Tuesday, December 31, 2013

One Conundrum At A Time ...

This was going to be the year.

This was going to be the year that I finally started baking professionally. Commercially. Baking and selling instead of baking and giving away.

I would start with sablés because they'd kind of become my thing. I'd perfected them. People liked them. I had more than one flavor to offer. They were sturdy for shipping. They stayed fresh over time. It was a good plan.

I spent a day compiling numbers. I really hate compiling numbers. But I needed to figure out about how many I could bake per week and how much I would pay for ingredients and how much I would pay to the commercial kitchen where I'd do my baking and how much I'd pay for packaging materials and how much I'd pay for shipping and figured out about what I'd have to charge for all of this to make sense.

And the number was a bit ridiculous. Who pays that for cookies, I wondered.

But friends assured me that people really do pay a lot for baked goods if they're worthy.

So I kept the plan in place, with the intention of getting started as soon as I had the money to pay for insurance and materials and space and such. I didn't want to start the venture in the hole.

This was also the year, though, that I read more and more about grains and their impacts on our health.

I already knew they weren't great for me, but I'd kept on eating them, kept on baking with them.

But as the year wore on, I read more and more that convinced me that I really should eliminate them from my life, wheat chief among them.

Wheat. As in flour. As in the basis of pretty much everything I bake.

So I ditched the plan.

My conscience wouldn't allow me to profit from selling something I knew to be harmful.

"But people have free will!" helpful friends said. "They can decide whether to eat it or not!"

But still, no. I couldn't make a living off of selling something I wouldn't be willing to eat myself.

And then I found a lovely group of grain-free folks and told them of my erstwhile baking plans, and they immediately told me that if I could find a way to bake with grain-free ingredients, the world would beat a path to my door.

Folks who have given up grains don't necessarily want to give up traditionally grain-based foods. They still want cookies and such.

So I resolved to learn how to bake with almond flour.

I set for myself the goal of perfecting an almond-flour sablé.

And then I saw the price of almond flour.

And I laughed.

At the moment, I'm looking at a site that offers a 25-pound bag of almond flour that's well recommended by those who bake with it.

For reference's sake, a 25-pound bag of Ceresota, my wheat flour of choice, can be had for, oh, about 10 bucks.

A 25-pound bag of this almond flour lists for $153.99.

And I thought the cookies were going to be expensive before?!

I still want to perfect the cookie. (I shall be starting with a much smaller quantity of flour, though even a 5-pound bag is $39.99.) And then I'll figure out what the price would have to be, per dozen, if I were to sell them. And I shall consult my grain-free friends and see if that's a price they'd be willing to pay.

So the baking plan may yet move forward, slightly different from what I'd envisioned.

And I may even offer the wheat version alongside the non-wheat treats. Let people decide, indeed.

I keep saying that I don't want to be anyone's food police. If people want to buy wheat-based cookies, so be it.

But wow. Ten dollars versus one hundred and fifty four.

It'll be interesting to see what the market will bear.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Glow Of Colored Lights ...

When I was a kid, I would tape a string of colored lights to the inside of the window casing in my bedroom. This was 100% not for the benefit of my next-door neighbors – we were friendly but not friends – but rather for me, as at night, even with the shades drawn, I would find comfort in the glow which, somehow, read mostly pink, despite the equal distribution of colors along the string.

As an adult, my tree is lit with white lights and bedecked with mostly clear plastic and glass ornaments, some mercury glass, and some silver. There are small moments of color, but the overall read is very subtle, no flash.

But on the dresser in my bedroom sits the small ceramic tree with Lite-Brite-light bulbs that once belonged to my dad's mom. It was her Christmas tree. She wasn't much for decorating and trappings. It is my one nod to colored holiday lights. I left it on on Christmas Eve night to fall asleep in the holiday glow. And again last night. It was nice to be transported, in a small way, to my childhood.

Friday, December 27, 2013

And So This Is Christmas ...

My holidays were lovely. I hope yours were, too.

This year was not about presents, by design. Whenever anyone asked what they could get me, I said – and really meant – "Nothing." If they pressed, I said, "Coffee pods." I have a Keurig. (It was a gift.) I don't buy the K-cups for myself because I don't like that they're not recyclable. Though I recently learned that that may have changed.

Anyway, I'm at that age when I'm about experiences and consumables. Dinner and a movie? Perfect. A bottle of wine? Lovely.

But every so often, something arrives in my life that I didn't know I wanted because I didn't know it existed.

And on Christmas Eve, my niece hit the nail on the head.

We don't typically exchange gifts. I am happy to give gifts to my nephews and niece, but I certainly don't expect them to give anything to me.

But my niece saw Pig Popper and knew I had to have it.

I took the picture you see above and made it the cover photo of my Facebook page. Almost immediately, my friend Marc posted, "What in the hell???"

To which I replied, "It's my favorite Christmas gift!" with a smiley face, to drive home my glee.

I love everything about him, most of all that he came to me via my niece, with whom I share what is apparently a genetic goofy streak.

He makes the most delightful "Pop!" sound when squeezed.

He is going to join the menagerie in my car. One never knows when one will feel the need to pop a foam-ball snout. Who needs a Frisbee in the trunk when you can have a Pig Popper in the back seat?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Knowing When To Say When ...

Last night, after a day of doing, doing doing, as is normal this time of year, I sat myself on the couch and felt the need to ... do something.

After my snowflake-cutting extravaganza this year, my brain, it seems, now expects to do things while sitting on the couch. Idle hands, devil's playground, something like that.

So I thought about what I could do – I've had my fill of snowflakes for the season already and winter just arrived yesterday – and I remembered a round cutter I bought for another project a couple of years ago and then I stepped into my office closet and remembered some scrapbook paper I bought for L.A. Dave's memory books years ago, which were not scrapbooks, which could be why I never did end up using the scrapbook paper, and then spied some manila-folder remnants I had saved, and the manila-y color of the folder scraps and the charcoal-y color of the scrapbook paper looked like they'd play well together, so I set myself up on the couch with a large tray and the cutter and some glue options and some thread and I set about making a garland.

For what purpose?

I had no idea.

But I made it.

And in the making of it, I learned a very important lesson: When making a garland out of paper and thread, it is imperative to wrap the completed garland around a cardboard tube or some such, for the purposes of keeping it untangled.

I did not do that last night.

And I spent a good portion of the later part of the evening trying to untangle a jumble of manila- and charcoal-colored dots.

And then I gave up and went to bed.

And then I started again this morning. I told myself that with enough time and perseverance, I could indeed untangle the whole shebang.

And then the wisdom that comes with age said, "Yes, Beth, you could. But is it worth it? Chalk this up to a lesson learned, use the part that's usable, and cut your losses."

So I did. It's just a bit of paper and thread. And a bit of time.

But I can make more another day if I like.

And when and if I do, I will wind it around my new best friend, the cardboard spool, as I go.

In the meantime, though, I like my dotty garland.

And now I need to think up a new craft to do when I watch TV again.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wee Squirrel's Pal ...

When I was ordering the wee squirrel cookie cutter for Angelo's final cookie installment, I spied a very wee pig and he was too cute to leave behind.

Good Times: December Edition ...

The December cookie installment for the angelo:HOME blog features Wee Walnut Shortbread Squirrels. I'll let you click through to read the story behind them.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Not-So-Fine Line Between Value and Greed ...

The always-interesting Jim Romenesko posted this item today about a blogger in Philly who posted this on her Facebook page:

"Instead of Cyber Monday I opted for Generous Monday and I waited all day for phone calls, texts or emails thanking me for the FREE work I did for people who have helped me out. AND...nothing. Crickets chirping. Sometimes I wonder why I help other people out. WHATEVER. Now every text, email and biz correspondence with [site name redacted] is billable. So if u contact me on any level for 10 min or less you will be charged $75. Think before you contact me. And we need all credit cards on file."

Ms. Blogger's rant — since deleted, apparently (and wisely) — really struck a bad chord with me.

What's up with expecting to be thanked for the work you do for people who have helped you out?

Yes, thank-yous are nice. But if you're doing work as a gesture of gratitude because you yourself have already been on the receiving end of help, that's effectively you thanking them.

That you now expect them to come fawning to your door with gratitude for the simple reciprocation that you should have done in the first place is ridiculous.

One of the things I'm learning as I carve out this new life of working for myself is that, yes, I need to get better about billing for my time. I'm perhaps too quick to dismiss something as no big effort or feel strange about wanting to bill a client for it. But I wasn't raised in a "Give me money for every single thing I do" way.

A couple of years ago, my parents were taking a trip and instead of hiring a car service, they wanted to pay me to drive them to the airport. I refused any money. My mom started to insist. I cut her off and said, "I'm sorry that you raised the kind of children who won't allow their parents to pay them to drive them to the airport."

I'm their kid. Of course I'll drive them to the airport. I don't expect to be compensated for it.

My mom did insist on paying for gas. OK, fine. I let them pay for gas. It made them feel better and I appreciated the gesture.

Granted, family is family and business is business, but my brain doesn't much differentiate the two.

I have a client who is also a friend for whom I have offered to help on small things. He declines because he can't pay me for everything I do. And I respect that he values my work and wants to pay me, but my point to him is this: Let me help you on the little things. Some day, when there's a big thing with a budget, yes, you can pay me for that.

And I have another client friend who recently insisted that I bill her for my time on a project that was really more socializing than work. I started to dismiss the idea and she said, "Your time is worth something. Nothing is free." So I billed her a few bucks, but more than the dollars, I appreciated her reinforcing the notion that I need to get better about billing and not let everything slide.

I'm very fortunate to have clients who are so respectful of my work. There are certainly a lot of entities in the world that want folks to work for next to nothing, if not nothing itself.

But I'm also happy to help purely for the sake of helping. (And also because the editor in me can't help herself when she sees a mistake.)

I know some folks who run a web site I really love and when I see errors, I fire off quick notes to the appropriate parties to let them know. I am all too familiar with publishing a post only to read it again later and see a typo in it. It's common to miss errors in our own work. So folks are usually grateful to me for letting them know, and I am mindful to mention that if they would prefer I not write in such instances, to simply let me know. I certainly don't want to be a pest.

And while there is no overt demand for quid pro quo from my side, those exchanges continue to forge a relationship that has evolved to a place where they've asked me to be part of a podcast series and who knows, someday, perhaps something else will come along.

But that's not why I'm in touch with them. I like them and I like their site and I know they want it to be as polished as possible and I know that I appreciate it when people write to let me know about typos on my blog so I simply pay it forward, as it were, and let others know when I see typos on theirs.

I sure as hell do not stick my hand out and say, "That'll be seventy-five dollars."

I can't think of a faster way to ensure that folks would never want to work with me again.

I had a follow-up conversation with a client this morning about a project that started a few weeks ago. She's not entirely happy with the existing content but she's not yet sure what she wants it to be. I've already billed for the first part of the work we've accomplished, so I suggested that we simply press Pause. "You know how sometimes you hang up the phone and you think, 'That's what I should have said to that person!'?" I asked her. Yep, she said. If something sparks in her brain over the next days or weeks, I said, she's free to contact me and we'll use that as a starting point to revise the copy. I want her to be happy. I want her to connect with the copy that she will use to represent her product in the marketplace. She is very much a part of her product. Her collateral shouldn't feel disconnected from her, it should feel like an extension.

She seemed slightly surprised that I was being so flexible. But what other way is there to be? Sometimes my copy hits the bullseye the first time out. Sometimes, it overshoots the mark and I need to revise and try again. It's a process.

But the relationships with the clients are the key.

I signed a contract this morning for a multi-month project that came to me through a recommendation. Most of my work is based on referrals. And while I'm very pleased that my work is good and that clients are confident in recommending me on that basis, I'm even more gratified when they're able to add a personal aside, such as this recommendation from a résumé client:

"I contacted Beth to help rewrite my resume and am thrilled with the result. My resume no longer reads like a series of lifeless bullet points. It now tells the story of my career and allows my personality to shine through. This girl has talent! Not only does Beth do great work, she's genuine and fun - such a pleasure to work with."

That last part is important to me. I don't expect to become fast friends with every client, but working relationships are relationships, and I'm pleased to be able to connect with people as people in addition to delivering good work.

And given that I am my business and given that it's my nature to help others, I'm happy to give clients a bit of "free" effort for the goodwill it creates. If those gestures benefit me in some way someday, that's nice. But that's not why I offer them. I don't give with the expectation of getting back. I give to give.

Yes, some folks will take advantage of that. And in those instances, I respond accordingly.

But I'd much rather conduct business from a place of believing that most folks are essentially kind and fair rather than believing that I should bill everyone upfront for every moment of contact with me.

My work is valuable but money has never been my first and foremost motivation. And while I need to find a slightly better balance, I'm happy on this side of the see-saw.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I Might Have A Bit Of A Problem ...

I made four double recipes of dough for peppermint sablés.

I baked them off this morning. Three dozen went right out the door, to an event for which I'd offered to bake.

And this is what remained.

And I looked at them and said, "I think I have to bake more."

The "giftable" cookies number just shy of 10 dozen. The "outtakes" cookies – the ones that look like little Kaiser rolls and cookies that are otherwise imperfect – probably add another three dozen to that total. But I don't give away the outtakes, just the giftables.

So I sat down and made a list of the folks who will receive them and decided that another two double batches are in order, just in case.

I think I'm a compulsive baker.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Wheat Awareness ...

I embarked on my eliminating-wheat journey on November 20th.

I was feeling good. I looked thinner from not being so bloated. Clothes were fitting better. I could be hungry without being shaky or ravenous. I was beginning to understand the "clear-headed"-ness that folks keep talking about. I wasn't falling asleep when I'd try to read a book.

And then Thanksgiving arrived.

And with Thanksgiving comes stuffing. My Mom's stuffing. The best stuffing in the history of stuffing. Model stuffing. The gold standard of stuffing. The stuffing ideal. The stuff of stuffing legends.

There was no way I was going to skip her stuffing.

Also, every year, I bake bread for Thanksgiving, which isn't really necessary given the presence of stuffing, but it's my thing to bake and take, so I bake it and I take it. And folks like to make toast from it the next morning. It makes really great toast.

So Thanksgiving day, as I was letting loaves rise and bake, I tried a bite of bread that I had in the fridge that had come with the salad I bought the night before. I had told them to skip the bread, but they didn't, so I had put it in the fridge. And I thought I should try a bite to see if anything adverse happened, lest I be surprised after a forkful or two of stuffing.

Nope, nothing immediately awful. OK, then. Good to know.

So I went to Thanksgiving dinner and had some stuffing (not Mom's stuffing; I'll get to that in a moment) and had some bread and later, had a bit of pie.

And that evening, I felt uncomfortable, as if my body was saying, "Why'd you go and do that? We were finally getting rid of all that gunk. Why'd you add more? Now we have to start all over again."

But I decided that I would give in to the wheat for the extended weekend.

Because on Saturday, Mom and I make Thanksgiving Dinner, The Sequel, as we don't have any leftovers on Thursday, as we go to one of my brother's homes.

Also, as I mentioned: Mom's stuffing. My sister-in-law makes perfectly tasty stuffing, but it is not the stuffing of my youth, and you know how much memories are tied up in the tastes of foods.

So we roast a small turkey and Mom makes a panful of stuffing (which is really dressing, if it's outside of the bird, but we add a little to the bird, too) and I make really great mushroom gravy and we have mashed potatoes and a salad and that's it. Just the basics.

And then, later, of course, pie.

And Mom packs up leftovers for me and my other brother, who has to work on Thanksgiving so he comes to The Sequel, and the next day, I have turkey dinner for breakfast. And lunch.

Monday, though, I returned to my wheat-free ways.

And my body was able to recover from the wheaty interruption and all was on its way to being well again.

And then yesterday, out and about running errands and having not eaten all day, I, out of habit, zipped through the drive-thru at Wendy's to get a Jr. Cheeseburger, just to get something in my stomach. And I ordered and I paid and I got back on my way and I unwrapped and I bit and I said, with my mouth full: "Crap! I'm not eating wheat!"

And then I laughed at myself, for actually saying that out loud to myself.

And then I thought, "Beth, you have to eat something. One crappy white bun isn't going to kill you."

So I ate my wee cheeseburger and I kept running errands and yup, sure enough, I felt a more than a bit "Blech" as the day wore on.

So now I'm back back to avoiding wheat. And cutting myself some slack for yesterday's lapse, as it was inadvertent and rather fascinating, really, in its habitualness.

But I'm mostly mindful of avoiding it and I know that I'll get better about that as time wears on.

Of course, I'm staring down the gauntlet of holiday baking.

But just because I bake it doesn't mean I have to eat it.

And while it feels a bit strange to bake for others and share something I'm no longer willing to eat myself, I don't want to become anyone's food police. So long as folks enjoy it, that's what counts. That's why I do it.

Also, I've discovered flourless peanut butter cookies, and hot damn, they're yummy!

Sunday, December 01, 2013

I'm not so much a cake baker, but a seldom-used tube pan makes an excellent staging area for ornaments!