All posts by Pepper

First Monday Book Day: Quitters Finish More

I recently read a fascinating article by Austin Kleon called "How to Read More." This article is no mere list of tips--I was pleasantly surprised by just how insightful it is. Clearly, Mr. Kleon is a big reader.

I was particularly struck by the first tip, which is "Quit reading books you don't like." As a child, I was a compulsive finisher. If I began a book, I felt obligated to see it through to the end even if I wasn't enjoying it. Of course, I had a lot more free time to fill as a child than I do now...

Kleon says, "If you aren’t getting anything out of a book, put it down, and pick up another book. Every hour you spend inching through a boring book is an hour you could’ve spent plowing through a brilliant one. When it comes to books, quitters finish more."

It's true that I read faster when a book really grabs me and I suddenly find "extra" time to read it by using time when I'm usually doing something else. I still remember taking the peperoncino to the playground one summer afternoon so that he could play with trucks in the sand while I perched on the edge of the sandbox, unable to stop reading Sweetbitter.

Do you stop reading when a book isn't holding your attention? Do you have your own tips or tricks on finding time to read? Do tell!

Bake Your Own Pretzels

I was just telling a friend the other day how much I like homemade baked pretzels, and I figured some of y'all might be interested in the recipe as well!

I've been making this recipe from Alton Brown for a few years now, and it has never disappointed.

Notes:
The directions call for using a stand mixer, but there's no reason these couldn't be mixed and kneaded by hand if you were so inclined.

Authentic baked pretzels are boiled in lye, but the baking soda/water mixture in this recipe works pretty darn well and involves a lot less in the way of safety precautions.

If you don't have pretzel salt, you can use coarse kosher salt, but the real thing is better. I couldn't find any pretzel salt in stores, so I ordered it online. The smallest size container I found was 2 pounds, so I expect I'll be making this recipe for many years to come...

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups warm water (110-115°F)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)
1 lb, 6 oz all-purpose flour*
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
vegetable oil (I use spray canola oil)
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
pretzel salt

Directions
Combine water and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let sit for 5 minutes (or until the mixture begins to foam). Add flour, kosher salt, and butter. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Then change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 5 minutes.

Remove dough from the bowl, clean the bowl, and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a towel, and let sit in a warm place for 50 to 55 minutes--or until the dough has doubled in size.

About 20 minutes before the end of the rising time, preheat oven to 450°F. (My oven runs a bit cool, so I set it to closer to 475°F. The pretzels won't brown well if your oven isn't hot enough.) Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Also before the end of the rising time, bring 10 cups water and baking soda to a rolling boil in a large saucepan.

When dough has finished rising, turn it out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into approximately 16 equal pieces. (Alton suggests 8 pieces, but I find that to be so large it's pretty much a meal in and of itself. Since I usually bring these pretzels to gatherings where other food is served, I opt for a smaller size.) Roll out each piece of dough into an 18-inch rope (estimating is fine here--no need to get out a ruler!). Make a U-shape with the dough rope, then hold the ends and cross them over each other. Press the dough ends firmly onto the bottom of the U-shape so that the pretzel will hold its shape. Or feel free to experiment with other shapes--just don't get too intricate, and it'll be fine.

You can either shape all your pretzels at once or alternate shaping them and boiling them. Or enlist child labor helpers to help shape the dough.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, one at a time, for approximately 30 seconds. (I've gotten distracted and left pretzels in the water for far longer than this; they still turn out fine.) Remove them from the water using a slotted spoon (Alton Brown suggests a large, flat spatula for this, but I prefer my trusty spoon). Place pretzels on the lined cookie sheet, leaving 1.5" to 2" between pretzels.

Brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. (Don't chicken out and remove these from the oven too early--you want them to get fairly dark.) Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

*I have been known to swap in 6-8 ounces of white whole wheat flour

Listen Up!

Do you listen much to audiobooks? I don't really, though it's not because I have something against the format.

But I do listen to audio stories (a.k.a. podcasts) with the jalapeño as he's falling asleep, and that's not all that different from an audiobook. The first podcast we tried was Little Stories for Tiny People, and I really like it--the stories are engaging and Rhea's voice is lovely and soothing. We've also listened to a lot of What If World?, and those stories tend to be wackier and not always relaxing as I'd ideally like at bedtime (though to be fair, it's not intended as a strictly bedtime podcast).

Just this weekend, we started on Circle Round, which is hosted by NPR affiliate WBUR, and...wow! There are stories from all over the world, and they're told by professional actors. So far it's keeping mother and son equally engaged, which isn't always easy.

Do you listen to audiobooks or other story-like things in audio form? Any recommendations?

The Best Hot Cocoa Mix

So what do you do with that leftover fancy cocoa powder you bought to make that delicious, Nutella-esque chocolate and peanut concoction? You make your own cocoa mix! And trust me, this is waaaaaaaay tastier than that stuff you buy at the grocery store.

Ingredients
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon (8 grams) cornstarch
3 ounces (85 grams) bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 cup (40 grams) Valrhona cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until thoroughly pulverized.

Before pulverization:

After pulverization:

To use (stovetop version): Heat one cup of milk in a saucepan over medium heat until it begins to steam. Add 3 tablespoons cocoa mix. Whisk over heat for another minute or two, until it begins to simmer and mix is completely dissolved. (Obviously you can make more than one cup at a time, depending on how many people you're serving.)

To use (microwave version): This mixes together better if you heat the cocoa mix with the milk rather than mixing it after the milk has been heated. Measure 3 tablespoons cocoa mix into one cup of milk but don't bother stirring it. Heat for 90 seconds and then stir vigorously. Then heat for 20 more seconds or until cocoa is at desired temperature. (Aside: my microwave is pretty wimpy, so you may want to reduce these times if you are using a more powerful model.)

Bonus tip--I store my cocoa mix in a container with the measurements noted on it to make life easy:

Recipe source: Smitten Kitchen

Pepper Butter

If I make peanut butter, it should logically be called Pepper Butter, yes?

With that important matter taken care of, here's what you need to know: assuming you own a food processor, this is insanely easy and also delicious. Roasting the peanuts is key to getting fantastic flavor, and I love that you can tweak the amount of salt and honey to get exactly the flavor YOU like best.

Ingredients
15 ounces shelled and skinned raw peanuts
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil

Directions
Preheat oven to 400°F. Spread peanuts on a rimmed cookie sheet. Roast for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool for about 10 minutes.

Place the peanuts, salt, and honey into the bowl of a food processor. Process for about 5 minutes. The mixture will look dry and rather dough-like for the first few minutes, but keep going. Eventually, like magic, it’ll liquefy. Scrape down sides of the food processor. Place the lid back on and continue to process while slowly drizzling in the oil and process for another minute or so. Taste and adjust salt, honey, or oil if needed. (A little extra oil helps if it’s not quite as smooth as you’d like.) In my first attempt, I added a little more honey and oil.

Place the peanut butter in an airtight container (I used a mason jar) and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.

Adapted from here.

A Book So Nice I Read It Twice

I don't often reread books these days. There are just so many others I want to read, so I tend not to revisit even books I liked very much.

Last week while on vacation, I finished a book during a day trip to lovely Houston, Minnesota, and I was kicking myself for not having my next book along. While watching my boys play with their cousin at a lovely playground, it occurred to me that I'd really enjoyed the book I just finished, and perhaps I could try reading it again while I sat in the shade.

Convenience Store Woman is a fascinating little read by Japanese novelist Sayaka Murata, and I first heard about it from this article in the New York Times. The main character, Keiko, has had a part-time job at a konbini for the past eighteen years and has never had a romantic relationship, and these two things make her decidedly not normal according to her parents, her younger sister, and her peers. She relishes her defined role at the convenience store; within that environment (unlike the rest of the world), she knows exactly what is expected of her.

The prose is simple and easy to follow, and Keiko is an enjoyable enigma. As Katy Waldman wrote in the New Yorker, "For the most part, her manner is that of a friendly alien scientist, but, at times, she swerves toward the psychopathic."

What does it all mean? What exactly is the novel a commentary on? Would a Japanese reader interpret it differently than an American reader? I don't know, but I'm at the halfway point of my second read, and I'm enjoying picking up on little bits I'd overlooked the first time through.

So what have you been reading?