Monday, January 25, 2010

Alton Brown is obviously my best friend (Chicken Noodle & Lentil Soups, and cupcakes for good measure)

Today is my half birthday. I don't think anyone other than Leos keep track of their half birthdays past the age of 11 or so, but here we are. I am old. Today was also my first day of classes for the semester, since all my classes are on Monday and classes began on Tuesday last week out of reverence for Dr. King. It was a miserable day, and not only because this officially means the craziness has begun anew. I woke up sick on Sunday morning, again. I don't know what it is about this city, but apparently it is intent on me being sick for weeks on end this winter. It probably has something to do with me spending 2 hours a day in a metal tube with dozens (and dozens) of strangers, but hey. So, I leave my afternoon class and have a text message waiting for me from E, alerting me to the fact that dinner is waiting for me at home. Score! I love cooking, but when I'm sick, I love whining more.

I get home, and there's a big pot of homemade chicken noodle soup simmering on the stove! Someone took some Awesome Juice this morning and whipped up some culinary magic. Okay, for the record, a big pot of soup on the stove is likely to make me grin no matter what the weather, and what the state of my health, but there is something so exciting about hot soup when you're sick and it's a miserably rainy day, isn't there?

E grabbed Alton Brown's recipe for chicken noodle soup off the web. We didn't have an onion, but I think the important flavor factor in chicken noodle soup is actually the celery, so it's all good. The recipe doesn't call for any actual chicken (and could therefore easily be made vegetarian using vegetable stock instead of chicken), so E added a little as well. It came out great and reminds me a lot of my mom's -- it would just need some dumplings. Mmmm, dumplings. So yes, good job (and thanks!) E!

While we're on the subject, one of my favorite kinds of soup is lentil soup. Easy, cheap and savory, lentil soup is one of those foods that just seems to taste better after a couple days in the fridge, with all the flavors melding. Unfortunately, this pot of soup didn't last that long. I threw together Alton Brown's lentil soup for a total of about 3 bucks, and it was amazing and fed 2 people for 3 very satisfying meals. I didn't use the spices he recommended (and, truth be told, I don't even know what grains of paradise are) and instead minced an entire bulb of fresh garlic and threw in some dried cilantro and dried basil. When in doubt, go with garlic, am I right? I seriously cannot rave about this soup enough. Since I ate the last bowl of it, I've been craving it, and I might make it this week just to have one portion, and freeze the rest. So, so good.

In a completely unrelated note, I was hungry after dinner the other night, and I finally decided to use the year-old box of carrot cake mix my mom gave me (now I know where I get the urge to foist junk I don't want anymore onto my friends and family) and made cupcakes. I was going to leave them unfrosted and pretend they were muffins so we could just eat them for breakfast, but E wanted frosting, so I followed this recipe for Honey Cinnamon Buttercream Frosting. It came out great -- fluffy and sweet -- but I added a bit more cinnamon to tone the sweetness down a bit.

The frosting attempt was much more successful than my last attempt at buttercream. I won't even link to the recipe, but I will say that the Hershey's perfectly chocolate cupcakes I made the other day came out, well, perfect. The recipe was easy to throw together and tasted better than boxed mix (dark and moist and dense and just the right amount of chocolatey), and the minimal use of dairy is great for people with delicate constitutions. Just a warning, though: I halved the recipe posted there and still ended up with 12 cupcakes (6 more than I wanted). I'm not even going to pretend I didn't eat the extras, though.

I need a hobby other than baking, ha.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Miniature things are always better!

As a budding museum professional, you might assume that I enjoy spending time in museums. You would be correct. As previously mentioned, I also love theme parks, and the intersection of museums and theme parks is, arguably, World's Fairs! The day we leased our apartment, we had to drive across Queens to get cash out of the bank, and we drove past the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the site of both the 1939-40 and 1964-65 World's Fairs. From the highway, you can see the Unisphere, the New York State Pavilion (which is basically in ruins), and the Queens Museum of Art, which was the New York City building, served as the meeting place for the UN General Assembly for a while, and also housed an ice skating rink, which was apparently decommissioned last year.

Immediately, I was stoked. We went for a visit in August before E started school, checked out all the remnants of the fairs, and went to the Queens Zoo, where the aviary is a geodesic dome that was the Winston Churchill pavilion at the fair. Insanely cool. The whole park is full of recognizable things. It was built on an ash-dumping ground that F. Scott Fitzgerald called "a valley of ashes" in The Great Gatsby. The observation towers on the New York State Pavilion were the alien spaceships at the end of Men in Black. The US Open is played there, and the Mets play at Citi Field on the grounds. The Unisphere is one of the most recognized symbols of Queens.

And, tucked inside the Queens Museum of Art, is one of the coolest things I've seen in a museum: an amazing scale model of Manhattan and its boroughs. We decided to have a cheap daytime date today ($2.50 per student!) and go check it out. The photos on the museum's website do not convey the scale of this thing. At over 9000 square feet (that's like 10 of my apartments, FYI), it takes up most of the sizable building, and features nearly 900,000 (THAT'S 90% OF ONE MILLION!) individual structures. I found our apartment! I found Coney Island! My school! E's! A thousand other awesome things! And all in one very large room!

The viewing platform is a ramp around the perimeter of the panorama, mimicking the original simulated helicopter ride in glass-bottomed cars from 1964-65. We spent a ton of time in there, taking everything in, though the rest of the museum is pretty cool as well. Afterwards, we went outside and enjoyed the January thaw by meandering around the Unisphere (and spent about 15 minutes trying to get the perfect picture of me playing Atlas with the Unisphere on my back). With another museum (the New York Hall of Science), a theater (Queens Theater has taken up residence in the usable parts of the former NY State Pavilion), and several sports arenas on the grounds, I anticipate spending more time at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the future. Especially since I am now intent on bringing every visitor we have to see the amazing panorama at the Queens Museum of Art. SO. COOL.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wedding Dress Shopping, Part 1

Apparently, if I'm feeling discouraged about something, I should blog about it. After my post the other day whining about my difficulties running, I went out that afternoon and finally conquered by 25 minute run! I came home feeling amazing, took a shower, and wanted to pass out, but it's ALL GOOD because I did it! Back on the wagon, guys.

So, now I'm going to blog about wedding dress shopping, because it's probably more intimidating than a 25 minute run. When Ren was here, one of our goals was to go to David's Bridal and try on some dresses. Granted, without having our venue completely pinned down, it was unlikely that I'd buy anything at this juncture, but it would still be nice to have a few things in mind and see what does and doesn't work on my body.

Our grand plan to was drink, try on dresses, and drink some more as a follow up. We headed into Manhattan and found the David's Bridal, and as soon as we walked in, I was hit by a wall of white that was very intimidating. A desk was set up by the door for people to "register," but I averted my eyes and ducked to the left side of the store, to the safe haven of bridesmaids' dresses and unassisted shopping. Ren tried to harass me over to the other side of the store, but I mumbled that I thought I was backing out, and eventually I convinced her that it was true. We made a hasty exit and ended up at a Goodwill shop across the street. She tried to talk me into one of the abandoned 80s-style wedding dresses there, but don't worry, it didn't happen.

Of the wedding-planning experiences I will undertake in the next year, dress shopping is both one of my most anticipated and most dreaded. I love playing dress up, as anyone in my family can tell you. E can even complain at length about how many outfits I try on before I leave the house, and how often I spontaneously change clothes midway through the day. When I was little, my mother promised to make me a "wedding dress" and veil out of the white lace shower curtains she was getting rid of, and I was disappointed when they never appeared. I am also a sucker for a gorgeous dress. That said, I don't have the cash to drop thousands of dollars on a 1-day dress, so a lot of things I love on first glance get immediately dismissed for monetary reasons. Apparently, I have expensive taste. I'm not even going to inquire about the designer bridal gowns I was ogling lustfully in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue today. God they were gorgeous.

On the other hand, though, I am not really excited about an over-attentive salesperson cooing at me while I stand on a pedestal in some fancy frock. Coupled with my desire to put on a show is a moderately severe introversion that doesn't appreciate the attention of strangers. So, the dress shopping experience itself will likely be stressful. Also, that white dress? I'm not really excited about it. I mean, I get it and all. I'm the bride, I'm supposed to be in white. But there's something about that awkward implication of "purity" -- an arbitrary categorization, to be sure -- that, even though I haven't really believed it since I was about 9 years old, is lurking in the back of my head and squicking me out. E's not a fan of the white dress phenomenon, either, and wants to see me in blue, my favorite color. This whole brides-wear-white thing has only been around for a hundred and fifty years, anyway, so it's not exactly as far-reaching a human cultural tradition as, say, marriage.

Which brings me to my most enduring frustration with the wedding dress search: I cannot find a dress in a suitable color! I'm interested in, in this order, grey, champagne, very light blue and white dresses. And even though practically every starlet on the red carpet at this weekend's Golden Globes was in grey or gold or peach, it apparently hasn't trickled down to normal folks' fashionz yet, because I can't find anything anywhere. I'll settle for an ivory dress (which would allow for the awesome wedding shoes I want), but in the meantime I will keep up the search.

And maybe someday, I'll brave a David's Bridal. Maybe. But for real, there might have to be alcohol involved.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Getting nowhere.

I started running in November, and had pretty great momentum through December. One of the perks of being a grad student is a pretty flexible schedule, overall, which allowed me to run every other day, outside, before it got dark, even when the time change kicked in. Then, during finals week I had about a million assignments due all at once, and I took the week off from running. Immediately following that was a whirlwind of cooking, cleaning, packing and traveling for the holidays, and the day we returned to the city I was laid out with a week long illness that left me completely drained and exhausted. So, three weeks off. Ultimately, this wasn't entirely negative (I ended up with a 3.8 GPA for the semester, had a delightful and delicious holiday, and was able to recover fully without straining my body), but it did set me back in my running.

Since then, I have been stalled on Week 6 of the Couch to 5K running program. I seem to have lost a lot of the enthusiasm I had going into this, and am often forcing myself outside to run. Once I'm on the road, I am constantly calculating how long I have to run til I get to stop, and I often find myself going too hard at the beginning and then psyching myself out, so I am gasping for breath and panicking about whether or not I can finish. The last time I went for a run, I had to stop because I thought I was going to throw up, even though I hadn't eaten in a few hours. I've had one truly successful run in the last 2 weeks, where I got home feeling great. Otherwise I've come home gassed and discouraged, wanting nothing more than to sleep for a few hours.

The other tricky thing, going forward, is my schedule this semester. It's going to be getting dark early for another few months (though it's already lighter noticeably later!), and this semester I have class all day til 6 pm on Mondays and an internship on Wednesdays and Thursdays, all day. Somewhere in there I need to work on campus, and hopefully (HOPEFULLY) I will be getting a part time job off campus for other times. This schedule will probably requiring me fixing my running schedule to 3 unchanging days per week, rather than running every other day every week. Also, I might have to get over my fear of running at night and start packing some mace and running without my beloved podcasts.

In terms of this immediate block, I think those podcasts might actually have something to do with it. During the podcasts, their creator comes on to tell you when to walk, when to run, and to offer some encouragement along the way. In general, I have found his podcasts to be extremely helpful, and I kind of feel like he's my buddy, running along with me out in California. However, right now I think the podcasts are kind of hurting my running, because I spend the run trying to figure out when the hell he's going to tell me I can stop running, rather than focusing on form and breathing and speed. I might have to take a little break from the podcasts til I get over this current hurdle.

I am planning to register for a race or two in the next couple of months to get myself motivated and to help me get accustomed to the race setting. I'm evening toying with the idea of signing up for a half marathon in April, with a plan to run/walk it as best I can. Before I jump the gun with this, though, I should probably focus on today's run -- and at least get through it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

I have no words

The Boston Globe's "Big Picture" Series says more about the earthquake in Haiti than I ever could:

The First 24 Hours || 48 Hours Later

I just have to say this: ...Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson have been weighing in on how Haiti has been cursed by God once again, but, you know, the truth of the matter is that this is a manmade disaster in the sense that the extreme vulnerability to earthquakes is manmade. And that has a long history and that‘s a history that begins way back with the slave colony that the French established in Haiti, the hideous slave colony, and the fact that the Haitians [are] the only slaves on earth who freed themselves and created their own republic and then got punished for it ever since.

And, you know, we need to fix this. We need to fix this problem right now. We need to get as much material and doctors and everything in there as we possibly can and do this in a concerted way, but afterward, we need to continue to care about Haiti. It is one of the most beautiful and important cultures ever born under the face of this earth and it is in danger. It seems to me, long-term danger.

We need a concerted effort, one that—one that is not self-serving, but one that attempts to serve the poor of Haiti, the vast majority of Haiti. And to do that through strengthening Haitian institutions instead of doing what the United States has done all too often there, which is to weaken them.

-Tracy Kidder, The Rachel Maddow Show

American Red CrossInternational Rescue Committee
Text HAITI to 90999 (Donates $10)Text HAITI to 25383 (Donates $5)
Salvation ArmyYĆ©le
Text HAITI to 52000 (Donates $10)Text YELE to 501501 (Donates $5)
The United WayThe United Nations Foundation
Text HAITI to 864833 (Donates $5)Text CERF to 90999 (Donates $5)
The Clinton FoundationOther Relief Organizations
Text HAITI to 20222 (Donates $10)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Magical nostalgia - Why I love Disney World.

When I was 5, my maternal grandfather died, and my family decided it was high time we started taking those fabled family vacations Americans were supposed to take. In January of 1991, while the aerial bombardment of Kuwait began, we went on our first-ever family visit to the Happiest Place on Earth (though I'm not sure it had been branded as such yet). I don't remember much, aside from this one image of my mom, totally drenched and in a peach colored windbreaker, standing in front of a sea of yellow Mickey ponchos that were omnipresent as soon as it started to rain.

I've been back a bunch of times since then -- 6 trips with family, 2 with my high school band, and once most recently with E this past year. We alternated Disney trips with other trips growing up, and I definitely want to continue seeing other parts of the world, but Disney holds a huge place in my heart and my imagination. Disney is ultimately about escapism. When E and I decided to go last year (his first visit in a decade plus), we deemed it our "starter vacation." It was our first big trip together, and we decided on Disney because I had been before and was familiar with the process, and because we thought it couldn't hurt to go somewhere where people are literally paid to make your days magical. We weren't disappointed. Everyone, from shop employees to bus drivers and ride operators, was gracious, enthusiastic, and friendly. One night, while we were on the Disney motor coach, we passed a security checkpoint at the entrance to our resort, and the security officer came out with one of those Mickey hand gloves on and waved at our bus with a big smile on her face. We were literally able to have a care-free 5 days in the parks, where we didn't have to worry about cooking, driving, or, of course, working. It was great!

My love for Disney theme parks, though, is rooted in the behind-the-scenes action. It is completely fascinating to learn about the creation of these parks, and to find out how these environments were thought up. There is something just so stinking cool about creating an immersive environment where visitors can suspend disbelief and have a great time. I love noticing little things like the thematic texturing of concrete surfaces in different areas of different parks, and reading about the logic in the placement of different elements and the motivation behind different attractions and storylines. I am definitely not blinded by the Disney brand, though. Part of the stuff I love is the gossipy, dirty stuff. I also realize that Disney is a giant corporation interested in capitalizing on nostalgia to suck my money out of my pockets. I am fully aware of the fact that they drained and destroyed acres upon acres upon acres of Florida wetland for Disney World, and California Orange groves for Disneyland. I get it. But they're also working to cut their carbon emissions in half by 2012 and are greening up for sustainability and cost-savings. Frankly, any time a traveler jumps on an airplane and stays at a tourist-oriented resort, they're expanding their carbon footprint in a big way.

And yes, Disney is about nostalgia. I do have wonderful memories with many important people in my life from our time in Disney, and I love that I can walk around the parks and be reminded of the time I accidentally tripped my dad on a bridge in front of Cinderella Castle, or standing in front of the massive clock/sculpture that is the front of it's a small world in Disneyland with my mom. I remember my older sister getting chased around by Goofy at a character breakfast, and going to a luau with my little sister on our first trip. On humid spring mornings I text my sister to tell her it smells like Disney World, and I loved going in high school with my friends and experiencing Disney as an adult. And, E and I made a ton of new memories this year, though mostly of rain and ponchos and my inconveniently injured foot and resulting wheelchair.

This video is a great look at the Magic Kingdom from morning til evening, and the style makes it almost look like a miniature. As corny as it is, there is something cool in knowing that even when I'm having the shittiest of days in my normal life, someone's having an awesome day in a Disney park. My sister, who used to work in a job where they closed at 9 pm, says that every night when they closed she thought about the fireworks show that was just beginning in Epcot. I know how it is.

And if you like that one, check out the video they made of Epcot. The Magic Kingdom one is my favorite, but the Epcot one has fireworks!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It's been 5 hours since I last tasted anything. I am still full.

At 7 pm, I waved my friend Ren from Wind on My Back down into the bowels of Penn Station, and basically dragged myself back to the subway to head home. Her whirlwind 34 hour visit began with sushi and ended with fried pickles, and had many delicious culinary stops along the way. I have been stuffed silly for the entirety of today, and am having trouble imagining putting anything into my stomach for the next week or two.

One of the great things about our neighborhood is the food. Whether you're rushing to a fancy seafood restaurant in Winter's chill or ordering from the gyro cart outside of the beer garden at the end of a great Summer night, you can find something at just about any price point and a great variety of cuisines.  Being poor graduate students, E and I are still eating our way through our neighborhood's restaurants, but already we have a few favorites, which we visit with most of our visitors who blow through town.

Ren and I started at Kitaku which is across the street from our building. We each got a 2-roll lunch special that came with miso soup and salad, and we split an egg roll. The bill came to 15 bucks. Fifteen bucks! When E and I eat here, we can get a Bento box and a roll of sushi or 2 to split for under 25 bucks. Amazing. The fish is always fresh, and the other items we've tried have been great, too, though I'm not a fan of their Chinese food (aside from the egg roll). The only thing that the other sushi place we tried in our neighborhood has on Kitaku is that they forgot to charge us for a beer when we ate there. Not a reason to go back. Ever since Club 23 and its scantily clad waitresses (one Yelper says, "Not quite a titty bar, Club 23 nevertheless has varying levels of nudity happening, although none of the girls are very attractive.") vacated the space next door, Kitaku has had relief from the blaring techno that purportedly vibrated the wall it shared with the club of ill-repute. Business has seemed to pick up since then, so hopefully it continues.

For dinner (and after a disastrous attempt at wedding dress shopping) we headed down the street a block or so to The Sparrow, the bar we frequent most year-round. Across from the beer garden, it attracts a more laid back crowd, and the low light and decent beer and wine selection keeps us going back for more, not to mention the appeal of air conditioning in the summer.  We had devoured their amazing herb-encrusted french fries many an evening, but we hadn't made it down for a meal. I am very glad we finally did. I had fancy grilled cheese that was delicious, and E's mashed yuca was a great texture. Ren had a beet salad that I kind of wanted for myself, and we each had a couple drinks to wash all of it down. Deeelicious. Next time we'll try their brunch, which is supposed to be amazing.

Ren and I, full of false hope for a raucous evening, bought a big bottle of wine and came back to the apartment, where E settled down with his law school textbooks and we uncorked the bottle and started playing Mario Party. Half a glass each later, we were both ready to pass out in food/wine comas, which we did.

This morning, we got up much later than we planned, and headed to that perennial favorite, the Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company. A short 6ish minute walk away, this gem was actually discovered by a visiting friend of ours back in October, and now we can't stay away. If you want a New York bagel, come crash on my couch and we will get you a New York bagel. And it will be as big as your face. I successfully brought these home over Christmas (each in its own ziploc bag, as the internet instructed me) and my family also stuffed their faces with them with much delight. And the cream cheese. THE CREAM CHEESE.

We digested for a scant few hours while finishing our abandoned Mario Party game before heading back out for more food this afternoon. Not wanting to get on the subway again, we dragged our carb-filled bodies over to Mojave, a Mexican-y place around the corner, where my Caesar salad was GINORMOUS and the salmon on Ren's sandwich perfectly cooked. I don't know why we ate this meal. I can only speak for myself when I say that I was not hungry, but it was delicious anyway. I also got this fancy half-Dos-Equis, half-lemon-soda concoction that was pretty tasty, but only served to fill my poor stretched belly more.

Another game of Mario Party was in order to aid our digestion, so we forewent (is that a word?) our run and kicked some Wario/Waluigi ass. Soon enough it was time to head into Manhattan, so with time to kill we ended up at "FATS," or Fat Annie's Truck Stop near Penn Station. Neither of us could stomach (har har) the idea of more real food, so we hung out with some beer and an order of fried pickles. FRIED PICKLES! One of our favorite restaurants in Somerville sold fried pickles (in chip form, which is the best), and we've been looking for a decent fried pickle place down here since. Found! They were a little juicy for my liking, but still amazingly delicious. If only they had the chipotle ranch dipping sauce! Either way, the place was cute, if gimmicky, and I'm planning to drag E down there for more fried pickles, soon!

It was great to have Ren down here, and I was sad to see her go, even if the most excitement we had was her first viewing of TLC's Say Yes to the Dress. Seriously, if seeing me isn't a good enough reason to come hang out in my hood, come for the food. Come for the food!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where I delve into the wedding issue.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to write about my experiences in wedding planning. And yet, I've avoided making posts about it for a bunch of reasons. Namely, the culture surrounding weddings today is so mind-blowingly ridiculous that every time I start a post I get frustrated anew and close out the window without finishing anything.

E proposed on my birthday this summer. I woke up after a night out on the town to a sign on the door that said "STAY OUT" and some suspicious noises from the kitchen. He made me breakfast in bed and pulled out a ring, and I was so shocked that the first words out of my mouth were "Wait, are you serious?!" It's now been about 6 months, and though we'd put wedding planning on hold during the first semester of graduate/law school, we visited 2 venues this past weekend. We put a temporary hold on one date this summer, but failed attempts to coordinate vacation/other schedules this summer may be officially pushing it back to January 2011, when E will be on winter break and I'll just be working on my thesis. This means starting a venue search all over again, because a winter wedding in New England calls for an entirely different atmosphere than a summer wedding.

My wedding planning frustrations stem from the expectations of those around us, and from our own negotiation process as a couple as we look at the traditions surrounding weddings in American (and New England, which is a whole set of other issues) culture, evaluate what works for us and what we want to get rid of. The symbolism behind a lot of wedding traditions is problematic for us as a progressive, feminist couple, and yet as products of this culture, there is still a strong urge to conform to those practices. The other night, as we were talking about what color dress I should get to flounce around in at our wedding (I flounce about on every other day, why not my wedding day?), we got into a long conversation about doing things because we want to versus doing things just because that's the way things are done.

Additionally, we are continually frustrated by locations that bill themselves as "budget friendly," but in my opinion are anything but. We are grad students, it's not in the cards for us to spend the 15,000 dollars that the wedding industry seems to think is a slender budget. We want to have a wedding because we view it as an opportunity to bring together the people, whether family or friends, who will be our community for the next 10, 50, 80 years, but at the same time it is very hard for us to rationalize spending  the money. If we spent on any other party what we are expected to spend on a wedding, our family and friends would be rightly concerned about us! Something about weddings, though, makes people a little crazy.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wherever you go, there you are.

Driving back to the city tonight after a crazy weekend, I came onto the stretch of highway before the Triboro (ahem, RFK) Bridge and the view of the Manhattan skyline made me smile just a bit. I may have lived here for 5 months already, but New York, you're finally starting to feel like home.

Now if only you'd warm up a bit. Thanks.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A redo, and a lost girl. (Peanut Butter Cup Brownie Cupcakes)

We are heading into the great white north of Connecticut today! We are looking at a few (okay, one, because no one got back to us) wedding venues today, visiting some friends in Rhode Island tonight, having Christmas with my sisters and their families tomorrow, and going to a friend's daughter's birthday party on Sunday! Phew.

I am bringing dessert to Sister Christmas, and after bringing Peppermint Patty Brownie Cupcakes to my sister's house on Christmas Day, I decided to try the recipe with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups instead of Peppermint Patties, at the request of my brother-in-law. Unfortunately, I left my cocoa powder at my mother's house when I made the cupcakes over the holiday, so I had to pick up some more. When E and I went to our grocery store, they were out, so I sent him home to watch the college football championship game while I went on an epic quest for cocoa powder.

CVS didn't have it, nor did Rite Aid. I went into every little ethnic grocery and bodega in a 5 block radius, and most people just looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for cocoa powder. I always thought cocoa powder was a pretty normal ingredient to keep in the cupboards. Finally, I found a canister of carob powder in an organic market near us, and remembered something I'd read about substituting carob powder for cocoa powder. After purchasing it, I headed home, where I had to buzz up to our apartment because I hadn't taken my keys when we'd left the first time.

I buzzed. And buzzed. And buzzed again. I was outside for about 8ish minutes before I decided to buzz our neighbor (who we have never met by the way) and ask them to buzz me into the building. Just as I started to go in, E comes around the corner. Apparently, I'd been gone long enough, without keys or cell phone, that he was convinced I'd been murdered and had torn through CVS and Rite Aid looking for me. So, while I was looking for the elusive cocoa powder, he was looking for the elusive me.

Anyway, I've made this recipe twice before, always substituting regular cocoa + a bit of baking powder for the Dutch Process Cocoa it calls for. Both times, the tops didn't set correctly, though they were still delicious. I don't know if it's the carob powder, or the new mixer (which kept me from overmixing) or what, but this time, they came out perfect. Seriously, perfect. I took them out of the oven and squealed with delight because they literally looked like brownies in cupcake form! I originally was going to make Nutella frosting to go on top, but they look so pretty (and the daisy trivet my sister made me for Christmas does, too!)  I'm having a hard time justifying the frosting!

I made the recipe exactly as described, putting in the snack-pack size peanut butter cups instead of peppermint patties. And, of course, using the carob powder instead of the Dutch cocoa. You literally just use the same amount (see this chart). Supposedly carob powder is better for you, too, but I don't know. The peanut butter is a great compliment to the dense, brownie style cupcake, and I love to warm them in the microwave before devouring them, Cookie Monster style.

As I said, we're off this weekend, so I'll be back next week, when E starts classes again and leaves me a lonely, bored gal hanging out on the internet all week! Personally, I'm anticipating a visit from my friend over at Wind on My Back, during which we will try on wedding dresses and drink, though not necessarily in that order. Until then, have a spectacular weekend!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The holidays are just a good excuse to bake delicious things (Recipe Review)

E and I ordered a new comforter to go with the new sheets he got for Christmas, and even though it wasn't scheduled to arrive for another week or so, it came yesterday afternoon, which sent me running to the laundromat to wash everything and set up our new grown up bed! Just about everything we have is a hand-me-down from someone or other, and the comforter is sort of our first step towards our adult living space, whenever that happens. We had some lovely visitors last night into this morning, and once they left I got back into our wonderfully made-over bed and have not left yet. Thank you, laptops!

It's also incredibly frigid here, today. We took a walk to the bagel shop this morning with our guests, and it was 19° with a biting wind. Needless to say, it's another reason to stay in bed allllll day. What better time to review some recipes for some sweet things I've made over the last few weeks?

Red Velvet Cake Balls
Once you get over telling everyone that you're bringing your balls to the party, you can feast on these delicious morsels. These came out surprisingly good for how intimidating they look when they're finished (everyone was shocked that I had made these). I did half in dark chocolate and half in white, and drizzled the contrasting color chocolate on each. They came out great, but the dark chocolate ones were my favorite, probably because the chocolate was thicker and there was therefore a higher chocolate:cake ratio. Also, since red velvet cake is still sort of a Southern Thing, I can never find the boxed mix in stores, so I had to make a red velvet cake, which leads me to...

Grandmother Paula's Red Velvet Cake
Whenever I need to make something sweet, I usually trust Paula Deen, queen of things-bad-to-eat. I've made a few other recipes for red velvet cake and have always come up sort of puzzled over all the fuss about it. It always was kind of dry and frustrating -- it was okay, but after a piece of red velvet cake i just wanted some chocolate cake. After making this recipe with E's help, though, I get it. Red velvet cake is sweet without being overly so, with juuuust a hint of chocolate. It's dense but light, and this recipe made a superbly moist cake. I will definitely be making this again as a cake/cupcakes, but if I decide to make the aforementioned cake balls again, I'll probably look for a dryer recipe (or just a box, GD it). When you mix the cake with the frosting for the cake balls, I found this recipe to be too moist, and it created a sort of mushy texture overall. I think I'm the only person who felt this way, so it might just have been me. Overall, it's a great recipe for red velvet cake.

I am pretty sure I'd never really had blondies before making this recipe the other night to satisfy a holiday-enhanced sweet tooth. I've seen them and I think I've tasted them, but never really appreciated them. They definitely have a different taste/texture than brownies, but they are delicious. I used light brown sugar for this recipe since I didn't have dark brown on hand, and they came out great. I also threw in about 1/2-3/4 of a cup of mini marshmallows I had in the cupboard, which added an extra touch of sweetness to the finished product. They were surprisingly easy to whip up and the smaller portion made with this recipe meant we weren't gorging on sweets for a week, which is always good.

Banana Cupcakes with Honey Cinnamon Frosting
I mentioned previously that we were lucky enough to receive a standing mixer from E's mom for Christmas this year, for which we are very appreciative and excited! I was dying to make something with it, but our pantry is a little empty due to holiday traveling, so I decided to make these banana cupcakes since they didn't require any fancy baking supplies. I also learned a little trick, since we had bananas that were ripe for eating but not for mashing up and baking with. It's pretty well-known that you can put bananas in a brown paper bag and quicken their ripening in a day or two, but I did some googling and discovered that you can lay your bananas on a cookie sheet and put them in an oven at 300° F. Just keep an eye on them and take them out when the skin is mostly brown. They'll be much softer and should be fine for mashing up for whatever recipe you need them for! The cupcakes are dense and sweet, and if you leave them unfrosted you can take them for breakfast if you'd like. Mine didn't rise much in the oven, so next time I'll fill the muffin cups a little more than she recommends.

I didn't make her frosting due to a lack of confectioner's sugar (it's cold and the store is 2 whole blocks away), and instead improvised a cream cheese frosting with neufchatel cheese, adding some honey, maple syrup and cinnamon to complement the banana cupcakes. Unfortunately, when I halved the recipe I forgot to halve the butter, so the frosting is waaay too buttery and kind of gross. I sprinkled a bit of cinnamon and sugar on top to cut the butter taste, but it's still not great. Human error can ruin the best recipes!

E and I have been doing some serious nesting. Between getting a ton of housewares for Christmas, getting new bedding, and finally hanging some stuff up around the apartment, it is definitely feeling more and more like our home. We have decided to renew our lease for at least another year, so over our spring breaks we're probably going to do some painting. I'm thinking an accent wall in the bedroom, a fresh coat of paint in the bathroom, and a new color for the living room/kitchen/dining area. We'll see what happens. In the meantime, we need to find something amazing to hang on the wall over our bed to compliment the new bedding!