Recipe test

A friend asked me for my Banana Bread recipe recently, so I’ve spent the intervening time thinking about the details for how I want to display my baking recipes. I’ve been adjusting and adapting my style on paper for several years, so my recipes are a mess of sloppily hand-written notes in a variety of formats. Even with the last couple of weeks to think about it, I’m still not set on a final design, but I wanted to try out one style I’d thought of, which could be relatively-easily implemented in HTML, so here’s my Banana Bread recipe (adapted from Alton Brown’s old recipe), in a hopefully-comprehensible display format:

Banana Bread

PREHEAT oven to 350°
Line loaf pan with parchment paper, using a bit of cooking spray to hold it in place


    • MIX:

      • MIX:

      • 3-4 soft, ripe bananas
      • 1 cup sugar
      • until smooth
      • MIX:

      • 8 tbsp butter (melted & cooled)
      • 2 large eggs
      • 1 tsp almond extract
      • MIX:

      • 1 3/4 cups flour
      • 1/4 cup milled flax
      • 1 tsp baking soda
      • 1 tsp salt

POUR into prepared loaf pan
BAKE at 350° for 55-75 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean
REMOVE from pan using parchment paper
DISCARD parchment paper
COOL completely on wire rack before slicing

The basic philosophy of my attempts to better-design the recipe format is built around the fact that I don’t like having a separate ingredients list; it feels like a waste of space, but also makes cooking like trying to look things up in a glossary every few words. The instructions say “combine flour, baking soda, and salt,” and I have to access the reference table (the ingredients list) to know how much of each thing. Instead, I’m trying to make the ingredients required obvious (so you can gather them before beginning) but also built in to the instructions wherever possible. Baking recipes make this the easiest, I’ve found, though I’ve adapted similar designs to cooking recipes with complicated instructions, as well.

Additionally, I like having time & space color-coded and/or clearly delineated. So in this example, all three sets of ingredients should be mixed at the same time, in three different bowls (the blue steps), then the two sets of wet ingredients should be mixed (the green step), and then the wet and dry ingredients should be mixed (the yellow step). On paper, I usually put the ingredients along the left, and the “MIX” on the right with an arc (a bowl shape) curving around the ones which go together (and then larger and larger arcs as various ingredient sets are combined), but doing it this way seemed like a clear enough compromise for HTML and unordered lists, without doing a lot of custom/difficult web design.

My preference would be to have an iPad app where one could easily switch from a “gather these ingredients” form of the list (like a traditional ingredients list) to one where the ingredients (complete with their measurements) flowed/slipped down into the appropriate places in the instructions, and where individual instructions could be expanded (for further explanation, and/or illustrations, photos, and even videos) when clarification was needed. And when there’s a basic recipe with various alternate versions (something like “for a cranberry almond bread, leave out the bananas, then gently fold in 2 cups fresh cranberries and 1/4 cup sliced almonds at step n and sprinkle an additional 1/4 cup sliced almonds on top after pouring into the loaf pan”), a tap or two should simply switch the recipe entirely to the alternate version, rather than creating a secondary lookup table to refer to. Being able to switch to an alternate timeline/timing view would also be a boon, especially when planning a complex meal; imagine your recipe app was able to coordinate all the steps for a multi-course meal into a single comprehensible set of instructions.

(Unfortunately, there’s a lot of metadata missing from most recipes to make such a system easily adaptable to having the end-user’s recipes added. How long does this step take, and how far in advance can I do that step before moving on to the next, and what do you call this bowl of half-mixed things to differentiate it from that one, et cetera? Most recipe books I’ve seen barely have enough information to produce the food, let alone meaningful metadata; plenty don’t bother with overall prep/cooking time estimates, or even number of servings, let alone time-per-step, nutrition data, or easy substitutions for unusual ingredients.)

Anyway, I’m still working on it. No recipe book/app coming from me, any time soon. But putting things on this blog is part of how I think things through. Plus, that banana bread recipe is pretty-much foolproof, and delicious.

Dieting update, 5/9/2012

As I posted about recently, Mandy and I have been trying an unusual diet for the last 5+ weeks, a version of alternate-day fasting. I’ve been having some pretty good success with it, and haven’t had too much trouble sticking with it. Mandy, on the other hand, has been struggling. Her low-calorie days were too low for her, and she was going over her calorie goals a little more each week – and because she felt so starved on the low-calorie days, she was also over-doing it on the high-calorie days; the net result being that she wasn’t seeing any results, and didn’t feel good about it, or about her inability to stick to the goals. Starting today (I think – maybe next week?), she’s going back to simply trying to stay under her “maintain” level of daily calories, but she’s also going to try to start doing more exercising. (With Phoenix Comicon coming up, and the last weeks of the school year at hand, my expectation is that she’ll exercise more, but not as much as she’d like, until summer break.)

Alternatively, I’ve been having a reasonably good amount of success with it, and have felt like I could go to actually fasting or near-to-fasting on the low days. In fact, this morning when I got up, I weighed only 189 pounds; this is the closest I’ve been to my goal (188 is the maximum weight not considered overweight, by BMI, for my height) in the ~2.5 years since we started. I also seem to be at the lowest body fat percentage I’ve been since we started, holding steady for several days at about 16% (according to my Tanita scale), or about 30lbs of fat. Plus, two days in a row I managed a set of at least 10 pushups in a row – this is a major improvement, and the first time I’ve ever been able to do 10 pushups. This morning I very nearly managed to do two sets of 10 pushups in a row. Maybe next time. At this rate, I figure … by this time next year, perhaps I’ll reach that 100 pushups goal!

Oh, and with Mandy changing her plan, I’m changing mine, as well. I’m going to try actually fasting (or very near to it) on my alternate-day fasting plan. Based on my experiences so far with fasting, I’ll probably fast roughly 24 hours at each stretch, and have a light supper in the evening of the “fasting” days. I’ll probably come in at around 15% of my “maintain” calorie count those days (as opposed to the 50% I’ve been aiming for) and I’ll still be aiming (roughly) for 100% on the other days. I’m really close to one of my actual goals, of being 185lbs and 15% fat, which gives me a little margin between myself and “overweight”, though I’ll certainly be doing some more research in the next few weeks about how to redefine my goals for more general fitness, now that I’m within spitting distance of my original goals for more generally losing weight.

I’ll update again, when I see how so much fasting actually goes – both in terms of health benefits, and of the difficulty of living with it.

Not blowing up the house, or: The tale of my new oven

The old ovenThis is a photograph of our old oven. I didn’t think to take a shot of it while it was in place, and didn’t want to shove it back in there after getting it out and unhooked, so you get to see it hanging out in the middle of the kitchen floor, which it did for about a day. Why, you may ask, would I replace my oven, out of the blue? I mean, we’re slowly but surely digging ourselves out of several tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and we certainly didn’t have any money set aside to replace the oven this month…

Well, it isn’t as though we didn’t know this was coming, I suppose. Six or nine months ago, we were having intermittent problems with the oven taking a long time to pre-heat. As in, we would check the oven when we thought it ought to be done warming up, and would hear a small explosion upon opening the door, as the gas which ought to have been heating it finally lit for (presumably) the first time. I talked to my father about it at the time (he has more experience, of course, not to mention he bought the oven and probably moved the gas line at some point in the 15+ years since he bought this house, and I’d guess he’s probably done quite a few repairs on gas appliances (ranges, ovens, heaters, et cetera) in his lifetime) and he looked at it, looked up the parts, and was sure 1) it was probably the thermostat, and 2) changing the thermostat on this model oven is more expense and hassle than it would be worth, especially for such an old oven. Then it started behaving normally. For six (or was it nine? I didn’t mark my calendar) months or more. We started looking, noncommittally, at replacements, and finding them to be quite expensive. I decided to continue putting it off, as long as the oven was working, until I had more information.

So over the last few months we’ve had ovens on the mind. We’ve popped into the occasional Sears Outlet store to take a look at what sort of features and prices things were going for, but until this week there was no urgency about our shopping. The oven has been working fine; I’ve actually done a fair amount of very successful baking, lately. Cakes and cookies and pies, of course, the occasional odd thing, plus roast chicken and we’re just finishing the leftovers from our huge Easter ham. I believe we had the first problems before Thanksgiving (perhaps right before Thanksgiving? I recall discussing not wanting to attempt a repair on the oven the week of the holiday), and I know I roasted a turkey in it. Plus: New ovens aren’t cheap.

This weekend, the oven finally went over the line. I’m not sure what caused the problem – maybe using the broiler, last week, to toast a bagel sandwich for a few minutes? Maybe God just gave us an extra six months to get used to the idea of buying a new oven, or to do it on our own, and because we didn’t take the leap, He pushed? I don’t know. I know on Friday it took over an hour (with plenty of small explosions upon peeking inside, along the way) to preheat the oven just to bake some stuffed, bacon-wrapped hot dogs (I have some ideas for improving from my first attempt; maybe I’ll take a bunch of photos & blog it if/when I attempt that again.) for dinner, and the house ended up smelling like a gas leak in the process. It was frustrating, but just seemed like maybe the oven was having a relapse. Saturday my sister couldn’t get the oven to warm up at all, the house had hardly cleared from the previous day’s gas smell and after an hour or more without it even getting to 200, she gave up in frustration, threw out her food, and went out for food. I felt I was to blame, for not replacing or repairing the oven sooner. This stressed me out a little more than a merely-failing oven would have or should have; I’m a bit prone to anxiety.

We didn’t have anything going on Friday night, and it was early enough, and at Angela’s suggestion and Mandy’s seconding, Mandy and I drove over to Stardust to see whether they had anything wonderful. Stardust is a nonprofit which basically carries … used (major) household items – things recovered from houses; a lot of cabinets, doors, and windows, plus usually a reasonable selection of decade-plus-old toilets, sinks, ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, and much much more. Being used items, the only way to know what they have from day to day is to go in and see; we probably ought to have been going in every couple of weeks for the last six months, looking out for something nice to come in. Most of the stuff they have is mid-level but, for example, Mandy and I bought an old (but still working well) Sub-Zero refrigerator there for $300, and have been pretty happy with it for the last several years – as long as I remember to vacuum the dust out of the intake over the coils a couple times a year, it’s a very reliable fridge.

Alas, Stardust didn’t have any ovens that looked any better than what we needed to replace. As long as we were out, we stopped by a K-Mart (yes, there are still a few of them around), the Sears at Metrocenter (where we met a very friendly and knowledgeable appliance salesman, and had a good look at a wide selection of gas ranges (apparently, despite the bigger part being an oven, and the stovetop/range part also being a thing people buy independently, they call freestanding ovens “ranges” – not ovens), refreshing and re-confirming what we’d observed in our casual browsing during prior months), then at the Sears employee’s suggestion (since he would gladly price-match – and they were having a “friends and family” sale Sunday night, where he’d probably have the lowest price, anyway) we also stopped by Lowes and Home Depot (plus Fry’s Electronics, since we were there – which may be the only place we saw an LG range), then did our grocery shopping, too, since we were already out. Then at home I did more research and shopping online.

Sunday, I tried researching to repair the oven at home, since our research had determined that 1) we couldn’t get a new range for less than $400-$500, without buying something which looked like it would fail within another six months, and 2) if we were going to spend a big chunk of money (extending our debt payoff horizon), we wanted to get a high quality machine with all the features I’ve been wanting, which seemed to be in the $900-$1200 range and higher. Not to mention 3) the next tier, of $1700-$2100 ranges, seemed only incrementally better than the $900-$1200 ranges, with no features we thought justified the expense – unless you’re a professional chef, going $2k+ seems laughable, to us. If I could figure out how to repair it within my level of skill, it would certainly not cost us $1k (see also: about a month more time in debt). Based on my research, including taking the oven half apart, probably one or both of the ignitor and/or gas safety valve was faulty, and probably just from being old and worn out. I spoke to my father about it (since, again, he knows a lot more about this particular oven than I do), did a little more research, and determined that trying to repair an old oven, from a brand which no longer exists, which was manufactured exclusively for Montgomery Ward (which also no longer exists), rather than buying a new range, was probably a waste of time and money, and potentially dangerous. Plus, while I figure I could have tested and/or replaced the ignitor with little trouble, I was pretty sure testing and replacing the NG valve is currently beyond my ken – and that hiring a pro to do it would cost more than the oven was worth.

Sunday afternoon, upon deciding for certain that we needed to simply replace the thing, and that our target price range was near $1k, I did a little more Internet shopping, review-reading, et cetera, and determined that there were 50-100 makes and models of gas range, by reliable brands, with all the core features I was looking for – with little to differentiate one from another, on a spec sheet. I had some idea of what I wanted, I’d certainly narrowed down the minimum features in my mind, but I wanted to see the ranges in person. We set out on a bit of an adventure, to try to find just the right range, at just the right price, with just a few hours before Sears’ limited-time sale.

This time we were shopping on our own side of town, so we went by the big, local Sears Outlet first. They had a particular LG range I’d seen quite highly-rated online (and with a strikingly-blue interior Mandy was fond of), which had all the features we wanted and for about $100 less than it was going for anywhere else (including Sears) – but then we learned it had been converted to LP, and we’d need to convert it back to NG. I couldn’t quickly/easily determine how much that would cost or how difficult it would be while browsing from my iPhone, so we looked over the other models they had in stock, and moved on.

We went to PV Mall next, to stop by the Sears there, where we discovered they had a much smaller selection of gas ranges and a much less friendly major-appliance sales staff. Disappointed, I pointed the car North, remembering an independent appliance store used to be at Desert Ridge (apparently no longer in business), and thinking the Lowes on Bell and Scottsdale was our next best bet (esp. considering their free delivery & 10% off sale). Then I spotted a small appliance store across Tatum on Thunderbird, did a bit of a loop-de-loo to get turned around the right way from the wrong side of the store & we ended up going in to “Home TV & Appliance” about half an hour before they closed for the day. According to Gary, our friendly (if not intimately familiar with the features of all the gas ranges he sells) salesperson, they’re a small, locally-owned chain. They had nearly as many gas ranges on the showroom floor as we’d seen anywhere, and they were having a sale which brought the prices on the models we preferred down below … everyone I could find. Including Amazon. Including Lowes, who had free shipping, even including their moderate delivery charge (half of the Sears delivery charge).  (According to their web site, they’ll price match any local, advertised deal their prices don’t already beat.) I did about 15 minutes of online research (while Gary helped, pulling out his books with all the details when Frigidaire’s website refused to serve meaningful pages to a mobile browser) and review-checking, then we paid the man and set up for delivery today. We walked out happy, and a significant part of that was in having stumbled upon a local business to support with our purchase, without having to pay a premium to do so. (Oh, and the delivery today was quick, efficient, friendly, and on-time.)

The new ovenHere is the range we bought. It is a Frigidaire FGGF3054MF, which is a model-level up from the best Frigidaire I thought I could get at the price I paid (and I’d probably have either settled for the lower model at Lowes, or paid closer to the MSRP for the one we got, some place else) and is one of the better value-and-features-for-the-money ranges on the market, right now, even at full price. The key features I didn’t want to buy a new range without included sealed burners on the range, self-cleaning oven, at least one 15k BTU burner, and convection cooking. The nice-to-have features I liked the look of were the a “simmer burner” (5k-6k BTUs, for cooking things low and slow), a continuous cooktop (preferably with optional griddle), and a feature I only saw mentioned on the Frigidaires, an integrated probe thermometer.

The new oven - with griddle installed

This oven has all of those features. One of the five burners is 17k BTUs, another is 15k, and a third is 5k. As you can see in the image at right, it’s even got the optional griddle for the center burner (though it seems to interrupt the continuous cooktop by being just a little too tall, so either someone measured wrong, or it wasn’t designed to be left in place – I’ll call their CS people to find out) which I look forward to trying some pancakes out on, soon. It even has features I may have to try some new recipes and techniques to take advantage of. Did I mention it can “quick pre-heat” in 5-6 minutes? Much nicer than the “an hour-plus, and a house full of explosive poison gas” we had before. I’m eager to see how the convection cooking changes things, too, though I don’t have anything urgently needing to be baked or roasted… But give me a couple weeks, and I’m sure I’ll have put it through its paces. Surely we need some ginger/molasses cookies around here, right? And maybe a couple loaves of French bread?

Next up, though, I need to re-start my wok research – the big draw of the high-power burner, for me, was being able to properly cook food in a wok. It’s time to retire the old Teflon-coated wok (since Teflon becomes a toxic gas at proper wok temperatures) and get a (probably) carbon steel wok. Any brand/store recommendations are welcome.

Update: I ended up ordering this wok, from Amazon.

Dieting, and unusual dieting

I don’t know how much I’ve mentioned about it here in the last couple of years, but my wife and I have been working on improving our health. When we got married we were both somewhat overweight (obese, by BMI), and in January 2010 we started making an effort to do something about it. We started with little stuff, using our Wii Fit more, going for walks, and around April 2010 we started using the app to track everything we ate & all our exercise. The app, once you get used to it, makes tracking and controlling your behavior pretty easy – I’ve had similar success in the past with keeping a written log of everything I ate, but doing it digitally is much smoother and allows for easier planning & adjustments. We set our goals at a reasonable 2 pounds loss per week, with the understanding that we wouldn’t hit that goal every week and even if we did it would take a long time. I won’t detail everything, but gradually, over the next year or so, we each lost about 50 pounds. Just by eating a little less and moving a little more. I went down from the scary-enough-to-provoke-action 250 to about 200, and from about 25% body fat down to about 18%, by April 2011. (I also went down about four inches in the waist.)

By summer of last year we’d both plateaued, and by December 2011, largely due to depression, I was rapidly re-gaining weight. When I hit 210, I started a crash diet (which overlapped Christmas, unfortunately), and got back under 200 within a couple of weeks, and I’ve been struggling again with the last of my stubborn belly fat since then. Normal “eat less, move more” wasn’t quite cutting it (or I wasn’t really moving enough), and when I saw some science backing up an unusual sort of diet I’d thought about before, I figured what they hey, let’s try it … Actually, I just showed it to Mandy on a lark, not intending to try it, but she suggested trying it … And the week of March 26th we started doing a version of an alternate-day-fasting diet.

There are a few ideas about this sort of diet, ranging from full-on fasting every other day to eating 20%-50% of your “maintain” level of calories on the alternate days, and from normal to 150% (or just “whatever you want”) on the non-fasting days. Different people swear it has different effects, ranging from “helping get rid of that last 15 pounds” to curing asthma & allergies, and possibly to postponing the onset of diabetes or MS. Who knows? The science isn’t in, yet. Give it a few more years/decades. Since we were still trying to get rid of the last of our excess fat (I was still at/above 18% body fat) we decided to aim for a reasonable 50% on “fast” days, and 100% on “high” days – this keeps us losing weight, but confuses our bodies. (We also re-started our attempts to complete the 100 pushups and 200 situps challenges (we didn’t succeed on our first six-week attempt) three weeks ago.) In five weeks I’m down 10 pounds to 190, and down 2-3% body fat, as well. (Plus another inch at the waist; it’s a bit frustrating to be between pant sizes, but I just ordered a new pair of suspenders to hold them up, at least until I lose another inch and buy some new pants.) Mandy, unfortunately, has not been having as dramatic a success… but she’s sticking with it.

It’s been interesting. With alternating days being so low-calorie, the days we eat at our “maintain” calories are like cheating days, or feast days. If I’m having trouble sticking to the low-calorie limits, I usually only have to remind myself that the next day I’ll be able to splurge, eat what I want, and then I can more easily control myself. I can definitely say that having the relatively-high-calorie days (versus most of the last two years, where I’ve been eating little every day, first to lose the first fifty pounds, and then unsuccessfully to try to lose this last 15 pounds) have been very liberating. Also helpful since I’m still frequently overcome in difficult situations with an urge to emotionally overeat – the trick now is to control the urge, if possible, on low days, and keep it near my maintain calorie level on high days (which feels like plenty of leeway after years of running 1,000 calories lower than that every day).

I’m still a bit away from even my initial goal (technically, my BMI is still a bit into the overweight, and my body fat percentage is a few points higher than I’d like) though I hope after another few months of this unusual diet I’ll be there. I also hope I’ll be able to do 100 pushups at some point; progress on that isn’t going well, though it is going, a bit. Getting back to a point where I can do a lot of situps would be good, too – I’d love to actually have some abs worth looking at, once this obscuring fat is worked away. Not that my abs would be visible in it, but I’ve been putting off getting a new author portrait (née headshot) taken (or having my wedding ring resized) until I reach my weight goal; I’m most of the way there, and look very different from the photo I’ve been using most places, but there’s something psychological about actually reaching the goal… if you’ve been wondering why I don’t look like my photo, this is why.

So, that’s a sort of a general update on what’s been going on with my dieting. Mostly success, mostly by eating less and moving more. I didn’t mention that it also involves eating generally whole foods, plenty of fruits and vegetables, with most meals cooked from scratch – because that is for another post (or series of posts), and predates any attempts as weight loss, since eating real food is awesome, anyway.

Buying in bulk

We’ve been working on doing better about buying things in bulk, lately. There are two key reasons for this intention: First, the economy may collapse at any time and we don’t want to be caught without the basics to keep us alive while we get backyard farming (probably the back yard of our property up in the mountains, isolated from the inevitable clusterf_ck that urban areas will decay into) up and producing. Second, and this is both more realistic and more immediately relevant, money is tight for us right now and buying in bulk and cooking real food from scratch is not just better for us nutritionally and emotionally, but economically. (My art sales are okay (not quite amazing, just yet) and my book sales have left a lot to be desired so far this year, so we’re living pretty close to the point of ‘barely getting by.’) Between these two main reasons, which are accompanied by dozens of smaller points of interest I’m too tired to get into right now, I’ve been doing a lot more ‘slow food’ cooking lately from staple ingredients, and we’re ramping up to do a lot more.

Fry’s, this week, is having a “case lot sale”. You don’t have to buy by the case to get the low prices, but you can. We went to Sam’s Club, first (where I’ve been starting my bulk food purchases, in things like 25lb bags of rice), and compared the Fry’s sale prices with the Sam’s normal bulk food prices, and on everything but oats Fry’s prices were better. So we bought the big box of Quaker Oats at Sam’s Club and then went over to Fry’s. They were sold out of one or two items I wanted to get, so I’ll probably go back to try to get them (they stock after closing, so early morning is the way to go), but we did pretty good. We got 195lbs of food for about $90. 40lbs of flour and 40lbs of sugar will go a long way toward baked goods. Yes, there are fresh ingredients like milk, eggs, butter and the like that I can’t buy up in bulk, seal up in Tupperware, and put in the cupboard (Did I mention Mandy and I are also about to make a large order of Tupperware? There’s a lot at the house, but we 1) need more, and 2) want to be sure we have our own stuff, in case at some point we want to separate off from the rest of the family. We went to a couple of big “container stores” (who knew there were multiple competing chains of big stores specializing in only container sales? Huh.) and compared sizes, prices, and quality, and Tupperware wins, hands down. Oh, and yes, we bought evaporated milk.), but barring that apocalypse/depression I mentioned, that’s not much of an issue. Will probably go back and buy another 50lbs-75lbs of food for another $35-$47 before the sale is over.

Oh, and if the economy doesn’t look to actually be collapsing further, we’ll probably put a huge dent in this stuff before the end of the year. Otherwise, yeah, rationing, eh? Gotta remember to get a couple gas cans kept full all the time, too. Hmm… Maybe I should call dad and be sure we have plenty of ammunition, while it’s still cheap. Leave your suggestions for other items I should consider buying in bulk, whether because I’m poor or because the end is near, in the comments.