Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Podcast Roundup

I have a long, daily commute, so I work on getting as many regular podcasts as possible.  Occasionally I list the latest finds and post them here in case someone out there might like them too.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour- This is quite simply one of the best podcasts available right now.  No matter what other podcast uploads, if there is a new TAH, I bump it to the top of my playlist.  They are recorded live and they are shows in the style of old timey radio shows.  They are hilarious, but they are also incredibly well written.  Some of the best are Sparks Nevada, which mashes up westerns and space, and Beyond Belief, which is about a society page couple who have adventures in the paranormal.  I cannot recommend this show highly enough.  It is hilarious and gloriously clever.

Stuff You Should Know- I am really late to this party.  They've been doing this podcast for years and I've only just now discovered it.  Which provides me with a trove of 300 some past episodes to listen to!  This is a show where two guys explain a subject for laypeople.  The topics tend toward the sort of idle questions that impress people if you have an answer ready at hand (some recents: do you stay conscious after decapitation? What is parkour? What is molecular gastronomy? How do people get drawn into cults?)  I am regularly surprised by how often the information covered in their podcasts come up in the course of my daily life.  Truly no knowledge is useless.  It is also a bit on the informal side which aids in digestion and, ideally, inspires more in-depth exploration on the information raised.

And then I learned that there is a whole Stuff You Should Know world of podcasts.  One of the better, along with the original, is Stuff To Blow Your Mind.  The distinction seems to be more of an exclusively science focused podcast.  There is also Stuff You Missed in History which I like, but they tend to be short.  I avoid short podcasts on my commute because it requires pushing buttons while driving.  25-60 minutes are what I look for.  There is also Stuff Your Mom Never Told You which I have next on my queue and Tech Stuff.  There may be others.

Motley Fool Money-  This podcast is four guys, one imagines sitting around a table, speaking excitedly about a topic.  One sees this format of show with sports or politics.  In this case, it is the week's business news and the state of specific stocks.  They have a section in the middle in which they interview someone, usually someone with a book coming out.  The Achilles Heel of this podcast is a very short shelf life (it comes out Friday and, I would imagine, is dated by 8:05 am Monday morning), so I listen to it as soon as it comes out.  I would also add that while they are not purposely difficult in their terminology, they don't tend to slow down to explain concepts so one is called upon to keep in mentally.  The effect is a bit like a morning jog.  They are transparent enough to tell you up front that people on the show may have a vested interest in some of the stocks mentioned.  But really, aside from publicly funded news sources that don't rely on advertisers, that is no different from any other news source save for the honesty.

NPR's Planet Money-  Another business news podcast which does take some pains to put the cookies on a lower shelf and, for example, explain the IMF in terms that someone who has only just heard of such a thing can understand.  I want to emphasize my conviction that this is something sorely needed in modern journalism.  So often I meet, for example, someone who claims to hate the Federal Reserve because their favorite television or radio entertainment show told them to, but then gets spotty when pressed to explain exactly what the Federal Reserve actually does.  However, I would hasten to add that this podcast is not simply a sixth-grade economics refresher course.  It very much attempts to explain the current global business climate and, albeit very conservatively, to forecast a bit.


Friday, May 27, 2011

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Every Bally Poem by Robert Burns

I have to start by saying I feel like I have made it over one hump in this project.  A quick look back at the list of Harvard Classics shows me that while there are still volumes of poetry to come, this is the last in the series that compiles every poem ever written by a single poet.  I have two theses on this volume to make right up front: 1) I enjoyed the work of Robert Burns immensely however 2) I strongly feel that poems are not meant to be read in this manner (looking over at my bookshelf, I'm suddenly acutely aware that I will probably never take down Allen Ginsberg's White Shroud or Cosmopolitan Greetings again except to move.  Why do I even own these aside from the latter being autographed?  Who reads White Shroud and why?), although I'm partly to blame for that.  In the interest of moving this project along, I sat down in long stretches and read the book like a novel.  I think it is generally wiser and more helpful to read a poem or two each day rather than 45 pages of one page poems in a sitting.  It put me in mind of Truman Capote's assessment of Venice which he said was "like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”"

The poems of Burns are, or at least were (the much poorer we), deeply ingrained in Western Civilization.  Like Shakespeare and Milton, a lot of the phrases we say on a daily basis came from his pen.  I share Dr. Eliot's feeling that Burns was one of the greatest poets in the English language.  His mastery of composition makes it seem easy and conversational.  I was always amazed and delighted to come across a great, classic poem in this volume of course (what with all of the loves being like red red roses, auld acquaintances getting overlooked, and all of those murine and homonid plans going agley) but I found that I was equally interested in the vast eccentricities included therein.

A good share of Burns' work are songs, generally rewriting lyrics to existing songs, none of which I had ever heard of before (so the titles read along the lines of "Nancy's the Cutie o' the Glen- to the tune of 'There's a Wee Clootie in a But an' Ben.'"  P.S. Not an actual Burns title.  It's a composite.  Like New York magazine does.)  So it's kind of like reading the lyrics to a new Weird Al album when you're past the age of knowing all popular music.  Except to the lyrical content of Burns I would employ the adjective "clever" rather than "novelty."  

He also wrote a lot of mean-spirited epitaphs for people he didn't like.  It would take an extraordinarily charming human to prevent this from being the very pinnacle of déclassé.  Burns is almost that charming.

The most inscrutable pieces, which left me clamoring for an editor, are the pieces which comment on long forgotten "current events."  I know enough from my travels in Great Britain and my vast library of Sir Harry Lauder recordings to make sense of Burns' often thick dialectical writing.  I know enough of history to hirple along with him when he brings up Wallace or Charles James Fox.  But even living in the golden age of the internet was no help when he starts naming a provincial minister who held some unpopular point of doctrine.

My knowledge of Burns' biography lacks coordination, I'm afraid, and the introductory note gives the briefest of flyovers.  I do know that he was censured by the Kirk-session for an unwedlocked intimacy with a young lady.  I sensed a somewhat jaded view of religion in Burns although I did not sense a falling away from faith, which served to draw me closer to Burns.

I think I like Burns best when he writes benedictions.  He was very graceful in these.  This passage from a lament for James, the Earl of Glencairn very much put me in mind of my friend Rob who passed away almost a year ago now:
"The bridegroom may forget the bride
Was made his wedding wife yestereen;
The monarch may forget the crown
That on his head an hour has been;
The mother may forget the child
That smiles sae sweetly on her knee;
But I'll remember thee, Glencairn,
And a' that thou hast done for me!"

As we become more distant from one another even as we grow more global as a culture, the poems of Robert Burns are one of those literary treasure troves caches growing dusty from misuse.  This is a tragedy we all share.  I cannot recommend highly enough that you get a volume of Burns and read from it as often as you can.

Just limit yourself to a half dozen poems or less a day. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Good Wine For The Rest Of Us- A Tutorial

omni homo primum bonum vinum ponit et cum inebriati fuerint tunc id quod deterius est tu servasti bonum vinum usque adhuc 

There are two types of people who write about wine: those who put forth the image of expertise and those who start by saying, "I'm no expert. I'm just someone who loves wine."  In an attempt to elucidate my point I shall employ an analogy.  When I was in college, there was a girl I tried to date once who was a fan of the music of Tori Amos.  I too enjoyed the work of Tori Amos, but the experience taught me something.  There are two types of fans of Tori Amos: those who love Tori Amos, and those who love Tori Amos and many other things in life as well.  Being a latter at the time, it was immediately evident to both of us that an impassable chasm lay between the two mindsets.

While I do accept the designation of oenophile, I am strictly an amateur.   I am never going to be one who gets paid to devote their life to wine.  Given my vow of poverty, I'm never going to be one of those people who get to buy a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux and properly store it in a wine cellar for upwards of 20 years.  But this does not mean that I am doomed to a life of bad wine.  I do know a few things that may help the perplexed and thought it might be helpful to some hypothetical out there to craft a blog post on the topic. It is the next in my new series of "bon vivre sans crainte" posts.

You may have heard it said that a good, or even great, bottle of wine is not necessarily the most expensive.  I will say right up front that this post is not intending to be a full course of the subject of wine, teaching you about all aspects on the subject, transforming you into a fountain of wit and fascination at your next cocktail party.  This post is meant to fill a void that I see in wine discussions for the novice, which is simple direction on getting a good bottle of wine into your hands in a market flooded with variety, especially focusing on the audience who may have budget dictated restrictions.  This is my contribution to the question "How do I even get started?"

Where to buy:

Ideally you will want to find a wine merchant.  Depending where you're located this may be a small wine shop or one of those grand, lush (as it were) places with a bar made from the wood of a tree that Beowulf used to worship and a sommelier in a new and freshly pressed Monterey Jazz Festival t-shirt.  If you're in Northern California like me or in other famous wine-making regions, there are vintners at your very backyard waiting to give you tours, tastings, and exits through the gift shop.

Also ideally, a wealthy eccentric has picked your name at random from a phone book, willed their multi-billion dollar estate to you, and died, leaving you to a life of leisure, beauty, philanthropy, and solving mysteries.  In other words, the ideals above are the sort of thing that give the appearance of good wine being cost prohibitive.  I will touch on the "investment wines" briefly, but we are mainly concerned with the daily glass, maybe the weekend dinner party glass, in this article.  Above are the sort of places one can indulge in when one is on vacation or has a sudden windfall.  But what about those of us who toil and labor for our happiness?

General rule of thumb: if you could, not saying you would, but if it is possible to go to make your purchase and buy a Snickers bar along with your bottle of wine, you are in the wrong place.  A local organic food co-op is a good place to try.  The sort places you go to avoid other supermarkets and wish you could just buy everything there (e.g. Trader Joe's, World Market, Whole Foods) are also decent places for our purposes.

A few words on the largest wine distributor in America:

Inevitably in these conversations, someone trying to be helpful will mention America's largest wine distributor.  The largest wine distributor in America is Costco.  For those of you unfamiliar with Costco, it is to Walmart what basic cable is to regular television.  You pay a yearly subscription and can then purchase bulk items at the illusion of bulk item prices.  For effect I shall indulge myself in the hyperbolic and state that my experience shopping there is to Dante's Gluttony circle of Hell (complete with three heads guarding the threshold) what Begotten is to the Book of Genesis.  Yes, you can find a decent wine at Costco, but first of all, remember the candy purchasing tip.  Second, the purpose of this entire endeavor is to improve the quality of our lives.  While I cringe at those who apply the axiom broadly to all of life, I do feel that in the case of luxury items, the concept "If it's not fun, don't do it" is applicable.  Granted, I suppose for the more adventurous out there a trip to an emergent lugubrious region re-enactment society in order to bring home a prize could be fulfilling in a Greco-Roman heroic sort of way.  I cannot personally recommend this course of action.

What To Buy:

First and foremost, ask questions of people who know more than you.  You may want to bear in mind that the person you're talking to may have recently had a meeting where their supervisor instructed them to push a certain wine, but that isn't always necessarily a bad thing.  Just something to keep in mind.  As Socrates said, "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing."  Never be shy to learn.  Ignorance is an opportunity to be seized.  If there is a meaning to existence, I imagine it probably falls close to the whole "we are the process of physics appreciating itself" theory.

There are, however, a few guidelines I would offer.

Eschew the novelty wines.  You may get a chuckle when you bring out the bottle of Scraping the Barrel or Cardinal Zin (and I hasten to add that these may be just fine.  I wouldn't know and don't plan on finding out), but so often the memorability of those bottles does not extend beyond the label.  Another rule of thumb: ask yourself What Would Jeeves Do? (you may even be able to procure a bracelet with that acronym) and then steer toward the more conservative labels.

This is your chance to explore and learn, try new things, and discover for yourself what you like and don't like.  I would also steer you away from Pinot Noir as it is not a varietal generally associated with the word "budget."

I look for a red wine with a fairly deep punt (the indentation in the bottom of the bottle) about two finger-knuckles deep:

"Why?"  Well, there are a lot of views of the punt out there.  I was taught that it has to do with the distribution of the sediments at the bottom of the bottle and/or, more specifically, that the wine-maker cares about such things.  If you are purchasing a nicer bottle of red, you will want to store it for several years and, when you do, things like sediment become important.

On the label you want to look for the word "Reserva" or some linguistic variation thereof.  Briefly, it is generally the best of the batch.

But the key to buying better wine on a budget is knowing your regions.  It's a bit reductionist to say that a particular region generally is known for doing something specific better than others, however "reductionism" is also today's secret word!  Here's a quick chart which you can clip and keep in your wallet, culled largely from The Winemaker Cooks: Menus, Parties, and Pairings

Northern California- sparkling and white.  Think "like the weather".  Zinfandels and Shiraz to be sure but any good wine cellar/rack is going to have Sonoma Coast Chardonnays.  It is also, for us deep red fans, the place for Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of wines, and Merlot, the archbishop.

Oregon's Willamette Valley- Pinot Gris

New Zealand- Sauvignon Blanc

France- Cabs, champagne.  All those clarets from the Bordeaux region.

Italy- Falanghina, Soave, Aglianico, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabs

Australia- sparkling, Rieslings, Chardonnays, Semillons.

Spain- Andalusian sherry, Tempranillo, Macabeo, Palomino, Pedro Ximenez, Garnacha, Verdejo.

India- Ah, my beloved India!  Cabs, Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zins.

Portugal-Port and Madeira

Chile- Cabernet and Merlot especially. Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Carmenere.

Switzerland- Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon

Argentina- Malbec, Cabs, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Torrontes.

There are more, but there's a good start.  If this is for a dinner party, Chardonnay for chicken and fish, Cabs for beef.  Leave pork pairings to the infidels.  You're on your own with cheese and dessert.  That is far to intricate a topic for our purposes here.  Although I would take a moment to say that the dessert wines should be sweeter than the dessert and, therefore, should be poured with restraint.

A quick word on stoppers: In days gone by, a good wine was corked.  This is no longer accepted wisdom and you can find really great wine with screwtops and those weird polymer corks.  The days of recoiling from non-corked bottles are over.

When To Drink:

This is where a person in the know is indispensable in the purchasing of wine.  Some wines are fine to drink as soon as you get in the door.  Heck, in the car on the way home if you want!  Some wines you want to let age slowly.  Ideally you will have a place to store your wine out of direct light, cool, even a bit humid if you can swing it, stored on their side and turned every month or so.

How To Drink:

There's a reason why people keep wine in cellars.  You want your reds cool and your whites cold.

Use all of your senses.  Look, smell, taste.  Um... listen, I guess.  Remember that a great deal of your taste mechanism is ties up with your sense of smell.  Historically, the practice of giving a sample at the table at a restaurant and the host of the table smelling, then tasting, is vestigial from by-gone days when one was more likely to encounter a bad bottle of wine. 

Personally, I highly highly recommend a wine aerator.  They are not that expensive and I will testify under oath that they work with red wines (largely useless for white wines.)  They will make a great wine better, and a not so great wine better (we run a lot of Two Buck Chuck through ours.)  Occasionally you will encounter someone who calls them a gimmick, but it is from the same type of person who would say that an electric mixer is a waste of time because you can whip egg whites by hand.  Sure you can.  Sure you can.

There is so much more that could be said, but I think I've provided a skeleton.  Have fun and explore.  Enjoy!


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Let's All Write a Ballade!

You: Eine minuten bitte!  Haven't we already done this form, Paul?

Me:  No, that was a ballad.  This is a ballade.

You:  Well, you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer.

Me:  The ballade is a very old French poetic form.  The name of the form means "dancing song" which went far to inform my choice in material.  More on that in a moment.

This is, in my opinion, along with the sestina, most likely one of the more difficult forms we've tackled thus far.  One of the more traditional variations is three rhymed stanzas; final line of the stanzas repeat and the three stanzas are followed by an envoi, which is half the length of the stanzas, addressed to an important figure, and generally summing up the thesis of the matter expressed in the poem.  The rhyme scheme is as follows: ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC. Got it?  That's okay.  That's why the good Lord gave us examples.

Unfortunately I was unable to come up with an example of a famous ballade being read or sung in English to my satisfaction by means of example for this post.  So, I took it upon myself to record one for the occasion, which I probably should have been doing all along.  Here is A Ballade of Suicide by G.K. Chesterton, read by me.

And here is the ballade of my own composition.  Ron Padgett expresses that ballades are often tailored to a specific occasion.  That mixed with the "dancing song" lead me to reflect on this specific time of year.  It is the very merry month of May in which, much to the chagrin of my sinuses, everything is blooming.  Of course, May also makes me think of May Day, the holiday of the extreme Left, which also put me in mind of how we are in that time of year when there are very few holidays.  I love the Spring, but it becomes a bit quotidian in going to work, coming home, going on walks, and so forth.  Between Easter and Independence Day, I am hard pressed to think of any major holiday markers in my year.  But returning to the theme of Spring and dancing, I pictured togas and outdoor dancing around a fire, a rite of Spring feeling.  Then I sat down and composed this:

Bona Dea Ballade
by Paul Mathers

Play Now!  Beat ye a tune upon the tabor!
Phoebus reflecting on verdant Spring's moon.
To mark the end of a warm day's labor
a draught, a dance, a merry piper's tune,
we shed our clothes, our wintery cocoon.
Invoke Terpsichore and Bacchus with lyre.
Our joy and hope to plant what will grow soon
and so we honor May with this bonfire.

As Peter's fingerprint on the zeus faber,
the budding green the hillsides now festoon.
Crops we hope the gods will show their favor.
Our time spent out of doors is opportune
to love and work, to pleasure and commune
with Nature's blooming bounty we aspire.
So now to Death we fancy us immune.
And so we honor May with this bonfire.

In unity we grasp the hands of neighbors.
Our path we with all sacred life attune.
Our ploughshares made of former swords and sabers
and drunk with blessed existence we swoon.
'Pon this small blue dot which we all were hewn,
our forefathers who crawled out of the mire,
that Fortune permits us at all's a boon.
And so we honor May with this bonfire.

Maia, who follows Artemis in lune,
May your regard this Beltane we acquire.
May none your sweet benevolence impugn.
And so we honor May with this bonfire.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

All I Want Is A Proper Cup of Coffee Made in a Proper Copper Coffee Pot

The Sultan and Kersia

In spite of my well-documented tea enthusiasm, I am also a devotee of coffee.  In fact, I would estimate that I drink more coffee than I drink tea.  This is probably partly due to having had the past decade of circumstances dictating remarkably peculiar sleep schedules (while tea contains more caffeine per pound than coffee, a cup of coffee actually contains more caffeine than a cup of tea.  We will unpack the reason for this anon.  It has to do with what one does with the product.)  But undoubtedly it also has to do with my tendency to gravitate toward deep, dark, rich flavors (e.g. dark chocolate, red wine, black tea, opaque beers, heavily spicy foods, and, back in the days before I was stricken with asthma, pipe tobacco.)  

Before we get started on brewing methods, a quick word about purchasing a good coffee.  There are fabulously grand brands of coffee and, indeed, an entire culture of extraordinarily fancy, ornate, and sublime coffees out there.  A fine starting point for the novice is this book: God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee which deals with the world of hyper-excellent coffee-making and the hyper-obsessive people embroiled in the quest for the peak coffee experience. When one ventures into the finer varieties of those beverages, one finds that they contain flavors that one never would have associated with the drink.  As our hero Mr. Lagerfeld might say, they go "beyond coffee" to places where one gains a deeper understanding of the drink and, I would even dare falling into pretension to suggest, the universe around them.

It is a deep rabbit hole which one who wishes to engage further in the world can spend a lot of time exploring.  However, for our purposes here, we are hardly talking about cupping or techniques of roasting or "God in a Cup."  I will leave exploration thereof to the enthusiastic.  You can geek out significantly on coffee and I recommend that you do.  Here, on the other hand, I mean to focus, via my new gadget, on waking up of an average morning and brewing one's self a very good cup of coffee as a reward for continuing to exist.  There is a reason why it is the second most traded commodity on Earth today, second only to crude oil (and, as a renewable resource, less vulnerable in the marketplace to the whims of speculators.)

As for the diurnal cup, find a decent dark roast whole bean coffee (leave the roasting and blending to the professionals unless you become so much of an enthusiast that you branch out in that direction too.  It really is a craft in the most Germanic sense of the word.)  Eschew the aluminum can.  Ideally, grind it yourself and don't buy more than a week's worth at one time.  Use about two tablespoons of grounds to six ounces of water.  As to what to use to brew it, I've used a French Press for the past six months until my friend Paul sent me a style of coffee-maker, entirely new to me, for my birthday.

Of course, with tea, the idea is to infuse the water with the flavor of the tea leaves by pouring water over them (my mnemonic device of my own devising:
"Tea over water
isn't how you oughta.
Water over tea,
that's how it should be") and seeping the leaves in the water for a few minutes.  With coffee, I do not recommend a drip coffee-maker because the concept is similar to tea infusion and you miss several of the elements present in other coffee-makers with the goal of extracting as much flavor from the bally beans as you can.  Coffee and tea are comparable to apples and oranges.  Also, drip brewing systems are difficult to clean properly and, in my experience, will never last you as long as a French Press.  You get a much better cup from wetting the grounds, allowing them to infuse into the water, then pressing every last bit of flavor back out of them.  An espresso maker (one of which we also own.  It was a wedding gift) is good for this as you compact the grounds very tightly and the high temperature and high pressure of the water sort of do that job for you.  However, in my experience, an espresso maker in the home is a bit too involved when you wake up at 3:40 and have to get on the road by 4:00.  Besides, it is called an Espresso maker because it was intended to make the form of specific coffee drink known as Espresso, which is galaxies away from what we're talking about here.  Like so much of life, one must take into account the age-old wisdom "Just because we can do a thing doesn't necessarily mean that we should." 

I have also heard convincing arguments in favor of what is known as a vacuum coffee pot, but every time I look at one I think "You know, I couldn't imagine having one of those in my home before I own a Tesla Coil and a Theremin."

But, let's get to today's experiment with my brand new AeroPress Coffee Maker which the package boasts is the best coffee maker that someone who said that has ever owned:

One places the cylinder on top of one's coffee mug, places a small round filter (provided in abundance with the maker, but also easily fashioned on one's own) at the bottom and fills the cylinder with coffee grounds, then water.  Stir the two for a few seconds, then place the plunger in the top of the cylinder.

Simply by firmly pressing the plunger down with firm but slow pressure, you are super-brewing your coffee by harnessing several forces of physics at once.  Gravity, infusion, and pressure are all making a very strong cup of coffee for you.  Now here's the taste test.

Yes, I have to admit, it is a darned fine cup of coffee.  In fact, better than I'd anticipated.  The speed with which is makes a good cup of coffee and the ease of cleanup were beyond my expectations.

Aroma Comments: Excellent, heady, whisps of the aroma waft up the nose to tickle the olfactory bulbs of your brain.

Acidity: Good and hearty without giving cause for fear.

Mouthfeel: Superlative.  Like a mouthful of rich caramel (See previous post)

Flavour: Dark, rich, heavy, everything I love about coffee.  The fantastic aroma slaps a bit of the bitter away.

Aftertaste: Fumigating my oral cavity like holding a puff of cigar smoke.

Balance, overall notes: Extremely balanced.  Balanced beyond measure.  Balancing itself off kilter.

Final Scoring:  I feel I am not overstating by saying that this was one of the better cups of coffee I've ever made.

And now we have a cute little coffee-making nook on our kitchen counter.

 The one advantage I would still say the French Press has over the AeroPress is that it makes about a pot's worth of coffee at once.  However, I must needs concede that the AeroPress makes a better cup of coffee.  Thank you, Paul.

I hope you've enjoyed my brief, remedial coffee tutorial.  Now here's a novelty song:

Monday, May 2, 2011

How to make homemade caramel

Tonight I was sitting on the porch, alternately translating the Latin Vulgate into English and reading the poetry of Robert Burns, when I was struck with a theopneustic moment in light of a difficult few days and, specifically, remedies thereunto.  Knowing full well Laurie will be home soon, I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice for her to come home to some homemade caramel for putting on iced cream or popping corn?"

Caramel is ridiculously easy to make and, once you know how quick, economical, and easy the process, you will most likely wonder why you don't do it all the time.  Soon you too will ridicule how easy it is to make.

First you need 1 cup of sugar, 6 Tablespoons of butter, and a half cup of Half and Half (or any other milk derivative you have laying around your fridge.  I just happen to always have Half and Half on hand for tea.  I would recommend the thicker milk products, closer to the cream end of the spectrum.  I am in no position to recommend Fat Free or Soy Milk.)  Keep all of these right next to you because the process is exceedingly quick.  You will be called upon to move quickly in the preparation of your caramel or the whole thing will go to pot, as it were.  It is a testimony to my deft camera finger that I was able to photograph the experience for this post at all.  If you put Tom Waits' Glitter and Doom album on when you start (like I did) you will be done before Get Behind The Mule is over.

Place the sugar in a saucepan.  You want a higher heat.  When the edges of the sugar in the pan begin to brown and pull away from the edge of the pan, you start whisking.  This is a crucial moment and you must be diligent in your whisking.  Burning is a very real peril in this process.  Be ever vigilant in your whisking, my little catechumen confectioners!
 If you can, you probably want a larger whisk as the pan is very hot.  You will whisk the sugar until...
 ...it is roughly the consistency of caramel.  Let me restate, what is shown in this picture is just sugar at this point.
Then you add the butter and whisk until it melts.  Oh yes, get used to whisking.  Your universe is a whisking universe for the next few minutes.  Note the discarded novelty whisk which I started with until I darned near singed all of my arm hair off.
Is it all melted now?  Are you responding by saying "yes?"  Then it's time to take it off of the heat and place the pan on one of the neighboring cooler burners.
You will keep whisking and slowly pour the Half and Half into the mixture.  This rushed picture with my thumb halfway over the flash fails to capture what a dramatic juncture this is in our narrative.  It bubbles and steams and tries to wrap its fingers around your throat to drag you down to Hell as the three ingredients die by your hand and a new foodstuff is born like the phoenix.  Do not heed that devil-caramel!  Whisk it into submission!
Soon it will get over itself and look like caramel.  You will initially think you put in too much Half and Half, but never fear!  It will thicken upon settling.
And now you have homemade caramel which tastes as good as store-bought because it is the same thing.