Thursday, April 17, 2014

Awesome tips from teh Interweb

The Internet is teeming with creativity and enthusiasm. To any blogger out there, this must be a given fact. 
I know it is to me, and delving into it and embracing its openness - usually in its nerdiest declinations, be it fanart or fanfiction or my very own playgrounds, crafting and baking - is my favourite way to restore my sometimes dwindling love for, and fascination with, people in general. 

Sure, there's bound to be the occasional riot, usually about a few persistent sore spots such as intellectual property etc. 
A famous, well-respected creative guru snapping at the online community for no discernible reason is sure to elicit lots of drama, and from time to time the issue of "Internet envy" is resurrected (and discussed ad nauseam) as one "pro" blogger or the other is knocked off the pedestal. 
We all have our ego and there's no denying that.

Still, the blogosphere at large is made of generous, dedicated people who selflessly share their breakthroughs without any thought of getting something in return. 

As perusers, we easily recognize the effort that goes into developing a recipe from scratch, and admire the creativity of a whole new design or presentation. Such skills may even get the blogger some well-deserved recognition. 
There are times, though, when a blogger's credit lies in sharing tips, tricks and tutorials. Such contributions won't cause anyone to drop their jaw in wonderment, and most of the times we'd be hard-pressed to remember whom we got them from. Yet their tips we put to use again and again, until we come to recognize that "something I read somewhere on the Internet" made our life much easier.        
Those people are the real, unsung heroes of the online community, much as good teachers (mind you, the key word here is good) tend to be in the "real" world. 

Today I'm going to showcase a few instances were a trick I read online taught me a better or easier way to do something. 
I could list many more ofc, but this is enough for one post!

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Baking potatoes, now, is one of those skills that are usually taken for granted, like roasting  a chicken or boiling eggs. Anyone knows how to do it, but oh so few know how to do it well - and the lucky few, they might not even be aware of how big a difference it makes, and how precious their knowledge would be to the rest of us. They'll probably tell you they "do it the usual way" like their Ma used to, and that will be that. 

Back to our potatoes - the article I linked might sound overkill, but it really takes all the guesswork out of baking them. Thanks to it, my baked potatoes have gone from "good enough" to "simply perfect every single time" - and given my utter love of potatoes, this is saying something! 


(I swear there are potatoes under all the melty cheese btw. As for the crocheted Rincewind mousie, that's just me being my usual geeky self...)

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Aaand... it's potatoes again! Seriously, I can't get enough of them!
My trip to England back in November did nothing to assuage my baked potatoes obsession, this much I can tell you!

Whereas the previous trick works well with huge potatoes that will turn all nice and fluffy in the oven, this one from Closet Cooking is perfect for very small ones, and makes them delightfully crispy. 
You only need to pick your poison!



All but one of the potatoes I used were the purple variety btw, but once boiled they turned a dull grey. They taste every bit as good as the regular ones, but next time I won't bother with the li'l pricey beasts - they're just not worth it!

Also, there is no bacon on my potatoes OMG. I must have been out of my mind. 
But, I sprinkled crunchy fried onion crisps on top. Can we still be friends? Pwetty pwease? 

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For our next awesome tip we move away from potatoes, and on to pizza! Or rather, French bread pizza - three words that most of my fellow Italians wouldn't be able to pronounce without sneering, provided of course that they knew what they mean.
I do, as a matter of fact, like it better than regular pizza, which tends to be much of a hit-or-miss thing with me - I'll either love it altogether, or utterly despise it. 

Here's where the catch is, I guess: I can get crazy demanding before I grant my seal of approval to a regular pizza, whereas all I ask of its French bread-based cousin is for the bread itself not to be all soggy and yukky. 
Easier said than done, though - one might be lead to believe that a nasty, damp crust is the price to be paid for taking a shortcut instead of making your own dough. 

Well, no more! Because Mel, a self-professed soggybreadphobe, found out a way to prevent such plague, and was good enough to share it with the world. 
I have made French bread pizza "her way" twice, and it turned out perfect both times! 

First time around I used homemade garlicky cauliflower sauce as a base, then topped it all with crumbled Stilton, some leftover Gouda, and of course bacon...


...while the second time I got a bit lazy (lazier, that is!) and used a storebought tomato/aubergine condiment, which I then rounded up nicely with aged Cheddar cheese and more aubergines in oil.


Needless to say, I liked the cheesier one better! 

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Easter is nearly upon us, so this is the perfect time to introduce this awesome guide to stealing candy!

Kids everywhere should raise their praise to Jessie Oleson Moore, the CakeSpy's secret identity. 
Dessert scholar and artist extraordinaire (I should know - I own one of her paintings! HA!), she has also been an accomplished candy thief since childhood. Who would have guessed?
Then again, candy stealing is a form of art in itself... 


See? No indication of tampering whatsoever!

In conscience, though, I'm not sure it is right to teach kids how to steal candy. It is, understand... the ethics of it that I question. 

Because frankly, if a kiddo aged six or more needs online tutoring on the matter, he/she simply does not deserve candy. 
My generation sure needed no such prompting! Why, we were more than capable of coming up with three different plans in a single afternoon!

I'm sorry about this, but I really think there's much to be said for ancient Sparta's approach to pedagogy. (*)

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Finally, two tips that need no pic-posting on my part, because they're pretty much self-explanatory: 

- How to boil eggs perfectly, every time. I stated before it's more easily said than done, but The Kitchn comes to the rescue... time tables and everything!

- How to peel bananas like monkeys do. Not much to add, really. Ooooook! 

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DISCLAIMER: I am of course aware that plenty of similar tutorials are popping up on other blogs and on Pinterest. I have no way of knowing which one came first - nor the steam to try and ascertain it, frankly. 
So while I can in no way guarantee that the ones I linked are THE Ur-posts about each respective topic, this are where I picked the tips up from first, so it is to their authors that I'll be forever grateful for many delicious lunches to come!

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(*)  Now before the International Educators Commitee sends in the thugs, or some righteous mom flames me in the comments: it's called irony, peeps. Give it a try sometimes!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Gluten-Free Buckwheat/Almond Meal "Patronus" Cake

It's Gluten-Free Week over at the Kitchen Overlord's place, which was a tough theme for me - I'm neither celiac not gluten-intolerant, thus I've never been overly motivated to research this particular branch of cooking. 
Closest I ever got was half-heartedly baking a couple things for a colleague who is mildly sensitive to gluten (and doesn't even love sweets that much, I might add), but in those instances I merely bought the outrageously expensive specialty "flour" that comes with starch and metyl cellulose and stuff already mixed in. 

Buckwheat flour, though - it's a waning ingredient, yet it is rooted deep enough in the Italian tradition (in Piedmont especially) that even I have done a bit of experimenting with it in the past. I love it because of its distinctive, very rustic quality - absence of gluten notwithstanding!


This cake uses buckwheat as its main "grain", plus almond meal and chopped, toasted almonds for added body and texture. Although whipped egg whites are folded in the batter for a bit more volume, it doesn't rise much - but if you like your cakes dense, hearty and nutty, you'll enjoy it for sure. Even if you're no celiac, I promise!

Please head HERE for the full recipe!

(I gave my cake a stenciled stag/buck head in honour of Harry Potter's Patronus btw. Cheeky, or what?)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

[T&T] Bar Harbor New England Style Clam Chowder

I purchased this can of Bar Harbor New England Style Clam Chowder, like, ages ago (thank God these things keep forever!) and finally decided to give it a try today, before the weather changes for good and pushes soup out of my mind for a further six months.

It was an impulse buy in the first place, as I wasn't looking for clam chowder specifically - to be honest I hadn't even heard about it at the time. 
But it sounded interesting and yummy, and the can's so stylish and pretty that I couldn't help wanting it!

Bar Harbor New England clam chowder

The blurb on the label goes:

All-natural seafood speaks for itself. 
The taste of wind, weather, and clear cold water; it's not a flavor that needs improving. We create our New England Clam Chowder in small batches, like people on the Maine coast have been doing for generations - loaded with juicy clams and simple, all-natural ingredients. It's as close to fresh off the docks of Maine as you can get without being here.
Bar Harbor is a special place. You can taste it!

Sooo... Not only I got myself an American staple, but one from New England! That mythical place that is and will always be, in my mind, peopled by the likes of Hester Prynne and the Deep Ones, Gordon Pym and the Pequod crew, not to mention every Stephen King character since the dawn of time!

Now here's the opened can, filled with pearly white stuff studded with clams and bits o' potatoes...


...and the same content, plopped into my trusty pink pan, log-style. Not its most attractive shot for sure!


(And FYI, since I know what you're thinking: no, my pan is not rusted. It lost part of its non-stick lining over time, but I still use it as it's a very convenient size for my needs - plus it was a present from my brother, and the lid's got a piggy snout on it. Which ends the whole argument as far as I'm concerned.)
Now seriously - it's not flaking nor affecting the way my food tastes, so don't worry, it won't kill me!

I had enough soup to fill two bowls, and the first one I ate plain as the label suggested, with just a drizzle of oil and a pinch of black pepper.


It tasted... good, I suppose, but really bland. I was a little disappointed, because I was expecting it to be a bit more interesting - then again, boiled potatoes (while hearty and delicious) are not exactly a powerhouse of flavour, and the clams themselves contribute more in the field of texture and chewiness than actual umami

The consistency was delightful btw, not too brothy nor overly starchy, just like the ideal winter soup should be. And there is something deeply gratifying in finding huge chunks of actual vegetables and clams into a canned soup... that is to say, it makes me feel less lazy for resorting to it in the first place. Almost... virtuous, I daresay!


The second bowl, though, I muddled up with wasabi-flavoured furikake, plus a few taralli as impromptu croutons. American, Japanese and Italian ingredients in one bowl? Yes, please!

Needless to say, I liked this "bastardised" version much more. If you're shuddering at the thought, please feel free to blame it all on me being anosmic, and thus unable to fully appreciate subtlety in flavours...

Both bowls were good enough that I'd gladly pick up a can from time to time, were it available here; it's not worth ordering from abroad though - it's something I wouldn't mind eating a couple times during the cold season, but I don't foresee craving it as such.

I would however like to try cooking it from scratch. Great, one more recipe just got filed in my "To Do" folder... 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Internet is for CORN!

First things first: if the title of this post sounds puzzling, you've been missing out on the most hilarious musical ever. I hate to be the one to tell you, but it's true. 
It's called Avenue Q, and you should if nothing else become familiar with this song... 


HA! Told you so!

...Wait, what are you saying? You only surf the Internet for recipes
Sheesh, sure thing. 
Look, I'm pointing you to a few favourite ones anyway. And what you do afterwards is entirely your business. Deal?

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Let's start with soup, although this baby is so ridiculously thick with cheese (and goobed up with bacon!) that you'll want to cross your fingers behind your back when calling it such. 


Now if you aspire to be regarded as a savvy surfer of the vast foodie ocean, you should have surmised already that a Cheesy Corn Chowder with Bacon + Gorgonzola can only be a creation of Jessica, the genius behind How Sweet It Is



I sang her praises already in a previous post, so instead of hearing me harp on about how awesome she is, how about you jump to her blog directly, and see for yourself? 

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Next comes a revamped version of the traditional Shepherd's Pie... only I had to look it up online to discover it is, basically, a meat pie with a crust of mashed potatoes. 
It sounds yummy, and to me it would be exotic enough even in its plain version, but this Southwest Shepherd we're dealing with here has chorizo in it, and spices, and sweet potatoes all over the place. And corn, of course!



Now this dish, it's more delicious than pretty - and it was delicious despite the fact that I threw into it the black chorizo I bought by mistake back in December, while completely smashed because of all the sample chupitos I had chugged. 
I think it makes the ideal lunchbox fodder: you can plop a frozen square into your box, and give it a quick zap in the microwave to warm it up when you're ready to eat - and hey presto, you have a satisfying, filling, and shockingly balanced meal! (Pumpkin bread buns are a wonderful complement btw...)

Kita Roberts a.k.a. Girl Carnivore is actually better known as Pass the Sushi, but like the dedicated carnivore that she is - and boy, do I love her for this reason alone, in this age of vegan nonsense! - she felt the need to run a separate blog for all things meat, plus the occasional fish. Me likey!

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Last but not least, this Scalloped Corn Bread - which is not even close to bread, honestly; much more like, a frittata with stuff thrown in.
Soooo confusing... but so good



This crazy mash-up of canned cream-style corn, crushed saltines and eggs makes for a perfect, quick-and-dirty side dish that you can whip together easily with ingredients you are likely to have in your pantry at all times. 
(Me, I'll admit I used pretzels instead of the saltines, since I was all out of them - still awesome!)

I stumbled upon a promising pic of it on Pinterest, and immediately set out to trace the recipe all the way back to Created by Diane
I am a newcomer to that particular blog, so I still don't know much about its hostess - except that, duh, she's called Diane! - but if her Scalloped Corn Bread is any indication of the average quality of the stuff she puts out, I think I can safely assume I'll be a regular in no time!



Diane's family apparently has a tradition of eating her "bread" during the holidays, but I found it to be a perfectly viable option for everyday occasions. 
It freezes wonderfully (which kind of surprised me, as egg-based things so often turn gummy in the freezer), and if you pre-cut it into smallish squares, brownie-like, it's a very handy way to round out your luncheon at work. 
A couple squares of it were enough to turn my Adobo-marinated steak into a single course I wouldn't be ashamed to serve to a guest - except I gobbled it all down myself in this instance, it was that good! 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day!

Yes, yes, I know.
It is an empty, sad, commercial, possibly chauvinistic "holiday" that the florists lobby made up to force hapless guys into buying bunches of long-stemmed red roses at the exchange rate of gold. 
Still, we are supposed to get chocolates as well, which is one thing I can't find fault with. 

So... may your admirers provide you with yummy treats today!


One way or another... 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!

Get out, Devil! Come in, Happiness! 
- Traditional Setsubun formula

Granted, the traditional Japanese wish may sound a tad dodgy, coming - as it is - from one who picked a mischievous li'l fire demon (*) as her online persona (and who isn't even Asian, for heaven's sake!)
But, well, I kind of like the whole Setsubun symbology. And since I haven't posted anything on New Year's Day, I will blatantly exploit this holiday (as well as the beginning of the Lunar Year of the Horse three days ago) to catch up on the kind of stuff that normal people post on January 2nd. And no, I don't mean "detox" or "skinny" recipes. Ewwww, the very idea!


(*)  Have you seen the new pic in my profile btw? It's by one of my favourite DeviantArt members, and I love it more than I can explain. Isn't it the sweetest thing ever?

Image belongs to YamPuff @ http://yampuff.deviantart.com

 Now the reason why I commissioned a (literally!) sparkling new avatar, is that I am now seriously considering baking for a living. Not as my primary job maybe (not yet, at last), but hey... why not? 
 
I won't go into my working situation here, because it would be a long ramble which wouldn't probably even make sense to those of you who live in a less ludicrous country than Italy, but I have reasons to fear that the company I work for will undergo some serious pruning two years from now. Mind you - I say "fear" because this job is still my main source of income at the moment, but I almost hope for the worst to happen, since I'm too chicken to willingly quit a position I despise, and that is slowly seeping every ounce of energy, joy, and creativity out of me. 
 
So... for the time being, I am proceeding at baby steps. I am now a member of Con.Pa.It, the Italian bakers' federation. I am gathering information about the legal requirements for opening my own business. And above all, I'm slowly working up my courage.  
 
This very blog, unassuming as it is, has been a huge factor in my attempt to build up my confidence. At the same time, though, there have been times when the mere thought of having to dig out my camera, stop every few minutes to snap WIP pics, clean the mess on my table for the "hero shot", and edit the photos afterwards - it has been enough to dissuade me from trying some new idea right away. 
There might be a problem there because, you see, if I ever take the plunge and turn my hobby into a proper job, I'll have to deal with the "boring" stuff - administration, balances and what have you - on a daily basis. Which, knowing myself, might very well kill all the passion I put into baking. 
 
So, what am I going to do? Wait and see, as they say. 
In two years' time I will be turning 40, and that sounds as good a time as any to change my life for good... 


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hogswatch 2013 report - part 4

(Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3)


Writing from London right now, and once again picking up from where I left off yesterday - which means, the SAUSAGE SUPPER!
Of the three pubs in Wincanton, we had been assigned to The Dolphin, a charming blue-and-white building...



I'm dreadfully sorry I took no pics of the sausages themselves (which is so unlike me, now that I think about it)... but, to be totally frank with you guys, I was too busy eating them. What can I say? They were delightful, and well worth the wait! 
I got a flagon of a really nice dry cider too, while poor sweetie touched no booze at all, since the legal blood alcohol level for driving in the UK is an uncompromising 0% - plus, he's getting pretty paranoid about driving "the British way" tbh!

Right afterwards we hopped back to The Bear for a couple hours of naughty fun! 
It was nothing too ribald, really; just plenty of adult jokes. The main hostess of the show was bubbly and bodacious and all around awesome - I have such a huge girl crush on her!


This morning we relished our last breakfast at The Half Moon Inn, and by now we were pretty much aware of our fellow vacationers' identity. Some of them we had seen cosplaying even!

And, as always happens when I must leave a vacation place I've loved, I felt a little heartbreak right there. I snapped some more pics to remember it by, and the guy at the bar was nice enough to present me with a bag of pork scratchings (LOL!)


The other chips I bought myself btw. Expect a T&T post soon(ish)!

The last day of the convention run pretty smoothly, with everyone in town by now accustomed to guards and wizards and barbarians running to and fro, or the sight of DEATH's scythe propped casually against a wall.


LOL!

Some of the guys we had met yesterday brought us on a tour of the nerdiest block in Wincanton, where even the street names mirror those of Ankh-Morpork...



...then there was more acting at the Memorial Hall, plus the Charity Auction that was a real delight to watch, if nothing else because the auctioneer was the only Brit I had no trouble at all understanding. He was also nice and funny, and really turned what might have resulted in the most boring event in the program - the one you wish you could skip but don't dare to, because Ewwww, come on, it's for charity! - into a veritable highlight. 

After that we headed back to The Bear - for the last time, alas! - where I got the most delightful pumpkin soup with a hint of curry, but still no pie. Sigh!

It would have been time for us to drive back to London if we were to return the rental car on time, but the next scheduled event was going to be a cake competition, and... well, you understand
 Plus, uncontrolled voices floating around were hinting at the chance of another visit by The Man Himself... and I knew how much meeting him meant to hun. To me as well, of course, but he'd been so crushed at our missed opportunity yesterday (although he'd sooner lose his tongue than admit such a thing), and anyway I had been vieing for a way to throw him in Mr Pratchett's general vicinity. 

So, in short, I kept rambling about teh cakes and how we owed so much money to the rental already that we could as well pay for an extra day. And, sure enough, we stayed.
And, weeeell... 



OhmygoshIcan'teven. 
I am SO glad I was a little manipulative - fine, fine, let's make it a lot - because we now share a happy memory that I daresay will stay with us for a very long time. Just look at the two of us, the huge grins on our faces! 

This would be, I suppose, the point where you're expecting me to tell you about when and how it was that I read my first Discworld novel, and what meeting my favourite author felt like. Only I won't, mainly because it's complicated. 
My first literary brush with Terry Pratchett is a bit of a vexata quaestio. And, technically, he's not my favourite author; that would be Neil Gaiman - whom I met twice and in both instances approached with respect and trepidation, as the one that in my eyes incarnates perfection in writing. 
Gaiman is, and will always be, my favourite writer - but Pratchett, he's one of my favourite people in the world. I stood speechless with sheer admiration in Gaiman's presence, whereas in Pratchett's I was tempted to give him a big hug, and maybe cry a little on his shoulder. Neil is the master I look up to; Terry is the wise old uncle I wish I had. One made me a better critic, as well as an even more passionate reader; the other played a huge part in making me... me, for better or for worse. 
I'm not sure I can explain it any better than this, nor that I'd want to anyway. 

It was getting truly late though, so we reluctantly gave up on the closing events, greeted our new friends, and went to recover the blasted rental car. Turns up we'd been fined for leaving it parked for longer than we were supposed to... but honestly, we were way past minding at that point!

We are now staying in the tiniest hotel room ever - seriously, there's no room to swing a cat in, as the locals are fond of saying - and we're feeling rather peckish. 
So we're planning to look for an Indian restaurant or something, then go stick our noses around King's Cross station - it's where Platform 9 3/4 is supposed to be, folks! - and have a nice sleep, to recharge our energies for the long trip back tomorrow...