Food for Thought

No room here for impulse

For someone who spends as much time in the kitchen as I do, who spends as much time thinking about and preparing food as I do … I do very little baking. Actually, less than a little.

As in, none.

I am a complete goof when it comes to producing baked goods: Breads, cakes, pies, whatnot.

An acquaintance of mine, Jim, gave me a recipe months ago for what is reputedly the greatest bread (no-knead, at that) known to man — something I could whip up easily, a treat that, allegedly, is guaranteed to produce joy in all who eat it — and I haven’t made it yet. I bought the required Pyrex dish. I have the ingredients on hand.

I just don’t bake.

No mystery, this.

I don’t bake because it involves precision.

Precision frightens me. It is the enemy of impulse.

I love to cook in ways that allow great latitude in terms of ingredients and amounts. I like to utilize the stovetop, grill and oven basics — foundation techniques — then play with ingredients and produce what are, each time out, different takes on a general model.

Baking, on the other hand, requires exact amounts, and extreme care when it comes to things like temperatures, times, humidity and altitude.

For someone like me, with a world-class case of ADD, this is tantamount to a trip to Hell. A Hell at a mere 350 degrees, but trouble nonetheless.

So, when I hear these words the other night, my nervous system goes haywire.
“Honey, are you going to make a cake for my birthday?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Are you going to make a cake for my birthday? You do remember my birthday is Monday, don’t you?”

Hmmmm. Well, now I do.

“Of course I remember, sweetie (make note to self: get birthday gift and card“— an emotionally vivid, meaningful card, no jokes). A cake you say?”

“You’ve never made me a cake for my birthday.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever made a cake, for any occasion.”

Drawing on my years of marital experience, I restrain myself at this point in our conversation. I do not blurt out: “Why on earth would I want to make a cake?” Instead, I preface my next remark with a significant gesture (slowly and smoothly swiveling head toward my bride, flashing a smile that transitions from subtle to gap-toothed brilliant, a tip of one index finger to chin) and I say: ”You know, you must have read my mind. Sorry to spoil the surprise, but, yep, you gotta cake on the way, sister.”

I’m doomed.

What am I gonna do?

“Any ideas about what kind of cake would please you most, my love?” (Savvy , don’t you agree?)

“Well, maybe a lemon or coconut cake with a lemon curd filling and a lemon buttercream …
(Dear lord!)

“Or … a strawberry cake, with a buttercream and whole berries, and …”

I don’t hear the rest of what Kathy says; the sound of an F-4 Phantom with the afterburner lit fills my skull. My vision blurs. I start to sweat profusely. My adrenal glands go nuts.

What to do, when you are confronted with a task that pushes you out of your kitchen comfort zone? Why couldn’t Kathy have requested chicken Marsala, beef tenderloin with béarnaise, korv with roasted new potatoes?

I can produce these dishes, and countless others like them, with my eyes closed.

But, no, she wants a cake.

And I can tell, looking at her, that she knows exactly what she’s doing: She is taking great joy in the consternation she creates. She is, and has always been, a skilled troublemaker.

And, I am stubborn. I decide she is not getting my goat; the gauntlet has been thrown, and I will respond.

Cake, it will be!

Problem 1: A recipe.

I have a pretty formidable library of cookbooks and cooking magazines.

Not formidable enough, it turns out. Nary a one of them includes a simple cake recipe. “Simple” is the key word here — to describe the necessary recipe. To describe me as I turn to the task of baking a cake.

I find hundreds of cake recipes, but I might as well be reading the Journal of Theoretical Physics. The Farsi edition. The lists of ingredients are as long as my arm and the instructions make no sense at all.

Plus, the weather has turned on me here in Siberia With a View. There’s two feet of snow in the driveway; I can’t make it out of the cul de sac, much less to the market.

So, I am stuck with whatever ingredients are at hand.

I crank on the computer and hit the Web in search of a recipe. After a half hour of typing and moaning, I discover a basic white cake recipe that looks somewhat doable. And I find a (sort of) buttercream recipe that even I can manage.

Problem 2: No milk.

And no way to get to the store.

I call my neighbor, Sally, and whimper. She gives me a cup of milk.

Problem 3: High altitude.

I ask Kathy, the family baker, what adjustments should be made, without giving away the details of my project. Wouldn’t want to spoil what little surprise remains.

Her answer is fiendish: She does to me what I do to my readers. In fact, she uses one of my favorite cooking terms, applied to the amount of an ingredient in a recipe: “Bit.” As in, “You need to add a little bit less leavening.”


Again, to the Web. I dial in 7,500 feet altitude and find the adaptations needed in wet ingredients, leavening (in this case, baking powder) and sugar. This involves fractions and I am as adept at doing fractions as a chimp is at driving a Maserati. So, the math takes a while but, finally, I am ready to rip.

The cake recipe says this is “quick and easy.”

If I ever meet the person who described this process as “quick and easy” I intend to walk straight from our encounter to county court and plead guilty to third-degree assault. Let the authorities do with me what they want — incarceration, public service, ankle monitor, whatever. It will be worth it.

First, I have to soften a pound of butter — for use in both cake and frosting. Butter does not soften quickly when you are keeping the indoor air temperature at a snappy 60 degrees to counter the latest rate increase from the ever-compassionate gas company. So, I decide to use the microwave.

A warning: Don’t overdo it with the microwave.

I soften a second pound of butter at lower heat, less time.

I put the oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven. I have to do a bit more math to figure an upward adjustment in temperature to compensate for high altitude. Turns out the butter could have softened at room temperature in the time it takes me to complete the calculation.

Next, I have to butter two, nine-inch cake pans then cover the bottom with parchment. Do you realize this involves cutting parchment in a circle? I use half a roll of parchment.

Finally, to the ingredients.

I mix egg whites, milk and vanilla extract then discard the amount determined by my high-altitude reckoning.

I mix flour, sugar salt and baking powder, amounts all adjusted for you-know-what. Then I realize I am not supposed to mix the sugar with the flour, salt and baking powder. I throw the batch away and redo.

I cream the butter and sugar with a hand mixer in a huge bowl, butter and sugar flying everywhere.

I put a third of the flour into the butter and sugar and beat, then add half the milk and egg mix, beating constantly. Debris is flying all over the place! It’s times like this I wish I owned a dog.

I repeat the mixing order and finish with the last of the flour.

I get as close as I can to dividing the batter evenly between the two cake pans, then smooth the surfaces of the batter with a long spatula. Into the oven the pans go and the timer is set to the high-altitude adjusted baking time.


I collapse on the couch, a heavy dusting of flour covering me, globs of butter and batter scattered across the front of what was once a clean, black sweatshirt.

The kitchen counters and floor?

Let’s not go there.


When the oven timer sings, I hustle to the scene and test each cake with a toothpick. Clean as a whistle, so out the cakes come. The pans go on racks for five minutes, then I take the cakes out of the pans and put the cakes on the rack to cool completely.

So far, so good. And only five hours into the process!

I make a simple dinner, knowing that the next stage of the cake extravaganza lies ahead: the frosting.

We’re talking heart attack turf here, kids. Good thing Siberia With a View just got a critical access hospital open, because this frosting requires a half pound of (softened) butter, a major load of confectioner’s sugar and some heavy cream.

All the critical food groups wrapped into one delectable, artery-clogging package.
So, back to the hand mixer, the big bowl, the debris flying through the air. I cream the butter and sugar together, adding a touch of vanilla extract. There is butter on the kitchen ceiling. There’s enough powdered sugar in the air to cause miner’s lung.

I incorporate heavy cream to render the mix spreadable. I trim the poochy tops of the cakes with a serrated knife I put one cake down on the plate and top it with frosting. I plop some strawberry slices (I found a pack of strawberries in the freezer) into the creamy layer then plop the second cake on top of the first. I frost the combo, using a long metal spatula to do the work. A few more strawberries and … it’s party time.

Never again.

What the experience brings is an increased appreciation of bakers. I have always held bakers and pastry chefs in high esteem. That esteem has increased tenfold.

And, the experience reminds me why I don’t like to bake.

But, enough of this.

There’s cake to eat, a birthday to celebrate.
A load of laundry to do and a kitchen to hose down.

What's Cookin?

Shrimp Balls

1 pound jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic
3 teaspoons peeled, grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cornstarch plus extra for coating
4 scallions, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped canned water chestnuts
1/4 cup finely chopped bamboo shoots
3 cups vegetable oil for deep frying
Lime wedges for serving

 1. Place shrimp, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, salt and cornstarch in a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl. Stir in scallions, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. Using wet hands, mix until well combined.

2. Coat hands in cornstarch and form 1 tablespoon of shrimp mixture into a ball. Toss shrimp ball in cornstarch, shaking off any excess. Repeat with remaining mixture.

3. Heat oil in large wok until it reaches 375 degrees on a deep-frying thermometer, or until a small bread cube dropped in oil sizzles and turns golden. Working in batches, add shrimp balls and fry until golden, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Serve hot with lime wedges and dipping sauce. The shrimp balls may be threaded onto skewers after cooking. If deep frying is not preferred, these shrimp balls may be steamed.

Note: Recipe states it yields 12, but using the tablespoon method, I made about 24. Any favorite dipping sauce maybe used; I recommend a light lime-cilantro.

Robert J. Black

Former Pagosa Springs resident Robert J. Black, 90, went home to be with his Lord on Jan. 6, 2008.

In 1917, his family moved from Iowa to Canada to work with the Mennonites. Shortly after his birth on Sept. 1, 1917, in Daysland, Alberta, Canada, his family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Nebraska until he was 8 years old when they moved to San Pedro, Calif., in 1925. He graduated from San Pedro High School. He was a track star in high school, lettering in that sport.

The day before he was to enter the Air Force, during WWII, he received a telegram from the governor of California stating that they needed him to stay in his current job, running a factory in Long Beach, Calif., making wings for WWII fighter planes. Bob continued to serve his country during the war in this capacity.

He met his first wife, Emma Thurlo, at the skating rink. The two of them were named “The Smoothest Couple on Ice” in 1940 at the Long Beach Polar Rink. In 1941, he was united in marriage to Emma in San Pedro, Calif. Together they had two wonderful daughters, Sue and Bobbie. Bob was always involved in some sport. While living in California, he played baseball for many years on city league teams. Not only did he love skating and baseball, but he was an avid skier, both water and snow.

In 1957, he started Fleetwood Aluminum (a window and door company that is still in operation today) in Garden Grove, Calif., with his partner, Jim McIntyre. They ran that company together until 1968 when Bob left to start Oak Creek Glass in Sedona, Ariz. He moved to Sedona full time in 1970, shortly after his wife, Emma, passed away.

In 1971, Bob married his long time friend, Eula Davis. They had worked together for years at Fleetwood Aluminum. They started their life together in Sedona where they ran Oak Creek Glass together. In 1973, they started coming to Pagosa Springs. They loved this area and soon decided to start Pagosa Glass. They traveled between Sedona and Pagosa for a few years, running both businesses and building a home in Pagosa. In 1976, he sold Oak Creek Glass and he and Eula made Pagosa Springs their full-time residence.

Bob was an avid pilot. While living in Sedona, he was a part of the local search and rescue; he flew many missions over Northern Arizona. He continued this work in Pagosa by joining the Civil Air Patrol. Bob and Eula loved living in Pagosa, where they enjoyed skiing and snowmobiling. He loved the outdoors very much. He was still riding quads with his family at the age of 89.

He had a great love for Jesus Christ and was a member of Center Point Church where he was baptized at the age of 84, along with his grandson (in-law) and two great-grandchildren. Bob was always very involved in this community, and he was a member of the local Rotary Club for years. He also was a very intricate part in the early development of the airport here in Pagosa. In 2004, Bob returned to Arizona with his wife, Dolores, (married in 2002, after the death of his wife, Eula, in 1999).

Bob’s generosity and kind heart were an inspiration to his family and friends. He lived his life with integrity and bravery.

He is survived by his wife, Dolores, of Dewey, Ariz.; daughter and son-in-law, Sue and Steve Wood of Cornville, Ariz.; daughter and son-in-law, Bobbie and Don Newton of Sedona, Ariz.; six grandchildren, Wendy (Robert) Dalton, Cottonwood, Ariz.; Stacia (Matt) Aragon, Pagosa Springs; Kristin Hill, Chicago, Ill.; Erin (Jim) Davidson, Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Keith Newton, Sedona, Ariz.; Donnie (Patti) Newton, Rimrock, Ariz.; 11 great-grandchildren, Haley Dalton; Kyle, Sydney and Connor Aragon; Tyler, Jacob and Madison Davidson; Donnie Ray and Shawna Newton; Lacey and Heather Newton.

He is preceded in death by his parents and wives, Emma and Eula.

There will be a memorial service at 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 19, at Mountain View Southern Baptist Church, 395 S. Pony Place, in Dewey, Ariz.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the American Cancer Society in his name.

Robert Risinger

Robert (Bobby) Risinger passed away Jan. 5, 2008, at Pine Ridge Nursing Home. He was born Feb. 13, 1935, in Pagosa Springs, to Hughy and Thelma Risinger.

He lived his entire life in Pagosa Springs, except for several years when he attended the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs. He was very active and loved a variety of sports. He participated in swimming in the Colorado Senior Games, and skied in the local and regional Special Olympics program. He fished the San Juan River and area lakes. One of his favorite activities was attending football and basketball games of the Pagosa Pirates, and he was a loyal Denver Bronco fan. He looked forward to his daily walk to the post office and his job at The Springs Resort.

He worked part-time at The Springs Resort, and was a participant in the Community Connections program. He lived a wonderful, full life, with a seemingly limitless number of friends.

He was preceded in death by his parents and his brother, Hugh Dan Risinger. He is survived by his nephew Terry and Jennifer Alley, of Pagosa Springs; sisters, Maudie Baker, of Saguache, Colo., and Cassie Schroeder, of Scottsburg, Ore.; and numerous nieces and nephews, all of whom loved him dearly.

Graveside services and a celebration of his life will be held around the Fourth of July.

Jonathan Baker

Jonathan Scott Baker was born Aug. 14, 1987, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from The Woodlands High School and was enrolled in Montgomery County Community College. Jonathan took God’s Hand to live with Him on Dec. 27, 2007.

He is survived by his parents Scott and Diana Baker of The Woodlands, Texas; sister Misty Marie Baker of Rowlett, Texas; grandparents Joan and Larry Guckert of Pagosa Springs, and June Fullam of Mathis, Texas; and aunts Denise and Teresa Guckert of Austin, Texas.

A celebration of his life was held at the Community United Methodist Church and his grandparent’s home in Pagosa Springs on Dec. 30, 2007.

We were greatly blessed with Jonathan’s love, wit, compassion and love for life. He will be greatly missed by all whose lives he touched.