Another failed baking experiment

I realise a chronicle of my failures does not make for riveting reading. My unwarranted confidence is to blame.

Instead of leaving myself plenty of time to experiment, tweak recipes, and iron out any kinks, I figured “Hey, this recipe looks easy. I’m sure I can bake it then upload a blog about it a few hours later.”

Ha.
Ha.
Ha.

I have been burned three times now (figuratively – I’m not that bad a baker) so let’s hope I’ve learned my lesson. Also, it’s becoming clear that while my mother’s recipes claim to be flop-proof, they are in no way me-proof.

Self-pity aside, let me tell you of my failed custard cookie attempt.

This recipe (which I will post next week) basically consists of flour, icing sugar and custard powder. With a little bit of butter.

I mixed this mess as best I could. The ratio is something ridiculous like four cups of dry ingredients to half a cup of wet. The recipe says the batter is dry, but when I saw the powder before me, I thought there must be some mistake. So I added an egg.

Never one to work hard, instead of mixing the egg in properly, I just kind of added milk until the dough seemed about the right consistency.

I realise my own improvisation is what caused the recipe to fail (and fail it did) but I investigated other similar recipes online. I tried, with my humble standard-grade maths skills, to devise a formula. Perhaps, I thought, there is an acceptable ratio of wet to dry that can save the recipe if I just apply it.

I worked out (again, with my rudimentary understanding of maths. I cannot overstate this enough) that the recipe my mom gave me has an approximate wet to dry ratio of 1:9. The other recipes I found fuctuated wildly (or just my calculations did) between 1:2 and 1:3.5. Nothing even coming close to my mom’s.

I thought my mom had simply mistyped the recipe, and it was supposed to be 1 1/2 cups butter (which would change the ratio to 1:3). She maintains the batter is just really, really dry.

I’ll have to experiment some more.

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Eggs. Not the edible kind.

Quick note: I intended to post something last week about gossip and our weird relationship with celebrities. But that required research and time, which I didn’t bother to expend, so this week I’m just writing a quick post about something that doesn’t require any more effort than putting my thoughts into words. I didn’t mean to skip last week, but I’ll have another recipe for you… soonish.

I’ve always been… well… average. I usually fit into the majority, and consider myself, in a totally non-self-pitying way, ordinary.

So I have a folder in my brain of Things That Make Me Interesting. These are things that are capable of dominating an entire conversation.

Chronologically, the first thing in my file is the fact that that I spent time overseas as a kid. The second thing is my tattoos.

The third thing is what I’d like to discuss now.

Egg donation.

I’m preparing to donate for the third time, and I thought I’d post a sort of FAQ, if you will, on my experiences.

Here we go:

- What made you do it?

Egg donation is never something I considered doing, or thought of doing, until I did it. I think I was on a bit of a donation kick, having donated blood and signing up for the organ donor registry. This made me realise: it feels good to help people. And it feels even better to help them in a way that doesn’t really cost you much.

All three of those things can completely change someone’s life, and don’t require much from me. Seems like a pretty simple equation.

- Isn’t it weird to know you’ll have a kid running around?

Perhaps I haven’t thought about it enough, or perhaps I’m just ridiculously well adjusted.

It’s all so abstract. I’ll have no hand in raising the child, and will never meet it. So, in my world, it doesn’t really exist.

It’s in no way my kid.

It’s also perhaps because I have absolutely no plans for having children – I have a cat.

This is a cat.

Is this just an excuse to post another photo of my cat?

- Does it hurt?

Not really. The worst part, for me, is the discomfort and bloating caused by the hormones. But this only happens a week or two before the procedure, so you don’t put up with it for long.

For the procedure itself, I’m under anaesthetic. And post-procedure, I have painkillers. I know it’s pretty painful for some people, but it didn’t have too much of an effect on me. In fact, I don’t think I used my painkillers last time.

So the answer to that question is… it might not.

- Will you still be able to have kids?

Yes. In fact, that’s why I’m stopping after three, even though the law allows for up to six donations (or five viable pregnancies). I was advised by the fertility clinic I use to stop after number three, for the sake of my own fertility. And it’s comforting to know, should I choose to have kids, my eggs are fertile enough to make it happen.

- So… do you have to… like… stop doing… stuff?

Yes. I’m super-fertile right now. But it’s only for two weeks.

- How long does it take?

From selection to donation takes about two to three months.

- What’s the process?

First, I filled in an online profile on Nurture.co.za that involved a medical history, family medical history, likes, dislikes, height, weight, education level, eye colour, hair colour, religion, etc.

Then waited to be contacted by the agency about donating. After getting an interested recipient, I made an appointment with a fertility clinic (I go to Vitalab, in Sandton) to get checked out medically and psychologically.

After several blood test and scans, it was finally time to start the process of donation. The fertility nurse sent a schedule about when the treatments would start and the approximate donation date.

So, I started hormone treatments. This is the part that puts many people off – you have to inject yourself on a daily basis. The injection didn’t bother me as much as the making up of the injection. If it was just something I could jab into myself, that would be fine. But I had to mix my own hormone cocktail by drawing distilled water into a syringe and adding it to, and subsequently drawing it back up from, four different vials. That whole process, and its margin of error, terrified me. But I managed.

Once my eggs were nice and big and fertile, I started on an additional injection, to prohibit ovulation.

Finally, the doc told me when the donation will be, and I had to make arrangements to be transported to and fro (the anaesthetic means I can’t drive myself).

On the donation day, I arrived nice and early at the clinic, got into hospital robes and lay in a bed until it was time.

Then I went under (which is the second part that terrified me).

When I woke up, hazy, I saw a piece of masking tape on my hand telling me how many eggs they managed to get.

After making me drink water and ensuring I’m healthy enough to get up, the nursing staff sent me home to sleep like a dead person.

The first time I did it, I was nauseous, but the second time, they took preventative measures and I felt fine.

A few weeks later, I was told that my recipient got pregnant. And that was one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had.

Worth it.

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Rusks, revisited

Welp, I did it. I tried rusks again. They didn’t turn out that different from the first time, so here’s what I learned: they’re supposed to be crumbly and anyone who can create rusks that don’t deconstruct into a million pieces when you try to cut them is clearly some kind of sorcerer.

I suspect I’ve had it with rusks. I don’t even really like to eat them. But my self-pity isn’t what concerns you, is it? I’ll tell you all about my rusk baking experience, and then put this whole ugly business behind me.

The reason trying to bake rusks was sort of important to me, is that I’m South African. Or, more specifically, I’m part Afrikaans. Rusks are a South African staple food because they’re a quick snack that’s quite filling, and don’t go stale easily.

This is the batter with milk added.

This is the batter with milk added.

Rusks, like biscotti, are baked twice, and dipped in liquid to soften. They were eaten during the Great Trek because of the reasons mentioned above. Also, they’re delicious.

Now let me tell you my rusk tale.

I did a few things differently. First, I used all the ingredients exactly as I should have. I used margarine, not butter, I used buttermilk, not milk and lemon juice, etc. I still don’t know where I’m supposed to get Raisin Bran and Honey Crunch, so I made do with shredded bran, raisins, and honey Corn Flakes.

Another thing, which I think is quite important, is that I used baking paper instead of just buttering the pans. This means the rusks didn’t stick, so they didn’t break. I could slide the loaf out of the pan and peel the paper off at my leisure.

I split the batter in two, to experiment with moisture. The first batch I left as is. With the second, I added milk until it was runny. They both turned out pretty much the same.

I looked online at some recipes to see what I was doing wrong, but one said crumbly is normal and that was all the proof I needed. The reason I had to look online for that info is that I don’t come from much of a rusk-baking family. We eat them now and then, but… Eh.

The reason I probably won’t be making these again is that my kitchen is a mess, and I’m not particularly fond of rusks. Sure, I’ll eat them if they’re there, but I don’t feel compelled to keep tubs of them on hand. On this batch, the yield is far too large (I filled two bread pans, a Pyrex dish and a roasting pan). If you’re Mother Hubbard, sure, make these. If you live in a one bedroom flat with your husband who hates rusks, don’t bother. Just buy Ouma instead. I guess that’s what you get for exploring your heritage.

No milk added (left) vs milk added (right). Slight difference.

No milk added (left) vs milk added (right). Slight difference.

Anyway, herewith the recipe with my edits:

Anna-Marie’s rusks

Ingredients:

700g brick margarine
500g (2 1/2 cups) sugar
3 1/2 cups buttermilk
4 eggs
1.5kg self-raising flour
50ml (3tbsp + 1tsp) baking powder
1 1/2tsp salt
350g shredded bran
300g honey Corn Flakes
1/2 cup raisins

 

Method:

1. Set oven at 180°C, and line 3-4 bread pans with baking paper.
2. Cut margarine into blocks and put into large saucepan with sugar. Heat slowly until melted. Beat well.
3. Remove from stove and beat in buttermilk, followed by eggs. Mix well.
4. Sift together dry ingredients (excluding cereal and raisins) and add to saucepan. Blend well. If batter isn’t runny, add milk or buttermilk until you get a gloopy consistency.
5. Add cereal and raisins, stir to mix, and pour into pans.
6. Bake for about one hour.
7. Flip rusks from pans and allow to cool down completely before cutting. Cut into pieces smaller than the mouth of a coffee mug. Don’t worry about the crumbs – it can’t be helped.
8. Place separated rusks on oven racks and dry out overnight at 100°C. Insert a wooden clothes peg to keep oven door slightly open. Make sure the bottom rack has a large baking sheet on it, to catch crumbs – when crumbs hit the element of the oven it fills the kitchen with a burning smell.

Okay, they look kind of delicious.

Okay, they look kind of delicious.

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C’mon, stop being such a girl

I discovered sociology in my final year of university. It was too late to actually study it, since I was nearly finished my journalism degree, but that didn’t stop me from reading the hell out of Sociological Images. It was there I discovered the term “androcentrism”.

Androcentrism is one of those things I never really noticed, because I thought it was normal. Then, when I became aware of it, I saw how truly pervasive it is. 

The term androcentrism (male-centredness) was originally used in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Our Androcentric Culture, and popularised by Sandra Lipsitz Bem in her The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. It initially described the fact that the male point of view is considered neutral, whereas the female point of view is an exception. This is similar to the process of othering, where certain attributes are considered normal, and the rest are aberrations. This applies to not just masculinity, but also whiteness, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, etc.

However, androcentrism as I learned the term had a different meaning. According to this post on SocImages, androcentrism is “a new kind of sexism, one that replaces the favoring of men over women with the favoring of masculinity over femininity.”

This doesn’t really seem like an important distinction, but it is. Androcentrism is the reason boys can’t wear skirts, but girls can wear jeans. Androcentrism is the reason boys can’t play with dolls, but girls can play with cars. And most importantly, androcentrism is the reason “woman” is an insult, and “man” is a compliment.

If someone says “You’ve got balls”, that is generally considered a compliment, meaning you are confident and fearless. Similarly, if you’re told to “man up”, it means to toughen up, and dive headlong into a difficult situation.

Conversely, if someone says someone has a vagina (in a non-factual situation), it’s usually in a disparaging way. No one says “Wow, look how you handled that situation. You sure have a vagina.” No one says “Come on, you can do it. Woman up.” Instead we get “Don’t be such a woman”, as a way to mock someone for being cowardly or soft.

Men are often made to dress like women in some humiliating rite of passage, such as a bachelor’s party, or initiation. Movies where men disguise themselves as women are comedies (Sorority Boys, White Chicks, Some Like It Hot) and the characters are disempowered by their newfound femininity. But often women disguised as men do so to become empowered (Mulan, Pope Joan, Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).

By that logic, to be a woman is degrading, but to be a man is aspirational.

Look at the flack Rachel Zoe encountered for letting her son’s curls go wild, thus making him “too girly”. Does letting a boy have long curly hair negatively impact his life? Does it impact him in a way that’s not linked to our society’s negative perception of femininity? As a society, we have to investigate exactly why a little boy’s curls make us so uncomfortable.

Similarly, comedian Eddie Izzard has had to field a multitude of questions about his identity as a transvestite. He isn’t free to just be himself without being extensively questioned.

In the process of deriding women and femininity, I believe this particular patriarchal remnant severely limits men as well. Besides the superficial, that men are judged negatively for wearing skirts or high heels, it also robs men of the opportunity to be vulnerable. There is much pressure on men to be tough, and strong, and powerful all the time. That sounds exhausting.

However, on the bright side, I believe things are changing. It’s not uncommon for men in certain subcultures to grow their hair long, wear nail polish or even wear eyeliner. Stay-at-home dads are becoming more visible (though some are still derided).

Maybe, just maybe, someday we’ll find ourselves in a society where we can all do what makes us happy (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone) without fear of being judged.

 

- This is another post I did for my rhetorical composing course.

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The rusk experiment

For my second Burnt Offerings post, I had hoped to give you one of my mother’s rusk recipes. I wanted so badly to tell you all about how wonderfully my rusks came out, and how easy they were.

But no.

Not-so-runny batter in a not-big-enough bowl.

Not-so-runny batter in a not-big-enough bowl.

Here’s what happened: I decided to start from the top of my mom’s “Burnt Offerings” stack. It’s called “Anna-Marie’s rusks”.

While making the recipe, I realised how utterly huge the batch is. I mean HUGE. I didn’t even have a bowl large enough to mix the batter in, so I had to do it in stages. Same with baking – it took two bread pans and a big glass dish to contain it all.

It looked delicious fresh out of the oven.

It looked delicious fresh out of the oven.

Also, I had kind of low motivation since neither my husband nor I actually really enjoy rusks. But never mind that now.

The consistency of the batter was all wrong, judging by the note in the recipe that says “Batter runny”. So the rusks were crumbly. Not only did they not slice nicely into neat little units, but they tended to drop half of themselves into your tea after a bit of light dipping.

...And this is what happened when I tried to flip it from the pan.

…And this is what happened when I tried to flip it from the pan.

I’m not sure what I did wrong; it could have been a variety of factors. I used several substitutions on this one: butter instead of margarine, milk & lemon juice instead of buttermilk. Also, I couldn’t find either of the cereals, so I replaced them with honey Cornflakes and All-Bran Flakes with raisins.

That being said, they were delicious. So I’ll try this one again, and hope my cookware forgives me.

Here’s the recipe in any case, so perhaps someone else can identify what went wrong.

Anna-Marie’s rusks

Ingredients:

700g brick margarine
500g (625ml) sugar
875ml buttermilk
4 eggs
1.5kg self-raising flour
40g (50ml) baking powder
7ml salt
1 x 350g box Raisin Bran breakfast cereal
1 x 300g box Honey Crunch breakfast cereal

Method:

1. Set oven at 180°C, and butter 3-4 bread pans.

2. Cut margarine into blocks and put into large saucepan with sugar. Heat slowly until melted. Beat well.

3. Remove from stove and beat in buttermilk, followed by eggs. Mix well.

4. Mix dry ingredients and add to saucepan. Blend well. Batter runny. Pour into pans.

5. Bake for about one hour.

6. Flip rusks from pans and allow to cool down completely before cutting. Place separated rusks on oven racks and dry out overnight at 100°C. Insert a wooden clothes peg to keep oven door slightly open.

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Finding my way back

Okay. Time to get a little self-indulgent up in here.

A while ago I took part in a Coursera course called Writing II: Rhetorical Composing. The very first assignment was to write a piece describing your identity as a writer. Not to let any writing go to waste, I’m posting it here. Enjoy!

By Patricia. There was one chair left.

The cover

Some might think my current career as a writer was inevitable.

My mother, while not a professional, wrote or read in every spare moment she had. Many a night she could be found in her study, clicking away on her computer, filling it with stories and poetry. My sister, similarly, read voraciously, and would often retire to her bedroom as a teenager, with a pen and notepad, while I was still paging through picture books, ignoring the text.

They passed this love of the written word to me. I clearly remember the day my sister suggested I start reading Archie comics, to ease myself into it. Those comics were, in fact, the basis for most of my early vocabulary.

One evening, when I was six, I tried my hand at writing. My magnum opus, Ther Wos One Cher Left, led to many well-meaning giggles and is still a family joke. It currently sits, laminated, in my mother’s study.

The three page book had been penned in a fit of spite after my parents, in the midst of a dinner party, told me there was no space in the dining room, in order to keep me away from the grown-up revelry. As is obvious from the title of the story, I saw through their excuse. The book earned me a spot at the table for dessert.

Everywhere I looked, omens of my impending writerhood appeared. My left handedness (“Ooh, lefties are creative”). My high marks in English and Afrikaans (“She has a talent for languages”). My introversion. My reading level, which led to my being cast as the narrator in more than one school play. My vocabulary, which led to me once sassing my father by calling him incorrigible.

I had been told I’d be a writer for so long, that I, too, believed it was inevitable. Not only that, I believed it would be easy.

There was one more chair left, and my mom did not use it. She wouldn't let me sit on it.

Page one

I began writing juvenile short stories, angsty poetry, essays of opinions recycled from snatches of other people’s conversations.

The praise came easily, and it felt good.

But praise usually comes easily to a child. My parents, with the best of intentions, gave me a false sense of confidence, believing it to be encouragement.

I became somewhat smug, mentally correcting the spelling and grammatical errors in the notes my school friends passed to me in class. I would try to think up the most obscure questions to ask the English teacher, and be filled with delight when they couldn’t answer.

Yet, despite this, I decided against studying English. It seemed far more practical to invest my time in a journalism degree. After all, my favourite writers were journalists first.

In university, surrounded by the other journalism students, my enthusiasm for writing dwindled. In my internship, it slowed to a trickle. In my post-university career, it all but died away.

After enough time spent in the company of better writers, better journalists, and harder workers, the awareness of my own ordinariness was no longer avoidable.

I was an adult. I was mediocre. Things didn’t come easily, and it stung.

Sometime after that, writing lost its charm.

My love of words became work. The thesaurus in my head became ever limited as it was only used in corporate copy, or used to neutralise the superfluous adjectives in fluffy press releases.

Launched: Announced. Unveiled. Released.

Company: Organisation. Enterprise. Business.

I became drawn to proofreading and sub-editing, feeling like that’s where my true talents lay. Picking apart the writings of other people, never needing any creative thought myself. Even that became detestable after a while. The repetition of it all was mind-numbing, like I was the member of a magazine chain gang. Putting the same old words in the same old stories, correcting the same consistent mistakes.

She never lets me sit in the dining room! True story. To Greta and Paul. Made on Dec 15 1992.

Page two

Eventually, my only relationship with fiction became snatched moments before bed when I could keep my eyes open long enough to read a few pages of a novel. Words made me weary, better writers made me envious, and frenzied typing causes carpal tunnel syndrome anyway.

God, I was miserable.

I knew I had to find my way back to writing. I had to overcome my self-pity, and make peace with the fact that I wasn’t the best. I will probably never be the best, but I could get a hell of a lot better if I worked hard.

I began listening, again, to the music of words. Jotting down any pretty things I read, or that popped into my head, compiling a mishmash of nonsensical poetry.

Bit by bit, I found my passion again. It felt like my words had meaning, rather than filling a page with meaningless jargon.

My stiff fingers again settled into the rhythm of fiction. Peppering pages with barely relevant analogies, describing moments in the most ludicrously flowery polysyllabic adjectives. Writing unfinished stories I’m still too ashamed to let anyone read.

I rediscovered writing, not because I’m good at it.

Not because it’s in my blood.

But because I love it, and always will.

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Burnt offerings

My mother, whom I love dearly, is not the world’s best cook. I, her youngest progeny, am even less inclined to inspire rapturous eyerolling with my culinary creations.

But, she being a stay-at-home mother, and I being unwilling to die of food-induced boredom, have both found ourselves in situations where we’re called upon to produce something marginally more inspiring than pasta with packet sauce followed by jelly and custard, without making a painful flop.

As a wonderful gift to me, my mother painstakingly typed out every tried-and-tested recipe she has in her arsenal so I might one day produce a meal with dignity.

This is my way of saying thank you, by attempting every recipe, adding comments, taking photos and compiling it into a hard cover book so it may be passed down to whatever member of the next generation my family happens to produce.

This book will take its name from the pile of printouts my mother gave me: Burnt Offerings.

Here’s the foreword from my mom:

A recipe book by a non-cook sounds scary.

BUT, I figured, the recipes of a non-cook have to be wonderfully good for the non-cook to use them over and over again.

They have to be – without fail – easy, quick, not fussy and 100% fool proof.

And THAT, I thought, is the best reason for compiling a recipe book.

I am also typing all kinds of Stuff on the flip sides – for various reasons:

a) Because I have learnt that Leaving the kitchen while the cooking/baking is in Process, is Not the Best Thing to Do.
b) That paging through the Telkom telephone directory becomes Very boring Very soon.
c) That Scribbling and Doodling in the home made telephone directory causes Chaos to any Unenlightenend Beings Trying to look up a number.
d) Because I LIKE reading Stuff!
e) Because I love you…

I will also type out my mom’s Stuff for inclusion into the book (and blog), and I’ll add some of my own.

Let me give a quick explainer on that home made phone directory my mom refers to.

Back before cellphones, we had a home telephone directory in our kitchen. This was, obviously, full of the phone numbers of friends, family members, doctors, etc. But this book wasn’t the neatest. Things were scrawled in in various handwritings, upside down, different pen colours, etc. It was also the closest piece of paper anyone had handy when on the phone, so it started filling up with doodles, or mysterious notes without reference. Then, the comments came.

Oh, those comments.

My mother, sister and I (and to some degree the rest of my family) would regularly page through the phone book, making sarcastic comments about the denizens of the phone book.

It became a tradition, and, in some way, inspired this book.

That tattered book full of obsolete phone numbers is a family heirloom, and something we still love reading through, decades later. Which is what I want to attempt here. Though, hopefully, full of information with a longer lifespan than the phone number of the doctor I had when I was in primary school.

If, over time, this book collects notes and comments, then it will have fulfilled its purpose.

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