Thursday, December 22, 2016

Expressions of love with a nod to the Woozy Works

At the beginning of December, while S was at work, I hunted down some hazelnuts at the local Fancy Grocery Store. My purpose: to surprise S by baking Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), the German Christmas cookies that most remind him of home. I toasted the nuts in the oven, then rubbed them between my hands so the bitter husks would drop off. This left my hands delightfully warm and soft, but used up all my baking energy for the day. I swore E to secrecy and hid the toasted hazelnuts in a container in the back of a cabinet. After two weeks, I pulled out the container, thinking I would make the cookies that evening--that rather than the cookies themselves being the surprise, the act of having found and toasted hazelnuts and kept them secret until I could bake the cookies could be the surprise. But S came home before I started baking, our evening turned to other things, and the nuts became snack food rather than cookies.

This morning, I finally pulled out the digital kitchen scale (because Zimtsterne are German cookies and therefore all about mass rather than volume). I supplemented the 239 remaining grams of toasted hazelnuts with 61 grams of raw almonds, weighed out 300 grams of powdered sugar, let four eggs come to room temperature, got sidetracked by a phone call, became further distracted by a text message from E about SAT tests, and took a break to gripe with friends about standardized testing. 

Then I pulverized the nuts in the 20-year-old Cuisinart with the recently recalled defective metal blade, separated the eggs, started whipping the egg whites, and then remembered that the recipe calls for setting aside 2-3 tablespoons of meringue which is NEVER enough. So I added an extra egg white, approximated an appropriate extra amount of powdered sugar, dumped all the sugar into the whipped egg whites WITHOUT sifting and all in one fell swoop rather than ONE f*&%ing TABLESPOON AT A TIME, beat for maybe 5 minutes max instead of 20, added the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon (the recipe calls for "a few drops"--which, while quaint, are undetectable when facing off with two cups of powdered sugar and five egg whites), beat again, and set aside one cup of meringue.

Then I combined the ground nuts with the meringue and two teaspoons--meh, make that a tablespoon, close enough--of ground cinnamon. The dough was super sticky, as always, with a tendency to spread, as always (even when the recipe is followed to a T), so even though I love my family, I had zero interest in dusting the countertop with ground nuts and/or powdered sugar and pressing out the dough to cut it into stars before gently placing each star on a piece of Back Oblaten (thin flour-starch baking wafers that keep sticky batter from adhering permanently to baking sheets and of which we currently have none). Instead, I tossed a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet, spread out the dough, baked it for 20 minutes, took it out of the oven, spread the remaining meringue on top, put it back in the oven, and thought of my great great grandmother Jenny, of whom my grandmother Woozy reminisced fondly:
She analyzed her housework. It was clear that the children had to be fed, even though she was sure that a good and just world would find a more sensible way of doing it. There were some choices. She could mix eggs and flour, salt and water into a dough, hit it firmly on the table a hundred times to develop the gluten, place it in the center of a white tablecloth and gently with the backs of her hands stroking the underside of the dough, run around the table for an hour stretching the most gorgeous strudel dough on the block, and then shell and chop the walnuts, peel and chop the apples, soak seed and chop the raisins, mix in sugar and cinnamon, spread on the dough and dot with butter, roll and bake, but she said it not only killed the whole day but you ended up with a dead head too, so she put a bowl of apples and a bowl of nuts on the table and read Paradise Lost instead.
Pictured below: Zimtsterne 2016, cooling and waiting to be sliced into bars, which rhymes with "stars" and will have to do.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Updates: politics, penguins, pets, and personae

Were he still living, "Aged Reader" would be sending me the occasional nudge to blog. Alas, he is not and does not, so I have been negligent about keeping things current. Some updates are in order, and I believe Aged Reader would be appalled by some and proud of others.

Generally, I try to keep this space apolitical, because I have three different professional personas to project/protect (musician, potter, writing teacher), and sometimes people actually read what I write here. Today I throw caution to the wind. As I type, I am listening the News & Observer's live-stream video of protesters at the NCGA, where state Republicans are showing the world that they believe in neither democracy nor due process. Shame on these power-hungry connivers for their years of self-interested sneak attacks and subterfuge, and for this particularly egregious disregard for the people of this state. The ends do not justify the means; appearances and process matter. Shame. Shame. Shame. We'll see you in court.

How does one shift topics from appalling political transformations to more mundane things like pottery and pets? Well. You can see why it has been hard to blog this year. Stepping up to the plate to aid in the switch: a community-building environmental-activism local-to-international art project.

Much of what could have been blogging energy this year was redirected to The Potters' Penguin Project, with updates posted semi-regularly at I've inventoried 1,627 of 1,700+ birds to date--each one different, each one with its own personality (penguinality?), each one made by hand by one (or sometimes two or three) of 250+ makers. Most of our penguins originated in the NC Triangle area, but we've received birds from as far west as Arizona and as far east as Spain and Germany. The generosity of the makers--kids and adults, amateurs and professionals, friends and strangers, teachers and students--has been stunning and heart-warming, and it's been pretty spectacular seeing each penguin up close.

This would be a logical point to insert an image of the Far Side cartoon with the sea of black-and-white penguins, where one penguin in the distance is exuberantly singing "I gotta be me, oh I just gotta be me!!"--except that Gary Larson posted an online letter in 2008 asking people not to re-post his cartoons. That letter is reproduced here; the original source is no longer available, which is evidence either of an expired site or that the request was for an obviously losing battle. The penguin strip is all over the interwebs, of course, as a Google search demonstrates. In any case, my point is that while Gary Larson mocked that singing penguin's sense of special snowflakeness, every penguin in the Potters' Penguin Project colony truly is unique. (Note the placement of the adverb: "truly is unique," not "is truly unique." As I tell students in my writing workshops, unique means "one of a kind," and it doesn't make sense to say something is truly one of a kind, as opposed to only sort of one of a kind. Thus is every penguin, truly, unique.)

Yesterday was the official deadline for penguins to join the colony, so counting incoming birds will be high on my to-do list as 2016 winds to a close. The project will exhibit at Claymakers between January 10 and February 11, 2017, and in April/May, a contingent of penguins will represent the colony at the Greensboro Science Center (where one can see real live endangered African penguins up close).

From penguins to pets....Patient readers might recall that we adopted a new cat in April following the death of Homer Wells. FindusBabyCatBiteyBeauDrJekyllandMrHyde has become a little less bitey than he was in April, but he remains edgy and vigilant--vigilant not in the protective way of Miss Maggie B., nor the professional on-duty way of Schroeder, but rather in a psychotic way that suggests he knows the world cannot be trusted, no matter how much kibble you feed him or how many times you let him in or out or in or out or in or out the back door onto the porch. He doesn't like being touched unless he initiates the contact, but he's an expert at sucking up to strangers--the talent that suckered us into adopting him. Last week, he destroyed three handmade mugs and tried climbing inside the piano twice. Here is a video of him in jail, followed by some photos of him at his finest.

Schroeder, meanwhile, has given up playing fetch. We lost Preferred Carrot shortly after Homer died. Schroeder will gift us with other finger puppets, but he has no interest in retrieving them if we throw them down the stairs. Instead, he has turned his attention to a life-sized stuffed kitty toy that he carries by its neck up and down the stairs. When we go to bed at night, he brings it into bed with us and humps it. When we wake up in the morning, he humps it again, and when we go downstairs, he brings it downstairs. Occasionally, he tries feeding it by dropping it next to--or in--his food dish. In the evening, when we sit on the sofa in front of the fireplace, he retrieves his plush toy, jumps onto the sofa with it, and humps it. His obsession is all the more remarkable because the plush toy is big enough to obscure his line of sight: Schroeder jumps from floor to bed/sofa without seeing where he's going, and he has yet to miss his mark (although sometimes he'll land on FindusBabyCatBiteyBeauDrJekyllandMrHyde). He purrs a lot, seems happy, is a genius, and is neutered, so we set aside our prudishness and let him have at it.

In other news, alter ego Robo Revenger has returned. Robo Revenger responds to spam callers so they have less time to call you, dear readers. This fall, Robo Revenger spent a good ten minutes talking with pseudo-Mikrosofft scammers phishing from the Indian subcontinent. I managed to capture most of the conversation in a video recording (see below). The first 1.5 minutes are excellent; my high school classmates might enjoy the reference to Four Square just past 1:00. I'm also partial to the two minutes starting ~3:10. The first "f*&% you" is ~5:22. The stuff about how to count desktop icons ~5:35-7:03 is fabulous, yielding a nice stream of "f*&%-yous" ~7:04. The part from 7:00 to the end demonstrates how to remain chipper and polite in the face of adversity. Really, the whole thing is a Robo Revenger tour-de-force.

A week later, the Mikrosofft phishers phoned back. Robo Revenger had barely gotten out the video camera and started misleading the callers when a real live human knocked on the door. Robo Revenger asked the spammers to please call back in ten minutes--and they did! Add that to your toolbox, people, and remember to always use your superpowers for good. (And if you really care about preventing spam calls, add your voice to the chorus at the Consumers Union.)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

More sunrise eye candy from Ocracoke

Belated Ocracoke images from last week... My favorite thing to do on Ocracoke is to walk, pre-dawn, on a path through the wetlands to the beach to watch the sunrise. On Thursday morning, that effort was rewarded with an unexpected spectacle involving thousands of cormorants and other birds flying over from the sound side and spending a good twenty minutes zipping northward along the water's edge. We returned to the beach Friday morning, hoping for a repeat performance. The cormorants were nowhere to be seen, but pelicans were more abundant than they had been the morning before--or perhaps their numbers were easier to see without all the cormorant chaos. On Saturday, we saw fewer birds, and a squall line blew in just in time to obliterate the sunrise--but the dolphins were out in force. A new treat each day. Photos and videos below.

Thursday a.m.:

Friday a.m.:

Orion and Canis Major

Crescent moon and Venus

Clouds heading our way

Pre-sunrise--fog starting to roll in...

...but we could still see the moon.

No more sun. It went from foggy... foggier...

Then the sun rose over the clouds, and the fog dissipated.

Pelicans were abundant

Saturday a.m.:

Apparently we walked faster, as we arrived with 40 minutes to spare...

See that dark line of clouds to the left on the horizon?

Cold, wet weather blew in impressively quickly.

Goodbye, hint of impending sunrise...

On the bright side, E finally had enough wind to fly a kite before lunch...

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sunday, October 30, 2016

More double-walled camellia bowls

Testing out assorted glaze combinations on double-walled camellia bowls. Here's a keeper:

Same bowl, different angle
The blue and white bowl below has white-on-white crystals that aren't showing up well in the image. Unfortunately, the bowl also has two thin cracks in the bottom. The cracks don't affect the functionality, but they make it a second.


Saturday, October 1, 2016


Steinfest opened last night at Claymakers; Cup: the Intimate Object XII opened today at I'm pleased to have work in both.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Strictly Functional

I'm delighted that one of my double-walled camellia bowls was accepted into this year's Strictly Functional Pottery National show, juried by Simon Leach. The exhibit runs from today through October 22 at Kevin Lehmann's Pottery in Lancaster, PA.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Penguin kilometerstone

The Potters' Penguin Project passed a kilometerstone (a metric milestone) this weekend: the colony hosts 997 penguins and three eggs--1,000 objets d'penguin--which puts us a whopping two thirds of the way toward our goal of 1,500. Here's what that looks like packed into boxes:

All of these birds, plus at least 500 more, will emerge in early January for an exhibit at Claymakers in Durham, NC.

Friday, September 9, 2016


I've been getting satisfying results with sprayed glazes, and the process has been helping me really appreciate my electric kiln--to the point that (hard to believe) I've been declining occasional access to soda and wood firings. But every once in a while, I glaze a pot for the gas kiln at Claymakers, and the results make me covet reduction firing again. Case in point: I really like the carbon-trap halos around the wax-resist dots on the shino-glazed bottle below. On one side of the bottle, the halos are black; on the other side, they're orange. (The bottle started out as a bottle demo, then turned into a darting demo. I'm not sure why I stuck a horn on it, but it does make a nice place to put a thumb.)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Banana bread recipe revised

The winning recipe from the epic Banana Bread Taste Tests of 2015 is still the recipe we use. I've been going to the source for the recipe, but it always bugs me that the order in which ingredients are listed is not the order in which they're used in the recipe. So here's a revised version that fixes that.

Champion Banana Bread

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C), and butter a 4x8-inch loaf pan. [Or use muffin tins, or a glass baking dish, or whatever. You have enough baking experience that you don't need to feel bound to the 4x8-inch size.]

3-4 very ripe bananas, peeled [The recipe actually specifies "peeled." I haven't ever tried it with unpeeled bananas.]

Mix in:
1/3 cup melted butter [Hooray for melted butter. This is what makes this recipe is so easy.]

Mix in:
1 teaspoon baking soda [Seems like a strange order, but it works.]
Pinch of salt

Mix in:
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix in:
1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour

1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips and/or
1/3 cup pecans, shelled [I wrote "shelled" to keep the "peeled" bananas company]

Bake 45-50 minutes or until done.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A penguin encounter

Last month, as boxes of clay penguins were piling up for the Potters' Penguin Project, I wondered whether one could see real live penguins anywhere in North Carolina. Google quickly pointed me to the Greensboro Science Center, where one can not only see African penguins in the "Sciquarium" but also experience a "Penguin Encounter." So I made reservations, and on a blisteringly hot Saturday two weeks ago, E and I headed to Greensboro with friends.

African penguins are found along the coast of southern Africa. Their status went from vulnerable to endangered on the IUCN redlist in 2010, with their decline attributed to overfishing and changes in prey sources. The African penguins at the Greensboro Science Center are part of a Species Survival Plan that coordinates and monitors breeding to ensure genetic diversity. The Science Center currently has 20 penguins, with space for 25, and has successfully bred nine chicks, some of which have been sent to other zoos.

The penguins we encountered up close were juveniles: Pat (female) and Nigel (male). Nigel wasn't wearing a tag because he was bulking up to molt. We weren't permitted to hold the penguins ourselves--both for our safety and that of the birds--but we were able to pet Pat while a keeper held her, and we were all surprised to learn that penguins have surprisingly silky, soft feathers.

Penguins are social, interactive birds, with individual personalities and individual relationships with the keepers.

African penguins are also called Jackass penguins because of the sounds they make.

The keepers were generous with their time and answered all of our many questions, and it was thrilling to meet these beautiful birds up close. We'll likely head back next spring for the Science Center's Tuxedo Trot, a 5K fundraiser for SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds).

Monday, August 1, 2016

Return to Wadlstrumpf

Time for the annual visit to the old blogging stomping grounds...

August 1, descent into KEF, 11:30pm

Friday, July 22, 2016

Steins 2016

I apparently forgot to take photos of my steins for the past two years of Steinfest, but last year I did measure the volume of my steins, and they each comfortably held 24 ounces. That's about .7 liters--way more than my 2013 Prohibitionist steins held, of course, with ample room for a Hoibe Bier, but not quite enough room for a Maß. Someone told me they needed to be bigger, so this year my steins all hold a full liter and then some. I stuck with the zigzag design but switched from white-on-black to blue-on-white. I didn't make them with Bavaria in mind, but blue zigzags recall blue diamonds, so I'll pretend the Bayerisch flair was intentional. Prost!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Necco wafers

When I was in high school, my calculus teacher liked to talk about Necco Wafers. He described them as having a thickness of dh and showed that if you integrate the area of a Necco Wafer over a roll of height h, you get the volume of the roll. We were supposed to imagine the Necco Wafers as infinitessimally thin, and the simile helped us understand that little things add up.

I use the Necco Wafer simile when I teach pottery classes. When you make a cylinder on the wheel, you do several "pulls," thinning the wall with each pull and increasing the height of the cylinder. If you pull the clay up too quickly--before the wheel has an opportunity to spin around a sufficient number of times for each wall slice dh--the cylinder wall doesn't thin evenly, and you create thin sections that coil up the pot and make the wall and rim uneven. If students don't know what I mean by dh, I tell them about my high school calculus teacher and ask them to imagine their cylinder as a stack of Necco Wafers. Usually everyone gets the idea, although sometimes I have to explain to the young'uns what Necco Wafers are.

Last week, one of my students brought me a roll of Necco Wafers that she found in the retro-candy section of a store. Turns out the only thing Necco Wafers are really good for are similes. Tip: avoid eating them, but if you feel you must, DO NOT eat the green or purple ones.