Washing Soda & SCIENCE

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Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is a nifty substance.  You can use it to boost your laundry soap’s cleaning power, as a mild abrasive in cleaning, or as a base for making your own laundry soap.  In the industrial world, people use it as a flux for creating glass, to clean biological specimens (like in taxidermy), and as an electrolyte in chemical processes.  SCIENCE.  We’re going to use it in a chemical process in a little while, in fact, and hope it turns into some really nifty Christmas gifts. Problem is, washing soda is not always easy to find.  But you can easily make it at home.

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So let’s do some science.  All you need is some regular old baking soda.  See how it clumps up.

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Spread that in a baking sheet and preheat your oven to 425°F. Slide that into the oven and bake, stirring occasionally, for about an hour and a half.

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And then you have washing soda.  That’s it.  I’m not even kidding.

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I imagine that this is how the surface of the moon looks up close.  See how grainy it is?

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So why does this work?  Well, the chemical composition of baking soda is NaHCO3.  The chemical composition of washing soda is Na2CO3.  So when you bake it, the high temperatures cause the baking soda to release water (in the form of steam) and carbon dioxide.  Here you can see the difference up close: baking soda on the left, washing soda on the right.  TADA.

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Wee Clay Pot City

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When I saw these wee things over at Say Yes to Hoboken I knew immediately who I had to make them for (but I’m not telling you: it’s a surprise).  Perfect for small plants, especially succulents, I could see these forming a little town on someone’s coffee table.

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I decided to make my own template for my wee town, so that I could get some variety in the buildings I created.  Just make sure, when you are creating your pattern, that you account for the width of the base and the thickness of your sculpting medium.  It’s all about the math, b’ys.

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For this little jobbie you need some Sculpey, a cutting tool (I used a paring knife), a smoothing tool (I used some old manicure tools), and something for rolling out the clay (I used an empty Screech bottle).  You will also need a glass dish for baking your clay, and a work surface that doesn’t stain easily.  Raw Sculpey is pretty toxic, so it’s best to work on waxed paper, parchment, or a silicone mat that you can easily wash.

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It’s a simple thing to do, but it takes some time.  First you need to condition your Sculpey by squishing it a bunch with your hands.  Then you roll it out, and cut out your shapes.

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When you press them together, make a little snake out of extra clay and use it to seal the edges — you want the wee pot to be water tight after all.

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My first go-round, I made my templates too big and so my little houses weren’t really all that little. You can see in the photo below how it sagged under its own weight.  Fortunate thing about Sculpey is you can just squish it all up and start again, which I did.  My new templates work on a 2″ square, and so I can make about four structures out of one pound of clay.

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I wanted a bit of variety to my city, so with the white Sculpy I made two regular houses, one house with a slanty roof, and a factory.

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Do you see how I raised the floor of the factory on the inside so that the plant would still come out the top?  I know: clever me.

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And the basic house:

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With the terra cotta coloured Sculpey I made a mansion (or row housing), a city hall and a church.  The church is just the small house with a cross instead of a chimney (which baked a bit wonky), and the city hall is just a big house with a circle cut out of the taller roof to signify a town clock.

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Use a smoothing tool to smooth out the edges on the outside, too, and the bottom.

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The next part is easy.  You preheat your oven to 275°F and pop your little structures into your glass dish (I lined mine with parchment, just because I find if the clay is right on the glass surface it tends to cook with a glossy flat edge that doesn’t jibe with the rest of the piece).  Bake for 15 minutes per every 1/4″ thickness of Sculpey.  You don’t want to overbake, but as some of my pieces were obviously thicker or thinner than that (yes, we’ve already gone over how much I suck at Sculpey), I go for a round 20 minutes and that seems to work out just fine.

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Haul those out of the oven and don’t touch them until they’re cool.  Sculpey is designed to shrink less than 2% while baking so you shouldn’t have much trouble with your watertight seal, but you should check anyway.  If it’s not sealed, just add a touch more Sculpey to the hole and bake it for a few minutes.

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I didn’t have enough Sculpey left to make a whole other building, so I made this little round pot.

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And then a wee man.  He’s a magician (hence the top hat and cape) and he’s sitting staring at this wee box, thinking.  So I call it Thinking, Outside the Box.  I gave him to the Pie.

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And there you have it.  I don’t have any succulents on hand, so you’ll have to imagine them in these shots.  But it’s a cute little town, no?

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Deep-Fried Dinner

Deep-Fried Dinner

For the Pie’s birthday dinner, we decided to try deep-frying for the first time.  We’d been putting it off because, well, it’s incredibly unhealthy, it’s a dangerous fire risk, and our kitchen has no fume hood so we’d be dealing with the aromas of cooking oil for several days.

But we needed to learn (in the same way that we need to learn everything else we do here).  So we decided to try two different methods and make Buffalo chicken strips (with blue cheese dip) and some beer-battered onion rings.  Both recipes come from Martha Stewart’s Every Day Food magazine.  Both recipes involve buttermilk.

Now, though I’m presenting two different recipes here, I’m going to give the instructions to you in the order I did them, because that makes the most sense to me.  In order for you to differentiate the two recipes, I’ll preface instructions for the chicken with BCS and use OR for the onions.

BCS/OR: Turn your oven to 250°F.  Put some cooling racks on top of rimmed baking sheets and put those in the oven.  Those will be your warming and draining trays for your chicken and onions.
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OR: Slice 2lb onions into thick rounds and submerge them in 2 cups buttermilk for about an hour before cooking.  The buttermilk takes the acidic bite out of the onions, making them sweet and tender.  Just a warning: following this recipe results in a heckuva lotta onion rinks, so if you don’t want to fry up a million, I suggest halving it, or even quartering it.
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BCS: Crumble up 1 cup blue cheese (I used 400g here and it crumbled to about a cup) and 1/2 cup buttermilk.
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Stir that around and set it aside.
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Cut up some vegetables while you’re at it, why don’t you?  You’re about to consume pure fat — you should probably add in some vitamins.
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BCS/OR: Plop about 1 1/2 cups flour in a shallow dish and put that near your stove.  That’s for the batterin’.
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OR: Crack two eggs into a bowl.  Whisk ’em.
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Whisk in 1 bottle lager or pale ale.
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Whisk in 1 1/2 cups flour and 2 teaspoons coarse salt.  Set that near the stove as well.
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BCS: In yet another bowl, combine 1/3 cup hot sauce with 3 tablespoons butter.  Stir well and set that aside for now.
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Slice up 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts into finger-sized pieces.
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Dip them in 1 cup buttermilk.
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Then into that flour you have ready.
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Lay them out on a baking sheet.
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I think we’re about ready to start cooking.  While I’m sure you could do these two dishes at the same time, I am far from experienced with hot-oil cooking, rather prone to accidents, and I only have one large-sized element on my stove.  So I am going to cook the chicken first, as it doesn’t need to be crispy and can therefore sit in the oven for longer.

As a safety note, we had a box of baking soda handy at all times during this, in case of flareups.  Never leave hot oil unattended, and never, NEVER add additional oil of any kind or any temperature to oil that is already hot.

BCS: Heat 1/2 cup to 1 cup vegetable oil in a heavy skillet.  You can tell if the oil is hot enough for frying when a pinch of flour dropped into it fizzes rapidly.
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Slide a few chicken pieces in, working in batches.
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Cook for about 6-8 minutes, rotating halfway through, until the chicken is golden brown.  Remove the cooked chicken to the rack in the oven.
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This was a very spatter-y process, so I wore long sleeves and kept my face averted from the pan.  My hands kept getting burned from little splashes of oil.  In the end I pulled on a pair of work gloves to protect them and worked happily after that.
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Make sure to let that oil cool before you move it anywhere.

OR: In a large, wide saucepan, heat up 5 cups vegetable oil.  I know, that’s a lot of oil.
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Use a candy or deep-fry thermometer and continuously adjust the temperature of your element to keep the oil at 375°F.  If it gets too cold, it won’t cook the onions all the way through, and if it gets too hot, well … let’s not think about that.
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What was interesting was the cool pattern the oil made while it heated.
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Take a ring of onion out of the buttermilk and dip it in the flour, then into the beer batter.  Shake off the excess.
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Slide the ring carefully into the hot oil.  Cook in small batches, rotating halfway through, for about 5 minutes.  Remove to the other rack in the oven to drain and keep warm.  This method of frying was wayyyyy less spatter-y, if you were interested to know.
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We had a lot more onions left to cook after we had cooked as many as we thought we could eat.  We figured they would keep until tomorrow and we would try again.
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BCS: When everything is cooked and you are ready to go, take the chicken strips out of the oven and toss them in the hot sauce.  These will be served with the blue cheese dip we made earlier.
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OR: For the onions we had a nice tzatziki dip as well as a chipotle mayo.
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All told, it was pretty epic.
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Rosemary Parmesan Biscuits

This recipe is a variation on the original Quick Drop Biscuits, and is very similar to the biscuit topping on the Italian Pot Pies.  Of course you can flavour your biscuits anyway you like.  Anything that goes well with butter is going to go well in your biscuit, as long as you keep the liquid additives to a minimum.  My plan next time is to go with bacon and cheddar cheese.  These particular biscuits went very well with a lamb roast.  I made them twice the size of the original Quick Drop Biscuits, and so doubled the recipe accordingly.

Preheat your oven to 425°F.  If you have a convection oven, which my parents do, then 400°F is probably fine.  All ovens are different.

In a bowl, mix together 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt.  Drop in 3/4 cup cold cubed butter, and cut to pea-sized pieces with two knives or a pastry cutter.

Stir in 2-3 teaspoons fresh or dried rosemary, broken up a bit, and about 1 teaspoon ground black pepper. (Just so’s you know, my hand isn’t really that pink in real life.)

Add about 1 cup finely grated parmesan, or more, to suit your taste.

Make a well in the centre of your mixture and pour in 2 cups milk.  Stir until just combined and mixture is clumping and sticky.

Drop large spoonfuls of dough onto an ungreased baking sheet (or several).  They don’t expand so you can place the drops pretty close together.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, rotating halfway through, until firm and golden.  Because all ovens are different, make sure you keep an eye on them.

Of course these babies are best crisp and fresh from the oven, but you can store them in an airtight container for a couple of days and they’re pretty good then as well.

Twice-Baked Puhdadoes

This is a fantastic Friday-night (or Monday-night) comfort food meal for the middle of winter (sorry in advance for the dark photos), mostly because it’s super-quick, super-good, and full of starchy goodness.  It’s also super easy, though we made ours a team effort.

Cait grated the cheese.

I cut the tomatoes.

Even Ruby helped.  Mostly by sitting in the middle of the floor.

So get yourself some potatoes.  You want these to have a decent skin on them, like jacket potatoes, or russets.  Give them a good scrub.

You can pre-cook them a bit first in the microwave if you wish.  Just make sure to poke some holes in them first.

Pop the in the oven (no pan is necessary) at about 400°F and cook them for a long time, until the skins are slightly wrinkled and crisp, about 45 minutes to an hour.  You can tell if the potatoes are ready by sticking a fork into the potato and waggling it back and forth.  If you don’t encounter much resistance, they’re defeated done.  Take the potatoes out of the oven but leave the oven on.

Slice the potatoes open on one side in a large X pattern.

Use a spoon to scoop the cooked potato into a large bowl.

Grab yourself an electric mixer (because it’s late and you’re lazy).  If you must, climb up on the counter to reach your tallest cabinet.

Start mixing the potatoes with enough milk and butter to satisfy you, then add more grated cheese than you really think is appropriate.  We also chucked in diced tomatoes, for colour and vitamins.

Then of course we added bacon.

Spoon this magic mixture back into your potatoes.  They will be rather overstuffed at this point but that is very much okay.

Place them on a pan and bake them again until the mixture is crusty and golden on top, about 15 minutes.

Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chives.  They are good cold and also reheated the next day, so I hear.

We had our potatoes with rectangular chocolate cake and a good evening was had by all.

Christmas Fruit Cakes

My mother calls them fruit cakes.  My father calls them Christmas cakes.  Or it’s the other way around.  I can’t keep track of those two.

Nevertheless, before every holiday season, my dad makes between two and three dozen of them to give away to all their family and friends.  Being the stalwart Scots that we are, we fight over who deserves a whole cake and who gets only a slice.

You can’t be ambivalent about fruit cake.  You either love it or you hate it.  And I can promise you that this is not the leaden, dry, horribly frosted version that you hate.  This is the ooey-gooey sticky sweet and moist brick of goodness that you will LOVE.  Guaranteed.

Keep in mind that this recipe is easy to make.  Especially if you make several dozen.  However, you have to start your preparations the day before and baking time can take up to four hours for large cakes.  Not to mention that you can’t eat them right away — these cakes need a spell before they’re good to eat.  These ones here are from back in 2007.  They should be super excellent now.

Day the First:

In a large bowl, measure in 1 1/2 cups whole blanched almonds (blanched is key because the skin is bitter), 2 cups dark raisins, 2 cups light raisins, 1 cup currants, 2 1/2 cups chopped dates, and 2 1/2 cups candied citron peel.  My dad says that when making several batches it helps to bring a measuring cup to the health food or bulk store and measure what you need right into the bag so you don’t have to worry about having any leftover.

Drain a 12oz (340g) bottle of maraschino cherries, saving the juice.  The cherries should measure about 1 1/4 cups.  Add them to the mixture in the bowl.

Pour in 1/2 cup brandy (or fruit juice, if you prefer) and give it a stir.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature overnight.

In a heavy saucepan, simmer one 19oz (540mL) can crushed pineapple with 2 cups granulated sugar.  Cook, uncovered, until thickened, about 45 minutes.  Make sure to stir frequently. 

By the end, the sugary pineapple should measure 2 1/2 cups.

Let the pineapple cool, and then stir in 1/2 cup reserved cherry juice.  Stir in as well 1 cup strawberry jam (the more all-natural, the better).  This doesn’t necessarily need to be done the day before, but it has to be cool before you add it to the cake batter.

Day the Second:

Preheat your oven to 275°F.  Butter your pans (we use four regular-sized loaf pans) and line them with parchment paper.The knob on our oven is positioned badly so we take the knob off in order not to hit it accidentally.  And yes, we probably should clean our oven more often.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together 4 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda.

Add about a cup of the flour mixture to the fruit and nuts and toss until the bits are all covered.  This will prevent them from sinking to the bottom when you mix them in the batter.  Set the rest of the flour aside for now. 

In another large mixing bowl, cream together  2 1/4 cups granulated sugar with 1 pound (2 cups) butter.

Beat in 12 eggs (yes, 12!), two at a time.  This is less of a pain in the butt if you have someone crack the eggs while someone else runs the mixer.

Take your flour mixture and your pineapple mixture and, alternating them, stir them into the butter and egg mix.  Make 3 dry and 2 liquid additions and stir it all in well. 

Your batter will be a lovely pink colour once you’re all ready.

Pour over your flour-coated fruit and nuts and mix well. 

Pour into your pans and chuck them in the oven.

Place a shallow pan of water on the bottom rack of the oven to keep the cakes moist.

Bake in your oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, for the larger cakes.  Smaller cakes might be done in about 3 hours. If you have a fast oven you might want to lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over the top to prevent them from drying out in the last hour or so.

The cakes should be fairly firm to the touch in the centre and should test clean with a toothpick.  Once you’ve removed the cakes from the oven let them cool in the pans for about five minutes. 

Then remove the cakes from the pans and peel off the paper.  Let the cakes cool completely.

Now you do your wrapping.

Lay a sheet of aluminum foil on your work surface.  Overlay that with some plastic wrap.

And some cheesecloth.

Plop your cake in the centre.

Baste it generously, all over, with rum or brandy (if you don’t baste you will need to keep the cakes in the refrigerator).

Wrap the cheesecloth tightly around the cake.  Then the plastic wrap.  Then the aluminum foil.

As the cloth dries out, give your cakes a periodic dousing with rum or brandy.  Don’t freeze the cakes or the flavours won’t mellow properly.

The cakes will make good eating in about three weeks, just in time for the holidays.

Roasting Red Peppers

Roasting your own red peppers is super easy, and it fills the house with the most amazing aromas.

Set your oven to broil (that’s when the burner on the roof of the oven goes instead of the bottom one).

I am used to roasting my peppers whole and then dealing with all the nonsense of soggy seeds later, but my mother showed me a new trick that makes doing it even easier.  She seeds and chops the peppers first, then bends the pieces so that they lie flatter against the baking sheet.  You can spray the sheet as well if you are concerned about sticking.Roast the peppers for about twenty minutes (depending on the heat of your broiler), or until the skins are bubbled and blackened.Before they have a chance to cool, chuck the whole lot into a brown paper bag and roll it up.  This will allow the steam from the hot peppers to ease off their own skins.Once the peppers have cooled, rip open the bag and peel off the skins, easy peasy.