On being ... your fussiness threshold

By Ingrid Sapona 

I’d never thought about the idea of a fussiness threshold until this past week. It came up in the April 17th NY Times cooking newsletter, where Melissa Clark said:

“I confess: I refuse to blanch, peel and seed a tomato, even if the recipe says to. Every cook has a fussiness threshold, and that exceeds mine. 

So when the whole blanch-peel-seed thing comes up in dishes … I simply cheat and throw unblanched, unpeeled, unseeded chopped tomatoes into the pan, where they release their sweet juices and coat the leeks just as richly. The skin and seeds may add a bit more texture, but certainly not enough to distract … and I’ve saved 10 precious minutes.” 

Given that Clark ends with a comment about saving 10 minutes, one might assume she’s talking about time saving hacks. But, I don’t think that’s really what she’s getting at. She’s talking about steps she’s taken the time to do before, but that she found don’t make an appreciable enough difference to continue taking the time for. 

Clark’s example reminded me of a friend who’s well known for one particular cake. Her fussiness threshold involves forgoing the eggs, flour, sugar, etc., required for making a cake from scratch. Instead, she relies on Betty Crocker and then embellishes the cake mix with all sorts of extras, including Baileys. She swears no one can tell the cake isn’t totally from scratch.  

I’ve been thinking about how my fussiness threshold manifests itself. Unlike Clark, I can’t think of particular cooking steps I routinely don’t bother with. Instead, if I’m reading a recipe with steps that seem overly fussy, I’m more likely to just veto the recipe. I also summarily veto recipes that call for hard to find ingredients, like particular (in vogue) chili peppers that are impossible to come by or are so unusual that no one can even suggest a reasonable substitute.  

My fussiness threshold for baking is pretty high. I love making fancy desserts and it’s rare that I find steps that are too fussy. I did hit my fussiness threshold last Christmas, however, when a recipe called for using a piping bag to form delicate seahorse-shaped cookies. I tried piping the dough but it was so stiff I ended up bursting two piping bags! So, I ended up shaping the dough into a log and slicing it into rounds. The cookies were delicious and no one (but me) knew of my little cheat.  

I’ve also realized that my fussiness threshold isn’t set in stone. I recently returned to a much fussier method than one I had been using for decades for cheese shortbread-like cookies. The recipe was from a family friend (I’ll call her Mrs. Munich). Mrs. Munich was known for her buttery cheese sticks. When I first tried the recipe (over 25 years ago) I painstaking piped the dough through a cookie press, just as she did. I quickly concluded that making them that way was time consuming and hard. So, I switched to the log and slice method, making cheese cookies instead of cheese sticks. Everyone I’ve ever served them to has loved them. Well, Mrs. Munnich passed away last fall and to honour her memory, I decided to try her cookie press method again. The result was AMAZING. Piping them increases the surface area that crisps up when baked, raising the taste from delicious to scrumptious. So, with Mrs. Munich smiling down on me, my fussiness threshold was nudged back up and from here on I’ll be taking the time to make proper cheese sticks.  

Beyond cooking, I’ve been thinking of other fussiness thresholds I’ve adopted over the years. Turns out I have a few around laundry. One is that I don’t bother sorting the wash into light and dark loads. I’ve never noticed the whites being whiter if I wash them separately. The one thing I do pay attention to is the fuzz factor of different items. If I’m washing something that’s more likely to give off fuzz – like a fluffy new(ish) bath towel – I try not to wash it with synthetics, like yoga pants, because the towel lint is bound to end up on the pants.  

Hand washing also exceeds my fussiness threshold. The only special treatment I give items marked Hand Wash is that I put them in a mesh laundry bag before they go into the machine. I don’t even worry about using a delicate setting because my washer doesn’t have an agitator. I’m a bit less dogmatic about items marked Dry Clean Only, but that’s because I rarely buy anything so labelled. But, when I do end up with something that’s Dry Clean Only, unless there’s sequins or some special applique or fancy lace, into the mesh bag it goes and into the machine.  

Hand waxing the car is another activity that’s beyond my fussiness threshold. I’ve never been totally clear about whether hand waxing is more about making the car look super shiny or whether it’s about helping preserve the finish. Regardless of the benefits of hand waxing, I’m perfectly content relying on the liquid wax that’s applied at the car wash.  

Focusing on my fussiness threshold has helped me see the different ways I give myself permission to not worry about always following directions. It’s kind of a freeing thought and it’s made me want to think about other tasks I might reassess my process on. What about you? When do skip a step or creatively interpret directions? When does your fussiness threshold kick in?  

© 2024 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a digital hoarder

By Ingrid Sapona 

The never-ending rain this past week was the perfect opportunity for indoor activities so I turned my attention to tidying my office. My tech guru (Dee) recently made some changes to my computer system to free up space on the hard drive and to ensure all my files are routinely backed up. Before the changes, my backing up was a bit of a patchwork affair. 

The changes Dee made involved uploading and downloading files to the cloud. (Because my computer is central to my livelihood, for years I’ve paid for cloud storage.) The syncing process took nearly a week! Dee had shown me how to monitor the progress and how to pause the syncing if I needed to, as it really slowed the computer down. In my periodic check of the syncing progress, two things jumped out at me: 1) there were way more photos and videos than I realized, and 2) videos take a LONG time to sync. 

With the syncing finished, I decided to have a look at the photos and videos to get a handle on them. I knew I was never that diligent about organizing them or naming them in a specific way. One reason has to do with the sheer number of them. Back when you bought rolls of film – and you paid to have pictures developed – you were way more careful about taking just one photo of something. With digital photos, it’s not unusual to snap three, four, or more of the same thing. So, on a week-long trip you come back with hundreds of photos, rather than a couple rolls of 36. (And on trips with friends or family, I’ve ended up with two or three-times as many because they’ve emailed me all their photos.) 

I knew that virtually all the videos are related to my winery blog and website. But, I really didn’t realize how many winery-related images and videos I’ve made over the past dozen years. For reasons I’ll never fully understand, depending on what I was using the photo or video for, sometimes I needed to convert them into different digital formats. (For example, videos can be formatted in: “.MP4”, “.mov”, “.wlmp”; photos can be in “.JPG” or “.GIF”.) As a result, I have copies of some photos and almost all the videos in more than one format. 

Adding to the confusion is the fact that when I move photos from my camera to the computer, the computer saves them where it thinks appropriate. So, for example, the computer might automatically assign them to a file called Photos, or Pictures, or Video. Makes sense, you say. Well, maybe, but when I upload them, I create a file and name it based on the subject matter, so that I can find them later. The end result of the process seems to be that I ended up with photos and videos of the same thing in two different places on my computer. And, as it happens, at some point the photo app that I used (Picassa) stopped being supported, so I had some photos in the “Picassa photos” file, some in a file called Pictures, and some in a file called Google Photos. Can you say nightmare? 

Then, remember I mentioned my backing up was a patchwork affair before? What that meant was that periodically (at least once a year) I copied all the contents of the hard drive onto an external drive, just in case something happened to my hard drive. This system was fine for work-related stuff because I’ve always organized work files by year. But the photo/video files were labelled (loosely) by subject matter, so there was no easy way of figuring which photos/videos on the computer were added since the last backup. 

If all this sounds confusing it’s because it is. Indeed, I arrived at this attempt of a description of what happened in part to understand how I made such a mess of things. I needed to try to understand how I ended up with four different “Google Photo” files with some of the same photos in each of those files, but also had a number of photos unique to each Google Photo file. I spent hours comparing photos, deleting doubles (triples, and more) and doing my best to reorganize them. 

What I realized as I worked through this is that I had become a digital hoarder. I’d never pay to have a storage unit for my physical stuff but thanks to relatively inexpensive cloud backing up services, I’m not as virtuous in my digital life. I’m not proud of it, but I’m determined to change my ways and my recent clean up was the first step. Next up I plan on reviewing all the photos with a view toward deleting the multiple successive shots of the same thing. Wish me luck… 

And on that score, if you have a good way of organizing your digital photos, do tell – I’m open to suggestions! 

© 2024 Ingrid Sapona