Saturday, December 31, 2016

A TARDIS for a fangirl

Here we are bringing 2016 to a close. I will use this post to feature one of my daughter's Christmas gifts. Over the past few years, she has become a bit of a connoisseur of British sci-fi series, specifically Dr. Who and Sherlock. 
Our 2016 summer vacation found us visiting several, okay multiple, quilt shops through the Midwest. The main purpose of these visits was to collect quilt row patterns as part of the 2016 Row by Row Experience. One of my favorite stops along the journey was New Ulm, Minnesota. This is a medium-sized town of about 13,5000 people in the south central part of the state. It was named after the city of Neu-Ulm in Bavaria, and its German heritage is still very evident today. In my October post, I related our visit to the Sewing Seeds Quilt Co. Our second stop in New Ulm was to The Thimble Box. They created a vertical row titled, "Home is Where Your TARDIS Lands." 
For those of you less familiar with Dr. Who, it is a British science fiction series that has been in existence since 1963. The central character, "The Doctor," is an alien time lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in his TARDIS. TARDIS is an acronym for "Time and Relative Dimension in Space." The exterior of the TARDIS is a blue police call box. Its interior is larger than its exterior.
I have to admit that I have had a difficult time following the logic within individual episodes of the Dr. Who series. My daughter, however, has no problem following along and can easily fill in what I perceive to be missing aspects of the story line and logic behind them. Perhaps my trouble is that, for me, watching TV or a movie is an opportunity to work on a project - not an excuse to sit in front of the TV with the lights out in the room.
Here is a close up of the top portion of this row. It features a snail trail quilt block. The lettering on the top of the TARDIS was my first attempt at machine stitching letters. I took the advice of the ladies at the shop and drew the letters with a chalk marker and then stitched over the with a tight zig-zag stitch. From a distance, they don't look too bad.
Here is a quick look at the back of the row. The machine quilting was completed by Kerrie Curtis from Utah Valley Quilting. She did a great job of incorporating science themes into the sections of the quilt.
Here's a quick close up of the label at the bottom of the quilt. The borders of this label blend into the back of the quilt. Perhaps in a future post, I will share some of my strategies for creating quilt labels.
As the hours of 2016 wind down, here are a few verses from Lamentations to offer hope and a renewed perspective in the new year. 
This I recall to mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The LORD's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:21-23

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Christmas Candy Chemistry Part I: Caramels

I've often joked about someday writing a book called The Chemistry of Christmas. Many of the recipes I enjoy this time of year, mostly for candy, involve one or more aspects of chemistry. Even though "science" predominates with these recipes, the "art" of managing extraneous variables also plays an important role.
When it comes to candy making, some of these extraneous variables include the humidity in the atmosphere, the calibration of the thermometer you are using, the altitude, and even the rate at which you are raising the temperature. Another key aspect of candy making is to not substitute ingredients - for example using a low-fat substitute. The chemical structure of substitute ingredients will differ from the intended ones. As a result, the structure of the end product is unlikely to be what was initially intended.
Here are a few other tips related to candy making

  • Use a heavy-bottomed pot. It needs to be one that will hold all of the ingredients without a risk of boiling over. A heavy material such as aluminum also conducts the heat evenly during the boiling process.
  • Use a candy thermometer. We have had several through the years, and I currently use a digital one that clips to the pan. Yes, you can use the old-style method of evaluating how the mixture holds together in a cold water test. I prefer a more objective measure.
  • Make appropriate adjustments for altitude. Remember that the boiling point for water is 212ºF at sea level, and it boils at lower temperatures as altitude increases. The temperatures for candy types are based on temperatures at sea level. Boiling to the specified sea level temperature results in increased evaporation of water and an end product that is going to be harder than desired. Here is a table with some guidelines for making adjustments based on altitudes. I will say that, through the years, as I have used different thermometers, I have also made multiple notes on my recipe cards regarding the final temperature that produces a candy consistency that we like.

    Sea Level2,000 ft5,000 ft7500 ft
    Soft BallFudge, fondant234-240230-236224-230219-225
    Firm BallChewy caramel242-248238-244232-238227-233
    Hard BallNougat, marshmallow250-268246-264240-248235-253
    Soft CrackTaffy, butterscotch270-290266-286260-280255-275
    Hard CrackToffee, brittle, lollipops300-310296-306290-300285-295

    • Do not allow your candy mixture to boil too quickly. This also alters the chemical structure and can allow crystals to form. You also run the risk of scorching your mixture and having it stick to the bottom of the pan. Use a medium low temperature and be patient as the mixture boils to the desired temperature. On another related note, don't decide to make candy if you are in a hurry to get somewhere else.

    This caramel recipe is one I acquired from a friend over 20 years ago. It is one we have enjoyed year after year. I hope that you will enjoy it, too.

    1 cup butter (just use the real stuff!)
    2 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
    1 cup light corn syrup (light in color not lite as in low fat)
    1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
    1 tsp vanilla

    Coat the pan you will be pouring the caramel mixture into using butter or a non-stick spray. (This is one case where a low-fat option is acceptable.) I have a 7 1/2 x 11 inch pan that I have used with this recipe through the years. A 9 x 9 inch pan would also be just fine.

    Melt the butter in a heavy 2-3 quart saucepan. Add the brown sugar and stir thoroughly, doing your best to ensure that the brown sugar dissolves into the butter. Stir in the corn syrup. Gradually stir in the sweetened condensed milk. Here is what the mixture will look like as it comes to a boil.
    Cook the mixture over medium low heat, stirring occasionally. Boil until the mixture reaches a firm ball stage. We have found that at 242ºF produces a caramel of the consistency that we like. Of note, we also live at about 4,500 feet above sea level. 

    Remove the mixture from heat and stir in the vanilla. I always like the sizzling sound as the alcohol burns off. 

    Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and allow to cool.
     When cool, cut into squares and wrap in waxed paper. Here is what our pan of caramels yields.
    The wrapping in waxed paper is my children's least favorite part of the process - probably because this is the task I assign to them. I tear off strips of waxed paper that are about 4-5 inches wide. I then cut the strips into thirds to get pieces the right size for the caramels.
    Let me know if you try out this recipe. Stay tuned for another "Christmas chemistry" post next year.