Monday, November 28, 2011

Experiments in Dipping Toffee

For all the toffee and candy dipping I've done, I've never really looked at how to temper chocolate. I melt; I dip.  Last week, I was leafing through one of my chocolate cookbooks and read through the instructions for tempering chocolate.  I thought I'd give it a try.

The various stages of toffee dipping
I got mixed results.  It took a bit of time and patience to go through the steps (at least according to this cookbook) of tempering the chocolate.  I dipped at a lower temperature than I have before.  This made the dipping go so much faster and easier.  I was amazed by the lack of puddling under the toffee.

The drawback?  I didn't temper it right.  I got faint blooming on almost every piece, which is more than what I usually get.  On the other hand, it's so consistent, it almost looks like it was on purpose.  I was a bit timid about trying this, so I worked in a few small batches.  I followed the heating temperatures precisely, but didn't test properly.  Given what I've now been reading, I might have had better luck if I had melted my chocolate in one big batch.  So now I got something things to try for the next batch of toffee or the Easter candy making event I have each spring.  I would love to make a batch of butter creams or peanut butter eggs that don't end up with a puddle of chocolate underneath them.

Ginger Stars and dipped toffee
Since I was in the experimenting mood, I decided to cover a third of the toffee in milk chocolate.  It melted and tempered a few degrees lower than the semi-sweet chocolate (and it also bloomed).  I liked working with the semi-sweet chocolate better than the milk chocolate, but I guess I'll need to ask people which tastes better.

Almond Buttercrunch is dipped; Ginger Stars are baked and iced.  All that's left to do is bag 'em and tag 'em (and give them away).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Please, sir, I want some more.

Please, sir, I want some more.
The problem with a long weekend is that the girls get notions.  On a normal week day, they get fed at very regular times.  It usually takes until Sunday afternoon for Pinni or Willow to realize that the schedule has changed, and they'll try to push their luck.  Being a holiday weekend, the begging started in earnest by Saturday.  They've been inquiring about food any time either one of us has walked through the kitchen. 

It's amusing to identify who's asking.  Pinni has a fast, short wheek, that is often voiced while she's moving around the cage.  It sounds like a question:  Will you feed me now?  How about now?  Now?

In contrast, Willow demands to be fed.  She stands in the middle of the cage, to be as visible as possible and wheeks loudly.  If she's really bad, she'll chew the bars to make her point.

Bertie just needs a tin cup to bang on the bars
Bertie doesn't wheek.  She let's the other two do the dirty work.  However, she's not shy about stepping forward if there's the possibility of someone bearing food.

Initially they were told "No", or got picked up and wuzzed, but eventually their cuteness wore us down. I gave in this afternoon and they got their 3pm snack early.  And then they got their 3pm snack.  And again at 6pm.  We're currently watching football (go Patriots!), so we may succeed in giving carrots at the proper carrot time (7:30pm).

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday

My Black Friday consists of staying far away from any stores.  One year I went to Natick Mall and although I had fun (and a good deal) I vowed not to do that again.  Instead, for the last several years, I spend the day after Thanksgiving wrangling guinea pigs, making toffee and cookie dough and then go to the Rehoboth Contra dance in the evening.  It's a good way to spend a day.

This morning was the shortest pig-shoot we've ever had.  Especially with these three.  In one hour we shot 130 photos in two short sessions and from that bunch found a few decent Christmas photos.  By comparison, the normal Christmas photo shoot requires at least 400 photos in four sessions to get a decent photo.  And the winning photo?  The second one taken of the whole shoot.  Figures.  I didn't even need to Photoshop out any hay, fur or poo.  Amazing!

Could you please identify the creature that stole your carrot?
I end up with several cute photos that can't be used for the card because it didn't crop well, it's missing a pig or two, or it's out of focus.  Often, we've caught some pig being bad.  The best outtakes tend to happen at the end of a session, when we're all a bit frazzled.  We had piggy porn and snowman taste-testing and goofy expressions.  My favorite non-contender was this photo of pigs and props in a row.  It was too wide to put on the card and Pinni was a little hard to see.  What a long lineup of pigs, snowmen and a penguin. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Baking Frenzy

Apple Pie, take two
I have been promised to make an apple pie for Thanksgiving.  I love when I'm volunteered to do something, especially something that I've only done once before.  Ever.  Thanks.

I made enough pie crust this time, but still didn't quite get the edges right.  I think the third time will be a charm.  This pie is certainly more presentable than my first.  We'll find out this afternoon how it tastes, since I also modified the filling since my first attempt.  Muahahah!  This will get served to an unsuspecting houseful of guinea pigs!

Since I had the oven going, why stop there?

I had tried out a recipe recently called Crunchy Topped Apple Oat Bran Muffins.  Oat bran muffins can be so dry and tasteless; I had agreed to try this one last recipe before I gave up.  These got The Stamp of Approval.

Obviously, the food photography skills need some work.
The entire set of muffins were spirited off to the office.  What didn't get eaten before last weekend went moldy (because they hadn't been put in the fridge).  I was informed I needed to make a replacement batch (oh, and they should be bigger, and have more crunch topping).

Since I was already peeling and slicing apples I made a replacement batch of muffins, too.  Bigger, but with the same amount of topping.  Then I promptly put most of the batch in the freezer. 

I had made cookie dough last week that was in the freezer, awaiting to be baked.  The oven would be going.... so...  I baked two batches of cookies, too.

And I wondered why I was up until 10pm pulling stuff out of the oven?  I forget that I can't stuff everything into the oven at once, especially when some things cook at different temperatures.  When I finished, the counter was strewn with pie, muffins and bags of cookies.

What a good way to start Thanksgiving:  My fridge and freezer will be packed with goodies.  Willow, Bertie and Pinni have apple skins for treats.  The kitchen sprites visited this morning, and much of the mess I left has disappeared.  Life is good.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Boy in Blue

One ornament is complete.  Feedback from my co-workers indicate it will be a hit (and it passed the Rich Test).  You'll have to wait until Christmas to see.  Sorry.

In the meantime, here's a small preview of next one I'm working on.  I've got legs and boots.  The legs are looking terribly bow-legged at this point, but things will straighten out a bit once I work on the upper body.  He's got swashbuckling boots, so expect something with flair!  And he'll be dressed primarily in that dark blue blob on the left.  Any guesses on what country or time period he'll be from?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Swing of Things

We seem to be in-between pig dramas at the moment.  It gave me a chance to write about the goofier side of guinea pigs (see Pigs Lie) and focus on my holiday projects.  Here's a quick update on the girls:

Willow, Bertie and Pinni, all enjoying a bite to eat
Pinni is, of course, Pinni.  She's her normal cushy, nosing-around self and still complains loudly when I pick her up.  She eats like a horse and is as healthy as one, so I have no complaints.  She and Bertie do quite well together, rumblestrutting at each other and having who's-nose-is-higher contests.  I often find Pinni and Bertie sleeping near each other.

Bertie seems to have leveled off with her viruses.  She's still too light for my liking, but her attitude is back to her cheerful, goofy self.  I'm so happy to hear the random thumpa-thumpa as she runs laps around the cage.  She's keeping her weight above 900g without extra assistance from me.  I still hope at some point she'll fatten up a bit more.

The interesting outcome of Bertie's illness is that she developed a taste for Critical Care (amazing, eh?) and she actually likes being held (not for long, but she no longer quakes at it).  She isn't as skittish as she was just a few months ago.  It's an unexpected change.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Scout House Toffee

No sewing for this year's Scout House fundraiser.  I had even made a pair of oven mitts in advance!  I guess they'll have to wait for the next silent auction.

Zebra streaking?
I was asked, instead, to make my Almond Butter Crunch.  I obtained this recipe years ago and in typical Sally style, have modified it a bit.  The original recipe calls for chocolate chips to be melted on the top of the hot toffee, and then break it into pieces when it has cooled.  I didn't like how the toffee could be a bit greasy (there's a lot of butter in it!), so I started breaking it apart first, and then hand dipping the pieces.  This is very time consuming, which is why I normally only make this twice a year (Easter and Christmas).

For the auction, I stuck with the original recipe method.  The zebra-striping didn't come out quite what I wanted.  That's what I get for trying a new brand of white chocolate.  <sigh>  However, they look great once I broke up the batch.  The buttercrunch looks a lot different than my dipped version, but this way you can see exactly what you're bidding on.

Dark chocolate and milk chocolate topped toffee
I like my toffee with dark chocolate, since the toffee is already so sweet.  But I know some people like milk chocolate better.  So I did both:  half a batch with milk chocolate chips, the other half with semi-sweet chocolate.  I wonder which will get the higher bid?

Fingers crossed that my toffee will be popular.  Meanwhile, I'm hoping that Christa's fudge is up for auction.  I'll be bringing my checkbook in hopes that I'll win!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Exit Stage Right

Let's face it:  guinea pigs are goofy.  It's one of the things I love about them.  You never quite know what's going through that little pea brain of theirs.  Popcorning is always entertaining.  I love when Bertie does donuts in the cage.  Sometimes their begging will make us laugh, especially if one or the other of us has just fed them.  Occasionally, it's the simplest of actions that will get me to chuckle.  This video is a perfect example.

Willow, being Willow:

I have no idea what could have been so riveting that she needed to drop everything and go.  With traveling noise to boot.  Such a peculiar rodent.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ornament Season

It's November.  That's when I start gearing up for my home-made Christmas gifts.  There's a flurry of activity near the end of the month:  making almond butter crunch, baking cookies, herding guinea pigs for the annual holiday card photo.  I started making ornaments this week.

I always intend to make them in the summer, when the house is warm and the Sculpey is probably easier to work with.  I was all set to get a jump start this summer, when I was stuck on the couch doing nothing else.  But did that happen?  No.  However, I did get some ideas of what I wanted to make, which is usually my biggest hurdle.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Apricot Chocolate Ring

A schedule change suddenly bumped up my Breakfast Club obligation by a week.  As I mused what to bake, a coworker suggested one of their favorites:  Apricot Chocolate Ring.

My cousin gave me Chocolate (Practical Cooking) for Christmas several years ago.  It's been a great cookbook so far (although I've only done a few recipes -- I need to start trying more of them!).  All of my friends love the ginger chocolate clusters we make for Easter.  The Apricot Chocolate Ring looked impressive, so I decided to try making it.

It was an instant hit at work and has become one of my Breakfast Club staples.  The dough is a biscuity/sconey consistency and flavor.  Most of the sweetness comes from the swirls of chocolate and chopped up apricot.  Yum.  It goes great with a cup of coffee or tea.  My co-workers agree (because this ring disappeared before the end of the day).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Back for More: Adopting Willow and Pippin

This is the sequel to Discovering Adoption: Athena and Victoria.

I have yet to have a pair of guinea pigs with such a strong bond as Vicky and Athena.  They would bicker and hassle each other like a pair of siblings and yet would cram themselves in their hidey house to sleep together every day.  When we lost Athena, Vicky quickly became lonely and depressed without her constant companion.  This was new for me - my previous single pigs had done well, even thrived, on their own.  I feared for Vicky's well being, so I began my search for suitable companions.

Willow and Pippin
I visited the MSPCA in Boston soon afterward, having seen a pair of guinea pigs on that  fit my requirements: a pair that were no more than 1 year old.  I brought carrots tops in a plastic bag in hopes of making friends (I had checked with the shelter about bringing food).  I walked into the "small animal" room and discovered that the reaction to a crinkling plastic bag is universal:  an entire wall erupted with frantic wheeking.  Fresh greens were a rare treat for these guys.

The shelter had a dozen guinea pigs, far more than what was posted on Petfinder, aged from 3 months to a few years old.  I wanted to take them all home with me.  After spending an hour observing and examining all of those cute pigs, I finally settled on a mother/daughter pair.  They were  named Alberta and Sheba.  I soon renamed them Willow and Pippin.