Sunday, August 5, 2007

Why Not Jam?

You've just whipped up a big batch of buttermilk biscuits and as you peel back the flaky, buttery layers, you wonder, "what could you possibly want to put on a biscuit this good to make it taste better than it already does?" Amy says, "Nothing!". However, I would argue there are three things: 1) more butter, 2) a deep fried pork chop, or 3) jam. Butter is clearly the easy way out and deep fried porkchop is probably only applicable if you ever find yourself worrying that your cholesterol level is just too low, gosh-darn it. But jam... oh sweet sweet jam.

Let's be clear from the start. I'm not talking about that crap in a jar Smuckers tries to peddle you with images of lazy country afternoons with grandpa on the farm, but with flavors that suggest instead lazy afternoons in the stainless-steel fruit processing vat. I'm not even talking about fancy jam that is created by Trappist monks who chose celibacy so that they might instead screw you over with the prices of their product. No, I'm talking about homemade jam. Just like the kind my mom used to make (and still does).

Making jam seems like a scary task. Images of endlessly boiling glass jars and fears of botulism might scare away otherwise adventurous jam makers. However, two words my friends: freezer jam. The process is simple: mash up some fruit, stir in a bunch of sugar, add some fruit pectin dissolved in boiling water, stir, and then store in the freezer until you are ready to eat. I'm glossing over the specifics, which can be found on the easy-to-manage recipes inside the box of fruit pectin, but the take home message is that in under 30 minutes, with no more cooking than boiling a cup of water for a minute, you can make a year's supply of jam that is cheaper than what you'd buy in the store and tastes infinitely better.

Still you might ask, "Why bother?" I'll tell you why... freezer jam is so damn good that you will often say "Screw the biscuits" and just eat it with a spoon. Literally, the two main ingredients are fruit and sugar. Bonus points if the fruit is either peaches and/or raspberries. What's not to understand?

A few tips if you decide to the jam route:

  1. Make peach jam. Seriously, it is incredible and not something you can typically find in the grocery store even if you wanted to. Peach-raspberry is also good.

  2. By small (~ 1 cup) plastic containers to freeze the jam in. Sure, it's cheaper to buy larger containers, but I've found that 1 cup is a reasonable size to work your way through between the time you defrost and the time you spoon that last bit of jam onto a PB&J sandwich.

  3. The recipe will often ask you to stir until all the sugar is dissolved and give an approximate time. It's a good idea to actually taste the jam at this point and make sure all the sugar is dissolved.

I just finished making my yearly supply of peach and peach-raspberry for the year. Here's hoping it lasts through December.

Lessons Learned: iTunes Album Artwork and Giant Posters

I've learned a few valuable lessons about life, love, an iTunes album artwork in the last few weeks. Let's share.

Lesson One

iTunes 7 introduced a handy new feature for automatically downloading album artwork. Now, I don't have an iPhone or a newer iPod that can display album artwork in a sleek way. In fact, I really don't have any good reason to find the album artwork for all my music. However, everyone has a little bit of OCD locked up in their brain that needs feeding from time to time so maybe there is a reason I spent a couple hours one evening finding all the artwork for the 400+ tracks of the recent Mixtape Challenge.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that none of the artwork was transferred when I put a mix on my iPod or shared a mix with a fellow mixtaper. Turns out that iTunes keeps all the artwork separate from the actual music file by default. A simple applescript can set things straight. Oh well.

Lesson Two

Right around the time I spent hours digging up album artwork for the Mixtape Challenge, linked to an article about creating giant posters from your iTunes album artwork. Sounded like a cool thing to try on the mixes, no? Unfortunately, the posted solution was Windows-only and assumed ownership of Photoshop. What's a lowly Mac owner such as myself to do? Write up my own Applescript to do the same thing. Grab the script source and give it a run, or check out my own poster:

Album Artwork Poster

Wiki Creole For the Masses

I'm a big fan of Wiki-like syntax for marking up text to display on the web. Apparently, I'm not the only one, as there has been an effort to standardize the various Wiki editing dialects into a common Wiki style. The project is the most visible result of that effort, as they've attempted to codify a number of common Wiki markup rules into a loose standard that all Wikis can adopt. Unsurprisingly, their Wiki Creole is pretty similar what you probably already know if you spend much time on Wikipedia or any other site powered by Media Wiki. Many wiki engines already support Wiki Creole: the PmWiki I setup for the Society And Technology group at UW, the OddMuse wiki that run my personal site, and a ton of others.

One place that doesn't support Wiki Creole is the Blogger software that runs this blog. It'd be nice if I could just edit my posts using Wiki Creole directly (anyone have any ideas?), but in the meantime, there are some intermediate solutions.

The kids over at actually wrote a Javascript implementation of Wiki Creole 0.4 that you can play with. It's a simple WYSIWYG editor that lets you enter Wikie Creole formatted text into a textfield and get rendered-on-the-fly HTML. Unfortunately, their editor makes it impossible to grab the actual HTML source for the rendered text, making it less than useful if you wish to paste the HTML source into your blog. So I wrote up a slightly modified version at that makes grabbing the source HTML a snap. Try it out if you like.