sure enough, I refrained from adding water to the tank and within two days there was another clump of eggs, and then another. I wondered how long they would take to hatch, the conditions under which the eggs must incubate, and what the babies would be like when they were born. I had absolutely no clue about breeding and husbandry of these things — I just plopped a few pretty snails into my tank to help keep it clean — but at times like these, my mom gene kicks in. There are living things in my care, and I need to know what to do for them. It’s automatic.

In the space of a couple of hours I’ve learned all about the anatomy of pomacea diffusa, which was once believed to be a subgenus of pomacea bridgesii but is really a separate species. I’ve learned how to sex the adults, both by the easy eyeball-the-shell-formation method and by the more tricky make-them-open-up-their-parts method. I know what the babies will look like: tiny snails, right from the time they crawl from their shells. I know that the mystery snail, also commonly known as the apple snail, is native in different subgenera to both South America and Asia, and that it is used in Taiwan for escargot. (Perhaps this is an idea for what to do with the baby snails. Beach Hippie Escargot!)

I know a bunch of stuff about a bunch of stuff which is absolutely useless except in my limited world — none of it will ever make me a dime, not my snail lore nor guppy rearing minutae nor hockey trivia nor my compulsion to keep statistics on matters so irrelevant as the win percentages in the endless games of gin rummy I play with Tony. (He’s kicking my ass.)

But damn it, the shit is fun. Every day I stumble across some piece of absolutely wonderful knowledge I hadn’t had before, just because I wondered about something and decided to research something instead of letting it go. I’m unemployed, and unemployed girls who fail to keep their minds and hands busy end up getting into trouble. So I read the job ads and send out resumes morning and afternoon, every day. I bake, and devise cool household and cosmetic things, and swear and rearrange and clean and putter. I do lots and lots of ultimately pointless research. What I’m not doing is lying around watching the Three Stooges in my pajamas all day. And if you ever develop a burning curiosity about the sexual apparatus of the apple snail, I can tell you everything you might wish to know.

Tightwad Goddess of the Kitchen.

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One of the changes I’m making in my life, in the face of a science-fiction economy and the dash of perspective that comes with arriving in midlife, is to get back to basics.  This is largely Tony’s influence; one of the first things I noticed, when I began spending a lot of time with him, is his diet.  He subsists on real things, old-fashioned things: real butter, full-fat mayonnaise.  He induced me to chuck the lowfat placebos out the window and get back to real foods, and it’s wonderful.  I’ve actually lost weight.

But it didn’t stop there.  When I moved into this house, I looked about for cleaning products — Tony was, after all, a bachelor for 15 years — and found that there weren’t many at all.  Not with brand names on them, anyway.  What I found was ammonia, bleach, vinegar and dish soap.  And I’ve found you can clean everything in the house with them, very cheaply and much more effectively than you can do with a bunch of specialty brand-label products.  Oh, and baking soda.  Hydrogen peroxide.  Except for the bleach and ammonia, all of these things clean humans fairly well, too.  I’ve started brushing my teeth with hydrogen peroxide every morning, followed by a peroxide rinse.  It kills germs and whitens teeth much better than anything you buy at Target.

So here I was on a roll, and again it didn’t stop there.  Last week I looked sadly at the $25 jar of 100% Pure Vanilla Bean sugar scrub sitting nearly empty in my shower.  I’m addicted to that stuff, and I can’t afford to buy it anymore.  And then I got to thinking:  Wait a minute.  Here I am paying through the nose for pricey “natural” products when I can make this shit!  So I got me some granulated sugar, olive and coconut oils, and some jasmine oil, and for about $2.50 put together a yummy and effective sugar scrub.  That’s a tenth of the price, babies.  So now I’m exploring homemade essential oils and perfumery — if I can develop some blends that are really delicious, this could be a cottage industry.  At the very least, I’ll be soft and smell great without spending $50 a week at Ulta.

And because I cannot afford it, I removed my acrylic fingernails and wiped away the last of the toenail polish.  Sad, but strangely liberating.

It’s a fistful of sacrifices, this frugal living thing, but I think we’re on a roll, and I think we’re going to keep it going.  It’s a more honest way of living on the earth; I hadn’t realized the extent to which I was buying into consumerism despite my general disdain for American pop culture.  Someday soon I will have money coming in again, but this time it’s going into the bank or for school instead of into the pockets of a lot of cosmetic companies and cleaning product manufacturers.

And now off to score some organic shredded coconut.  I have some oils and extracts to make, and I hear homemade coconut milk is wonderful for your hair.

Since You Brought It Up.

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I applied for a legal position and received the following e-mail in response:

Thank you for your resume.  Unfortunately, due to the errors in your resume, I will have to pass.  Otherwise you have nice skills.

To which I replied:

Delightful. Due to the errors in your e-mail and your remarkably pissy attitude, I’m happy you feel that way. Otherwise you have nice, if staggering, chutzpah.

You see how bad things have gotten? People don’t just chuck your resume in the bin — they take the time to write to you and insult you, first.