Saturday, August 25, 2012

Patience is overrated

I’m baking up a storm. Tomorrow evening – no, make that this evening – guests will drop by for an evening of homemade desserts. Three or four kinds of cupcakes (including beer and bacon cupcakes!), tiny fruit tarts, a chocolate fountain and pig candy.

And that’s what got me into trouble. Pig candy. I first heard of pig candy several years ago, when a favorite sister-in-law had a milestone birthday. I found a very kitchy-looking book to give her. In fact, it looked so fascinating, I had to read it before wrapping it for her. Of course, that meant I had to read it carefully, without creasing the spine or dog-earing the pages.

Anyway, the book was the Sweet Potato Queen Cookbook and Financial Advisor. I laughed…a lot. It was a hilarious look at the wisdom of southern women of a certain age, and it included a recipe for something called “pig candy.”

Whoa. Thick bacon strips, covered in brown sugar, maybe sprinkled with chopped pecans and slowly baked to sticky, greasy perfection. Pardon me, while I mop the drool off my keyboard.

I talked about making pig candy for years, but never did. Then I started planning this little dessert party and thought, “Everything can’t be chocolate.” To which the little voice that tells me to do things said, “Why not?”

And I thought, “And everything shouldn’t be cake or cupcakes.” To which the little…never mind – I’m sure you get it.

Then I remembered pig candy. I refreshed my memory with a gallop across Google and went to work. Two batches, because I wanted to be able to adjust after the first batch if it was necessary (it was). The first batch looked okay – I’ll be proud to serve it. But the second batch…oh, the second batch.

More brown sugar the second time around. Longer in the oven this time, both sides. By the time I finally pulled the pan from the oven, the juices were bubbly and the aroma had me drooling.

Now there I was, standing at the range with a hot pan loaded with a rack of sugary, caramel-ly (made that up) bacon in my appropriately-mitted hand. Armed with the wisdom and experience of one prior pan of pig candy under my belt, I used two forks to lift the rack from the hot baking pan and set it on another pan laid with fresh parchment paper.

Then I turned back to the original pan, its parchment swimming with hot, pork fat-infused caramel, deep brown and gooey. I was a goner. I caught up some of that oozing goodness on a fork, hastily blew on it (hah!) and popped it into my mouth.

And immediately started hopping up and down, huffing breath around the molten mass, trying to shift the soft lump around in my mouth to keep from burning something I’ll regret. As you might suspect, this only served to ensure that more delicate surfaces in my mouth were exposed to the intense heat.

But here’s the thing. It was soooooo worth it. I’m passionate about food, but I don’t normally make moaning sounds and roll my eyes back in my head over my plate. Pig candy, though, is something else. In fact, I didn’t even get as far as the bacon itself. Just the caramel made with pork fat sent me over the top.

So. Not so very patient. However, I learned, after sulking away for a bit, quite literally licking my wounds, that cooled pork caramel hardens into out-of-this-world candy that can be crunchily enjoyed without fear of blistered tongue.

My work here is done. For a few hours. Good night.

CJ's Pig Candy
10 strips of thick-cut bacon (or however many will fit your pan)
1 to 1.5 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground allspice (may substitute chili powder, cinnamon, pepper, anise - any flavor you like, or none at all)

Preheat your oven to 350 F. Line a large baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Set a wire cooling rack on the paper. Lay the bacon strips across the rack. Mix the brown sugar with the seasoning (if you are using one), then use about half of it to put a good thick coating over each slice.

Place the bacon in the preheated oven and let it cook for about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a protected surface. Using tongs, fork or spatula, gently turn each piece of bacon over. Coat the uncooked side now facing up with the remaining brown sugar. Use more if you need to get an even coating. Return the pan to the oven and walk away. Check on it after about 10-15 minutes. Does it still look a little, well, not done? Leave it. 

When the meat appears to be cooked through without burning, remove pan from the oven. I recommend lining another baking sheet with fresh paper and carefully moving the hot rack and bacon to the new pan (keeps the caramel from hardening around the feet of the rack in the old pan, plus gives you better access to the rivers of pork caramel under the rack). Let cool, carefully remove from the rack and enjoy!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Manual Typewriters to Flying Robots

I was thinking about robots the other day. No, really. I was thinking about robots. Weren't you?

Anyway, I watched a video of Vijay Kumar presenting his work on autonomous flying robots from TED. I was suitably impressed. I even understood about 12% of the technical talk, which is pretty high for me. I watched as the robots flew about, dodging obstacles and constructing frame structures. Then there was the big musical finale, a group of flying robots playing instruments, picking out the James Bond theme. It wasn't particularly good, but definitely recognizable.

It was the finale that got me thinking. What would I want robots to do for me? Certainly not play musical instruments, but what else? Well, load the dishwasher, for one thing. The task wouldn't be much different than in Kumar's video, as robots flew to a stack of magnetized Lincoln Logs, picked them up and maneuvered them into place. They'd have to be careful with the wine glasses, though, and they'd have to be sure to get out of the dishwasher before the rinse cycle started.

It'd be great if they could spot and pick up all the things we forget and leave lying about the apartment. I just found my pliers in the kitchen cupboard. I lowered a shelf, using the pliers to remove and replace a stubborn shelf support, and must have set them down as I began loading glassware on the shelf. I would never have remembered where they were, unless a handy robot flew by and spotted them for me. Same goes for my husband's socks.

Anyway, then I started thinking about all of the things that are automated today but were manual once upon a time. For instance, our cat loves to chase a laser light around the room and it's very entertaining for us as well. A few months ago, we got an automated laser toy. The toy rotates in an irregular pattern, moving the laser as it goes. The cat knows where the light comes from and tries to figure out how to make the light come out by herself. I laugh at her, but inside I'm thinking, "Am I so lazy that I can't hold a tiny laser pointer for my cat?" I don't really want an answer to that.

Dialing a telephone has been semi-automated for years; in fact, I haven't "dialed" a phone in decades. I'm old enough to remember having only one phone in the house, attached to the wall and with a handset that was attached to the base by a long curly cord. It had a rotary dial and took actual seconds to dial a seven-digit number. That's right - seven digits. Now you know how old I am.

And typewriters. I learned to type on an electric typewriter, but used an old manual machine in my first office job. Both machines had actual inked ribbons wound onto bobbins, and keys that could, on the manual machine, jam up if you typed too fast.

Let's talk about making copies. Today, if I want an extra copy of a letter I've typed, I'll print an extra copy, and in our home, the printer is about 50 feet away and wireless. A decade or so ago, I would have stepped over to the copy machine to make the extra copy. But back when I started working, our copies were wireless. We had to plan ahead if we wanted a copy, because we would use carbon paper, sandwiched between two sheets of paper. In fact, if we "cc'd" someone, it meant we did what "cc" stands for - we created a "carbon copy."

And I have to say it - we had to get up and walk over to the television set to change the channel - all four channels.

Of course, my son has always had a computer (he was teaching his fellow kindergarteners how to use the machines in the computer lab at school). We've had a mobile phone since he can remember. His world has always included these things and has never included a living John Lennon. He most likely doesn't remember a wall dividing Berlin in two or working pay phones.

It's not that I miss the old, manual stuff. I'd much rather use a food processor than grate a bag of carrots or potatoes by hand. I appreciate being able to call my mom from Hawai'i and have it sound like I'm next door. I love my hybrid car, my energy-efficient light bulbs and my plasma TV. But I also get satisfaction out of baking bread (okay, I use a bread maker) and knitting by hand.

But autonomous flying robots are pretty cool. Gotta get me one!