Gargoyle Cats

Benson and Lavash, doing their gargoyle impression on the table:

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Cats:  on the lookout for dangerous (that is, any and all) foods.  It’s a tough job, but they’ll happily do it.

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A Non-Rushed Birthday Cake

The rains a couple of weekends ago gave me the perfect opportunity to bake Yakum’s birthday cake without rushing.  

Yep, she just turned 10.  Wow, I feel old.

Initially, she thought she would want an angel food cake, but after my birthday, she decided she wanted a repeat of that flavor combination.  OK, we’ll call it mint-limeade, no problem.

Again, the cakes baked up beautifully:  two nine inch layers, and two six inch.  I used tapioca starch for the icing this time (instead of corn starch) which was…interesting.  Tapioca makes for a base that is more extensible and mucilaginous than the corn starch.  Yep, it was basically lime-flavored slime that tried to climb the beaters until enough butter had gotten worked in to counteract some of its stickier tendencies.  Also, since I was able to go slowly and put things in the refrigerator from time to time to keep them cool, it came together far more smoothly than I was expecting.

I could have done a slightly more even base coat, but I didn’t want to overdo the icing.  I tried to do a yellow line around the top edge of the larger layers (to go with the thick yellow rope at the bottom), but by that point the icing had almost completely melted and separated, but I had so little left I couldn’t re-beat it into shape, so the line had to come off…well, most of it (remember about the sticky tapioca starch base?  Yep, still sticky after the butter melts out).  The lettering is also off kilter a little (her name around the side of the six inch layers turned out great, though), but everyone was quite happy with the outcome.  Especially Yakum, which is what really matters.

A Year Since Leaving Liberia

We left Liberia at the end of our tour there a little over a year ago.  In celebration, the weather decided to give us a little reminder:

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St. Francis looks a little wet

The above was taken about six hours after the storm started.  Below, about 24 after the start of the rain.

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St. Francis looks really wet.

So, it wasn’t quite Liberian rain, since it did let up periodically throughout the day and you could actually see through it, rather than it being white-out conditions.  That, and it’s a cold, rather than at least tepid, rain.  Still, it was enough to serve as a nice reminder.

Believe it or not, I miss the place a little bit every so often.  Not all of the problems (and boy, were there problems), but the people were wondeful, and there’s still no compare to a truly fresh pineapple or mango.  I think all foriegn service officers have a bit of this nostalgia for almost all their postings, even the toughest ones.  The country, people, and culture make an impression which sticks with you, even when you’re back in the comforts of the U.S., or on to a new country and culture.  The challenge is to keep the good memories, hopefully learn from the challenges, and keep on going while growing wiser from the experiences without compromising who your are at core.

The Spiritual Clue-By-Four

So, I can be somewhat dense.  OK, really dense sometimes, and slow to pick up on hints from other people.  I like to chalk it up to the fact that my day job is usually having meetings and then dissecting exactly what was said to find the nuance, subtext, sub-subtext, and innuendo contained therein.  It gets a bit mentally taxing, so when I get home my brain is ready to just take the surface meaning of things and leave it at that.  Luckily, my kids aren’t to third-level message-conveying yet.  My wonderful, patient wife puts up with my slowness and will be more straightforward when I’ve had a challenging day.

Fortunately, God knows this, too, and has taken to hitting me over the head with a clue-by-four when I need it.  In Liberia we would often laugh about the fact that every time I would wonder about if the church needed support with X, the next mass would feature an announcement asking for assistance, or the pastor would approach us with a request.  It sort of happened this year with teaching CCD.  I had wondered about if teaching CCD would be something I should do, and sure enough, they announced the need for volunteers soon thereafter.

So, that brings me to today.  The Extraordinary Form Gospel (Mt 7:15-21) includes the passage about knowing people by their fruits.  Our pastor focused his homily on how to produce good fruits, rather than bad, so that we do the will of the Father and can enter the kingdom of heaven.  Timely because some of the examples of the bad fruits that he used cut a little close to home.  Also timely because his solution was to pray, every day, that your guardian angel watches over you and gives you a little spiritual tweak of the tail to keep your from sinning.  I’ve been struggling a lot recently with losing my temper.  Just this past week, though, I’ve tried using the Guardian Angel prayer before speaking.  When I remember, it’s helped.  Again, the clue-by-four to let me know that I’m on the right track.

At least my Guardian Angel uses a gentle hand with the clue-by-four; if I really got what was coming to me, I’d be knocked flat all the time.

Birthday Cakes Ought Not to be Rushed

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Not too pretty, but tasty!

But if you do need to rush one, make sure it’s your own.

I baked my birthday cake last week.  The day before my birthday.  Sure, my wife would have happily done so, but she has been equally as busy as I have, and this way I get to blame any errors on myself.

I will say up front that the presentation on this one was sub-par, but flavor wise I think I nailed it.  It’s a three-layer six-inch mojito cake.  Mojitos have become somewhat of a running joke with my team at work because I’ve given mint (yes, the mint that is trying to take over the world, or at least the garden) to half of them.  Not just a couple of sprigs, either.  In one case, several plants (she asked for it…no, really) and the other several large bundles, tied up and left hanging on a computer monitor.  So, mojitos are sort of a joke because what else do you do with all that mint?  My brilliant idea was to make a mojito cake.  I went around and around about if it should be a mint cake with lime frosting, or lime cake with mint frosting, or some fusion of both in either the cake or the frosting.  I settled on using the Classic Vanilla Butter Cake from Serious Eats and using 5 grams of mint extract with 10 grams vanilla.  If I had planned farther in advance, I could have tucked some mint leaves in the sugar and infuse the flavor that way, but I didn’t plan for it, so that didn’t happen.  Maybe next time.  Still, the cake…wow.  Definitely will be my go-to cake recipe.  Even after being left uncovered at room temperature for almost a day (in a cat-proof location, of course), it was still very moist and flavorful.  Now, the recipe makes a three-layer eight inch cake, and I went for a six inch.  The remaining batter turned into cupcakes for work.  They got baked for about 20 minutes, and came out perfect.

For the frosting, I did a lime version of ermine frosting, very similar to this Seriously Citrus Buttercream from Jenni Field’s Pastry Chef Online.  Springboarding from this recipe, I used a 6:6:6:1 ratio of lime juce:sugar:butter:corn starch.  In essence, the cornstarch, juice, and sugar get cooked together to make a pudding, then, once cooled to room temperature, beaten in to some whipped butter to make a buttercream frosting. I wound up using 12 oz of juice, sugar, and butter and two of corn starch.  Again, wow.  A very citrus flavor that mellowed a bit over night.  The cupcakes got frosted at work the day of my birthday (frosting packed in a disposable pastry bag over night; by the time I made it to work, it had warmed to piping temperature), and they were a hit.

The cupcake format seemed to have just the right balance of lime and mint.  The cake…well, remember how I said it was rushed?  I frosted it the evening of my birthday, after we had finished dinner.  I neglected to level the layers, and hadn’t

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This is what happens when you don’t level your cake layers.

given the frosting enough time to come fully to room temperature.  By the time it did, though, it was pretty melty, but I didn’t have the time to pop it in and out of the freezer to keep everything chilled and solid.  So, an uneven coat of frosting, and the cake slices were lacking structural stability (since they weren’t leveled to begin with).  Nothing fancy on the top, just a swirl and some mint leaves.  Also, even though the slices were pretty thin, they were a little overwhelming.  Maybe too much icing, and the mint in the cake was a little too retiring to take on the lime.

Next time I try this (and there will be a next time), I’ll probably go 7 grams of mint and 8 grams of vanilla to bring the mint flavor forward more, especially against the very assertive lime.  I might also cut back the icing, or dilute the citrus with just a little bit of water (maybe sub out one ounce?) to make it a little less in-your-face.  Like I said, though, presentation was lacking but the taste was pretty close to spot on.

Cat in the Middle…

…of everything.  Or at least, the middle of the kitchen.

Benson’s newest favorite spot in the late afternoon/early evening is in a sunbeam. A sunbeam that falls right in front of the stove in our very small, narrow kitchen.

Why yes, this is my sunbeam.

He’s settled here partly because we’re keeping the blinds on the large window closed in the afternoon to keep the sunshine from heating up the house too much. Of course, this limits the number of sunbeams that make their way in, so the cats have to find their solar charge where they can get it. I think the other reason he’s settled in right in the middle of everything is due to his inherent cat-ness. Cats are masters at geometry, and can find the exact middle of the shortest path between two points and plop themselves down in it to frustrate, that is, help their people.

See, the middle is right here. This is the shortest path between the stove and the sink. You’re welcome.

Benson also likes being around when we’re cooking in case there’s a stray morsel of food that gets dropped, a bunch of kale that needs to be hunted, or some eggshells that need to be batted out of the sink. He’s a useful cat that way.

I’m waiting…any kale for me to attack?

All this helping is hard work. I’ll just have to take a nap right here so I don’t miss anything.

 

The Pits…Cherry Pits, That Is.

The farmers’ market has exploded with produce in the past two weeks, and sour cherries have made their appearance (along with apricots, sweet cherries, and lots of other great fruits).  Inspired by the selection,I decided I needed to make a clafoutis.  This is a quick dessert that comes from France–think baked pancake with fruit in it.  Essentially, its a thick crepe batter (or thin pancake batter without leavening) that you pour over cherries (usually) and bake until set.  Texture-wise, it sort of comes out custardy, rather than cake-like.

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The main issue with cherries is how to deal with the pits. Sure, you can just spit out the pit if you eat them one by one, but for a pie or other cooked use, you’ve got to decide how to pit them. Yes, I know, traditionally with a clafoutis you leave the pits in for the theoretical almond flavor that the pits are supposed to infuse into the baked good, but…I find it highly doubtful that you’d get much almond flavor, especially since they aren’t cracked (it’s the internal kernel that provides the compounds, I understand). Also, younger kids have a hard time handling the pits in a baked dish, and I don’t much fancy cracking a tooth on one.

So, how to handle the tedious task of pitting cherries. We don’t own a cherry pitter since it’s a uni-tasker, and don’t have room for it given how rarely we are in a place with cherries, much less olives we’d have to pit to use. I’ve used a bench knife to flatten the fruit and pick out the pits before—it’s messy, but works. The internets suggested using a bent paperclip to dig out the pit. Also, since a pitter works by pushing the seed out, I looked around and thought that maybe a decorating tip could also work. I decided to compare a closed star tip, a round tip, and a paperclip.DSC05238

The paperclip tore the cherries apart, and wasn’t all that quick. The first round decorating tip also made a mess of the cherries, but was marginally quicker. The closed star did a great job, especially once I got in a rhythm. I put the tip on my thumb, rested the cherry with the stem between my index and middle fingers, and pushed the seed through. The problem was the tines of the star started to bend. I switched to a #5 round tip, which did the job perfectly. The cherries stayed whole for the most part, and the pits came right through.DSC05241

I’m pretty pleased with the end result: a sour cherry clafouti without the risk of cracked teeth and topped with mascarpone cheese thinned with a little milk so it could mound up like whipped cream.DSC05246

3rd Sunday After Pentecost: The Roaring Lion

My parish added a Sunday Extraordinary Form (that is, traditional Latin) mass (in addition to the Saturday Vigil and three on Sunday in English, plus the Spanish).  We had a beautiful Missa Cantata this morning for the third Sunday after Pentecost.  The kids all did a pretty good job, and are getting into the rhythm of the mass very well.  While I have printed out a hand missal, and the Propers from Extraordinary Form.org, it’s getting much easier just to go with the flow of the prayers, rather than obsess about where you are in the book.  So, we’re getting there.  This morning, Quarta was trying to chant along with the Credo, which was charming.

Also, our pastor gave an excellent homily.  I had expected him to unpack the gospel (Lk 15: 1-10, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin), but rather, he started with the Epistle (1 Peter 5: 6-11, which is also said weekly during Compline) with the warning to watch and be sober because the devil is prowling about, roaring like a lion seeking prey.  Sober meaning not to get so excited about things of this world that we lose sight of Heaven, and get distracted, because that’s what the devil wants.  Just like a lion that roars to startle his prey, then sneaks up in silence, the devil gets us distracted by things, then pounces.  The way to maintain this sobriety is to remain joined with Christ on the cross through voluntary penance, which sharpens our conscience.  The gospel closes with a line about the angels in Heaven rejoicing over one sinner who is doing penance, that is, who is continually turning and converting to God.  As our pastor pointed out, penance isn’t about pain and suffering, it’s about conversion back to God, which all of us need on a daily basis.  We have to work at it, but the rewards are great indeed, resting in the peace of Christ, and safe from eternal damnation.

 

My Wife is Brilliant

I’m incredibly lucky that we married each other 13 years ago today.  Not only does she have her Ph.D, and teach middle school-aged students English literature and grammar (which makes her brave, too), she’s also figured out a way to motivate our children to get through their very minimal chores each day during summer break.

Both Yakum and Ikinji love to read.  As in, cannot (or will not) put down the book, magazine, pamphlet, or whatever else they picked up at the time that has printing on it unless and until you break through their concentration and pull them out of whatever it is they are reading at the time.  And if you don’t pull them all the way out, they’ll fall back in.  And they wonder why it can take hours for us to get ready to go anywhere.

In any case, rather than offering a monetary reward for getting through everything each day (and it isn’t all that much–if they would focus, and not dawdle, they could be through all of their chores in all of 45minutes, max), they are being encouraged by the opportunity to check out more books from the library.  Each day, when I come home from work, they show me their list of chores, and, if they’ve done them all (as noted by my wife), I give them a checkmark.  Each checkmark for the week translates into an extra fiction book they can check out during the weekly library trip.  No checkmarks and they still get one fiction and one non-fiction book, but no more than that.

Yakum has really latched on to the system.  Friday, she was almost upset that I didn’t actually get a chance to physically checkmark her list, even though we verbally confirmed she had earned it.  Ikinji a little less so, but once he figures out that the chores go quickly and the extra books are worth it, he’ll be right up there, too.  The sheer brilliance of the system is that if they get too sucked in to the extra books to do their chores, they get fewer books.  It self-limits in a way, and directly links the reward to getting the problematic behavior under control.

See, I told you my wife is brilliant.  Here’s to many, many more years together!

Roses!

The threat to shovel prune seems to have scared the rose into blooming.

Either that or it was the fertilizer and compost.

It’s a typical wild rose:  Single (that is, five petaled) blooms, and an incredible fragrance.  Oh, and thorns.  Lots and lots of thorns.

The thorns make it good for birds to hide in, though.  In addition to the adolescent robin above, I’ve seen a few nuthatches hide in there, and at least once a flycatcher.

Now that I’m going to keep it, I need to do something about the powdery mildew, the caterpillars eating the leaves, and the other unidentified insects that are playing havoc with it.

No aphids yet, but I’d bet that’s the next plague to strike.