Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Breaking records, changing climate

A refreshing walk 'round the block on this blustery, 60-degree morning has me itching to garden. But... it's January. It is supposed to be the dead of winter. It is the dead of winter, in fact. Two days from now, the temperatures will be back in the teens.

This happened last January, too—an unseasonably warm day in between some very seasonably cold days. I biked to the train. (I considered biking today, but chickened out; we're expecting some wild weather later.) So, the occasional, drastic temperature fluctuation is not all that unusual and won't by itself send me screaming, "Global warming!" There are plenty of other weather extremes that point to climate change.

This season, Chicago broke a couple of old records regarding snowfall, or more accurately, regarding the amount of time without snowfall, while also reaching some of the coldest temperatures of recent history. I ask you, what fun is the cold without any snow? (Your answer: Why, no fun at all!)

It doesn't matter whether you're looking at snowfall or rainfall, 2012 was one of the driest years on the books, with precipitation levels hanging awfully close to those of the driest year (1962, according to climatestations.com). Only four years ago we reached the opposite extreme—2008 was a record wet year for Chicagoland.

Here and everywhere else in the world, we're bouncing back and forth from drought to flooding to drought... And if you think the rainiest years will balance out the driest years, you're forgetting something. When the heavy rain happens all at once, the ground can't hold it. The water doesn't stick around to be saved for later—it runs off! Washing out crops and sweeping away towns as it goes. So, when it's a wet year, things get destroyed, while the dry years negatively impact the navigability of important rivers, in turn affecting important things like the transportation of grain in the Midwest.

Now, I mentioned that this winter had some of the coldest temperatures. And yet, almost every summer, we hear reports that it's the hottest year on record. What's the deal? I told you, weather extremes. As with precipitation, we're reaching the lowest lows and the highest highs, but overall, the years are warmer. Look at this graph. The green line is 2012, and you can see the cold temperatures of January and February spiking down toward the blue, long-term-average line (but not quite getting there!), while the rest of the year pretty much follows—and sometimes even exceeds—the temperatures of the previous record-warm year.

Chicago 2012 mean temperature vs. record warm and average, climatestations.com

It's all bad news, folks. Something's gotta change, and that something is us.

I know that it's difficult in the dead of winter (even a warm winter) to be green. Even I want long, hot showers and the heat cranked up. I hate wearing layers! But really, the quick showers and the giant pile of blankets on the couch need to be the norm, rather than the occasional small sacrifice. And that nice hot soak in the tub needs to be a rare treat, not a weekly indulgence.

You get the picture.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cooking in your coffee mug

This was another of those early departure mornings. Have some coffee, walk the dog, lay on the couch for a little bit before the dog wants out again, get lunches ready, get dinner going in the crock pot, and hurry-up-get-dressed-it's-time-to-go! So breakfast must go with me. (If you think I'm going to skip breakfast, you're nuts. I'd be digging into my lunch by nine o'clock.)

Now, I could take two minutes on the way to work to stop for fast food. Or, with some quick packing at home, I can take two minutes to make breakfast when I arrive at work.

One easy breakfast for the office and quick to pack at home: Handful of oatmeal and raisins, dash of cinnamon, and spoon of brown sugar all in a mason jar. At the office, add some water, stir or shake, microwave until oats are cooked.

Another easy breakfast I had never tried before today. Scrambled eggs in a coffee mug. Yes. I was skeptical, but this is for real.

It's another quick-pack: Two eggs, a piece of cheese, a pat or two of butter. At work: crack the eggs into a coffee mug. Throw in the butter. Add two tablespoons of milk or water. Scramble! Microwave for 30-45 seconds. Stir well, break up clumps. Microwave for another 30-45 seconds. Top with cheese, which will melt in about a minute while you wait for the eggs to cool off enough to eat. And, oh my gosh, it worked! And it tasted good! Like real scrambled eggs! I'll probably do this at home for a quick breakfast now.

Notes: I used water because milk is not readily available in the office, even though I feared water would be gross in the eggs, but it didn't even affect the flavor. What the water does do is help the eggs turn out fluffy. Also, I added salt, pepper, and hot sauce to the eggs, because those three things were available in the office kitchenette. Quite delicious.

Did you know microwaving uses a fraction of the energy of any other cooking method? (Besides solar ovens or other really cool alternative green methods. I'm talking about in your average kitchen, OK?) So these eggs in a mug are a green and frugal choice. And they took so little time! And dirtied only two dishes! (Mug and fork.) Perfect when you're cooking for just one or two.

So, what else can we cook in the microwave in a coffee mug?

There's the one-minute brownie, which doesn't have the chewiness of an oven-baked brownie but is more like a dense, puddingy chocolate cake. No, it's a combination of brownie and chocolate souffle. Yes, that describes it pretty well. I have made it a few times, and it is pretty good and makes for a nice treat during the afternoon slump. Making this at the office does require advance preparation, unless you always have cocoa powder and flour and things in your desk drawer. I do not, but maybe I should. Hm. Anyway, here's the recipe:

2 tablespoons each of: cocoa powder, water, and vegetable oil. 4 tablespoons each of sugar and flour. Plus a pinch of salt. 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional. Mix it all well in your coffee mug and microwave 60 to 90 seconds. The center of the "brownie" should be slightly molten. Allow to cool a little bit, then eat with a spoon.  I found that more or less oil in the recipe will make the texture more fudgy or more cakey, respectively.

So now I'm on a coffee mug cooking adventure. What else can we make? There's the obvious hot cereal or soup. But that's hardly exciting. This April 2012 article from the Chicago Tribune has a few microwave-coffee-mug recipes: coffee cake, upside-down cake, quiche, and chilaquiles, none of which I have tried yet, but all of which sound worthy of trying. I think the chilaquiles will be next on my list. Len will love it! (If it turns out well, that is.)

Share with me! What have you microwaved in your coffee mug? (Besides coffee!)

(Linked with Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways #62)

Friday, January 11, 2013

A few greenies I admire

The bicycle commuters still going strong in January. 
Kudos to the cyclists still darting 'round the city of Chicago in this dark, cold half of the calendar—and to the few of you I see out in the 'burbs still biking to the train, though I suspect your commutes must be shorter than mine. Or at least I'm convincing myself of that so I don't feel so bad about covering my own 11 miles (round trip) by car half the year.

Environmental activists.
But not the shouting, bomb-threatening types. That's just counterproductive. Rather, the ones who chain themselves to trees in the path of loggers, the ones who go to the site of an oil spill to scrub the poor little waterfowl with Dawn soap, and the ones who defend pandas in court (thanks, Modern Family, for that joke)—you have passion and ambition that I have never quite mustered.

I could never be you. While I like to eat meat, I could live without it—if I had to. And I could live without some dairy products, because I genuinely like the taste of soy milk and almond milk. But, oh, the taste of real whipped cream. And our homemade whole-milk yogurt. (I need to write about that!) And cheese. Like a really sharp cheddar. Or baked brie wrapped in a buttery crescent-roll crust. (Or even Wensleydale, Gromit!) Plus, eggs are always a staple in our house.

The people who eat only organic, free-range, grass-fed anything.
I just bought boneless, skinless breasts for less than two dollars a pound and only paid 11 cents per egg by buying the value pack . . . but at what cost to the chickens?? Seriously though, I'll occasionally shell out the big bucks for a delicious, sustainably provided gourmet meal, but it's hard to justify going broke by choice over groceries. For widespread change

The people who raise their own organic, free-range, grass-fed whatevers.
I can barely keep up with a vegetable garden, while I have an acquaintance who essentially snuck a small farm into her backyard. I am envious.

The people who go off the grid.
First of all, I'm jealous of your resources. Of the wealth, know-how, creativity, and/or free time that enabled you to install you solar panels and gray-water system, to plot out and work that piece of land suitable for sustainable agriculture, to build a greenhouse out of recycled materials, to make the best use of your harvests, to trade your raw honey for your neighbor's grain mill, and so on. Must be nice. But secondly, and more importantly, I admire your great effort. It ain't easy being 100% green.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Adventures in Cake Decorating #2 - Sugared Grape Wedding Cake

I've come a long way since I posted my first adventure in cake decorating here (which wasn't my first ever adventure in cake decorating by far—I can recall Funfetti icing that turned gray by mistake— but was my first since maintaining a blog, and I suppose my first at trying something out of the ordinary). Since then, I made a bowling-themed cake for Len's 30th birthday, and it involved bowling pin cookies and a three-dimensional bowling ball. Really fun to make and pretty cool looking, if I do say so, but definitely room for improvement. Then I was the designated baker for a friend's very small wedding reception, and I was much more pleased with that finished product than I was when I made those baby block cakes for a friend's baby shower. And then I created a cake that looked like a book to celebrate Len's earning his teaching certificate, and I was really excited about that outcome. Oh, and so many ideas I want to try!

First let's flash back to March 2012, the small, casual wedding reception, because those are the photos I have handy at the moment. We'll get to the other cakes in the near future.

As is often my MO when I want to focus all of my energy on the look of the cake, I started with boxed cake mix. I enjoy baking from scratch, but the box just saves me some time and creative energy. You can get the mix on sale for a buck, you already know that it's going to taste good (better than a store-bought sheet cake), and you can trust that it will come out looking and feeling like a cake should. I even went with canned frosting this time, too. Again, it's frequently on sale, it tastes all right, it's easy to work with, it saves me some dishes, yada yada yada.

For the wedding cake, I chose Devil's food chocolate cake and vanilla buttercream frosting. And, I started the night before the event.

Friday night, I baked one 13x9 and two 9x9 one-layer cakes and let them cool. The two 9x9s would be the two-layer bottom tier. Out of the rectangular cake, I cut four squares—two medium and two small—to make the top two two-layer tiers. Using a bread knife (useful for trimming cakes because it's long, flat, and serrated) I trimmed the tops and sides of all six squares to make them flat and even all around. (The cake scraps and any leftover icing would become a small batch of improvised cake balls.)

Then I piled on the icing—but just for between the layers at this point! When I had three separate two-layer cakes (bald except for icing in the middle), I did the crumb coat. I thinned out some icing just a little bit with some milk and spread a thin layer around every exposed edge of the cakes and let them dry out until morning.

While the cakes were baking, I rinsed bunches of green and purple grapes and then rolled them around in sugar. Some methods for sugaring grapes call for egg whites, but I found that just the water from rinsing them was enough to hold the sugar on. It will, however, give you an uneven coat that sprinkles off anytime you touch the grapes, but if you're just going for the simplest method possible... Anyway, I let the grapes dry overnight as well.

Late Saturday morning: Learning my lesson from the baby blocks, I used a lot of icing. The crumb coat helped a little bit with keeping the chocolate crumbs from mixing into the cream-colored icing, but either I'm still not doing something right or I'm expecting the crumb coat to harden more as it dries than it actually does, because crumbs still came loose unless I gave myself a really thick icing buffer. I frosted the bottom layer first and when it was totally covered, I dipped the spatula in hot water between swipes to smooth out the icing around the sides, giving the cake a cleaner look like a sheet of fondant would.

Using cardboard squares cut to the size of the each tier and covered with foil and little wooden dowels cut just barely higher than each tier, I first stacked and then frosted and smoothed the middle tier and then the cute little top tier. Then I piped a dotted border, just to hide imperfections and give the cake a cleaner more finished look. Then I carefully placed the grapes.

I transported the whole thing in a giant box and drove so carefully! One bunch of grapes fell off in transit, smearing some icing. So I just rearranged some of the other grapes once the cake was in place on the restaurant table, and no one was the wiser. Mostly.