Archive for traditional

What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.

real-beauty

For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.

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Oh, Fudge!

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

I might as well get this out of the way right up front:  I am a fudge snob.  I grew up close by to two absolutely fabulous candy stores that made homemade fudge (Mill Creek Chocolates in Port Elgin, and The Tobermory Sweet Shop, where I also spent a summer working).  As a result, I find most fudge (especially the storebought stuff) to be a poor imitation of the “real thing”.  Real fudge is creamy, melty, and so sweet that even as a small, sugar-driven child I had a hard time eating more than a teensy piece.

So you can probably guess that when I make fudge at home, it’s good stuff.  No sweetened condensed milk here.  No marshmallow fluff.  No microwaving.  No powdered sugar.  Just awesome.

Now, to make fudge properly, you really, REALLY need a candy thermometer.  Digital is best, of course (mine cost less than $15 and has been SO worth the investment).  There are dozens of “tricks” out there for how to tell when your fudge has reached the proper stage (most common being the ‘cold water test’), but 90% of the time you’re going to end up with over- or under- cooked fudge if you’re not going by temperature, because things like the ambient humidity and the temperature of your ‘cold’ water are going to affect matters.

The real difference between a high-quality homemade fudge and most of the stuff you’ll find out there these days is the sugar crystals.  A really good fudge should be creamy, not grainy.  Getting the temperature and the ratios of the ingredients just right will help to keep your sugar crystals smaller.  The waiting time between boiling the mix and stirring the mix also helps — any crystals that start to form too early (usually along the top, where cooling is faster) will be broken up and re-absorbed during the stirring.  You could, of course, just spend 15 or 20 minutes stirring your fudge after cooking to inhibit crystal formation, but that’s a LOT of work — better to wait while things cool down a little, and then get to the stirring when it’s really needed.  One final trick: I also use a small amount of corn syrup, in addition to the sugar, as corn syrup is liquid at room temperature and this will help to improve the texture.

My basic vanilla fudge has only five ingredients:

  • 3 cups white sugar (you can use brown, but it gives a different flavour)
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup salted butter
  • 1-1/4 cups whole milk or light cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

And that’s it.  Put it all into a pot over medium heat, and stir until it reaches a boil.  Then stop stirring.  Put your candy thermometer into the pot and just watch while the temperature climbs to 240 degrees Fahrenheit (should take 3-5 minutes).  Remove the pot from the heat, and then wait.  Don’t stir it yet.  Give it time to cool down to somewhere between 120 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit (this will take 15 minutes to a half hour, depending on the temperature in your kitchen).  Then you can start stirring.  Stir and fold the mix over on itself until it looks opaque and is becoming quite thick (about 3-5 minutes, depending on just how vigorous your stirring is).  Pour the mix into a pan (an 8×8 for shorter, wider squares, or a bread pan for taller slices).  It should be thick enough that you’ll actually need to press it down into the pan; it won’t flow easily into all the corners.  Let it cool down completely (put it in the fridge to make it firm and easy to slice), then wrap it to prevent moisture loss.

This recipe gives you a delicious, plain, simple fudge — but it’s only the beginning.  There are so many variations on plain old vanilla fudge, and with a little creativity you can create your own mixes, too.

For a chocolate fudge, use only 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and add 1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder.

For a peanut butter fudge, use only 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and add 1/4 cup of peanut butter.  If you’d like a “crunchy” version, stir in peanuts once the mixture has cooled after boiling, just before you pour it into the pan.

For a maple fudge, just replace the corn syrup with maple syrup.  You can reduce or leave out the vanilla.

For a coffee fudge, either add a shot of freshly-made espresso to the mix, or dissolve a tablespoon of instant coffee granules in a tablespoon of hot water and add that.  You can add coffee to a chocolate fudge to get a nice mocha flavour, too.

For a peppermint fudge, just replace the vanilla extract with peppermint extract.  Same goes for any other extract — try orange, rum, anise, almond, or coconut!  For seasonal peppermint fudge at Christmas, add crushed-up candy canes to the mix once it has cooled down after boiling, just before you put it into the pan.

For a pumpkin pie spice fudge, reduce the vanilla to 1 teaspoon.  When the mixture has cooled to stirring temperature after boiling, add 2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice and blend well.  Alternatively, you can use other spices — cinnamon works nicely all on its own, or try adding chili powder or ginger to a chocolate fudge for a hit of the unexpected.

One of my personal favourites is chocolate with peanut butter swirls, which is achieved by first making chocolate fudge as described above.  Just before pouring the mix into a pan for the final cooling, add a couple tablespoons of peanut butter.  Give it a quick swirl, then put the mix into the pan and get the pan into the fridge before the peanut butter gets a chance to melt.

Another excellent option is rocky road fudge, which can be made with either vanilla or chocolate fudge as a base.  As with the peanut butter, wait until the last moment to add nuts, marshmallows and chocolate chips — quickly swirl them in, then get the mix into a pan and into the fridge for cooling.

Feel free to experiment with other flavours, and tell me in the comments what you’ve tried!  I’m thinking of doing a chocolate fudge with pretzel pieces, next — or possibly maple with plain popcorn mixed in.

Recipe: Traditional-ish Black Forest Cake

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

My sister’s birthday is in February, and her request this year was for a Black Forest cake.  I was happy to oblige, but ran into a few problems with finding a recipe that would be something close to the Black Forest cakes we remembered from childhood.  Most of the ones I was able to find online called for boxed cake mix, canned cherry pie filling, and (gag!) Cool Whip topping instead of real whipped cream.  In other cases there were debates over what makes a “traditional” Black Forest cake — what sort of cake to use, whether or not to put kirsch (cherry brandy) in the whipped cream for flavoring, whether to use jam for the filling or a more gooey, pie-filling-like substance … it was all a little overwhelming.  Finally I gave up the search and just emailed my mom, to ask if she had a good recipe.  She got back to me with two: one from a book of traditional Ontario immigrant recipes, and another from a family friend who spent some time living in Germany.  I combined the best elements of both, and came up with something that I was very happy with.

My sister approved, too, as you can see.

Making the Cake

For the cake portion, I used the recipe from mom’s book of traditional recipes.  It’s a chocolate sponge cake, which I felt would better hold up to being soaked with cherry brandy.  It’s not as moist as some other cakes, but if you apply the brandy properly (read: use lots!) that’s really not an issue at all.  The ingredients are as follows:

  • 4 eggs, separated (the recipe calls for small, but I used medium because my grocery store doesn’t carry small)
  • 4 tbsp warm water
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup corn starch
  • 3 tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and prepare an 8-inch springform pan or two 8-inch round pans (if using round pans, I suggest lining them with parchment paper to make it easier to lift the cake out afterwards).

Separate the eggs so that the whites are in one mixing bowl, and the yolks are in another.  To the yolks, add the warm water, and whisk until foamy.  Add the 2/3rds cup sugar, vanilla and almond extracts, cinnamon, and salt.  Whisk together for a couple of minutes, until everything is thoroughly combined and there are lots of little bubbles in the mix.

Using an electric mixer or whisk that is clean and free of any oil (this is important!), whip the egg whites until they are foamy.  Sprinkle in the 2tsp of sugar, and continue to beat the eggs until stiff peaks form.  Remember: the fluffier you can get the eggs to be, the fluffier the finished cake will be!

Gently fold the egg whites into the yolk mix, then sift the flour, cornstarch, cocoa, and baking powder over top and fold in.  Mix very gently until the mixture is just barely blended together — overmixing will pop all those little bubbles you worked so hard to make in the eggs.

Pour the batter into the pan(s), and bake for 30 minutes (slightly less if using two pans — they’ll cook faster if they’re thinner).  A toothpick inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean.

Once the cake has cooled down a little bit, you can slice it in half (or into 3 layers, if you’re feeling adventurous).  A piece of unwaxed dental floss works well for cutting — just saw it back and forth and work your way patiently through the cake.  Once the cake is cut into layers, you can add the cherry brandy — sprinkle it on a little bit at a time, until the cake is fully saturated.

Let the cake sit and cool down completely while you prepare the cherry filling and whipped cream.

Making the Cherry Filling

Since it’s February, I had to buy frozen sour cherries — fresh just aren’t available right now.  Frozen are preferable over canned, since they don’t have anything added to them, but if canned are all you can get, then just work with what’s available.  In a pinch you can resort to pre-made canned cherry pie filling, but homemade always tastes better.

This is the same filling that I use for making cherry pies, but I only made a half-sized batch, as you don’t really need a whole pie’s worth of filling for this cake.  Double this recipe if you want to make a pie with it.

  • 2 cups sour cherries, pitted and drained (reserve 1/2 cup of the liquid)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/6 cup flour
  • dash of salt
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract

In a saucepan, combine the 1/2 cup of cherry juice with the sugar, flour and salt.  Bring this mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.  Continuing to stir, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the butter and almond extract, and then add the cherries.

Cool this mixture down completely before using it on your cake, or it will melt the whipped cream.

Making the Whipped Cream

Whipped cream is easy stuff to make from scratch, and I always prefer the homemade stuff to the stuff that comes in a can.  When making a black forest cake, you ALWAYS want to do your whipped cream from scratch, because a) you can add cherry brandy to the whipped cream for flavour, and b) you can add a pinch of gelatin or cream of tartar to stiffen the cream and stop it from gooshing out between the cake layers.

Combine a cup of whipping cream with a teaspoon of sugar, a splash of cherry brandy, and a pinch of unflavored gelatin or cream of tartar.  Whisk or beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.

Putting it All Together

Once the cake and cherry pie filling have cooled completely, you can assemble your black forest cake.  You can use either two or three layers of cake — three looks fancier, but otherwise it makes little difference.

With two layers, you’ll want to put both cherry pie filling AND whipped cream between the layers.  With three, you’ve got an option: you can either put cherries in one of the spaces and whipped cream in the other, or use a combination in both.  You might need to make a bit of extra whipped cream, if you choose the latter, but avoid the temptation to overfill: you want this to taste like cake, not like whipped cream with occasional bits of cake in it.

Once your layers are stacked up, coat the entire cake in the remaining whipped cream.  Shave two squares of semi-sweet chocolate using a cheese grater, and pat these chocolate shavings onto the sides and top of the cake, leaving a ring of white around the top edge.  Place maraschino cherries around the top edge (I like to use one per slice).  Store the cake (covered) in the fridge until serving, so that the whipped cream won’t get droopy.

And enjoy!  Black forest cake is a little bit labour-intensive to make, but it’s definitely worth the work.  Nom-nom-nom.  Delicious.

Roast Chicken Day 2: Leftover Soup

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Growing up, one of the meals we had periodically was something that my mom called “refrigerator soup”.  As unappetizing as that sounds, it was usually quite delicious — and always a bit different, because as the name suggests, it was primarily designed as a meal that would use up the last bits of whatever was in the fridge.  As an adult, I’ve gained a new appreciation for leftovers, and soup has become a regular comfort-food around my house.

In yesterday’s post I covered the makings of a roast chicken with bread stuffing.  Since roast chicken leaves you with plenty of meat and a chicken carcass left over (excellent for making stock), today naturally became a soup day.  You can make your own stock for soup, or just use store bought to speed things up.  If you’re using store bought stock, you can skip down to the “making the soup” section of this post.

Making the Stock

I briefly outlined this process in yesterday’s post, but I’ll go into more detail here.  Stock is essentially water that has been flavoured by boiling it with other things (usually meat, but you can do veggie stock as well).  Making stock from leftover bones takes much longer than making stock from fresh cuts of meat, but is a great way of stretching the food budget by making use of things that would otherwise just be thrown away.  I like to use the slow-cooker for this purpose, but it can also be done in a stock pot or dutch oven if you’re going to  be home to supervise it (I don’t like leaving the stove on when I’m not home, although others will disagree with me on this point because the heat used is very low).

Preparing stock takes very little effort, but quite a bit of time.  I’ve gotten in the habit of starting stock late in the evening, so that I can leave it simmering overnight and through most of the next morning.  On the stove you’d only need about 4 hours to get a good stock (so it can be started at lunch time and you’ll have soup in time for dinner); in the slow cooker you’ll want to go for 12 or more, so starting the day before is preferable.

Once you’ve cleaned most of the meat from your chicken carcass, place the bones into the slow cooker along with several cloves of garlic or a small onion, herbs (bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, parsley, etc) and some other vegetables (celery and carrots are traditional, but use whatever you like).  Don’t feel as though you have to use the “good” parts of the veggies; carrot skins or the tough ends of broccoli stems are just fine, since you won’t actually be eating these, they’re just there for flavour.  I also like to throw in a dried chili pepper or two and a sprinkling of whole peppercorns, since I’m a fan of spicy.

Once your slow-cooker is about 2/3rds full with various flavours, fill it with water.  I also like to add a little bit (about half a cup) of something acidic, to help in breaking down the connective tissue in the bones and getting all the flavour out.  Wine, vinegar, lemon juice, or tomato sauce all work well.  Cover everything up, set it on low, and go do something else for a while.

Once your stock is prepared, run it through a strainer or use a slotted spoon to remove all of the chunky bits, which can now be thrown away.  If there’s a layer of fat on top of the stock, skim off as much as you can with a spoon or spatula — don’t worry about getting all of it, but you don’t want it to be TOO greasy.

You can use your stock for making soup right away, store it in the fridge for a couple of days, or freeze it — either all in one container to make soup later, or in ice cube trays so that you’ll be able to use a little bit at a time in making sauces, stir fries, etc.  Treat frozen stock cubes the same way you’d treat a bouillon cube when adding them to recipes.

Making the Soup

If you’re doing your soup in a slow-cooker, you’ll want to start 6 to 8 hours before dinner time.  If you’re making it on the stove, you can do it in two.

The most important thing in making soup from scratch is understanding how your ingredients will fall apart.  Things that will retain their shape (veggies, chunks of meat, etc) go in first and spend some time simmering, to blend the flavours.  Things that will fall apart and turn to mush (lentils, rice, potatoes, pasta, etc) don’t go in until the cooking time is nearly finished — during the last hour in the slow-cooker, or during the last half-hour on the stove.

You can use almost anything that’s in your fridge for making your soup: any veggies, any meat.  I’ll go through a very basic chicken and veggie variety, here, but don’t feel at all bound by what I’ve used.

For the meat in my soup, I cut up the remainder of the dark meat from my roast chicken (the white meat I’m saving for sandwiches).  Be careful to remove any bits of gristle and cartilage, since nobody likes getting a bite of that in their soup.

For the veggies, I cut up an onion, some button mushrooms, and some rapini.  The leafy parts of the rapini I’ll throw in towards the end of the cooking time, but the harder stems can go in right away.

I never measure how much of anything I’m putting into a soup.  I just add things until it starts to look good.  What your soup looks like now is pretty similar to what it will look like when finished, so it’s easy to judge by eye how much to put in.

Throw everything in the pot, cover, and simmer on low heat.

When you get to the last little bit of cooking time (the last hour in the slow cooker, or the last half-hour on the stove), it’s time to add the softer ingredients.  Be a little bit cautious with things like lentils and rice, which expand when cooking — it’s easy to add too much.  I stick to adding just a handful or two — less than a cup.  As you get more practiced at making soup, you might want to increase that amount, but it’s better to start with less and then move upwards.  Leafy veggies like the rapini I’m using, or things like spinach, kale, or cilantro, can also get added now:  saving them for the end means that they’ll get wilted down nicely, but won’t get overcooked and slimy.

Cover and let simmer for the remainder of the cooking time, and then serve!  Soup is pretty much a whole meal in one pot, but I usually like to have a slice of bread or some biscuits on the side, just to break up the flavour a little bit.

***NOTE: I never add salt until the very end of the cooking time, just before the soup is going to be served.  It’s hard to tell just how rich your flavours are going to be before the cooking time it finished, and adding salt too early can result in over-salting.  Before you spoon your soup out into bowls, give it a taste and decide whether a dash of salt should be added.

Leftover soup can be stored in the fridge for a few days, or frozen in serving-sized amounts to be re-heated whenever you desire it.  I usually have at least a few servings of soup hiding away in the back of my freezer for days when I just don’t feel like cooking.