Sunday, January 29, 2012

she bakes, she bakes

More baking adventures. It appears that I have... well, not perfected, and not even mastered, but accomplished the art of a reasonable flatbread. First there was pizza dough, which I have made using Alton Brown's recipe (you may detect a theme here) and that has generally turned out. We've eaten a lot of pizza; each time I make the dough it gets better. So practice is clearly a component. Next up with pizza adventures: I'm going to try Alton's grilled flatbread pizza recipe. You know, because winter's such a great time for grilling.

I have also accomplished a reasonable facimile of a sort of mana'eesh, a Middle Eastern flatbread that is essentially a pizza with za'atar on it instead of tomato sauce and pepperoni. I'll make this one again, I think, and up the oven temperature from the 400 F the recipe called for; my mana'eesh didn't really brown, though they were quite tasty all the same. And very, very easy, except for the part where my pizza stone can only support two at a time.

also, za'atar is extremely delicious

Finally, today I accomplished homemade bagels. They're not beautiful, but wow are they tasty. I did them the traditional way, poaching them in boiling water with baking soda and malt syrup before baking. They weren't blatantly flavourful the way, say, a store-bought bagel is; they were better. The texture was flat-out awesome. They had a subtle flavour; something not quite sweet, not quite savoury. They were a fair bit of work; a pre-ferment, then mixing and kneading the dough, then another rise, then shaping them and leaving them in the fridge overnight, then poaching (which I could only do two at a time) and then baking (which I could only do four at a time.) And things are a little time-sensitive when it comes to the poaching-draining-baking thing, so I'm not sure I'll be doing much of them when I'm home alone with smallfry. But as a weekend baking activity I'll definitely pull this recipe out again. I may have been ruined by these bagels; I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to go back to store-bought.

Incidentally, for those looking for a good mana'eesh or bagel recipe, I got both from Daniel Leader's Simply Great Breads book. My current copy is the library's but I'm pretty sure I'll be buying one. The failed bialys were from this book too, so my record with it is not perfect, but there are at least two recipes there that worked out well, and several more that I'd like to try (cider doughnuts being first on the list.)

I just ate another half-bagel, just to confirm that they really are that tasty. So. Good.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

turkey tracks

Or I think they are.

Got out for a true winter walk today near my parents' house. They live across the road from a regional forest, and while it's perhaps not the most beautiful place in the world, it's familiar and a good snowfall, like the one we had last night, makes the whole place that much more lovely.

I quite enjoy poking around looking at tracks in the snow; aside from the usual people and dogs, today we had:
  • voles
  • deer mice
  • grey squirrels
  • red squirrels
  • red fox
  • turkeys I think

The turkey tracks are new for me. We haven't always had turkey in those woods, though they definitely are there now, and I was staring at the tracks wondering what bird could possibly be pottering around the wintery woods and leaving tracks like that. They were far too big to be grouse -- but once I had hit on grouse, the thought that they must be turkey hit not far behind. I wondered about a pheasant for a while, as those have been known to be there too, but... I am not sure. I am really leaning towards turkey. The toes seem a bit more splayed than pheasant toes apparently are.

The photos are taken with my dad's Blackberry, which I must say rather impressed me. We had it in case of smallfry meltdown; she has started making strange, so we left the house only when she was asleep and planned to return at speed if she woke up before we got back. She didn't.

We heard chickadees and a red-breasted nuthatch. Well, I am extrapolating a little here, as I'm good but I'm not good enough to tell red-breasted from white-breasted nuthatch songs in absense of both -- but white-breasted nuthatches are an exception there, where red-breasted are common as nails. Also had a pretty excellent look at a pair of golden-crowned kinglets.

All in all, a very pleasant saunter. If anyone thinks I've misidentified these tracks, drop me a comment. Otherwise I'll spend the rest of my life thinking they're turkey tracks.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

teach a girl to bake

I have a problem.

I am a compulsive follower of recipes. I cannot not follow a recipe. And I'm not very good at cooking if I don't have a recipe to follow. This makes me a rather poor cook, but a pretty decent baker. I like baking and baking is a precise art. It's not so precise that a little slip-up here or there can't be recovered from, but it's precise enough that one should have a recipe and one should follow it. Usually a followed recipe when baking means a reasonably delicious outcome.

Unless, I am learning, the baked good is yeast breads. There is magic to yeast breads, and I haven't quite mastered it yet. My suspicion is that the problem has to do with my blind recipe-following and the fact that I'm not entirely sure of the reasons behind the recipe.

Take, for example, these attempted bialys.

we both think they look like onion-topped nipples; the resemblance is disturbing

I followed the recipe exactly, including the careful pricking of the centres so that they wouldn't do exactly what they did. They taste fine, but the experience of eating them is somewhat less than satisfying.

The thing I am realizing is that I need a little more understanding of the science behind baking. Chemistry was not my favourite subject in university, to say the least, but this is chemistry I can eat. And when it's taught to me by people like Alton Brown on Good Eats, well, I can get in to chemistry. Once I learn a bit more about why yeast breads do the magical things they do, I think I can follow -- or adapt, or embellish -- recipes with more confidence.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Project FeederWatch and Battle of the Squirrels

Bookwyrme (who has a fun spidery blog, btw) asks an excellent question: What is Project FeederWatch?

PFW is a citizen science program run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (when I was a kid, my dream workplace, until I realized I wasn't really cut out for either academia or emigrating) and Bird Studies Canada. For a small fee (which goes towards program upkeep) anyone with bird feeders can pick two days/week to identify and count the bird species and individuals that show up to eat, then report their findings. It runs from November - April every year. I've been wanting to participate since I was a kid. Now that I'm off for the winter and spend a lot of time nursing a baby, I figured I could do most of my nursing in front of the window and thus count birds while I do it.

So far it's been a lot of fun. I like counting things. I especially like reporting things I've counted and watching the statistics pile up. I have always kept half-assed track of the birds I see in the backyard, but it's interesting to keep a detailed record and see what's really going on.

Thus far this year I've seen ten species at the feeder during count days. I've actually seen thirteen, but none of the the white-throated sparrow, field sparrow, or my favourite red-breasted nuthatches have shown up on a count day so I can't report them (actually, all three disappeared right around the time the program started, perversely). Weekly we average about eight species and roughly twenty-three individuals. Juncos used to be the most numerous species, but they've really dropped over the past few weeks (this week I only saw three at one time) and goldfinches have picked up the slack, with a record nine individuals at one time yesterday. I have some regulars -- a trio of chickadees, a pair of cardinals, a downey woodpecker -- and some birds who I know are there but don't always show up on count days, like the white-breasted nuthatches and the blue jays.

The worst trouble I have is an escalating battle with the squirrels. On a bad day, the squirrels go through most of my seed and keep the birds away, and on a really bad day they can break feeders. The feeder in the foreground of the photo has been the most resilient -- the only feeder I've owned for more than three years that hasn't been busted by squirrels in one way or another. Last year's new, expensive feeder was broken and useless in a week. That was purchased after my "squirrel proof" feeder (which actually really was squirrel proof for most of the time it was up) finally bit it when they broke the roof to get in to the seed.

I don't dislike squirrels, exactly, destructive little bastards though they are. They're cute and fascinating to watch, and watching them trying to figure out the latest baffle system is really interesting. But I don't like that they fatten up on our seed while the birds, whom we buy the seed for, go hungry waiting for the squirrels to finish stuffing themselves.

Thus the escalation in tactics -- the suet feeder is benefitting from the latest baffle design, with a long chain covered by a PVC pipe on top of a Swiss Chalet take-out lid. The PVC is to prevent the squirrels from hanging on their hind feet on the chain, pulling the baffle up and snorfing down the suet by hunks. The feeder in the foreground will shortly benefit from the same treatment, though that won't stop the squirrels from leaping from the trellis onto the feeder from the side (this is truly amazing to watch). It's not about making the feeders completely squirrel proof, because I honestly don't believe there's such a thing. What we are trying to do is make the cost of getting the seed directly from the feeder higher than the cost of sitting under the feeders eating what falls when the birds eat. I'll let you know how that goes.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

my annual blog entry

Okay, let's talk about this. Let's talk about the fact that I have not done anything with this blog for over a year. Let's talk about the fact that apparently there is still a third entry about Panama coming (look, I promise nothing. It might show up, it might not. I've forgotten stuff, although lots of it is still pretty clear.)

The thing is, a lot has changed. I got comfortable in my new position at work. I had a baby (that was kind of a big thing.) I worked hard on the garden, which didn't make too much of a difference; fishy's done a bunch of renovations around the house, which has made a lot of difference, and lots of books got read and lots of birds got seen and a little bit of writing got done.

It's funny, because it doesn't feel like I've neglected this blog so totally. I still feel quite attached to it. So I think I will keep trying to update it, perhaps a bit more now that I'm home for a while. I'll keep using it for home and garden stuff; I'm doing Project FeederWatch this year, so we may hear some about that. I've got big plans for the garden (when do I not?) and I'm trying to be more faithful about uploading photos from my camera.

What this blog is not going to be is a "mommy blog." Nothing against them, and I'm sure things related to smallfry will show up every once in a while -- our first birding adventure, our first gardening adventure, that sort of thing -- but I don't feel the need to discuss everything, or really anything, about my daughter online. Suffice to say that being a mother is a hell of a lot of work, but it's also exceedingly fascinating and fun and getting more so; so I'll write about it sometimes but the focus is still going to be on my nature, gardening, cooking, and various attempts at crafting interests.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I hear the siren song of the naptime. Hopefully I'll be back here sometime before next January...