Saturday, June 10, 2017

Sugary Fun

The first project of summer vacation this year was sugar + water.

The first segment was to make hummingbird food for the hummingbird feeder I picked up from Dollar General (technically, it was my kids' Mother's Day present to me). I found many online resources, that most matched this one. The ratio is one part white sugar to 4 parts recently-boiled water (presumably to sterilize it). We followed the admonitions not to add food coloring, nor to change the proportions. I instructed my kids to measure how much the feeder would hold (then water the plants with the excess), and to calculate how much sugar to add to that much water. We then set that aside to cool overnight. I had them sample 1:4 sugar water for reference, and I was informed that hummingbirds are lucky because that's tasty.

If you wanted to continue on the hummingbird theme, here's a collection of hummingbird resources (maps, books, crafts).

The second segment was to make rock candy. The directions varied with the website, from as high as 3:1 down to a moderate 5:2. I went with the super-saturated note from Science Bob and stopped at 1:1 (possibly too low) when the sugar took much, much longer to dissolve in boiling water. I dipped popsicle sticks (made of untreated wood) in the solution, then rolled them in sugar, put clothespins above the sugar level, and placed the sticks in small (to the tall and narrow side) jars to wait for cooling and crystals. Next time, we might add flavors!

And now we wait impatiently for sugar crystals to grow ...

One piece of trivia from my college Optics class is (unverified) that sugar water circularly polarizes light, so you might be able to add on further science ...

Thursday, April 27, 2017


Update 2019-06-10

After years of cooking dried beans in the crockpot, I needed to adapt my approach to reduce bloating and gas, so I did some research on other methods. My current approach is almost as convenient as using the crockpot.

  1. Hot Soak: In a dutch oven, add 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of beans. Season as desired; my standard is garlic and ground cumin. Boil for 7 minutes (assuming my typical use of pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, and white beans). Move to oven to soak overnight (4 to 24 hours suggested; I plan for overnight). [hot soak recommendation]
  2. Preparation: Rinse the beans, discard the soaking water, and refill the dutch oven to the same level with fresh water (or broth). Season again as desired. Boil for 1 minute. Skim off the foam. [digestibility, also digestibility]
  3. Bake: Bake in the oven (covered) at 350°F for 1 to 2 hours; start checking every 20-30 minutes after the first hour for tender but not overcooked beans. At the check, I may add salt. [cooking times, prefer oven, method]

I am uncomfortably aware that cooking sources I respect, namely J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats, say not to soak beans, but I absolutely need to be able to stand myself after eating my own cooking. Every person is unique and may respond differently, so find what works for you!

Another debate is If and when to salt the beans. (I had no idea that cooking beans was so hotly debated until I started researching!) Some argue that cooked beans are less tender if the dried beans were soaked or cooked with salt. My choice is to cook beans with salt because I know that most people use less salt overall when the salt has been used in cooking as compared to adding salt at the table. (Sodium intake is a long discussion of its own.) I season my food with salt while cooking such that I use the salt shaker at the dining table maybe once every two months. I salt my beans depending on what I plan to do. If I plan to purée the beans to make a sofrito-style sauce, I will salt the sofrito, but either leave the beans unsalted or very lightly salted (even for me). If I plan for the beans to stand alone, I will salt them after the first check in order for the last 30 minutes (roughly) of cooking to be with salt.

I prefer cooking dried beans because I prefer my seasoned beans to unseasoned beans from a can, I prefer usually-tender beans to mushy (over-cooked) beans from a can, I can reduce the sodium content, and dried beans are generally cheaper (per unit price, canned beans would need to be 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of dried beans to match, before any discussion of flavor and texture).


I read this article, So You Like Flavor? Don't Soak Your Black Beans! at Serious Eats that references an LA Times article, Don't soak your dried beans! Now even the cool kids agree.

That made me wonder How to Soak Dried Beans (from the US Dry Bean Council). They recommend and describe the hot soak method to reduce cooking time and to result in consistently tender beans. I looked up cooking times at How To Cook Dried Beans (from What's Cooking America) and Bean Varieties (from the US Dry Bean Council), giving more credence to the latter. Then I read How To Cook Beans in the Oven (from The Kitchn).

I used to (cold) soak my beans overnight, then cook for 8 hours in the crock-pot. After that research, I have a new method (that takes just about as long).

I pour 2 cups of pinto beans and 10 cups of water into my dutch oven. I heat it to boiling on the stove, then boil for 7 minutes. Now I place the dutch oven inside the oven (for heat retention) for 4 to 24 hours; I usually let the beans sit overnight. Before cooking, I exchange the soaking water (outdoor plants love these nutrients!) with fresh water. I add minced garlic or garlic powder and ground cumin at this point. I return the dutch oven of soaked pinto beans to the oven, and bake at 350 degrees for 2 hours. Around 1 1/2 hours, I add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, stir, and test the beans for done-ness. I expect 6 cups of cooked pinto beans from 2 cups of dried beans.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

VirtualBox and shared clipboard

Based on the number of results from a search, I feel grateful that I haven't had the shared clipboard between the Mac OS X 10.11 host of my work laptop and the Xubuntu 16.04 guest break sooner.

I read the documentation. I read many of the search results, including this older thread. Those commands gave me error messages! (This is useful, not terrible.)

/usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: 31: /usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: /usr/bin/VBoxClient: not found
/usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: 32: /usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: /usr/bin/VBoxClient: not found
/usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: 33: /usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: /usr/bin/VBoxClient: not found
/usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: 34: /usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: /usr/bin/VBoxClient: not found
/usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: 35: /usr/bin/VBoxClient-all: /usr/bin/VBoxClient: not found

I did a directory listing to look at the available VBox scripts, and saw that those were symlinks. Based on that, if I had to guess, the VBoxClient script was renamed to VBoxClient-all without updating the script itself where it called itself. Doh! The simplest fix was not to edit the script giving the errors but to add a symlink for the "old" name. The symlink solution will also aid any other scripts that were also not updated to call the new name.

user@guest:~$ cd /usr/bin
user@guest:/usr/bin$ ls -l VBox*
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxBalloonCtrl -> ../share/virtualbox/
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 62 Jan 18 10:06 VBoxClient-all -> /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/VBoxGuestAdditions/98vboxadd-xclient
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 46 Jan 18 10:06 VBoxControl -> /opt/VBoxGuestAdditions-5.0.32/bin/VBoxControl
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxHeadless -> ../share/virtualbox/
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxManage -> ../share/virtualbox/
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxSDL -> ../share/virtualbox/
user@guest:/usr/bin$ sudo ln -s /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/VBoxGuestAdditions/98vboxadd-xclient VBoxClient
user@guest:/usr/bin$ ls -l VBox*
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxBalloonCtrl -> ../share/virtualbox/
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 62 Apr 12 11:04 VBoxClient -> /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/VBoxGuestAdditions/98vboxadd-xclient
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 62 Jan 18 10:06 VBoxClient-all -> /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/VBoxGuestAdditions/98vboxadd-xclient
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 46 Jan 18 10:06 VBoxControl -> /opt/VBoxGuestAdditions-5.0.32/bin/VBoxControl
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxHeadless -> ../share/virtualbox/
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxManage -> ../share/virtualbox/
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 27 Jan 18 08:58 VBoxSDL -> ../share/virtualbox/

That might have been sufficient, but I thought this command also sounded promising.

user@guest:/usr/bin$ sudo rcvboxadd setup
Removing existing VirtualBox DKMS kernel modules ...done.
Removing existing VirtualBox non-DKMS kernel modules ...done.
Building the VirtualBox Guest Additions kernel modules ...done.
Doing non-kernel setup of the Guest Additions ...done.
You should restart your guest to make sure the new modules are actually used

And the report after a reboot is: OUCH! Lesson 1: do not try to install the HWE kernel (hardware enablement)! Virtual Box is not happy when you mess with the kernel. (Longer version: installing HWE conflicted with virtualbox-guest-x11 and that's necessary. I thought virtualbox-qt would be sufficient, but that didn't seem to be the case.) Without a skilled administrator, I don't think I would use that VM again! Lesson 2: make a snapshot before kernel upgrades! Or just any ol' time, because backups are good! I suspect the symlink helps too, but overall VBox feet were shot in the process of trying to restore the shared clipboard.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Chocolate Cake

In recognition of this cluster of birthdays, I present my favorite chocolate cake recipe that I have made for many years, originally seen by me on the back of the Hershey's Cocoa container. However, I have discovered some enhancements for that original recipe. Every time I try a different recipe for chocolate cake, I wish I had made that recipe instead (with one exception: this chocolate mug cake with peanut butter: "The One" Chocolate Mug Cake at Budget Bytes).

The first tip I learned in graduate school. One of the other students made the most delicious chocolate cake, so I asked her for the recipe. As she told me, I realized it's the same recipe, so I asked her for her technique instead. She sifted her flour while I, through a combination of following my original recipe that said unsifted flour and laziness (woo hoo! no sifting!), did not. Thank you, Gail! Made with sifted flour, the color of the cake was lighter, the texture softer, the crumb finer, and the overall taste better.

The second tip I learned from reading this posting of that recipe: do not add as much boiling water as listed. Wow, that helped! At this point, I didn't think the recipe could get any better. I'm glad I continued to make minor changes anyway.

I read a blog post (that I can't find now) where the author had used many different brands of cocoa powder to make brownies (I believe). The overall conclusion was that dutch-processed cocoa was preferred by this informal tasting panel. This led me to search for dutch-processed cocoa, and to discover that it's hard to find! I finally found Fair Trade Organic Baking Cocoa from Equal Exchange at Weaver Street. It was on sale, so how could I resist? The chocolate cake was even better! The chocolate taste was simultaneously more gentle and more present: delicious!

At this point, I believe this is the pinnacle of homemade chocolate cake, with those three tips. However, I admit that I am curious to know how much method makes a difference (often, like sifting flour, method makes a tremendous difference). When I was growing up, my mother assured me that The Creaming Method was The Right Way To Make A Cake, but that Two-Stage Method has its supporters too.

Although I couldn't find the post that sent me on the trail of dutched cocoa, I did find some other fun references.

Tangentially related to cocoa powder is the discussion of Baking Powder and Baking Soda at noting the origin of Devil's food cake.

To which I say, have some more chocolate cake. It's for science!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

How Icy Was It?

My cul-de-sac was quite icy on Monday (yesterday); I'd estimate that there was one 4-foot-square patch of pavement after the snow plow came through twice, and the rest was an inch thick of hard-packed ice. After three days below freezing (yes, even during the daylight hours!), the ice had bonded to the pavement in places. Notice that ice isn't mentioned with "Neither snow nor rain ..." I was expecting a package yesterday, so I looked at the tracking status. Here's what it said:

LOCATION, No Access, We attempted to deliver your item at 5:37 pm on January 9, 2017 in LOCATION but could not complete the delivery because the employee did not have access to the delivery location. Your item will go out for delivery on the next business day.

I maintain that means too much ice!!! However, I'm glad my postal carrier wasn't risking his neck in sub-freezing temperatures after dark trying to deliver a package that can wait until today (should be above freezing in about an hour).