Friday, October 31, 2014


Yeah, so, turns out I was right about 1) Curse rewrites and 2) Halloween gumming up the writing works. I shipped out the last costume yesterday afternoon, and this morning I got up and wrote a couple pages on a new chapter of the third Jacob Tracy book. Which is now titled Confounded Immortals, if you're playing along at home.

I'm pretty sure I know what's going to happen next. And that's such a good feeling.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

cosplay etiquette: maintaining perspective

Fair warning: this is probably the only time you'll ever see the words "country singer Trace Adkins" and "cosplay" together in the same blog post. I guarantee it's the only time you'll ever see me mention a country-themed cruise to Jamaica. So bear with me--I'm actually going to make a point about cosplay.


Back in January of this year, country music star Trace Adkins had a confrontation with a fan on a cruise ship where Adkins was supposed to be the headlining act. It's not clear whether Adkins lost his cool because he'd been drinking, or whether the persistent tomdickery of this single white fanboy (who was singing karaoke and signing Adkins-like autographs at the time of the incident) knocked Adkins off the wagon after 12 years of sobriety. But all accounts agree that it was a public, verbal dressing-down, and Adkins got off the ship and checked himself into rehab as soon as they reached dock.

This is the kind of story that makes me squirm for all involved, but after putting myself in both parties' shoes my sympathies are 90% with the celebrity. This fan was following Adkins around and pretending to be Adkins. Though I can't say whether any laws were broken, a good lawyer could probably make a case for likeness rights violations, stalking, and identity theft in a civil lawsuit.

Of course, all of us cosplayers and fan-art-makers are violating copyright to one extent or another, but at least we're mimicking imaginary people. To cosplay a living person and to show up at his shows… that's just creepy. 

(I know I'll be creeped out the first time I see somebody cosplay one of *my* characters. Think how horrific it will be when some dude appears at my autograph table dressed as Jacob Tracy and expects me to be his Miss Fairweather. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.)

Now, how does this apply to cosplay, where most of us are playing imaginary characters? Well again it has to do with appreciating the line between reality and fantasy. We all get into cosplay because we like to imagine ourselves as another person in another place, but the sad reality is we're still living in boring old Kansas. Any time you stop playing the character and start presenting yourself as the character, it's a potential problem. And that particularly applies to meeting the actors and/or creators of said character. 

Look, you're already a guy/gal wearing a costume in public. If you go around acting like you really are in Rivendale or Hogwarts or the bridge of the Starship Enterprise people are legitimately going to suspect there's something wrong with you. So here are a few guidelines to know if you're taking it too far:

Scenario A. You're in costume and somebody asks you for a picture. You whip out your best hero pose, brandish your weapon, and snarl. Pic snapped. Cards exchanged. Back to being a guest at a con. All very normal.

Scenario B. You're in costume and some little kid calls you by the name of your character. You immediately fall into character, kneel down and talk to the kid and pose for a couple of cute pics for the kid's parents. You're on your best behavior, the kid's happy, the parents are happy, you feel vindicated. Kid goes on her way and you revert to being a guest at a con, only with a well-deserved sense of done-good. 

Scenario C. You're dressed as Wesley Crusher because you have the chance to meet Wil Wheaton! You're going to get his autograph and a pic and a handshake and WHEEE you'll be the bestest friends evah! Personally, I wouldn't do this. But I know people do, and I think the best approach here is to behave as normally as possible (i.e. Be Yourself) when meeting your idol. Say you like their work. Say their portrayal of the character inspired you. Probably best not to be too confessional here, and definitely don't try to trump the actors' performance with your own impersonation of the character. (I used Wil Wheaton as an example here because he's known to be super-welcoming to his fans. But still, I say, don't expect the celebrity to be your dancing monkey. Wil Wheaton is not your bitch.)

Scenario D. You're dressed as Lady X on the way to meet the creator of Lady X: super-hot comic artist/writer John X. Doe. Many creators love this, but some hate it. Do some research and approach your author accordingly. Again, if you're in costume, probably best to speak to the creator in your own voice, not try to impress them with how much you resemble Lady X and how well you know her back story and how much you'd love to pose for the next comic book and can he help you land the role in the upcoming movie. Not smooth.

Scenario E. There was a story about a year and a half ago about a teenager who was denied admittance to Disney World because her Tinkerbell costume was too accurate and the park management didn't want child guests thinking she was the 'official' Tinkerbell. This, to my mind, falls into the same category as the Trace Adkins cruiseship story above. There are appropriate times and places for cosplay. Don't infringe on the original's territory or you may find yourself bitch-slapped by an angry behemoth.


But Holly! you're whining, Why are you raining on our parade? Isn't cosplay just for fun? Shouldn't we  be allowed to have fun and make-believe? 

Sure. But keep in mind that your reality, and your rights to enjoy that reality, don't really extend beyond your own skin. When you start demanding that other people validate your reality, it gets uncomfortable in a hurry. 

ham and bean soup

Use a good quality, non-glazed, preferably uncured ham for this. I like Beeler's.

All measurements are estimated. Total cook time up to 4 hours. Prep time 30 min. Makes about three quarts, enough to feed a crowd or freeze for later.

You'll notice there is no additional salt in this recipe: the bouillon and the ham are quite salty enough on their own.

2 cups (1 lb) dried pinto beans
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 chopped sweet yellow onion (1 cup)
1 small shallot, minced
2-3 cups diced ham
2-3 tsp chicken bouillon powder (adjust to suit your salt preference)
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp white pepper
2-3 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 cup Dijon mustard

To prep the beans, put in a large stock pot with plenty of cool water. Cover and bring to boil. Boil 5 min, then turn off heat, leave covered on the stove 1 hour.

After an hour, drain the beans and rinse in warm water until clear. Add more clean water to more than cover the beans and return to stove on medium heat. Add all other ingredients, cover and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. After about 90 minutes you can test the beans for doneness: scoop up a spoonful and blow on them; if their skins split and curl they are done enough to eat.

However, for a nice thick porridge-like soup and tender beans, let simmer another hour. I find 2.5 to 3 hours cook time gives the nicest texture. Stir now and then and add water in increments if necessary.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

on writer's block: the issue of flow

Back in my days I used to roll my eyes when people said my writing "flowed" well. Because it's a fairly non-specific comment I was never sure what they meant; I thought it was one of those comments like, "It makes you think!" that really mean nothing at all and was just something that unschooled critters would say to have something to say.

Looking back, I think narrative flow was one of the things that I internalized at a young age, as a side-effect of being a prolific reader. I hadn't yet read enough amateur fiction to understand how hard that sort of thing is for other writers, and I hadn't yet dissected my own process to the point where I understood what I was doing and how.

But I've been going through a rough patch with this rewrite the last few months. Not the kind of block where one doesn't know what will happen next. The basic events of the novel are not changing, it's the why and how that I've been revising.

And lately I've had difficulty tapping into that machinery where the raw ingredients of characters, words, and situation go in and the lovely firm multi-textured scenes come out.

I can still write grammatical sentences that convey meaning, but the organic quality, the ability to submerse myself in the characters' heads and effortlessly transcribe what I see there, is lacking. My paragraphs are dry, lacking movement. The transitions between sentences feel clunky.

So I've been trying to read more, and specifically read more good stuff. I also picked up a book, How to Read Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, which specifically discusses the use of language.

Meanwhile there are a couple of mid-level writers in my writer's group who are working on this very issue. They, too, can put together grammatically sound sentences that convey who is standing where and what they are doing, but I have never found myself diving into their work and getting lost in it.

So I've been trying to diagnose some of the issues that enable or hamper "flow":

  • Description of setting—when, what, and how much. Tell us just as much as we need to know in the logical and helpful places. For any new setting, give a broad overview and then add in details as the characters interact with the environment. Point of view is relevant as well—whose eyes are we looking through? What's their take on the situation? How does their interpretation of events and surroundings reveal who they are to the reader?
  • Character blocking and perceptions—Mention when someone moves around in the room, and what they encounter when they do. Are they cooking breakfast? Making fishing lures? Knitting baby booties? Struggling to finish a project before the difficult client comes asking for it? Little bits of "business" within a scene help to set mood, establish a character's personality and emotional state, and describe the setting.
  • Dialogue—Is it natural and logical? or does it sound like the author is feeding the characters lines to move the plot forward?
  • Scene progression—Figuratively speaking, every scene should open with a question and end with the answer. In more concrete terms, something happens at the beginning of a scene that leads to another event, which precipitates another event, which prompts another, etc etc just like a row of dominoes. If you skip a domino the readers will think --wait, did I miss something?--and be jarred out of the story. Do this more than a couple of times and they will lose interest, having decided you are not a trustworthy guide on this journey. 
  • Plot progression—If your gaps in logic are particularly large readers will say the story has plot holes. You must show every step of the journey, or at least refer to events in narrative summary.

So, now I know what people meant when they said my work "flowed." Granted, it *is* an unschooled comment--a more seasoned critter would be more helpful by commenting on one of the issues above.

But still, to say that something "flows" well means "All the bits of the scene were in the right order and at the right pace, to such an extent that I forgot that I was reading." And that's a high compliment.

Monday, July 07, 2014

a scream in the night

I woke up last night around 3 a.m. and had to pee. This is a fairly common occurrence, and I took care of it without difficulty.

I should mention: we live in a 100-year-old house in which the bathroom is a tiny closet off the kitchen; its door faces the exterior back door, and is next to the bedroom.

I should mention also, I typically wear foam earplugs to bed, because the boy snores. It's probably not a good habit, but there it is. When I got out of bed, I took out one earplug and laid it on the nightstand, so I could negotiate the doors more quietly.

As I came out of the bathroom, in the pitch dark, I heard a sound that literally sent gooseflesh prickling down my spine and arms. It sounded like someone screaming. Like a fight, and someone screaming. It was slightly distant, as if coming from outside the house, and had a kind of doppler effect, as if it was close—like outside the kitchen door—and then moving forward, toward the street.

Friends, I was sure as could be that someone was being chased through the neighbors' yard and clubbed to death.

I took the other earplug out and took a step toward the back door, which put me in the doorway leading to the living room. The sound came again, but I couldn't zero in on it. I just knew it came from the east side of the house. I stood there for a probably less than a second, sorting through possible scenarios, which included domestic violence, drug deal gone bad, home invasion next door--where there is a cute little blonde soccer mom and three young children--and I was standing there stark naked, in pitch darkness, without my contact lenses.

Did I go for a weapon? Call the police? Put on clothes? I couldn't answer any of those questions until I knew what was happening, so: glasses. Confirmation. Find out what the fuck was going on. I went into the pitch-black bedroom and crawled over the bed, put my hand on the Sparring Partner's ribs. "Honey, wake up."

My tone got to him. "What?"

"There's somebody screaming outside."

"Are you serious?"

"I just heard it. Sounded like it was coming from the street." But I couldn't hear anything more, and with our bedroom windows close to the house next door, any noise from the street tends to get amplified. I grabbed my glasses and cat-walked through the house toward the front door.

Halfway there I heard it again: screaming. Sounds of blows, fighting. Sirens? Car engines? Even when you are awake in the middle of the night, panic and darkness can be very disorienting in terms of direction and distance. I thought, Why aren't there more lights on the street? Why don't I hear other voices yelling? People don't fight silently, ever. And I was hearing car sounds that suggested there should be flashing blue lights.

As I got closer to the SP's desk I realized the sounds were coming from the headphones he had left plugged into his computer.

He had been watching World War Z on Netflix, and put it on pause when we went to bed. But apparently Netflix had started running some little preview loop—like the bits of music/sound that get layered behind DVD menus—that consisted of running, screaming, fighting.

Lord Almighty. The release of tension was incredible. I was annoyed at myself and annoyed at the computer but mostly I was just glad nobody was dying and glad I didn't have to make some terrible decisions. By the time the SP walked up behind me I was nudging the mouse to close the browser window. "It's all right," I muttered. "It was just your computer." I did feel kind of stupid for not realizing it sooner. Maybe I would have, if it had been three in the afternoon instead of in the morning.

"Well at least you're still pretty," he said, which is one of our standard lines. He sounded relieved too. He put a hand on my bare back. "You're sweaty."

"I know! I literally broke out in a cold sweat when I heard it!" Some of the clichés are true, it seems.

We went back to bed. I had a brief, minor attack of the shakes as the adrenaline wore off, and a sicker sense of dread as I realized that I probably wouldn't hear someone being murdered in the house next door—nor would anyone notice if I screamed my head off inside our house. We live in a little brick bunker.

What would I have done if there had been a murder taking place in my front yard? I'd like to think I would've thrown on a robe, grabbed a weapon and gone out there to disrupt it, at least. I was well on my way to doing so, and I woke up the SP with two thoughts in mind: that I needed him to verify the situation, and to call the police if necessary. I did not wake him up and say, "Go check this out," because that's not my style. I am more confrontational and damn-the-torpedoes than the Sparring Partner, possibly because I have a less realistic idea of my own physical vulnerability.

I train in martial arts and I take advantage of the laws which allow me to arm myself. I read tactical articles and books because they pertain to my research as a writer and to my safety as a woman. But it's all theoretical; very rarely does the average person get their mettle tested without actual bloodshed.

But almost the first thing I thought of—and what I'm still thinking of today—was how that actress from The Commish was attacked and stabbed in the street while everybody stood around and watched. I saw the made-for-TV movie of that years ago, probably while I was still in high school, and I pretty much made up my mind then and there that I would never be a bystander to something like that. I hope I never have to make that choice, but if I do, I hope I make a choice I can live with.

The irony of all this is, if I hadn't taken out that one earplug before leaving the bedroom, I probably would not have heard anything at all. But afterward, I was creeped out to realize—anew—how easy it would be for someone to break into our house at night and I'd never hear them.

I should re-train myself to sleep without those earplugs. And train the SP to put his computer to sleep at night.

At around 7:30 this morning it occurred to me to hope I hadn't heard a banshee. Because that's the way my mind works.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

ConQuest, Stalkers, and #YesAllWomen

I was probably going to write this anyway, but all this #YesAllWomen kerfuffle has made it particularly relevant.

I have what you might call a minor-league stalker. We'll call him Old Slow Stalker. OSS met me at ConQuest several years ago and started following my blog, commenting on every post, sending me emails. It was harmless stuff, though I found it condescending and irritating. I have never enjoyed anybody, particularly strange men, telling me things I already know, or telling me I got something wrong when I know I didn't, or giving me advice I didn't ask for.

I told him to knock it off a few times. He didn't seem to get the idea. He sent me birthday cards in the mail, having acquired my address from the ConQuest mailing list (I'd like to smack whoever was in charge of guarding THAT information). He offered to buy a copy of my novel (I did sell him a copy of an early work, before I realized what was afoot). He began to develop this idea that he was a valued contributor to my writing work.

Every year at ConQuest he'd show up with some trinket or message or oddball present, which I consistently refused to accept. When I married the Sparring Partner, OSS tried to get close to him, chat him up. I believe he sent us a card of congratulations at our new home when we moved out of state. When I banned the OSS from my Facebook feed, he friended some of my friends and makes a habit of talking about me to them (although they have been warned, and know to be circumspect). He approached my friend Haymitch, who runs my writer's group, and tried to get himself invited to it. Luckily my Haymitch is a savvy one and checked with me first.

This year, the week before ConQuest, Old Slow Stalker sent me an email, the first in years. It was quite polite, even obsequious (my unwanted fanboys are invariably unctuous, even submissive). In it, OSS informed me that he was NOT a stalker, because reasons, that he'd always looked on me as a favored niece, and he was glad he'd met me because that had enabled him to meet another friend of mine, who was also very beautiful, and he intended to come to my reading at the con, but he wouldn't say anything while there.

Now, OSS has never made any lascivious comments toward me, although he has repeatedly and randomly assured me how pretty I am. He is, in a way, an old-fashioned gentleman, although of the type that seems to believe women have no faculty over their own needs or wants or brains, that women require the support and approval of men, that we are there as objects to be admired and be grateful for the admiring. Imagine the kindest, politest guy on Mad Men, the one who was sweet to all the secretaries, and you'd have OSS.

I didn't respond to OSS's letter because I have adopted a zero-acknowledgement policy toward him. I trashed it. And naturally, when I arrived at the ConQuest hotel, he was almost the first person I saw on the floor. He practically did semaphore signals with his arms, trying to get me to notice him, but I didn't. Three times I ran into him Friday, and each time I ignored him.

I hadn't thought too much about what he would do if he DID show up to my reading; I figured if the room was full I'd just ignore him. But when he walked in, in the middle of my second paragraph, there were only two people in the room, and the Tao decreed I was not going to put up with him, sitting in there and sucking off my qi.

"I don't want you in here," I said. I wasn't even angry. I was just drawing the line.

He blustered, protested. I told him I had made myself clear and I would go to the Con committee if he didn't remove himself at once. He announced he would NEVER CONTACT ME AGAIN and stormed out.

I apologized to my audience for the interruption and went back to reading. Gradually more people arrived; I ended up with six. They all laughed at the right places, and you could have heard a pin drop when we got to the climax. Not bad for a chick whose book isn't even out yet, especially since my Bio was left out of the program. I enjoyed myself.

But you know, I just really don't understand the mentality of someone who will keep trying to force themselves in where they are clearly not wanted. Hell, I have a couple people at that Con who hate my guts, too; if I see them, I nod. If they ignore me, I don't press the issue. But then, my self-esteem is sufficient that I don't feel the need to be more than polite.

I'm aware that it could be much worse. I don't believe OSS is so deranged he will turn violent, and even if he did I could and would happily break him in half. But he does seem to believe that I owe him some attention, or at least an explanation.

And that offends me: that imposition, that implication that I owe him something. Not because I feel threatened, but because there are so many women everywhere, in similar but much more dangerous situations. And because there are so many men out there who don't understand that their actions are causing enormous distress, even illness and pain, even though they "don't mean anything by it," because they are too absorbed in what they want to consider another person's feelings. It offends me on general principle.

Old Slow Stalker will almost certainly turn up here and read this.

When you do, SG, let the above serve as your explanation. Don't bother rebutting; any emails from you go directly into my "evidence" file. If you need further insight, go read Chuck Wendig's post. Especially the part where it says, "forcing yourself into safe spaces and unwelcome conversations makes you an entitled, presumptive fuck-whistle."

That about sums it up.

Monday, May 26, 2014

ramos gin fizz ice cream version 1.0

So, a Ramos Gin Fizz is an amazing old-timey cocktail that is sweet, tart, fragrant, and dreamy. I love 'em. I love 'em to the tune of the five extra pounds they put on me last year. I am reminded of why alcohol is not good for you.

Still, I thought this combination of flavors would make for good ice cream, and I went looking for a recipe. Didn't find one, but I've made a lot of custards in the past few years and I figured it was a short step from custard to frozen custard. And, I can get juniper berries from my local health food store, which will substitute for the piney flavor of the gin.

This is attempt number one. It's good--light and creamy, but I want more intensity of flavor and sweetness and there's not quite enough volume here to make a good 1.5 quarts that seems to freeze optimally in my ice cream maker.

2 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 Tbs juniper berries.
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 Tbs cornstarch
pinch salt
1 tsp Fiori di Sicilia oil from King Arthur Flour

Basic method is:
Heat the cream in a saucepan and crushed the juniper berries, then let them sit in the hot cream, covered, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs with the cornstarch, whisk in the milk, salt, and Fiori. When the juniper is done infusing, strain the cream into a saucepan, whisk in the citrus juices and the egg/milk mixture, and heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens. Strain again, if desired, into a large bowl, press plastic over the top, and chill thoroughly before freezing in the ice-cream freezer.


The above recipe gave me a faint juniper after-note, that I could detect *slightly* in the warm custard, but not in the finished ice cream. Cold desserts seem to require more intensive flavors and more sugar to seem balanced. The sugar ratio also plays a part in the end texture. I think for my next attempt I will do something like this:

3 cups cream
4 Tbs juniper berries, crushed
1/2 c lemon juice & zest
1/2 c lime juice & zest
~3/4 cup sugar (will have to taste this to gauge sweetness)
3 eggs
3 Tbs flour (so far I have used flour, cornstarch, and arrowroot starch as thickeners, and the flour won hands-down for texture)
1 tsp vanilla cognac
1 tsp orange flower water

I like the Fiori a lot, but because it's an oil I don't think it works well in cold desserts. Likewise the zest of the citrus fruits needs to infuse with the juniper, and they all need to infuse for longer.

I also want to try adding xanthan gum to improve the texture; with this high level of water in the mix, there's a danger of ice crystals forming.

Nevertheless this is an intriguing project!

Monday, April 07, 2014

tilapia and shellfish creole with asparagus, and garlic mashed potatoes


Peel & dice 2-3 medium red skinned spuds. Boil together with 2 cloves peeled garlic until spuds & garlic are soft. Mash lightly and stir in 1/2 stick butter, seasoning salt, California pepper, and a dash of cayenne.

Fish and Seafood Creole sauce

Melt 1/2 stick butter in large skillet. Chop 2 cloves garlic, 1/4 sweet onion, 1/2 red bell pepper, and 1 stalk celery. Add seasoning salt, black pepper, basil, parsley, and 3 dashes cayenne. Sauté until soft, then remove. Do not clean skillet.

Season-salt & cali pepper** 4 tilapia fillets, then dredge in flour. Add 2-3 Tbs olive oil to the skillet with the goodie* and quickly sauté the fish until done through and edges are crispy. Remove to a plate. 

Return the veg-roux mixture to the skillet and throw in a handful each of frozen scallops and frozen cooked cleaned shrimp. Chop a medium tomato and throw in. Take 2 servings of asparagus and cut into bite-sized pieces and add to veg-seafood sauté. Cover and cook over med-low heat until asparagus is done and seafood is thawed/cooked through. 

At the last minute, add a couple pinches of gumbo filé powder, just enough that it thickens slightly.

Plate the fish and potatoes. Serve the chunky veg & seafood sauce alongside.

*"Goodie" is our household word for the cracklin's/roux/drippings or any other flavorful yuck that's left in the pan after you cook something. Used to flavor the next something.

**"Season-salt" is a verb. So is "cali-pepper." California pepper is a mixture from Penzey's that contains, among other things, black pepper and dried bell pepper. Very useful flavor shortcut, especially in Mexican, Italian, or Cajun dishes.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

witch's brew

For the last year or so I've been doing some semi-serious research into herbal medicine, mostly to fortify my writing but a little bit out of practical reasons as well.

As I've gotten older I've developed some skin problems. I saw a dermatologist and he went the predictable route: gave me some samples for a VERY expensive topical cream (which made me very dry and uncomfortable) and wanted to put me on a testosterone inhibitor--without checking my hormone levels, and despite the fact that I had none of the other symptoms of high testosterone, just acne. I said no, thank you.

There's an herb called Vitex (chaste tree berry/chaste berry) that reputedly has hormone balancing properties; there have been a few clinical studies to indicate that it can alleviate PMS symptoms. It's also one of the two major ingredients in a commercially available "acne tea" which I have used before, with good results.

Problem is, the tea's expensive, and not available locally. So I could order it in bulk, and have lots of little stupid overpriced tea bags and steel canisters clogging my pantry (and recycling bins) or I could make my own. Luckily I have access to an amazing natural foods store that sells dried herbs in bulk.

The place looks like the aunts' conservatory in Practical Magic. They sell all kinds of stuff that even I, with my casual knowledge of herbal medicine, know to be potentially harmful. They stock at least three abortifacients, ready to scoop into little baggies for $1.49/oz.

I copied down the ingredients from the back of the commercial tea's packaging and went to the store. I started pulling down jars and lining them up in a row, checking them against my list: Vitex, burdock, chamomile, and a handful of florals for flavoring.

"Are you making a spell?" my husband said, in a delighted kind of way.

After a second's thought I said, "Yes, actually."

I will confess something now that will probably have my mother throwing Holy Water at me, if she ever hears of it: I've always wished I was a witch. Not a touchy-feely-new-age-mother-earth-gaia-goddess kind of witch, but somebody with real power, like in the fantasy stories. I have never tried to be one because I don't believe in magic or higher powers that mortals can harness to their benefit. Religious rituals are a waste of time, to my mind. Nevertheless, the last few weeks have been stressful and I've been writing about my characters doing magic, and complaining that it's a pity such powers don't exist, because I could use a bit of influence over the world right now.

But last night I made my tea, with the help of a food processor to chop some of the dried herbs (I tried using my mortar and pestle but those hibiscus flowers are tough, dude). And I was drinking it for breakfast--it had the familiar scent and flavor of the commercial stuff, but stronger--and I thought to myself, This is the kind of knowledge wise women used to have, before the Church decided they were a threat and declared them heretics. By researching and mixing these herbs I have successfully circumvented both the priests of pharmacology and the acolytes of marketing.

So I say what the hell: Blessed be.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

white cake with berries

Here's a delicately flavored, pretty white cake with berry filling, good for bridal/baby showers or just when you want to show off.

This recipe is adapted from Restaurant Eve's white cake. It's the only treatment of a cake batter I've seen in which the butter is melted and combined with the flour first, and it works wonders. It's also, as far as I can tell, pretty much foolproof. I have beaten this batter within an inch of its life and it came out fine.


8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temp.
2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. (I HIGHLY recommend using the paper. This batter is delicate and sticks like crazy.)

Combine sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Use an electric mixer to beat in melted butter in 3-4 stages. Beat for about 2 minutes; the texture will resemble cornmeal.

In a separate bowl, combine eggs, vanilla extract and milk. Add to the flour-butter mixture in two batches (scraping the bowl once), and beat until smooth.

Distribute the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for 20 minutes. Remove cakes from pans to cool completely.

Berry filling:

1 cup strawberries
3 Tbs sugar
1 Tbs lemon juice
1/4 tsp vanilla
1 cup blueberries
1 cup raspberries
1 cup blackberries

In a food processor or with a potato ricer, mash strawberries with the sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla until you have pulp. Mash the other berries lightly (best to do the blueberries alone, or they don't get mashed well) and then combine all. Let sit a bit for the flavors to mingle.


This is probably my favorite icing ever. It has a wonderful light texture and is not nearly as sweet as a buttercream. The cooking can seem intimidating, but it's really a simple two-step process. Just keep a close eye on the cooking roux; it can scorch very quickly. 

5 Tbs flour1 cup milk1 tsp vanilla1 cup butter1 cup granulated sugar (NOT powdered sugar!)

In a small saucepan, combine flour and milk over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens. This will happen suddenly, but don't panic; keep whisking until very thick, like brownie batter, then remove from heat immediately and put into your mixing bowl. Stir in vanilla. Resist the urge to taste it; it will be fairly weird at this point.

Now set the gravy aside to cool to room temperature. You can cover it and put it in the fridge for a bit, but if it gets hard it will be difficult to blend. It must be completely cool before the sugar/butter are added.

While the mixture is cooling, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. You don’t want any sugar graininess left. Then add the completely cooled milk/flour/vanilla mixture and beat until uniform and fluffy, like whipped cream at the stiff stage.

Speaking of whipped cream:

I like to cut my filling-frosting with whipped cream to reduce the sweet and stretch the amount, so you may also want 2 cups of hard-whipped cream on hand.

To assemble cake:

Cut each layer in half horizontally (I don't have to explain what this means, right?) so you end up with four cake layers. A long serrated bread knife works well enough for a home kitchen.

Take out about 1/3 of the frosting mixture and fold the whipped cream into it.

On the first cake layer, smear on a generous coating of the berry mixture with a large spoon (not so much that it will ooze out the sides). Spread the icing-whipped-cream combo on top of the berries.

Repeat with layers 2 and 3.

Put the top on the cake, and frost the sides and top with the uncut frosting. Refrigerate promptly. This cake is probably best after it has chilled and the layers have set up a bit.

Monday, February 03, 2014

'exquisite' and 'squirm' both have a Q in them

Last week my husband had to attend this professional banquet, so I got to dress up and tag along. I don't mind; I get to wear some of the nice clothes that never see the outside of my closet, and I don't have to make dinner that night.

I was dressed sharp--skirt, jacket, heels, pearls--and I could see people sizing me up, trying to decide if I was someone important. It's fun to tell the suit-and-tie crowd that I'm a professional costume designer. They don't know what to do with that.

Problem was, once they learned I wasn't in the biz, they didn't know what to say to me--and these are folks who are not comfortable with silence. So I got a lot of compliments on my hair, my suit. From women, mind you. When people say women dress up for each other, they ain't joking. Most men know not to stare; women don't bother to hide it.

It was actually a little weird, and I was maybe hyper-attuned to it because I just read that article going around about how society conditions girls to place greater importance on their physical appearance than on their abilities. I admit I've fallen back on those conversational gambits, although I try not to.

The young woman I sat next to did pretty well; she asked what I did, who my customers were, stuff like that. But the older woman on the other side of her was complimentary to the point of being embarrassing. She said what a beautiful couple I made with my husband, and how chic and "coiffed" I was. She told the Sparring Partner I was "exquisite," which made me feel a little like a trophy wife--a new and peculiar feeling.

My smart man replied, "Yeah, she cleans up good."

Which is why I married him.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

case of the shoulds

Probably my least favorite verbal tic is when people use the word "should" as a passive-aggressive way of saying "must." As in, "You should read this book/see this movie/try this diet."

I always want to say, "Why should I? What about this product makes you think it would be perfect for me? Or what is it about me that you think needs fixing? Or are you just hoping for someone else to validate your life choices?"

I don't say those things, of course, because it would be tremendously rude. But it is equally rude, in my opinion, is telling someone they "should" do something. I know it's a colloquial short-cut but I loathe it.

"Should" is a terrible word. It conveys guilt. "I should start working out again." "I should call my mother." "I should write X number of words a day."

Should sucks. Purge the word from your vocabulary. If you find yourself thinking, "I should do X," then immediately drop whatever you are doing and go and do it, or at least schedule a time when you will do X--and then do it.

You'll feel better without the weight of those shoulds on your conscience.