Thursday, March 16, 2017

Camping pancakes

We normally stick with eggs and sausage for camping breakfast, but if we have friends joining us I'll take it up a notch with some pancakes. I loathe doing dishes while camping, so I avoid anything that requires mixing on site. Making pancakes ahead of time is tricky because they usually depend on baking soda and/or baking powder as leavening, both of which act quickly and lose power if they sit around. So for camping I rely on a yeasted recipe instead.

Don't expect traditional diner style pancakes here. These are yeasted and allowed to sit for a few days, so they have a tender, almost lacy crumb texture and a slight sourdough flavor. The batter is only lightly sweetened, but they pair beautifully with maple syrup, or with my personal favorite pancake topping - Greek yogurt swirled with jam.

To adapt for camping I put the batter in a gallon ziploc bag. Because the yeast are active little buggers the bag will fill up with CO2, so you do have to remember to open it up and press the air out once or twice a day. When I'm ready to make pancakes, I cut a corner off the bag and use it as a batter dispenser.


camp pancakes

Camping pancakes (serves 4 - 6, original recipe here - scales up easily)

1 teaspoon (about 1/2 package) active dry yeast
2 tablespoons lukewarm water
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups buttermilk, shaken
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons melted butter

Dissolve the yeast in the water and set it aside.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar.

In another bowl, beat together the buttermilk, eggs and melted butter. Add in the yeast mixture, which should be nice and foamy by now if your yeast is working properly.

Mix the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk just until combined (don't worry about lumps).

Pour the batter into a gallon Ziploc bag and stash it in the cooler. Remember to check on it twice a day to let out pressure or you could end up with a batter explosion on your hands.

When you're ready to cook, heat your griddle to medium, butter it and then snip one corner of the bag off and use it as a pancake dispenser. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface, then flip. Camp stoves aren't precision instruments, so be prepared for the first batch to be a trial run as you adjust the heat. I find that it takes a couple of minutes cooking on each side once the heat is adjusted properly.

Pancake batter should hold up for at least three days. I usually make it on Friday evening or Saturday morning and cook it on Sunday, so I haven't tested the limits of this.

Camping pancakes

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Anza Borrego camping - 2017 edition

We loved our Anza Borrego trip last year so much that we vowed to get a reservation during wildflower season this year. Of course, when you're picking your dates you have no way of predicting the exact week that the flowers will explode. But we booked a site and then some friends booked another site next to us and then other friends booked a third site and pretty soon we had a 25 person camping trip* in the works.

Luckily the timing was pretty good. We didn't see full on fields of color, but there were so many beautiful flowers and it was amazing to see the desert this green for the first time in years. We stayed in Borrego Palm campground again, full review of the campground in my previous post.

desert wildflowers
camping morning
avocado prep
camping breakfast
campground dogs
desert river
desert dog

On our way home we took a detour so we could check out some of the DesertX art installations in and around Palm Springs. Definitely worth getting home a little later than usual.

Doug Aitken - Mirage
Doug Aitken - Mirage
The Circle of Land and Sky - Phillip K Smith III
Claudia Comte - Curves and Zigzags

*In case you're wondering how you coordinate a 25 person camping trip - SHARED SPREADSHEET. Rather than having everyone bring their own food we assigned a certain number of people to each meal and asked people to sign up. Other communal items you should have people sign up to bring - coolers with ice, firewood, french presses, camping stoves. It was really nice sharing out the meal duties because we only had to bring breakfast stuff.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Favorite books of 2016

This title is a little misleading, because these aren't books that were published in 2016, just books I happened to read last year. Because I post regular round ups with eve.ry.thing I'm reading (however humiliating), my lists often include a lot of duds. Rather than make you dig through all of them if you're looking for only good recs (is anyone looking for bad book recommendations?) I thought I'd go back and compile the books I liked.  Also, I clearly planned to get this up in January or even February, but here we are and it's March. Let's roll with it.

2016 books

The standouts:

The Boys of My Youth - Want to re-read this a million times, not exaggerating.
A Manual for Cleaning Women - Killer short story collection.
Pond - Serene, poetic, lovely.
The Angel of History - Heart breaking, gorgeous.
The Argonauts - Read it in one sitting if you can.
The Hand That First Held Mine - Loved this novel about two women living in London at different time periods.
Bastard Out of Carolina - Heart wrenching but so worth it.
Gilead and Home - Loved these. The writing is just so perfect.

Runners up:

Young Skins - Great debut story collection.
When Breath Becomes Air - Gut wrenching and beautiful.
After a While You Just Get Used to It - Mile a minute funny memoir.
A God in Ruins - Kate Atkinson's follow up to Life After Life.
Fates and Furies - Really beautiful and intimate exploration of a marriage.
Mislaid - Weird and fun. Dry humor. Explores gender, sexuality and race.
Between the World and Me - Powerful.
My Name is Lucy Barton - Fragmented and ethereal in the best way.
Into Darkest Corner - Seriously creepy thriller.
The Wonder Garden - Short story collection about a fictional small town. Voyeuristic in a good way.
If I Loved You I Would Tell You This - Well observed short stories.
The City of Mirrors - Last in the Passage trilogy.
Monsters of Templeton - Funny little almost fairytale.
Make Me - Solid Lee Child.
A Spool of Blue Thread - Lovely novel about family relationships.
Now You See Me - first in a series about a female detective in London. Gory.

I'm still in a kind of literary dead zone as far as 2017 goes. I read a couple things in January that now feel like a blur but I should probably dig them up and share them with you. I've been re-reading familiar books for comfort and ease but I'm hoping to dive back into my reading list as my focus (hopefully) improves.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sugar cubes infused with angostura bitters and orange (aka the instant old fashioned)

I've been contemplating this project for over a year and I finally got around to it over the holidays (and then made a couple more batches for quality control before writing this post). An old fashioned is one of my favorite cocktails, when it's done well (FYI - my current favorite in LA is from Melrose Umbrella Company). In the simplest form it consists of just bourbon, bitters and sugar, although personally I like a strong note of orange in mine so I always add that in.

At home I've played around with various methods and my best version involves an orange infused simple syrup, but that only lasts for a few weeks in the fridge and there are times where I don't feel like pulling out a saucepan just to make a cocktail.

Also, sugar cubes are cute and easily portable (read: camping, flights).

sugar cubes with orange and bitters

I looked pretty extensively online and found a couple of different methods for making your own sugar cubes, but I wanted a way to incorporate that orange flavor that I love. I was originally thinking about buying some orange essence oil and then it suddenly occurred to me that, duh, I am surrounded by fresh oranges this time of year and I should just go straight to the source. So the process starts with making a variation on an oleo saccharum, which is just a fancy way of saying that you're pulling all the delicious oil out of citrus peels. A traditional oleo saccharum has a very high peel to sugar ratio and you basically end up with liquid. I didn't want to go quite that far, so I upped the sugar ratio. After letting the sugar and citrus sit for 24 hours I pull out the peels and add in bitters to taste. The amount of bitters you need will vary widely depending on how sweet your oranges were, so you do have to taste. The first batch I made using oranges from my favorite farmer's market vendor, but they weren't super sweet and I ended up needing very little bitters at the end. The next two batches I made using navel oranges from my parents' tree and those were so sweet that I needed double the amount of bitters. Sorry - I know it's nicer if a recipe can tell you exactly how much of everything to add, but fruit just varies too much. I recommend tasting tiny bites of the sugar mixture as you add in the bitters, and when you think you have it perfect you should mix up a quick old fashioned using the sugar. If it's too bitter, add in a bit more sugar. If it's not bitter enough, keep going. Warning - make scaled down cocktails for tasting and keep in mind that unless your alcohol tolerance is sky high, you won't be able to fine tune it much at this point.

sugar cubes with orange and bitters

I wanted to be able to package them for friends, so I designed a label that would fit inside an Altoids tin because we had those lying around. I washed the tins multiple times with soap so that the peppermint scent was completely gone. If you want to do the same, the printable PDF with the labels is right here (pretty sure this goes without saying, but personal use only, please!). If you don't have a crazy Altoid addiction like us, these blank tins look to be the right size.
Sugar cubes infused with angostura bitters and orange (makes two trays full of tightly packed cubes, plus a bit left over) I use these trays and I love them - each tray makes 81 cubes, so you get 162 cubes per batch, enough for 50 - 80 drinks 
2 cups superfine sugar (I just quickly blitz regular sugar in my food processor)
4 oranges, peeled (you are just using the peels)
Angostura bitters, to taste (somewhere in the range of 15 - 30 dashes) 
Combine the orange peels with the sugar in a non-reactive bowl (glass or enamel, NOT metal) and allow to sit for about 24 hours.  
The next day the sugar should be fairly damp. Pull out the orange peels (it is really tempting to snack on them as you do this, but WAIT - if you snack on orange peels you will totally blow out your taste buds and make the next step harder).  
Start adding bitters. I'd start with 10 dashes, take a tiny taste and see if the flavor is coming through. You're also getting bitter flavor from the orange peels themselves, so a lot depends on your fruit. For early season farmer's market oranges, I used 12 dashes of bitters. For peak season homegrown oranges I needed 25 dashes. If you overshoot, you can add a bit more sugar. 
Once the sugar is adjusted to your taste you start pressing it into the trays. I work on a large sheet of parchment paper and just dump sugar all over the tray, press it in using a wedge shaped offset spatula, and then scoop up the extra that spilled on the parchment and pack that on top. I want these cubes to be as perfectly shaped as possible, so after I fill the whole tray I go back and use the base of a chopstick to tamp each cube down, then add a bit more sugar, then tamp it down again. It's a little fussy, but the whole process still doesn't take more than 15 minutes. 
Allow to dry thoroughly. We had a damp winter, so I actually left the trays in my oven for a couple days so that the pilot light could help speed up the drying process. If you do this I'd recommend putting a huge note on the front of the oven door to remind yourself to pull the trays out before turning on the oven. Speaking from personal experience here. 
Once they're fully dry you just pop them out of the trays and package them up. Store them in a dry, dark place, since they'll lose color more quickly if exposed to light. 
You can use them in an old fashioned (instructions on the printable labels) or just drop one in the bottom of a champagne flute for a quick and pretty cocktail.

You could easily play with this method and make different flavor combinations. I'm thinking of doing a grapefruit and rosemary version for summer cocktails but the possibilities are endless, really.

making the oleo sacchrum
{oleo saccharum in progress}

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Easing back

Thank you, all of you, for the kind comments and emails. The last several weeks have felt very surreal and I'm just adjusting to the new normal.


The only upside to experiencing a string of tragedies is that it's forced me to accept my own limitations. I used to beat myself up a lot when I was having a hard time dealing with things and not being 100% on top of everything but I'm gradually getting better at just riding with it. I know that there will be days when I don't feel like talking or cooking or exercising or reading. Some days all I manage is showering and going to work, but instead of feeling bad about it I remind myself that all I'm required to do right now is sustain myself. And there are plenty of other days where I do cook and clean and see friends and walk the dog and generally function as an adult. It's a bumpy process, and I have to be okay with that.

I'll be back tomorrow with the instructions for the infused sugar cubes I promised forever ago. And yes, I wrote "instructions" and not "recipe" on purpose. Sorry in advance for the huge amount of text but I swear they really aren't that much work, they take some explaining. You'll see.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On grief

I'm not sure how to write about this, but I also don't know how to move forward without writing about it.

My stepmom died one week ago and I feel broken. She and my dad met when I was eight years old and she immediately opened her heart to my sister and me and made us a part of her large and wonderful family. Claudia had this amazing blend of magic and practicality that I haven't ever seen in anyone else. My life is so much richer for having had her in it all these years.

She and my dad were both diagnosed with different terminal illnesses many years ago, and they defied all odds. I think part of their strength came from having each other. They would always tell me that it really wasn't so bad because they could lie in bed together and read and talk all day. When my dad was dying almost exactly two years ago Claudia was right there with us that week in the hospital, even though it was incredibly hard on her. Together we cared for my dad in his last days and as I stayed with her last week I knew I was there for myself, but also for my dad. I hope that she could feel his strength coming through my hands. For me, there is comfort in the care taking, the last act of tangible love I can give. I can suspend myself in that moment and know that however hard it feels, at least I am doing something.

The not-doing part is harder for me. It's strange, going through this a second time so close to the first. I'm not surprised by how I feel right now, my inability to listen to the news, or even read a book. I'm back at work and it's good to be forced to focus on something else for a few hours, but I still feel like I'm sleepwalking half the time. It's hard to convince myself to care about issues that seemed incredibly important two weeks ago. All I can think about most of the day is how badly I want to get in bed, and then when I do get in bed I can't sleep. I didn't realize that losing Claudia would also rip open the grief of losing my dad. I feel like the life we had together all those years, both the big adventures and the quiet moments, are suddenly, irrevocably, gone.

I don't have any amazing insights into how to deal with grief. I just go through the motions as best I can in public and give myself permission to do pretty much nothing in private. I stumble on. This weekend my sister will be here with my niece and nephew, and I want to make them blueberry muffins on Sunday morning, the way Claudia always did for us. We'll see our huge, amazing family, and try to remind ourselves that love doesn't disappear into thin air, that she has bound us all together, forever.

Easter Day photos, approximately 20 years apart.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Dealing with dog separation anxiety - Furbo review

I feel like this is such a specialized post and also I'm completely outing myself as a crazy dog person, if that wasn't already evident, but this has eaten up a ton of my time over the last month so I'm posting it anyways.

{does not look like a monster who barks nonstop}

Circe is a nearly silent and super calm dog when we're around so we were surprised when our sweet neighbors let us know that while we're at work she's been going on barking sprees that last upwards of 30 minutes. This, of course, made me feel terrible about both Circe's well being and the impact on my poor neighbors (luckily they are also crazy dog people, and were more concerned with Circe than the noise). We're thinking that as she gets older she's probably experiencing a little more separation anxiety. Unfortunately, neither of us work jobs where we can routinely bring a dog to work, so we have to come up with a system that will help her feel better about being at home alone during the day.

I read as much as I could find online about dog separation anxiety and it basically boiled down to a few core things, as far as I could tell:

- Don't make a huge deal out of leaving or coming home (this is hard for me!)
- Have something available as a special distraction when you're gone
- Make sure they're getting enough physical activity in general

Lots of people recommend crating to combat anxiety but Circe is almost 12 and I'm not about to start crate training at this point. In addition, I want her to have access to the backyard because we're gone for the whole day, so crating her wouldn't work for us.

I really wanted more detailed information about her barking patterns, so that we could try to identify what was working and what wasn't. In a fit of desperation, I purchased what is possibly the most extravagant dog item ever - a $200 camera that can also toss treats and send you alerts when your dog barks. I know, I'm crazy. I paid for it out of her allowance, though, and it's less than we used to spend on a dog walker each month (which was not a good solution for us, because Circe doesn't like walking in the middle of the day and she doesn't get particularly excited about seeing people other than family). The Furbo has a 30 day money back guarantee so I figured we had an out if it didn't work well for us. Turns out, it's amazing. We've had it for a couple weeks now, and it's made a huge difference in managing her anxiety. We can check in on her live video feed from our phones and have a mini play session by tossing her treats if she's behaving well. If she starts barking, it sends an alert to our phones and we can check in on the feed. There is a microphone option so you can talk to your dog, but we've had mixed success with this because Circe is going a little deaf and it's hard to catch her attention unless she's really close by. We have used it as a creepy walky talky when one of us is at work and the other person is still home. Ha. You need a certain size treat for the Furbo to function best, and these Zuke's dog treats work really well (plus they're wheat free, which can be tricky to find).

circe + furbo
{bonus - Furbo is not a hideous eyesore - it's the white tower back there on my nightstand}

In addition to the Furbo I stocked up on some dog puzzles (yes, this is a thing) to keep her occupied while we're gone. She usually decimates them within 20 minutes of us leaving the house, but it hopefully gives her a positive association with us leaving. We showed her how to use each one the first time, but now we only give them to her when we're gone. We give her two puzzles each day, rotating which ones we use. We already had this one, which is beginner level, and we added this more interesting activity board, plus the higher level dog chess. (Technically you aren't supposed to allow your dog to use these unattended, I guess in case they tear it apart and eat the plastic? Circe is really gentle with her toys and we feel totally comfortable letting her play with these while we're gone, but that's something to bear in mind if your dog has a history of eating plastic)

I tried getting her this really well designed treat dispenser, but she wasn't interested in it for some reason. I think she only likes ugly toys. It was a big hit with the toddlers, though, so I guess we'll keep it as a kids toy.

dog puzzle

bone puzzle

We've been working this system for a couple weeks and we're already noticing a downward trend in her barking fits. I'm super impressed with the bark alert functionality. It can pick up her barking from any room in the house and it almost never has false alarms (we did have to turn it off over the weekend when we were having a party with multiple toddlers and there was lots of shrieking, but our day to day life rarely sets it off).

Some reviewers have noted issues with their units straight out of the box (treat dispenser not working, speaker sound really distorted) so I was apprehensive, but ours has worked perfectly. I'll update if it doesn't hold up to long term use. They have a pretty responsive customer support team, so I'm not too worried about it.

I am disappointed that it doesn't have logging capability. I'd like a record of when Circe barks and for how long, and also when we tossed her treats. Right now we do this manually, based on our notifications, but it would be so much nicer to have it integrated. I sent this request to the customer support team and they said they would send it to the tech team, so maybe someday this will happen.

Currently, there's no way to link multiple cameras to your account, so you can only have eyes on one room in your house unless you want to sign in and out of multiple accounts on your phone. Circe tends to hang in the bedroom so we put the camera there, but sometimes she moves to the living room and I won't see her for hours. It would be smart to offer the option to link cameras (although I'm not sure I can justify buying multiple units at this cost). Even better would be if you could have a main Furbo with full functionality, but also cheaper satellite Furbo cameras for other rooms without treat tossing capability. I know there are other options for house cameras, but so far I've resisted.

Note - if you aren't on board with spending this much money on a dog camera (I get it), I would also recommend the Dog Monitor app which I used when we first adopted Circe. I haven't used it in a few years, so I don't have the most up to date experience, but it worked decently for us back then. If you already have an iPad, this could work for you. It had the camera function (although you can only get stills when you're not on wifi) and you can talk to the dog through the mic and it will send you bark alerts. We found it tended to drop the connection a lot (and couldn't pick it back up until the app was restarted at home) but that could have been our internet.

Thundershirt - we have a Thundershirt and we have used it each time we move. I find that Circe gets really freaked out by nighttime noises for the first few nights in a new place, and the Thundershirt works great for that and gets her sleeping through the night until she adjusts. I've read that some people will use it during the day to prevent dog separation anxiety, but Circe never seems to be able to move very well in it (she won't jump on the bed when she's wearing it) so I've been reluctant to leave her in it unattended. I would probably consider it if the barking got worse.