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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How to make the best latkes

We had family Hanukah last night, I cooked latkes. Every cook thinks she makes the best latkes and I'm no exception... a few nights ago I was part of a Hanukah celebration at a local retirement community and at the dinner following, the ladies at my table were grumbling about the latkes as made by the kitchen staff. I had the wonderful fantasy of the lot of them - more than two dozen Jewish mothers - descending on the kitchen en masse to tell them how to make proper latkes. Of course, this would have degenerated into a free-for-all as they all disagreed with each other. Graters would have been flying.


10 medium baking potatoes
2 large onions
2 eggs
1/4 cup flour, bread crumbs, or matsoh meal
lots of oil
sour cream and applesauce for topping

The worst part is grating the potatoes. There have been many bloody knuckles in my past but this year for the first time I used the grating attachment of my food processor. Voila! Salvation.

After you've grated them, salt them liberally, toss them with the salt, and set them in a drainer over a pot for at least half an hour. More is better. They'll turn reddish and a whole lot of watery goo will drip into the pot.

While you're waiting, dice the onions (or chop them in the food processor). Put a couple tablespoons of oil in a big frying pan and saute the onions until soft.

Now take small handfuls of the grated potatoes and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the rest of the liquid out of them. You will be amazed how much there is! The more you squeeze out the better.

I fire up two large frying pans with enough oil in them to cover the bottom generously. While the oil heats up, mix the sauteed onions, potatoes, eggs, and flour thoroughly.

I use a very large fork to take a golfball-sized blob of the mixture and put it in the oil, mashing it flat. We like the lacy parts around the edges so be sure they're lacy and flat. Fill both pans. You will not have good latkes unless you keep adding oil when the latkes suck it up. Don't even think about skimping. If you are dieting, don't eat latkes.

I cook them on the first side till I see the edges are getting crispy and then flip them. I like them very dark and crispy. Your mileage may vary.

I put a large flat pan in the oven at 300 degrees and lob the latkes onto the pan until people are ready to eat.

The big question is, how many people will this serve? It's always hard to decide how many latkes to make. Last night we counted: we got thirty latkes from this recipe. So that's 3 latkes per potato. Four people ate this recipe almost completely, but maybe they shouldn't have.

Sour cream and applesauce are the traditional toppings but I (a convert) prefer mozzarella cheese. Sshhh.

By the way, some people translate "latke" as "potato pancake" but that makes me shudder. It reminds me of that ghastly Manischewitz latke mix which makes limp flabby pancakes that are like wallpaper paste inside. No, no, nooooo!



Sunday, December 25, 2011

Applesauce raisin walnut cake

Here's the cake I baked yesterday for today's expedition to the hospital. I used to make this in high school! It's like fruit cake for people (like me) who hate all those weird red and green things in ordinary fruit cake.

I iced it with cream-cheese icing today but I prefer it with nothing on top. Better the next day.

Applesauce raisin walnut cake

3 cups flour
1-1/2 cups raisins
1-1/2 cups walnuts
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
3/4 cup butter
1-1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1-1/4 cup applesauce

Stir the dry ingredients (including the walnuts) together. Put the raisins in the applesauce and heat for 90 seconds in the microwave. Cream the butter and eggs; whip in the eggs one by one. Stir it all together and bake at 350 degrees in a (buttered and floured) tube pan for as much as an hour - until a toothpick comes out clean if you stab it.

Chocolate buttermilk pie

Here are two great recipes for chocolate buttermilk pie. The first is the one I made for Mitzvah Day. I made it yesterday because it's firmer on the second day.
Chocolate buttermilk pie

2 squares unsweetened chocolate
1/3 cup cocoa
4 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups milk
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons butter
cooked pie shell
optional: whipped cream

Stir together cornstarch, cocoa, salt, and sugar in a non-stick pot. Add a little bit of the milk and mix to a thick paste. Gradually add the rest of the milk, stirring constantly. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens completely (this takes quite a while unless you warm the milk before you begin).

Meanwhile, crush the unsweetened chocolate into powder/small chunks(I use a food processor); add it to the pot and keep stirring. When the mixture is beginning to thicken, add the buttermilk gradually. Keep stirring.

Separate four eggs (three would be enough actually). When the cornstarch-chocolate mixture is thick, add a bit of it to the yolks in a smaller bowl, stir, and then stir the yolks into the pot.

Last, add the vanilla and butter and when it's all stirred together, let it cool a bit and then dump it into the cooked pie shell and chill, covered.

Note: you can make meringue from the egg whites and put it on top if you don't have another use for them. I prefer whipped cream, myself.

Here's the other recipe, it's great too.

Chocolate pie #2

2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 egg yolks
2 cups milk 2
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups (12-oz. pkg.) semi-sweet chocolate chips
whipped cream
Cooked pie shell

Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in non-stick pot. Add milk as above (first a little bit to make a paste, then the rest gradually while stirring). When mixture is getting quite hot, add buttermilk gradually, stirring all the while.

Let mixture come to a boil; stir for one more minute. Add butter, vanilla, and chocolate chips; stir until chips are melted and mixture is well blended. Take off heat and cool slightly; dump into pre-baked pie shell. Refrigerate overnight or until chilled and firm. Top with whipped cream.


Mitzvah Day, December 25, 2011, part two.

Then Ez and I drove to the Durham JCC, where Mitzvah Day was beginning. There were around 450 Jews there getting deployed to various homeless shelters, blanket making activities, etc. Ez and I went to Ronald McDonald room in the Duke Hospital pediatric ward.

Volunteers had provided turkey, green bean casserole, stuffing, etc. I baked a cake and two pies and other people had baked goodies as well. I was elated to sit at the dessert table and ply people with treats: only the sickest children stay on the ward over Christmas so these were some worn-out, worried parents. I'm not saying a piece of buttermilk chocolate pie lifted their spirits, but at least it lifted their blood sugar.

By the time we left, we'd doled out an amazing amount of food, not just to families but to nurses all over the place, even the PICU, nurses who'd given up their Christmas to be with the kids. There's no amount of chocolate that is enough thanks for the work nurses do! Ezra felt like Santa Claus bringing big plates to the nurses who couldn't leave their stations.

Mitzvah Day, December 25, 2011, part one.

As agreed, my neighbor from across the railroad tracks came this morning to get Superman for his daughter Darrah (who had told Santa Claus, "All I want is a pony just like Superman"). Mitzi had purchased a gigantic bow for him, doesn't he look preposterous?

Darrah's mother had bought Superman an eye-catching pink halter, but it turned out to be quite loose, so Ez went and got some cheese balls for my neighbor to use to lure Superman back if he slipped out of the halter. (This converted the man from "0" {not food} to "1" {food}, so Superman would pay attention.)

Here they are, going down the hill toward the railroad tracks. Not long after I got a call from Darrah herself to say thank you. I'm glad Superman has gone to somebody who'll dote on him.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Jethro the donkey gets a Hanukkah present

Tuesday, this brainstorm: Darrah, the little girl who lives across the railroad tracks from me, really really loves Superman, while I don't like him at all. Nobody here likes him. Why should he spend his life without love? So I called Darrah's dad and offered him Superman for free. He was flabbergasted: just the previous day Darrah sat on Santa Claus's knee and said, "all I want for Christmas is a pony just like Superman."

He began setting up fencing - he told me later: "I got it up without either of the kids noticing! Even though Darrah was home sick from school! I fixed it so she was mad at me and didn't want to come outside!" My friend Mitzi got Superman a huge red bow for his mane and my neighbor will be coming in the dark Christmas morning - "Darrah is going to faint with excitement." A mitzvah.

Meanwhile, having Superman meant I hadn't gotten Jethro a companion he would really like: another donkey. I thought long and hard and then searched Craigslist until I found a listing for a "small jack" in Rocky Mount. Next day I drove up and visited him. He was living next to a tiny brick house with his mom, some geese, a few dogs, some free-range goats, a draft horse, and five or six guinea hens.

His leg was hurt recently when he dropped down to wallow ("you know how they do" said his owner) while in a "Living Nativity Scene" -- he got himself scratched under the manger -- but the injury is healing nicely. I handed over the cash. (Hannah mused that the donkeys in unreal Nativity Scenes rarely wallow.)

Then I asked my friends on Facebook to help name him. 48 comments later (!) I chose the name Hector suggested by a high school chum.

His owner delivered him Thursday morning. Hector is pretty friendly to strangers but has never been anywhere so doesn't "get it" about being led. He had to be kind of shoved along till he caught sight of Jethro, eating breakfast.

I liked the idea of a "small Jack" because I wanted a guy considerably smaller than Jethro (since Jethro is such a neurotic coward and I didn't want him feeling threatened), yet not as small as a dwarf (mini) donkey.

Hector is perfect - he's a cross between a small white standard mom and a mini white dad (that must have been a sight to see); the owner was hoping for a white baby but "man plans and God laughs." I guess that's why Hector (who's nine months old but full grown) was so inexpensive.

I imagined he'd be a trembling ball of nerves, but he marched right up to the fence and started pulling Jethro's breakfast hay out of the bathtub through the netting.

Jethro was astonished but his attention being divided (breakfast occupies his mind most of the day, especially when it's in front of him) couldn't decide what he thought. When I brought Hector into the pen, they sniffed each other carefully and then Hector chowed down while Jethro hid behind a tree and watched.

Eventually they decided everything was fine.

I wish I'd had a night-vision video camera last night: when I let Ezra's dog Julius out for romp, he streaked over to the donkey enclosure and commenced to herding the two of them frantically in huge circles. He barked and he raced 90 miles an hour while they loped, flank to flank, their hooves striking the ground with loud dusty thuds. I could see all six eyes shining in the light of my headlamp. Round and round they went.

Eventually the donkeys got tired of it and stood together watching the dog bark; then Jethro lowered his head and charged after Julius. It wasn't a fair match, because Julius can run out of the enclosure when he's being closed in on; also, his turning radius is MUCH tighter.


Thursday, December 08, 2011

Report on large-screen e-readers or tablet computers for reading sheet music from a music stand. Grrrrr.

A few months ago I saw an article about the Borromeo String Quartet reading from their laptop computers onstage. The setup seemed awfully unwieldy - but! Happy the musician who can mash a foot pedal to turn a page instead of having to snake a hand to whip it across (not easy when you're holding a bow).

The players above have their laptops horizontal - that allows for easier navigation and larger display size, but only shows half a page at a time.

Some musicians turn their laptops sideways and use vertical format, in which case a whole page displays but the keyboard is hard to use! Here is an expensive velcro gizmo you can buy to keep your computer from falling off the music stand. An ugly solution.

... and if you don't want the laptop computer to go crashing to the floor, you might want to invest in this $199.99 heavy duty music stand...

Last week I tried a laptop balanced precariously on a music stand. In some ways it was wonderful - since all our music is in Sibelius files organized by folders and alphabetically, any piece could be found instantly, forestalling tedious minutes of flipping through piles. But I was afraid the computer would fall over. Not having a $200 music stand, I thought instead I might invest the money in a big tablet computer or e-reader instead.

However, "big" these days seems to mean a 9.7" or 10.1" screen (measured on the diagonal). A regular size piece of paper, 8-1/2" x 11", is 15.5" diagonal, considerably larger.

Here's a picture of pianist Sam Haywood playing from an iPad (9.7") using a bluetooth foot pedal. Fine for a pianist, who sits close to the music, but too small for the violinist, who's using paper music.

I looked at a friend's iPod - at 9.7" diagonal, fine for him to read music from his lap (he is a vocalist) but way too small for me. Then I tried a tablet computer with a 10.1" diagonal - still too small, especially for two people sharing a stand.

In case your eyes are better than mine, or if you're a pianist, you may have considered the Amazon Kindle DX as an alternative to the iPad; it's available now (mid-December 2011) for $379.00. It weighs slightly over a pound and is 9.7" diagonally, same size as the iPad. There are more than 3,500 reviews. Common complaints:
  • Fragility - quite a few say the protective case sold with the unit will itself crack the screen! Also, the tiny tiny keyboard was deemed by many to be the worst ever.

    "The frame/screen is just not strong enough to support its own weight without the customer holding it with two hands or in the center."

  • Evidently the device itself, software development, and support, are being phased out completely.

    "It seems they want to just be done with the DX with no plans for a new version."

    "Why do they still sell it to me for that high price if it is abandoned ?"

    "Now, for the biggest problem I have with this device: it is apparently no longer being supported. There have been several updates for the 6" third-generation models, but nothing of note for the DX. The rumour was that this is due in part to the fact that the DX has half as much RAM as its 6" counterparts."

  • You can't organize your files in folders and you can't organize them alphabetically.

    "Amazon, what are you thinking? We had folders on our PCs and MACs back in the 80's, more than TWENTY years ago."

    "Still no folders. An organization nightmare three times bigger than that of the K2 (which itself had increased the same problem on the K1): the possibility of storing 3500 books but only being able to sort them by author, title, and most recent first. ... you can organize your books by genre or whatever you like, so that's a big help. However, for some strange reason, unless you resort to fixes like putting symbols before the collection names when in "view by collections" it is impossible to alphabetize them."

  • Can't turn off sleep mode.

    "If you are using the Kindle to display a textbook you may have it on a page that contains problems you must solve, and if it takes you longer than 10 minutes the Kindle goes into sleep mode. It would be rather annoying to have to wake it up to do each problem."

  • E-ink, while praised by most, would not work for us when we perform in dimly-lit venues.

    "Surprise! The screen is too dim to be functional. It is ... impossible to read in the dark."

    "Apparently previous versions you could adjust the brightness but not on the newest one. I'm guessing they wanted to increase battery life. Not much point if you can't use it."

  • Wonky behavior

    "The DX often restarted by itself. I would in the middle of some book and the DX would completely reset itself. Resetting a DK can take uo to 10 minutes or more. The pages also did not advance quickly."

    "The screen periodically locks up and requires a reset. Recently the screen locked and resetting it did not work. The Kindle was 20 days out of warranty when this happened. When I contacted Amazon, they walked me through their "advanced trouble shooting" procedures. This involved pushing and holding the power switch for 20 seconds. When that didn't work they told me that was the extent of trouble shooting."

Next I looked at the Freehand Systems MusicPad Pro Plus, originally $1,199.00, then $859.00, now $500. It's the right size - at 13.3" x 9.9" it probably displays the music full-sized - but it's two inches thick and weighs over four pounds! Reviewers wrote:

"I love the concept, but hate the execution... I have a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and I'm somwhat of a computer geek and gadget freak, so my tolerance is pretty high for things that are not idiot proof... in converting all of my Word files to the proprietary .fh files, I had to open and print each of my document via the freehand printer driver, then re-name each file and add my tags. ... Freehand should be ashamed to put this on the market without some way to batch convert ... with a measly 35 Megs of usable internal memory ... less than 1/2 of my songs fit on the internal memory..."

"Since I have purchased the MusicPad Pro the company has all but totally abandoned the product. Without any warning they turned off the forum ... there is absolutely NO support nor ongoing development for this product.... The system has been left to run its course, sell as many existing systems as they can, and let it die."

"Their customer service response when I asked about it was: 'I am really sorry, but we no longer service the MPP.' ."

"Since day 1 the battery would not hold a charge for more than 30 minutes. I sent it back to Freehand and they supposedly replaced it but the second battery did exactly the same thing."

"The software kept crashing, the printer drivers did not install. The software, when it it did run, is extremely lagging and outdated. ... When I told [the service rep] it was crashing every time I tried to open the software, he said, 'Then just return it,' and hung up!"

So both of those devices are being phased out. So where are the NEW large-format readers? I saw two that looked wonderful, however...

1. In June of last year, reported that the Plastic Logic Que E-Reader was probably being killed; its purchasers received an email saying "We need to let you know that since your unit will not ship on June 24 as planned, our automated ordering system has automatically canceled your order."

"Billed as an e-reader for business users, the Que had an 8.5 x 11-inch touchscreen display and the ability to handle Microsoft Word files, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, digital books, PDFs, magazines and newspapers. The device could also synchronize with Microsoft Outlook to display e-mails and calendar." Wow, finally a full-sized display. The unit was going to be $650 ($800 with Wi-Fi and 3G).
A month later Plastic Logic announced: "We recognize the market has dramatically changed ... it no longer makes sense for us to move forward with our first-generation electronic reading product,"

Now, according to, the unit has been reformulated. The newer version, Plastic Logic 100 eReader, will be only 10.7" diagonal, still too small for me. It supposedly "pushes" 960 x 1280 pixels, has a touch screen and 4GB of storage, is less than 8mm thick and weighs about one pound. "The Plastic Logic e-Reader has been many years in development and might finally see the light of day this November. It was originally slated to only cost 12,000 rubles (around $400) but has dramatically increased to almost 25,000." $800?!!

If only it existed, the Skiff Reader would have been what I wanted! In January 2010, it was widely lauded: "...a quarter inch thick, it packs a 1600 x 1200 11.5-inch touchscreen (finger and stylus) that, as you can see from the above screenshot, should do much better justice to magazine and newspaper layouts than we've yet seen from an e-ink-based reader. ... Skiff includes ... just over 3GB for content, with SD card expansion, and there's a 3.5mm headphone jack for tunes and, hopefully, text-to-speech. Content can be side-loaded over a mini USB jack or delivered via WiFi but, more importantly, 3G is also on offer thanks to Sprint."

However, a few months later reported: "The Skiff newsreader that made waves at last CES is dead, abandoned by News Corp. who bought the e-reader software but not the device from Hearst. ... Outsized, ugly and backed by Hearst and Sprint, it was a project doomed to failure ... Listen: the US belongs to iPad."

I note that the skiffreader website is for sale. That seems pretty definitive.

Though I realize this is the ultimate First World Problem, it still annoys me. was wrong when it opined: "Plastic Logic and Skiff both set out to make much more powerful readers than the Kindle, which turned out to be a fatally flawed strategy: An e-reader that’s much fancier and pricier than a Kindle starts to look like an unsatisfactory iPad competitor." There IS a market for a larger screen, surely not only among musicians and the visually impaired!


Sunday, December 04, 2011

Menticia and I make Spanish tortilla

Menticia was amused to see how different a Spanish tortilla is from our usual Mexican tortillas. I would recommend making this with a buddy, the way we did - slicing potatoes 1/8" thick is tedious and the frying pan is so heavy with all the slop in it that trying to hold a plate over it with one hand while flipping the pan with the other hand sounds impossible.

It does seem ridiculously extravagant to fry the potatoes (only until they're translucent and soft, you don't want to brown them) in SO MUCH oil, but there you have it, that's how it's done.

This was consumed avidly by all and I'll be able to use the drained-off oil to make another Spanish tortilla this week. It will also be a perfect Hannukah food, another version of a latke.

Spanish Tortilla

2 cups olive oil
2 pounds potatoes sliced 1/8" & tossed with 2 ts salt
1 large onion, chopped
chopped parsley
1/8 teaspoon(s) ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs, beaten

In large nonstick frying pan, heat 2 cups olive oil over medium-high heat (until a test potato slice sizzles).

Slide in all the potatoes and onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender (might be as much as 25 minutes).

Take off heat and drain over a bowl (save oil).

Slide drained, cooked potatoes gently into another bowl. Add parsley, black pepper, and salt. Add eggs. Stir gently.

In 10" non-stick skillet, get 1-2 tablespoons of the oil quite hot. Gently add potato-egg mixture to skillet, spreading evenly and pressing down with spatula.

Reduce heat and cook, covered, until egg on the sides of skillet is slightly brown and mixture starts to set (about 10 minutes).

Flip omelet onto large flat plate. Heat frying pan with a bit more oil, slide the tortilla back into pan. Cook for a few more minutes. Good at room temperature.