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Monday, September 27, 2010

Follow Your Bliss

'Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you, where there were only walls.' Joseph Campbell

That’s really good advice, and for some [and I am among them] it was easy to follow because we grew up knowing exactly what we wanted to do, and have never 'worked' a day in our lives because we so loved what we did. But what about those, like my granddaughter, a recent High School graduate, who has a number of talents but is not good enough or passionate enough about any one of them to know what her ‘bliss’ really is? It is obviously too early for her to make lifelong decisions. What to do?

One of my father’s stories was about a farmer who hired a worker to help during his busy time in the early spring. The man turned out to be a very hard worker and the farmer was delighted. One day he ran out of things for him to do, so he took him into his storage shed and asked him to sort the potatoes left there after the winter – into piles of those that were rotting, those that should be eaten right away, and the good ones. At the end of the day when the farmer returned, to his surprise he found the man looking dejected and with only a few sorted potatoes around him. When asked what his problem was, the poor man answered sadly: "I'm sorry Mister, but it’s them decisions that’s so hard to make."

Life can involve many hard decisions, but the message we can all take is that if you are conscious of your feelings as you go through your days, you can get to know yourself pretty well. When you are doing something that you find ‘turns you on’ and you are good at, be aware that is the sort of thing that could be your 'bliss'. Another important indicator in knowing yourself is being conscious of the kinds of things stored in your memory that you can recall easily. They too are a strong indication of what your real interests are.

Then there is always University to expose you to new possibilities - but going that route can be an expensive waste of time unless you are eager to learn and willing to study. Many young people just out of high school are neither of these. Their brains don’t fully mature until they are about 25, and they can easily succumb to the distractions of socializing, sports and dating. Failing can shut doors permanently, so the best decision may be just to not make a decision.

My advice to young people like my granddaughter is that life is for a long time, so just relax, and as you earn a living, find out what you truly love doing. Then as soon as you can, make a leap of faith to 'follow your bliss', and trust that, as Campbell says: 'the universe will open doors for you' to a richly rewarding life. Rie

Monday, September 20, 2010

Memories & Emotions

I was writing about some of my earliest memories today, and found I had almost none before I was school age, and even then they were very few and far between. Amazingly, the incidents I do remember are there in every particular. The first vivid one was when I was 4, and my father was racing up the stairs very excited - the only time I ever saw him like that. He made us all look out the front window at a new car, a Buick ‘roadster’ he had just bought. I even remember the thick yellow wooden spokes on the wheels and the rumble seat in the back! It would have been 1929, before the crash.

As I wrote in an earlier post, we only seem to remember events when our emotions are aroused, and for me that includes times when I am learning things I'm interested in. It turns out that in those cases, organs deep in the brain are affected and play a vital role in searing those lasting memories into our brain. But what’s going on with all the memories we completely lose?

Basically memories are made as signals run through our neuron brain cells and cross gaps [synapses] between the cells to make a pathway or network that you can trace at will to bring back the memory. But the brain needs energy to keep the connections in that pathway viable. Our brains actually use 25% of the total energy our bodies require, so if we kept adding to and maintaining all the pathways formed, we wouldn't have any energy left to do anything else! Evidently our brain solves this problem when we are deeply asleep. That's when the connections in new networks are weakened. If we haven't thought of an ordinary event for a day or so, we soon lose all memory of it. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch three days ago - can you?

But what if you need to remember something for a while - like the lines in a play or facts for an exam? Studies have found that it is best to revisit something we need to remember often, spacing the time between reviews over longer and longer periods – for example once an hour, then every few hours and then daily. If you naturally tend to do that anyway, you probably are confident that it works, and so you relax and do well in exams. I'm told it even works for those normally terrified in front of an audience! Rie

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

You be the Chef

If you're wondering how that chef at the Waldorf Astoria could have come up with the idea of using mayonnaise in a cake, this post will explain and give you some clues so you can be a creative baker yourself.

First, our chef would have known that mayonnaise is a mixture of oil and vinegar [an acid] that is made into an emulsion by stirring vigorously with an egg. Used in a cake, the only other ingredients you need are flour, sugar, salt and something that releases bubbles to make the cake rise. If you check, you’ll see that our Waldorf Astoria chef used baking soda. He would have known that if you add acid to baking soda, it reacts giving off lots of bubbles of gas. Most recipes call for baking powder, which is just baking soda mixed with some powdered acid that is activated by adding water.

The trick in baking cakes is to trap the gas bubbles while the cake is cooking. If you guessed it is the egg that does that, you were right! You know that when you cook an egg, it solidifies, so in the cake the bubbles released by the soda and acid get trapped by the egg that solidifies around them as the cake bakes. That’s it! Now all you need to know are the quantities of ingredients to put in a cake:

Flour - 2 cups or more depending on Size of Cake [SoC].
Sugar - 1 cup, or about half the amount of flour. Anything sweet will do, like brown sugar, but be careful with honey, corn or maple syrup, molasses etc.
Fat - ¼ cup melted butter or oil or shortening. My mother, of Scottish descent, used beef suet!
Egg - one or two depending on SoC.
Baking soda – 1 ½ teaspoons depending on SoC.
Acid - Here is where you can let your imagination go!. Acids are sour, so you know that lemon, orange, lime, pineapple or tomato juices will work. Yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, etc. are really creamy in cakes, muffins, pancakes etc.
Water - add if necessary to make the batter just loose enough to be fairly easy to stir.

Use common sense and experiment. Lemon or lime juice need watering down, and adjust the amount of sugar depending on taste. Tomatoes need spices but make a wonderful cake. I’ve linked some recipes to online to help you get started.

Be creative, have fun and learn from your mistakes! Hopefully your experiments will be good enough to get eaten. Rie

Friday, September 10, 2010

$1200 Waldorf Astoria cake

Growing up, we lived in a prosperous little town, and a few of my mother's friends took a trip to New York City in the 1930’s. They splurged by staying at the legendary Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and for desert one night in the grand dining room, they ordered chocolate cake that turned out to be absolutely scrumptious.

Impressed and in high spirits, they asked the waiter if they might have the recipe. The chef himself eventually appeared, and it made quite a scene as he, in full regalia, recounted the details of how to make his special creation. When the 'girls' got home, however, they had a story to tell! Their bill revealed that they had had to pay $100 for the recipe - that's about $1,200 in today's money - shocking! Looking back, I've used the recipe so many times over the years I consider it was worth it! Besides being the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten, this cake is so quick and easy to put together from scratch that it's the only one I ever make now - and I decided it had to be shared.

The amounts of the ingredients used in the cake are not critical. In a pinch, I just use what is at hand for measuring - like any normal cup for the flour and sugar, and every-day spoons for the smaller amounts. For those who like precision, I’ve included exact measurements. The mayonnaise can be messy, so I usually use a 2-cup measure or big glass jar. Put the water in first, and then spoon in mayonnaise right from the bottle to double the volume.

In one bowl mix:
     2 cups of flour [16 oz. or 500 ml]
     1 cup of sugar [8 oz. or 250 ml]
     4 big spoonfuls unsweetened cocoa [4 tablespoons]
     1 really heaping teaspoon full of baking soda [1 ½ teaspoons]
     a good pinch of salt [½ teaspoon]

In a 2nd bowl mix:
     1 cup of water
     1 cup of mayonnaise [recipe says Miracle Whip, but any kind will do]
     1 cap full or so of vanilla [1 ½ teaspoons – it's optional but good]

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, stir and pour into a cake pan, preferably one with a cone in the middle. If your baking pan is not non-stick, smear the inside with butter or oil and shake a little flour around to coat it. Bake at 350 F [175 C] until you smell the cake, 30 to 40 minutes. I stick a toothpick or straw in it and it comes out clean when done.

Bon appetit! Rie

Friday, September 3, 2010

Gone Fishing?

My Dad grew up on the famous Restigouche River, and as a child in the 1930’s, I can remember him coming home after a day ‘up river’ - and when he'd open up the trunk of his car with a flourish, there would be 5 or 6 beautiful 30 to 40lb. salmon gleaming in the sun!!  I’ve read that the top 10% of anglers catch an amazing 90% of all fish, and I’m sure my father was among that top 10%!

Even so, I think he would have been intrigued if he had known about a fish’s circulation system, because it would have explained what must have taken years of experience to learn. As the simple diagram shows, a fish basically has a closed-loop circulation system with its heart pumping the blood in a single loop around the body. Starting with the gills that act as the fish’s lungs, the red lines in the picture show where the oxygen-carrying blood flows. The oxygen is needed to make the muscles work. The black lines show places where little or no oxygen is left in the blood. But the heart itself is a muscle, and if the fish is fighting hard to get free of the hook and all the oxygen is used up when the blood reaches the heart, the heart stops pumping and the fish goes belly up until it again has an adequate oxygen supply.

New regulations stipulate that barb-less hooks be used to make it easier to release a fish. That means that you have little chance of landing a salmon unless you always keep your line tight - but not so tight that it breaks! If a light ‘leader’ line that is less visible in the water is used [my father would have used a 6 to 8 lb. test line], a big salmon can easily break it. So you have to let the salmon run as many times as it can with just the right resistance to deprive its heart of oxygen temporarily so that you can reel it in part way. A big fish can sometimes take up to an hour to land.

And after all that, if you are trying to scoop up your fish with a net, it is easy to lose your catch. The first few times the fish is close, trying to scare it by brandishing the net in front of its nose should cause it to make desperate attempts to get away, using up the last bit of oxygen in its heart muscle. Then you can easily scoop it up safely when you see the white of its belly.

As fishermen say, 'tight lines.' Rie