Archive for November, 2010

In the News: Cities, Notebook Love, and Presidential Proclamations

Technology (and the like)

» Scary fact: did you know the cell phone industry actually admits the health risks of cell phone radiation? Apparently this is not the stuff of conspiracy theorists anymore: Apple recommends holding your iPhone no closer than 5/8″ to your body, and BlackBerry recommends holding your phone a full inch away. Read more in Tom Philpott’s article: Is my smartphone making me dumb?

» Some “Tough Love” advice for having a better life: Americans need to stop multitasking while eating alone.

» The event already passed, but I really like the message behind Jimmy Kimmel’s National Unfriend Day. The idea is to restore meaning to the word ‘friend’ by cutting down on facebook friends who… well, aren’t actually your friends.

» The event already passed, but I really like Jimmy Kimmel’s “National Unfriend Day.” The idea is to cut down on facebook “friends” who… aren’t actually your friends. Heck, you can do this anytime and restore some meaning to the word ‘friend’.

» Read a good paperback recently? I like this down-to-earth ‘best books’ list from The Guardian (via The EarlyWord)

Pen | Paper | Ink | DIY

» Etsy, how I love thee. Check out their recommendations for keeping analog time in 2011 – nothing digital about it.

» Jonathan Safran Foer, I love you and your unmakeable book more than Etsy.

» I hate to bash NaNoWriMo so soon after writing a positive post about it, but I’m just so in agreement with this article that I had to share.

» DIY Love: Social activists have long protested the consumerism of Black Friday by celebrating Buy Nothing Day instead, but I’m even MORE supportive of this new (more positive) approach: Make Something Day.

» Ooh, lovely burgundies, wines, and maroons:  Ink Mixing with J. Herbin’s Anniversary Ink (via Writer’s Bloc)

» Hooray, two of my favorite things: Notebooks and gardening!

» I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but Rhodia/Clairefontaine/Exaclair have some of the best customer service and genuine grassroots marketing. Ever.

Rurality | Urbanism

» Poor urbanites: apparently New Yorkers are the most stressed Americans since the economy collapsed – but not because they’re doing worse than other parts of the country (they’re not). It’s because the city doesn’t offer effective ways to deal with stress. (via Daily News)

» But! This whole city-stress phenomenon may not be unique to New York. A recent study showed that the overstimulated atmosphere cities had a negative impact on attention span, memory, and on mood in general. (via CNN)

» Somehow I find the idea of “Proclamations” adorably antiquated, but this one I can get behind: Obama declared November 19-25th “Farm-City Week”

» Whoa whoa whoa – Kentucky canceled a coal plant?

Miscellaneous Cultural Fun!


A Brief Stint as a Holiday Food Writer

Literally The Best Apple Pie Ever (Scroll down for the recipe)

We celebrate Thanksgiving with a pie-baking day at the office. During yesterday’s wind-whipped afternoon the kitchen was filled with nine women, cases of apples, a row of cutting stations and scattered rolling pins, handfuls of cinnamon and bowls of lemon juice. And lots of wine (which can be risky if you find yourself in the row of cutting stations).

Feasting may make a brain sluggish, but it’s always worth taking a step back from celebrations. Personally, I find it hard to strike a balance between good cheer and dealing with the aspects of Thanksgiving that I don’t support. Like (for example) the way that it gets used in elementary schools to perpetuate a myth about peaceful Indian-Colonist potluck dinners. Or the way that it promotes the image of an idealized, nuclear family: why does Dad carve the turkey if Mom prepared most of the food? The whole image is always a tiny bit awkward for anyone who isn’t married, or who isn’t straight.

I think those things are important to remember (even just subconsciously) when you pause for those Thanksgiving moments of reflection.

In any case, I definitely support Good Cheer. And I hope a sense of awareness, gratefulness, and graciousness spreads throughout everybody’s year. (I realize Thanksgiving is usually not a holiday for wishing, but eh!)

I also support pies, so here’s a recipe for Literally The Best Apple Pie Ever.

» Literally The Best Apple Pie Ever «

A combination of my dad’s semi-famous apple pies, and my foodie co-workers.

The Crust

Sometimes, storebought is just as good as homemade.

…when it comes to pie crust, this is not the case.

A flaky-crumbly-golden-crisp-crust is the difference between a B- pie and an A+ pie, and unfortunately, you can’t get it in the freezer aisle. It turns out that making your own crust doesn’t actually take much time at all, especially if you make the dough a day or two before and store in the fridge until you’re ready to bake.

The trick to a perfect crust is to use both shortening and butter: the shortening helps it to be firmer and crumbly, while the butter makes it flaky and golden. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of ice water! My brief lesson in dough-science yesterday taught me that the dough has to stay cold until right before it goes in the oven in order to get that beautiful flaky separation. If the dough gets warm when you’re mixing it, or if you take it out of the fridge too early, the butter begins to absorb the flour and they won’t separate into flaky goodness while baking.

You’ll need:

  • 2 ¼ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 10 tablespoons butter (soft, but not melted)
  • 8 tablespoons shortening
  • 6 to 8 tablespoons of ice water (I’ve heard you can substitute one spoonful of water with a spoonful of cider vinegar, though I’m not sure why)

Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Then cut in the butter, shortening, and ice water– and take care not to overmix! Pie crust is not a smooth, whippy dough; it should be more bulky and just barely mixed up. Then wrap your dough in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for 20 minutes (or overnight, or whatever).

The Filling

For this recipe, I’m sticking with a basic apple filling. In Advanced Pie 301, we can move on to subtle flavor additions like ginger, cranberries or bourbon, but for now we’ll have our bourbon on the side.

Selecting Apples

Some cooks like to combine different apple varieties to create a more complex flavor. You can use whatever combination you prefer, but the thing to remember is that you want to use apple varieties that are firm enough to cook beautifully without losing their shape or structure. We don’t want no apple sludge.

In general this means you should stay away from any apple variety that you would eat for lunch, such as Red Delicious or Gala. They tend to be softer and sugary-er, and don’t bake well.

The best varieties for apple pies are firmer and tarter: Granny Smith apples are a reliable choice, but I would recommend getting organic because I’ve found that the non-organic ones are weirdly tasteless and sour at the same time. If you want to branch out past Granny Smith, try varieties like Jonathan, Jonagold or Honeycrisp. A lot of cooks swear by Pippins, but they’re smaller which can make peeling difficult. I’ve also good heard things about Winesap, Northern Spy, and Pink Lady.

The consistency of the filling is not an exact science, but it shouldn’t be too watery, or too thick like canned preserves. The juices surrounding the apple slices should be the consistency of a silky syrup, with just a bit pooling in the bottom of your mixing bowl. You’ll probably develop an instinct about your preferred filling so the measurements below are just approximate.

You will need:

  • 8 to 9 apples (don’t skimp on this! You need more apples than you think to stuff a perfect pie)
  • Lemon juice (I recommend using a couple of Meyer lemons; they have a more complex flavor)
  • A couple teaspoons of tapioca powder (this is another addition from yesterday; before I would have used corn starch)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 4-6 teaspoons cinnamon

Peel and slice your apples. Thinner slices will create a dense pie with the crust resting on top of the apples, while thicker slices will collapse and leave the top crust domed. Both pies are pretty, so it’s just a matter of preference.

In a large bowl, add the juice from the Meyer lemons to the apple slices immediately. If you’re a slow peeler, you might want to add the lemon juice to the  sliced apples earlier on.

So add all your spices, and use a big paddle spoon to mix everything up. Make sure you keep pulling the juices from the bottom of the bowl upwards, coating everything evenly. If you need to pour off some of the juice, do so.

Preparing and Cooking the Pie

You will need:

  • 3 or 4 pats of butter (¼ inch thick)
  • 1 egg, beaten

Take your dough out of the fridge and split it in half, putting one half back in the fridge. Make sure you’re using flour to coat the rolling pin and the counter surface. Now roll out your dough as evenly as possible, aiming for 1/8 inch thickness and creating a large, round shape.

To get the crust onto the pie dish: Make sure both the dough and your hands are coated in flour, and maybe you have a cute smudge of flour on your cheek in case someone takes a picture. Fold the dough in half, then pick it up and lay it over half of the pie dish. Unfold and gently adjust so that it’s molded to the dish. This method was another trick from yesterday and it helps to avoid stretching or tearing the crust.

Now pile in your filling. Like literally. Heap it as high as you can. Gently place the pats of butter on top of your apple-mountain.

Take the second half of your dough out of the fridge and roll it out using the same method as before. Transfer it onto your apple-mountain using the handy-dandy folding tip.

Depending on how much excess dough you have hanging off the sides of your pie dish, you may have to trim. Ideally, you want 3-ish inches of dough around the edges. If you do trim, cut the layers of crust together, using the knife to press them together as you cut.

Now, going around the edge of your pie, roll both layers of excess crust underneath and tuck them into the edge of the pie dish. The idea is to seal in your filling so that the top and bottom crust don’t separate while cooking.

Once you’ve done this step, go around the edge again and pinch the rolled part together every half inch or so. That’s how you get those beautiful magazine crust edges.

Using a knife or a fork, make ventilation holes in a pretty pattern. Maybe a smiley face. Then brush the egg onto the top crust thoroughly, but not thickly.

Oh right, you should’ve preheated your oven to 400°.

Assuming that you read the recipe all the way through before starting to cook, your oven should already be hot and you can finally begin to bake! And then make your roommate or spouse do the dishes while you rest and munch on cinnamon-sprinkled apple peels.

Bake at 400° for 10 or 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375° for the rest of the cooking time – another half hour or so. Your pie is ready when the innards begin to bubble out of the ventilation holes.

When that happens, take your pie out of the oven, let it cool, and feast.

Observations on Watercolor

I’ve got artist’s block. Maybe it’s because my muse is away, or maybe it’s because my budget leans more towards loan payments than new Daniel Smith paints, but either way — watercolor painting is not coming easy to me these days.

On the other hand, it may not be a mental thing at all; I might just be clashing with a new paper. For the past few years I’ve used Arches blocks, and before that I mostly stuck with various Strathmore papers or Canson student-grade paper. But recently I’ve been working on Fabriano Artistico 140 lb cold press paper, and perhaps I haven’t adjusted to the new texture.

…either that or I’ve spontaneously lost all my skill and/or talent.

In order to resolve any doubts about my adequacy as an artist, I decided to go back to the basics. For me, that means getting watercolor-tunnel-vision, which I’ve maintained for over a week now (it’s beginning to give me a headache).

Speaking of which: Has anybody actually read all the way through’s watercolor section? Like, thoroughly? Watercolor artists know the website as one of the most thorough resources (web OR print) for everything everything watercolor; from color theory to brand comparisons of brushes and paper, the experience is like reading a friggin’ textbook, complete with lightwave diagrams and the molecular structures of pigments.

Anyways, expect a lot of geeky paint posts coming up, including (hopefully!) a paper comparison review.

Spots, Nooks, and Spaces – The Porch

Sometimes I like to show off little corners I’ve found: places with good feng shui, places that invite you to curl up in them. View my previous posts here: Part 1Part 2Part 3.

The porch

“I do not, indeed, commend it for any beauty, per se, but as being an honest, well-intended shelter and resting-place, which could be grafted upon many an old-style farm-house, with bare door, and set off its barrenness, with quaint, simple lines of hospitality, that would add more to the real effect of the home than a cumbrous series of joiner’s arches of tenfold its cost.”

From “The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste” by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams

Have I mentioned how much I love porches? (Because, I really love porches). They’re beautiful architecturally but also important socially: a town with porches is a town where people talk to each other. And houses with porches are inviting; they allow mobility. They’re open.

No wonder those European nobles liked to build castles instead.

Bonus Reading:

This interview with Paula Wallace, author of Perfect Porches (hee!)

Porch Appeal, an article by architect James M. Crisp

How did the front porch become so popular?

The First Change Was Seasonal

Boulder’s had a seriously extended summer: I’ve been wearing tank tops until this past Monday.

But when you walk home in snow and wake up to pretty frost patterns, it’s hard to deny that cold weather is upon us.

All That – In The News!

Technology and Modern Life

  • Apparently smartphone users don’t download health-related apps. Wait, actually, I don’t have a health-related app on my smartphone! Does this mean that smartphone users don’t care about their health? In my case, it just means that I prefer to handle my health in the real world, where, you know, my body lives.
  • Pen and Ink bloggers were spreading this article a few weeks ago: How Twitter made handwriting cool. But the article doesn’t actually answer the question in the title (good lesson for article-writing, kids!). Instead, the article pits “notebookers and stationary fetishists” and “social networking, commenting and blogging” on opposite sides of “a modern social divide.” And frankly, this is just incorrect– but that will have to wait for its own post.
  • Apparently men with liberal arts degrees are fairly screwed, professionally speaking. This is a good example of how sexism affects both women and men. Those poor artsy boys…
  • So smart people are more likely to use drugs. Despite the titillating headline, the real point of the article is that in terms of evolution, intelligence doesn’t lead to healthy choices; it leads to innovative ones. Setting evolution aside for a moment, I think there’s a more important social meaning to this, in terms of today’s society. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the War on Drugs tends to punish drug users more than drug lords. Despite the inspirational posters in elementary schools, our society does not reward thinking outside the box (of capitalism, of a two-party political system, etc). When it comes to drugs, drug lords are thinking inside the box: they’re making money through exploitation and dependence. (Capitalism at its finest!) Drug users, on the other hand, are a problem because they reveal deep vulnerabilities in the United States: racial oppression, and the threat of innovative intelligence.

Rurality and Urbanism

Airport Exercises for Writers

Being something of a shy girl, you’d think that airports would overwhelm me the same way that theme parks and state fairs do. But airports are some of my favorite places, especially the teeny tiny local ones and the big international ones. They’re a writer’s dream: basically a full cast of characters to pick and choose from.

Airport Exercises for Writers

Look at the makeup of the crowds waiting at each gate. Study the general differences between gates and imagine what that says about the place. For example: On my recent flight, there was a disproportionately high presence of camo and hunting boots at the gate to Akron, OH.

Try to guess who’s visiting that place and who’s flying home. A lot of the people flying from Denver to Ohio had small babies. It turns out that a lot of young couples move to Colorado, but have to take the baby to visit their parents back East. Maybe this shows that we as a culture still have an idealized view about “moving out West” to make a fresh start, or to get away from family…

When you book your flight, schedule a leisurely layover. Think about it this way: you may spend a whole day in airports but you won’t rush to catch a flight, and you can use the extra time as professional development. Grab a drink at the bar, set up in a central area, and…

Watch. Airports are emotional places. People say goodbye, part ways, start new lives, reunite with old friends. Watch those stories unfold, and make sure to record as much detail as possible.

Eavesdrop. People don’t really read anymore when they’re waiting for a flight; they talk on their phone. Oftentimes, they talk about the trip from which they’re returning (or on which they are embarking). On my flight back to Colorado, a group of six black women with leopard-print luggage, obviously close friends, were discussing their friend’s son who had either a) committed suicide or b) been institutionalized (couldn’t quite figure out which). Apparently this kid’s dad had experienced similar problems, and they wondered if it was genetic; mostly, they talked about how their friend (the mother) should have dealt with the situation, and how she should deal with it now.

Use your flight to write. It’s the ideal setup for a writer: no internet for distractions, a handy tray that doubles as a desk, and snacks served right to you.

Art adventures, literary hangovers, rural politics and other songs worth sharing.

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