Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Space...there's a lot of it out there

I've been thinking about the satellite collision that happened last week and just how amazing it is that it actually happened. I mean, I know there's a lot of stuff up in space orbiting our planet. But there's also a lot of space up there.

If you think about it, two objects traveling along the same line (essentially one dimension) have a pretty good chance of running into each other. You get one going in the wrong direction or at a different speed and, well, it's gonna happen (think about two trains running on the same track). Adding an additional dimension, like with cars driving on the road, there's still a reasonable chance that two will collide, but the odds go way down. Think about how many cars are on the roads each day and how few of those actually hit each other. There's just more room in which to move and more ways to move out of the way of each other. Then, adding the third dimension, the odds of a collision go down even further. Think about airplanes. It's rare to hear about a collision of two aircraft that are in the air. The chances of two airplanes being over the same bit of ground, at the same altitude at the same time aren't very high. Airplanes are just too small compared to how much air is up there to fly around in. And airplanes only have a couple of miles of altitude in which to fly. Once you get into space, there's not only a whole lot more miles of altitude to inhabit, but the farther you go up, the more space there is. (Think about it like this: Draw a small circle. Now draw a bigger circle around it. Do that a couple of times. Now, start at the center of the circle and draw a line to the edge of the biggest circle. Do that again. Notice how the point where the lines intersect the circle get farther away as the circles get bigger? Same idea with altitudes. The farther up you go, the more room you have on that circle...or in that altitude.)

So, in order for these two satellites to collide, they had to be over the same bit of ground, at the same altitude, at the same time. Looking at the satellites' orbits (top inset picture here) , these two satellites were rarely over the same bit of ground at the same time. Add in that they needed to be at the same altitude (objects in orbit are constantly losing altitude. It's not a lot, but that's why you sometimes hear of satellites needing to be "boosted" in orbit, or the space station needing to fire it's engines in order to increase the altitude. So, satellites are always changing altitude. It's slow, but over time it makes a difference.), and the odds have to be astoundingly low. It just boggles my mind thinking about all the things that had to come together to get these two little specks (compared to the gianourmous size of space) to collide.

Also, the Astronomy Picture of the Day is a very cool web site and should be in everyone's RSS feed. (What! You don't have an rss reader? Start here. Best thing since the iPod...which is even better than sliced bread.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

The much requested Chocolate Eclair Dessert Recipe - with pictures!

When I was growing up, Mom sometimes made what she called Chocolate Eclaire Dessert. It was a family favorite, my sister even requested this as her birthday cake a couple of times and it was often taken to church for potlucks when someone forgot that the back half of the alphabet brought better desserts. I don't know where the recipe originated from. Others have said that their relatives have made the same type of dessert, so it's probably a random "Good Housekeeping" recipe or whatever. Today, it remains a family favorite with Mom, my sister and I making it fairly regularly. And, most of the time, when we take it somewhere, someone wants the recipe. Since I have no qualms about sharing, I thought I'd put it up on my blog, complete with some pictures of how it's made.

So, hold onto your tastebuds cause here we go.

Chocolate Eclaire Dessert.

First thing to know, this is better made the day before you plan to eat it. That gives the graham crackers time to get nice and mushy. Normally, I prefer crunchy things to stay crunchy, but this is one exception I'm happy to make. I've tried it made in a shorter timeframe, with the graham crackers remaining kinda crunchy. It's not near as good. So, give yourself at least 6 hours, preferably overnight between time of creation and time of enjoyment.

The ingredients:
3 cups milk
1 regular size container Cool Whip (8oz I think)
2 small or 1 large box instant pudding - vanilla or french vanilla
1 box (1lb) graham crackers - original flavor
1 tsp (or so) vanilla (optional)
1 container frosting - milk chocolate

As you can see, I use Kroger brand for most everything. Except the frosting. I haven't found a generic frosting that I like. I use skim milk. Using milk with a higher fat content would probably yield a richer dessert. I tried it with the extra creamy Cool Whip once. Surprisingly, it didn't taste as good. What I haven't tried is light Cool Whip and Sugar Free pudding. My thought is if you're going to eat dessert, you should go all the way. But I know some people have diet restrictions. If someone gives this a go with lower calorie alternatives, please let me know how it goes.

Combine the milk, cool whip and pudding in the mixing bowl.

The yellow is the pudding. I like to use French vanilla. I think it gives the whole thing a better taste. I also make this in a big Tupperware measuring cup. This decreases the amount of stuff I have to wash and makes it easier to pour the pudding mixture into the pan. It does have the downside that the measuring cup isn't quite big enough and I always splatter a little bit of pudding stuff while I'm mixing it. I don't wear my best t-shirt when making this and try not to get distracted while mixing, to keep my counter a little cleaner.

Once everything is combined, keep mixing. You want to give the pudding a little bit of time to set-up and you want everything light and fluffy. I usually mix for about 2 minutes or so.

Add the vanilla and mix some more. Maybe another minute or so. This is completely optional. I think it give it a slightly better taste, but people haven't complained when I forget it. If you add vanilla, use good vanilla. Artificial is no substitute for real. And the stuff you get in the grocery stores here has nothing on the stuff you can get in the markets in Mexico. I like the Posa brand. Best stuff I've ever found. Unfortunately, I'm almost out. Need to find someone doing a mission trip to Juarez this summer and see if they can bring me back some. I didn't see any real vanilla last time we were in Reynosa. Maybe this summer.

Here's where things get more complicated.
Not that it's really all that complicated, but I think the layering is what intimidates some people. It's not that hard, really. Plus, I don't think it's really possible to screw this recipe up.

Set the pudding mixture aside. Line the bottom of the 9x13 pan with graham crackers. Most likely, whole graham crackers will not completely cover the bottom of the pan. You have two options. Don't worry about it or break/use broken crackers to fill in the gaps. I like option two. But I'm an engineer who's weird about stuff like that. As long as the gaps aren't huge, you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference if you don't fill them in.

Pour half (or so) of the pudding mixture on top of the graham crackers.
Add another layer of graham crackers.

This picture shows the little pieces of graham cracker a little better.
Note that there's still some holes/gaps. It's not a big deal.

Add the remaining pudding mixture.

This is before I added all of it and smoothed it out.

Top with a final layer of graham crackers.

Don't worry if your final layer isn't entirely even and level. Frosting covers a multitude of issues. You'll have some graham crackers left over. I like graham crackers for a snack, especially with a bit of leftover frosting on them.

Cover the pan and refrigerator for at least a few hours, overnight is best. The key is you want the graham crackers to be soft rather than crunchy. This takes some time.

Total time from gathering ingredients to putting it in the refrigerator to setup is usually 10-15 minutes for me, depending on if I put the mixer and beaters away where they belong or not and if I have to wash out the measuring cup. So, aside from having to make it the night before, this is a pretty quick recipe.

Once the pudding mixture has setup, or just before you serve it, top the dessert with the chocolate frosting.

I'm pretty sure the original recipe had you make the frosting yourself. I think the canned stuff is just as good, if not better. Plus, it's easier and everyone loves it with the canned stuff.
When you're spreading the frosting be careful. The crackers are soft and mushy. This makes
everything taste better but makes it more difficult to apply a very thin coating of frosting. I don't bother and just use almost the whole can, smoothing out as I go and covering all of the random graham cracker irregularities. I usually reserve a little frosting so that I have something to top my leftover graham crackers.


If, for some reason there's leftovers (like in the case of a very small gathering and an alien or zombie attack...or alien zombies, before you get to dessert), you should probably refrigerate the leftovers.
So, there's the recipe and some pictures.
Go forth and volunteer to bring dessert to your next potluck or group gathering.