Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why do I read about wine?

Why do I read about wine? I have no idea. I just do. First it was a book on the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out the French vineyards in the late 1800s. I read it because it was epidemiology, but on plants. Like all epidemiology stories put in book form, it was a fascinating and true mystery, only heavy on the science and light on the "true crime" (since nature was the criminal).

This time, I was reading "Shadows in the Vineyard," about a sophisticated extortion attempt pulled off by a couple of unsophisticated Frenchmen against the greatest vineyard in the world. Except it was really a book about what makes a great Lord of the Vineyard (they call them vignerons in the book--masters of the vines). The crime was kind of secondary. Or even tertiary. And, having never even tasted wine, that was way down on my list of important things in the book.

It was a great portrait of an interesting man, especially.

But it was also a book that contained some insights that I found important.

First, the portrait of the man pointed out that the greatest vineyard in the world is tended by a gentle, brilliant man who treats the vines carefully, doing for them each individually (and he knows his vines individually) what will help them produce the best possible grapes.

There is, apparently, a cliche in the French vineyards:  "The more a vine struggles, the stronger the vine, the sweeter the grapes, the better the wine."

Given that, the vignerons will plant the vines in challenging circumstances--a little closer together than you'd guess, for instance, so they have to make their own way and struggle to grow.  Why? It makes them stronger, and their fruit is better.

And they do this on purpose, with full knowledge that it's harder for the vines, and that they might not produce what looks to an outsider like a great harvest. But the result is better grapes, even if they don't look giant and abundant, and grapes that are more suited to perfect wine (which, granted, I don't understand at all by way of experience, but in theory I get).

Further, the vignerons know that perfect wine doesn't come from the grapes alone. It comes from what they call terrior: the interaction between the right kinds of vines and the soil they are planted in. Not all kinds of grapes grow nicely in all kinds of soil, and the soil actually imparts character to the grapes and therefore the wine. To have a perfect wine, you have to carefully marry the vines to the exact right soil, and the cultivate them carefully, forcing them to struggle so they'll grow strong. And then even then the vines have to be coddled and cared for--and then they last and produce grapes for 350 years or more.

The vignerons love their vines and call them their enfants and treat them like their own children, focusing on tending to and caring for the vineyard to get the best wines--quality being valued over quantity. They are in the vineyard, walking among the vines constantly, very much in touch with all that goes on there.

Reading about that, I couldn't help but think that we are vines, and Jesus is a master vigneron:  he loves each of us vines perfectly, and knows us well, and he carefully selects the right soil for us to grow in and then doesn't rescue us from our struggles--but is always there, tending to the vineyard and keeping his eyes and hands on us to intervene if necessary, but letting us struggle so that we can be strong, so that our fruit can be sweet and our wine good.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Did I just read that?

"Kansas gets 4 years for beheading man with guitar string; prosecutors cite problems with case"

I would cite problems with that headline.

Unless they really did put a state in jail for 4 years. Or the band (that would explain the guitar string). And if that's the case, 4 years seems kind of short...

Friday, April 10, 2015

Candy bars!

Making candy all month--kind of obsessively, as I got a bunch a new ideas I had to try--led me slowly but steadily to a new discovery:  You can make candy bars at home.

Of course, that seems obvious. If you can make chocolates at home, why not candy bars?  Duh.

The thing that delighted me is that candy bars are actually a hundred times easier than making chocolates.  Why? You don't have to form them one at a time. You spread all the ingredients on a cookie sheet, let them set up, and then cut them into bars.

And they are Oh. So. Good.

Kind of amazingly good. Like we all made ourselves sick eating so many because you just can't stop.

The other thing I love is they completely satisfy my need to experiment in the kitchen. (What, you mean you haven't noticed that I LOVE experimenting in the kitchen? And tend to go overboard testing new ideas?)  Candy bars are uniquely creatively satisfying because you can combine ingredients in so many, many ways.

My first attempt was a brand-new-invention candy bar (let's call them Mister Tim Bars for now because they include all his favorite treats).  I layered graham crackers, homemade marshmallow, and peanut butter filling, and topped it off with milk chocolate. And they were to die for. I made one cookie sheet worth (that's 72 candy bars, each 1"x 3" because I have a big cookie sheet), and they disappeared super fast--before I could even finish covering them completely in chocolate!

The second go was supposed to be Twix clones, but when we did a taste test the homemade version was so good that the real Twix bars tasted yucky in comparison--and Twix are one of my all-time favorite candy bars! I once again ate so many I made myself sick.

And there are so SO many options.

Oh, what? You want recipes?  (Oh my--this is so easy it's almost embarrassing).

The idea that so appeals to me about candy bars is you can choose any flavor coating that they make baking chips of and fill them with any combination of fillings.  Mix and match to your heart's delight.

The basic process:

1. Get a big cookie sheet (mine is 12" x 18" and that's just right).  Cover it with a sheet of wax paper or aluminum foil (wax paper works better) long enough that 4" hangs out on each side (to use as handles to life the bars from the sheet to cut them).  THIS IS IMPORTANT:  It has to be a cookie sheet with 1" sides on it. Those flat ones just won't do.

2. Melt your choice of baking chips. I do them a cup at a time in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until they are smooth. Sometimes I add a half teaspoon of shortening per cup of chips to get a softer, smoother chocolate, but it's not required (and is a bad idea if you really want a crisp chocolate coating on your candy bar).  Spread them in a thin layer across the entire bottom of the cookie sheet. It takes about 2 cups of chips, so about a bag, to cover the bottom. You could make the layer thicker, but it's really easy to overwhelm with chocolate, so thin is good.

3. Start layering fillings.  If you're going to use cookies or graham crackers in the layers, lay them down before your chocolate (or other flavor of chips) sets up. If not, you can let the chocolate harden (best done in the fridge or freezer or it goes really slowly) before you layer things on.

4. Top with another layer of melted chips (to match the bottom or a different flavor--you can be creative!  Like chocolate on the bottom and peanutbutter chips on top? Yum!).

5. Let the whole tray set up (best in a cold place--I cover mine with another sheet of wax paper and stick it on the back porch at night because my freezer wont' hold the tray--but a freezer would be perfect).

6.  Take the entire thing out of the tray using the wax paper "handles" you left hanging over and cut it into bars with a big knife. I can make 72 bars from my tray. 1" x 3" bars really are perfect--homemade candy is richer than store bought.

7.  Eat them as-is, with bare sides, or cover the sides with more melted chips so they look more like storebought candy bars. I have found they don't last long enough for me to cover the sides, and it's a lot of work, so it can be unnecessary. That said, the chocolate on the sides does hold caramel fillings in better-it tends to very slowly spread if you don't contain it with chocolate on the sides, too.

Options for coatings (these are the flavors of baking chips readily available in my stores here in Longmont):
semi-sweet chocolate (can overwhelm some fillings, but I do so love dark chocolate flavors!)
milk chocolate (this is preferred--it lets the flavor of the fillings shine through)
white chocolate
peanut butter

Nestle and Hersheys also make specialty chips that are sometimes only available seasonally, including mint chocolate and special dark chocolate. Don't bother with the multicolored ones, though, because you melt and stir them together, so the colors blend in and look like plain chocolate in the end anyway, and usually those multicolored (orange and brown for Halloween, Green and red and brown for Christmas) actually are not multiflavored.

You can also use candy coating, like CandyQuik, but why settle for fake chocolate when you can have real chocolate?

The Fillings
This is the good part, right?

Caramel (use your favorite recipe; My favorite is: 1 c melted butter, dash salt, 1 can sweetened condensed milk or 1 1/3 cup homemade sweetened condensed milk, 2 1/4 c brown sugar, 1 c corn syrup, and 1 tsp vanilla--mix and cook in the microwave for 18-20 minutes, stirring every 3 minutes, until it reaches firm ball stage.)

Marshmallow (I used this recipe, but I didn't bother to form them into peeps. I just poured them onto the tray and let them set up in a big sheet. It's basically divinity with gelatin added.)

Graham Crackers

Peanut butter (or any nut butter) filling:  1 tbsp soft butter mixed with 1 c peanut butter (or almond or Nutella or whatever) and 3 cups of powdered sugar--knead until it looks like playdough. Or use your favorite buckeye filling recipe.

Nougat (Divinity with baking chips added to flavor it--see the bottom of the recipe at the link for instructions; you have to triple this recipe to fill a cookie sheet. You could also use flavoring extracts to flavor it.)--this is like the filling of 3 Musketeers bars, only you can make any flavor you like.  If it lasts that long. My kids inhale this stuff plain.

Shortbread (use your favorite recipe. Mine is: 1 c softened butter, 3/4 c sugar, 1 egg, and 2 1/4 c flour. Mix and spread in a cookie sheet. Bake at 325 for 20-25 minutes. To use in cookies, like Twix clones, bake them in the same cookie sheet you'll use to assemble the candy bars, but first grease the sheet, line it with aluminum foil with 4" overhangs on each side, and spray the foil with baking spray--or grease it, too--so that you can remove the shortbread as one giant cookie, put down the wax paper and chocolate and replace the giant cookie as a layer in the candy bars. If you like the less distinct flavor of the storebought candy bar cookie layer, use shortening instead of butter.)


Dried fruit


Coconut filling (1 1/2 sticks melted butter, 1 square soft butter, 2 pounds powdered sugar, 1 can sweetened condensed milk or 1 1/3 c homemade sweetened condensed milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla or coconut flavoring, 1-2 c shredded coconut--mix well until it looks like cookie dough)

Cream candy filling (just in case you want a cream filling denser than nougat, although I would always choose nougat first)--same as the coconut filling recipe, but leave out the coconut and stir in whatever flavoring extract you want instead--maple, almond, vanilla, etc.

"Chocolate milk cream" (that's what my kids call this stuff). It would be super good as a gooey addition to a marshmallow filled bar

Toffee (my favorite recipe is here)

Truffle filling (the pretty much standard recipe is here)

Ice cream (for a frozen candy bar--but you have to serve it frozen!)

Jam or jelly (raspberry jam with chocolate nougat sounds so good!)

Or any kind of other candy you want to chop up and stir in (candy canes, whoppers, lemon drops, toffee bars, those tiny hard marshmallows they put in hot cocoa--you can buy them in jars at the grocery store, gummy bears, fruit snacks, etc. Be creative.)

Any other kind of hard crackers or snacks you want to chop up and put in (pretzels, those "chinese noodles" that are neither chinese nor noodle, cookie bits, etc).

Or anything else you can think of that would be good coated in chocolate.

SO MANY OPTIONS.  There are too many choices. I think the next thing I want to try is shortbread, caramel, and nutella filling. And also graham cracker, marshmallow, and nutella filling. And nougat in many flavors (cherry, orange, chocolate, mint, vanilla). And vanilla nougat with caramel on top. And marshmallow with caramel on top. And...

too many candy bars!

And I ran out of chocolate chips. So I have to pause for a breath and to buy more before I can make any more.

But YUM. One of my more successful experiments, actually.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Did I just read that?

"Perhaps the good folks in the Ohio legislature misunderestimated the extent of left-wing extremism that infests much of the modern day Democratic party."

Misunderestimated just might be my new favorite word.

From the same article: "Of course, the idea of preserving fetal life infringes on a woman’s right to choose!!11!1!! "

He's pretty excited about 11 and 1!!!