Thursday, June 29, 2017

Berke Family Pretzel Making!

Last December after I was unexpectedly able to be home for Christmas my mother sent me back to Hawaii with the Berke family recipe for German pretzels, passed down through generations of adventurous Berkes over the course of two centuries and two continents, all the way back across the sea to the Berke family bakery in Germany (which is still there today), to before an enterprising scion of the family decided to try his luck in the New World (though it should be noted that Berke is not a German name and we don't know where our intrepid forebears migrated from, though I have my theories…).

With that melodramatic opener out of the way, it's not like it's a secret recipe or anything. This weekend I upgraded my computer from Debian 8 to Debian 9, and while it was busy upgrading and I was twiddling my thumbs I decided to try making the Berke pretzels for the first time on my own (I've helped my mom make them in the past), and since I took some pictures along the way I'm going to share the recipe and process here in case anyone else wants to try (or I ever lose the hard copy!). You're going to need a few things to start with…

You can also see the chili I was cooking simultaneously in the crockpot in the background.
First, microwave ½ cup of lard with 2 cups of water for a minute or so until the lard melts. While that's heating up, sift together 3 cups of flour (preferably bread flour), ⅔ cup of powdered milk, ⅓ cup sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon of yeast (as seen above).

Add the water/lard mixture to it and mix. This is best done by hand, as the mixture is incredibly sticky at this point. Add ⅓ cup more water and continue mixing, adding up to 4 cups of flour 1 cup at a time. Keep mixing and kneading with your hands until the dough is just not sticky (this may require a little more flour; it did when I made them).
The right hand knows what the left is doing, and is very grateful it's too busy taking photos to be involved.

This dough is so sticky I can only hope my fingers are still attached; I haven't seen them in about 5 minutes.
At this point, pour a little oil in the bowl and slosh the dough around in it so the top is oiled, then set to rise for about an hour (cover the bowl while the dough is rising).

I ended up letting this dough rise about 2½ hours by accident.
Now, give that dough a good punch.

Punch!
Next, start some lye water. Mix 2 tablespoons of (food-grade) lye (sodium hydroxide, NaOH) in ~2 quarts of water over very low heat in a glass or enamel pot ONLY. Don't let it boil, and use plastic utensils! (The lye water will react with metal such as aluminum to create hydrogen, so don't let it spill and keep away from sources of open flame. You can flush it down the drain when done, though.)

To prevent boiling of the lye water you can use an improvised bain-marie like this one
 Next, roll out the pretzels. An easy way to get a good size is to divide the dough into 36 pieces.


Yes, I know. My pretzel-shaping skills are abysmal.
 (You can let them rise a little after this.) Next, prepare some pans by covering them in heavy-duty aluminum foil and spraying liberally with Pam. Then start dropping pretzels in the warm lye water one by one for ~15 seconds before placing them on the prepared pans.

I'm being very careful here not to let the metal handle touch the water, while taking a photo with the other hand.
That foil is quite necessary if you don't want the lye water messing up your pans.
Sprinkle with kosher sea salt to taste, then bake for 10 minutes at 400 °F. (In my experience, what seems like a lot of salt when you're shaking can be hardly noticeable after baking. See the salt in the pictures below? I could barely taste it, so don't be afraid to be liberal with it.) If they come out looking like the ones below, congratulations, and enjoy!




As you may be able to tell, my ability to make a pretzel shape is pretty much nil, and this pretzel expresses my feelings on the subject pretty accurately:

First Grumpy Cat, now Grumpy Pretzel.
Anyway, that's all there is to it! Well, “all.” It's a significant amount of work and will take at least a few hours, so you may want to make a double batch to get more pretzels out of it (three dozen will go surprisingly quickly!) A hui hou, and happy baking!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Some Solstice News, 2017 Edition; Also Lava Tube Pictures

First of all, yes, I missed the solstice by two days (like I always do), but that was the original inspiration for this post. Then, having pointed out that, hey, it was the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere two days ago, I realize that there isn't much else to say to about it, so have a few pictures from my Kamehameha Day trip in addition.

I took a couple friends up to the Mauna Loa Observatory where I work on June 11, Kamehameha Day (a state holiday here in Hawaii) for a tour of the YTLA and some exploration of various lava tubes and geological features. For a state holiday, it was the busiest I've ever seen it up there, with both a tour group from South Korea on a tour and people around from both the eponymous atmospheric observatory and the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, which I'd never actually noticed being open before (though I discovered they were likely the car we'd meet driving up at 4:00 AM as we were driving down after a night of observing!).

The telescope at the MLSO, observing the sun.
The weather unfortunately didn't coöperate for us in our attempt at spelunking on the way down, being wet and misty below 10,000 feet or so. It wasn't too bad at the first lava tube we stopped at on the way down, just below the 9,000 foot mark, so we explored it for a bit.

My friend Mark provides scale for the opening to this particular tube.
This lava tube has its opening right beside the road…and I do mean right beside the road. There's maybe a foot (if that) between the edge of the tarmac and the lip of the skylight into this tube. I have to admire the sheer indifference of the original road builders to stick to their plans and ignore this gaping hole right beside their work.

Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were several large skylights at irregular intervals for some way, lighting it up to the point where a flashlight was hardly necessary at all.

A little hard to make out, but this is looking down the tube.
In a pattern that really shouldn't surprise me at this point, this lava tube was both similar and yet quite different from the others I've been in. This one is tall, often rising 20 feet or more to the roof, even with the copious collapse covering the floor. And yet, it wasn't difficult to navigate, having little slope and being wide open with plenty of room to maneuver; Kaumana Caves is much harder in many places due to its low ceilings. All the lava tubes I've been in have had white material (which I believe is crystallized gypsum) on their walls, but this tube was positively overflowing with the stuff.

Gypsum-coated walls reflect enough light that this picture actually worked.
In this picture, you can see Graham taking a picture of the incredibly white walls. Normally lava tube wall are pretty dark—sure, there's some reds and other colors, but a lot of the walls are plain black. Taking a picture with my phone's flash alone wouldn't have worked in most of the other tubes I've been in, but this one just has so much white gypsum reflecting light that it actually kinda works. (The light from a skylight just ahead, seen just in front of Graham in the middle, probably helped too.) I don't know why this particular tube should have so much more than others I've seen; I guess maybe the flow that made it was just especially gypsum-rich?

A skylight with a natural bridge crossing the tube.
This last picture is neat, though I don't know how easy it is to make out. At the top you have light from a skylight falling in, while in the middle is a sort of 'bridge' in the lava tube, a short arch in the middle of the tube that suggests this lava tube had a very interesting history, perhaps with multiple levels at some point. Even the bottom of that arch would be well above my head (6” 1’, 1.85 m), to give you an idea of the scale here

Despite what these pictures might make you think, we actually didn't get to fully explore the tube to my satisfaction; after a while the skylights stopped while the tube continued on, but as it was still crummy weather and starting to get a bit late we didn't continue on (I've heard the cave continues on a bit further before ending). I definitely plan to return, however! It's a really cool cave, and I plan to go back with my camera and a proper flashlight to plumb it to its end (we originally just planned to pop in and take a quick look due to the weather, which turned out to be closer to half an hour). A hui hou!

Friday, June 9, 2017

A June Jolt

Today started off with a jolt. Quite literally, as I was jolted awake at 7:01 AM by a single sharp shock rocking the house perpendicular to my bed followed by a gradually decreasing shaking over the next fifteen seconds or so. Having awakened from a mere five hours of sleep after a night of observing, I calmly resigned myself to the house collapsing if it decided to do so as I was far too groggy to do anything useful like “getting out of bed and taking cover.” Thankfully the quake wasn't quite as powerful as my sleep-muddled imagination made it out to be, and the shaking subsided over what felt like an interminably long time but was probably only about ten to fifteen seconds.

I looked it up later and it turned out to be a magnitude-5.09 shaker with its epicenter almost due south, just south-east of Kīlauea. Not exactly my preferred alarm clock (though certainly effective!), but as I like to say life's never boring when you live on a volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! A hui hou!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Opening the Shelter for the Yuan-Tseh Lee Array, a Belated Birthday Video!

So it turns out my birthday came and went on the 17th this year without me ever mentioning it here. Turns out, like several years ago with the JCMT, I was observing at a telescope! The YTLA this time, though. Altitude often makes me forgetful however, and I completely forgot to mention it at the time.

However, the day after my birthday a co-worker of mine by the name of Johnson Han who was out from ASIAA in Taiwan working in Hilo for a few weeks brought his high-end 4K-video-camera-equipped drone up to the site hoping to get some aerial footage of the telescope enclosure being opened, as we were planning to do some daytime observing in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and misty until well after sunset, and we weren't able to even open the shelter until almost 9 o’ clock. This didn't deter him, however and he got some great shots of the Mauna Loa Observatory area during the day and then some footage of the telescope opening at night.

I was enthusing over the video he got and mentioned I was into video editing, and Johnson graciously offered to send me the footage to play with. After several days  two weeks working to edit it down to a comfortable length without having to cut too much, I've got a neat video of the area where I work and some of the things I do which you can see below (in a whopping 4K [2160p] resolution if you have a screen big enough, which I don't)!


As mentioned in the video, Johnson exhausted his last back-up battery getting that footage so he wasn't able to capture the telescope rearing to its full height and moving around while observing, so I still have a goal to shoot for myself. In the meantime, enjoy this belated birthday video, and if you have any questions feel free to ask down in the comments!

Johnson also has his own YouTube channel where he's been slowly uploading his own movies of various parts of the Big Island of Hawaii, like flying his drone out to where the lava was entering the sea, or up the Wailuku river, or even getting some nice aerial shots of ʻImiloa and the various astronomical buildings in Hilo, and I'd encourage you to check them out. Also a big 'thanks' is in order to him for letting me use his amazing footage in the first place. A hui hou!