Friday, February 27, 2009

Appetite for confection

Book review: Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
by Steve Almond
Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, 2004
ISBN: 1-56512-421-9

Yeah, you read that right. Candyfreak was published in 2004, and here we are in 2009. I've never been one for punctuality. (Actually, I just heard about the book from muffinmare, who is an artisan baker.)

If you don't like sweets, don't bother reading this book. You will understand neither the candy nor the freak. Also, you will be offended when Almond writes:
Every now and again, I'll run into someone who claims not to like chocolate or other sweets, and while we live in a country where everyone has the right to eat what they want, I want to say for the record that I don't trust these people, that I think something is wrong with them, and that they're probably—this must be said—total duds in bed.
Agreed.

If, however, you do have a sweet tooth, you must read this book, but not until you are properly prepared. Arm yourself according to the following formula:

candy stockpile = (261 × M × E × S) + N

How quickly do you read? Take the minutes per page (M), multiply by the book's 261 pages, then multiply by E, the normal rate at which you eat candy while reading (pieces or ounces per minute), and by S, your suggestibility factor (which can be determined by considering how much more of your favorite sweet you would eat after watching a commercial or cooking show about said confection). Finally, add in N, the nostalgia factor, because your favorite forgotten candy bar from childhood will surely be mentioned. And there you have the size of the hoard of candy you need before opening this book. Trust me. 

The book is, appropriately, roughly one part candy, in which Almond describes his lifelong obsession with candy and his trips to various candy factories in the US, and one part freak, in which Almond writes about the role that sweets play in his emotional life and the American psyche in general. 

Aside from a few minor stumbles in describing the technical details of candy-making machinery, Almond's writing about sweets is clear and evocative. He spends a lot of time describing details of taste and texture but completely avoids sounding like an overeager wine critic, whose snobbish writings he describes as "the curdling of expertise into hauteur."

For me, the real highlights of the book are in the descriptions of how the different confections are made and the decades-old machinery that many regional candy companies still use. What a shame there were no pictures! Many of the methods are proprietary, as the basic ingredients of candy are, for the most part, similar: some combination of sugar, corn syrup, chocolate, nuts and a few flavorings. It's the production process that differentiates between the Abba Zabbas and the York Peppermint Patties of the world. 

Almond's freak interludes are charmingly neurotic. His confessions about family, insecurity and the emotional surrogacy he found in candy tie together the otherwise random details about sweets that, in a lesser writer's hands, could become tedious. The book is billed as a memoir of Almond's cross-country tour of candy factories, but his research is not exactly objective reporting—it's more along the lines of a Trekkie writing about a Star Trek convention. The style works, though, and it's a quick and tasty read.

With the book finished, I'm still hungry for more. Specifically, for more of Almond's writing and for a Valomilk, a Kansas City marshmallow-filled chocolate cup. Valomilks cannot be shipped over the Rockies because they explode at high altitude, so of course I want to try one. 

***

Almond's website: stevenalmond.com

Thursday, February 19, 2009

DIY infused vodka: update and recipes

A few weeks ago I wrote about making your own infused vodka. I'm pleased to report that all the flavors I tried turned out well.

For those of you who missed the first post, the basic formula is:
decent vodka + fruit/spices/tea/veggies/other delicious items + 1 hour to 3 weeks of patience = great drinks at home.

Lots of great flavor combinations are possible even with a limited produce selection. Try seasonal stuff, or raid the spice rack.


This time around, I made blood orange, cucumber, and blueberry-vanilla vodkas.

*****

Blood orange infused vodka


2 small blood oranges
1 pint vodka (I used Svedka)
orange zest (optional)

Instead of peeling the oranges, cut off the peel and underlying white layer of pith entirely. Pith can turn bitter in the vodka. Slice the oranges about 1/4 inch thick. Combine with vodka in an airtight container and let infuse for up to 2 weeks, testing every 1-3 days. I let mine go a little too long and it got a bitter aftertaste, but I removed the blood oranges and added about 1 tablespoon of orange zest and that fixed the problem.

Filtering the blood orange vodka.

Suggested drink:
2 oz. blood orange vodka
4 oz. ginger ale
dash of lime juice
ice
Combine and serve on the rocks.

*****

Cucumber infused vodka

1 cucumber
1 pint vodka

Peel and de-seed the cucumber. Combine with the vodka in an airtight container and leave for up to 2 weeks in the fridge or at room temp (but away from light). Shake occasionally and taste every 1-3 days. Once the infusion reaches the desired flavor level, strain it through cheesecloth or a coffee filter.

Suggested drink: cucumber-lemon collins
2 oz. cucumber infused vodka
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1.5 teaspoons powdered sugar
club soda
lemon, orange, and/or cherry to garnish

Combine the vodka, sugar, lemon juice and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake, strain into a glass 1/3 full with ice, fill with soda and add garnish.

*****

Blueberry-vanilla infused vodka


1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 pint vodka

Cut the vanilla bean in half the long way to expose the flavorful seedy part. Wash and drain the blueberries. Combine with the vodka in an airtight container. Taste frequently until vanilla flavor reaches the desired level (approximately 2 days). Discard the vanilla bean and leave the berries to infuse for an additional 2 weeks. Strain through a coffee filter or cheesecloth.

Suggested drink: just have it on the rocks!

*****

A few additional flavors that have worked for me in the past:
  • jasmine pearls (1 tablespoon per pint, taste every 5-10 min)
  • ginger-cardamom (use cardamom pods and taste daily)
  • persimmon (3 weeks)
  • tamarind (2 weeks)
  • apple-cinnamon (1 apple, 3 sticks cinnamon, 2 weeks)
So what flavors will you be trying?

[Update 2/20/09: I forgot to mention that my friend Anna got me started with infused vodka. She made me a cocktail with the ginger-cardamom one and I was hooked!

A few additional infused vodka resources: 
Infusions of grandeur, where they take their infusion experiments very seriously.
Infused vodka article in the San Francisco Chronicle. They have the original ginger-cardamom recipe plus pomegranate-lime, which I also tried and loved.]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Secret ingredient chocolate pie recipe

This pie is impressivly rich and no one will guess the secret ingredient is tofu (that is, unless they're allergic to soy). Easy variations: vegan chocolate pie and chocolate-peanut butter pie.


Secret ingredient chocolate pie

For the crust: 
~ 20 Oreo-like chocolate sandwich cookies (Trader Joe's Joe-Joes work well and are vegan; Newman-Os are also good)
2 tablespoons butter (or vegan margarine)

For the filling:
one 12-oz. package semi-sweet chocolate chips
20 oz. silken tofu
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 c. peanut butter (optional)
whipped cream (optional)


First, make the crust. If you've got a food processor, great, throw in the cookies and pulse 'til they're crumbled finely. If, like me, you don't have  a food processor, just chop the cookies on a cutting board with a regular chef's knife. 


It's kinda fun. You can also crush them in a large Ziploc bag with a rolling pin, but I think it's a pain to scrape the creme filling off the sides of the bag. Besides, a big pile o' chopped cookies is much prettier than a bag o' smashed cookie goo. See?


Next, melt the butter and blend with the cookie crumbs. Be brutal in your blending if your cookies need a little extra crumbling. Press the mixture evenly into a pie pan. Cook at 375 for ten minutes. Cooking this crust isn't an absolute necessity, but it helps it hold together when you serve the pie. 

To make the filling, begin by combining the tofu, vanilla, and honey in the blender. Note that this recipe is pretty forgiving on the amount of tofu you use, as long as it's silken tofu. I've tried it with as little as 16 ounces and as much as 24 ounces and you still can't taste the tofu in the final product. Trust me. Blend for about a minute -- long enough to make sure the tofu is super creamy and the viscous honey has a chance to fully mix in. Drop in the peanut butter, if that's your thing, and blend another 30 seconds. 

Then melt the chocolate chips (save about 2 tablespoons to stir in or sprinkle on top). A double boiler is great, but you know what's even easier? A microwave! Zap the chips for 20 to 30 second intervals, stirring in between. Scrape the melted chocolate into the blender and blend for another minute or two, stopping to scrape down the sides a few times as you go. I love ultra-dark chocolate, but this pie seems to work best with semi-sweet chips. Just make sure they're chips you'd enjoy eating on their own. You can also add a range of milk, semi-sweet, and dark for a more complex chocolate flavor. 

Stir in any unmelted chocolate chips and pour the choco-tofu mixture into the pie crust. Chill for at least 2 hours. Serve with homemade whipped cream. 

Whipped cream: 
1 pint whipping cream
1/4 c. sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat the cream on medium-high with an electric mixer until it starts to thicken. Slowly add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture forms stiff peaks. Add the vanilla and mix until blended. 

Here's the pie I made yesterday (a peanut butter version) just before I put it in the fridge.

Photography lesson of the day: don't be lazy and mix light source types. It'll give you weird colors in your photo, like the blue tinge in this one (part fading sunlight, part incandescent).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Book spine poetry

Five months after moving into my apartment, half of my books are still in boxes because I haven't gotten a second bookcase yet. The first half are in no particular order since I planned to organize them all in one fell swoop.

Mostly this drives me crazy, but this morning the jumble of titles spoke to me. It said: 

Breath, eyes, memory,
Minds, brains, and science, 
Sex, drugs, and cocoa puffs. 
Everything is illuminated.

A briefer history of time: 
Lonely planets neverwhere.
Wonderful life. 
Collapse.
Zero loneliness.

The mismeasure of man (to say nothing of the dog)
Midnight's children, American gods, bad girls.

The good soldier of light and shadows
Le petit prince running after antelope
The blind assassin
War is a force that gives us meaning
When science goes wrong. 

I'm no poet, but that never stops me from heading straight for a fridge door full of magnetic poetry. Got a bookshelf in the living room and a stomach for unalphabetized books? Let your friends go crazy. 

(By the way, the books turned backward were just to highlight the relevant books in the photos. I can handle messy books but even I have limits!)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Quick update: baby blanket, phoenixes

Two quick updates on previous posts:


The baby blanket I wrote about here seems to have passed muster with baby Alyssa.


Also, copper phoenixes like the ones I made for the birds of change exchange are now for sale in my Etsy store. Thanks to those who commented and encouraged me to list them there!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Art on the job: the commute

Okay, so technically you're not on the job, you're on the way to the job. Still, it's a part of work. Whether you get there by foot…

photo: "Rush Hour" by gmonster 25

photo: "Late for Work" by Eneas

by bicycle…

photo: "the peddler" by mugley

by bus…

photo: "Back of Bus Seat" by D'Arcy Norman

by train… 

photo: "tube" by pfig
photo: "Paddington" by maz hewitt

or with your own set of wheels…

photo: "Bright Atlanta" by nrbelex

photo: "AM commute" by nailbender

…there's art to be found there, when you're not missing your bus or cursing crazy drivers. 

Speaking of art and work, hop on over to Penelope Trunk's blog for this tough love post on how to build a career as an artist. (Hint: you might be better off keeping your day job.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Let me do it myself!

The folks over at Make Magazine, one of my very favorite do-it-yourself websites, put together this maker's bill of rights -- simple design elements that would make repairs much more convenient (or at least possible) on commercial products.
What do you think? If repairs were easier to make, would you want to crack open your DVD player? Is this bill of rights idealistic or unrealistic? Would including ease of repair as a design element encourage the do-it-yourself ethic?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Art and the brain: mirror neurons

In the cafe while I was writing this post, a wayward spritz of lemon juice intended for my Caesar salad nearly hit the woman at the table to my left. I looked her way, vaguely embarrassed, and realized in horror that she was washing and putting in contact lenses. At her table. Next to mine. In the cafe. Where there is food. My salad, for instance. 

Seriously, how is this okay? Eyeballs are cool from a scientific or medical standpoint, but eyeballs and salad just do not mix, people! But perhaps an accidental drop of lemon juice in her contact lens solution will teach her to attend to her eyes in the bathroom. 

I digress. 

Actually, no I don't. Eyeballs are totally relevant, because this post is about how the brain interprets art, and for visual art that begins with the eyes. 

Let's get straight to the heavy questions: Why does art appear in every culture? What makes it so important to both create and view aesthetically pleasing stuff? What goes on in the brain that allows us to enjoy something subjective like art? 

The branch of science attempting to answer such questions from a neurological perspective is called neuroesthetics.

Imagine my disappointment on finding that just days before this blog launched, I missed the 8th Annual International Conference on Neuroesthetics at the University of California, Berkeley. (Its being the 8th annual conference implies that I also missed the 2nd through 7th conferences during the years I lived in Berkeley. So it goes.) This particular conference tackled the topic of mirror neurons, crucial networks of cells in our brains that respond to the behavior of others. 

Mirror neurons can be pretty important in development. They help us learn how to do things like, say, sticking your tongue out at somebody:



The video, which accompanied a paper by researchers from the University of Parma, Italy, shows a baby rhesus macaque monkey imitating a researcher sticking out his tongue. During the imitations, mirror neurons in the monkey's brain are responding to the researcher's actions, which the monkey then imitates.

Humans have mirror neurons, too, and they're almost constantly active even though we don't realize it and usually don't outwardly imitate the action we see. Watch me eat my salad and somewhere in your brain you're eating salad, too. You don't even have to directly see the action; any mention of the activity will do it. Merely reading about salad means that your mirror neurons are responding with an inner salad experience. (I hope you like Caesar.)

Mirror neuron responses go beyond imitation of movement, however. We use these responses to infer another's intent in taking an action and to empathize with them. If I take a forkful of salad, your mirrored forkful is connected to the related actions of chewing and swallowing. From this, you infer that I will eat the salad, and that I am doing so because I am hungry. I'm not merely moving lettuce -- I have a plan; you know that without having to consciously think about it. If my salad is delicious (and it is), I will smile and you will inwardly smile and feel satisfied. That's empathy, courtesy of your mirror neurons. 

So what is going on in our brains when we view art? We are mirroring the Mona Lisa's smile and we are screaming back at The Scream. We are experiencing the actions and emotions of others in the artwork and perhaps. In the creation of the work and our response, the artist is exploring the shared experiences that are communicated by our mirror neurons. In the words of Semir Zeki, a professor of neurobiology at University College London, "...the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools."