Sunday, December 15, 2013

Recipe-Mince Pies

I'm hardly Julia Child in the kitchen, so home cooking and baking is usually a holiday-time event. So in the spirit of the holidays, I've decided to share my signature dessert-Mince pies with shortbread crust. I got the recipe from the website in 2002. I cheat by using prepared mincemeat- Tiptree is my favorite.

Mince Pie Pastry

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar 
2 sticks of butter
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
Ice water

Mix the flours and the sugar together in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Beat the egg with the milk and stir into the flour mixture. Bring the dough together using your fingertips. Try to handle the dough as little as possible although the dough is less fragile than ordinary pie pastry. Use a few drops of ice water, if necessary, to bring the dough together.

Have two 12 cup muffin or cupcake pans ready. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Divide mince pie pastry in half. Set half aside and roll out the other half on a floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick. Cut out 24 circles with a 3 inch circular cookie cutter. They will be the bottoms of the pies. Gently press them into the cupcake pans( they won’t come all the way up the sides). Fill these with about 1 tablespoon of mincemeat.

From the remaining dough, cut 24 circular tops about 2 inches in diameter. Gently press the edges of the tops down on the sides of the bottoms. Prick the center of each top with a fork so that the steam can escape during baking. 

Bake until pale golden about 15 minutes. Remove from tins as soon as possible and cool on a rack.

Makes 24 individual pies.

Monday, November 11, 2013

At the Movies-12 Years A Slave

Much has been made about 12 Years A Slave directed by Steve McQueen(no not that McQueen...Either critics say its flawless or that America doesn't need another movie about the horrors of slavery.  I fall a bit in the middle, while it is far from flawless and I have seen better movies, it certainly is a movie worth seeing and I shall be surprised is the Oscars don't bestow at least some statues on the cast/crew.

The multiplex where I saw it put it in a small theatre on the top floor, but I would say that it was more than 80% filled on the holiday weekday I saw it and a mixture of white and African Americans. The movie is based on a narrative written by a free black man named Solomon Northup from New York State in the 1830/40 who was tricked into accepting a job with a circus in Washington, DC. The men accompanying him on this journey got him drunk on the first night and he found himself chained up in the morning and ready to be sold. It then chronicles parts of his life during the twelve years his being bought and sold by various masters and the kindness and cruelty from the other blacks and whites. Much has been made about the violent whipping scenes in the movie but truthfully they are no more violent then most R-rated movies nowadays.

The positives vastly outnumber the negatives. The acting is great as Ejiofor shows us a man who knows he is free but learns that being silent is often safer than speaking out. Benedict Cumberbatch who must be in just about every movie nowadays has a small role, does a decent Southern accent and plays the kindest of Northup's or (Platt as he is now called) masters. But even the kind master lets him be strung up for a day as punishment and when Solomon's life is in danger from the ex-overseer whom he beat up, sells him to pay his debts as a way of getting him to safety. Michael Fassbender is the other standout as the cruel and psuedo-religious Mr. Epps. While some people thought his role over the top, I thought he did a great job in showing a very complex evil man. The tension in his household about his infidelity and favoritism towards a young female slaves leaves him and his wife to take out their frustrations with each other on the slaves. Particularly cruel is the beggar's dance him and his wive make the tired slaves do for entertainment. When Patsy(the favored slave) dances too freely in one scene, Mrs Epps throws a wine decanter at her head. In other dance scene, she offers food to all the slaves while telling her husband they should all be whipped due to their insolence.

The other positive is the scenery and music. Both beautiful and haunting with the nature scenes belying the hell the slaves endure.

The biggest flaw I found was the odd passages of time and the flashbacks interspersed with the present day. For me, it was sometimes hard to tell how much time had passed since there were no years give and most of the cast looked no older at the end than the beginning. 

But those are hardly major problems. Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a solid movie that while not breaking new ground, shows the complexity of both the blacks and whites in the slave years. While not all whites are bad-not all the slaves are good. The black overseers whip the slaves in the fields, the black house slaves keep the field hands off the front porches of the plantations and in one scene, a female slave that has married her master boast about how she now has slaves working for her and it was worth it to let her master have his way with her.

At the end we that though Solomon sued both the man who sold him and the men who conned him into going with them, because of blacks not being able to call whites as witnesses, he never won his case against them. Interestingly the man who sold him lived a mere mile from my house and was a prominent slave trader her in Alexandria. It makes one think what they would have done about slavery in that time period. I'd like to think I would have opposed it but if I had grown up with it, would I still feel the same? Points to ponder.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What I'm watching now-The Fall

If like me, you've wondered what Gillian Anderson has been doing after Bleak House, now American audiences can find out as she stars in the BBC series(well 5 episodes) The Fall. Using the background tension in Belfast, Anderson portrays a Metropolitan inspector who travels to Belfast to oversee a review about the handling of a woman's murder. It soon becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose and she gets to lead the investigation. What is rather unusual is that equal time is paid to the killer and his everyday life with his family. Jamie Dornan, as the killer, may be unknown, but always maintains the fine line between creepy and fairly normal, never overacting.

Anderson as Stella Gibson is a rather usual female TV character: cold but confident in her sexuality and  enjoyments of one-night stands. What I thought the most interesting was that both the killer and Stella used exercise to clear their minds and were often portrayed exercising at the same time. My only real complaint is that some of the dialogue comes across as clunky and hackneyed. But it's a minor complaint and at only 5 episodes, there isn't much time for frivolous scenes.

There are scenes of violence and sex so if you are adverse to this, I wouldn't watch. But if you liked Frobrydelsen or Wallander, give this a chance. It's available to stream on Netflix.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A walk around L'enfant Plaza and urban renewal

Today I decided to play tourist and take a walking tour  with Washington Walks around L'enfant Plaza and environs. For those unfamiliar with Washington, D.C., the area is roughly south of The Mall and is probably most well-known as a Metro station where four lines(Blue, Orange, Yellow and Green) converge. Mostly though it is a concrete jungle comprised of federal office buildings that is empty most weekends due to the lack of any residential area-the closest being the SW Waterfront which is behind a major expressway.  We met our guide Carolyn, who is the owner of Washington Walks, outside the Metro station and for the next two hours walked around the area while Carolyn told us of the urban renewal idea put forth by the Federal Government called the Southwest Ecodistrict.

This would knock down some of the uglier concrete office buildings while trying to make the area more attractive and "green" both environmentally and esthetically.

While the greenery and more pedestrian-friendly plaza are welcomed, with the money mainly coming from the federal government, I fear that the plans won't be realized anytime soon. In addition, L'enfant Plaza was the model of urban renewal when it was modernized in the 1960s. Whose to say that in another 30 years, architects will look with favor on the proposed plans.

In addition to the plans above, there are also plans to put an Eisenhower Memorial across from the Air and Space Museum on the other side of Maryland Ave, where today there is currently a community garden, believe it or not. Again like all monument proposals, there are proponents and dissenters-one group being Eisenhower's own family. Finally, one of my favorite sites was the often-missed train station for Amtrak and Virginia Rail. Below is the steps leading up to the platform, where trainspotters gather during the week to look out for trains.

We ended up in the underground shopping mall underneath the L'enfant Plaza Hotel is in the process of being refurbished and remodeled by a private firm. With windows to the outside terrace, clean white lines and cool LCD pillars(see photo below), it is hoped that more people will come to see the underground mall as a place to stay, eat and shop during the week and not just use the metro next door.

All in all, it was an enlightening tour for both the tourists and the residents like me who took the walks. Washingtonwalks has neighborhood walks every Saturday during the summer and I highly recommend taking one to see parts of our nations capital that most residents don't see.

Friday, May 17, 2013

What I'm watching: The Tube: A History of the London Underground

For those not following UK news, 2013 is a very important year. Not just because of the royal spud, but because the London Underground is celebrating it's 150th anniversary. There's been royal visits from the Queen, Charles and Camilla and much more interesting IMHO, original steam locomotives have pulled refurbished first class carriage cars from the time of Queen Victoria through the tunnels of the Metropolitan line. . BBC TV have done their part in the celebrations by commissioning an hour documentary celebrating the history of the Underground. It aired last night on BBC2 and is as much about celebrating the little known staff and proponents of the Tube as spouting out the history.

While there are some interesting facts, for example did you know that the tiles on the platforms were originally designed so illiterate people could know which stations to alit? Also that before 1933 all lines were run by different companies and if two different lines used the same station a person would have to come out of the station and then go back in and pay at the different train's entrance? However, the more interesting feature of the documentary for me were the individuals-most of whom worked for London Transport- that were interested and knew odd facts about the Tube. My favorite had to be Dylan, the train driver, who had collected over 8,000 station tiles. One wonders if he tiled his house in different station tiles.

All in all it was a fascinating if brief look at the complicated history of an iconic London institution. As a subway aficionado, the peeks at secret stations in Highgate and the old tunneling equipment left in a disused area of Moorgate station was new to me. If you have any interest in the Tube-whether or not you're a Londoner, you should really see this show.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

My morning with Rick Steves

Today I went to the Washington Convention Center for their annual Travel and Adventure show. Thanks to Amazonlocal I was able to buy two tickets for $9 total($4.50/person) rather than the $15 fee at the door. I've gone two years in a row to get ideas about travel, free swag and to hear from their guest speakers. Last year, I saw and met Samantha Brown from the Travel Channel. She the perky blonde 30-something woman who hosts her own shows, where she stays at fine hotels and showcasing more high-end attractions with superficial commentary. More like an early version of Katie Couric.

This year Rick Steves was the guest note speaker. Again for the uninitiated, Rick Steves has a popular travel show on PBS(he's the nerdy-looking guy with glasses who says "Keep on Traveling!" and writes guidebooks that are carried by Americans all through Europe). Many seasoned travels scoff at his books and shows and while his books are not as detailed as the Eyewitness series or even Lonely Planet, he fills a niche for the first time traveler to Europe. I have own qualms about some of the items in his book but admit he has helped many people to get over their fright and plan a trip to Europe.

So back to the convention center, my father and I were on the Metro got our tickets and were in line a half hour before the event began. The guards said that the show had broken an all-time attendance record yesterday, which would become a recurring theme. So once the place opened up, all of us trampled down to the big stage where the travel speakers would appear. We nabbed front row seats and since we still had a half-hour to go, each explored the rest of the booths while the other held the seats. Rick came out on stage a few times to adjust his mic with the sound crew. The couple next to me were huge Rick Steves fans and the man told him his shoelaces were untied. WTF? Steves looks down at his shows and both were tied perfectly. Okaaaay. I will say that he was jovial, friendly and joked with the people in the front row beforehand. So after introduction from the chairman of the travel show company and plugs for all the sponsors, the man himself comes up and starts to talk about Europe through the back door. First impressions: he looks much like he does on TV, albeit with grayer hair and a bit of a stomach paunch. As for his goofy enthusiasm, it might be all show but he seems as open and unaffected as he does on his shows, certainly not like the founder of a million-dollar travel empire. While I don't like most of his hotel and food suggestions in his book, I do like his philosophy of traveling like a local. His overlying theme is don't be afraid to get off the beaten path and go where the locals go. Go to a farmers market and buy a few items and don't be intimidated by brusque sellers. You are there for the experience-Something I need to work on myself. Also travel smart-know when to travel, times and days that attractions are closed and any discounts available.

Really quite basic informations, though sadly he only had an hour and a half to speak on a 3 hour lecture. The Rick-nicks beside me seemed to be revival mode, nodding and agreeing with him at every turn. Of course, he did push his books and tours(even though he is mostly anti-tour) and the usual speech about how his tours are different and more intimate than others-the hard sell. He's on the road for 100 days a year and travels south of the Alps in the spring before returning home a month and then heading back to the countries south of the Alps. His travels this year include Israel, Palestine(West Bank) as well as Egypt so expect guidebooks to those countries soon.

After his brief talk, he went to the corner to sign autographs. This is where the scramble begins as instead of forming a line, he has us form a circle around him and he just keeps rotating signing book copies. Having borrowed a Rick Steves book from a friend, I thought it would be nice to repay them by getting the book signed. Unfortunately, it soon become a rugby match where people would push and shove to get up front. One woman in back of me actually demanded we move because she "had a book that Rick Steves HAS to sign and [her] husband was waiting outside". Thankfully no one let her through, though I did step aside for a little girl who told Rick she watched his shows on PBS. So cute and Rick actually personalized her book. Sadly being 40-ish and not so cute-I only got a signature.

My lasting impressions-he still has the love of travel and still loves to tell others how to travel light and well. His success comes from coming across like an average guy, someone you could have a beer with-to paraphrase a former president. However, that is also the price of fame as everyone comes up and calls him by his first name-like he's a long lost friend. It must drive him nuts sometimes but the money, travel experience and fame probably make up for that. Really isn't talking about traveling for a living a long held fantasy for many of us. So if Rick ever needs a guidebook writer, I hope he looks me up!