Monday, August 10, 2009

Biscuit Time!

Biscuits are delicious morsels of fluffy, warm clouds sent from heaven, waiting to be bathed in gravy or topped with all sorts of tasty treats. They are a benchmark of one's cookitude. And as a daughter of the south, especially one who loves cooking, baking high, light, fluffy biscuits should be as easy as napping in a hammock under a magnolia tree. But, alas, I still struggle with something that most southern ladies consider nothing more than something on which to rest your butter and jam.

Perhaps I am genealogically impaired. After all, my mom's Italian and from the rust belt of Pennsylvania and my dad is English and from sort of the Nebraska/Oklahoma area. Neither of my parents nor their parents baked biscuits. So, even if I'm not truly naturally impaired, I'm at least nurture-ally impaired, since I never got to stand on a stool next to mom or granny and help make them.

In high school, back when they used to separate the boys out of home economics class, we had a class on making biscuits. We followed the directions on the back of the flour bag. What we created were flat, round, hard discs that no amount of soaking in anything would make them edible. My home ec teacher just shrugged her shoulders and said, "Sometimes the recipes just aren't very good." I was not put off - I was discouraged, but not deterred. After seeing biscuits at fast-food restaurants that are high, lighty and fluffy, albeit dripping in greasy butter and too salty to enjoy, I decided it just can't be that hard. I vowed to find a way to make consistently good biscuits in my own kitchen with my own two hands.

It took awhile for me to remember my vow, but years later, I bought a box of Bisquick thinking that a box could solve this problem for me. While the biscuits were edible, they had a funny aftertaste. Sort of metallic. And the biscuits still spread wide on the pan instead of reaching the lofty heights they should. I read the ingredients on the box and realized that it was pretty much the same thing as self-rising flour, so I switched to the cheaper bagged flour.

After more disappointing attempts, I started
looking for recipes in cookbooks because when I did exactly what the bag or box recipe said, the biscuits were still wide, flat and underwhelming. I came across a recipe that called for buttermilk instead of regular milk. What a revelation! Something about the acid in the buttermilk caused a wonderful bubbly chemical reaction with either the baking powder or baking soda. I couldn't tell which, I just knew I'd never make biscuits without buttermilk ever again. While I resolved the fluffiness issue, I still had problems with too much spread and not enough browning.

If I haven't said so yet, I should tell you I'm a Food Network junkie. I watch virtually every show they put on if it involves ingredients, knives, blenders, ovens, cooktops, and a host. Alton Brown did an episode on biscuits in which I finally learned the purpose of baking powder and baking soda. Power is for lift - soda for spread. I also learned there are two types of baking powder - regular and double-acting baking powder. After that show, I jumped up to try my biscuit recipe again.

Another oddity I discovered is that if I measure all the ingredients, my biscuits tend to be less good than if I just go by feel, which is another problem - being able to repeat the recipe. Armed with double-acting baking powder, buttermilk, all purpose flour, a pinch of salt, and sweet butter, I began mixing. Something told me (probably Alton) to stay my hand - don't over mix, lest the biscuits be tough. So, this time I left the mix very wet. I used the flour on my counter to tighten it just enough. The feel of the dough under my hands this time was completely different from any other time I've made biscuits. It was soft and silky and light! I cut them and put them in the pre-heated 425 degree oven and tapped my fingers together like an evil scientist. If I had a pencil-thin mustache, I would have twirled it! The timer went off and again, no browning and too much spread. It was not alive.

So, here's where I start, with my 129th (or there-abouts) attempt at making a consistently good biscuit. I have now modified the recipe to using 1/2 bread flour and 1/2 unbleached all-purpose flour. I've eliminated the baking soda entirely. I also use 1/2 butter and 1/2 shortening. If I could find lard, I'd try that but my market doesn't carry lard. I also turn the oven up to 500 degrees instead of the luke warm 425 degrees the recipies on the bag call for.

Some folks say to not use more than a couple teaspoons of baking powder because of the metallic taste. My response to that is - hogwash! Just use non-aluminum baking powder!

So, this past Saturday, excited to blog about
biscuits, I got up, put on my game face and pre-heated the oven to 500 degrees. I even measured the ingredients for the biscuits and made sausage gravy to put on top.
This gravy made from locally-produced Neese's sausage with extra sage. I love that stuff! I used to use Jimmy Dean's 50% less-fat sausage until I realized it was 50% less fat because there's 50% less sausage in the package! It used to take two packages of Jimmy Dean to get this volume of sausage gravy. Neese's has a bit more fat content, so I have to remember to skim some off before I start the roux. I throw in a pinch of cayenne pepper and use half and half. Might as go all the way!
Here's what the biscuits looked like out of the oven. Finally, brown biscuits without having to turn on the broiler! I also did not put any butter or milk on top. The little biscuit is for my kitty Pepper, who has "helped" me make biscuits since she was a kitten. She wasn't fooling me - I know she was really just after the milk.
And, the final result. Biscuits and sausage gravy! You might be wondering, why was I displeased with this result? Well, the biscuits were not quite high enough and the dough was a little too damp in the middle. I'll modify the recipe to cut back on the fat, use a little more baking powder and see how that goes. I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Ford Fiesta Movement

I've been following the Ford Fiesta Movement for a few months. It all started because my darling husband and I have become huge Top Gear fans. For us, it's appointment TV recorded only when we can't get out of some other commitment, like vacation. He also signed me up for a year of Top Gear magazine for our anniversary in May and I gobble the issues up as soon as they come in. I especially love the Consumer Reports-style car reviews at the back of every issue.

Top Gear has had a couple of issues where they talked about the fun, sporty, and just joyful little micro-compact from Ford - the Fiesta. *Double-Take* The FIESTA?! You all remember the Fiesta, don't you?! I sure do! In case you don't's a picture. Ring a bell now? Thin alumninum shell that made a tin-can-like sound when you shut the door, skinny little tires that would allow for the slightest breeze or wind buffetting around another passing Fiesta to blow you off the road, handled like a mini-bus, and was as comfortable on a long drive as a buckboard ...remember now? It's saving grace was that it was relatively reliable transportation that was inexpensive to purchase and maintain and was great on gas. Ford produced this model from 1981-1995.

So, to see the magazine reviews and Top Gear presenters going ga-ga over the new release of the Fiesta in Great Britain just made me stop in my tracks and gawpe. And, if the pictures are anything like what they actually get to drive, I can understand the initial appeal. Frankly, the car is dead sexy. Nothing at all like anything Ford has produced in the past. See? Sporty, swoopy, sort of muscular, bit of a sneer, looks ready to chew up some highway. And then the first thought I had was...where's mine?! Why can't Ford make one of those for us in the good ol' USA? Why does Europe get all the cute, fun, mini-compacts? Why do we get stuck with the chunk-a-blunk, blocky American cars with boxey backsides and an overly-blingified grill? No wonder the Big Three have been struggling here. Not everyone wants a vehicle that looks as utilitarian as a Kremlin tour bus.

Shortly after the Top Gear episode about THEIR Fiesta aired, I jumped online and started doing research. Turns out, Ford was using the Brits as a test case to see if maybe there would be a market for a sleek, fun, economical micro-mini in the US. The plan is to release the Fiesta in the US in 2010. In fact, Ford has decided to take a whole new and fresh tack on the marketing of the Fiesta. Instead of doing the traditional ads on TV, they've started marketing very early by way of social networking sites, blogs, YouTube videos and the like. In fact, they set up a contest where over 4,000 people applied to become "Agents" for the Fiesta Movement. Only 100 people would be chosen to become Agents. For six months, Agents received the use of a new 2010 Fiesta and in return, they were asked to share their experiences online. Each Agent is to complete 60 "missions" that Ford gives them. Once I found out about this, I went digging on the Fiesta Movement web site and discovered that a team of two guys near my home town have a Fiesta. So, I joined their Facebook page. Here's a link to their Facebook page. They did a lot of posting at first, all around May and June, but not so much lately. Guess they have real lives too and don't really spend all day showing off their new car.

Fast forward to late July when the Hubs and I go to San Diego for Comic Con. We are walking back from the Con one evening and there they are! The Ford Fiestas! Whoever the Agents are in San Diego know that Comic Con is a huge opportunity to get a whole bunch of people from all over the world to look at and possibly test drive the cars. Did I say test drive?! Why, yes I did! Why is that a big deal? Because the ONLY way you can test drive a Fiesta right now is to hook up with one of these Agents! That's Right! The dealers do not have any of these cars. AND, remember there are only 100 Agents in the country! In San Diego, they set up two Fiestas on the sidewalk for folks to just walk around and touch. They had computer monitors set up outside the cars so you could look at fun videos about the cars. They also had three Fiestas parked on the side for you to test drive. Unfortunately, they would close up shop before we would get back from the Con each day and we would be out the door earlier than the guys would be there with the cars, so I didn't get to test drive one.

So far, every review I've read of the Fiesta has been positive if not absolutely glowing with praise. Even Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear says it handles with a combination of Volkswagony solidity and Lotus-y responsiveness! How can you beat that?! (find links to some reviews below). And, based on the look I got at the cars fit and finish, basic design, interiors, and basic quality - if the drive lives up to what I've seen, the Fiesta may be changing my mind about American cars not being worthy of their Asian competition. It'll take a test drive to convince me though.

Top Gear's Fiesta Test Drive Video
- May 9, 2009 - This is a perfect example of why we love Top Gear! A test drive that includes being chased through a mall by a bad guy in a Corvette and a beach assault landing with the British Marines! Delicious!

Car and Driver
- November 2008

US News & World Report
- Unknown date

Monday, August 3, 2009

...a little off topic

Pictures from Comic Con 2009

That’s the link to my photo album for San Diego this year. It’s on my Facebook page also, but I don’t think many people, if any, clicked the link. Hope you will, although I have to apologize up front for the quality of most of the photos.

Yeah, yeah - I know I've not posted anything in awhile. Sorry. Mother's Day brunch at Angus Barn just wasn't as compelling a reason to post as I thought it would be. However, an interesting thing happened at the San Diego Comic Con this year and I wanted to share it. Wish I could say that it was me winning the lotto for the Batmobile...but, I didn't.

First, let me say I am not a bra-burning, femi-nazi - not by any stretch of the imagination. I do, however, feel that even with all the improvements to the condition of women in this and other industrialized nations, the fact remains that we still are paid at $.76 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same work. The "glass ceiling" still exists for professional women in corporations and law firms, and women are still not taken seriously as producers or directors or writers in Hollywood. With all that said, an interesting stream of thought kept cropping up in the panels I attended this year and, without any real agenda or purpose, I just wanted to share it. I'm probably just blithering again, but I hope it's an interesting blither.

The first panel I attended was the “Wonder Women” panel where women who play strong female characters discussed their roles and how they feel women are faring in the entertainment industry as a whole. On this panel were Sigourney Weaver, Eliza Dushku (who plays Echo in Joss Wheadon's Dollhouse), Zoe Saldana (who played Uhuru in JJ Abrams Star Trek movie) and Elizabeth Mitchell (who plays Juliette in LOST).

I've posted links at the bottom where you can see some of the wonderful panel discussion, but the parts I especially want to talk about are quotes from Weaver and Saldana.

Weaver stated early on -

“In regard to the "challenge" of writing good female characters — "The challenge that some writers take on very well . . . they're not trying to write a woman action figure, they're creating a character that has a certain drive and . . . ferocity. . . . I never thought about being 'a woman,' I was just playing a person. . . . There's a hero in each of us."

I found this sentiment echoed in the panel, Spotlight on Gail Simone, who is the current writer of Wonder Woman and Secret Six and past writer of Welcome to Tranquility and Gen 13. When asked how she felt about being the most successful female writer of comic books to date, Simone replied that when DC approached her to write Wonder Woman, she was not at all thrilled. She didn’t want to be “the chick who wrote chicks”. But after digging through the archives and reading past issues of Wonder Woman, she realized that it was a challenge she’d love to take on. The historical struggle for writers of Wonder Woman has been to show her as the empathetic, compassionate person she has historically been and not just the powerful, super-woman who has man-issues. And as long as writers live up to the challenge of writing compelling people, the gender issues will work themselves out.

Before writing Wonder Woman, Simone took on the daunting task of taking a misfit group of C and D list DC villains (The Secret Six) and developed them further by adding missing layers to their personalities – Ragdoll has serious sister issues; Scandal lost her lesbian lover, Bombshell, in a horrific way; Bane, understanding Scandal’s pain, has become very protective of her – all of this adds depth and perhaps even moments of grace to an otherwise stereotypical group of previously expendable background villains. They have become, under her thoughtful pen, beautifully complex people who tend to fall on the darker side of the gray area of morality, but for them it makes sense. They all tend to struggle with a desire to do the right thing but when pressed, fall back on doing the easy thing.

An interesting aside about how Wonder Women intersected on both of these panels - Joss Wheadon has written a script for a Wonder Woman movie and was on board to direct. All the fan-bois were going nuts speculating on who would be chosen to play her. Problems occurred and Joss backed away from the project. It remains on hold. Interestingly enough, when a question was asked of the Wonder Women panel members about why there hasn't been a Wonder Woman movie made yet, Zoe Saldana had some interesting things to say about that (below is a quote I grabbed from a blog that I linked at the bottom):

When an audience member asked why they have to cast Megan Fox as Wonder Woman instead of someone older and more regal, she replied, "I happen to have a huge crush on Megan Fox, I'm not hating on that possibility" but that "60-year-old men want to see tiny 25-year-old little girls and . . . those are the ones who cut checks."

She further said -

"Everything starts with education, and instead of fighting against a room full of men and try to convince them that I should wear pants (she was talking about fighting while wearing a mini-skirt in some movie scenes) . . . you have to learn how to fight these battles and it's all through education and putting them in our shoes."

And while I’ve been writing about how women characters are written, there was a sense that the entertainment industry as a whole has a long way to go still in regard to treating women and men equally behind the camera as well. In the Bones panel, creator Hart Hanson and lead actress Emily Deschanel talked about how co-lead actor David Boreanz has directed past episodes. Deschanel said she’d like to direct an episode. Hanson replied in a way that some could interpret as condescending, “How many hours do you work as an actress on the show? And how many hours does Boreanz work when he’s directing?” Hanson seemed to indicate that he didn’t believe that she would put in the time necessary to produce a quality episode. Deschanel protested and they agreed to talk more about it later. While the handling of Deschanel's request to direct may be indicative of her personal situation with the creator of the show she's on, it does seem to support the general feeling that Hollywood still does not take women seriously, which Saldana mentions in the links below.

Based on Weaver’s statement that good writing (whether it’s in genre movies or TV or comic books) has to do with the multi-dimensionality of a character and not whether a character is male or female, one would hope that the days of pigeon-holing people and their reactions and responses to situations based on gender is over (I hope)! Although, it also seems that in the production side of Hollywood, women still struggle to be taken seriously.

And now, the links I promised you. Hope you have time to read them -there's good stuff here.

Here’s a good blog post that has 4 video clips of each of the women discussing their views:

with Video Clips of the Wonder Women panel

Here’s a fan blog for Zoe Saldana that captures pretty much everything she said on the panel. I post this because it’s the only post that actually shows the sparkling intellect that Saldana brought to the panel. All the other posts I managed to find online have pretty much cut out what she said.

Fan Blog of Zoe Saldana

And, here’s another really good write-up of the panel. Unfortunately, it’s one of the ones that left out all the wonderful things that Zoe Saldana talked about in regard to education and the struggle of women in all roles in Hollywood to educate others on how women should be treated in movies, TV, etc.

A good synopsis of the panel discussion