Thanksgiving: When the pie is oh-so-yummy.

This year, spending Thanksgiving with a good friend, I got to do lots of lovely cooking. I made four pies: two pumpkin and one buttermilk, all with butter crusts, and one apple with a cheddar-butter crust. It was my first time trying an all-butter crust, and all of the pies came out excellently, crust and filling. The titles for each pie link to close-up pictures of them.

Butter crust: For this, I used the recent New York Times recipe, which seemed to be basically equivalent to Martha Stewart’s pate brisee, sans a bit of sugar. My friend didn’t have a food processor, or even a proper pastry cutter, so I cut up the flour and butter with a potato masher and finished mixing it with my hands, leaving the butter in nice crumbly chunks, the largest ones pea-sized. (As a result, when I rolled out the dough, it was nicely flecked and spotted with butter, like a leopard’s skin.) I used extra chilling to make up for the slower hand-mixing: I put the butter cubes in the freezer for a while, and rotated everything into the freezer when I wasn’t actively working on it, even the pie pans. I also took the advice to go ahead and roll out the dough soon after forming it, then let it rest/chill when already in the pie tins. The crusts came out beautifully, tender and buttery and flakey/crumbly. At some point I’d love to experiment with beef suet, leaf lard, or European butter, but even ordinary butter worked well.

Pumpkin pie: To keep things simple, I used the basic recipe from a Libby’s pumpkin can, with a few modifications. I added some molasses (essentially replacing the sugar with brown sugar), added a dash of nutmeg and vanilla, and left out the ginger (only because we didn’t have any). I also followed the suggestion of several online sites and cooked the pumpkin in a saucepan with all the other ingredients, except the eggs, letting it simmer for a little while to blend the flavors and remove the canned taste. I let the mixture cool for a while, tempered the beaten eggs with a bit of the pumpkin, then mixed the eggs in and baked the whole thing. The results made me very happy. While I’m not sure if the pumpkin itself tasted significantly different, the custard cooked more quickly than usual, which meant that the crust wasn’t over-browned by the time the filling was ready. Moreover, unlike some of my previous pumpkin pies, neither pie cracked or split, which I attribute to the pre-simmering; they both came out firm, smooth, and delicious.

Buttermilk pie: Oh, buttermilk pie. For the life of me, I don’t know why this pie isn’t more well-known; it’s absurdly easy to make, and every single person to whom I’ve served it has loved it. (It was probably the popular favorite this year, too.) I’ve always used this recipe, and it’s always served me well. Don’t bother with the “less sweet” version; the tartness of the buttermilk makes the ordinary version perfect, even for those who don’t like their pies too sweet.

Apple pie: So, a confession here: I’m not normally an apple pie person. I’ve made it before, but it’s never been a big part of my Thanksgiving tradition. However, at the bottom of the aforementioned pie crust recipe, the Times gave directions for a cheddar cheese crust and suggested using it for apple pie, and the combination sounded too interesting to resist. This one was probably my most mixed effort; the crust came out absolutely gorgeous, even more delicious than the regular butter crusts, and when I baked leftover scraps with a bit of Tabasco, they tasted rather like good cheese straws. However, the pie filling was only average. I mixed the apple pieces with the juice from a lemon, and layered them with heavy sprinklings of mixed flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. The texture was fine, but the taste just wasn’t that special; next time I’ll add a bit of molasses, bourbon, or other fruit.

And that was my Thanksgiving baking. I also made contributions to the main meal, but, while they came out well, they were fairly standard – mushroom stuffing, sweet potato casserole, gravy, cranberry sauce. Still, it was a lovely Thanksgiving, all told. The traditional foods are often the best, when they’re prepared well, and good times with good friends make any meal special.


Non-nerds, don’t read this.

Last night I was talking to a friend about things that I could do in theory, but that would be entirely OOC for my character (er, me).

He replied that I need to get a bumper sticker: “God is my GM.”

I’m currently considering buying a car, solely so I can put that sticker on it, because it’s so appropriate.

In a celebratory mood

I like making blog posts when I’m simply happy, because it happens rarely enough. And with the AP just now predicting that the Democrats won the Senate as well as the House, it’s a good time to be happy.

Dinner tonight was lovely. On the spur of the moment this morning, I decided to offer a Vietnamese dinner to celebrate Hubert Vo‘s reelection; I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since 2004, when he won office against a sleazy white Republican incumbent against all odds, and he’s done great things since then. Because of various schedule conflicts, it ended up being a nice intimate dinner, just four of us, but the food was delicious and the conversation was fantastic. I’ve been down for the last few days, for various reasons, and for the first time in a while I wholeheartedly enjoyed myself. I’ve been a dutiful student for the past few days, too, so I didn’t even have to feel that guilty about taking an evening off.

I prepared ingredients for make-your-own Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (technically summer rolls, but Cali’s, my ultimate standard for the Platonic Vietnamese Restaurant, calls them spring rolls, so there). To those who haven’t made them yourselves, I highly recommend them as a fun group activity, easy to prepare, with deliciously addictive results. You take hard rice paper wrappers, soften them in hot water, and fill them with lettuce, rice vermicelli noodles, julienned vegetables, herbs, and protein. Today, the options included green onions, carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro, fried marinated tofu, and shrimp. Finally, you wrap up the roll, which seals itself nicely, dip it in spicy peanut sauce, and devour it. Wrapping them into a neat cylinder is the hardest part, but initial imperfect attempts still taste like crisp-textured, bright-flavored heaven!

Afterwards, we drank intense Vietnamese coffee, ate pomegranate seeds, and talked for what ended up being over three hours. It was one of the best dinner conversations I’ve had in ages, ranging from folk magic and demons to internalized taboos and polyamory. Everyone there was intelligent, courteous, and open to wide-ranging discussion – a rare combination.

Some days I love being in grad school.

One person, one – never mind.

I’m pretty upset right now.

I like to think that I’m an intelligent person. I’m in an Ivy League grad school; I can take apart and fix my bike; I can follow directions and make a souffle. I’ve voted in many elections before and never had any trouble figuring out how to use the machines. I’ve read articles on voter disenfranchisement of various sorts; I’ve seen pictures of hanging chads and misleading electronic choices.

But my vote today won’t be counted. Yes, it was ultimately my actions that led to that fact, but that doesn’t excuse an outdated system, incompetent and ignorant volunteers, and the lack of any clear instructions.

As a good American citizen, I went to my polling place straight from class this afternoon. The room was a bit disorganized, but friendly election workers got me to the right people, who checked my IDs, marked me off the list, and pointed me to a voting booth. I stepped over to the booth and stared at the system for a moment. Connecticut uses mechanical voting machines designed in the 19th century instead of electronic or paper ballots, and I’d never voted with anything similar. Before I stepped in, I politely asked if there were instructions for how to use the machine, as it certainly wasn’t clearly labeled. Their (verbal) instructions consisted of “step into the booth, pull the lever, and pull the tabs for your candidates.” From looking around the booth, I figured out that one could write in candidates through little slots on top and register the vote by pulling the lever back.

When I tried to make my selections, though, it wouldn’t let me vote for governor. (As I later learned, if you open the write-in tab area for a race, as I’d done experimentally, you can’t proceed to choose a normal candidate’s tab. However, that wasn’t explained to me or written on the machine, and none of the volunteers seemed to know it either.) I called for help and they ran me through the basics repeatedly: make sure the lever is pulled, make sure nobody else in the column is selected. I deselected all of my candidates, just to see if any of them were causing the other race to jam, which didn’t work; when they told me repeatedly to make sure the lever was pulled, I tried pulling it back and forth a bit . . . which irrevocably registered my vote. As a blank ballot. Which they could see.

One of my coworkers suggested I go talk to the city voting registrar, where I was treated to the most condescending response I’ve received in a very long time. Yes, I know, election day is the busiest day of the year for that department, but that doesn’t excuse patronizingly telling people “you must have screwed up the machine, and you obviously don’t know what you’re doing,” instead of listening to what went wrong and figuring out what happened. Apparently, if I lost my right to have a fair vote, that was my problem, not the city’s.

Now, I know enough math and game theory to know that my one vote, realistically, doesn’t make nearly as much of a difference as all the political work I’ve done in the past, working for candidates and issues and getting out the vote. But if this happened to me, I doubt I’m the only one, and it’s frustrating beyond words to be disenfranchised after I jumped through all the hoops as well as I could.

As suggested by my coworker, I’ll be rewriting this into a letter to Connecticut’s Secretary of State after the election, especially as she’s been fighting to improve Connecticut’s voting technology. Maybe it’ll make a difference. For now, though, I needed to vent.

Easy African Sweet Potato Peanut Soup

This soup is many things: cheap, vegan, healthy, rich, and delicious. The one thing it may not be is authentic; while versions of this soup abound, and they’re almost always called “African,” I have yet to see a recipe that didn’t come from an Anglo-American source. In any case, it’s one of my favorite hearty soups to make, and in its basic form – chop vegetables, boil ’em, and blend ’em with peanut butter and spices – it’s about as easy as recipes get. I’ve given a few variations at the bottom, if you want to get fancy, but the basic version doesn’t require more than what I have at home most of the time anyway.

Easy African Sweet Potato Peanut Soup
makes six servings

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Love and Marriage: Goes Together Like a Horse and Carriage?

Link of the day:

Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir, by Louis Menand. Over a year old, but worthwhile for those interested in Sarte, Beauvoir, existentialism, sexual ethics, feminism, and/or polyamory.

I was “linked” to the article from Margaret Farley’s new book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, which was recommended several times in the course of researching my ethics paper. The title is somewhat misleading; it’s “love shaped by justice,” not “merely love,” and really it’s not about love as much as it is about how we bring the ideals of love and justice to bear on questions of sex.

It’s an excellent book, thoughtful and well-researched, and it brings up a lot of aspects of sexual ethics that are frequently under-discussed, from the role of cultural bias in “modern” studies of global sexual behavior to the relevance of a theological understanding of mind/body division/unity to moral norms. She acknowledges and addresses the concerns of conservative Christianity, progressive feminism, sociological studies, minority groups within the queer community, and more. While it doesn’t relate as directly as I’d hoped to the subject of my term paper, I’d recommend it to anyone examining Christian sexual ethics, or even Christian ethics in general.

Also, despite deep temptation otherwise, the title of this post will not be the title of my paper.

The thirty-six righteous ones

When I say that I’m learning from living with my roommates, there’s often a weary sigh implied in the background. Not today. I’m learning from living with them because, while they are much more conservative than me, so are most people in the world. Thus, when I learn how to talk with them in a way where I can genuinely hear what they’re saying and they genuinely desire to hear me out, I’m getting practice in the art of meaningful discourse. For example, the environment. I vividly remember, soon after I moved in, one of them commenting that “we’re not going to get into heaven by earning good karma for saving the planet” when I tried to save some bottles from the trash for recycling. Indeed, there’s a strange assumption within many conservative circles that acting in ways that respect one’s impact on the physical world is one of those crazy hippy liberal notions. (Strange, because – while that view is certainly in line with the cynical pro-big-business tactics of much of the Right’s leadership – it has little to do with the family-values reasons that many people consider themselves conservative.)

So what I’ve had to learn is that I have to do two things: lead by example, and connect the dots of my motivations. The former boils down to the fact that a lot of lifestyle changes are far easier to contemplate once you’ve seen them in practice, from eating vegan meals to traversing a city by bike. The latter lesson, though, is the hard one that I’ve been learning. When I connect the dots – “factory farmed meat is bad because it involves this practice, which has this effect, which results in this negative outcome” – then perhaps they can still challenge my data or logic, but at least we’re talking on the same level. At least we’re agreed on the idea that, say, antibiotic-resistant E.coli in our food is a bad thing, and even if we disagree on what the government should do about it, we can talk about the ways our own actions and choices have an effect. It’s a long, long journey, but it’s an exciting one.

At some point, by the way, I do want to continue my gender and sexuality post. I think I’m coming down with a cold, though, so right now it’s time for sleep. I will say, however, that Tom Kha is about the best soup invented by humanity, and this recipe (with a few modifications, e.g. tofu instead of chicken) resulted in a wonderful version thereof, making me a very happy panda. Listen to Barbara when she says that galangal is the heart of the soup, and that it’s not worth making if you don’t have it fresh or frozen. I first discovered the divine fragrance that is galangal in Tzadikim Nistarim, still one of my favorite BPAL perfume oils, and the rhizome has a heady, unique scent that I wish was more utilized in the West.