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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Black cake

"Black Cake", as Julia Moskin points out in today's NYT, is not at all the same as the Christmas "fruit cake" that is the butt of so many bad gift exchange jokes.

This year I made our family's version of this and you'll be seeing it in some future holiday posts. Right now it's aging, wrapped in unphotogenic brandy-soaked cheesecloth, not yet ready for its close-up. The "fruits" involved are dark raisins ("seed, seed, seed", read the ancient instructions), currants, and citron, and the liquids, measured in "gills", are brandy, sherry, and molasses. And eighteen eggs. It's rich, dark, moist, utterly delicious. Simple, too. It's really just the quantities that are a little mindboggling. And the math. And having to weigh everything. I usually make 1/3 of a recipe (1/3 of a gill, anyone?) which makes two large bread-loaf sized loaves. Sliced thin, as it properly should be, this amount goes a long way.

The Times describes a Caribbean version. Ours, I had always assumed, came down from the German side of the family. But it's practically identical to the English recipe that Emily Dickinson made and served in the one-woman play, "The Belle of Amherst". Whatever its origin, it's very very good. We'll have our first taste on Christmas Eve.

My trendy teakettle

Every now and then I think about getting a new teakettle. My old Revere workhorse was, I think, an engagement present. That means it's been around since 1963. Not that there's anything wrong with it. But surely it must convey a message of old fogeyishness, unhipness, unwillingness to change, keep up with the times. So I see that apartmenttherapy.com, that hipper than hip source of design advice for youngsters, has done a teakettle survey and rated the best of the best. Eagerly I turn to the results. What's number #1? Don't ask! Guess I'll hang on to it a while longer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ghost furniture

I love this concept. Take a look at this unusual site for some inventive ways to recycle your old stuff. No, don't worry. You're not getting this for Christmas.

Big tree....

Little tree....
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Map IQ

Here's a little diversion that you don't have time for. Traveler IQ Challenge has you clicking to try to find random place names on a blank map. You can choose various scenarios (world, US, Latin America, etc). It's about speed and accuracy. My only quibble is that in many cases the maps are pretty small and it's hard to be as accurate as you'd like. Try it!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Michael Dirda

Recently I posted about the new translation of War and Peace and linked to the review, published in the Washington Post, by Michael Dirda. At the time I wasn't really familiar with Mr. Dirda; I think I must have linked there through Arts and Letters Daily, or 3quarksdaily (both excellent sources of cultural content, the former being the most comprehensive of the two).

But then I came across a mention of Dirda's most recent book, Classics for Pleasure and have now come to appreciate him for the national treasure that he is. He appears to have read and absorbed virtually everything ever written - AND - has the ability to discuss it all with complete cogency.

Right now I'm dipping into an earlier book, Bound to Please, subtitled "An Extraordinary One-volume Literary Education". It's a collection of short essays (standard book-review length) on a wide assortment of books. It's divided into roughly chronological segments, but there's no need to read the essays in any particular order. Plunge in anywhere and you're bound to hit on something you just have to read NEXT. My list so far: The Arabian Nights: A Companion (Robert Irwin), Tales from Ovid (Ted Hughes), The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (Charlotte Mosley, ed), Bruce Chatwin, A Biography (Nicholas Shakespeare).

Some interesting essays in the "Coda", as well. In "Classrooms and Their Discontents" he discusses the problems we face in educating our young. He writes, in part, "Our educational system will remain mediocre until parents, especially well-to-do successful parents, urge their brightest children to become high school math and history teachers". Something to chew on!

He still writes a weekly piece in the Sunday Washington Post. Since I'm not a reader I arranged to get the posts via RSS, along with all the rest of the WaPo book section which I'll probably just delete. I may have come late to the party, but - from here on - I don't want to miss anything.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Do you know what an ambigram is? I didn't either!

Decking and Clearing

Before I can deck the halls I need to clear the decks. Lots of consolidation and removal going on here.

Mark Bittman's little NYT video yesterday about making smoothies reminded me that the freezer is full of random bags of frozen fruit - a good way to work through them. But here's a new twist: I also had leftover cranberry sauce (fresh berries cooked with sugar and a little orange juice and zest) on hand - saving it for what? It was a perfect addition to a blueberry/milk/orange juice smoothie. So good that I think I might cook more cranberries in the future just to have on hand for this.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Errands and a good chicken recipe

A day of errands, odds and ends. Much to do in the coming weeks. Five bags of old paperbacks to the College Club Book Sale. It was disconcerting to see dozens and dozens of bags there earmarked for recycling. Not everything can be saved - that's clear. Boots to the shoemaker for new toes and taps, or was it tips and taps? Whatever - as long as they get me through another season.

Every once in a while I enjoy roaming through Target to see what's new. You have to be in the mood for this, of course. That done, I've made a vow: I won't be hitting any malls or big box stores this month. Plenty of good shopping right in town. I feel better already!

Unusually good and quick dinner of oven-fried chicken (skinless legs and thighs dipped briefly in a mixture of beaten egg, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, then coated with panko breadcrumbs. Baked on a cakerack over a jelly roll pan in 400 degree oven for about 35 minutes). Probably everyone but me makes this all the time.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Betelgeuse, etc

This is a very well done little tutorial on identifying elements in the night sky. Try it with your kids. The real test, of course, is to do it outside. Not so easy in an area like this, where light pollution prevails.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Computer, Heal Thyself

So the Wisconsin snow arrived here today, but it wasn't a very big deal. I think it lost some of its oomph somewhere over Cleveland. It was the soft, melty kind of snow, only an inch or two of it, and easy to shovel - even for me. It's raining now.

I just wanted to mention an odd computer phenomenon. I don't understand what eats up so much space on computers, anyhow. Yes, I have a lot of photos, but not that much else. What is going on with having only 2G left out of 40? So I was ruthlessly getting rid of stuff. No, I wasn't sure exactly what it all was, but it was all stuff that Control Panel PROMISED me I hadn't used for over two years.

After a lot of energetic purging and deleting, not ONLY did I see that almost nothing had been accomplished in terms of space-saving, but the screen was looking weird. Things that were supposed to be square (icons, crosswords, sudokus, for example) were horizontally stretched-out RECTANGLES - like little place mats. Fonts looked strangely elasticized.

It could have been worse. I've fought with routers and modems for a connection. Dealt with cable and phone companies and their finicky wires. At least I could still DO stuff. So I decided I'd just live with it a while. I won't complain. I won't monkey around and maybe make it worse. I'll deal with it later. That was about a week ago.

Today everything is suddenly and completely back to normal. As if it knew it had been misbehaving and decided to be good again. Who knows why?


Speaking of books, which we sort of just were, the introduction of Amazon's Kindle reader has provoked a torrent of articles about books and reading. I'll comment on all this in bits and pieces, I suppose. But it was from Steven Levy's Newsweek cover story that I heard about DailyLit.com. I have no problem reading on a screen - in fact I do quite a lot of it - so the idea of reading classic novels in tiny, daily e-mailed installments interested me. I last read Moby Dick in college, under duress, of course, as all that reading so often was. This approach forces you to slow down and enjoy it page by page. I found that getting just ONE at a time was too piecemeal, and kept requesting "send me the next one". Now I've adjusted the subscription to four-a-day which seems about right.
The free selections, of which there are plenty, are all limited to books that are out of copyright, such as those you can find on Project Gutenberg. I'd be careful, therefore, about books originally written in languages other than English. You might be getting a poor translation.

Warehouse of Unwanted Books

Have you ever bought a book - a book you know to be great - maybe a book you already own - at a yard sale because you wanted to "rescue" it from potential oblivion? Not long ago I read an unusual novel - The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The action takes place in Barcelona, just after the second world war. At its heart is the mysterious and labyrinthine "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" where first-time visitors, by tradition, must "adopt" a book, promising to care for it, making sure it will never disappear.

And now - I can hardly believe it: this! It sounds like a fantasy.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

San Francisco: Hidden Gardens

I'm still right here in NJ, but chuck b. of whoreticulture has just posted a terrific group of photos taken on a walking tour of hidden gardens in San Francisco's financial district. Worth a look.