Sep 26, 2013

300 (Posts About) Sandwiches

I think that I've just become pragmatic in my old(ish?) age. My Facebook feed has exploded with the story about the sandwich blog. If you haven't seen the story, you can find it here. The commentary I've seen about it is anywhere from "really, do we need that much help making a sandwich?" to feminists decrying the whole endeavor as the worst thing ever, to folks saying that if she wants to get engaged faster, she should just make sandwiches more than a couple days a week.

On one hand, I'll admit, I'm falling down on the job here. I have not actually read her blog yet. I have heard that her photography is phenomenal, and I've read the article that started off the furor. How this woman's boyfriend's demand of sandwiches lead to a blog, and how the whole blog is a countdown until she has made enough sandwiches for him to propose. It's both an awful and great premise for a blog, right? To some, it can be this romantic gesture, raising the common sandwich to the level of devotion from the Notebook (I'm really hoping that I'm wrong on that one, but I can see how some could think so). To others, it's an anti feminist example of everything that is wrong with this country, nay the world! To food photographers, it's an interesting point of skill. To every Simpsons fan out there, I know you're thinking of the same scene I am:

But no matter how you look at it, it has a catch. People who have never read the blog are talking about it. She has created a story that has people talking. There could be not one single true point in the story, other than that she has a blog about sandwiches.  And if she's a quality writer, it won't matter. The craziness got them in the door, and she ended up with a readership. Am I jealous that I haven't found such a hook?  Maybe.

One thought I had, though, is this: would there be the same amount of uproar if the whole thing wasn't about sandwiches? The simple act of putting food between two pieces of bread has a really weird connection to sexism in the American culture. I mean, the phrase isn't "Get in the kitchen and make me a fillet mignon, woman!", it's a sandwich. And if you pay attention to media, it would appear that men are the only ones who eat them. From Jared at Subway, to the great ad blitz around the Super Bowl, to Dr. Cliff Huxtable's quest for a hoagie, they seem to be portrayed as a fairly masculine food. I'm sure that, if I really wanted to dig, there are probably many academic papers that go into this. But honestly, I can rarely stomach feminist blog entries, let alone 22 year olds trying to create enough novel ties in a thesis to get it accepted by whatever college they are in.

My pragmatism kicks in at a different point, however. I love food, and I love to make food. I've been in relationships with folks who are the same. I have been served foods that I would consider being deserving of, um, forms of physical gratification best not discussed when I know that one out of the 5 or so readers I have is my mother. I also understand the concept of an "in joke" in a relationship. If I remove what I consider is the narrative sheen of the story behind the blog, I can see an interaction something like this:

Considering how often he makes food for her, and the fact that she knows that he loves sandwiches, she opts to make a sandwich for him as a nice gesture.

Him: (in a sweet, playful tone) mmm, you keep making things like this, and I may be forced to marry you.
Her: Oh really? So, how many sandwiches gets me a diamond then, huh?
Him: I dunno, um, how about 300?

Which, became an inside joke that could be spun into the crazy tale that has the internet in an uproar. Personally, I think that I would be the most impressed if this was just a ploy to get their wedding paid for. Boars Head? Oscar Mayer? What do you think? The wienermobile could make great transportation from a wedding to a reception.

Sep 24, 2013

Using What's Around You

I have always been a fan of crafts that do not take a lot of money or space, for the fairly obvious reason that I have usually had a limited amount of both.  Knitting, for example, takes up a whole lot less space than a wood working shop. And when you don't have to pay for materials, even better! My newspaper route provided me with a ton of plastic straps that I tried doing stuff with as a kid, with little success.  Then, I was a bit weird.  Who am I kidding, I still am.  But! That behavior now is actually somewhat trendy, as I'm just "up-cycling".

I also have a bad habit of looking at a project, seeing the basic structure of how it works, and assuming that I can just do it.  Sometimes it works beautifully.  Sometimes it leads to disaster.  On the good side, at the beginning of the hackey sack craze in the 90's, I saw one and thought "You paid how much for this?  I can make these!"  Several hundred dollars and a case of carpal tunnel syndrome later, I still considered that a win.  On the other hand, sometimes I just end up with a house full of reeds, and a bunch of splinters (just don't ask.)

Which brings us to today's project/materials.  In my small attempt to make my tiny apartment not look like a disaster area, I've been trying to get organized.  One of the easiest ways that I've found to do that is to just have lots of baskets to just throw things into, to hide the mess.  It's less organization and more "out of sight, out of mind", but hey, baby steps, right?  So I've been scouring places like Marshalls and TJ Maxx and anywhere else I can find cheap, but nice stuff, and I had that thought.  "That's how much?  I could make something like this."

Before I go into details about the whats and hows, take a look at the finished product.

Can you tell what the materials were?  I'll give you a hint, it was completely free.

If you guessed plastic bags, you're correct! So I'm going to show you how I transformed some old shopping bags into a basket. For this week, it's all about turning the plastic bags into cording that you can use for this, or any other project (Knitting, crocheting, whatever).  The next post will go into how I turned that cord into a basket. 

The materials that you will need:
  • Plastic shopping bags 
  • Scissors
Additional item that can be helpful:
  • Drop Spindle

Creating Cords

No matter how you decide to do a basket, or what you decide to do with your plastic bags, it helps to first have them in a workable format. First, only use bags that are clean and dry. That should be obvious.  Are any ripped?  Depending on how you're going to use them, they could be just fine. In this case, everything is taking the form of a cord (yes, I know that there is a portmanteau for plastic yarn, but I think that it's stupid, and refuse to use it). This means that I will have to join multiple strips of plastic together. For the white plastic bags, as I want that rope to have a small gauge, the strips will be about one inch wide.  I would recommend not going narrower than that.  In my experience, when I was spinning it that way it started to lose structural integrity, and snap. 

Cut a small hole in each end of the strip.
Cut a small slit in each end of the strip
The pieces will be woven together, so cut a small slit near each end of the piece. To connect the pieces, interweave the two pieces like in the photo to the right, and gently pull tight. The two different colors in the photo are shown for the purpose of demonstration.  Unless you want your rope to change colors, both pieces would normally be the same color. 

Thin Cord

The hardest part of this: keeping the cat from attacking the plastic.
For the thin white cord, I opted to do all of it at once, using my drop spindle.  If you don't know what a drop spindle is, it's a very simple tool used for spinning wool into yarn. While I was making the basket, I would just break off pieces about the length of my arm to work with. If you don't have a drop spindle, you can either twist it manually, or attach each piece to a wrench, pen, pair of scissors.  Pretty much just something that you can twist, but won't break your plastic.  As you can see in the photo, the drop spindle just looks like an elongated top, with a hook at the top. The basic way to use it is just to spin it, allowing the length of cord you're working with to twist itself. Then, once a section is done, wrap the cord around the base and start on the next section.  Before you run out and spend any money on something that you're making because it's free, can you think of something that you have lying around that can help you do the same thing?

The Thick Cord

The brown plastic bags will be playing the role of the pine needles in my basket.  I want the cord that they become to be much thicker, so I am not going to be cutting them into strips.

Lay the bag out flat on the table

Fold one third of the bag in towards the center.
Fold the bottom one third up to the top, so the bag has a folded edge on both the top and the bottom. This will leave you with a long rectangle, the handles of the bag at one end.

Fold the bag in half one more time.

Make a slit in the end that was the bottom of the bag. Repeat these steps for each bag that will be used.
With the two bags that you want to connect, slip the handles of bag 1 through the slit in bag 2.

Then slip the handles from bag 2 through the handles in bag 1 (see now why we only needed to make one cut?)
Gently pull the two bags taut.
Twist to form a cord (for this one, I did not use the drop spindle, and just did it with my hands).

The bags from my local supermarket make a cord that is about 1/4 of an inch diameter.  Depending on the bags that you use, it could be rather different.
While it may look a little uneven at the moment, we will continue to adjust it while we make the basket.

Next: Turning your cord into a pine needle basket.

Sep 17, 2013

Boston Festival of Indie Games- Game Reviews

I'll be the first to admit, I'm a geek.  I'm the third generation in my family to work with computers (do the math, that's actually rather impressive), I was raised on Star Trek and Doctor Who, and currently own at least 10 working game systems (including the computer and ipad).  My first video game that I remember was Logo, and the first time I stayed up until midnight on New Years was thanks to Buck Rogers, on Atari. And as I spent way too much time with video games over the weekend, I thought that I'd share.

Boston Festival of Indie Games

The second indie games festival was this weekend at MIT. Last year it was scattered in a couple of different classrooms, and people were packed into those rooms like sardines.  The odor was... impressive.  There were some games for the computer, but there were also a lot for phones and tablets.  I found two that were really unique, and later picked them up for my ipod touch.  Girls Like Robots, and Agent Higgs.

This year they had much more space, so it was a lot easier to get a look at the games on display. To a certain extent it was much less a con, and more a live action kickstarter event. Many games were in various levels of completion, but usually at a point where they could be tried out. I am not a stickler for top of the line graphics, especially for a game on a phone; however, if you want me to pay attention to your demo, at least have something that would be appealing to look at while I'm playing it. And if graphics is what your kickstarter is going to fund, at least have a static image of what you want the game to look like in the end. While I played a lot of games in the 80's, and still have a great love for some of them, it is a really hard sell to convince me to play something that looks like Space Invaders now. After the festival, there were three games that I was intrigued enough to actually download.


 If you ever played lemmings, this is a similar idea. You have 5 little cartoon guys to get from point A to point B. Unfortunately, they are not too bright. They will just walk off of cliffs, into water, probably straight into the jaws of a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex if you let them (note: I have not yet seen any dinosaurs in the game). So your job is to use tools to guide them from A to B, using tools like fire (to make them jump), fountains (to survive a fall), etc. On top of that, there are stars to collect to get a perfect level.

The game manages to balance cute without making you feel too badly if one of your little guys dies. I adored Pikmin as a game, but could never finish it. The Pikmin were just too cute, and I felt horrible when they got eaten, or worse, left behind. Wobbles are plenty cute, and their sound effects are well done, but I wouldn't worry about creating emotional attachments to them. The $1-$2 price range on this seems about right. It isn't a game that will change your life, but it can definitely fill up a few entertaining bus rides. It is available on Android and iOS.

Color Zen

The concept behind Color Zen isn't groundbreaking either. It is a color based puzzle game in a similar vein as Globs, one of my favorites. By matching colors, you change the color of the background. The goal of the game is to finish up with a solid block of color. It starts out really easy, and some of the levels do get rather challenging later on. It is a good thing that the basic game is free, because I have some issues with it. The game seems to have come out of the 90's. There are a lot of glaring neon colors, and the soundtrack seems to have been created on an old synthesizer.  Conveniently, one of those things can be corrected, by playing the game on mute. Unfortunately, I don't think that buying the extra levels would get rid of ads. As much as this was a neat concept, I would have to recommend giving it a pass. It is available on iOS and android.

Pombie Zong

Pongie Zong is a single player pong game with a rotating saw blade as the ball, and you use those saw blades to kill zombies. It's a pretty standard brick breaking type game, where you can unlock bonuses such as having more than one saw blade at a time, and there are toughier zombies that require multiple hits to kill. If you have a few minutes to kill and are looking for a quick twitch game, this is a solid contender.

I do have two issues with it though. First, the name was virtually impossible for me to remember. I remembered that it was a play on zombie pong, but I couldn't remember what. Yes, this may just be me, but I never consider myself that special. If you're a small name company, and people can't remember the name of your game, you will run into problems.

Secondly, zombies? Really? Zombies are currently a bit overdone. This game could have easily been gophers (even mutant evil gophers if you wanted to appease animal rights groups), and still would have the same appeal. If you have a game where you are protecting your lawn from zombies, sorry, it's kind of a thing. Honestly, I could see this as a mini game in Plants vs. Zombies. Of course, as this game is only available on android, it could always fill your need for zombie death while waiting for popcap to release plants vs. zombies 2 on anything other than iOS.

Sep 10, 2013

The Building Blocks of Baked Goods Part 3: Correcting a Quickbread

This is a continuation from The Building Blocks of Baked Goods, as well as The Building Blocks of Baked Goods 2. The previous two parts discuss ratios in baked goods, and how to check to see if a recipe is unbalanced.

The recipe that I started with is this zucchini bread recipe from Paula Deen. It has too much liquid, too much sugar, and it is slightly over leavened. The flavors, however, are still good.  So I know that I want to keep the spices, and balance out the rest of the recipe.

The first step is to peg your limiting reagent. In other words, pick one ingredient that you want to use to calculate the rest of the recipe. Eggs are an easy pick, since it is much more difficult to measure half an egg than half a cup of flour. In the case of zucchini bread, if you only have a limited amount of zucchini, that could be the limiting reagent.  When I've made angel food cake, I've sometimes used the flour, to ensure that I have the proper volume for my pan.  It doesn't really matter, as long as we just pick one.

Let's start with the original ingredients (using weight measurements for all structural components, of course):

447 grams all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
916 grams sugar
218 grams vegetable oil
200 grams beaten egg (appx. 4 eggs)
78.9 grams water
340 grams grated zucchini
1 teaspoon lemon juice

I want to make sure that I maintain the size of the recipe, so that I still end up with 2 loaves of bread.  Therefore, I am going to opt to use my flour as the limiting reagent.  Hopefully my eggs will play nicely for weight. Therefore, 448 grams of flour (I am rounding up slightly to make math easier) will be 1 part.  Because the volume will be about the same, I am going to leave the spice amounts to be about the same.  I also want to keep the zucchini amounts the same, if I can, based on what I tasted from the previous recipe.

Now, let's take the ratio for a balanced recipe:
If 1 part = 448 grams

1 parts flour = 448 grams
1 parts liquid = 448 grams
.5 part egg =224 grams
.5 part fat = 224 grams
1 part sugar = 448 grams

Flour and sugar are clear enough, as we are only using one type of each.  The fat is the adjusted weight of the vegetable oil, and liquid includes the egg, vegetable oil, water, and zucchini.

Adjusted weight of vegetable oil: 224 grams fat * (218 grams vegetable oil/204 grams fat)=239.4 grams.

Liquid: 633.4 grams (1.4 parts)
224 grams egg
239.4 grams vegetable oil
170 (.5 * 340) grams zucchini

The sum of the weights (and yes, I am being rather low with the weight of the zucchini) is already higher than that of the flour.  Therefore, I'm going to leave out the water altogether.  If I wanted to be even pickier about weights, I could substitute shortening for the vegetable oil, or try to extract some extra water weight from the zucchini, or even take out an egg yolk for a little extra structure.  Based on how the recipe turned out previously, though, I'm going to just risk it.  I'm going to assume that the zucchini will also help to provide some structure to the bread as well.  I would not, however, try to make this recipe in a cake pan.  With the high liquid amounts when compared to the amount of protein, it would just sink in the middle.  So it's convenient that I'm using a bread pan to begin with.

Two last notes, before I give you the recipe (which you've waited oh so patiently through 3 blog entries for). First, a word about salt.  I use kosher salt.  I buy it in a big box at the supermarket, and it lasts a really, really long time.  I never thought much about salt, but I started noticing that everything I baked was requiring extra salt.  I really didn't understand it until I read an article about the differences between types of salt, and then once tried weighing out the salt for a recipe.  Table salt has been milled, so that all the crystals are a uniform size.  Kosher salt, on the other hand, is made up of bigger, chunkier crystals.  Not only does this mean that sometimes it doesn't distribute quite as well throughout a baked good (oops!), but because the crystals are bigger and chunkier, there is actually less salt (and more air space) in a teaspoon of kosher salt than a teaspoon of table salt.  Confused?  Think of it this way: If you take a jar, and fill it with wooden blocks, the jar is not completely full.  There is a lot of air in between the blocks.  If you take an identical jar, and fill it with rice grains, there is a lot less air.  When I weighed out the salt for something I was baking, it turned out that, in order for me to get the right amount of salt, I needed to use about 50% more than what I was measuring.

Secondly, I want to talk about leavening.  I have now done the recipe below with both baking powder, and baking soda/lemon juice.  There are benefits and drawbacks to each method.  Baking powder is usually double acting (as opposed to single acting baking soda), so I have found that it produces a slightly lighter, fluffier bread. Using baking powder means that we would leave out the lemon juice, however, which contributes to browning on the top of the loaf.  If you want to try using baking soda instead of the baking powder, just remember to use 1 teaspoon of baking powder per cup of flour, plus just a touch extra to account for the weight of the zucchini.

Finally! Here is my "corrected" Zucchini Bread Recipe
Zucchini Bread: Fix a bad recipe, and making it your own.  Math never tasted so good.
Who says Math isn't tasty?
448 grams  (appx. 3 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
448 grams (appx. 2 1/4 cups) sugar
239.4 grams (appx. 1 cup) vegetable oil
224 grams beaten egg (appx. 4 large eggs)
340 grams (appx. 2 cups) grated zucchini
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg (freshly grated recommended)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon lemon juice

.Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Use the muffin method to mix the ingredients.  Mix the flour, sugar, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and baking soda (all of the dry ingredients) in a bowl.  In a separate bowl mix all the wet ingredients thoroughly: vegetable oil, eggs, lemon juice, and zucchini. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and stir only to combine. *

Bake in 2 loaf pans for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick entered into the center of the loaf comes out clean.

*Remember, we are making a quick bread, and don't want it to be tough or chewy.  Therefore, we want to limit the amount of gluten that we form.  Mix the wet and the dry ingredients well separately before combining them. The more we stir the mixed batter, the more gluten we have a chance to form.

Sep 4, 2013

The Building Blocks of Baked Goods Part 2: Spotting a Bad Recipe

Recognizing a bad recipe
This is the second installment of Building Blocks of Baked Goods.  This post is about using ratios to analyze a recipe.  Otherwise known as, if a recipe goes bad, it's not necessarily your fault.  If a recipe comes from a famous chef, or a famous site or book, it doesn't mean that the recipe has been fully tested for anyone to make.  So before you proclaim that you can't bake, and that everything you make is horrible (unless, of course, you're trying to get out of having to ever bake again), take a closer look at the recipe itself.

In the last section, I talked about ratios, and problems that I had with Paula Deen's zucchini bread recipe. Today I want to walk through it, and try to figure out if I just failed somewhere with my baking, or if it was a problem with the recipe.  Before I get started, I need to say that I don't know how Paula measures her flour.  It is not stated in the recipe, and the actual amount used can vary widely depending on how that happens. So I am going to start with weight averages, and move on from there.  As I am just using this to give me a rough guide of whether or not this recipe is balanced, these variations are not going to create major issues.  If the measurements are close, then I will assume that the recipe is fairly balanced, and then just work off of my weight measurements for the next go round.

The first step is to convert the structural elements to weight measurements. By structural elements, I mean the flour, eggs, sugar, fat, and liquid.  These are the elements that create the form and the texture of the bread. Ingredients like cinnamon and nutmeg, which only provide flavor, we can leave alone for the moment.

I tend to use Wolfram Alpha for doing conversions, just because it's easy to use.


3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour = 447 grams


3 cups sugar= 916 grams


4 eggs, beaten= 200 grams


1 cup vegetable oil= 218 grams (204 grams fat weight)

Wait, why are there two seperate measurements?  Because vegetable oil is not a pure fat.  Therefore, we have to reduce the weight a bit here.  I am using calculations based on what I found in Bakewise for this.


4 eggs, beaten= 200 grams

1 cup vegetable oil= 218 grams
1/3 cup water= 79 grams
2 cups grated zucchini= 340.2 grams (170 liquid weight)

Total Liquid weight: 667 grams

Just like we had to adjust for the amount of fat in the vegetable oil above, here we have to adjust for the amount of liquid in the zucchini.  Some zucchini can be up to 95% water weight.  Just for the sake of giving the recipe the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to peg it at 50% (since I may have already done the math on this, give me the benefit of the doubt on this one that it will still work out right).

Quickbread Ratios

There are 3 steps that I'm going to take to look at the balance of this recipe.

First, I am going to take the ratio for a quickbread from Michael Ruhlman.

1 parts flour
1 parts liquid
.5 part egg
.5 part fat

So let's see how our recipe stacks up on this measure. My flour is 447 grams, and I'm going to peg my calculations on that.  So 1 part equals 447 grams.

Flour: 447 grams * 1 part/447 grams= 1
Liquid: 667 grams * 1 part/447 grams= 1.49
Egg: 200 grams * 1 part/447 grams= .45
fat: 204 grams * 1 part/447 grams= .49

The ratio for the egg and the fat look pretty good, especially considering that I said all of this is a rough estimate.  But look at the liquid! It's 50% higher than it should be. No wonder I noticed all my precious bubbles escaping.

Second, let's look at the sugar.  There are 916 grams of sugar to our 447 grams of flour.  That is more than twice the amount.  Even when making a high ratio cake, the sugar should only be slightly higher than the weight of the flour.  So I know that there is way too much sugar here.

Third, let's look at leavening. There should be about a quarter teaspoon of baking soda per cup of flour, with a little extra to account for the weight of the zucchini. That would mean that there should be somewhere around 1 teaspoon of baking soda, instead of the 2 teaspoons found in the recipe.  But considering that there is only 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to activate the baking soda, it may not all be activated to begin with.  Either way, I think we can reduce the amount of baking soda in this recipe as well.

Lessons Learned

Yay, it's not just me!  I know, if it had been just me, I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of writing this up. But where do we go from here?  I could just ditch the recipe and try a new one.  However, I don't want to do that.  First, validation for my math tastes oh so good.  Secondly, I really liked the general flavor profile of this bread.  Re-balancing it will be much easier than tearing it down, I promise.