Slowly but surely getting things moving again

Yes, I know, it’s been over a year. I have no excuse, other than the usual – life gets in the way. And I’ve been rethinking exactly what kind of direction I’d like to take my writing in and what I’d like to be writing about. Talking about cooking and fun geek stuff is all well and good, but it’s not necessarily all that engaging long term if that’s the only thing that I’m doing. So a little re-evaluation’s been in order. Also, dipping my toes into the world of social media. Look – I’m on Twitter now. Ta da. You can follow me as @MagpiesMarbles. And maybe if you’re extra nice, I’ll follow you, too.

October is unfortunately full of events and traveling, so I likely won’t be able to get to any of the BIG IDEAS I’ve been wanting to write about until next month, but hopefully I’ll be able to pop up a little bit here and there. I’m still percolating a few thoughts about the Doctor Who Series 7 mid-season finale and the five episodes in general and some ruminations on networking and job hunting. Writing is just like strengthening a muscle – you start slow but the more you do it, the stronger it gets. I just have to keep at it consistently. Thankfully, stubbornness happens to be one of my many curses.


Invasion of the Nerds

And so begins my weekend at Chicago Comic Con. I haven’t been back in several years, so it should be interesting, to say the least. I’ll be resurrecting my typical battle plan: Day One – scour the booths for 50% off graphic novels and novelty items, armed with a prioritized list; Day Two – check out panels/celebrity Q&As. I’ll also be taking time to hang out at my friend’s booth in Artists’ Alley helping him model screened t-shirts and hand made masks when not working on my fireswords. He did get me those discounted weekend passes after all. (If you’re going to be there, stop by Dreamore’s table at Artists’ Alley!)

There are a decent number of celebrities attending this year: LeVar Burton (Star Trek: TNG, Reading Rainbow), the child cast of the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka film, Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Burn Notice), Kai Owen and Gareth David-Lloyd (Torchwood), and of course, the headline appearance of Sir Patrick Stewart (Dune, Star Trek: TNG). I might just be willing to spend most of my Saturday morning waiting in line to get into Sir Stewart’s Q&A because I sure as hell can’t afford to cough up the $70 for a photo op and autograph.

The original five Wonka kids.

The Wonka kids all grown up: (left-right) Michael Boellner (“Augustus Gloop”), Denise Nickerson (“Violet Beauregard”), Paris Themmen (“Mike Tee Vee”), Julie Dawn Cole (“Veruca Salt”) and Peter Ostrum (“Charlie Bucket”),

Oh yes, and James Marsters (Buffy, Torchwood) is not only doing a Q&A panel, he’s also holding a small concert with his band on Saturday night.

Now this I have to see, if only on the tiny off chance that he’s got a song called “The Wanton Folly of Me Mum.”

Wizard World’s Comic Con Chicago: Thurs-Sun, Aug. 11-14, Rosemont Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Daily passes $25, 4-day weekend long passes $55.

 


Mini McBain Movie

Some enterprising soul discovered that if you take the snippets of McBain that’s appeared on the Simpsons over the years, you get an actual mini-McBain movie. Wish I had that kind of time on my hands.

(via PBH2)


Who says marketing is all evil?

Yes, it’s Kenneth Cole co-opting a serious social issue for a marketing campaign, but you have to admit, it’s nice to see corporations using the weight of their commercial appeal for good instead of evil.

(via The Daily What)


You can make artisan ice cream in Illinois as long as you’re willing to use… artificial ingredients? (updated)

Photo from Nice Cream

Well this is just peachy. If you’re an artisan ice cream maker using fresh ingredients like – oh the horrors! – fresh strawberries in Illinois, you’re going to get slapped with a cease and desist order by the health department. But if you’re willing to use irradiated strawberries (tasteless) or processed strawberry syrup, go right on ahead. Want to use real cream? Not only will you need a dairy license, which requires getting bacteria levels so low to pass inspection that working with real ingredients just doesn’t work, you’ll also need to cough up $40K for a pasteurization machine, which is completely realistic for a company of 2 people who rent out commercial kitchen space, right? Or you can compromise your product even further and use premade ice cream mix.

Regulations like this are scaled to large corporations that can absorb the costs, not small scale artisans like Nice Cream, who have built a reputation based on working with fresh ingredients and locally sourced dairy. Artisan producers like Nice Cream in Illinois are now faced with one of two choices: either switch to using subpar ingredients or go out of business. Which one might guess is exactly what the larger corporations want.

To say it’s frustrating that our state health department regulations are pushing small businesses who use healthier, fresh ingredients (often sourced locally and boosting the local economy) out of business unless they switch to processed ingredients is putting it mildly. Not everyone can afford an ice cream maker in their own home and it’s a loss to everyone if artisans like Nice Cream are prevented from crafting quality products that can convince even the most ardent chocoholic that yes, strawberry ice cream is good.

Thanks to Dawn over at Kitchen Lore for bringing this to my attention.

———————————————

UPDATE

A “Save Nice Cream!” kickstarter has been created. They have a goal of raising $5000 over the next 60 days. The money will help keep the business going during the enforced production halt by the Health Department, while Nice Cream and other local ice cream artisans attempt to reform standards to be more amenable to small-scale food artisans maintaining their quality of product while remaining within safe food production guidelines. The last day to pledge is Oct 10, 2011, at 12:46am. I’m pledging what I can when I get paid this week. Every little bit helps, so if you can afford even a couple of dollars and supporting local food industry is important to you, please do so as well.

If you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, the way it works is that the money you pledge will only be collected if the campaign reaches or surpasses its fundraising goal amount. If Nice Cream does not reach the $5000 amount by the deadline, pledged funds will be returned to all donating parties. You can learn more about Kickstarter here.

 


Loving Lavender & Chocolate

Yes, I know, again with the time lapse between updates, but I’ve got a good one to start off June. It’s cookies! Everyone loves cookies, right?

I’ve been playing with lavender for the past month or so, which is one of those perfect springtime flavors. Yes, lavender is most likely to evoke memories of Grandma’s sachets and scented soap, but it’s also a time-honored cooking herb. It’s light, just a little sweet, and in the right amount lends that extra little pleasant surprising something to a dish, whether it’s in Herbes de Provence, brewed with a bit of chamomile and mint tea or even in chocolate chip cookies.

I’m one of those people who prefers her chocolate chip cookies chewy, not crispy, and I’ve been tweaking and experimenting for ages. Thanks to some tips from the last week’s episode of America’s Test Kitchen, I think I’ve finally hit on just about perfect mix for that ooey-gooey chewy chocolate chip cookie – and since it’s me, of course there’s a twist or two in this recipe. Not only have I included lavender and white chocolate chips into the mix, since I’ve got the husbeast to consider, the recipe is completely dairy-free, even the white chocolate chips.

So here it is:

(dairy-free) Light & Dark chocolate chip and lavender cookies

(yields approx. 18 generously sized cookies)

16 tblsp (1 cup/2 sticks) Earth Balance (or butter if you’re not under any dairy restrictions)
1 cup DARK brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar + about 1/2 tblsp (if using real butter, omit the 1/2 tblsp sugar)
1 whole egg + 1 yolk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 unrefined flour UNSIFTED
1 tsp baking SODA
1 tsp salt (I use pink himalayan, which is a bit stronger so I use a little less than 1 tsp)
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tblsp dried lavender
1 cup Trader Joe’s chocolate chips*
1/2 cup vegan white chocolate chips (I used VeganSweet chips and they work great – http://www.veganstore.com/product/637/other-chocolates)

*according to ATK guys, the best commercial chocolate chip available is the specific 60% Cacao Ghiradeli chocolate chip. Nestle and the Ghiradeli Semi-Sweet chips were in the bottom, and Hershey’s Special Dark chips were runner-up. Having tried those against the Trader J’s chips, the Trader J chips still come out on top, in my opinion.

Equipment:

1 large shallow baking pan or cookie sheet
SILPAT silicone sheet or baking parchment paper
1 frying pan
1 large heatproof mixing bowl
measuring spoons & cups
whisk
wooden spoon or mixing spatula
flat spatula
cooling racks

Directions

1. preheat oven to 375, get a large baking sheet and line with either a SILPAT sheet (works best) or parchment paper. Make sure the oven rack is in the middle.

2. Take 12 tblsp of the Earth balance and melt in a shallow frying pan over med heat until bubbling. You’ll start seeing some of the “solids” separate from the oil, so occasionally whisk – you’ll want to do this for about 5 min. Once the Earth Balance stops bubbling, throw in the 1/2 tblsp sugar and whisk (NOTE: if you’re using real butter, skip adding the 1/2 tblsp sugar). You’ll start seeing the solids in the oil browning. At this point, turn off the heat and whisk another 30 sec before pouring into a large heat proof bowl. Add the remaining 4 tblsp Earth Balance and whisk until integrated. The “butter” should have that lovely light caramel color.

3. Whisk in white & brown sugar, eggs & vanilla extract until smooth. Let sit 3 minutes. Whisk & rest another 3 min. Repeat for a total of 3 cycles. You’ll notice the mixture has something of a satin-y finish.

4. Add 1 cup flour, cinnamon, lavender, salt & baking soda. STIR with a spatula or wood spoon until barely integrated. Add remaining 3/4 flour and mix until flour is just absorbed. Add dark & white choc. chips and mix until chips are distributed well in the batter – don’t overmix! The batter will be very soft and “slack.”

5. Spoon about 3 tblsp. worth of batter onto the pan in a loose ball (about the size of a small scoop of ice cream). You’ll probably fit about 6 balls on the sheet, leaving at least 2 in. between cookies because they will spread. Don’t try to cook 2 sheets on 2 different levels of racks in the oven, the cookies won’t bake evenly – one will be overdone and the other underdone; best do one sheet of 6 cookies at a time. Bake for approx. 10-12 min, until you can just lift the edges of the cookie. Use a flat spatula to transfer cookies onto a cooling rack. Cookies will cool to a slightly chewy, soft texture with the bottoms and edges JUST a little crisp. I know it’s hard not to eat the cookies while they cool, but giving them at least 20 min to cool is necessary to create that chewy soft texture.

 

Attempt to not eat all in one sitting (but if you fail, that’s ok – but do try to share).

Browning the butter really enhances those toffee-notes in the cookie and doubling the amount of dark brown sugar to white sugar makes the cookie chewy due to the high molasses content of the brown sugar. You can sub golden brown sugar if you can’t find dark brown, but the cookie won’t be quite as chewy. Also, make sure the brown sugar is fresh and soft – to keep it from hardening, put the sugar inside a ziplock bag, even if it already has a ziplock resealable bag.

You can of course, leave out the lavender and/or the white chocolate chips for your standard delicious chocolate chip cookie, or use as a base for adding other flavors (I know I’ve got some different flavor profiles I want to experiment with!). Enjoy!

 


This is what happens when I’ve got a lot of time on my hands and a lot of fresh ingredients

I went on something of a cooking bender this weekend, which might have something to do with the fact that spring is in the air and the Farmer’s Markets are starting to reappear in the city. My produce share from Edible Alchemy this week was overflowing with delicious goodies and since I’ve got a busy week coming up, I wanted to make sure none of it would go to waste. Also, I found out they’ve started carrying whole hazelnuts (in shell). So I decided to tackle making my very first quiche and homemade nutella.

First, the quiche. I don’t have any explanation for why it took me so long to attempt making a quiche, other than being under the impression that it was tricky and required a lot of time and effort (and since the husbeast is an ova-vegetarian – no dairy, no meat – well, my enthusiasm for a quiche sans cheese wasn’t quite so high). However, it turns out that quiche is actually rather easy to make and it’s a great way to use a good deal of fresh produce in one dish.

Traditionally, a quiche is an oven-baked dish utilizing a pastry crust and a filling made from eggs, cheese, milk and whatever meat/vegetables you happen to have on-hand. Since I’ve got the husbeast to consider, I had to make a dairy-free substitution for the milk and omitted the cheese, but in all honesty, I didn’t miss either and by omitting the cheese, I avoided having to deal with consistency issues that often plague neophyte attempts at quiche-making.

The most time-consuming part was making the crust from scratch because once the dough’s been mixed, it needs to sit in the fridge for at least 30 min (1 hr is better). Of course, you can always cheat by using pre-made crust, but making your own is pretty easy, especially if you make several at once and freeze those you don’t immediately need. Plus you get the advantage of customizing your dough by adding herbs or a spice mix for that extra touch.

So here’s my very first quiche, using a simple pie crust (flour, Earth Balance, salt, water), with wilted spinach, portabello mushrooms sauteed with garlic greens, sliced tomato and a dairy-free egg custard (eggs, oat milk, herbes de provence, truffle salt, black pepper).

While I was extremely happy with the results, there are a few tweaks to the recipe that I want to make before writing a “how to” recipe post for the quiche, but it shouldn’t be too long before I do.

As for the nutella – yes, I will most definitely be doing a post on how to make your very own at home. Again, while I was happy with the results of V1.0, there are some tweaks I need to make to the proportions before I post directions. I will say this though – while buying in-shell hazelnuts (approx. $4/lb) is decidedly cheaper than buying shelled ($9/lb), the amount of work it takes to crack enough of those suckers open to make a jar full of nutella almost makes the prospect of paying that extra $5/lb worth it. Almost.

Here’s a picture of the finished product, using 5 simple ingredients: whole hazelnuts (shelled, roasted, skins rubbed off), a little confectioner’s sugar, unsweetened cocoa, canola oil and a few ounces of melted semi-sweet chocolate.


No Spoilers

There are about a hundred different things I could dive into about the first two hours of Doctor Who: Series 6. I could easily spend thousands of words on analyzing clues and subtext, attempting to untangle plotlines and deducing the direction this season will take.

But I won’t. As a wise (but maybe not quite trustworthy) woman has said: No Spoilers.

Also, this excellent event was courtesy of the Red Eye and BBC/BBC America, who politely requested we refrain from ruining the surprises for the rest of the fans and hinted that good behavior may be rewarded with bigger and better events in the future. New York was the only other American city to get a sneak peek, so we here in Chicago would like to remain in the show’s good graces (and just to give you an idea of how seriously Doctor Who fans take this, the very first guy in line to get into the showing had flown all the way from Atlanta, Georgia, just to see this). So thanks again to the Landmark Century Theater, the Red Eye and the BBC for making this happen – we’ll be good, we promise! And thanks to all the amazingly friendly and enthusiastic fans who attended tonight’s event and behaved with impeccable courtesy and good humor, despite the long hours in line and somewhat haphazard check-in process.

Besides, I don’t think I could tell you what to make of the first two episodes quite yet – it’s going to take a few days for my brain to process it all.

I will say this though – all you poor bastards who are going to be stuck with watching that first episode only? You’re screwed, my friends – that first hour is going to leave you a screeching, brain-bleeding mess of an addict who’s going to have to wait a whole week more for your next fix.

GERONIMO!!!

Doctor Who: Series 6 premieres on the BBC and BBC America on Saturday, April 23, 8pm CST/9pm EST.


Even Daleks can’t escape steampunk

It’s amazing what a little ingenuity can rig up with junk, empty shampoo bottles, paint and glue.

But without any hover ability, this lovely Steampunk Dalek can still be thwarted by a simple set of stairs.

(via BoingBoing)


There’s a sneak preview of the first 2 hours of Doctor Who Series 6 tonight in Chicago…

…and guess who got lucky enough to get on the RSVP list?!?

This is turning into an annual tradition – last year the husbeast and I got to see the first two hours of Series 5 at a special screening at C2E2. Getting to see events like these on the big screen is great, but getting to experience it with a whole lot of fellow Doctor Who geeks is even better.

I’ll be posting some spoiler-free thoughts on the premiere tomorrow, and a more in-depth review after the weekend. Until then, here’s the Doctor Who Comic Relief spoof from 1999, starring Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Hugh Grant (as Doctor Who), Jonathan Pryce and Joanna Lumley. (Side note: Hugh Grant was actually offered the part of Doctor Who but turned it down because “he didn’t think it would be a big hit.” That obviously turned out well for him.)

And in honor of the late, great, Elisabeth Sladen, a clip from the first episode I ever saw her in: “The Planet of the Spiders.”