Tag Archives: use

Voice Fail

phone-troublesIn the not so dim and not so distant past I remember a time when I would phone companies to speak to a Mr/Mrs ‘Blah‘, only to be told that they were unavailable and could the receptionist take a message?  Leaving messages like this was generally not a grand idea because it all too frequently resulted in no call back.  Did the receptionist fail to pass on the message, or did Mr Blah just not bother to return the call?  Who knows?

In an effort to make life easier and more efficient I suppose, those clever telecommunications experts came up with voice mail.  My verdict?  I ruddy hate it.  I know one company where if you ask for Mr Blah there is no further conversation, no niceties – you get put straight to voice mail with no option to speak to the actual human being.  On other occasions where places do at least take the time to inform you that Blah is in a meeting / out of the office / has emigrated / is currently being questioned by the police, and would you like to go to voice mail?  …Well my heart sinks, because those same people who never phoned back in the past still don’t phone back, the difference now being that you feel like a bit of a twerp for speaking to an inanimate object and having your stumbling words permanently recorded for posterity.  

I left voice mail for something actually quite important early yesterday morning.  Over twenty four hours later I’m still waiting, still sticking near to my phone, just in case they should actually call back.  I could, of course, get my own voice mail, and what fun that would be: my voice mail versus their voice mail.  We need never actually talk to one another ever again!

In future I’m going to do what I used to do when Blah was unavailable.  I’ll keep calling back until they are available.

(…And just who is this Blah person anyway)?

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GentleVoiceOver at Gentle Voice – Super Quick Chocolate Cake – made in a mug, in a microwave. (Doesn’t get any simpler than that)!  This is a recipe I was sent and I probably won’t get around to trying this out for at least a few days.  I’m dying to know if it works out OK, so if you give it a go, please let me know how it went.

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Steak au Poivre

peppercornsNot the standard Steak au Poivre with five different types of peppercorns, cream etc.  It’s the steak with pepper, butter and brandy.  Delightful in its simplicity, easy to prepare, but never skimp on the steak.  I like a good Angus sirloin – for me, anything less is false economy.

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 Angus sirloin steaks, at room temperature (have them out of the fridge a good 15 minutes before you need them)

2 tablespoons of black peppercorns

1 – 2 tablespoons olive oil

1-1/2 oz (about 30g) unsalted butter

2 good slugs of Cognac***

***I have never used cheap wine, brandy etc. in cooking as the point is that the alcohol is burned off, leaving you with just the flavour.  (I have been known to use Remy Martin in this dish and, not surprisingly, it has been an instant favourite with guests)!

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Crush the peppercorns coarsely in a pestle and mortar.  Tip the pepper into a fine sieve and shake well until all  remains of powder have been dispersed. (This is important because the excess powder will cause the steaks to be far too hot).  Press the peppercorns into both sides of the steak with your fingers, pressing well with the heel of your hand.   Only now season with salt because salting first will not allow the pepper to stick to the meat.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan until hot.  Put in the steaks and fry on one side thoroughly, but not on full heat, until a good, thick crust has formed.  Add the butter and allow to colour to nut brown.  Turn the steaks over and finish cooking to your taste.  Try to resist turning too often – the aim is to produce a good crusty coating on each surface.  Baste with the buttery juices as you go. 

Remove the steaks to hot plates, add the Cognac to the pan and whisk together with the butter.  Don’t worry about any little deposits of meat from the pan being incorporated – this is absolutely the best thing to do.  ‘De-glazing’ the pan like this adds oodles of delicious flavour. It also doesn’t matter if the brandy ignites, but the alcohol must be boiled off.

Pour over the steaks.  Serve with chips (French fries) and salad.

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All about butter

Butter CurlsI don’t think anything compares to the taste of real butter in cooking. Butter-based spreads have come into existence to try to provide healthier alternatives but they are not always ideal for cooking.  Here is a quick low-down on the basic versions of butter available, plus a few facts and hints:

Salted butter – Salt is a preservative so that the addition of salt to butter gives it a longer ‘shelf-life’.  Salted butter will last about a month in the fridge, six months in the freezer.

Unsalted (or ‘sweet’) butter is the freshest butter available, with an accordingly fresher taste – largely because the natural sweetness of the product isn’t masked by salt.  However, without that extra preservative it will not last as long.

Given the above, good traditional bakers usually opt for unsalted butter in recipes – the flavour is better, there is the option to decide just how much salt should be added, and too much salt tends to produce a tougher dough.  At a pinch (no pun intended), ready salted butter can be substituted in baking recipes, but remember to reduce, or cut out entirely, any extra salt noted separately in the ingredients list.  (If you have to use salted butter in a recipe because that’s all you have, the rule of thumb would be to cut salt by 1/4 tsp for every 4 ounces, or half a cup of butter that is in the recipe).

Light / reduced calorie butter is made with half the fat of regular butter and in order to approximate the consistency of the full fat version, water, skimmed milk and gelatin are added.   As a consequence, it will give different results when used for baking and frying and is therefore not recommended.

In some countries whipped butter is also available.  Its’ whipped texture makes it lighter and more spreadable but the process of whipping means that it is actually 30 – 45% air.  For this reason it also is not generally  recommended for baking.

When frying and sauteing,  it is better to use unsalted butter.  If you wish, the addition of just a teaspoon of oil will allow you to heat the oil to a slightly higher temperature before it begins to burn but both salted and unsalted butter have low smoke points (the point at which the butter burns).

Clarified butter is used widely in fine cuisine as the basis for sauces and, as most of the milk solids and water is removed during preparation, allows for cooking at higher temperatures without burning (useful for frying and sauteing) . 

To clarify: gently melt a quantity of butter in a pan and, using a metal spoon, skim off the solids that begin to foam up on the surface.  Be careful not to allow the butter to burn. When you feel you’ve removed as much as you can, pour the melted butter through a sieve which has been lined with cheesecloth or muslin, into a bowl beneath.  (These solids can be thrown away but are also considered a delicacy in Northern Indian cuisine, being eaten with unleavened bread). The clarified butter in the bowl will last in the fridge for up to a month.

Ghee is very similar to clarified butter, the differences being that all the water content has been evaporated off, all the milk solids removed and the remaining butter has been allowed to brown slightly, giving the ghee a nutty flavour.  Pure ghee will keep at room temperature for months and, as with clarified butter, can be heated to high temperatures.  The process of preparation has removed casein, lactose protein (often a problem to those with allergies) and oxidised cholesterol, whilst still retaining valuable vitamins.  Its’ more intense, nutty flavour also means that you will probably use less of it in cooking.  Ghee is available in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores, as well as in some supermarkets.

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  • Butter absorbs the flavours around it so is best stored in an airtight container or wrapped carefully in foil.
  • Store in the coolest part of the fridge (which is generally not the door)
  • To soften butter quickly for baking, cut into small cubes and leave at room temperature.
  • Frozen unsalted butter can be grated into pastry mix for a nice, light and flaky crust

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The nature of friendship

Pauli Ebner vintage PCYesterday I read an article in the BBC web magazine about friendship and to sum up, it seems that the average number of friends for us to have is just five.  My heart sang when I read this because I’ve often wondered whether I am odd in some way because my friends are so few and far between.  I know many more people of course  – all on my Christmas list – and they’re all very nice , but really they are just acquaintances.  

Unfortunately in life I have all too often come across the scenario where people invite something like 150 ‘close friends’ to their wedding, their birthday party or other social event, and here on the internet there are those who have hundreds, if not thousands of friends listed on sites like Flickr and Facebook.   If you’re inclined towards insecurity, and like me you have a mere handful of actual friends whom you trust to be there for you in times of crisis, it can leave you feeling as though you are socially inept. 

Well, you can rest assured that these people, with their legions of friends, are what I call ‘name collectors’, and good for them if that makes them happy.  For the rest of us, bear in mind that according to this article (and those who have left comments below it), that you are not alone – you’ve simply correctly identified your inner ‘core’ of friends.  The people who really matter to you. 

I, for one, am reassured.  I was starting to wonder about Me for minute there.

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Thanks here to Alex at Hygge House who prompted this train of thought when she discussed our reliance on modern electronic technology and how it impinges upon our lives. 

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Scented associations

Perfume2
I was thinking about perfume today, perfume and smells in general. I’ve always loved perfume and wear it every day. There are some lovely scents available but the ones that I buy and wear regularly tend to have an emotional effect upon me, quite obviously making me feel good in some way.

Chanel No. 5 always makes me feel expensively groomed and ready for the world, regardless of what I’m actually wearing. You might say that this is to do with clever advertising but in actual fact I’ve worn this scent since I was a teenager and began my love affair with it at a time when I don’t believe perfume advertising was even registering on my radar. Chanel might say that I’m responding to the expensive component Perfumeparts of the fragrance and their clever blending of them. That’s certainly true, but there’s no doubt that I’m also heavily influenced by memory and association. Chanel No. 5 is the perfume my mother always wore when she was all dressed up in furs and jewels to go to glitzy, glamorous evening affairs. I know I always thought how pretty she looked, but I do also remember the delightful rose and jasmine-scented haze about her on those nights. Maybe this is why, to me, it denotes ‘coiffed and groomed’?

The subject of our sense of smell, and just how important it is to us, was raised today by a Flickr friend who said that she loves the smell of creosote. I can’t say I love it, but I certainly like it. I find it strangely comforting and I think I know why. Again, I associate creosote with my childhood, a place in time where my early memories are very happy. In spring and/or autumn the garden fence panels  at our house were re-treated to keep them crisp and in good order. As this would have been done on a calm and probably mild and sunny day, you can see why the smell is one that I find pleasant, because of all those happy associations.

Art-brushesI can’t smell poster paint, plasticine or a certain type of almond scented glue without it bringing a smile to my lips as I remember the art room in primary school. (That memory is so clear to me that I’m conjuring up the smell in my nose as I’m typing this). I really hated school but its’ one saving grace was the art lessons and a chance to experiment with my creativity.

Conversely, I can’t smell the rubber compounds of sports equipment without it producing an unpleasant sensation of butterflies in my stomach because it has become intrinsically linked with the dreaded PE lessons. Almost as bad is when I smell natural gas – that instantly recalls memories of the Bunsen burners in the school’s science lab. Science to me was as incomprehensible as Swahili yet it was a requirement to do it week after week – and, despite all efforts, I was doomed to fail tests, badly, week after week.

This idea of association doesn’t always follow through however and this is where our sense of smell and how it links to our emotions becomes completely fascinating to me. Today I’m wearing a relatively new favourite scent, one that makes me feel happy every time I put it on and yet it has no associations that would make it so happily appealing to me. It’s Clinique’s ‘Aromatics Elixir’ and the very odd thing is that when I’ve mentioned how it makes me feel in the shop, the sales assistant has said that I’m not the only customer to have commented on this. Clinique advertise it as ‘touching the senses and spirit in subtle, pleasing ways’, and strangely enough, for once it seems you can believe the hype.

I’ve also read before how scent is already being used to influence customer buying patterns in shops. It’s interesting to think of how we imagine ourselves as very sophisticated creatures as humans beings and yet, like other animals, we can obviously quite literally be led by the nose.

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I wrote a piece about scent, explaining a little bit about it over at Voix Douce / Gentle Voice not so long ago.  If you’d like to read more, here’s a link.

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TomTom Therapy

TomTomEver used a sat nav?  Probably – we’re often late coming to new kinds of technology.  Isn’t it great?  I love the fact that I don’t have to sit with my eyes planted firmly on a map – one of us at least gets a chance to really see the scenery on a driving holiday.  We’ve noticed that it has other advantages.  It’s a kind of cheap therapy because the perverse pleasure we get from occasionally just ignoring the inanimate voice is quite wonderful. 

We’ve sometimes been driving between cities where there are two parallel roads to get us to our destination.  One is the soopa doopa new highway and is ultra quick but b0rr~ring!  The other is the old highway, only a little slower but oh so much more interesting.  Helga (for that is the name we’ve given our current computerised voice) is insistent that we take the soopa doopa road and the more we ignore her, the more insistent she is that we ‘turn left …. turn left…sharp  left… sharp left now!’   (BTW, that exclamation mark was clearly there for literary effect because Helga, of course, doesn’t express any emotion).  Doing what we want and not complying with the authoritative voice gives us a childish pleasure and seems  to satisfy the rebellious but oh-so-often quashed side of our natures.  Except that she never ruddy gives up – then the childish giggles subside and we just have to switch her off.  

Then there is her speech impediment.  We’re talking about an inanimate object here so I feel I can say this –  it’s amusing….well, there often isn’t too  much else to laugh at on a long road trip.  On our last journey she couldn’t get her computerised jowels around the word Tampa and it kept coming out as a ‘sing-song’ ‘Taa~um~pa’. 

Who’d have thought that a small piece of technology could be the source of  such mirth to bored and tired minds?  I thoroughly recommend it!

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GentleVoice Over at Gentle Voice today: Attack of the Biscuit Beetle.  We’ve all been there…well if you haven’t already, you will, eventually.  The little blighters….

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