Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Whale Watching

California Gray Whale

Those of you who know me know that this is the time of the year my husband and I spend as much time as we can ‘whale watching’. This is primarily done on the weekends since the hubby is at work Monday thru Friday. If I get a chance to go during the week, I will take it, but I’m usually busy at home getting things done so we can play on the weekends. 

So what is this thing called whale watching? Aren’t whales way out in the ocean? Yes and no. Here in Southern California, we are fortunate to watch the gray whales every year from late November through mid-March. They are migrating from Alaska down to Baja, where pregnant females will give birth in the protected lagoons, and males will look for interested females for mating. The path of this migration allows us to see them from the shore, so you will find hubby and me having our morning coffee/tea (and sometimes lunch and/or dinner!) down at Laguna Beach, binoculars in hand, watching for the spout that tells us ‘thar she blows!’.  This spout looks like a puff of steam coming off the water. It’s a little hard to describe, but it’s one of those things that once you see it, you will always know what it is. Of course, this spouting is not just limited to the gray whale; it’s what you look for any time you’re out whale watching (we spotted humpbacks this same way when we were in Kauai). You can see images of the puff of 'steam' I'm talking about as well as other pictures/videos here:

You can also take whale watching cruises during the season. Several different sailing companies up and down the coast here in SoCal offer whale watching cruises. It’s a great way to see whales a little closer; it’s just not guaranteed that you will see a whale. After all, the whales are on their own time, not ours! Usually, you will see pods of dolphins and maybe even other marine life (we saw a sunfish on our last outing), so even if you don’t see a whale, you will most likely have a good time. 

There is a great book written by Lynne Cox, a well-known long distance swimmer, and her encounter with a baby gray whale while she was training one morning off the coast of California. She stayed in the water for hours with this baby whale (named Grayson by her because the calf was a gray's son) until he was reunited with his mother. You can see the book here:

I find them fascinating. To see that puff of steam is so exciting to me; to see the tale flip up in the air before they go below surface for a few minutes even more so.  I just love that these almost 40-foot creatures continue the migratory path that their ancestors followed. The gray whale was considered critically endangered, but I have read that scientists believe their population is on the increase. There are volunteer groups that do whale counts during the season; the group I know of is based out of Point Vicente in Palos Verdes, just up the coast north of where I live. Hubby and I took a recent Sunday and drove up there (about an hour), had a gorgeous day, a picnic, and saw several whales, even a whale who came halfway out of the water not once, but three times! A perfect day in my book!

I've read that once the whales get to Baja, in the lagoons, you can take flat-bottom boats out and almost pet the whales. These docile groups of whales are called 'friendlies'. I'm not sure I would go; I suppose if I had the opportunity I would have to take it, but there's a part of me that says leave these creatures alone - do not interfere with them. 

Recently, the L.A. Times had an article/video on a humpback whale and her calf, filmed by a drone camera off the coast of Maui. Fascinating! It gives you the overhead view of what we’re watching from shore (although, of course, we are watching the gray whale here). We don’t always see the whales’ bodies because we’re on the shore, but the link will give you an idea of what we’re looking for .

If you’ve never been whale watching and the opportunity arises, I hope you will go. These are wonderful, graceful, powerful, and majestic creatures. They are awe-inspiring and beautiful. And you can find me at the beach as often as possible looking for them, November through March! 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Ritz Carlton Pound Cake

Have you seen the recipe floating around Facebook for the Ritz Carlton pound cake from the 1920s? I couldn’t resist baking it! It sounded so luscious and guess what – it is! The recipe will be printed at the end of this post.

This is not a recipe for the strict calorie counter; not at all! One cup of butter, 3 cups of sugar, 5 eggs… and it is as rich as it sounds. One small slice is all you need. It is a large cake, dense but moist, so I shared it with friends. It would probably also freeze well – I would pre-slice it and freeze the slices, which would make it easier to thaw and serve a few slices at a time.

I followed the recipe to the letter, only using 2% milk instead of whole milk, and the cake turned out just fine. I used a Bundt pan instead of loaf pans. FYI, this recipe makes a lot of batter. It fit in the Bundt pan just fine, although it did rise above the top of the pan while baking (but no spilling over). Once it was out of the oven and cooling, it shrunk down and fit perfectly in the pan. I used Pam’s Baking Spray on my Bundt pan, and the cake slid out without a problem when I was ready to cool it on the rack. I also used a skewer as my tester when testing to see if the cake was done; I normally use toothpicks, but they are not long enough to reach through this cake, so the metal skewer worked very well.

The cake is absolutely delicious. It is moist; it is very rich; and the addition of the lemon juice and zest gives it just a hint of lemon that is very appealing. It would be great served with a tiny scoop of ice cream or sherbet but when I say it is rich- trust me! A small slice is all you need.

In the interest of honesty, I wondered if it was really a Ritz Carlton recipe. I cannot verify that, but I did find the history of the Ritz Carlton hotel chain. The cake recipe is supposedly from the1920s; and according to their corporate website, the Boston hotel did open in May 1927, so I’ll give them credit! Apparently, there were hotels established in Europe before that time, as well. 

Below is a picture of my cake, with the recipe following. Give it a try! I think you will find it to be a great cake for special events, family get-togethers, or for that social/church buffet!


 Ritz Carlton Lemon Pound Cake (1920s)

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup shortening, room temperature
5 large eggs
1 cup whole milk (I used 2% and it turned out fine)
6 Tbsp lemon juice
1 lemon, zested

Preheat oven to 350F.

Spray or butter and flour 2 loaf pans or one large Bundt pan.

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, cream together butter, shortening, and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating until well blended after each one.

Add dry ingredients in three additions to butter mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended after each addition. Mix in lemon juice and zest.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake cake(s) until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool cake(s) in pan(s) for 15 minutes. Turn cake(s) out onto rack(s) and cool completely.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Saying Goodbye to the Cable Company!
Part 1, TV
Jon Grunzweig, Guest Blogger

To help anyone who may be thinking about making the switch to over the air (OTA) TV, I put some notes together of what I went through. The entire process took a couple months, several mini-tests, and exploratory work to track cable TV connections throughout the house etc. Hopefully this information helps, and I would be glad to address any specific questions. 

In making the choice to drop cable or satellite, you just need to be aware of some of the tradeoffs. The number of stations you get and the quality of signal depends on where you live.  In the greater Los Angeles area, we register up to 110 channels on a scan with the antenna.  However, about 1/3 of the signals won't actually come in.  Then about another 1/3 are for non-English and religious channels; however, that still leaves quite a few channels to choose from.

The over-the-air (OTA) signals are all digital now, and with that most stations have multiple channels. For example, with ABC, local channel 7, it actually has 3 channels- each with different content- 7.1, 7.2, 7.3.  The major stations will have multiple channels like that, including PBS, which has about 5 sub-channels.  Much of the content on these sub-channels are old movies and old TV shows -- really old, but not always. Also, there are services that you can use that are signal aggregators that feed you the signals, but that ends up being $30+/month.

Some things you won't get with OTA:  ESPN, FOX, and other sports channels.  You will get whatever the main network airs for sports, like football on NBC, CBS, etc. or basketball on ABC.  Also, you don't get things like TNT, CNN, A&E, or any of those.  Those channels have a lot of content, so you need to understand what you're no longer getting. If sports is a big deal, then you can get internet-based sports packages, but the cost adds up on these.  In my research, there are transitory websites to get live TV -- kind of a gray market, if you will -- they come and go because they get closed down. There are sites that find these sites and tell you where to get a feed.

The basic setup we have is this:

OTA Signal:
-Roof mounted antenna with signal amplifier (must have). 

We have the "Orca Impulse" antenna; here's a link... apparently, it's on sale for $49.95 right now, which is an excellent price, too... Thanks to our friend, Scott Linsley, for helping with the research on this antenna; it pays to have good friends!

-Antenna feeds to three TV’s through the house. I fed the cable from the antenna into the attic, and then intercepted/connected to the existing cable TV feeds to each of the TV's; so this is changing the source from the street cable that feeds into the house. This is an older house so the feeds were all accessible in the attic. I can provide more detail on this if you're interested. I used a combination of existing splitters and the amplifier that came with the antenna. The rule of thumb is to have an amplifier every 25 to 50 feet.  Amplifiers need electricity. In my attic, there was availability electricity, so I was able to put the amplifier there after a 30-foot run from the chimney. Our house is one-story, so this made it all easier. 

Here are links to the mount and the splitters I used:



Before I attached the antenna to the chimney, I did several tests of the TV signal. First, just putting the antenna in the backyard on a temporary pole, ran the cable in the back door to the TV, and verified that I could get signals.  Then I tested the signal from inside the attic.  This did not work out well -- apparently the roof blocked the signals too much. So, then I did the last test of putting the antenna temporarily on the roof/chimney -- and verified that I could get the most signals, and strong ones. So I went with the chimney-attached signal.  This involved mounting it to the stucco by drilling holes, and routing the cable with fasteners into the attic. A fair amount of work.  Not too hard, just time-consuming.

-Internet based TV shows: 
We use a small computer in the living room TV console. We feed the HDMI cable from the back of the TV to the PC (we have a small notebook) that just sits on my lap on the couch or on a side table with the HDMI cable to the TV. Then we can access web-based content of any kind, or things like NASA TV. Also, Sony has a web-based TV feed with lots of content -- all free. We haven't used it yet.  When we're not using the laptop, it fits nicely out of the way in the TV console/cabinet.

-Streaming Netflix/Hulu Plus/Amazon:
These are all accessible via our Wii -- or other devices like Xbox -- to get Netflix streaming video (about $7 per month). We also have Amazon Prime, which includes streaming.  We don't pay for Hulu Plus yet. This was already hooked up, so it's just another source for content.

We don't have a DVR -- yet.  With cable, the DVR was in with the receiver box. The options are to buy a DVR, like TiVo, or use a PC as the DVR.  If you use a PC, it will cut down on pieces of equipment, but then you have to get the PC outfitted properly for this. I've looked into it, and there are several ways to make a PC serve as a DVR; I just haven't pursued that yet.

Radio/Music:  We also used cable TV for music, so you lose those channels.  The solution was to go with internet access for Sirius/XM. We had the accounts for our cars already, so no additional cost. We just had to get some speakers. (Note from robin: this works great for me since I tend to listen to classical music more than watch television. It was my only dilemma in getting rid of the cable, and this solution has worked very well!)

Overall,  it's worked great. The picture is actually a little clearer than cable TV -- especially the HD channels. We don't miss cable at all.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Valentine’s Day!

Surprise!! Here I am, writing a blog, wow! It’s been way too long, but I make no excuses… it is what it is… I've always said: the hardest part to writing a blog is showing up!

So as many of you know, I’ve been battling the incredible, horrible, terrible flu. This stuff is B.A.D.  It sucks all your energy away, leaving you feverish, exhausted, nauseated, and a real basket case, and it can last up to 2 weeks!  You have no energy to do anything except move from the bed to the couch and back to bed. Boring! I read, watched TV, and played on the computer, but I needed more!!  After several days of lying around, the cabin fever really started to move in. I am not one to lie around eating bonbons on a good day and lying around feeling bad doesn’t make it any better. As soon as I was able, I started thinking of something creative (anything!) I could do while I had a little energy.

and it hit me: HEARTS! A basket (well, in my case, a bowl) of hearts! It was an idea I’d had rolling around in my creative brain for a while, and now seemed the perfect time to try it out. I grabbed my fabric scraps basket, found a heart pattern that I had that was just the size I needed, and went to work.

I cut 2 of each fabric swatch until I had 10 pairs of hearts. I stitched each pair together, using hand sewing with various stitches. I was after a rustic look which was good, because I didn’t feel like sitting or standing at my sewing machine. I filled each heart with some polyester fiberfill, finished off the stitching, added embellishments on some, and tossed them into a bowl that I purchased at Target, sitting on my dining room table.  I scented some of the polyfill in some of them but not all of them, just so there was a slight scent but nothing overwhelming. 

I like them! It was a great way to pass the time, feeling like I was accomplishing something, and not ‘overdoing it’ while I was recovering.  What do you think? I have my favorites, but I enjoyed making them all!