Monday, April 21, 2014

What’s cooking in the oven? Pastries and cakes, yum!


To a non-cooker, breads seem a lot simpler and more ordinary than cakes.

The cakes look so dainty and special. Besides, you eat bread almost every day. It's a staple.

Cakes are for important tea parties or meetings, and of course milestone occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.

I was always cooking on nonstick pots and pans so I was a little nervous when I went into pastry and baking. (Read these reviews of the best nonstick cookware sets at Cookware Nation if you need some help finding good non stick stuff.)

Well, to be honest, with pancakes, waffles and crepes I remember using stainless steel pans and burning them. I was a bit leery when venturing in baking.

Today, there are waffle griddle pans that don’t need turning over, but I love my ancient stainless steel pans now that I know how to use them properly. Also, I seldom cook waffles now so I didn’t feel I needed the modern cookware.

But writing so now, I think breakfast tomorrow should include my old-fashioned waffle. I sprinkle herbs with the waffle batter, and they’re always a hit at the breakfast table.

But back to baking, I’ve levelled up a notch from pans to the oven. I started with muffins and they are great takeaways for school. I sneak in grated carrots, fruit cubes and nuts; it is empowering to know that I get a say to what my son puts in his stomach while snacking in school.

Not so long after, I’ve been baking really marvellous cakes. My co-workers get a kick every time I bring in a big box. They are not ordinarily helpful; but when they see me juggling a box and a case, they are quick to fall in step beside me and help with the stuff.

The real challenge with baking came with breads. I didn’t succeed with my first dough, and not much on the second. I was ready to dismiss bread as not a part of my repertoire. I consoled myself that I already had a wide range of food I was good at and it wouldn’t be such a big gap if the range didn’t include breads.

For a while that was okay, but every day I and my family ate bread and it wasn’t helping that I couldn’t bake a good one. I became very discriminating about breads, maybe due to my inability to produce a decent one I had to find fault on the bread’s maker. Being a quintessential kitchen-person, I had to keep poking on bread recipes and tips. Not a few samples went to the bin under the sink; only those slightly off the “failed bread” samples got to see the breakfast table.

And then I found the right mix of ingredients (the secret lies in the right combination of flour and grains), techniques, and temperature; my breads began to see the light.

I had to invest in a high-quality baker’s thermometer and learn about how yeast does its work. I can’t say that I bake breads as well as I do cakes, but now my family enjoys home-made breads with handpicked ingredients kneaded with care and love. I don’t think any bread around can compete with that.

Source: Cookware Nation

Friday, March 21, 2014

I’m home, sick

My home seems to be making me sick. I had been away for a month and I came back to a house that smells musty and mouldy, dusty where it’s dry and mildewed where it’s damp.Then I think I saw mites and ticks in the garage, and I can’t discount the chemical fume that I smelled also from the garage.
Yes, I’m home, and I’m sick. I sneezed as soon as I came through the door and into the foyer. I sneezed some more, and my nose felt funny and runny at the same time. Of course, I needed a lot of cleaning. But right that moment, I was just feeling very sick.

I went inside, took my vitamins, zinc, and gulped them down with two glasses of water. I slept the whole night not minding my environment, and hoping that I’d wake up feeling better. I woke up the following morning, a lot sicker. But I couldn’t sleep again so I decided to face the house and all that’s making it sick and me sicker.

I have a long list of allergies. In fact, just the thought of dust tingle my nose and make my eyes bleary red. I went to the coffee shop near my house and had breakfast. Amazingly, my nose cleared. So it had to be the house!

I went back and decided that I needed to clean up. Itook a bath, and donned a mask and a pair of gloves. I started taking anything that hung from the walls and windows – the curtains, the blinds, the drapes. Then I also took out the carpets and anything that was made of textile and was removable. I made a huge pile for the things that will have to go to the laundry shop, those that will be donated, those than can be vacuumed and cleaned, and those that will be thrown away.

Just with those, the house seemed to breathe and lighten up. I vacuumed the place and wiped where the vacuum could not go. I minimized using sprays and disinfectants because I reacted to them, so it was quite arduous using baking soda, vinegar, and salt. The first layers of mildew and moulds were out, and I breathed easier.

It was like that for the whole morning and past midday. I was tired by the end of the afternoon. But the house gleamed and I could smell fresh air. I smiled because it felt so spacious and hygienic. My work was done. Then I stopped smiling, I was puzzled that the house looked like those designed as minimalist houses. Where were all the things? Then I realized my huge pile of blinds to be washed, the rugs and carpets, the sofas and extra chairs that needed brushing and washing, and everything else.

Maybe, I will just donate them all to the Salvation Army. And there’s the untouched garage, with all the ticks and mites, old tools and equipment. They’d have to wait. Meantime, the place looks so good I could live here! Huh?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What’s in the “organic” label?

I was going to the grocery store to do some shopping. I had a list of what to buy and my wife’s stern instructions to buy only “organic” food. I wanted to panic, “How was I to know what organic foods were?”

Many are into the craze of buying organic, naturally-grown, made from natural ingredients, free-range, and hormone-free. What’s the diff? This is definitely the era for these products – I can see a lot of presently mass-produced processed foods and hi-tech farm products going out of style in a year or two. The really good thing about this craze coming in this age is that it also came with the age of Google. So in no time, I was searching the definition and USDA standards for all the food labels. Here’s what I learned:

Those labelled “100% organic” have no synthetic component or ingredient; they may or may not bear the USDA seal. It meant that I did not have to sweat looking for the USDA seal; although I also wondered why a certain product would not go the extra effort of obtaining a USDA seal if it was qualified.

Those labelled “organic” meant that they have at least 95% organic component and at most 5% synthetic or non-organic component or ingredient. These, too, may or may not bear the USDA seal. My wife’s instructions were “Buy organic only,” meaning I could choose between the 2 labels. 

There’s a third label that says “Made with organic ingredients.” It means that the food product was made of 70% organic ingredients but a maximum of 30% non-organic or synthetic ingredients. These products cannot bear the USDA seal.

The USDA seal is an assurance that the food was grown and prepared without (or within allowable restricted limits) synthetic and chemical-based farm inputs, biological and genetic alteration, or irradiation. The farm inputs used for growing these products are natural or biological fertilizers and pesticides.

Organic foods tend to be more expensive than the conventionally raised food products. According to my source, that is an effect of the economies of scale and the universal law of supply and demand. Not that I understood those economic concepts very well, but I think it means that the price will even out when more farmers and food producers will start supplying organic foods.

Meanwhile, they cost at least 50% more than the prevailing price of non-organic food. I’m a little bit worried because it’s easy to understand that organic foods are friendlier to Mother Earth and way healthier for people. The USDA definitions and regulations, while not that easily understood or retained in my memory, are “Google-able” and easily searched. But is it healthy, friendly, or easily understood by my economics? I don’t think so.

I could always wait for more farmers to go into organic farming. Or I could buy some pots, planting soil, and seeds now to start growing my own vegetables.That’s an idea! Now, let’s see, which of these seeds have not been genetically modified? And were these bags of soil not treated with chemicals? The pots are made of plastic; would they have a significant BPA component to it?
Uh-huh, I decided to keep to my wife’s list and instructions. That should be easier than this circuitous way of shopping! I put back my iPhone back to my pocket and took the list out. Way to go!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tips for bathing a dirty cat

Bathed my cat today and it sure wasn’t easy
Honestly, I didn’t think that cats needed bathing. Unlike when I decided to raise my two Labs, bathing them went with the decision. And so did walking, grooming, and keeping them dogs active.

With cats, it was different. It came like a complete package with its straight back and sidewise glance to me, and a snobbish attitude that seemed to say, “Thanks, but no thanks; I can take care of myself.” And just what I thought, it was more than capable at grooming itself. It didn’t bother me like my overly active pups.
However, one sunshiny morning,my cat came slithering between my legs and I noticed it was slick in an oily kind of way. It smelled funny, too. It happened to be a Saturday, and a lazy one at that. I brought the cat to the yard to bathe it. But I haven’t washed a cat before, and the cat looked like it has not taken a bath in its whole life. Its paws poised for attack weren’t reassuring, either. It was beginning to stress me. I took to the internet and spent a few minutes ticking out pointers. Here are the steps I followed:

1. I trimmed the cat’s nails since I was so scared that it would scratch my eyes off. I used the dogs’ clipper and took note that the cat needs its own beauty kit. I think it detested the fact that the clipper smelled of naughty Labs.

2. I brushed the cat’s coat – yes, before I even started bathing it. I realized how knots were formed under the slick top coat. This was a useful tip I got from an article. Prior to wetting the cat, the coat must be brushed to minimize tangles. I think that the cat also relaxed with the brushing that it got.

3. Then I wore gloves that went up my arms – to cover as much skin as possible. I also tied my hair because my hand will be full with a squirming cat later to be keeping hair away from my face. I also wore an old pair of comfy denim pants.

4. Then I brought the cat to the bathroom, I decided against the yard because it’s too wide a place to be chasing a wet cat around. I locked the bathroom door behind me; I didn’t want a soapy kitchen, living room, and every other place. Washing a cat for the whole Saturday was enough; I hadn’t planned on cleaning the whole house.

5. I used a baby shampoo for the cat. But I read somewhere later that cats have their own shampoos. Human and even dog shampoos can be toxic or irritating for cats. Well, the baby shampoo didn’t hurt my cat; if anything, it smelled like a baby. I’ve never bothered smelling cats before, I sneeze at the thought!

6. I made circular motions with the diluted shampoo (yes, dilute it), being careful with the head and tender with the belly. I don’t know, but I didn’t want to tickle the cat lest it flies in a rage.

7. All the while the cat squirmed but it had nowhere to go. It surrendered and allowed me to rinse it (her, him?). I was all wet, too. I thought it would have been easier had there been another person to hold it for me. Anyway, it got all rinsed and smelling clean. But it looked like a scared rat. Who wouldn’t if it was your first time to get shampooed and watered down? I took my towel hanging on the towel rack and wrapped the poor thing with it. Now, I have one less towel.

8. I can’t say that it was a great first time for the cat. I read that I should have prepared all the things I needed in advance, like the water should be lukewarm, the shampoo should be that for cats, and I should talk to the cat reassuringly. As it happened, I think it was I who needed reassuring.

Anyway, the cat was out, and it smelled fine. It came back later with its catty grin. Maybe it wasn’t very traumatic after all. Hmmn, next time would be much improved - in two months again, maybe. For now, it’s my bath time.