Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Flapjack Secrets

The Secret to Practically Perfect In Every Way Pancakes
(It's not what you think....)

The Secret to Practically Perfect in Every Way Pancakes is not the recipe for some reason. I searched and searched and found dozens and dozens self-proclaimed “perfect” recipes for pancakes out there. Most of them make a pretty good flapjack. I suspect you could probably fling the basic ingredients willy nilly at a bowl and hope for the best and you could make it come out right - as long as you cook them properly. So here’s a couple of simple good recipes to work from.  Others may be just as good.


Dry Ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour (King Arthur cause I like knights and swords)
1 tablespoon baking powder (Clabber Girl – also a great name if you can still find it at your grocer)

Wet Ingredients:
1 cup milk
3 egg yolks, 3 egg whites (they kind of come in the same package)


Wet Ingredients:
1 cup flour (Gladiola – cause it sounds springy)
1 tsp. baking powder (any kind - Americans aren’t picky about basic cooking chemicals)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (apparently we also like a little extra fizz in our flapjacks)
1/4 teaspoons salt (and a little salt)
1 tablespoons sugar (and pouring syrup on it never makes it sweet enough)

Dry Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
2 tbs. melted butter
1 egg

As near as I can tell Canadians like their hotcakes simpler and less tasty. I think they use real butter and maple syrup though, which may be why they go for a blander formula

How to Mix it Up:

(Secret Alert #1) Mix all the dry stuff in a glass bowl. Don’t ask me why, but all the great cooks mix pancakes in a glass bowl.

(Secret Alert #2) Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and beat the egg whites until they make stiff peaks.

Mix the rest of the wet ingredients like milk, buttermilk and egg yolk until smooth. Pour wet stuff sans egg whites into dry stuff. (Secret Alert #3) Fold about a third of the stiff egg whites into the batter. Now, quickly fold in the rest of the egg whites. Beat hard till no egg white streaks are left and the lumps just disappear. The batter should be light, but not runny, so that it lightly falls off the spoon.

(Secret Alert #4) Let the batter sit for no less than 20 minutes. Some say 1 to 3 hours standing time is supposed to be even better, though I do not know why. Perhaps the delicate balance between ptomaine poisoning and not ptomaine poisoning that you get from leaving something with raw egg in it out on the counter for a long period of time is what provides the flavor. Kind of like hanging a dead goose by the neck till the head falls off to age the meat. I don’t get it, but I’m assured this really works. Something about the flour absorbing the wet ingredients fully or the starch swelling so the air bubbles pop and strengthen the structure of the pancake. Since this means you have to get up 3 hours before breakfast to make the pancake batter, I never do it and always have thick greasy crispy edged, mis-shapen pancakes with holes all in them (which by the way, that’s how I like them). But we’re talking about perfect pancakes, not fattening, delicious greasy griddle cakes the way I like them.

It is axiomatic that the first pancake is for the dog. That makes me a St. Bernard, because my favorite pancake of the batch is always the ugly, too thick, crispy, greasy edged first one off the grill. To prepare the grill do this:

Lightly oil the griddle or frying pan over medium high heat (whatever that is). Some cooks just lightly brush the griddle with butter. On my electric skillet I set the temp somewhere between 375 and 400 degrees depending on the oil. (Secret Alert #5) You want it to just start to smoke before dumping the batter - brown smoke not blue smoke.

(Secret Alert #6) Use a small soup ladle to pour the batter onto the grill. If you make them all the same size you can get yourself into a rhythm while cooking them so you don’t over or undercook. Go for a light colden brown. Don’t let them linger on the grill.

(Super Secret Alert #7) Two words – “peanut butter”. Pancake connosieurs are frequently appalled at this suggestion, but for my family, peanut butter on your pancakes is a family tradition. I’m just sayin’. Take it or leave it, but you’ll be missing something. Real butter and maple syrup are the supposed ideal toppings, but you can dump fruit compote (whatever that is) on there if you want or lots of other sweet things. When I was growing up and we ran out of syrup, I would use apple butter (which is cheaper than jelly). Grape jam is also good on pancakes with margarine and a little PB. For syrups, I like Blackburn syrup because it’s made near my East Texas home in Jefferson, Texas and it’s comparable in cost to the store brands and it comes in great big bottles so you don’t run out so quick. Besides, I like to support local industry. There’s something morally wrong about syrup being made in China or Mexico.

If you are the cook, do not expect to enjoy your pancakes with the family. By the time you finish enough for everyone, the ones on the bottom will be cold. Just serve everybody straight off the griddle, one at a time so they are piled up at the peak of perfection. I put that ugly first one or two pancakes on a plate by the griddle, add syrup and peanut butter and margarine and eat it while I’m cooking the rest. For some reason, you always run out of customers about the same time you run out of batter and if you didn’t get yours first, you either have to mix a new batch for yourself (which my grandmother's invisible voice in my head says is just wrong) or skip breakfast altogether.

It would be sad if you had to skip it!


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Backyard Blockbusters

Create Your Own Backyard Theater

When I was a kid, sometimes we'd drag the television out on the back porch and watch TV while we were eating supper. I used to love to do that, even if you did have to slap mosquitoes and dodge incoming June bugs.  You can do that outdoor TV thing one better nowadays for not very much money.

What You Need:

  • Digital projector
  • DVD player, VCR or laptop with a DVD player.
  • Plywood, cardboard, fiberboard, bedsheets, canvas or plastic tarps, Dazian stretch fabric, white blackout curtain fabric or vinyl billboard signs 6 feet high by 8 foot wide.
  • Two ten foot posts
  • Two 8 foot 2x6's
  • Post hole diggers
  • Hammer and nails
  • Bungee Cords and a grommet kit if needed

You need to figure out distances and the size of the projected image. Thanks to a website called Projector Central  you can look up your digital projector and by entering either the size of the image you want to project or the distance the projector needs to be from the screen, the calculator will help you either figure out how far back to set up the projector or how big a screen you need. You can also project the image from the back of a suspended sheet or lightweight rear projection screen material, so consider a rear projection setup too when planning your outdoor amphitheater. 

Pick a spot for putting up the frame.  A screen nailed over the garage wall or strung between two trees will work fine.  For something a bit more permanent, build a wooden frame to attach the screen to.  For a 6 foot by 8 foot screen, dig a pair of post holes 8 feet apart and two feet deep.

Set the posts in the ground and tamp dirt around them.

Nail the 2x6's to the posts, one on top and one two feet above the ground to make a 6 foot by 8 foot frame.

Nail the plywood or tie whatever cloth, vinyl or other flexible projection surface you've chosen to the frame with cords. If the fabric doesn't have grommets, install them at the corners and center of the edges, so you can pull the fabric over the front of the frame and stretch it with bungee cords across the back.

Note: Make sure the projection screen is not too reflective. Shiny or glossy finishes make poor projection surfaces. A nice bright white is best. If you can find an old home projection screen at a flea market - even better. Just mount the rollup carrier to the top of your frame, pull it down and voila!

Now that you've got a nice frame you can screw on your painted sheet of plywood or (as shown) use bungee cords to stretch flexible screen material to the frame. 

Now it's just a matter of running a heavy extension cord to where you set up the projector, hooking up the DVD player or laptop and focusing the image onto the screen.

Set up folding chairs or throw blankets for everybody on the ground, make up a big bowl of popcorn and some drinks and you're ready for your own drive-in movie (without the driving).  


Projector Central:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Building the Banjo Coffin Case

Guaranteed to get you looks when you walk in with your banjo in this unusual case!

I was looking for a case for my long-neck banjo and a friend suggested this nifty, if somewhat disturbing, homemade design. The guys you jam with will love it - at least those that aren't totally creeped out. Banjos lend themselves to the traditional six-sided pine box style coffin shape. It's not hard to do and the effect is really cool in a Twilight Zone kind of way.

Materials You'll Need:

Sheet of 1/4 to 1/2 inch A/B-grade plywood*
2x2 x2' long board
Piano hinges
Foam liner material2 Strap hinges or piano hinges.
6 brass handles (for effect)
Wood glue/Gorilla Glue
Wood putty
Craft Glue
Plush fabric

Tools You'll Need:

Drill & bits
Circular saw or table saw
Miter box and saw or radial arm saw (better)

Straightedge, chalk line marker reel
Tape measure

Making the Pattern

To lay out the pattern, just lay your banjo on top of the plywood and measure and mark the coffin shape shown at the right. Leave a little room for bracing and padding - an inch or so will do including the thickness of the sides and any extra padding you have in mind. If you plan to fly with this case, I'd advise 3 or 4 inches of padding all round. Airlines have an irrational hatred of banjos for some reason. Banjos don't survive air travel well. These how-to's assume a modicum of native intelligence, so I'll leave the exact dimensions of the top and bottom pattern to your own inspired guesswork.

Top and Bottom

The top and bottom will overhang the sides. Once you have the top and bottom cut, Sand them smooth, round or bevel the top and bottom edges with a router. Top and bottom will be the "A" grade side of the plywood since that's the side that will show. Measure the side pieces. Cut sides deep enough to accommodate the thickness of the banjo and leave room for padding the top and bottom. You'll be glad for the padding, if not for the weight..; Cut them 3 too inches long.Trust me you'll need the extra length.

The Sides:

The sides are the trickiest parts because the ends of the sides are going to have to be cut at just the right angle to mate up with the other sides. HINT: There are no 45 degree angles in this puppy. This is where a rectangular box begins to look like a much better idea, but if you can just soldier on through with your trusty speed square or your kids protractor, it's darn well worth the trouble. Test fit each side piece as you go to make sure the side angles match up. You CAN use math to figure the angles, but given my difficulty cutting an exact 35 degree angle with a table saw, I start with an approximate angle and then shave it down a bit at a time till the angles of the two sides match as cleanly as can be disguised with wood putty. Once the sides are all in place, go around and place piano hinges where the ends butt together. If the plywood is less than 3/8 inch thick, you'll probably have to bolt the hinges. Put the round bolt head on the outside and the nut on the inside. Saw off any extra thread. The nuts will be covered by padding when you're done. The hinges will give you good strong joints - you'll need them to support the banjo.

The Bottom

Lay the side frame on top of the box bottom and glue it into place. Before the glue dries, attach the bottom of the box to the sides using small thin screws every 4 to 6 inches. Predrill the holes to prevent the sides from splitting.Make sure you drill straight into the sides and not into the empty box. Once the bottom is screwed on, wipe off any glue that got squeezed out and let the glue dry.

Center Brace

Flip the box over so the open side is up.  Measure across the
the center of the inside of the box. Be sure to leave enough room at the "head" of the box for the banjo pot to fit inside.  Cut a 2x2 the width of the box, glue it to the bottom and screw it in place from either end. This brace will stiffen the center of the box and, when padded, supports the neck of the banjo just above the pot. Next test fit the lid to make sure the edges line up.  You may have to trim it a bit to make it fit snugly.  If you want to stain and varnish or paint the case, you can do it now and then apply the liner and hardware. If so, skip to the end and then come back to the next section.


Cut out two layers of block foam rubber or other padding material to fit in the two spaces at the bottom of the box. You can use a single piece and just lay it over the center brace.  If you'd like the brace more closely padded, simply take a strip of foam, lay it over the top of the brace and staple it down to the bottom of the box.  Next test fit the banjo on top of the foam and then place foam blocks at the strategic points indicated in the diagram.  This will keep the banjo from rattling around inside the box.  If you want to be even more slick, cut another piece of foam sheet to fit the inside of the box, then lay the banjo on it, draw the outline of the banjo onto the foam, then cut out the shape of the banjo.  Next lay the foam in the box and the banjo will sit in the cutout hole.  Cut another piece of foam the size of the inside of the box. Make it a half inch smaller all around.  Glue this piece to the bottom of the lid.  Make sure the lid will fit easily down over the bottom with the foam in place.  If you're going to line the box, leave a little extra room for the lid to fit down over the banjo.  At this stage of things is where you carve secret compartments in the foam for hiding capos, extra strings and emergency longnecks (Dr. Pepper longnecks, of course).  The foam keeps bottles nice and cold for a long time.


To give the interior a plush finish, buy a bunch of plush fabric in a color you like.  Get a big spray can of craft fabric glue.  Get the kind that doesn't melt foam rubber, but sticks to it and to fabric.  Cut pieces of the plush fabric to fit over the foam and up against the sides of the box.  Spray with craft glue, then press the fabric into place. You can cut and trim to disguise wrinkles and awkward fits.  Really hairy plush fabric is especially forgiving.  For the hole where the pot fits in place (if you did it that way), just let the fabric sag down into the hole. You may have to cut some wedges out around the hole to make the fabric fit.  I usually cut the pieces a little large so you can trim them down with an Exacto knife as you go. Cover the inside of the box with the lining and you're done with the inside.

Attaching the Lid

Set the lid on top and attach three hinges to one long side.  DO NOT DO LIKE I DID AND ATTACH IT TO TWO SIDES SO THE BOX WON'T OPEN (see diagram for placement of hinges and latches). The latches attach to two sides to insure the box closes securely.  You'll have to look around for the proper hinges.  I like shiny brass ones.  If you're on a budget you can install one handle as shown.  If you want to make it look really authentic, though, put three brass handles on each side. 

Finishing the Coffin

If you were good about sanding everything, you should be ready to finish the coffin.  Some people like to finish the coffin before all the hardware is in place. Either way I like to stain it with a wipe on stain and then cover it with a water resistant varnish or polyurethane clear coat.  Marine spar varnish is my favorite for giving it a nice shiny funereal look. Simply wipe on the stain you chose, wipe it off after it sits for a half minute or so depending on how dark you want the stain to be.  Let it sit and dry and then paint with thin coats of clearcoat.. Seven thin coats will look 7 times better than one thick coat with lumpy spots in it.  Give it a light sand with very fine wet sandpaper between varnish coats. 

All Done:

When you're done, load up your banjo and head for a nice jam session somewhere.  If you put six brass handles on it, get five friends to help you carry your banjo in pallbearer style. Always good for getting a reaction from the more genteel in the crowd.  Enjoy your new banjo case.

* Depending on how heavy you want it to be.  Go with the lighter wood if you don't want to risk a hernia carrying the thing. Banjos are heavy all by themselves.