Sunday, June 30, 2013

Patriotic Cookies!

First of all: Did you know that they make half-sticks of butter now? They're TINY!

Since I've moved from the RV (my home for two years) to the Nuthaus, I have cooked a lot. We average six major meals per week at home, plus special things like making cheese and desserts, etc. But I haven't tried to do any specialty baking since we got here. Last week, I did make my first layer cake and it was delicious, but not particularly fancy. I was ready to do something fun and frivolously complicated.

Last year, shortly after James and I started dating, I went with him to his aunt's and uncle's house for the Fourth of July. It's an all-day potluck with fireworks-shooting to cap off the day, and James hadn't really prepared anything to take, so the day before we went, we made cookies. There is a recipe that is fairly "well known" in my family, and I kind of remembered how to make it, but I'd texted my mom anyway, to see if she could send me the recipe. I didn't get her message until it was too late, but the cookies turned out pretty good...

Actually, they were fairy amazing, and it was a total fluke. I'd made chocolate chunk cookies the best I could from memory, and they tasted "right." James' apartment's kitchen was... well, let's just say "low on counter space" and be gracious about it, shall we? So I put the ceramic mixing bowl on the stove while the cookies baked. This resulted in some of the chocolate chunks melting, so that the dough ended up marbled. Well, the marbled cookies were beautiful, and they all tasted good, and the cookies were gone by the end of the visit, so that was a nice compliment.

This time, though, I had an idea: American flag cookies. I've done something similar with a wreath for Christmas, and I've also done checkerboard cookies. When I showed my wreath cut-out cookies on Facebook, a friend saw all of the work I'd done on them and said, "Oh, Laura, you can buy those at Wal-Mart." Of course, she was talking about Pillsbury. Guess what? They also have flag "Holiday Shape" cookies. But guess what else? I don't care! They don't taste as awesome as mine will, and I wanted to challenge myself and make use of the extra space for which I am so grateful.

So... Friday night, I picked out a recipe for chocolate cut-out cookies, and a recipe for rolled sugar cookies. Saturday morning, I made the sugar cookie dough, divided not into thirds but into three sections, left one white, colored one red, and colored the smaller dough blue. I had to add a ton of color to get anything besides pink and baby blue, so I had to add more flour and hope for the best.

Saturday evening, I had some unexpected free time, so decided to go ahead and make the flag. James took some pictures...

The unsuccessful beginnings of the red stripes. (I wasn't quite ready for pictures yet.)
I wasn't being scientific with the ratios or even the number of stripes. I only planned to have 9 stripes, and no stars at all.

After much re-rolling and added flour, I had the shape I wanted!

See? Just like Merica!
When I was making the "chocolate" dough, after having bought groceries the night before AND having run up to the 7-Eleven for tiny butter (I hadn't noticed we'd need so. stinking. much.) I realized that we were actually out of cocoa. Instead, I substituted this organic chocolate syrup that D uses for her chocolate milk, and also a few tablespoons of this Whole Foods Nutella-type spread. It made the dough darker than the "white" dough, which was really all that I was going for. Of course, I also had to add more flour to that. Then I rolled it out.

After I wrapped the flag roll in chocolate dough and froze it long enough for it to be cut-able, I eagerly sliced into it...

I put the dough back into the freezer between batches because I wanted it not to get too "wilted." But it wasn't frozen, which would have made it crumbly when cutting.

Ready to cook the first tray!
Fortunately, the cookies didn't spread a lot and I realized that I could actually fit almost twice this many on one sheet, so the rest of the batch got completed in just a couple more trays.

In the end, I had almost as much scrap left over as I had usable dough. It wasn't in the right ratios to make more flag cookies, though. Instead, I put it all in a bowl and made a "tie dye" log. That's the round 'uns.

Ready for our 4th of July celebrations!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Chick-fil-A Grand Opening!

When James first moved into the Nuthaus, back in February, this was happening:

Woo hoo! A Chick-fil-A! In walking distance!

Two nights ago, James and I were reading and talking in bed (actually, James was reading and I was talking) when we heard the sound of metal pipes bouncing off of concrete. Over and over. It was annoying, and it was well after 10:30, so I very seriously considered calling non-emergency police to complain about it. After all, eventually, I'd grow tired of talking and want to sleep, right?

James went out and almost the moment that he did, the sounds stopped. When he came back in, though, they started up again! His investigation that time gleaned that there were people putting up temporary awnings and tents in the Chick-fil-A parking lot. A day and a half before the grand opening, they were camping out. This is why.

They had tables set up under the tree and were playing card games. There was a "corn hole" game and football tosses going on in the middle of the lot, which had been kept cleared. There was a DJ for a while, and there were lots of people under the drive-through awning with recliners.

But you will just have to take my word for it, because I didn't notice that there was a stinking piece of landscaping in the way! :)

Now you might notice, as I did when they were building this, that there are two full drive-through lanes. Not just two order boards and one set of windows, like at the McDonald's across the street. Two standing sets of windows separated by a drive-through tunnel or breezeway or whatever you want to call it.

I theorized mightily as to how this might work. James and I discussed it, and he was, for some inexplicable reason, horrified by my idea that it might be pneumatic tubing. Then again, I think he pictured employees putting an unwrapped sandwich in the tube to be sucked to a different location, and in my head, it was an entire bag comprising one order.

One day, as James and I were walking home from the store, we got lucky! The construction workers had left the door open on the remote drive-through housing!

It's a belt system! How brilliant is that?

We'd read the "First 100" rules and so we thought we'd sneak over there early this morning and try to sign up for the raffle, but by the time we got there at 5:30ish, they'd packed up the registration materials and people were starting to pack up their tents and get ready for the opening. I was surprised at how many small children and even pretty elderly people there were.

We walked around a bit, then went back home for an hour or so. Just before 6:00, they started announcing free meal winners, and there was much rejoicing. This time, knowing what it was, I didn't mind the sleep intrusion. It was fun.

At 7:00, we walked back over to buy breakfast and the place had really cleared out. That's when I realized something I hadn't noticed before: This restaurant has no indoor dining area.

Yep, that lovely patio is it for on-site eating. Although, if you look at the lot on which it is situated, it makes sense. They really can't have families bringing kids and sitting in the dining area while kids play on the playground for hours when they only have a dozen or so parking spaces, and everywhere around here offers fun ticketing and towing.

You step up to one of three ordering windows, then your food is presented at the far left window.

Hey, you know what else is inside of that far left window?

The belt deployment system! Which we got to see in operation!

After James and I had gotten breakfast, come home, and eaten, I decided to go back to get some of these pictures. I had this idea to take my cup and ask for a refill. Which, of course, I got. Because Chick-fil-A is awesome. It's tempting to keep trying it until the ice melts, but I don't want to take advantage of their goodwill. Although they do insist that it's "my pleasure."

Now I'm wishing I'd bought a cowlendar this year, because I anticipate huge chunks of our cash going over here... especially because I'm on a salt kick and their waffle fries are marvelous. 

That's the other thing... see the white shirts? There were a lot of managers there. It appeared that everything went smoothly, and now we have another quick dining option near the Nuthaus. Of course, we prefer locally-owned, smaller restaurants, but in a pinch... well, it's Chick-fil-A. Yummy.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Front Porch Hospitality

Living where we do gives us interesting access to all sorts of people. Students and employees walk, bike, and skateboard by. Families walk up the sidewalk, having parked on a side street to visit some campus attraction. Older couples park here to walk to a church near campus, one with limited parking on site. Homeless people wander by. Lots and lots of homeless people wander by.

I don't blame them. Compared to the bustle of Guadalupe, our street is an oasis of quiet and calm. There are a lot of older houses with big porches, many of which are businesses and are closed on the weekend. There is a dentist's office down the street with a rather roomy porch that is deserted on Saturday and Sunday, and I've seen people sleeping there often during the day. Apparently, our house was a popular hang-out at some point. A gentleman told James this: that he remembers spending a lot of time on our porch before it got the fancy tile treatment.

Our bedroom is at the front of the house, and equal distance from the street as the front of the porch. This means it is about 3 feet from the sidewalk. I've been surprised how many people have telephone conversations at 3:00 AM. But they do. And sometimes, they pause, chat, laugh, and spend entirely too much time and volume on their conversations just feet from where we are trying to sleep. Also, I've heard two or groups of people walking by and chatting animatedly at 4:00, and other weird hours of the night. Once, a girl was trying to convince a guy that what he was wearing looked cute and was a good choice. At 4:00 AM. He should have been wearing pajamas! Or stumbling by, barely conscious. Nope. They were quite chipper.

James has met several interesting people on the porch. There was a homeless girl who'd been refused a seat on Megabus because of what she insisted was her service dog, and whose boyfriend had already been allowed onto the bus and left her. James ended up walking around the neighborhood with her, trying to figure out where she dropped her boyfriend's heavy bag.

Then there were Kenneth and Veronica, an expecting homeless couple whom James thought might be a good bet to live in my trailer after I moved. We ended up referring them to a place that specializes in 20-something families, but those encounters led to the decision to donate the RV to Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

In fact, when I came home yesterday, James was sitting on the porch talking to Kyle, a tall, tan man with a grey-white mane and shocking blue eyes, who had drawn up a sound wave schematic and had a plan of what to do with it if he could just get to Montreal... or Arizona.

When James and I were bike riding Saturday, a lady "about Nana's age" knocked on the door and asked Daphne (whose computer is right at the window, so it's difficult to pretend not to be here) if she could please throw a small bag of garbage in our trash can since she was helping someone across the street move out and they'd already taken the trash can.

This morning, I woke up at about 3:15, hearing what sounded like someone hammering at something about three times, then stopping, then going again. In my brain, I pictured someone with a nail on the sidewalk, but then when I tried to make sense of it, I wondered if it weren't someone with a nail trying to break our bike chains. That's a crazy thought, however, because my bike is garbage and no one would want to steal it. (James' is better, but it still seemed unlikely.)

After this went on for a few minutes, I got up and looked out the window. The sound stopped, and I didn't see anyone out there. I looked sideways to the porch and the only thing moving was a shadow on our carrot planter. It was organic-looking enough that I thought it might be the trees beside the house.

I came into the living room and looked out one window, seeing nothing. I checked the front door... and it was unlocked. Before we'd gone to bed last night, I had locked the door. James went to the door about three minutes later and I thought he was giving me a hard time by locking it "better" than I did, but I guess maybe he didn't notice that I locked it, and he just unlocked it in trying to lock up for the night. So I engaged the deadbolt and the knob and went back to bed.

Then the sound started again. Tink, tink, tink. Tink, tink, tink.

This time, James heard it. (I'm a light sleeper, but he only tends to wake up if I'm restless or wake him.) He got up and came into the living room. He looked out the other window and said, "There's someone on our porch."

When this happens at 3:30 AM, it's scary and there's not a lot of time to decide whether to think rationally or to call 911. Some glass broke right then, and I called 911. They asked whether I needed police, fire, or EMT. Then I told them that someone had just broken glass on our porch. How many windows were broken? I don't think it was a window. It might be the porch light. I don't know. What does he look like? I can't see him. Then James said he was just chilling on the porch. He had sat in one of our chairs and was hanging out.

I saw him get up and walk off, so was able to tell the dispatcher what he was wearing and where he was headed. Then she asked questions about weapons (yeah, we have knives... Like table knives? Uh. No. Not unless you're feeling extremely excessive about cutting stuff.) and pets (we had to lock the cats in our bedroom and they did not enjoy that) and said the cops were here and would announce themselves.

I hung up, but a good two minutes passed with nothing. We turned on the porch light, which worked, went outside... and just as I was about to call 911 back so that the police didn't charge an unsuspecting house, they came up the alley.

They had gotten the guy, and just wanted a little information from us. They reminded us what James had already been told, that this was a former transient place, and that old habits die hard.

When I went out to sweep this morning, I could see that he'd drunk and smashed two Corona bottles. He'd hung out in the chair and smoked a cigarette, enjoyed a drink, then decided to break the bottles. I get that the sound is satisfying, but that's pretty thoughtless in case any of his peers came by with less-than-stellar shoes.

Still, we weren't in danger at any point, so that's a relief. And Daphne slept through the whole thing, which, coupled with safety, is a big reason we put her in the back corner of the house.

Honestly, the majority of the time, it's pretty quiet on our side street. But it's rarely dull.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cheesemaking, Part 2: Mozzarella!

When we made the ricotta cheese, it became obvious that if we wanted to make any other (harder) cheese, we'd need to find a way around homogenized milk. As if in answer to this need, within the week, there was a notice on a homeschool board that a raw milk co-op was beginning! (I'd asked a local friend about buying milk from her, or rather buying containers that she might fill with milk if so inclined, but her cows were both just about to give birth.)

We joined the co-op and have LOVED the milk so far. We made sour cream and I've been finding as many ways to utilize the two gallons a week we buy as possible. It's interesting, how strict the rules are for selling raw milk in Texas. We have to purchase it there on site; they can't deliver. Fortunately, we have a co-op driver who picks it up so I don't have to drive to Dallas. But it seems like it should be a lot easier than it is.

Anyway, James went to Austin Homebrew yesterday and picked up, among beer brewing supplies, a mozzarella-making kit that was only $5 and will make four "batches" of cheese. So this morning, we tried it for the first time.

It took a whole gallon of milk!

While I started heating the milk, James dissolved a rennet tablet in water, and then also some citric acid and calcium chloride in another bowl of water.

We added the calcium chloride and citric acid when the milk was at 55 degrees. Then, when it hit 88, we added the rennet. The magic began almost immediately.



Side note: James appears not to have been a huge fan of taking the labels off of things before he met me. Once you heat up and cool down cookware several dozen times, those labels just don't want to come off. If this is among the most annoying of issues we ever have... ;)

Next, we had to kneed then reheat (in the microwave), and kneed and reheat the cheese a few times.

Finally, we added some "cheese salt" (read: salt repackaged and up-priced). The finished product: