Friday, July 18, 2014

pumpkin pie bars

The other day, I made pumpkin pie bars, also known as The Last Thing I Will Ever Bake in California. 
We are slowly cleaning out our cupboards, and I found a can of pumpkin that I intended to use last fall. But then the job market happened, so I put these pumpkin pie bars on hold. But then the dissertation happened. And then packing happened. But in spite of it all, the pumpkin pie bars finally happened. 
The recipe is from Joy the Baker. The crust is excellent and could be eaten on its own (I think that's the only reason Drew tolerated the pumpkin part). Next time, I'm going to use Joy's crust recipe and try out the filling recipe from Food and Wine (which is probably what I had intended to do last fall judging by the can of evaporated milk in the cupboard). And the best thing about the next time is that I will enjoy these bars as pumpkin was intended to be enjoyed: in cool, crisp fall weather.  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

chocolate chip cookie dough layer cake

A week and a half ago, after spending nearly an entire year in China, Drew came home. 
To welcome him home, I baked a chocolate chip cookie dough layer cake. The cake layers are a white cake, and the frosting is a vanilla French buttercream. Both recipes are from Baking Illustrated. The filling is a chocolate chip cookie dough, from Bite Me More.
This cake is quite a showstopper. It was very good and quite possibly the best cake I've ever made. It might even be better than the Brown Butter Pumpkin Layer Cake I made a few years ago, which is the cake against which I measure all other cakes, but I can't decide. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

devil's food cake with whipped cream and strawberries

Do you remember that movie with Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal? Stranger Than Fiction? I forget what it's about, and all I remember is this scene where Ferrell courts Gyllenhaal (a law student turned baker) with a bunch of flours. Not flowers, but flours. Get it? Very clever.

I am reminded of this scene because I am slowly whittling away my own flour collection. So far, I've managed to use up rye flour, hazelnut flour, and whole wheat pastry flour, but self rising flour, Italian 00 flour, chickpea flour, almond flour, whole wheat flour, and of course, all purpose flour, remain. And until yesterday, there was cake flour.    

My running friends ran a 10K this morning. I skipped out on the race but met up with them for a potluck-birthday-celebration-brunch. Whenever we have potlucks, I am in charge of dessert.  
The birthday girl requested chocolate and strawberries, and so I delivered. I was on the fence, going back and forth between the recipe from Chocolate Cakes or Baking Illustrated. I went with the former, largely because it meant using up the rest of my cake flour. The filling is from the Pioneer Woman

I snapped this picture before heading over to my friend's place, and it was a good thing I did. As I assembled the cake, I thought to myself "There is no way this is going to survive the 20 minute drive to Laguna Niguel." And I was right. Just as I accelerated to get onto the 405, a guy began to cross in front of me, on foot, forcing me to slam on my brakes. Fortunately, he took about 2 steps and then turned back, but it was still a little unnerving. It is generally a good idea to look both ways before darting across a freeway entrance (or really, any street). 

Anyway, the top cake layer slid off the bottom one, but nobody cared about the presentation. The cake was nice and tender, and everyone loved it.     

sunday mornings + favorite running spots

Sunday mornings are the only times when I wonder how I'm going to give up California. It's the only time I ever ask myself the question that so many people ask me: "How are you going to give up all...this?" And on some Sundays, I just don't know.* 

There are, of course, Sunday mornings in Green Bay, but I'm not sure they'll be the same. My Sunday mornings here combine many of my favorite things: friends, running, fresh air, scenery, breakfast, and coffee (I know coffee is a part of breakfast, but I love it so much that it really deserves its own mention). There is no traffic on Sunday mornings, and I never struggle to find a parking spot.  

Really, it's the people who make my Sunday mornings. For nearly two years now, I've been waking up at 6 am on Sunday mornings to meet my running friends for a long run/walk, which we follow up with breakfast (one friend says, "We are a breakfast group with a running problem"). They are, as I call people who are not in academia, civilians, and they provide a much needed escape from grad school--and so much more. 

After a year of running with my first running buddy, Sam, she got pregnant, and I found myself in need of some new running buddies. At the time, I had the running bug pretty bad and I was signed up to run 3 half marathons in the next year. But, as much as I loved running, getting myself up and out the door for long run days was sometimes a challenge. And so, a different running friend introduced me to the Sunday morning running crew. 

When I first joined the group, I wasn't sure what to expect. Everyone knew each other really well, having run together for over ten years. They were more of a family and less a group of friends, but they welcomed me into it. They are so good to me, and I couldn't ask for better friends. I know a lot of people would balk at waking up so early in the morning, especially a weekend morning, to go running, but Sunday mornings are the best part of my week, and it's because of my friends. No matter how busy and stressed out I am, Sunday mornings are non-negotiable. They keep me sane, and I'm not sure how I would have managed the past couple of years without my running family. If I find a running group in Green Bay that's half as awesome as my running family here, I will be very, very lucky.

Aside from my friends of course, I'll miss my favorite running spots. In this respect, I am incredibly spoiled. There are miles and miles of running trails in Orange County, and I'm fortunate to live only a mile away from one of them. 

When I get to the trail, if I turn left, after a mile and a half, I'll end up at the Back Bay. It's one of my favorite places to run. 
I've run all the way around it, which is 10 miles.

I also live about a mile away from a wildlife preserve. There are trails inside of it, and the perimeter is about a 3 mile loop. I used to do a lot of trail running inside it, but then I saw a snake one day, so now I mainly stick to the outside loop. 
Crystal Cove State Park is also a favorite. We usually stick to the trails inside the park, but sometimes...
...we run up the Newport Coast hill. 
It's pretty brutal, but in a good way. Fortunately, we don't do it that often. I know I'm smiling in the picture below, but that's because we are about to take a walk break. 
As much as I'm going to miss running in Orange County, I'm kind of excited for winter running in Green Bay. And also a little scared, but more on that later. 

* It doesn't take long for me to stop romanticizing California. On any other day and time of the week, I get so frustrated with traffic, parking, and crazy drivers that all I can think is "Get me the eff out of Southern California."

Friday, May 9, 2014

mustard

This thing that I'm about to tell you is probably going to knock your socks off, but trust me, it shouldn't. 

I make mustard now. 
It started about a month ago when I was taking inventory of my kitchen and found some mustard seeds (I believe we got them to make Indian food, not mustard). And then I recalled my name is yeh's blog post about mustard on Food52. And then I thought about how I'd been burned by mustard too many times. Do you know what I'm talking about? Store-bought mustards usually disappoint me. Some mustards are just too cloying and artificially sweet. Others promise big things, but then fail to deliver (I'm talking to you horseradish mustard and stout mustard). The only mustards that don't disappoint me are Trader Joe's whole grain dijon mustard and aioli garlic mustard sauce.    

And so I decided to make mustard. It was a pragmatic decision, but I was also curious: Is homemade mustard superior to store-bought? The answer, like anything else, is absolutely

Making mustard is super easy. It's so easy that I'm embarrassed to tell you about it because once you realize how easy it is, you won't be impressed that I make it. Basically, you soak mustard seeds and then add vinegar, salt, a sweetener, and any other seasonings you want and then blend it up (I use an immersion blender). That's all there is to it.

I told a friend about my mustard-making, and he was unnecessarily impressed. He said that making condiments is the real sign of being a foodie. I was like "Really? This is what impresses you? Not my homemade pasta, crackers, or pie, which are infinitely more complicated to make than mustard?"  

Anyway, the recipe for my first mustard-making excursion came from the Homemade Pantry. I was hooked. The mustard was so good that I stopped putting it on sandwiches and just started eating it with a spoon.

This mustard was the gateway mustard, and I immediately made more. I was so excited about making mustard that I braved traffic and parking one evening and went to three different stores in search of mustard seeds (that's a big deal; I hate dealing with traffic and parking). And once I found a store that sold mustard seeds in bulk, I stocked up and bought not one, but two pounds, just in case (you know, so I don't have to deal with traffic and parking, and also because I didn't have any cash and I had to spend at least $10 so I could use my credit card).

The second mustard you see in the background in the picture is a spicy Guinness mustard. I used brown mustard seeds and added some maple syrup. It's super good, though I don't feel the inclination to eat it by the spoonful. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

OC Half Marathon

Admittedly, we runners are a strange crew. As if running 13.1 (or, for some people, 26.2) miles wasn't crazy enough, we also get up insanely early to do it. Voluntarily. And we pay money to do it. Fortunately, I am just half crazy and stop after 13.1 miles.

I started my day with a 3:15 am wake-up call. The race started at 6:15, but since it was point to point (meaning that it starts and ends at different places), we had to allot enough time to get to the finish (at the OC fairgrounds) and take the shuttles to the start (Fashion Island). The past two times I ran this race, I was spoiled--Drew dropped me off at the start and met me at the finish so I could sleep in (which means about 5 am).

Some friends in my running group (we run every Sunday at 7 am and then have breakfast) live near the finish (we had a potluck brunch after the race), so we met there and walked to the fairgrounds. The upside is that parking is free and you don't have to deal with the traffic. The downside, which I learned the hard way, is that you have to navigate the road closures because my friends live so close to the race course. Just when I was supposed to be walking through their door, I had to pull over and call because one of the main roads to their house was closed, and they navigated me to their place.  

We headed to the start, and it went off without a hitch. The start is so much fun. There's so much energy and excitement in the air, and you can just feel it. It's hard for me to explain--there's so much camaraderie and optimism, and it's great to be a part of it.   

This is my last race in California, and my goal was to just have fun and enjoy myself. It wasn't my intention to try to set a personal record (PR), so I took my time and took pictures along the course (I also developed a newfound respect for biathletes, as I discovered that it can be challenging to run, stop, and steady myself to take a picture).  
We made our way out of Fashion Island (fancy shopping mall, and not really an island) and headed toward the ocean (I hope you can see it in the background there). The view below is quite breathtaking and it's the one I see every time I go to the Newport Beach Public Library (it gets me every time I drive down the hill). I wish you could have been there with me to see it today!
We ran south on the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). Normally it is jam packed with cars, so it was neat to see it full of runners instead! You can't really tell by the picture, but here we are at a slight downhill before a medium-sized hill, something I'd never notice in the car, but definitely detectable on foot! 
And then we ran through Corona del Mar. There were some people who came out to drink their morning coffee and cheer us on. I think someone was playing the theme to Rocky. 
I've seen this view lots of times, but I just found it to be more impressive today. 
The neighborhood we ran through was a pretty fancy one (well, we were by a yacht club, so it's not surprising) and some of the houses are pretty spectacular. 


Here we are, near the yacht club. 
We made our way back to the PCH and headed north. The halfway point was around here, and all I heard in my head was the Bon Jovi song, Livin' on a Prayer (...we're halfway there..take my hand and we'll make it I swear...livin' on a prayer). I think Balboa Island is somewhere over there:
Here we are at the Back Bay. We are about to run past those homes you see in the background.
The Back Bay is to the right, and when you look behind you, you can see the ocean. That's where we just were a few minutes ago! Crossing the PCH bridge!
And now, here we are running past the super fancy, multi-million dollar homes. You would think that with the views I just showed you above, the residents would be sitting outside, basking in the sun and enjoying the scenery, but every time I've run by (this was the 6th time or so), it is a ghost town .

The ocean is getting further away:
Almost done running past the fancy homes.

We ran around the Back Bay:
Below, we just turned right onto Irvine Avenue. At this point, we've run about 10 miles. The best part about the last 5K (aside from the fact that we have only 5K left) is the fan support. You can't tell, but there is a PARTY at the top of that hill.  
Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, once said "If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon." (There was a good article about this in the Washington Post a year ago.) Races are impressive, and it's not because of the runners. It's impressive because of the people who line up along the street to cheer for and support complete strangers. They hold up signs, they call out our names, and they give us snacks and water. It's amazing, and I'm sure every runner can talk about the importance of fan support. People cheering for people that they've never met and will never know. It's pretty cool. Is this what it's like to be a rock star? Well, it's the closest I'll ever come to knowing. 

The people lining up along the last 5K can be counted on to have the BEST signs. The one below says: You thought they said RUM, didn't you?

The one in the middle says: I'm sure this seemed like a good idea 4 months ago. 
I had to stop and have the guy holding this sign take my picture with it. 
At this point below, we were at mile 12. 
Two years ago, I continued straight ahead and ran a lonely and somewhat miserable 14.2 miles through the bowels of Orange County. The full marathon was an extremely physically and mentally challenging experience, and while I didn't swear off marathons after finishing it, I wasn't sure if I'd ever do one again. Instead, I stuck to half marathons and every time I finished one of those, I thought to myself "I'm so glad I saved myself the pain and agony by not doing the full."

But alas, how soon we forget these sorts of things. At this juncture, I was feeling quite good, and I actually thought to myself "hmmmm, maybe I could do another full marathon. It can't be that bad." (Is this what childbirth is like? It's so painful that you say you're never going to do it again, but then after a certain amount of time passes, you forget how bad it was and give it another go?) In case you're wondering, I wasn't contemplating doing another marathon at that exact moment in time. I'm not stupid, I definitely turned left. 

The last mile was a good one, if for no other reason than it was the last and it was mostly in the shade (the temperature was in the low 70s, but it felt like it was in the mid 80s). Here we are approaching the finish line:  
And my selfie after crossing the finish line.
And the post-race picture:
It was a great morning, and it was about to get better (I joined my friends for brunch!). I have run the OC Full Marathon, Long Beach Half, Surf City Half, and Southern California Half, but this race is my favorite. The scenery is phenomenal and the fan support is great. The race course bottlenecks around the halfway point when you go under the PCH, but other than that, it's not too crowded. I had so much fun! 

I really enjoy the half marathon. It is a really good, manageable distance for me--challenging enough, but it doesn't stress me out, physically or mentally. I know I'm going to finish, and I don't feel like crap after I do. Sure, I limp around and I need to change into flip flops ASAP, but I'm not incapacitated for the rest of the day. 

As I mentioned, this was my last race in California, so it was really bittersweet. But, I already know which race I'm running next: the Green Bay Half Marathon

Saturday, May 3, 2014

on winter

"How are you going to give up all...this?"

This is a question I've been getting ever since January, when I began telling people about my impending move to Green Bay (Mind you, the question is never posed by academics because they know how difficult it is to get an academic job. It's also never posed by people who know how much I love winter, but I'll get to that in a second.). This question is always accompanied by this hand gesture which I believe is meant to refer to the nice weather, beaches, and palm trees but I can't be sure (I can only assume that "this" and the gesture don't refer to the insanely high cost of living, suffocating traffic, and the difficulties one encounters when trying to find a parking spot). If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question, I could finally pony up for a guilt-free ferry ride to Catalina Island (that's what I should do--require everyone who inquires to contribute to my SoCal exploration fund). 

When I decided to go to graduate school, I never set out to escape winter. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I deliberately applied to schools only in the midwest and the (north)east coast. How did UCI slip through the cracks? I thought the program was too good to pass up, and so I broke my winter-only rule. Surely, I thought to myself, if you are accepted, you can forgo winter for 6 or 7 years. In the grand scheme of things, it won't be so bad.

I visited UCI in April and liked it right away. I knew it was a good fit for me, professionally and personally, winter or no winter. On visiting day, everyone apologized for the "bad weather." I think it was a little rainy, which means that there was some slight drizzling, and it was maybe 65 degrees. At the time, I thought the weather was wonderful and I welcomed it (I was coming from Minnesota, where there was snow on the ground, and the temperature was likely in the 30s), but as the years would go by, I would come to relish those "bad weather" days.

Immediately, I knew that I liked UCI and that I would go there, but I still struggled with my decision. Could I really deal with 60-some degree winters? Could I deal without the snow? I knew that my answers had to be yes and that I'd be stupid to pass up this opportunity, and so I happily accepted and decided that I would attend in the fall. But when the realization that I'd experienced my last winter (for the foreseeable future) hit me, I cried.

I quickly learned that being from Minnesota carries with it the expectation that I hate winter and am grateful to be rid of it. Upon meeting new people, after learning where I'm from, without fail, they exclaim "Oh, you must love it here!" (ha! If I had a dollar for every time I got that response, I wouldn't have had to apply for research grants!) Because I did not receive the memo that I was supposed to hate cold weather, this reaction was peculiar to me at first but became almost unbearably annoying over time. 

For the first year at least, I played along and tried my best to embrace California. I wore flip flops every single day for a year for no other reason than I just could. I packed away my sweaters and winter coat and bought skirts and a light jacket. I barbequed in January. I swam in the ocean on Christmas day, and I went to the beach almost every other week. I did my schoolwork on the beach, I graded on the beach, and I ran on the beach. When Minnesota was covered in snow, I'd call my parents and brag about the warm and sunny weather, sometimes even from the beach (and of course, I let them know that part too). 

Around my second or third year of graduate school, it all got old. I tried my best to forget about crisp fall air, crunchy leaves, snow, half-frozen puddles of water, and yes, even sub-zero temperatures. But I couldn't. No matter how hard I tried to enjoy the year-round warm weather, I never got used to the lack of seasons or the inexplicable 80 and 90 degree heat waves that arrived in the middle of January. I never acclimated to Southern California weather. Without a calendar, I wouldn't know what month we were in or what holiday to celebrate. I am always underdressed for the weather, and I can't remember the last time I wore a jacket. As the years went by, I became less enthusiastic about Starbucks' seasonal lattes because there was a disconnect between the weather and the seasons--it was always too hot outside for me to enjoy them. If a Californian asks me if it's cold outside, I still can't be trusted to give an accurate answer because by my Minnesota standards, it is never cold here.  

Over the years, I became more desperate for winter. I hung up pictures of snow scenes in my office. I changed the background on my laptop to a picture of an icy river. When my facebook friends post pictures of the snow, I feel immensely jealous. And when Minnesota gets particularly cold or gets a lot of snow, I call my parents, but not to brag about the sunny weather in California. Rather, I ask them to brag so that I can experience the winter vicariously through them.    

In less than three months, Drew and I will be headed for Green Bay. With the impending move from California and that we're near the end of a week-long heat wave with temperatures reaching the mid-90s, I've been thinking about winter lately (and to be clear, I yearn for winter when it's not so hot here too). I've also been thinking about the things that I will and will not miss about SoCal, and the weather is something I won't miss. After I accepted the job, I promised Drew that I wouldn't complain about the weather and that I'd try my best to enjoy my last "winter" in California. I think I was mostly successful.

But lately, now that "winter" is safely over here, I've allowed myself to start thinking about the things I'm excited about doing in Green Bay that I really can't do in Irvine. I can't wait to carve pumpkins, set them outside, and not worry about them rotting in a week. I can't wait to sip pumpkin spice lattes in the fall and peppermint mochas in the winter (okay, I can do that in Irvine, but it feels weird when it's 80 degrees outside). I can't wait to breathe in the crisp, fall air and step on all the crunchy leaves. I can't wait to make winter soups and stews. I can't wait to go ice skating. And of course, I can't wait for the first snow.