Sunday, December 30, 2012

Recipe: Rosemary Olive Oil Focaccia

Rosemary focaccia.

In the cold New York winter months, my apartment is sub-tropical in temperature due to the way old buildings here are heated (steam heat). As Boyfriend puts it, "Even if you fire to everyone on the ground floor, people on the sixth floor will complain it's too cold."

And what can you make when the temperature in the apartment hovers around 80° F? Bread.

This recipe is a more specific version of my herb focaccia.

Rosemary Olive Oil Focaccia Bread
Yields one 9 by 13-inch bread.
390 grams (about 1 3/4 cup) water between 105 and 115° F
1 1/4 oz. package dry active yeast
1 teaspoon white sugar (optional)
500 grams all-purpose flour (about 4 cups), plus more for dusting and kneading
2 1/2 teaspoons iodized salt
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 teaspoons fresh rosemary, divided
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Sprinkle the yeast on top of the warm water, and optionally add a teaspoon of sugar to feed the yeast. Some people suggest agitating the mixture, but it's not necessary. Leave it alone for about 10 minutes. If a foam develops or the yeast appears to "bloom" in the water, you’re in business. (If the water just looks murky, start over because it won’t work. Either the yeast is old or the water was too hot or too cold. Scrap it.)

In a large bowl or stand mixer, whisk together the flour, iodized salt, and olive oil. The flour should look slightly sandy or lumpy, but not wet.

Add 2 teaspoons of fresh rosemary, reserving the rest for later. Whisk or stir until they are distributed evenly.

Add the yeast mixture to the flour and stir it with a wood spoon until it is tacky. The dough should be messy and a little wet.

Turn the dough out onto a clean and lightly floured work space to knead for about 5 minutes (or set the stand mixer to knead).

Tip: When kneading by hand, concentrate more on keeping your hands dry with the a little extra flour, rather than thinking about keeping the dough dry. The dough should be warm, sticky, and elastic. If your hands are dry, they won't stick to the dough.

Take a new bowl, preferably a ceramic one, and rinse it under hot water to take the chill off. Dry thoroughly.

Pour about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil into the bowl. Place the dough ball into the oil and turn to coat. Cover loosely with plastic (either plastic wrap or a plastic shopping bag) or a damp towel and leave it to rise in a warm place for about two hours.

Punch down the dough gently. Cover the dough again loosely and leave it to rise for an hour or so.
Rosemary focaccia dough after its second of three rises. The clock has a thermometer,
showing this sunny spot in my kitchen reached 91.8 degrees F! 

Preheat oven to 500°F.

Grease or oil a 9 by 13-inch, or quarter sheet pan, baking dish. (I've successfully made this bread in a deep 8 by 8-inch dish, as well as a 9-inch pie plate). Turn the dough out into the dish and use the tips of your fingers to gently press it toward the edges, dimpling the dough as you go.

Brush the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil onto the top of the bread. It will collect in pools in the dimples. Sprinkle with the remaining rosemary and 1 teaspoon coarse salt.

Leave the dough in a warm place (like on top of the oven while it preheats) for 10 to 15 minutes, or until it begins to rise again.

Bake it in the center of the oven for about 5 minutes, then lower the temperature to 425 °F, and continue baking until it’s barely golden brown on top.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Junior High Sweethearts

Violet and Tate, American Horror Story (season 1, episode 4).
When I was in eighth grade, a seventh grader had a crush on me. He was friends with someone who was friends with someone who was friends with me. Word got around that he liked me. I'm pretty sure he wanted me to know. He told someone, if I'm not mistaken, to tell me.

I don't know what he thought was going to happen.

My response was not normal. Even at the time, as a young girl, I knew it was not normal. I was unnerved and upset, really the opposite of flattered. Knowing he had feelings for me actually gave me self-doubt and frightened me a little. So I refused to speak to him. I wouldn't even glance his way in the morning, when all the students huddled into the cafeteria from the snow to wait until school officially opened.

The problem? I didn't know this kid at all. When someone first told me his name, I had never heard it before. I didn't know who he was. This was a person I did not know who apparently had been in some sense watching me without my knowledge. That alone frightened me. He didn't know me, and if he didn't know me, on what basis could he have possibly had a crush on me?

I don't want to speak for women generally, but for me, it felt powerless and humiliating. This person I didn't know had been watching me -- that's the powerless part. And it was humiliating, or degrading might be a better word, to think someone would "like" me without ever having spoken to me. I know that's not at all what he intended.

While I was in grade school and even junior high, I didn't have those puppy love relationship that some kids have. Nothing about it ever seemed remotely right. I was still a fairly typical age at my first kiss, first snogging, first real date, but it took a lot of time and courage to get over those fears. There was never a point when I put them behind me. I surmounted them painfully every time.

I've been thinking (dwelling) lately on femininity and female identity, not in the feminist sense so much as my own individuality. The picture above is from the television show American Horror Story. Two young teen characters, Violet and Tate, develop a bond and eventually form a relationship, but in the pilot, there's a moment when he grabs her hands, when it's too early, before she knows him. Uncertainty and fear, the unknowingness of his feelings and whether her own feelings match his, comes across in Violet's face. Is she safe? Is this okay? Is this what she wants?

Some people describe this as the mixture of fear and excitement, but in plenty of instances for plenty of people, I'm sure the excitement is minimal, but the fear is real.

Horror story aside, it's a brilliantly scripted and acted moment that struck me in a profound way, even though the physicality of it is nothing more than two hands holding.

As we become adults, few people have the time to reflect back on those kinds of moments, and even fewer have the patience to let them happen again. After a certain age, people take a leap, move so fast they don't have time for that fear, and deal with any regret later. But I think adults might learn something from teenagers and junior high sweethearts.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Bowl of Oranges for Christmas

Christmas Eve wasn't anything special or holy when I was young. No one dragged me to church, and while my mother has gone for the last 20 years or so, she didn't when my sister and I were little.

Our neighbors growing up were German and their tradition was to open one gift on Christmas Eve at midnight or thereabouts, whenever they got home from church. When my sister and I got wind of this early gift-giving, we demanded the same. So we do that now, waiting until as close to midnight is reasonable, given whatever little kids are around, and open one gift, sometimes a package that we choose and sometimes one chosen by someone else if it's new pajamas or a housecoat to keep warm in the morning before all the other gifts are opened.

Oddly, food wasn't a central part of our Christmas Eve traditions either. For a period of years, we would show up at some relatives' house and eat ham, turkey, salad, bread rolls, and whatever else the 12 aunts and uncles would bring (there were a total of 16 aunts and uncles, plus my mother and her husband, on his side, but two couples lived far away and didn't come). In more recent years with a smaller group of us, we've gone to a restaurant, a different one each year.

The real traditions start with the stockings. My older sister and I have had the same stockings since perhaps forever. They're patchwork quilted stockings, and I identify mine by a large pink patch on one side. My sister's has a yellow patch in the same spot. We hang the stockings on the chimney mantle, and "Santa" fills them with small trinkets and lays them on the foot of our beds.

My older sister and I shared a room when we were younger, and we'd wake in the middle of the night to riffle through the treasures with the lights still off, trying to feel what each gift could be with our hands in the dark. Gifts in the stocking were almost never wrapped in wrapping paper, and we typically got the same things only in different colors.


An Orange in the Christmas Stocking

After a few minutes of guessing, we'd turn on the lights and see if we were right. We'd squint as the lamp burned our eyes, and dump our loot all over the bed: a toothbrush, an over-sized pencil or perhaps a pen with a plume or rhinestones on it, silly socks, and a smattering of candy canes from the tree and miniature chocolates. And at the very bottom wedged into the toe of the stocking was an orange.

My mom claimed that getting an orange in one's stocking at Christmas was an English tradition. Reading around, I can't find any decent or reliable sounding information on the history of why we do it, but apparently a lot of people in the U.S. do it, too. I'm fine with my own justification that oranges are winter fruit, but still a special treat because they come from afar (which would be as true in England as my hometown in New York state).

Christmas Morning
Christmas morning we'd pack up all the stocking booty and haul it to the living room or den, wherever the Christmas tree was, and dump them on the couch. Then we inspected all the presents. We poked, lifted, and shook every box we saw with our names on it. My mom would eventually rise and join us, first asking what was in our stockings. We laid out all the goodies again and showed her one-by-one our new instruments of dental hygiene and writing.

Out came the oranges, which my mom gathered into a bowl and took to the kitchen to slice.

When it's time to open presents, to this day, we go one-by-one. Anyone sitting on the floor can pick up a gift  and say, "Mom! This one is for you. You go next!" But it's a little like drinking sake or soju: you never fill your own cup. You always wait for someone else to serve you. It puts me in the mindset of thinking about other people and getting excited to see one of my sisters open something special I bought for her.

Then there's halftime. We take a break. Someone makes hot chocolate and coffee. My mom arranges the quartered oranges into a big bowl, and then slices bananas on top so we have something to nibble. Breakfast doesn't happen until the very end, usually around 10:30 or 11:00.

We open all the gifts under the tree and set aside into a pile ones for people who aren't there at the moment, significant others and close friends who may arrive later or not until the next day. When we think we're done, there's usually one more gift hiding somewhere, and not always under the tree. My mother is notorious for getting halfway through breakfast, then springing up from her chair to shout, "Candice! There's another one for you that I forgot in my closet!"

Christless Christmas

Conceptually for me, Christmas sits somewhere between being a family reunion and a farce. The family reunion part may be obvious. December 25 may be the one single day of the year when the tightest members of all my family get together come hell or high water. Not even Thanksgiving has that stature any more. This year, my flight lands at midnight Christmas Eve. I'll make it, but just barely.

As for the farce part, I'm a non-believer, and I as such I'm opposed to celebrating Christmas in the truest sense of the word "celebrate." I almost feel like it's not fair to Christians for me to take part in their big day.

Some of my friends who are in similar positions have thrown down all pretense and embrace Christmas as a commerce day, a day of gift giving and receiving, an American holiday that has little to do with Christ these days. And that's fine. But it does make me feel a little bad for the people who are still into the holy part of this holiday. If I were in their shoes, the commerce part would drive me batty.

If you are a believer, thank you for tolerating the rest of us. And whatever your own traditions, may you cherish them in memory and carry them forward to the next generation. Merry Christmas!

Scraping Bagel Seeds Changed My Life


Or how I got kicked out of college and decided to become a world traveler.

Most changes in life don't happen in a single day. Sometimes we think they do, that things change in an instant, but it's rarely true. A change may start on a single day, or culminate after a long, slow, and invisible lead-up, but rarely can we mark the moment something went from black to white.

I didn't become a traveler in a day, but I do remember the day I made up my mind to become one. A month before, I was asked to leave my college. I was 17 and about to start the spring semester when I got a call from the bursar's office. A woman told me I had an outstanding balance on my bill.

"What happens if I don't pay it?" I asked.

"Your classes won't be held."

"So, I'll be kicked out?"

"Well, your classes won't be held. And you'll be asked to move out of the dorms."

I was getting kicked out of college.

I drove north, back to my mother's house and slept on the high half of an old bunk bed. All I needed to do was quickly and methodically apply to state schools, which with government and state funding anyone could afford, get a job that would help me keep my car and get by for the next few months, and try not to worry. People kept telling me horror stories of their friends who quit school after one semester with the intention of going back and never did. 

"I'm not like that," I said.

"No one thinks they're like that," they said. "But watch yourself."

I littered the town with job applications and heard back from almost no one. January wasn't exactly hiring season in retail, and I didn't have any retail experience. I had worked plenty of food service jobs in the past -- a bagel shop, two pizzerias, a restaurant, a dining hall -- but it helped to have an in, and I didn't. All the places in that town where I had worked before had been sold off to new owners or closed. 

Finally, a chain bagel shop called.

"You're seventeen?" A small woman with thick long hair was interviewing me.

"Yeah, but I worked in another bagel shop for two years. I'm good. I know how to do the job."

"The thing is, we don't need any more counter help. We need another baker, but you technically have to be eighteen."

I didn't know what to say to that. I couldn't exactly make myself older any quicker.

"Would you want to bake?" she asked.

"I'll do whatever. I learn fast."

"What I could do is put you down as counter help on all your forms and just give you the starting hourly wage as a baker." Baking paid more. The hours were earlier, and the job was dangerous. Then ovens that bake bagels are vertical. They look like closets. And the baker has to roll a six-foot rack into it, and then out of it, when the metal racks are as hot as the oven: 550 degrees F. Bakers always have scar burns on their forearms from pulling  trays off these racks and fumbling them. Kitchen work moves fast. You're always hurrying, and most of the time, there's a rhythm that prevents people from bumping into each other or tripping or fumbling 550 degree metal trays. But sometimes, someone falls out of step with the dance, and that's how burns, cuts, and minor amputations happen.

I took the job and started later that week at 4:30 A.M., only my alarm didn't go off and I overslept 15 minutes. I knocked on the door at 4:50 A.M. and a large black man answered it.

"We're not open yet," he said.

"I know," I said. "I'm the new baker. I'm supposed to start training today, and i'm late, and I'm really sorry."

He looked pissed but let me in and introduced me to the much smaller Latino man who was moving bagel-shaped dough from cold trays to room temperature ones. 

That job just went bad from the very start. I never liked it, never liked the people, and didn't stay more than two or three months in the end.

While I was there, though, at least I got to hide in the kitchen and not deal with customers as much as I used to, although sometimes I had to jump in and help when it was busy. As long as it was relatively slow, I kept myself occupied in the back, either slacking dough (pulling it from the freezer to bake the next day, and keeping track of the inventory as I did) or cleaning anything that needed to be cleaned.

One day, I saw a stack of disgusting vented trays, basically, a sheet pan with little holes all across it, like a screen, that prevents condensation from collecting beneath the food. It's similar to using a cooling rack after you bake cookies in a home kitchen. Good pizzerias use them, too.

So there was this stack of vented trays just covered in sticky bits of bagels. Burnt onions stuck in the holes. Chopped garlic formed sticky masses in the corners. We had a bagel that was rolled in cinnamon and sugar, and although we used parchment paper for those, some of the trays still had a cinnamon glue ring around their edges. 

I grabbed a bench scraper, plopped myself on the floor, and leaned all my weight into getting the shit off the pans. It was quiet in the back, and quiet in the front, and the other staff were keeping each other occupied. No one was going to bother me for at least 40 minutes. I scraped and scraped. Sesame seeds flicked through the air and landed on my hat. Onion char stained my fingers. I scraped and scraped.

And while doing this mindless physical activity, a thought popped into my head: I should go to Seattle.

No. I need to go to Seattle.

My aunt and uncle lived there, and I had never been. Only once in my life had I been to the west coast, and it was for their wedding in Los Angeles when I was just a kid.

That's what I needed to do. I knew all my school applications would go fine. I'd get in somewhere and go back to school and earn my bachelor's degree on time even though I missed a semester. I wasn't really worried about that. But now I had this moment of realizing that seeing new places would be equally important to growing as a person and understanding the world better. 

At that moment, a moment that didn't change everything all at once but certainly did mark a shift in my own priorities, I even dared to think about traveling abroad, going to London, maybe even living there some day.

This is what I needed to do.

And it hit me while I was sitting on the floor of a bagel store's industrial kitchen, dirty and smelling of yeast, dough under my fingernails, kicked out of college, waiting for things to get better.

Almost a year later, I went to Seattle. And a year after that to San Francisco and then back up to Washington state again. And a year after that, to London to study abroad.

I still went back to college (University at Buffalo) as soon as possible and finished just three months shy of my original projected date. (I had time on my side, though, because I also finished high school a year early.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Music and Repetition

Who doesn't love repetition?
A few years ago, I had an awakening to the fact that I no longer enjoyed music. I don't spend much time in cars anymore, which is where I listened to most music as a kid, and when I'm home and doing chores, I listen exclusively to talk radio. 

When I first started in my career in writing and publishing, I spent a lot of time working on page layouts and entering copy editing corrections that other people marked. Those two skills take a lot of visual concentration, but for me at least, it didn't require my whole brain. I often would say that I liked taking a break from writing and editing to do page layouts and enter corrections because I could turn off the side of my brain that did the hard work. Once your eyes know what to do, your fingers automate a lot of the job at hand on the keyboard. When you're really good at laying out pages, you can have entire conversations while doing it. 

And that's when I used to listen to music.

I loved Nick Harcourt on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. He finds undiscovered artists and gives them airplay, mixed with forgotten or little-known avant garde music from the 1960s or 1980s. He'd play the occasional bluegrass song or an old folk tune from another country. 

I tuned in with a ravenous appetite for whatever was new to my ears. Sometimes I chased artists I heard, bought their albums or listened to more songs I could find online. As long as I could listen with that big piece of my brain free from difficult work tasks, I was an active listener, deconstructing what I heard, thinking about whether I liked it and why on the spot.

The Day the Music Died
Then, gradually, I moved toward more spoken podcasts and talk radio. My job progressed and I started writing more original content, researching articles I was writing, and working more closely with authors as their editor. There were still some tasks that I could do while listening to spoken words, but I couldn't do it to music--at least not new music. I started to find music distracting whenever I had to drive (which I was doing less, and then not as experienced and automated with it as I had been in the past), and eventually, it bothered me as a passenger, too.

People asked what kind of music I liked or what new bands' work I had explored recently (because I used to be a font of this kind of information), and I'd admit, "You know, I don't really listen to music anymore." Some people didn't understand. They thought I was trying to be intentionally weird. And I'd say, "No really. I don't know what happened, but it's physically difficult for me to listen to music and I don't really enjoy it anymore."

The Road Trip
In 2008, some friends of mine and I drove to Boston for a short road trip. It's a four-hour drive from New York. One of my friends in the car is from a family that listened to music pretty much non-stop. Her father was a lawyer in the music industry, and her siblings were much older than she, which all made for incredible exposure to different kinds of music.

But mostly, she knew pop songs. You know how there are pop songs from 25 years ago that you think you know every word of, and then when you hear it and try to sing along, there are a few verses that you don't know at all, or some phrase in the chorus that you aren't totally sure you know what's being said? She knew all those words. She could stop singing, back up in the lyrics, and recite them one word at a time. And she was always dead right. 

I don't have nearly that same memory recall, but I do know my fair share of Top 40 from the 1970s and 1980s in particular. 

So on this Boston road trip, we dialed into any radio station we could find playing 70s, 80s, and 90s songs. I almost always knew the song within the first few notes and could sing along to almost all of them. And it wasn't distracting.

I didn't think much about that experience until a couple of months ago when some construction was going on at the building where I work. A couple of interior contractors were putting up new walls and changing the floor plan of the space directly adjacent to where I sit. They worked the same hours I did, and they brought a radio with them.

And they set it to a station playing 70s, 80s, and 90s pop.

In my job now, I write or research information for stories more than 75 percent of the day. It takes almost all my mental focus. The other 25 percent of the time, I'm logging and tracking data and resizing images, which, similar to page layout, are tasks I can do while listening to podcasts or having another conversation. When I write, though, I have to have silence.

Or so I thought.

Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
There was simply no escaping the radio, but it played songs I knew by heart. And I liked it. I liked hearing "Gloria" twice a day every day for two weeks. I liked hearing Michael Jackson songs that I hadn't heard in years and could still lip-sync.

Lately, I've been giving music a chance again, but with the new-found knowledge that at this point in my life and with my lifestyle, I need stuff I already know. No more new music. It takes too much concentration and isn't enjoyable. 

I've been writing a lot about some childhood stuff, and it reminded me that my brother, sister, and father listened to Paul Simon's Graceland over and over and over again after it came out in 1986. My mom had divorced my father, and he took a new job in Rhode Island. He'd drive to Long Island to take us up to his place for a weekend, and we'd listen to Graceland the whole time, over and over again.

If you didn't know, kids love repetition. Except for my brother, we were all old enough to have outgrown the real love of repetition, that phase when kids repeat the same three or four words over and over and over, ad infinitum. We weren't that bad. But I think really everyone likes repetition of some kind. I think it's human nature. And I think it's also partly why we like music. Popular music is structured. It repeats sounds and rhythms and notes and words. 

A copy of Graceland now lives on my smartphone and my home computer. It's never far from reach.  I even have a copy on disc for the eight-hour drive I will be doing right after Christmas. 

If you don't know Graceland, have a listen to "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes." And pay attention to how many pieces in that song repeat.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Homemade Truffles

Homemade truffles in candy cups.
Every year in December, I bake a bunch of holiday cookies and give them away as gifts to my landlord or superintendent, boss, and a few other people to whom I want to give a little something.

This year, I went with confectionery instead. I made dozens of chocolate truffles, experimenting only a little with the fillings.

The image above shows the finished truffles in candy cups, which makes for a nicer presentations. From left to right, top to bottom, they are: chocolate with pink Himalayan salt, cayenne pepper with red Hawaiian salt, classic truffles, chocolate with rose petal, I'm not sure but possible another  cayenne, and smoked paprika.

My sister also made peanut butter cups:

Homemade peanut butter cup.

Here's another shot of the finished product below. I bought some inexpensive ($0.49) boxes at a cake decorating store and used red tissue paper to hold the truffles gently so they won't wiggle around and smudge. 

The recipe? It's very easy but rather time consuming and takes a lot of patience.

Recipe: Homemade Truffles
For the ganache filling:24 ounces chocolate, chopped (any kind is fine, really)
1 cup heavy cream
spices, your choice 
For the coating:
18 ounces dark chocolate, chopped (ideally, use something that's about 60 percent cacao or higher)

Set a heatproof bowl over barely simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water. Melt together very gently about 24 ounces of chopped chocolate and 1 cup heavy cream. Do not rush this step, and do not stir the mixture obsessively. Leave it alone. When the chocolate has melted enough that you can see a difference in color from the melting chocolate and the bits on top that are still in tact, stir gently with a folding motion. Remove the bowl from the heat and continue folding gently until all the lumps disappear. You may have to put the bowl back over the water again if there are big lumps.

You can either let this mixture cool in the bowl to room temperature, or pour it into a lined baking pan. I used an 8-by-11-inch pan lined with plastic wrap, and my house is pretty warm, so I popped it in the fridge, too. It can stay at room temperature though.

When the ganache is cooled, melt the dipping chocolate, also in a bowl over simmering water. Again, do not rush this step. It may take 40 or 50 minutes. That's okay.

When the chocolate has melted, you ideally want to temper it to make it glossier. Tempering means, more or less, manipulating the temperature. In this case, you want to cool the chocolate slightly, then raise it back up to melting temperature. There are two ways to do it:


  1. Reserve a few ounces of chocolate, and store them in the refrigerator. When the rest of the chocolate has melted, remove it from the water bath, and throw in the cold chocolate, which will bring the temperature down. After the cold chocolate melts, you can return the bowl to the water to bring it back up to temperature.
  2. Alternatively, you can remove the bowl from the steam and set it in a larger bowl with cold water. Stir the chocolate gently until it starts to thicken. (A real confectionery expert would use a thermometer, but I don't bother.) Then return it to the steam and re-melt it.

For classic truffles, you don't need the coating chocolate. Just scoop out a small amount of ganache and roll it into a ball shape with lightly buttered hands or using two spoons. Coat it in cocoa powder, and you're done.

I punched out small rounds of chocolate using fondant shape cutters. I dusted the tops of some of them very lightly with smoked paprika or cayenne (ground red pepper). If you experiment with flavors, just remember that a little goes a long way. Then, set the ganache cut-out on an off-set spatula, or the reverse end of a spoon, and dip it in the melted chocolate. Slide it onto a tray lined with parchment paper, and let it cool for a minute or two before adding a decoration to the top, like coarse salt or rose petals. use tweezers to place salt, as wet and sticky fingers won't do you any good.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Eggnog vs. Ice Cream

Eggnog: ice cream in disguise!

Why do some people hate eggnog? 

Because they don't know that it's nothing more than melted ice cream with nutmeg on top, and if you're lucky, a stiff pour of bourbon.

Allow me to demonstrate.

I've rearranged the order of the ingredients below to show how similar eggnog and ice cream are.

Eggnog
Ingredients to make 6 to 7 cups eggnog using Alton Brown's eggnog recipe from Foodnetwork:
  • 1 pint whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 ounces bourbon
Ice Cream
Ingredients to make 1 quart ice cream (using David Lebovit's vanilla ice cream recipe, which is itself adapted from The Perfect Scoop):
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
The next time someone tells you she hates eggnog, ask her how she feels about ice cream.

And if you're entertaining this holiday season and forget the eggnog or the grocery store runs out of it, just buy a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, dump it into a bowl, and let it melt in the refrigerator. Then grate some nutmeg on top, hit it with a shot of bourbon or whiskey, and consider your holiday drinking obligations met.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Dishwasher Destroyed My Alan Turing Mug

Look how the dishwasher destroyed my Alan Turing mug.

I never grew up in a house with a working dishwasher. It was forever broken, either leaking or smelling like burning rubber. It permanently hogged space in some nook of the kitchen, but we simply learned to overlook it, forget it was there, as if it were a squatter who moves into an abandoned building and no one wants to bother evicting him because really, what the harm in just letting bygones be bygones?

We have a dishwasher now, and it's the only appliance that actually survived when we moved into this apartment in May. (The oven was DOA, and the fridge blew up in July.)

I hate the dishwasher.

Why? It doesn't wash dishes.

At first I tried using it as a mechanism that might get my dishes clean. I rinsed the plates and spoons day after day, and by the end of day three, squirted some dishwashing soap into the little compartment and let her rip.

What I got was crusty curds of food and smears of egg yolk stuck on the underside of plates, glasses with a thin layer of citrus pulp cemented to the inside walls, mugs still stained with coffee, and spoons slick with the dog's saliva (we let her lick the spoon when we scoop out her food).

So now I scrub all my dishes just a little bit with a brush and warm soapy water before loading them into the dishwasher. Now about 15 percent of them come out dirty.

The little compartment that holds the soap doesn't always pop open, so sometimes when I open the dishwasher to unload it, I find all the soap sitting there, waiting to be let loose on some dirty dishes! Alas, it has missed its chance. Then I'll grab my trusty dish washing brush and a cup of water and clean that thing by hand, too.

The dishwasher has also destroyed by Alan Turing mug (above). It's a cheap mug, I'm sure, but the colors never bled until May, when we moved in and started using the dishwasher.


Coffee-stained mug: You can remove stains with baking soda and a damp paper towel.

How to Get Coffee or Tea Stains Off Mugs
Tip: To get coffee stains off mugs, which I'm sure you have, too, if you wash your cups in a dishwasher, line them up on the counter and grab a damp paper towel. Sprinkle a bit of baking soda into your first mug, and use the paper towel to give it a quick scrub. The baking soda will stick to the paper towel, so just move on to the next mug and repeat. Rinse your cups thoroughly in warm water (or you'll see white gritty streaks of residual baking soda) and let dry.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I'm Behind...

An experiment in using Pinterest for holiday gift lists.
The earliest I have ever bought anyone a Christmas gift is August. This year, it's nearly December, and I've gotten nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

...On Holiday Shopping
I'm behind on not just shopping, but also wrapping my head around a game plan for shopping. Sure, I've thought about budgeting for the holidays long enough to write about it, and have booked not one, but two car rentals for the holidays. (I made the reservations early, no money down, to lock in a decent price while not totally committing to which days I'm going to travel, and gave myself some flexibility in the car size because I'm not sure how many people are coming with me yet. I'll cancel one of the reservations in the next week or two.) And yes, I did initiate a collaborative wish list for gifts with my sisters way back on November 1. But that doesn't mean I feel ready for holidays one bit.

Nor do I have a clue what I'm going to buy.

Seeing as I don't know what to get, I couldn't take advantage of Black Friday or Cyber Monday, although it seems as if Cyber Monday is going to get extended into Cyber Week, so perhaps there's still time if act fast.

...On The Whirlwind That Was Thanksgiving
The Thanksgiving Day holiday, which I've taken to calling American Thanksgiving because Canada celebrates her own special day of the same name in October, was tiring and sapped different kinds of muscle than the ones I'm used to flexing.

Boyfriend and I flew to San Francisco Wednesday morning -- the same day his mother moved back into her own home after spending three weeks in the hospital (cancer and cancer complications). We were all thrilled to see her come home, but she's not exactly "recovered" as it were. We knew we would have to minimize excessive smells, like a roasting 30-pound bird, as well as any undue commotion, like too many people dropping by to say hello. Boyfriend's family is one of he most social I've known. Someone is always dropping by, whether it's Thanksgiving or St. Patrick's Day or just a Tuesday evening in June when the baseball game is on (go, Giants).

Their/our close family friends offered to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal for his family and me and bring it over so we wouldn't have to do really anything at all other than clear off the dining room table. We took them up on it, and I know everyone was extremely grateful for their generosity. It removed a huge burden and to use the same phrase twice in one post, a number of trickle-down problems.

And did I mention the dog?

Not my dog. The other dog. Thanksgiving morning, we arrived at Boyfriend's mother's house and saw a black and white Border Collie mix licking the sidewalk. She looked thin and friendly. I was on the phone with my mom. "Hey mom, I'm going go. We just found a stray dog, but she definitely looks like she belongs to someone."

She came when called, and sized us up as to whether we had any food. Someone got a bowl of water. She drank it down. We checked her collar, but it had no tags. She was thin and hungry, but clean and obedient. She sat when told and exposed her belly when I started to scratch her hind quarters. The scoop of cat food we set before her disappeared within seconds.

Lost Collie San Francisco
Lost Collie mix, female, found in San Francisco Thanksgiving Day.

So we stayed outside, sure that her owner would come charging down the street hollering her name at any moment. But no one came. I posted her photo on Facebook and Craigslist, and looked for any other posting of a lost dog that fit her description. No luck.

We jumped in the car, and she hopped right in, too, and brought her to an animal clinic that was open. The staff person scanned her neck for a microchip, and again, no luck.

So we drove all the way downtown to the Animal Care & Control center and signed her in for a room. Everyone said her owner would most likely claim her, since she clearly belonged to someone, but we left a phone number just in case.

That all took place Thanksgiving morning, mind you, when no one wants to work and no one wants to figure out what to do with a stray, but very sweet and well-trained, dog.

...On Fixing Up The Dang House
From left to right: refrigerator, oven, dishwasher,
box containing new kitchen pantry, all
encroaching on my dining room back in September.
I'm also behind where I would like to be fixing up the dang house. We moved into our apartment seven months ago. For the most part, we have what we need and are comfortable, but there's still more to do. I knew it would take a while to get the kitchen disaster in order, which it now is, but I neglected to consider the trickle-down effects. Remodeling the kitchen wiped out my savings, and thus, I have no money to spend on a new rug for the living room, chairs for the dining room, or all the shelves, bins, paint, curtains, and other odds and ends that, you know, tie the room together.

It'll get there, I know. But right now there are so many other things vying to be made a priority: going to the gym, food shopping, work, blogging, creative writing, cleaning. Some of the things I'd like to catch up on require more focus, though. I either need to set aside the small stuff and tackle Christmas shopping or home decorating full-on, or let them slide a few more days while I take care of the more habitual stuff.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Putting It Off 'Til It's Perfect

"Let's have a dinner party," I said. Our kitchen, at the time, looked something like this:


"Okay. When?" Boyfriend answered.

"Early October," I said. It was the end of September.

"You sure you want to count your chickens like that?" The kitchen had just been gutted to the studs, and the biggest point of progress was that it now had a floor. The anticipated finish date was Friday, September 27. When we started the project, our anticipated completion date was end of the summer. We were both cautiously optimistic, but also highly skeptical, that we'd hit the deadline.

"I don't care!" I was perkier than usual. I hardly ever use exclamation points when I talk. "It'll be done. Or it'll be done enough. I don't want to put off having a social life waiting for the kitchen to be 'perfect.' Nothing in life is perfect. No one expects things to be perfect. If we put it off because the kitchen may not be finished, then we'll put it off again and again... 'because we don't have the right furniture,' 'because it's too cold and no one wants to come to Queens when it snows,' 'because our budget is too tight to buy dinner for six people.'" I stopped. Our budget was too tight to make dinner for six people.

"It'll be tapas. That's so inexpensive. And we'll make it pot-luck style. Everyone can bring something. We'll make tortilla, which is basically just eggs, and little pinxons, a big salad, a loaf of bread. Someone will bring wine. People always bring wine. We'll buy two or three bottles. It'll be fun!"

"Okay," Boyfriend said. "I support you." That phrase is code for, "Seeing as you're going to do it anyway, let me remind  you that I'm on your team, but you are steering this ship, not me."

On Thursday, September 26, the kitchen workers told me that they realized one of the cabinets was the wrong size. "We'll rush order a new one, but it's going to take two weeks."

"I've waited long enough, I can wait two more weeks for a cabinet," I said.

On Friday, September 27, Boyfriend and I got an email saying the tile we picked for the backsplash had only just that day shipped. It would arrive October 3. I called the contractor, who called the tile installation guy, who said he'd have to take a look at his schedule.

On Friday, October 5, we had our friends over for dinner anyway. The kitchen had one big empty space where a cupboard should have been. the entire back wall behind the sink and counters was bare. Two boxes of tile sat in the dining room.

And you know what? I don't think anyone minded. We fired up some shishito peppers (all the Padróns were finished for the season) and left a few huge wedges of cheese on the table with some baguette. We cut fat triangles of tortilla and let it hang out at room temperature. Someone spilled an entire glass of wine that sloshed all over the floor and up the wall, and someone else caught the wine glass miraculously before it smashed on the ground.

Sometimes friends or family will talk about how they want to travel or have children or taking some other step in life, followed by, "But first I'm going to wait until..." "we have more time," "I make more money," "things finally settle down with..."

And it never happens. It never gets easier. No one ever has the right amount of money or the right amount of time.

Sometimes you have to just shut up and charge forward with "enough." Otherwise, you'll put it off forever. Our kitchen still isn't painted (we got as far as priming and picking a color, then got sidetracked by more important matters) and we still need to spackle over a couple of nail holes. But it's all done in the sense that I don't have to worry about the little things, like nail holes and paint, any more. It's done "enough."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Broccoli, Broccoli Rabe, Broccolini: What's the Difference?

Broccoli rabe (mustard family)
Has anyone else noticed that commercially grown broccoli rabe (also known as rappini and broccoli rapé) is starting to look an awful lot like baby broccoli?

Broccolini (trademarked hybrid of broccoli and kai-lan)
I spotted this trend maybe a year or two after seeing Rachel Ray cook with broccoli rabe on 30 Minute Meals (there should be a hyphen in the title of that show; there isn't). Let's presume that was 2005 or 2006, back when I lived in San Francisco and spent a lot of time watching The Food Network while working out at a nice gym that had television screens on every cardio machine. I watched a lot of Rachel Ray back then. Don't worry. I'm over it now.

Broccoli rabe tastes like a dark, leafy, bitter green. It's in the mustard family.

Broccoli, marked by unique blueish-green florets, is related to cabbage.

Before 2006 or so, I'd buy broccoli rabe and occasionally find one or two broccoli-like florets among the greens. But they were rare. You'd easily mistake them for "baby broccoli," or Broccolini—yes, capitalized because it's a trademarked name. It's a man-made hybrid of broccoli and kai-lan (also known as "Chinese broccoli" and, similar to broccoli rabe, is actually a dark leafy green), according to Wikipedia. Sometimes kai-lan is called "Chinese kale" which seems to me like a more descriptive way to put it to Americans.

Broccoli (cabbage family)
I'd buy broccoli rabe and find one or two "bloomed" florets, and I wasn't even sure if I was supposed to eat them. With broccoli rabe, it's all about the leaves and the stems which become tender quickly when steamed or sautéed.

More recently, though, the stuff in the store is half florets and half leafy greens. If I had to guess, I'd say the vegetable gained popularity a few years ago, but because of the name, Americans expected it to be somewhat similar to broccoli. And so the growers made that happen. Again, I don't know if that's true, but it's my guess.

Today I went to the Green Market (New York City's farmers' market) and tada! Real broccoli rabe! If you're looking for the real deal, that wonderful bitter green that sautées up nicely with a bit of minced garlic and some olive oil, try hitting up the famers directly. They know what broccoli rabe is supposed to be.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Recipe: Homemade Corn Bread


Homemade corn bread: flour, cornmeal, sugar, egg, milk, canola oil, baking powder, salt.
You know who makes the best corn bread? Trader Joe's. I swear! I'm all for making things from scratch, but the dry corn bread mix at TJ's is awesome. It's sweet and has little kernels of sweet corn that rise to the top when it's cooked and get kind of crusty on the edges.

But you know who makes the second best corn bread? I do. Effective yesterday. I finally found a recipe and tinkered with it until it came out very much to my liking.

Simple and sweet, this recipe doesn't use any special-purchase ingredients, like buttermilk, or any two-step ingredients, like melted butter that's then beaten into oblivion with sugar. I love recipes that use only things I already have in my pantry and refrigerator, or that are fast to whip together. This recipe is both. Enjoy!

Sweet and Simple Corn Bread
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar, divided [I subsequently tried scaling back the sugar to 1/2 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons for dusting with good results]
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1/3 cup canola oil (or vegetable oil)
1 egg, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. If you have a convection fan, turn that sucker on.

Grease (butter, shortening, lard, cooking spray, or whatever you have) a 9-inch round cake pan and sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar inside. Tilt the pan to thoroughly coat the bottom and sides with sweet, delicious sugar.
Homemade corn bread, which is almost as good as Trader Joe's corn bread from the mix.

Sift or whisk together the flour, cornmeal, 2/3 cup sugar, salt, and baking powder. Dump in all the wet ingredients at once and mix. It can be a little lumpy, but not as lumpy as muffin batter. It's fine if the batter is smooth, but somewhere in between is ideal.

Pour the batter into the prepare cake pan. Tap the pan firmly on the counter to force the batter even. Then sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sugar on top.

Bake for about 20 minutes on the top rack until the crust cracks (or until a toothpick or butter knife comes out cleanly, if you like that trick). Let cool or you'll burn your freaking fingers and tongue. Serve warm or at room temperature, no butter required. It's sweet! To store wrap it loosely in foil and set in a dry place or in the refrigerator. If you wrap it in plastic wrap or an air-tight container, the corn bread will get mushy.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

How Much Does Google Shape What We Know?


Google Data Center near Atlanta, Georgia, US (copyright Google, retrieved from Der Spiegel)
A data center, owned by Google near Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.),  represent a 
real-world image of the powers shaping what we know and how we know it.
German weekly Der Spiegel, which is sometimes referred to as The New Yorker of Europe, ran a long piece this month all about Google. The magazine translated the article into English with the title "A Visit to Google Land: The Intransparent Methods an Internet Giant," and ran it publicly on Der Spiegel Online International.

The article gave a long scope summary of some of Google's legal battles in Europe and the U.S. with regards to the antitrust suits in particular. The authors cited a few clear cut examples of businesses and organizations that feel Google has treated unfairly by lowering how their Web pages rank in Google's search results. On page 2, for example, the authors explain how Google maps in Germany doesn't necessarily show the most direct train route or lowest fares for rail travel, due to a partnership it made with one particular rail carrier, Deutsche Bahn, whose routes and fares are promoted while others are suppressed, even if they would be "better for the user" (a phrase Google often uses in defending its practices, though clearly not in this case).

While the Der Spiegel's staff does a fine job of explaining the lawsuits at large and giving a few specific  insights into how businesses are affected, and even putting real names and faces to the people who run those businesses being hurt by Google, I don't think the articles goes deep enough in explaining why some of Google's tactics are truly harmful... and not to businesses and organizations, but to individuals and what I'm going to call "societal knowledge," which is not the same as "public knowledge."

Let's say "public knowledge" is open access to knowledge, which Google has radically enhanced for the better over its short lifespan as a company. "Societal knowledge" on the other hand, I'm going to say is what communities come to believe due to exposure. Access and exposure are not the same thing. Google gives outstanding access to information. Any user can drill down through page upon page of search results. Exposure, on the other hand, is what we're talking about when we say that only the first page of Google search results matter, and many businesses will go further to clarify that the top three results on the first page are the only ones that truly matter. Those top three results are "exposed" to people. It's what they see.

One of my favorite TED Talks, by Eli Pariser called Beware the online "filter bubble" (embedded below) explains how Google modifies the order in which results appear per individual user. If people with certain commonalities--say, middle-income white Americans living in urban areas--tend to have similar quantifiable characteristics as determined by Google, which is likely, then this communities will have a similar filter bubble. That's what's really detrimental about some of Google's practices, in my opinion.

I think we're still in the very early days of the Internet and that a lot of these issues will play out over the next several decades. Some of the solutions will come from governments and regulatory bodies. Some will be innovations by businesses. Some will come about due to practices of users, how they choose to find information and what sources they use. Users are savvy, and the savviest ones will adapt first. Business are innovative and the most innovative ones will shake up the search landscape one way or another. But societies are less savvy and less embracing of innovation. Societies and communities at large change more slowly. So it will take time to see the fruits of a radically shift in how we search and how we find information online, but I think it's already starting to happen.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cash Poor, Kitchen Rich

A glimpse of my new kitchen,
with one hole for a missing cabinet.
In March, Boyfriend and I bought an apartment. We definitely view home-ownership as an investment and crunched a lot of numbers before deciding to buy.

We knew before we took the place, an enormous one-bedroom in Sunnyside, Queens (New York), that the kitchen needed work. What we didn't know was it would be impossible to do all the work piecemeal. Without getting into the details (I'll save that for another post when it's really really all done), it was like a three-dimensional puzzle, where all the parts lock into place precisely and fall apart if even one piece is jiggled from where it belongs. The broken oven, the floor tiles, the dropped claustrophobic ceiling all knit together. Change one, and you'll have to change them all.

And change them all we did.

We gutted that kitchen down to the studs. Today, the last cabinet will be installed. The final piece was stalled because the manufacturer initially built the wrong size cabinet. But it arrives today.

I'm excited to have a completed and usable kitchen again, but I'm pretty broke at the moment. My friend and I were chatting the other night about how I'm tightening the belt for a while, and he said, "You're not broke. You're just cash-poor," and I had to remind myself, "Oh right. It's an investment."

Indeed: cash-poor and kitchen-rich.

P.S. We still need to paint.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Layers and Storytelling


This blog's focus is about to expand. I'll explain a little further down how this photo is related.

I've been hinting for a while that, as far as my own writing goes, technology is becoming as important a topic as food. If you're new to this blog or don't know me well, here's a quick summary:

Brief Background and Summary
By day, Monday through Friday, I'm a full-time writer at PC Magazine. Mostly, I test and evaluate software products and write reviews of them. I also have a weekly column about digital organization called Get Organized.

While I consider myself a technology writer and journalist, I fought it for a long time because I wanted to be a food writer instead. All my early jobs, in high school and college, were in the food services industry. I wrote (and edited) about food a little bit professionally, but it's tough, highly competitive, and not often a full-time gig. Full-time employment has always been important to me because I grew up kind of poor and now that I'm an adult, I can't imagine choosing a life that didn't provide steady income, health insurance, and a stable and predictable routine.

I got into technology writing and editing because 1) that's where the jobs were when I graduated college, 2) I was willing to get my foot in the editorial door anyway I could, 3) my confidence led to me believe that I could figure out things that I didn't already know. And largely, I've done all right.

My interest in technology has become more important to me over the years for another reason: I'm female.

Women still aren't abundant in the technology field, even as journalists. At PC Magazine, my editors and colleagues have all boosted my confidence ten fold by treating me like the "expert" I'm supposed to be. (And on that note, I found this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy inspiring, particularly toward the end when she says, "fake it 'til you make it.")

I have opinions about technology and how it affects people and societies, and their relationships. I have insights that other technology "experts" don't, party because I'm female, but partly because I grew up poor and I can imagine daily struggles that affluent people just don't know exist.

The Blog's Focus is Expanding
More and more, when I think about what it is I really want to write -- and I spend a lot of time thinking about that -- I home in on something related to technology, usually from a social sciences perspective, but not always. And they're usually big-picture ideas, like "Does having a long history with email prevent people from seeing the value of social networking platforms?" and "How much can online communication and socialization supplement or perhaps even replace live social interaction?"

In addition to wanting to write more about my interests as they relate to technology, I'll also expand to talk a little more about daily life.

Let me talk about picture at the top of this post now.

It's a copper-colored lighting fixture. A lamp.

But as you look closer, the reflection shows me and my camera, and a runway outside the glass behind me. It's at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, or more specifically, at a cafe inside Schiphol where Boyfriend and I slurped coffee and ate chocolate while waiting to board another plane. We were in transit, on our way from here to there, stopping for a moment, taking it in. What I like about the photo is how you can uncover some of that story just by looking through the layers.

That's what I intend to do on this blog, too: start looking at more layers, beyond jotting down recipes and writing about restaurants, to put tell a larger story.

I hope you'll come with me.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What Really Happened at the eBay Event

eBay hosted a press event earlier this week. I attended. I wrote my little summary news story about how eBay is redesigning its site, adding new services, and starting to mirror a lot of what Google and Pinterest do.

What I didn't write about was my visceral reaction to the presentation.

Great press events put polished performers on swanky stages. eBay's did. It took place in New York City in this amazingly cool space in Chelsea, very close to Chelsea Markets. The space was a blank slate, and eBay built a room for the presentation, an entryway with buffet tables of coffee, juice, pastries, and tall dessert parfait glasses filled with layers of yogurt, fruit, and granola. The presentation room was rounded, with white walls in every direction acting as projection screens, where images of the speaker's eBay purchases were projected while some of them were speaking, enticing you to look at all their beautiful stuff. Even the white leather chairs for guests projected the image that eBay put a lot of thought into how this day would play out; you could spin in them and see everything projected on all the wall surfaces, even the parts behind you.

What enraged me, though, was the storytelling.

eBay has a unique marketplace. It's huge. It's 11 years old. It's international. People buy things on eBay that they can't find anywhere else. And incredible stories live in those purchases. But to me, an incredible story is someone buying medical equipment that a hospital told them they couldn't get. Or a person reunited with a lost heirloom (in eBay's defense, there was one story of a man who bought a motorcycle, which turned out to be the very same one his father used to own). eBay's chief marketing office, Richelle Parham, however, wanted to talk about cars. And mobile apps. And one of the "incredible" stories she told was about a traveler whose flight was delayed. While this man sat in an airplane on the tarmac at JFK airport, he got bored. So he took out his smartphone and started browsing on the eBay app. Then he bought a Hummer.

Parham's expression in telling this story was one of delight and awe. She loved that this guy spent $113,000 (I could be off, but I believe that's the figure she cited) on a Hummer while hanging out in a grounded airplane. And she prompted everyone in the room to clap and "represent New York" after telling this little story.

Two words come to mind: one percent.

How is that an inspiring story? It is grotesque. The concept of buying a hundred-thousand dollar vehicle on a whim because you're bored is appalling. And not clapping has nothing to do with not representing New York. If anything, not clapping represents New York. It should have told her we were not impressed with that disgusting display of wealth.

Parham also showed pictures of her own car and gushed about it. Now, I'm not an auto enthusiast, so I don't remember exactly what kind of car it was, but it was something special and vintagey. I'm going to call it the Malibu Stacey Car. The way she talked about how much she loved her Malibu Stacey Car was equally sickening because it showed she was out of touch with the people in the room.

A few of the other stories told at the eBay event went along the lines of "this guy collects records, and he was missing a record from his collection, and then he found it on eBay and bought it." And: "With the new eBay features, you can look at pictures of stuff you want to buy, even if you can't afford them, like this Chanel handbag. Isn't it great?"

I told Boyfriend, who had a great response. "The slogan should be, ' eBay: Where people spend money on stuff they kind of want.'"

I get that eBay is about shopping. I get that the company embraces shopping and makes it money when people buy and sell stuff. But for a press event, the executives who spoke had an opportunity to tell truly inspiring stories, and they didn't. Instead, they showed they are deeply out of touch with what's going on in the world today.