Worldbuilding: Birth, Death, and Cake

Imagine the scene: You, face alight with a fiery glow. Light flickers across your face, eyes closed in concentration as you focus your will. Onlookers chant in cadence. A rhythmic beat of friends and family surrounds you. Sibilant syllables flow around you hissing out your name. You take in a breath– a single breath. The chant grows. You release your will and your breath together. Smoke curls up in soft coils in front of you. Finally, finally the chant fades away. Taken up into the void by swirling smoke. You dive forward, glistening knife held in your hand, to begin the yearly sacrifice. You devour what is before you. Your year begins anew.

Or, you know, a traditional American birthday.

Cheers.

Unless you are a celestial being spawned from of primordial ooze, you have a birthday. I suppose even if you are a celestial being spawned from primordial ooze, you have a spawned from ooze day. You have a reason to celebrate coming into this world.

I recently read Krystina Castella’s A World of Cake: 150 Recipes for Sweet Traditions From Cultures Near and Far. In addition to some delightful recipes, the book is peppered with anecdotes of cake and culture across the globe. It seems inevitable, almost, to devote some time to the inexorable link between cake and birthdays, birthdays and cake. I will just say: CAKE. Personally, I almost always have a chocolate cherry cake for my birthday. Although this year, I might shake it up a bit because this book is wonderful and try something new.  (Update: I made tiramisu.) There are all sort of connections between food and life– food as a wellspring of life crops up in the inevitable traditions linking food and celebrations together. Bounty. Harvest. Plenty. Life. All these words, ideas, reasons to celebrate, fold together into life events. The tradition of marking a birthday crosses borders across the world.

The bookend to life, I suppose then, would be death. Food continues into death as well. Let us return to cake. When all else fails, always return to cake. We have celebrations with birthday cakes, name day cakes, quinceanera cakes, but cakes and food are not contained only to birth and life, but to death as well. A Thai tradition is to create a cookbook to share the deceased favorite meals and recipes with family and loved ones after their passing. We cannot forget the pan de muerto, sweet anise and orange flavored breads, made in the time leading up to Dia de los Muertos. The bread of the dead is eaten by loved ones and shared with the dead.

There are few things we can say cross all borders.  Food is one of those few things that connect us all. There is a unity to the people standing around a cake waiting for someone to make that first slice. There is a unity in handing out a piece of a whole to everyone in a family, to everyone in a community. There is a unity in food.

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What Happens When You Read

When you read you end up drinking a mixture of black tea, coffee, and condensed milk.

Allow me to explain.

When you read you end up drinking a mixture of black tea, coffee, and condensed milk.

Allow me to explain.

It all started with my library’s summer reading challenge. Part of the challenge this year was reading books across genres. A sample of the genre lists: Travel Memoirs; Mystery & Thriller; Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Paranormal; and Appalachian Fiction. Each list had about 10 books to choose from. Unsurprisingly, I had read the majority from the SFF list. Out of the Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Paranormal list I had not yet read: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo.

Now, I normally don’t do book reviews because they go something like this:

FIVE STARS THIS IS THE BEST BOOK I HAVE EVER READ. PERIOD. NOTHING WILL COMPARE.

Or…

BORED.

Or…

I AM FILLED WITH NARRATIVE FURY. STARS WILL NOT ENCOMPASS MY RAGE.

The Ghost Bride falls solidly into the first category. Lovely prose. Engaging characters. Intricate storytelling. Well-paced plot. That is the extent of any real review here. The end. What I am saying is: Go read this book right now. Stop reading my words and go read hers.

So, of course I wanted to know if Yangsze Choo had written anything else. Off to the internet we go!

If curiosity leads, it never takes you on a straight path. You twist and turn and wander your way through words and links and ideas you never really had any plans on encountering. You find new things pressed between old things. Unknown pressed between known. Things you never knew you wanted to know.

In my wanderings I found her blog. Which lead me to this paragraph“In Malaysia, a favourite breakfast item is a soft-boiled egg served in a bowl with soy sauce and white pepper. Thick Hainanese toast, grilled over charcoal and lavishly smeared with butter and kaya, a caramelized custard spread, is the traditional coffee shop accompaniment together with piping hot coffee (or more scandalously, the subversive drink called chum, which is coffee and tea mixed together with condensed milk).”

Can we look at that last bit a bit closer: COFFEE AND TEA MIXED TOGETHER WITH CONDENSED MILK.

First thought: WHAT IS THIS CONCOCTION AND WHY HASN’T IT BEEN IN MY LIFE?

Second thought: I need a recipe.

Once again with help from my old friend Google, I found this recipe over at Saveur that seemed impossibly easy. Which lead to the third thought: I need to go to the grocery store.

*cackles over cans of sweetened condensed milk*

Fourth thought: I now have everything I need.

A classic drink for us during the holidays is swiping the used sweetened condensed milk cans after cookie baking and pouring in the last of the coffee. The coffee is usually the last dregs in the french press, so it’s the dark black sludge of caffeine infused darkness. We swirl it around until it lightens several shades and takes us into the nethersphere with its sugariness. It keeps us awake until the wee hours of the night so we can finish the unreasonable number of cookies we think a family of seven needs.

It felt like some kitchen witchery as warm, familiar smells of coffee and black tea swirled around the apartment. I poured cups of the milky concoction into small cups and served it with something I suppose you could call quiche. Quiche without the crust? Crustless quiche? Oven omelet? Egg loaf?

Overall opinion: FIVE STARS THIS IS BEST DRINK I HAVE EVER HAD. PERIOD. NOTHING WILL COMPARE.

I told you. I review in extremes.

It might be a touch dangerous that I now have a recipe for a liquid sugar and caffeine bomb which packs the punch of both tea and coffee. Somehow, you can taste both the tea and the coffee. I am not sure how, but by the magic of this drink they merge together into something new and yet also familiar. Additionally, after it kicked in, my brain was on fire. Delicious, delicious fire. While at work that afternoon I am pretty sure I was vibrating in my chair, twirling pencils around my fingers, and just generally bouncing around. (As much as a practically clinically stoic person is wont to do.) To quote Sister Number One, “If I had this while writing my dissertation, I would have finished six months earlier.”

I now know what to fuel myself with when all sleep is lost.

The Hater’s Guide to Tea

Yesterday I received a three line email from my sister: Can you write the hater’s guide to enjoying tea? I could really use that. THAT IS ALL.

This is me taking up the challenge.

First of all: Put down the coffee. (I know that it will take someone prying the black,  shade grown, organic, fair trade coffee from your cold, dead hands to actually stop you from drinking it. However, this is the first step to drinking something else.)

Ok. Now that your hands are empty of that, its time to pick your poison. Choose your own adventure style.

1. Are you the sort of person who wants their coffee straight and as darkly roasted as possible?

If yes, go to 2.

If no, go to 5.

2. Did you lie? Do you think you like black coffee but actually you always order a milky flavored latte?

If you lied, go to 3.

If you are as bitter as your coffee go to 4.

3. Go for a London Fog. Add a splash of milk and a shot of vanilla syrup to a cup of Earl Grey.

4. Go for a black tea straight up.

5. Perhaps you like a lighter roast of coffee for the “subtlety of flavor” and the “fruity notes” and the “pretension of wine tasting.”

If yes, go to 6.

If no, go to 8.

If you are irritated by the way I wrote that, go to 7.

6. Try out an herbal tea.

7. You’re the sort of person who leaves the bag in and overbrews it, then complains it’s too bitter aren’t you? Go to 9.

8. Try green tea.

9. Drink your coffee and be happy about it.

Now that we have that sorted, how do you actually brew a cup of tea without turning it into a disaster?

Step 1. Own a kettle.

Step 2. Water in said kettle.

Step 3. Flame on.

Step 4. Place a tea bag into a cup, because if you are reading this you probably aren’t bothering with loose leaf. I accept that. You do you.

Step 5. Wait impatiently as the water comes to a boil whilst contemplating why you aren’t drinking coffee.

Step 6. Pour hot water into cup over tea bag.

Step 7. Wait while staring at your cup as the water darkens. Ask yourself why it isn’t the soul-darkening shade of black coffee.

Step 8. Fiddle on your phone for three minutes if drinking green tea, five minutes if drinking black tea, or seven minutes if drinking herbal.

Step 9. Take out the tea bag.

Step 10 (Optional). Add a splash of milk, sugar, honey, or lemon juice. Don’t forget your middle school science: milk and lemon juice together is a bad idea.

Step 11. Drink your tea.

Step 12. Don’t complain when it’s not coffee.

Cheers everybody.

Note: Everyone should be very proud of me for not riddling this post with gifs of Uncle Iroh every other sentence. I will just quote: “Sick of tea? That’s like being sick of breathing!”

Dungeons, Dragons, and Dinner

Every year for Christmas Eve dinner we pick a theme to craft dinner around. This probably comes from at least three of us considering cooking a creative challenge. Some of our notable themes over the years have been: Meals from Hobbiton, Feast of Valhalla, and Holiday Hogwarts. Rosie’s meat pies, mead, and pumpkin pasties were central in years past.

Honoring our holiday Dungeons and Dragons game we chose to theme this year around our characters. Each person came up with a recipe that somehow represented their character. Our dishes ranged from hearty halfing fare to fortifying dragonborn provisions.

Thus our feast was held in a halfling tavern bordering a misty forest.

Now we must begin the planning for the spectacle that will be Star Wars Christmas. The cantina music has already begun…