September 29, 2009

Red Ribbon for Red Velvet Cake

South Plains Fair 2009

The South Plains Fair is back in all its glory. A few hours there is enough to last you for a year until it returns. The freaks of the town come out of the woodwork for it, and that includes me. They even shipped Eddie Money in for a pretty pathetic concert. I don't ever want to get old or listen to his songs again.

The typical assortment of fair foods is available, with nothing too shocking to report. The hit of the state fair, Deep Fried Butter, hasn't made it west to Lubbock yet. The only new vendor I saw was the frozen chocolate banana stand, which I fully expected to see the Bluths manning.

South Plains Fair 2009

As usual, my focus was on the women's building and the culinary competition. This year proved to have no shortage of cake wrecks. I was completely befuddled by a Best of Show decorated cake that had strange blue smears on top and Goldfish pressed into the sides and by the cake with off-center pecans and crumbs scattered on top.

South Plains Fair 2009 South Plains Fair 2009

But what do I know? I delivered my Red Velvet Cake entry with pride, saw another red velvet cake already in the display case, and snickered at it. It's not really fair for me to enter. How could I lose? My cake is twice as big and much better looking. Well, if you can't tell from the picture below, the cake that I laughed at got a blue ribbon, and mine, a red.

South Plains Fair 2009

I wish the judges had to give me feedback on why my cake came in second. I think I should challenge the winner, Theresa, to a Throwdown. She's probably a very nice person, but when it comes to baking, the gloves (cooking mitts?) come off! I think I could take her.

Red Velvet Cake

My undefeated fair run is over, but I guess when you think about it, red is really the best color ribbon to award to a Red Velvet Cake.

Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
from Cook's Country - Serves 12
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
Pinch salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red food coloring
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

16 tablespoons unsalted butter , softened
4 cups confectioners' sugar
16 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch salt

1. For the cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla, and eggs in large measuring cup. Mix cocoa with food coloring in small bowl until a smooth paste forms.

2. With electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add one-third of flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add half of buttermilk mixture and beat on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl as necessary and repeat with half of remaining flour mixture, remaining buttermilk mixture, and finally remaining flour mixture. Scrape down bowl, add cocoa mixture, and beat on medium speed until completely incorporated, about 30 seconds. Using rubber spatula, give batter final stir. Scrape into prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes then turn out onto rack to cool completely, at least 30 minutes.

3. For the frosting: With electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Beat in vanilla and salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.

4. When cakes are cooled, spread about 2 cups frosting on one cake layer. Top with second cake layer and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 3 days.

September 17, 2009

Goddess of the Library

My optometrist asked me if I have a lot of people come up to me and ask for directions, help, etc. He said that my pupil size is a subconscious indicator to people that I'm friendly. Once again, I have to think that I chose the right line of work for myself, because that is the majority of how I spend my workday: doling out directions and instructions, leading tours, and generally caring way too much about solving people's problems.

People come up to the reference desk and need help finding things in the library, and I talk them through the process step by step. Teach a man to fish and all that. But I'm starting to talk to myself all the time because I'm so used to showing people how to do things. "Now I'm going to check my Gmail. First, I'll open a new tab in Firefox, and then..." It's starting to draw some stares.

The job is very rewarding. I had a professor tell me that I changed his life by showing him how to locate articles through the library website. I helped a couple of new students with a library scavenger hunt, and they were effusive in their thanks. One of them said, "It's like you're the goddess of the library. No one else could help me. They just gave me your card." So I think I'm changing my title from reference librarian to goddess of the library. Definitely has the connotation of superpowers, which should help with job security.

I get some funny questions, too. This summer, a new student asked when the first day of classes would be. I answered August 27. She said, "Oh, I wondered, cause that's the same week as Rush and I didn't know if they'd conflict." I get plenty of questions with seemingly obvious answers such as "Where is the basement?"

I had a freshman come up to the desk to ask where room 159 was, or wait, maybe it was 179. Yeah, she had no idea where she was supposed to be to attend an extra-credit lecture. We don't have a room 159 or room 179 here, I told her. I did some hunting, walked her around the building, even took her to the room that later turned out to be what she was looking for. To all this, she said no, no, I don't think this is it. "What's your instructor's name? I could call him or search the library calendars..." She didn't know the instructor's name and wasn't too sure what the course number was.

"I wrote all this down in my planner, but I lost my planner."

By this time, another student had come up to the desk with the same question. "I'm looking for an extra-credit lecture in room 200."

"Room 200?" I said, "There's really not any place on the second floor where that could be..."

The two students huddled with me for a moment. Then luckily another student, a total overachiever, came up at that moment and asked where room 309 was for the lecture. Eureka. "You guys really need to write things down," I said and smiled. I'll be a great mom.

You see, these are the kind of goofy stories and non-funny jokes that librarians sit around and tell each other for a laugh. I made up this joke I'm rather proud of:
What's a reference librarian's favorite question to get?
"What's your number?"
After some pondering, I decided that joke lacks the essential element of truthiness that makes a joke funny. So here's the revamped one:
What's a question that a reference librarian will never get?
"What's your number?"

September 9, 2009

The Once and Future Beans

I've wasted a lot of time despising West Texas. I thought cowboy culture wasn't my thing, and maybe it isn't, but I feel like I can at least appreciate it more than before. There are fun things to do in this town, as mentioned in this long column, and Lubbock is full of honorable, hard-working folks. I decided to cowboy up and start supporting local tradition and heritage.

Mike and I went to the Ranching Heritage Center fundraiser where they staged Andy Wilkinson’s "Charlie Goodnight: His Life in Poetry and Song." The five inch stilettos I wore turned out to be very impractical for the walk across the dirt and grass to the seating area. And that's one thing a West Texas woman should never be, impractical. I should have worn my boots to keep from being bitten by ants.

I've been going over to my granddaddy's house once a week to watch old film reels from the 1950s of my dad's family and to see slides of the farm, family parties, and vacations. The family and the farming equipment look completely different, but it's pretty amazing how little the view has changed from around my folks' house in the last fifty years.

In the cowboy tradition, here's a recipe for baked beans worth a long trail ride: Once and Future Beans - the beans that will change your life. Although I've alluded to the fabulous recipe here, here, and here, the Once and Future Beans deserve a post of their own.

These beans are so simple, a cowhand could make them, but they do require some advance planning. First, you have to soak a pound of dried beans overnight, and then the beans themselves have to cook for 6-8 hours. Not a recipe you can be spontaneous about. There are basically only four steps after you soak the beans.
    Step 1: Chop 1 pound of bacon and cook over medium heat.
    Step 2: Add a chopped onion and a couple of chopped jalapeƱos. Cook until soft.
    Step 3: Stir in the tomato paste, dark brown sugar, and molasses.
    Step 4: Add the beans and soaking liquid, season, and cook for 6-8 hours.
Once and Future Beans Once and Future Beans
Once and Future Beans Once and Future Beans

These beans fill your home with the most wonderful aroma while they cook. Last time I made them, I left the house for a few hours and was fairly overwhelmed upon pulling into the garage, opening my car door, and catching the scent of the beans cooking in the house. Another time the smell wafting through the neighborhood attracted a dog to my garage door.

Once and Future Beans

Once and Future BeansServe them alongside some beef, chicken, barbecue, taters, or let them stand alone. I cannot overstate the greatness of this recipe. They'll be the hit of the party every time.