Monday, February 24, 2014

An outright hungarican rant.

The struggle to keep from falling.

I’m going to go off on a topic right now that might not be everyone’s favourite, but I have been growing increasingly depressed by the attitudes that are flying around in the US right now, and I really need to get this off my chest.  You see, I am a middle class mom.  I am not working right now. At this point, seeing there are no decent jobs to be had, I would be working a low-pay job just to pay for my child to attend a sub-par day care. There was no maternity leave for me to fall back on.  There was nothing. So the whole idea is a wash. Until we can come up with another solution, I am not going to be doing any job except taking care of my son. And the burden of our household will rest on my husband’s shoulders.

We are struggling. We are both in our 40s and we have nothing saved. When times were good, and we were able to make ends meet, we were paying off the debts from the previous years.  We have never been able to get ahead.  When I got pregnant and very sick, there was a two-month period where we had no health insurance, but it was just enough time to rack up several thousand dollars in medical bills, which we've mostly paid off by drawing down my 401K from my previous job. So essentially, we only have the equity in our home (thank goodness I bought before the bubble, so we’re not upside down like so many people are), and that’s it.  Every month is a tight situation. We are always on the edge of the cliff, and it is usually small graces that keep us afloat at all.  We both work very hard. We do the responsible thing. We bust our asses. Dan drives 120 miles a day just in a commute. We pay our dues. We are not struggling because we are making bad decisions. We are not struggling because we are not hard workers. We are struggling because the economy is constructing itself in a way that is making it nearly impossible for us to get on our feet and start preparing for retirement. It's as simple as that.

We do not take any benefits from the government; we would probably be ‘too well off’ to qualify anyway, in spite of sometimes not having enough money to get essentials.  The only time Dan collected unemployment was when he was laid off from his job of ten years, and it took him one and a half years to find another job; falling down the income ladder significantly. His time on unemployment was spent applying for jobs. Filling out hundreds of applications and attending interviews if it ever got to that point. The binder he kept to prove his job-hunting to the unemployment office ended up being so thick, it didn't fit in the file box.  He applied for every job he could find that would cover his basic bills. He was competing with sometimes as many as 800 other applicants for the same job. He eventually found work. You have to take whatever is offered when you are on unemployment. There is no picking and choosing, and if you don't want that job, you lose benefits. So abusing unemployment isn't really easy.

He worked his way slowly back up the income ladder over the next few years, and then got a great job in the wind industry, where we were finally able to make ends meet. Seven years with the company, and boom… another layoff! And guess what? That income level was knocked all the way back down again, because jobs like that are not easy to find.  He has been grinding away trying to find work to bring him back to that income level. And he hasn't reached that level again yet, since 2010.  He also had to change jobs because he didn't have health insurance, and I was pregnant and not having an easy pregnancy. Our debts and expenses did not vary to match the change in income, which at one point went down to one third of what it was. Those still remain even today, looming over our heads like the sword of Damocles.

So we are right there at that threshold where the middle class starts to slip into poverty levels. We aren't quite there yet, but we are close.  And with each passing year, and with the current political climate, things don’t look like there going to get much better.  Last year, when we had no health insurance, we tried four times with four different companies to buy it ourselves, and we were declined four times for different reasons, one being I was pregnant, which is a pre-existing condition.  Now that ACA/”Obamacare” exists, they can’t do that shit to people any  more.  If Dan hadn't been able to find that job with health insurance, we would have been fucked.  We would have had a $25,000 medical bill for the birth of my child, not to mention all the follow up appointments for his vaccinations and his care.  This time, if he lost his job for any reason, we would have that option to find affordable care and have that safety net so we don’t end up being bankrupted by medical bills.

We don’t collect food stamps or public funds, but I know a couple of people that do. One of those persons is a woman who works full time and has three kids and is married. Both people work, but their jobs just don’t pay very much.  Not enough to pay bills and keep the kids fed and clothed. They are not lazy, they both work very hard. Neither of their jobs offer insurance of any kind. They in fact both keep them just below the full-time threshold so they don't have to provide any benefits by law, and so the couple, in spite of working crappy jobs and managing their household, has to rely on public funds to keep themselves afloat.  They are not lazy. They are not stupid. They are perhaps demoralized and feel powerless as prices go up and they just seem to go nowhere.

And that is the crux of it.  Demoralization. When people like them, struggle their asses off to make ends meet, and have to suck up their pride and apply to get food stamps, and then they hear people they know, and people on TV, call them ‘takers’ and ‘lazy’ and ‘unmotivated’ and ‘poor’ as if they are somehow responsible for this situation; well, it's hard not to be downtrodden when your own country shits on you for falling into a pit the country itself created.

The Vilification of the financially challenged.

The truth of the situation is this: the mythical Welfare Queen, where this whole ‘lazy taker’ mythos came from was an invention of the Reagan administration.  The truth is, and these are statistics taken from the US Dept or Labor statistics website, based on the 2012 IPIA 3-Year average data report, fraud was prevalent in 2.67% of cases.

The greater majority of welfare users are not black, low-income people living off the fat of the land. In fact, the greater majority of welfare recipients are white. And they are on welfare for an average of 2 years before they are able to rejoin the workforce and support themselves again. That is just the way it is.   The anecdotal story of the minority family living off of welfare for 20 years is largely a myth. The stories about people using their welfare and food stamps to buy brand-names and have their weaves put in is just a Fox News construction made to fire up the base to keep them voting republican. That is a sad, sad (and so damned racist) fact.

Also another misconception that Fox News tries to sell is that food stamp recipients are lazy. Almost 30% of households receiving food stamps are working households.  Many recipients are also Senior Citizens, and even more tragically, US Veterans who haven’t had it hard enough as it is, I guess.

So here I am, slipping into a place where pride and dignity get chucked onto the wayside, and you become the ridicule of the people who have been just a bit luckier.  And I get really angry when I see the ridicule.

The truth is, this country could do a great deal better for its people. And this ‘I've got mine so fuck you’ attitude that is oddly, coming mainly from the right, is so short-sighted and self-destructive and I cannot believe that these people cannot even see the error of their own ways, even for the sake of self preservation.  In their quest to scrabble to a place where they can look down and ‘haw-haw’ on others, they are shooting themselves in the foot. And they are so consumed by resentment and bitterness and selfishness, they cannot even see it.

The sad reality is that all this finger pointing, all this name calling, all this vilification and belittling of the ‘poor’ is just a means for someone to feel less guilty about being completely selfish. It’s as simple as that. It is a justification for self-absorption.  It is a way of avoiding taking any responsibility for the society that sustains you. It is deflection. It is hoping that nobody will see your very deep and terrible flaws if you just say that someone is worse than you.

You see, not everybody is going to be lucky forever, and not everybody is going to have things work their way. The truth is, every single person save for a tiny percentage of our society (and that’s even questionable), is just one step away from oblivion, and to arrogantly stand inside one’s cookie cutter house, filled to the brim with credit-purchased toys and gadgets and point at people who live humbly, or people who have struggled and that have a hard time and to call them lazy and takers because they are in a crappy situation is just absolutely despicable.  And it is hubris.

The hypocrites

I have a relative who was in the military and after being discharged worked without a problem for many years. Apparently she had a traumatic experience while in service; and nothing was done about it. She has had PTSD from it. Then she got fired from her job. Then, she saw an news article where they were discussing how the government has been awarding SSI for PTSD in record numbers, so she applied, and with her diagnosis, got 60% benefits. She also enjoys ‘vocational rehab’ which means the government is also paying for her to go to school.  Now I am not arguing whether or not she should have these benefits. My issue of contention is that she is one of the people who posts stuff on Facebook about lazy takers.  For someone who had a job competently up until she got SSI, she sure has a lot of gall to sit there in judgment of anyone and say they are lazy. It’s all a matter of perspective. She doesn't know their story, who is she to sit there and assume that nobody else has a good a reason to justify taking public funds, except her? Who is she?  That rattles my cage tremendously. 

That’s the problem.  Every homeowner in this country gets welfare. It’s called the ‘real estate tax deduction’. Their kids attend public schools. They drive public roads. They are protected by a public police force. Their bodies are protected from harmful toxins and chemicals being released into the environment by a public agency that regulates these things. They use publicly built electrical grids to power their homes. They type out their hateful Facebook posts on an internet the public built.  Everybody enjoys the benefits of public funds. How is it that when people are in trouble, their asking for help is somehow different? How is it that it is okay to vilify and shit on the poor people because they are having a difficult time? How is it their fault, or their bad decisions? Do the rest of the people not make bad decisions? Of course they do.  And worst of all, how can the same people who scream and shout that the ‘lazy people’ and immigrants are taking their resources, and that’s the reason this country is going to hell, take advantage of those same services and be justified in doing so? It’s like the Oregon Timber industry crying out for their timber payments, when the same people decry government intervention. Isn’t the American way to figure out how to succeed without government assistance? Why is that suddenly a problem for you?  It’s like the farmers voting republican, but taking billions in subsidies and tax deductions from the government. It’s like the Duggars, who have their house registered as a church, so the whole clan can exist without paying a dime in taxes while they clog up our airtime with their utter non-relevance.

My step-father in law sits in front of Fox News all day, parroting the unbelievable misinformation day in and day out. The irony is, he is retired very comfortably on his union pension and his social security. He gets raises when the still-working people in his previous employment get raises. And yet here he is, crooning the Republican mantras, voting for people who want to abolish unions and cut social security.  It is a very sad, sad thing to see.

Selfishness is an acceptable state of being in this country. In fact, it’s promoted and encouraged as the way Americans should be.  If you don’t do well, it’s just something you must be doing. It’s your fault. You are a lazy loser and you deserve what you get. That’s the prevailing attitude of the right, and that is as awful and ridiculous as it sounds.

Whining liberals, righteous conservatives.

Being a good, compassionate, caring person is a bad thing in America. Anywhere else, it is a laudable goal to work towards.  There is a strange, weird selective blindness among many American Christians to the reality that many of their own exercise this attitude while claiming to follow Christ’s teachings.  The same people that say this; that cling to their religion and claim righteousness, are the very same people that admonish the poor, that vote against their own interests, promote intolerance of homosexuality and the degradation of women.  They are in essence, the least Christ-like.  Liberalism has become a bad word. But if you read the basic definition, it sounds very much what being an American is supposed to mean:
lib·er·al  [lib-er-uh, lib-ruh]  adjective1. favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs. 2. noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform. 3. of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties. 4. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties. 5. favoring or permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers

However, someone came along and decided that being a liberal is a weakness. As if being a human being that cares about others is somehow a terrible, undesirable state of being. As if desiring change and progress is a crime. As if wanting a better world for your children is the worst possible thing a human being can desire.   Instead, the idea of being selfish, being uncaring, taking no responsibility for anything except for yourself is somehow the commendable choice.  To be a conservative is to be strong and bold. To be successful. That is the idea they seem to cling to. But in all truth, to be conservative is to be selfish and insular. To be conservative is to claim a love for freedom, and to decry the government and government control—except when you want to impose your ideologies on others, of course.  To be conservative is, ultimately, to be a bully. A cowardly, wholly self-absorbed, willfully ignorant delusional bully. The sad psychology behind this is that conservatives want to have the image of a big truck driving, gun toting, freedom loving every-man—they strive to make it to that hallowed pedestal of the 1%, but likely never will. They believe that success is their doing only. That people who are not successful didn't try as hard as they did when in all truth their success is created on the backs of others, on the framework the liberals of society pushed for, and sometimes on blind luck. They foster their ideologies by surrounding themselves with material wants, and they shout and scream with all their bluster against the anyone that might have different ideals. But ultimately it is a colossal sense of powerlessness and fear that drives them. Change is bad. Intellectualism is bad. Progress is bad. Compassion is bad. All the qualities that make us so irrevocably human… bad. 

Socialism bad. We don’t wanna live like Europeans

Many Americans cannot stretch their imaginations beyond the US borders. In fact, for most folks, it hardly surpasses their own states and cities.  But there is ::gasp:: a whole world out there. Countries filled with people. Countries much older than the USA. Countries that have had ups and downs and ins and outs much more than the fledgling nation with the big ego.  A lot of people go through life thinking that the USA is so great and so grand and so amaze-balls, that it really has nothing to learn from other nations.  Americans cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to live a little more responsibly. They see that as oppression. As … Yes, I’m gonna say it… SOCIALISM!!  DUN DUN DUUUUNNN.

Most republicans don’t really understand what socialism is or anything else that is foreign. And they cling to the occasional anecdote they heard from a friend of a friend to basically define their entire attitude about it. But the truth is, socialist programs are pervasive throughout the world in varying degrees, including in America. And the only countries where there is the most oppression are not among the ones providing successful social programming as a framework to eradicate poverty and improve the quality of life. 

You see, in Europe, there are still plenty of douchebags driving around in large vehicles and living in tacky big houses. There’s no shortage of conservative idiots. But alongside those parallels with the US, there are things like universal medicine for all. Not perfect by any means, but definitely better than what is happening here in the US. Many folks say: Oh, why do we need to change anything? I have insurance and I like it just fine. Well… 1) Sorry, but it’s not all about you. And 2) just because it doesn't affect you doesn't mean it isn't happening to everyone else. Try and step out of your selfish little me-bubble and look around once in a while.  Having to wait a bit in a waiting room, or share a hospital room (if you don’t want to pay extra) seems a reasonable price to pay for me, so that other people who couldn't have access to care normally, finally could. You see, I don’t think health care should be like tacky McMansions. It should not be something that only a certain income bracket can afford to have.  And if you do believe that, then you are a shitty person. That is just the plain truth. And a shitty Christian if you are one of those.

Working parents have access to sliding-scale day cares for children in Europe. School is free, and it’s high-quality and it creates well-educated products.  College is available to anyone that wants to go in most countries. Police and fire and emergency services are free. Yes, you have to pay for it. But it seems to me that I would rather live in a world where municipal services actually respond and are decently paid, where an ambulance ride doesn't mean I have to take a second loan out on my home, and where there are enough resources to keep the peace.

Some countries still have doctors that make house calls.  Pharmacy purchases are negligible if not free. These are not entitlements, these are resources that the society agreed to pay together. And if there is a minority that doesn't want to play along, well, too bad. You have to pay taxes. It’s what grow-ups do.  If people are in crisis, there are places to go to get help. To get job training. To get food assistance. To get unemployment benefits until you can find work. There are systems in place to make sure these resources are not squandered on the occasional abuser.  Again, nobody expects perfection. That’s impossible when human beings are involved. There are dicks everywhere you go and they like to do dicky things. But you find ways to work around them so everyone else who isn't a dick can keep going along.

Homogenous nations – what a pile of bullshit

My eldest brother offered me the argument one day that: “Europe is a lot more homogeneous, and that’s why that stuff works there. The US is not, so it wouldn't work here.”  Well… sorry Bro, but that is 100% bullshit.  Anyone who has lived in Europe knows Europe is ANYTHING BUT homogeneous.  You drive two to three hours and you can enter a different culture. Each country in Europe has hordes of minority groups. They have massive groups of Muslims and the Sharia crap to deal with, they have African émigrés, they have all sorts of cultural upheaval every day, and they also have a much more proactive political state, where riots are not like occupy where people sit and get sprayed in the face by douchebag cops, they throw Molotov cocktails and cops have to wear riot gear not for appearances, but because the rioters mean business. That rarely happens in the US.  Politics are always in flux in Europe. So do not say Europe is a jug of fucking homogenized milk. It is vodka, a layer of apple liqueur, whiskey, beer and ten thousand varieties of wine. Don't get me started on the cheeses.

The US on the other hand, well, the only way you can tell you've gone from one state to the next is the geography and the accent.  It's McDonalds and coke and yellow cheese food. Talk about homogenized. Please. So don’t use the adage that America is too diverse for universal change. That’s just crap. The truth is, people just need to decide to change and just do it. The curmudgeons can hide in their homes and peer out from between their blinds and mumble and grumble to their heart’s content, but they will have to embrace that change too eventually. Don’t say it can’t happen. Just look at the New Deal and tell me it can’t happen.  That is a closed-minded, narrow mindset.  Change is good. It is what made America so damned great once upon a time. Innovation, progress… we used to be the masters of that stuff. Now, we’re importing our doctors from India while our schools produce students that can barely spell and cannot figure out the difference between their, there and they’re.

So stop with the hate and the vitriol against others.

I say enough. Enough of the name calling and the finger pointing, it will not stop the world from seeing your own failures.  Enough hatred against people who live differently than you.  Enough pushing your ideologies into the face of people who really want nothing to do with it.  Enough bawling about ridiculous things while the rest of the world implodes around you.  There are places outside of your own little circle, and people that matter that aren't you. Enough belittling and degrading of women. Enough imposing of your ideologies on the bodies of women.  Enough digging for reasons to hate someone because you don’t want anyone to see the real reason you do. Enough hiding behind your religion to judge and oppress others.  Enough crying persecution because someone criticized you.  The world isn't all about you. It does not revolve around your beliefs or your ideologies. It does not have to follow your personal rules to make things convenient for you.  If you want to live selfishly, then own up to living selfishly and stop turning blame onto others.  If you want to be a dick, then at least take responsibility for being a dick. Take responsibility for the reasons you feel so compelled to direct so much of your vitriol and hatred onto people you know absolutely nothing about, and understand that your reasons for being a taker are not better than any one else's reasons. Enough.  Enough. Enough.

And in conclusion of my rant, something profound from TV. I've never seen this show, but I would like to after seeing this clip.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Pacific Northwest: What To Do In The Event Of Snow

It begins with the coverage. Sponsored by Les Schwab.
Step 1:  The initial expected reaction, after hearing the news coverage, is to do exactly as follows: Begin by running around madly with your arms flailing.  As such:

Appropriate stages of emotional reactions expected during a PNW snow event
proportionate to actual snowfall amounts.

Be aware, however, that you should also be shrieking in horror. That is important to the process of surviving this storm.

2. Proceed directly to your nearest Les Schwab tire dealership, or any tire seller that has studded tires. Purchase four new studded tires for this single storm-event. Have them installed immediately onto your vehicle. Drive as if normal weather conditions in them, and proceed to still have an accident. And then proceed to destroy the roads with said tires until April.

The 'TaxPits' - $869 please. $$Ka-ching$$
3. From the tire dealership, proceed to your nearest grocery store, and buy enough food to carry you through the equivalent of the fallout period of a level 7 nuclear event (and don't forget the wine).

"I'm gonna starve to death."
Well, I guess that SwagRiffic Vino, from the vineyards of Delaware will have to do.
4. Proceed home, navigating as best you can around the other panicked drivers at regular speed. Be sure to gun your engine to avoid sliding, and stand on your brakes to stop. You should also continue trying to steer the vehicle when you are in a free slide.  Your car should have at least half of its value lost in damages, or be totaled in order to properly fulfill the requirements of proper weather-event preparation.

5. If you reach home alive, and hopefully without having killed anyone else in your blind panic, proceed to the television and turn it on to hear the weather coverage. Then proceed to the darkest corner of your home, and form the fetal position, while being bathed in the sound of news anchors spelling out in no certain terms, the end of humankind as we know it.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Evolution explained in simple terms

I am an atheist. I have pronounced this fact numerous times throughout the history of this blog, and I am a strong supporter of the idea of scientific process, evidence and the validity of the theory of evolution.

Every once in a while, I hear this come up:

:::DERRRP::: "Well... if we came from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?"

All this phrase does is reveal with no small measure of embarrassment on the behalf of the speaker, that they are completely ignorant. It is the dumbest thing to say.  They should be ashamed for being so willfully stupid.

So, I have created this primer that can somehow explain to these people in the simplest of terms, the concept of common ancestry.  Although the reality of this is much more complex, and the trees branched much more than once, it hopefully can fire up those underused grey matter cells and maybe teach someone a little something.

Oh, and again a note to all: this blog is not a place for debate. It is my autocracy. Trolls will be deleted. Maybe you can pray for me to change my ways. See if that works.  In the meantime, do not post divisive language here, I will delete it before a single person can read it. It will be a waste of your time.  And trust me, all the ire and rage and threats of hell fire and damnation in the world isn't going to make me change my mind. Only evidence will.  Enjoy.

Monday, December 23, 2013

'Tis the season, folks, like it or not! A million pictures. Yay?

Ho Ho Hoooo boy, it's been hectic over here at Johanesen Cottage for the season so far.  For Thanksgiving, we made the trip over the Cascades to dine with my sister Helen and her husband Matt.  It was really fun. It was one of the few times I had a holiday event involving my family where there was no acrimony or stress. We decided to stay a couple of nights to make the two and a half hour drive tolerable, so we went down Wednesday night and returned on Friday afternoon.

Here is the overnight-brined, butter-basted organic deliciousness that filled our tummies, and provided for several separate meals, including a rich stock, soup (naturally), turkey pot-pies and more.  Fare thee well, gobbler. You were much appreciated.

Somebody rode his first pony during this stay in Bend. We stopped at the barn where my sister was boarding her horse and Alex got to ride a fat, tall American Shetland named Oreo (soooooo original for a black and white pony). He was pretty frisky because of the cold weather. Alex loved it. He loved the horses. There were no screams of fear. He sat on Oreo, and vocalized and patted his mane the same way he pats the cat's fur.  It was precious. When Oreo was walking, he just rode along without a care, watching Eleanor (Helen's horse) in the arena.

We got a little dusting of snow earlier on this month, but it didn't stick around, sadly. I was hoping for a white Christmas for a change. Oh well. It's pretty wet and rainy out there today. I can still hold out hope for a freak snow-storm.

Dan has been playing around with some wood pickets, making these cool little squirrel feeders. The problem is, it's designed for a gallon-sized jar, which apparently are not at all easy to find. But we will prevail! In the meantime, the half-gallon jar of pickles I managed to gnaw my way through during pregnancy (how cliché right?) works just find.

Turns out Alex loves to go to Sushi & Maki with me (my favourite place). He just eats the sh*t out of gyoza and white sticky rice.  Here's a picture of him waiting for the food to come on our last little jaunt into town.  He is growing up SO fast.  In spite of his remaining in the 5th percentile in size (yes, at one year + 1 month old, he weighs 16 lbs, 2oz.) he is on target developmentally. And yes, he is walking now.  It took him a couple of months to tentatively try and step about, but one day, it's like a light bulb switched on over his head, and he just started stamping around like a boss. He is EVERYWHERE now. And you can barely keep him in your lap anywhere, because all he wants to do is explore.

Inspired by the mini-pork-pie pasty bites I made for the Jane Austen tea on 12.15, I came home with more pork to make a full-sized one that Monday night. It was hella good. About a pound of coarsely ground pork, some fresh sage leaves, a large shallot, some salt, white pepper, a dusting of nutmeg, some coarsely chopped stale baguette, a bit of cream to soften it, an egg, and a very simple savoury butter-based pie-crust, and voila. A little bit of dijon, and some salad greens with a bright vinaigrette and man, that was delicious! It was a win with Alex too, who just powered through his own little slice for dinner and the next day for lunch.

Yesterday and today, it has been cookie-baking time. We are opting out of bankrupting ourselves buying made-in-China landfill fodder for all the largely indifferent adult family members this year. Instead, I am making cookie-pails. They can eat them, feed them to the birds, I don't care (historically, my cooking has been way too out of the box for most of them, so whenever I brought a dish to share at their events, nobody ate from it, so I stopped bringing food). I started with some surprisingly light and mouth-meltingly delicious Amish sugar cookies.  I've never actually made sugar cookies. For some reason, the idea of using cream of tartar always seemed too complicated (I know, don't ask), but whenever I saw a recipe requiring it, I'd just flip to the next one as if it was insurmountable or something. Using recipes with shortening is the same for me. Not sure why.  But I sucked it up this year, bought a little jar of the mysterious stuff, and this is the result. Seven dozen delicious, light-as-air sugar cookies.  Enough for the seven pails I am filling up for family.

They are really good. They don't need any icing, or sprinkles or any foo-foo embellishments. They are good just as they are.

Next up, I endeavored to make Speculoos/Speculaas, a traditional Belgian favourite.  I have to find my Belgian cookbook, because these may taste close to the real thing, but they really are too crisp and too hard. The texture is just a bit off.  It's a Martha Stewart recipe, and naturally the picture of her molded cookies is perfection. I used the carved roller to make some little designed cookies. They came out rustic, and okay. They are super-crispy-crunchy, and the spices are good, but just not... bright enough.  I made enough to fill the pails. They will make good coffee dunkers. No sense in starting over. It's not an easy recipe, and it requires a lot of work and a lot of time to make them.

Next cookies will be my no-fail delicious orange cookies that Dan isn't too keen on. But I don't care. I will ice them and they will top the stack in the little pails. I think dinosaurs and forest creatures are Christmassy enough for me. LOL.  I'll make those tonight after we get back from our errands.

The Christmas tree this year. Yes, I'm obsessed with white ornaments, do not ask me why. I like to add a pop of red and some little touches of colour here and there, but every year I find one or two white ornaments to add to my growing collection. This year, I did not use my many glass icicles, nor did I use any of my hundreds of feet of pearl/snowflake/bead garlands.  Alex is mostly leaving the tree alone, but has moments of keen interest. Yesterday he was determined to pull out the snowflake shaped lights, and wanted to decorate it by adding some of his toys into the tree limbs. That's all good.

Yes, it's a bit cheesy and Jersey mob-wife-ish in taste. But I still like it. I love how tulle is so versatile and so cheap. Michaels has spools yards long for minimal moolah in the wedding department. I put it in the tree and on the wreath, it makes it look cloudy and ethereal when lights are diffused through it.  

The first of the little Christmas presents for Alex are stacked up waiting for Christmas morning.  Dan and I didn't buy anything for each other this year. Just Alex gets pressies. :)

Alex got the monster-foot stocking.

Meet 'Stretch'.  I have had Stretch for oh, at least since 1997. He barely survived a savage Jack Russell mauling, and survived to tell the tale, save for a bit of the beard missing on his right slipper and his body being a tad loosened from his stilty legs, but Christmas is not Christmas until Stretch is out on display.  He is as cheesy as Christmas decoration gets, and that's why I love him.

Some garland and snowflakey lights along the archway into the kitchen.

The rollers await the continuation of my baking spree. I have one more batch of Speculaas to preside over, then it's onto the orange cookies.  So much more fragrant than just regular sugar cookies or shortbread.

Trusty KitchenAid mixer, my heart's delight, I love this thing, needs a wipe-down before we proceed with more baking. This was and remains the best gift I have ever gotten. It was a wedding gift, and the only thing that could every outdo this mixer would be the bigger model with the levered bowl.

Oh, someone just sped by.  Who could that be?

The cookie pails await filling.

Some new organization for my craft-crap. It sort of takes over, so I got this so it has somewhere to go other than the top of the breakfront.

The second year of our new tradition, Alex and Santa at Macy's. He was so good, I have to brag that some parents were pretty envious of him. Their kids squirmed and cried and wailed. Alex sat happily on Santa's lap and even cracked a good smile for his last picture.  The icelandic-style sweater onesie and adorable shoes were courtesy of his aunts, who both seem to be bent on buying everything cute they can find on the internet. They've bought him SIX pairs of shoes so far. SIX. There's no stopping them.

And there it is. A smile.  It's a stark difference from last year's photo, isn't it?

Was he ever really that small? A scarce seven weeks here. How sweet.
He's grown so. My precious gift. Who needs anything else for Christmas but a healthy, happy child?

After Macy's, we hit the Oregon Zoo for their annual 'Zoo-Lights' display. It's crazy-impressive, the sheer magnitude of the effort, the zillions of lights, the displays and the care taken.  The whole zoo is lit up.  We were supposed to do this with some of the in-laws, something I proposed and was astonished they agreed to. But true-to-form, they bailed on us last-minute with some lame excuses. I have to remind myself not to take things personally. They do not often deviate from their normal activities, and do not like things that are not at their convenience.  We are the ones that do the bending to them during the holiday season. I won't stop trying to get them to do stuff with us though. Maybe someday, they won't change their minds last-minute. It's so irritating. They missed out on a wonderful time. I cannot say I've had a better time during the holidays than I have had these past few days. And we haven't gotten to Christmas yet (that is usually the stressful part).
Alex reacts to his first sight of elephants in this quick video.  He is fascinated by animals, and really quite fearless of them large or small. that is both a good and a bad thing.  But he was so cute at the zoo. He was waving his little fingers at the elephants (you can see him do it just before the video ends).  And he was making his little guinea-pig noise of interest when he saw them moving.

Alex and Ruger at the Ducati MotorCorsa Christmas party.
Happy Christmas everyone! Thank you so much for supporting this blog and following along with my rather strange but mostly ordinary life.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Marzipan cameos and petit fours from hell.

Jane Austen's birthday is today. That's a big thing for us Janeites. We at the ORS arranged to hold a tea in her honour, and the food and centerpieces were my lot for this occasion.  I was resolved to try my hand at making petit fours, and the experience left me exhausted and sore. 

Lesson #1 of petit-four making... If you're doing it for the first time, don't wait for the actual event to make them. A practice session would be helpful, and it may serve to turn you off of the idea forever more.

Lesson #2 of petit-four making... Ignore lesson one if you are determined to make them for your event.  You probably won't want to touch them if you find out exactly how much work and how miserable this task can be for the unprepared.

Lesson #3 of petit-four making... Unless you are really talented or really lucky, get rid of the final product you envision. There is very little chance your cakes are going to look like this:

They will more likely look like this:

Yes, this is my final product. The white speckles
 is just some Devon
Or possibly even this:
Ah, the hell with it, the author of this photo said. They still
tasted awesome. LOL.
So the hard truth about the process was this:

1. The posts I found on petit-four making were pretty non-specific about the viscosity needed in order to make a smooth, unblemished coat of poured fondant icing.  So I'm going to be explicit, because by the time I covered my thirtieth cake, I think I had a good idea of how it should have been done from the start, and how the icing process should be handled.

Tip #1: Buy 2 two-pound bags of fondant icing, and be prepared to double the recipe. I did and the last petit four was barely covered.
Now this is the recipe I used from Bakerella:

A 2 lb bag (@7.5 cups) powdered sugar, 1/2 cup light corn syrup, 
1/3 cup water, 1 tsp vanilla extract.
Heat on low and stir until everything is completely combined.

That is about it on the description of the process of making it.  Here was my experience with this recipe:

 - it was too thick. I added about another tablespoon or two of water later on to thin it out a bit because it was falling into huge, thick ribbons and making the petit fours look like mounds of molten wax.  The trick is making a thin frosting and applying a few coats if necessary.

- temperature is also really important. She says keep it on low and keep it warm. One site recommends a double boiler, another says microwave it frequently. I started with a double boiler but it wasn't keeping it warm or liquid enough, so I ended up pouring it into a pot and putting it on low (higher-low... towards medium) on the stove, and I constantly had to scrape the hardening sides to remelt it.

- the one good thing about this stuff, if it hardens on the drip tray or the rack, you just have to scrape it off and throw it back into the pot. It is reusable as long as it doesn't get crumby from the cake.

- there is GREAT wisdom in cleaning up as you go, because this is a MESSY process. And you will get fondant on your stove burner, so if you have the option to line it with foil, do that. I have a glass-top, so it just carmelized on the surface and smelled the house up.

- pouring it over the cakes can be a messy process.  Sites recommended using a sheet pan and rack and pouring it over that.  The problem with that is that the frosting stacks up beneath the cake and mounds at the base (because you have to pour a lot) and then you have to scrape the stuff off, back into the pan.

- holding the cake over the frosting pot and spooning it might work better for some, but it did not work for me. 1, that frosting his hotter than the surface of the sun and burns like a motherf*&ker. 2, the marzipan top sticks to your finger and can pull off completely when you try to put the cake down.  My solution? I have smaller drip-racks, and I used one to put each cake on, and held it over the pot, and spooned each side first, and then one last spoonful to cover the top.  The frosting should be pretty thin, and doing two coats will make it smoother and more opaque.

- there is a youtube video of a woman who frosts them using a pastry bag. She's a professional pastry chef, so ignore that byatch. She has asbestos hands and has made so many petit fours, she could probably frost them with her feet.  I tried the pastry bag first. It was way too hot to handle, and it took the entire pastry bag to cover one cake.  Not worth it.

Best practice: Make your poured fondant in a pot on the stove, keep it warm and liquid, it should be more like maple syrup in consistency rather than pancake mix.  Use the corner of a small drip rack to hold your individual cake over the pot, and cover sides and then top, or use a huge ladle, and pour a massive volume over the top at once.  Do it twice if you want a thicker coat, but not too much, or it will look like wax drippings. Stir your fondant every single time you take it to get the warmest, ooziest pour.  Use an offset spatula to pry the cake off your rack, wait two or three minutes before you do. To expedite it, I used two of my small drip racks and poured one, and then let it sit while I poured the next. Then I just moved the dry one off, and put a fresh cake on it for the next pour.

I did not lose any cakes that I made. That's the good thing. They may have been more clunky and frankensteiny than the elegant little dainty cakes I had hoped for. But they were still much enjoyed, and the marzipan cameos I put on them were a hit.  Those, on the other hand were very simple to make.  Here's how you make little cameos in marzipan.

Marzipan cameos:
Make a mold. I used Sculpey and a cheap plastic cameo.
Bake it at 225º for about ten or fifteen minutes depending on size.
I made two, one was deeper.
I made a cut-out using an old cookie cutter I didn't care
about anymore. I wasn't perfect, but it worked. I also
used a round-headed pin as a tool.
I coloured my marzipan for the cameo base, and left the
natural colour for the figure. I pinched a tiny bit of the white
and rolled it into a ball and dropped it in the mold.
Using the pin's round end (using fingers doesn't work since
marzipan sticks to skin), I carefully pressed the marzipan into the
figure part of the mold.
I then made a small pastille of the pink marzipan and placed it
on top. And using the back of the second, shallower mold,
I pressed it down.

I carefully peeled it out of the mold.
I aligned the cutter around it and trimmed off the edges.

The front of the cameos will dry out fairly quickly. In about an hour. Make sure you carefully pry them up and turn them over to dry the backs too, or they'll stick to the work surface and remain moist.  Once they're dry you can just toss them into a little container to store until you need to use them.  I affixed them to the petit fours with melted white chocolate.

The full spread.


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