Posted on Leave a comment

Old Dog, New Tricks

Old Dog, New Tricks

Our ten year old miniature Aussie, (known here as The Disreputable Dog), is as puzzled by the effects of the pandemic as are the people. He is having a hard time with this weekend that never ends. All his people are home, but the Saturday / Sunday routine is not being followed! This is causing anxiety! And the mail and delivery people are constantly around the neighborhood and must be barked at. Clearly he needs some new activities. A canine Pandemic Project!

Of course he is of herding dog heritage, so one of the things we thought of first was agility competition! In agility competitions, dogs run through an obstacle course with poles to weave through, gates to jump over, ramps to climb, etc. There is specialized equipment you need – however, there are things that you can build. We had a number of PVC bits and pieces left over from a previous plumbing project, so building some new agility course structures was a simple matter of doing some research on the Internet, one trip to the hardware store, and some quality time with the tabletop circular saw.

We decided to build a two-level gate, out of 1 1/4″ PVC pipe, and a pole-weaving course out of 3/4″ pipe. We just stuck the pipe segments into the fittings without gluing them, to make it easy to disassemble and store or transport the gadgets. For the pole course, we will probably drill some holes through the fittings into the pipes and put some machine screws in there to keep the poles straight up and down, but for the most part this isn’t necessary. And, if we have an irrigation emergency that requires PVC fittings … they’re already here! Just kidding. Mostly. Finally, we had a folding ramp that we use to get the dog in and out of tall truck beds: with a support under the hinge it becomes a ^ shaped ramp.

Then of course we had to introduce the Disreputable Dog to his new toys. He immediately assumed that they were obstacles to be cirumnavigated, which he did, at speed. Well done. But no. Some training is necessary.

With considerable nudging from knee and lead, he made it through the weave course. Frankly, we don’t think he quite understands how that is supposed to work just yet. Maybe we’ll get him to watch some videos on Youtube.

The jump was a bit easier. We started him off on the low setting for now, should be a piece of cake. We’ll set it to the higher height later. First try? Around! No, wait, try again … over! Excellent form.

The ramp, however, he already knew what to do: after completing the jump, run at full speed to the ramp, then up to the peak, turn right and leap off into the air! Once again, Dog, your ability to make up new rules for the game is impressive. Most impressive.

Second time was more the charm, but he still is jumping off early. He considers it inefficient. It will take him longer to return to the starting point if he runs all the way down! Who would do that?

After a few more runthroughs of this short course, it’s time to take a break. Can’t have all the fun at once!

Did you say … TREAT?

Thank you for joining us as we do Pandemic Projects, meant to keep you energized, curious and learning!

Posted on Leave a comment

We’re Jammin’

Hope you like jammin’ too …

Ooh yeah, we’re jammin’, hey

To think that jammin’ was a thing of the past

We’re jammin’, we’re jammin’

And I hope this jam is gonna last

Bob Marley

We’re basically Midwesterners, so canning and preserving is a fundamental brainstem function for us. But more than this – we’ve been driven to it by necessity, as we can’t keep up with the amount of fruit our trees produce. But, anyone can do this; it’s creative and fun and you get to put up some jars of yummy stuff for the winter. Let’s make some jam!

In this tutorial we’ll describe the basics of how to make a cooked, processed jam from fresh fruit. This is perhaps the most complicated way to do jam. There are simpler methods, and those that require fewer special things, but if you can do this method you can do all of them.

For this method, you’re going to need some stuff. In addition to the jam ingredients (fruit, granulated sugar, pectin powder), you’ll need jars, lids and rings (about $10 for a dozen pint sized jars at the supermarket or hardware store), a big stock pot that’s deep enough to boil the jars in with a couple inches of water on top, and a smaller (but still big) pot to cook your jam down in. Other things that can help tremendously but aren’t required are a canning funnel (it has a wide neck for pouring jam into jars), and a canning tongs (it’s got an odd shape but has coated wire for grabbing jars out of boiling water safely). Special “processing pots” for canning are really big and have a basket that sits inside for easily pulling out jars. You will want all this stuff if you end up doing a lot of canning, but you don’t need to acquire it all at once, and if you’re just doing small amounts you can easily make do with tools you already have in the kitchen.

Start with fresh fruit – not too ripe, or it won’t set as well.

This year, strawberries came early to this county, so we’re going to describe how to make a batch of strawberry jam. The moves are going to be the same for different fruits, but you’ll use different amounts of fruit and sugar and maybe other ingredients depending on exactly what you’re canning. One thing we strongly recommend is to use the ‘less sugar’ recipes listed on the instructions in a “pink box” package of Sure-Jell pectin. We like to taste our fruit and its tartness and not to be overwhelmed by sugary sweetness.

Washed lids and rings ready for canning. The red wand has a magnet on the end that makes it easy to handle lids.

Before you begin, you’ll have to wash your jars, rings, and lids. The lids have a rubber seal on the inside that works best when it’s softened a bit, so when you’re ready to jar your jam you should put the clean lids in hot water to warm the seal up.

Measure out your sugar, pectin and fruit, and have it all ready to go at once.

Now to the fruit. To do a batch of 8 to 10 8 ounce (half pint) jars of jam, you need around 12 cups of whole strawberries (at least five baskets), one packet of pink box Sure-Jell pectin powder, and 4 cups of granulated sugar (cane sugar is best). We like relatively early fruit – there’s a balance here between the full flavor of ripe fruit, and the better setting power and tartness of less than fully ripe fruit. A whole batch of wholly ripe fruit will not set well and might have a cloying flavor. A mix is good. Wash the fruit very well, cut off the green parts and any bad spots, and dice the fruit into 1/2 inch pieces (this isn’t critical – you can have smaller or bigger pieces if you like, so long as you can fit them into the jars). When they’re chopped they should make something like 8 cups of fruit (so this should tell you how big your cooking pot should be – like 12 cups or bigger). Mix together the packet of pectin and 1/4 cup of the sugar you have already measured, then put that mix into your cooking pot with the diced strawberries, and mix well. Mash the strawberries a bit with a potato masher to macerate them and release some of their juice.

Now it’s time to cook the jam. Have the rest of your sugar at hand, and a kitchen timer that can give you an accurate measurement of one minute. Put in a teaspoon or so of butter if you like – this will help reduce frothing in the jam. On high heat, bring the fruit / pectin mixture to a full rolling boil – this means, the boiling doesn’t stop when you stir the mixture. This means the whole volume of the mixture is at the boiling point. Then, add the rest of your sugar (3 3/4 cups), and stir it in well. Once again, keep stirring and bring the mixture back to a full rolling boil. when it has reached the full rolling boil, start your timer and boil for exactly one minute more. Then turn off the burner and remove the pot from the heat. Congratulations: you’ve made jam. At this point, as it cools, the jam will set into the familiar jam texture. However, you’d like to keep some for later – so your’e going to have to can it in jars and process it to prevent any spoilage. This should be done quickly while the jam is still hot!

You’re going to need to have enough boiling water in your canning pot to cover your jars by an inch or two. Make sure you’ve got that going before you fill your jars. You will probably need to process more than one batch of jars, so depth is more important than width in this case. Important note: everything is going to be hot. Be careful. Getting boiling jam on your skin is painful and could cause burns (also, tasty when it cools).

Fill the jars using a ladle or spoon and the canning funnel if you have it. You’re going to need to allow some headspace between the top of the jam and the lid – for this recipe it’s about 1/4 inch, but other recipes might need more headspace. Be sure and check your recipe. Check the rim of the jar and the threads, they should be free of jam. Use a damp paper towel to clean them off if necessary. Jam on the rim of the jar could prevent a good seal. Jam on the threads could stick the ring. Place the lid on, then the ring, and tighten finger tight (not too much).

This is a big processing pot with a basket that lets you do a lot of jars at once.

When you’ve filled enough jars to fill your processing pot, pop them into the boiling water, wait for the water to boil again, set your timer (15 minutes for this jam, but it could be 10-30 minutes depending on what you are canning). While you’re waiting for the first batch to process, you can fill the next set of jars.

When the timer goes off you can pull your jars out! If you don’t have a canning tongs you can use barbecue tongs, or silicone mitts, or a ladle – just remember the jars will be boiling hot. It helps to carefully wipe off any standing water on the top of the lid (to prevent deposits). Most of the time, as the jars cool, you will here a pop or ping sound as the lids contract and stick down to the rim to seal the lid.

Let the jars cool. Test the jars by pressing down on the center of the lid. If it moves (pops down), the jar did not set properly, and it won’t keep. If the lid is already down, you have successfully preserved the jam. It will stay good for up to 18 months. You will notice that the hot jam is still liquid – even after it cools it will take days to set, so don’t worry if your jam seems runny, just be patient and it will be fine. When you open a jar of jam, you will need to eventually discard the lid – the seals can only be used once – but you can save the jars and rings to use again and again. Some of our jars and rings have seen ten seasons of use.

This basic procedure can be used for any number of jams: the differences between them will be the amount of fruit or sugar or pectin or other additives (like lemon juice) which will depend on the type of fruit and so forth. You can look at the directions in your packet of pectin, or you can refer to other authorities (our canning guru is Esther H. Shank, author of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes, which is an amazing cookbook includes recipes and guidelines for canning almost anything you can imagine). You don’t always need pectin to set jam or marmalade, sometimes additional cooking is all you need (but be careful or you might accidentally make candy). But something like this is how people in America have saved summer fruits and vegetables for the winter, for centuries. And as Bob Marley observed, jammin’ is not a thing of the past. Enjoy!

Thank you for joining us as we do Pandemic Projects, meant to keep you energized, curious and learning!

Posted on 2 Comments

The Science of Pigments

What Are Pigments? And what (and why) is color?

What are pigments? At Ancient Earth Pigments, we deal with pigments as powdered solids that are used as the coloring agents of paints or for other color-conferring purposes. But what is the origin of the colors pigments exhibit? A more scientific and general definition of a pigment is a substance that selectively absorbs light in the visible waveband. When you illuminate something containing a pigment with light, some is absorbed, some might pass through, and some of the light bounces back to your eyeballs. It is the selective nature of the absorption that gives rise to what we perceive as color: a pigment that absorbs all colors of light equally will look gray (or black), when illuminated by white light. If a pigment absorbs blue light, it could look yellow or red, because those colors are not absorbed. If it absorbs red light it could look blue, or blue-green. When you mix colored paints, you combine the absorption properties of the different pigments to yield new colors. White pigments are a special case – they don’t selectively absorb colors, in fact they reflect light very efficiently without absorption, which is why they will lighten color mixes – returning more white light to your eyes.

The color of the ocean (title picture) serves to highlight this well. Pure water is blue, because it absorbs red light. If you add plants to the water, it looks more green. The ocean near tropical beaches have a bright turqoise color because the blue color is modulated by the calcium carbonate white sand suspended in the water.

But how do pigments work, and what is absorption of light, really? To understand this it helps to think of light – or electromagnetic energy in general – as a stream of individual photons, where each photon is a little packet of energy. Each photon has a characteristic energy level, which correlates to its color. Blue or violet photons have higher energy then green, yellow, orange, or red photons, which in turn have more energy than infrared, microwave, or radio photons. Ultraviolet photons (and x-rays and gamma rays) have more energy than blue photons. If a chemical compound has a particular arrangement of its electrons that has a characteristic energy level that exactly matches a photon that encounters this compound in space/time, the photon can be absorbed. This means its energy goes into the chemical compound, and the compound gets excited, and this excitation can result in some work being done. Usually this just means the compound moves around a bit more – it heats up, basically – but in the case of what we call visible light (violet to red, on the energy spectrum), it can slightly rearrange chemical bonds, changing the shape of (for example) one of the pigments in a cone or rod cell in your retina. And that shape change stimulates a nerve impulse, telling your brain that (for example) a blue photon just went through your eye.

Infrared light is too weak to rearrange this bond, so we can’t see it, but we can perceive the heat energy that it can transfer. Ultraviolet light also does not rearrange bonds in the proper way – in fact it can break them altogether, or cause other undesirable chemical reactions, which is why ultraviolet light and X-rays and gamma rays are dangerous, even though we can’t see them.

Examples of absorption spectra of different pigments found in plants and algae, over a color spectrum showing the colors of the different wavelengths of light. The height of each peak relates to the probability that a photon of that color will be absorbed by the pigment.

But what are pigments, chemically? The particular arrangements of electrons that result in color in chemical compounds can be found in several different types of compounds: metal coordination complexes, organometallic compounds, and organic compounds. You probably already know that metals play important roles in pigments, but in pure metallic form, metals are generally shiny and reflective and don’t have much if any color. However, ions of metals are very reactive, and play important roles in biochemistry and geochemistry, and can in many cases make for brilliant colors. In some cases the color itself plays an important role.

Coordination complexes are individual metal atoms, in a particular ionic state, that are surrounded by other ions or molecules in a characteristic arrangement. The ionization state of the metal atom and the number and kind of the molecules bound to it all control the absorption properties of the complex, so the same metal can give rise to many different dramatic colors. The following table shows some examples of coordination complexes of iron (in two different ionization states), cobalt (Co), copper (Cu), aluminum (Al), and chromium (Cr). Many of these colors are found in familiar pigments.

Example of some coordination complexes that can occur in natural or artificial pigments. Via Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coordination_complex

Coordination complexes often occur in natural minerals. Natural ‘earth’ pigments from mineral soils have red and brown colors that most often come from oxidized iron (Fe3+) complexed with water (H2O) or hydroxides (OH) yielding different shades depending on the exact combination of waters and/or hydroxides. These kinds of colors can be quite stable, which is why they have been used for over ten thousand years as pigments for painting and dyeing.

Organometallic compounds are a bit fancier but they rarely make good pigments because they are unstable and break down easily, resulting in disappointingly gray colors. They consist of a metal ion that has been chelated (bound up) by an organic molecule. A famous example of this is chlorophyll, in which a ring of carbon and nitrogen atoms surrounds a magnesium ion. Chlorophyll famously has two strong absorption bands in the red and the blue (see above figure), giving rise to the green color of plants.

The chemical structure of chlorophyll a. The part of the structure highlighted in red is the porphyrin ring, which also occurs in

Another famous example of an organometallic compound is heme, which the red-colored part of the oxygen-carrying protein in blood called hemoglobin. Heme consists of the same ring (red in the chlorophyll figure) only with an iron instead of a magnesium ion at the center. Both chlorophyll a and hemoglobin have amazing biological roles. Chlorophyll a molecules, when they absorb light energy in the blue or red wavebands, can ionize – give up an electron – the first step in photosynthesis. Hemoglobin, of course, selectively grabs onto oxygen molecules when they are abundant and gives them up when they are rare, making it the transporter of oxygen from your lungs to the far-flung parts of your body that need it. Unfortunately, organometals, while they are the spiffiest of biological pigments, do not make good painting colors as a rule.

The last category of pigments are the ones that are purely organic – meaning they consist only of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, no metals. These compounds achieve the same sorts of electronic arrangements as coordination complexes or organometals by conjugating lots of alternating single and double bonds between carbon atoms (don’t worry about this). Some of these are natural products, but many that we use are synthetic, produced in the laboratory or factory to be pigments and dyes. Some familiar pigments are the carotenoids that are found in colorful vegetables (orange in carrots is mostly beta-carotene, an organic compound), and the anthocyanins found in flowers. Indigo, an important pigment and dye, is an organic pigment derived from amino acids – but it can also be produced synthetically. Cochineal crimson, produced by South American bugs, is also an organic compound. The famous Tyrian purple is an indigo derivative produced by a marine snail. Many synthetic pigments, such as alizarin and azo dyes, are organic compounds similar to some natural products. In many cases, however, the natural pigments have different properties because of the presence of natural impurities or precursors or other pigments in the mix.

Some familiar organic pigments found in dyes, such as madder, don’t make good painting pigment powders unless they are treated with other chemicals (such as alum or calcium carbonate from chalk or bone) to make them precipitate into solids. This process results in lake pigments, and one form or another has been used for pigments and for dyeing since prehistory. In modern times lake pigments made from natural products have mostly been replaced by less-fugitive synthetic colors.

Detail of Titian: The Vendramin Family Venerating a Relic of the True Cross (ca 1550-1560).
Titian used rose madder lake in the crimson robes.

You don’t always need this knowledge of physics and chemistry to effectively use pigments in your artwork. However, it is kind of fun to understand some of the background behind the material you use, and some of the information may come in handy at some point. If you have questions, please make a comment and I will respond.

Thank you for joining us as we do Pandemic Projects, meant to keep you energized, curious and learning!

Posted on Leave a comment

No Need to Knead

No Need to Knead

Suddenly it seems that everyone in the country wants to make their own bread. Perhaps they don’t want to go to the store. Perhaps they’ve suddenly realized that the worst home-baked loaf is better than the best store bought loaf? Well, maybe that’s not always true. But this is something you can do at home, and if you’d like to start, this slow, easy, no-kneading-required recipe is a great way to begin to begin to learn this ancient alchemy that transforms powdered grass seeds into amazing yummy food. But first, a digression: Usually bread is kneaded: this process of squeezing and stretching the dough creates the long (but microscopic) elastic strands of gluten, which gives wheat bread its structure, keeps it from being crumbly like cornbread. This requires some time and some strength and is pretty hard on your wrists, and can be discouraging. However, no-knead recipes, which let the gluten form by itself overnight without the elbow grease, accomplish the same thing with some extra time. The recipe I use is based on a techniqued developed by Jim Lahey, and you can find it written up on line in Epicurious magazine. I take some shortcuts, so it’s not really that recipe; you must blame me and not Mr. Lahey if things go wrong.

To start this recipe you’ll need: A mixing bowl, 400g (14 1/8 oz) of all purpose or bread flour, 1 1/4 tsp (6 ml) of salt, 1/4 tsp (1 ml) of active dry yeast (I use the kind that comes in a jar), and 1 1/3 cups (275 ml) of cool water. It’s best if the water is not chlorinated, so if you’re using treated tap water pour it out and let it sit overnight before using it – the chlorine will outgas from the water and it will be less discouraging to the yeast. You’ll need some kind of cast iron or ceramic pot that can go in the oven to bake the bread in. This works great with a 9″ oval or circular cast iron dutch oven, porcelain lined pot, or ceramic bread/potato pot.

Combine the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the water and mix gently until it’s all incorporated and it forms a dough. Then cover it with a tea towel or loosely with film wrap, and place it in a slightly warm place (ca 22C / 72F), and leave it alone for at least 18 hours. The yeast will grow and ferment in the dough overnight, producing bubbles and making the dough rise. If you have a gas oven with a pilot light, in the oven (before you turn it on) is perfect.

Now the dough needs to be ‘punched down’ so the bubbles don’t grow too large. Don’t punch the dough. Instead, reach in and scoop from the bottom of the bowl to the top, rotate the bowl a quarter turn or so, and do it again, so the dough is stretched out slightly, letting the gases out (it should smell pretty good – the fresh bread smell comes in part from alcohols produced in fermentation), and shaping the dough into a ball. It should still be pretty sticky, but should hold together well. Then, let the dough rise again for a couple-few hours in the same warm place before baking.

To bake, you first heat up your pot and lid. Put them in the oven before turning it on and setting it for 475F (250C) (take the dough out before turning the oven on, if that’s where you’re rising it). When the oven and apparatus come up to temperature, repeat the turn and shape procedure that you did to punch down the dough before. Dust the dough with flour as you finish the process – this will help it release from the pot when it’s baked.

Then, you can quickly remove your heated baking pot from the oven, remove the lid, and turn your flour-dusted dough ball into the pot. Replace the lid and pop it back into the oven. Bake for ~25-30 minutes, then remove the lid. The loaf should have risen but still look pale. Bake without the lid for 15-20 more minutes, and you’re done! The loaf should be golden brown on top, with maybe some ‘ears’ of crust that might be a little darker.

If the bread doesn’t turn right out of the pan, you can use a thin wooden spatula to loosen it, then turn the loaf onto a grate to cool. Important: You must leave the loaf to cool at least an hour before slicing, or it’ll stay sticky inside. Best to do this well in advance, then reheat the loaf if needed when it’s time to serve. Easy!

There’s an important variant of this recipe that we found by reading an article by Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine and food critic for the New York Times. She was getting ready to bake her no-knead loaf when the power went out in her home, and she had an electric oven. She didn’t want to lose her investment in flour, so she phoned Jim Lahey to ask for advice. He said, just keep it going: punch down the loaf every day as you would on the first day. The yeast will continue to grow, and in fact may be replaced by native yeasts from your atmosphere, so you could be making your own sourdough. In the end it was several days before Ms. Reichl had her power back and was able to cook her bread, and she’d made sourdough, just as Mr. Lahey had predicted.

We’ve found that this variant of the recipe works best with bread flour (as opposed to all purpose flour) and the dough can get very wet and sticky after a couple days. Dust some flour onto the dough to keep it from getting too sticky (and to feed your yeasts, who are consuming your flour) if you try this. Good luck! If this goes very well you could hold back some of your dough to make a sourdough starter, which will do you well if you can’t find yeast in the stores … but that’s another chapter.

Thank you for joining us as we do Pandemic Projects, meant to keep you energized, curious and learning!