August Daring Bakers Challenge!

I was starting to think that my Daring Bakers challenges might be like the Star Trek movies or Madonna albums,* but that theory was, unfortunately, not proved to be correct. I give you…my eclairs:

Now the first thing you’ll notice is that there is no chocolate here. That’s because I’m allergic (it’s the caffeine), so I decided to do pina colada eclairs with a coconut-rum pastry cream and pineapple glaze. Both of those turned out to be pretty good, especially the coconut-rum pastry cream (though that may be because there was rather more rum in it than I originally intended). The pate choux, on the other hand…well, it tasted fine, but it was definitely not puffy.

Actually, they were puffy when I took them out of the oven, but they started to sink almost immediately – did that happen to anyone else? My official statement is that it was due to the high humidity levels on the day, but I have no idea if it that’s true or if there was something I could have done differently.

Even though I was disappointed that they didn’t turn out to be beautiful, I figured that they’d probably still taste good, right? Wrong! Far too sweet for me. Again, alone, each part of the eclairs was very good, but together it was just overwhelmingly, cloyingly sweet. So maybe good for others – my mom gamely ate one – but not for me, I’m afraid. I think I’d try the recipe – or at least pate choux, in general – again (I’ve made successful cream puffs in the past – maybe I was overly confident when approaching the eclairs).

Also, I have to remember not to make these recipes all in one day – things go much more smoothly when I make only one or two elements at one go. By the time things were ready to be assembled, I’d kind of lost energy and interest in the project.

*Every other one is good.

Ahoy, matey! Thar be a recipe under here

Oh, garden, my garden…

Alas, we’ve hit that point in the gardening season when I’ve kind of lost interest and keep thinking ‘They’re plants – they don’t need me! They’ll be fine.’ I’m really only actively looking after two of them now because the tomatoes have succumbed to whatever is responsible for the moldy undersides (the inconsistent watering, apparently), the strawberries are growing in too many directions, and the eggplants have been idling away for months now with no changes.

I’m still taking care of the lemon tree because the first little tiny meyer lemons have appeared! And because I crave Michael Chiarello’s approval…

Apologies for it being blurry, but it was getting dark out there and I didn’t want to risk being caught outside after sunset with the other plant.

The avocado.

Basically, I’m only looking after this one still because I’m afraid that if I don’t, it is likely to murder me in my sleep. I still can’t tell you what I find so unsettling about this plant, but just look at it, with its weird leaves. It’s shifty…

Summer blockbuster tally, part 9

I’m starting to think that Ben Stiller and I just don’t have the same sense of humor. I really don’t like his humiliation-humor movies (Meet the Parents, There’s Something About Mary, etc.) and, while I don’t mind the others (Zoolander…any others?), I don’t think they’re as brilliant as a lot of people do. And I think that trend pretty much continues with Tropic Thunder.

I went because a) I like everybody in it (yes, for some reason I still like Ben Stiller even though I don’t usually find him funny) and b) Entertainment Weekly gave it an A. An A! They don’t usually just hand those out, especially not to the summer blockbusters. And, while there were funny parts in the movie, I wasn’t laughing uproariously the whole time like I expected I would.

The trailers at the beginning are funny (seriously, the Kirk Lazarus/Tobey Maguire monk movie needs to be made, like, now), Tom Cruise is funny (something I never thought I’d say), and the beginning is funny. The payoff of the ending is worth sitting through the movie for as everything comes together, but I thought things dragged a bit in the middle. (I will admit that I made the mistake of sitting slightly too close to the screen – I always think ‘Oh, middle!’ when actually the back of middle is best – so I had a bit of a headache for most of the time which may have had something to do with my enjoying the movie.)

I think the funniest thing was the demographic of my fellow moviegoers. There was me, a small group of probably college-aged guys, two ladies probably in their mid-fifties who laughed like there was no tomorrow through pretty much the whole thing, and, I swear I’m not making this up, a woman who had to have been, like 87 years old on her own who seemed to be having a fantastic time!

So if you’re a Ben Stiller fan, you’ll probably love it. If not, I’d say it’s definitely worth renting (or downloading, if you can find it), but save your $7 or whatever and skip it in the theater.

Summer blockbuster tally = 4-4-1

Uh-oh, summer blockbusters, you only have about a month left to end the season with a winning tally and I can’t think of what’s left to make it up…

Playing catch-up…

I am very far behind in my posting. Shamefully so! My department at work had a potluck-type party on Thursday and my contribution was Strawberry-Balsamic Cupcakes.

It all went swimmingly until the first step of the recipe when I misread how much butter was supposed to go into the batter vs. how much was supposed to be reserved for the frosting. Which I didn’t notice until I went to take them out of the oven after the suggested 20 minutes and found them to be sunken and not nearly done.

Though not really surprised, given my oven’s lack of selfrespect, I skimmed through the recipe again to make sure I’d done everything right, when I finally noticed that, in the instructions for the frosting , it said ‘Cream together the butter and cream cheese until well-blended.’

Whoops.

Sure enough, back at the top of the ingredient list, it said ‘1 1/2 sticks of butter, divided.’ In my defense, it doesn’t tell you how it should be divided, but it was easy enough to figure out when I went back to the original recipe. So, my cupcakes didn’t turn out to be very stunning, I’m afraid. They were edible (though a bit more dense than they should have been – more muffin than cupcake), so I just piled a ton of frosting on to hide their sunken tops and chalked it up to experience.

But I’m not going to show you a picture of them. Here’s the corrected recipe (at least, according to my math, so you might want to check it out for yourself, just to be sure):

Strawberry-Balsamic Cupcakes (Adapted from Burghilicious)

Cupcakes

  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup strawberry-balsamic syrup (see recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and prepare a muffin tin. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a small bowl, combine strawberry-balsamic syrup and milk.

In a large bowl, beat butter on high for 30 seconds. Add sugar and beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, up to 3 minutes. Add eggs and beat some more to incorporate lots of air into the batter. Lower the speed to medium and add the dry mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions of the strawberry-balsamic syrup/milk mixture.

Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared cups (the original recipe says it yields 12 cupcakes, but I got 18). Bake 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from pan and cool completely on a rack before frosting.

Strawberry-Balsamic Syrup

  • 1 lb. strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

In a medium saucepan, combine the strawberries and sugar and let them sit for 15 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and put over medium heat. Cook for about 15 minutes,* then puree in a blender or food processor.** Push through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the seeds.

This makes more than it takes for the cupcakes and the frosting and can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to two weeks or frozen.

*I…may or may not be speaking from experience when I say, don’t leave this cooking on the stove to go watch an episode of Top Gear or you run the risk of having to wipe a lot of sticky balsamic vinegar off your stove when you run back into the kitchen after it boils over.
**This is where an immersion blender comes in super-handy.

Frosting

  • 1/4 cup strawberry-balsamic syrup
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, room temperature
  • 3-4 cups powdered sugar

Combine the strawberry-balsamic syrup with the balsamic vinegar. Beat the butter and cream cheese together until well-blended. Add the strawberry-balsamic syrup/balsamic vinegar mixture. Then add, powdered sugar, a cup at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency and flavor.

Frost cooled cupcakes and top with a sliced strawberry. Keep refrigerated until an hour before serving.

Yield 12-18 cupcakes.

We have a nickname!

As I’ve said before, the doors to our apartments are very thin, which means that it’s very easy to hear, very clearly, across the hall. So, I was watching an MST3K movie on my computer and probably laughing a bit at it – not super-loudly, I don’t think, just a normal laughter-level – PLUS it was only 6pm or so, a very reasonable hour to be laughing. I was also meeting my parents for dinner and as I was locking my door, my phone rang. Now, my ringtone for my father is one of the Mozart horn concertos. I don’t know which one off the top of my head – it’s the most famous one. You’d recognise it if you heard it. So my phone rings and from my new across-the-way-neighbor’s apartment, I hear ‘SHUT UP!’

He has therefore been nicknamed ‘Shouty Bastard.’

‘Shouty’ for short.

ETA: A wrench has been thrown in my nicknaming. I met Shouty this afternoon and, not only did he introduce himself with a very good handshake, he seemed entirely too polite to be the kind of person to shout at an unknown neighbor. Judgement shall be reserved for the time being and, until further notice, he will be known as ‘Shouty?’.

Guess what I did today…

So those of you who know me will remember that things have been terribly slow at work recently. All my projects have lined up and are currently out-of-house/department at the moment – of course, this means that soon they’ll all be coming back in-house/department at the same time – but for now, I’ve basically had nothing to do and, since we’re full up on AEs again, no one else has had anything for me to do either.

So I spent most of the day today playing with our company’s Kindle. What’s a Kindle, you say? (Did anyone actually say that but not click that link? This is for you, then.) This is a Kindle.

It’s Amazon’s e-book reader and it was/is a topic of much debate in the book world when it came out. I’m not sure why, there have been e-book readers around for a while now, but for some reason this one really…well, kindled a lot of talk. Get it? 😉

I was definitely in the book camp – sure, the Kindle was light, easy-to-carry, basically the iPod of the book world. Carry your personal library in one small device! But it had no character. You couldn’t bury your face in it and inhale the smell of ink and paper, you couldn’t dog-ear corners (turns out you can, actually) or make notes in the margin (Beast! And again, actually, you can.), you couldn’t drape it over your eyes to take a nap, and, at $350 or so, you really couldn’t take it in the bath or to the beach with you.

And after spending all day today with it…I’m still in the book camp. Come on, how many of you actually thought I’d have switched sides? I know I adore my iPod more than is probably healthy, but nothing will EVER replace the feel of a book in your hands. NOTHING! And it’s basically for all the reasons I listed up there. To be honest, though, and it pains me to say this, I didn’t hate it. I don’t think I quite liked it, but there is no animosity between us.

And I think that’s part of the problem – it doesn’t inspire great feelings either way. I can’t imagine getting passionate about something I read on the Kindle. I think it distances the experience of reading somehow – maybe because you can’t point to it and say ‘Here’s where I dropped in in the Mediterranean and here is some sand from Dover that got caught in the spine and this bookmark here was my train ticket that weekend in Spain.’

As a design, it’s not bad – certainly the screen is much easier to read than I was expecting. It doesn’t have to be held at a certain angle in order to be read. I don’t know how it would hold up outside or in the dark (I’m not sure it has a backlight – it seems odd that it wouldn’t, though, so maybe I just didn’t find that function). The buttons are a little awkward – I kept inadvertently ‘turning the page’ while trying to press a different one – and they don’t feel or sound very satisfying. Also, it’s slow to turn pages – and you have to wait while it flashes a negative image of the page at you before it happens – making it very difficult and frustrating to just flip through it.

And, no matter how user-friendly they make it (and it was fairly intuitive), it just can’t compete with the hands-on appeal of a book.

But, like I said, it’s not horrible – it’s not for me, but I bear it no ill-will. I’m sure it will make some jet-setting businessperson very happy indeed. But in the end, I prefer the aching back of carrying a bookbag too heavy for my own good if it means enjoying the more carnal appeal of actually holding a book in my hands and turning the pages myself.

Yes, carnal. Anne Fadiman has got my back on this one…

Let the nicknaming commence!

I am the proud owner of two new neighbors today! So no more stories about Stompy and Catty-Corner Girl (not that there ever were stories about her, I think). 😦 I’ll have to give them new names because, despite saying hello to the boy moving in across the way and his friend helping him move in (these apartments are too small to support two people, so presumably only one of them is staying), they did not introduce themselves (and they were blocking up the driveway with the U-Haul truck, though I suppose it can be forgiven just this once). And I haven’t actually seen anyone going into Catty-Corner Girl’s apartment, but the door was open, so I’m assuming someone’s in the process of moving in…

But I will keep you posted if anyone’s behavior lends themselves to easy and obvious nicknaming!

Have 21 oz. of cherries you need to use up?

Remember when I made this? I bought a bag of cherries to make it and when that was made, I still had a TON of cherries left over. So I made these…and I STILL had a ton of cherries left over. So I made the Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake from, where else, Smitten Kitchen. It’s…not the most photogenic thing I’ve ever made:

I also had the same oven troubles as I’ve been having and it ended up baking for probably twice as long as the recipe called for, but it turned out very well. It’s moist and VERY sweet and yummy. I may or may not have been eating this for breakfast all week.

Don’t look at me like that – it’s got cherries all over it! They’re full of…antioxidants…or something. It’s practically a health food! 😉

As promised!

Okay, it’s going to look like I’ve been baking up a storm, but really I’ve just fallen behind on telling you all about them. You may notice a new category here: Vegan baking. I have finally fallen prey to the siren song that is Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World and so far they’ve been pretty yummy! I give you:

Chocolate Cherry Creme Cupcakes

Two variations on the Basic Chocolate Cupcake

Peanut Butter Chocolate Heavencakes

And Chocolate Orange Cupcakes

And the Margarita Cupcake – this one has an…odd texture. My official excuse is that it’s due to the tequila in it, but, if I’m honest, the blame has to rest with my oven – I don’t know if it’s not holding its temperature or what because it must be in cahoots with my oven thermometer and I can’t actually catch it in the act…

A mini-rant, Or…

…try to shake my hand again and I swear to god I will RIP OFF YOUR ARM!

Seriously. There is a certain person who, every time I see him (EVERY TIME!) gives me this dead-fish, walk-by handshake and I HATE IT! I’m not a huge fan of shaking hands on a normal basis, but at least have the confidence to give me a proper, solid, politician-style handshake!

COME ON!

Plus, okay, a handshake may be expected upon first meeting someone, but YOU HAVE MET ME THREE TIMES BEFORE! YOU NO LONGER NEED TO SHAKE MY HAND! I’m not a guy, I’m not your colleague, I don’t even like you (because of your weenie name – and I am not one to ordinarily dislike or mock someone just because of their name, but this one I cannot even speak aloud without dropping into a sing-song, nasal voice – and your PATHETIC handshake), so just wave at me as you walk past if you feel the need to involve a gesture of some kind (or, for the love of god, ACTUALLY STOP WALKING WHILE YOU SHAKE MY HAND).

SERIOUSLY!

Oh, I feel so much better now. Okay. To make up for that, I’ll be posting soon about some cake, LOTS of cupcakes, and brie (I didn’t think there was a way to make cheese better than it is just on its own, but apparently, there is).

I’m no J. Ralph…

…but, faced with the most frustrating writer’s block I think I’ve ever had (seriously, I haven’t written a single word since I finished Mary Clockwork, I think), I decided to try and distract myself in an attempt to let my subconscious work things out. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, but I thought I’d share the results of my distraction here.

I tried to sing everything myself again, but, alas, the wandering bass line defeated me and I ended up just using the track I composed with from GarageBand. Also, though that’s me ‘singing’ the percussion lines, I totally stole sampled it from a Madonna song (‘I Deserve It’ from Music).

Please to be remembering that I am neither a) a lyricist nor b) a soloist and that I am c) extraordinarily self-conscious about my singing, so be kind if you comment.

ETA 5/10/09: Oops – not working anymore! I’ll have to see what I can do about that…

I think I’m fairly pleased with it, considering I haven’t done any composing since I was at university, but I do wish it had broken my writer’s block…