Archive for 2009

Eggnog recipe

18 December 2009
Categories: Uncategorized

This is based on the eggnog recipe from the one cookbook I consider completely indispensable: the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. Through trial and error and personal preference I’ve modified it slightly (my notes in parentheses).

6 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups whole milk
1 vanilla pod
1/2 cup bourbon
1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

(These are the standard amounts, but I recommend to double them—a double batch still makes only a little more than a half-gallon.)

In a large saucepan, whisk together the eggs, extra yolks, and the sugar.

Slowly whisk in the whole milk.

Add one vanilla pod, split lengthwise.

Heat slowly over low-medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is between 160 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit and is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. (160 is needed for safety, but go past 180 and you’ll have scrambled eggs. Use an instant-read thermometer to monitor the temp. I use the same digital thermometer with a probe on a long cord that we use for roasts; I thread it through the handles of a binder clip attached to the side of the saucepan to keep the probe tip from touching the sides or bottom, for a continuous, accurate, and hassle-free reading.)

(Pull up a chair, you’ll be stirring for a while. It should take around 25–30 minutes, but my first time I was overly cautious with the heat and spent nearly 2 hours.)

Strain the mixture into a large mixing bowl. (Straining gets the spent vanilla pods out and also removes some of the larger bits that might have congealed. I usually have to give it a little encouragement with a rubber spatula to push it through the strainer.)

Add the nutmeg and bourbon, and blend thoroughly for a few minutes with a stick blender or hand mixer. (Blending really improves the texture. Fresh-ground nutmeg is a must—pre-ground nutmeg is no better than sawdust. For bourbon, no need to waste the top-shelf stuff. This year I used what I usually choose for a mixed drink—Jim Beam—and it was at least as good as last year’s batch with Maker’s Mark. Also, the amount listed here is a fairly low-octane amount, so spike it to taste.)

Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic right down onto the surface to prevent it from skinning. Chill for at least 3 hours. (Overnight or two will really bring out the flavor.)

Shake well or blend one more time before serving.

(America’s Test Kitchen wants you to fold in some heavy whipped cream at the last minute before serving, but I find this makes it much too rich. For a fancy presentation, top the glass with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle some nutmeg on for garnish.)

I hope this recipe doesn’t sound overly complicated, because it’s really very simple—and the results are so very worth the effort.

Book recommendations: All-time favourites (the Desert Island Ten)

10 December 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Quite possibly my all-time favourite book, I re-read it every few years and each time I get something more out of it. An investigation into the concepts of truth and quality, sprinkled with commentary on Western academia, it uses the metaphor of a motorcycle to explain logic and rational thought. Though the book uses the narrative framework of a cross-country trip, the motorcyle one is taught to maintain is not the piece of hardware on which the author rides: it is one’s own self. Here’s an odd book report.

cover“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard P. Feynman
Here’s a book report.

coverA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
If you only ever read one book on the Space Race, this must be it, the book that was the basis for the award-winning HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin explains the events and difficulties of the Apollo project with such detailed understanding that one might think he was himself one of the astronauts, except that no astronaut ever had such a gift for storytelling. Both the exhilirating highs and the disastrous lows will bring tears to your eyes.

coverA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Winner of a Pulitzer prize, published posthumously by the author’s mother. I won’t even try to summarise it. A masterpiece of pure genius. Here’s a book report, if it can be called that.

coverPrometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson
A guidebook for self-programming what John Lilly called the “human biocomputer.” Wilson uses his incomparable humour to explain the eight-circuit model of the brain and how each circuit is imprinted and conditioned. Mental games and exercises help the reader to understand the “programs” unintentionally imprinted on one’s brain during various stages of development, and enable one to rewrite detrimental programs and augment beneficial ones. You’ll find lots of quarters, too. Avoids the whacked-out zealotry of Timothy Leary, who pioneered the eight-circuit model.

coverThe Straight Dope by Cecil Adams
When I was in high school my grandfather gave me an early printing of this book, and it has remained one of my most prized possessions ever since. It’s not so much because he died not long after, but because I’m still curious to know what prompted him to give me a book that tells the true story (and, of course, the bawdy rumour) about Catherine the Great and the horse, as well as the caloric content of human sperm. These are just two of the hundreds of questions unabashedly and caustically answered by Uncle Cecil in this book and its sequels. What are the original lyrics to “Louie, Louie?” Why is there no Channel One? How many Eskimo words for snow are there really? Hilarious and informative, truly a “Compendium of Human Knowledge.”

coverThe I Ching, or Book of Changes translated by Wilhelm/Baynes
Both an oracle and a philosophy. I have read several different translations of this classic. Some are overly New Age. Some are so cryptically and tersely written that you’re probably better off learning Chinese and reading the original. This version is a bit academic and has a definite European cant, but it conveys some nice poetry and contains extensive commentaries on each of the 64 hexagrams.

coverVALIS by Philip K. Dick
This is (partly) a semi-autobiographical attempt to come to terms with an inexplicable mind-altering experience that PKD had in the early ’70s, which among other things allowed him to diagnose a life-threatening congenital defect in his young son that had gone undetected by physicians. Could it be that the “living word” of early Christianity was really an intelligent, symbiotic information packet which, when learned under the proper conditions, gave a person immortality? Could orbiting satellites be capable of firing pink laser beams of information directly into a person’s mind? These are but two of PKD’s many theories on the origin of his strange visions.

coverThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
Even before the moment in 1933 when Leo Szilard stepped off a curb and had his epiphany of nuclear fission, the Atomic Age was inevitable. Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winner makes the difficult concepts of physics and chemistry understandable without oversimplification, and explains the background of each discovery as well. This could have made for a dull, tedious read, but Rhodes uses honest drama and solid characterizations to create a ripping good tale. No other book covers both the history and the morality of this subject better.

coverSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Yet another way to get screwed by the parking meter deal

24 November 2009
Categories: Chicago, Rants

Plenty has been written about Chicago’s disastrous parking meter deal, so I need not go into how the asking price was almost criminally low, how the aldermen were railroaded into endorsing the deal without even knowing its terms, how our new parking overlords are raking in more than a million dollars a week.

Instead, I have something to share that I noticed a few weeks ago. To me, it illustrates in microcosmic form the parking meter deal as a whole: its purpose is poorly conceived, its ramifications are unclear, and ultimately it screws the citizens of Chicago.

Parking signs on DivisionIt is an example of some typical signage, from the 2100 block of West Division Street.

The problem with these two signs lies with their arrows.

On the bottom sign, denoting the edge of a daytime loading zone, the arrow tells us in which direction the zone extends from this point. This is the purpose with which motorists are familiar, having seen it many times at the edges of no parking zones and the like.

The arrow on the recently added top sign, however, tells us in which direction the nearest pay box may be found.

Because the two arrows appear on the same signpost, it is not unreasonable to infer that they have similar meanings. Indeed, the arrows are not merely similar in appearance, they are identical. The “pay box, thataway” arrow is the same size and shape as the “zone starts here, goes thataway” arrow. Therefore these signs, in combination, could easily lead motorists to believe that the pay zone extends to the left, and that once the loading zone expires at 6PM the free-but-very-short-term parking spots to the right become free-and-stay-as-long-as-you-want. (Or, at least until 8AM the next morning.)

I’m not being overly sensitive about this, or over-thinking it. I noticed this signage in the first place when I overheard a group of women, having just parked their car in the loading zone after 6PM, debating this exact question. They had come to the erroneous conclusion, and were about to walk off and get their evening underway. Fortunately, before some random stranger (that is, I) could accost them and politely set them straight, one of the women noticed other, marginally less-obfuscating, signs on the block and convinced them to return and pay the fee.

The women seemed new to the neighbourhood, unfamiliar with their environs. They probably were there for their first time to try out one of the trendy Division Street restaurants they’d read about in Chicago magazine or some such. Lucky for them, one of their party was paying enough attention that they didn’t finish their Big City meal to find that it cost them upwards of $75 more than they had expected.

By the way, the icing on this cupcake is the fact that the pay box sign is pointing the wrong way. The next available pay box in that direction—if in fact there is one—is at least two and a half blocks away, past the windswept open wasteland of St. Mary’s Hospital and Roberto Clemente High School, and across busy, seven-lane-wide Western Avenue.

Chicago, Wake The #*$% Up!

20 October 2009
Categories: Chicago, Rants

It’s time for some simple arithmetic…

Amount of budget cuts announced by the mayor this week, in wage freezes and unpaid furloughs for nonunion city workers: $44 Million. [source: Chicago Tribune, 20 Oct 2009]

Amount the city will admit to having spent on the 2016 Olympics bid, despite independent estimates that go much higher: $50 Million. [source: New York Times, 8 Apr 2009]

Hmm. Those numbers not sufficiently coincidental for you? How about these…

Amount of the city’s FY2010 budget deficit: $550 Million. [source: Chicago Sun-Times, 15 Oct 2009]

Amount the city’s tax increment financing districts diverted in property taxes in 2007, the most recent figure available: $555 Million. [source: Chicago Reader, 6 Nov 2008]

Can anyone tell me what two plus two equals? Anyone?

Maybe I should have talked like a pirate

19 September 2009
Categories: Chicago, Rants

I went looking for a particular book the other day, and started in my usual place: Turns out the book is long out of print and somewhat uncommon, but of course Amazon had several used copies to offer, from various bookstores throughout the country. Since I wasn’t looking for a pristine, mint copy, just one in decent shape, I spotted one that fell into the sweet spot of price and condition: “Very good” at $39.95.

Then I noticed that the bookseller, coincidentally, is an actual bricks-and-mortar shop here in town that I have frequented many times in past years. Occasionally I’d pass by it and think, that place is great, I should stop in again sometime. So when I saw the name in the Amazon list I figured, what the heck: I’ll stop in and buy it direct, get the book sooner and save the shipping cost. And I’ll have an excuse to browse an interesting place and support a locally owned business.

The result: disappointment.

This afternoon when I walked in, there was a spirited conversation going on at the front counter between the proprietor and a customer, which sounded to me more like bickering than dickering. They had clearly been at it for a while, and almost certainly this was far from their first time. It wasn’t exactly ugly, just strained, and it cast an odd pall over the place. Meanwhile, as I looked around I had a sense that the place had changed.

This shop has long had a reputation as being almost impossibly cluttered, but this was usually considered to be part of its charm. In the past when I’ve shopped there I would find interesting books jumping off the shelves at me (fortunately, only figuratively). This time, however, it was as if everything had reached a state of calcification, as if even if I’d spotted a book I really wanted I would have been unable to remove it from the shelf as it would be fused with all the books surrounding it.

Then again, maybe that impression was just a side effect of the vibe at the front counter. In either case, I grew impatient for the bothersome customer to finally leave so that I could ask the proprietor about my quarry.

And so I did. He thought for a long moment, querying the catalogue in his head, and replied, “Ah, yes… I know the book. I believe I have that for sale online.”

I nodded, agreeing.

He gestured none-too-vaguely at a massive pile to his right, giving me the sense that, even though their spines were not facing him, he knew exactly which anonymous book in that stack we were discussing. “I believe I had that listed for $100. It’s been up there for a while.”

I asked, “Was that on Amazon?”

“Yeah,” he said, brightly. “Did you see it?”

I nodded again and said “I noticed it was you selling it and figured since I’m in the neighbourhood, I’d just stop in.”

“Did you happen to see what it was listed for?”

I pondered for a moment, not so much trying to remember what the price had been but debating whether I should try to lowball him. I decided to play it straight. “About $40.”

“Oh,” he said. Then he went into some digression about how he might have lowered the price once or twice, because it wasn’t moving, and something about how his prices on Amazon are 20% lower because he has to pay their commission—which maybe I misunderstood, because that makes absolutely no sense. Then he said, “Can you call me tomorrow? I need to check on the listing first.” He started to jot down a reminder to himself on the notepad on the counter.

“Well…” I hemmed slowly, “I’m going to be kind of tied up tomorrow…” My uncertainty was meant to give him the chance to change his mind, to decide that he was willing to sell me that book, and to take the few minutes needed to locate it.

I guess he didn’t hear me. “Yeah, call me tomorrow, I’ll let you know.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, and left. Which really meant: not a chance.

The way I see it is this. He tried to take me to the cleaners for a hundred bucks, for a book that I just don’t need all that badly. I offered him forty, a more than fair price that he passed on—even though if I’d pulled out my mobile phone and punched up Amazon in its browser and ordered the book from him through that, I would have paid a few bucks more for shipping—but a considerably smaller portion of that same forty bucks would have made it into his pocket.

I guess he wasn’t really interested in the $40 cash I was ready to plunk onto his cluttered countertop.

No matter. After checking out another used book store in the area (where I found a couple of very interesting items), I came home and ordered the book from Amazon. My book is on its way… from a shop in Oregon. And I won’t be back in that cluttered bookshop again—not so long as its proprietor has no interest in actually selling books.