Monday, December 31, 2012

Froyo files: Menchie's (Houston, The Heights)

I have a tendency to take note of any available frozen yogurt wherever I am, just in case.  It's the combined result of loving frozen yogurt, and also having that ADD that comes with the iPhone age, when you're always surfing for something.  It's a habit that has come in handy occasionally, like in this case where a Groupon didn't pan out (the business came under new management and wouldn't accept the deal) and we were left wanting a little something before retiring to the hotel room for the night.

Menchie's: 512 West 19th Street, Houston, TX

When I visited: Friday, December 21st, around 8 pm

Cost per ounce: 45 cents

Number of flavors: 16

Sorbet options: 2

Experience: This made me miss the Menchie's that used to be located on North Lamar next to the Central Market.  I like the flow that seems to be designed into each location of these franchises, with the island in the middle and the yogurt and toppings surrounding.  I also have to admit that I like the way this shop is more 'branded' than some others, with the cutesy merchandise and everything.  I like cute things, what can I say?  And the whole place is well-done, comfortable, spacious, and not too cold.  Which is good when you are eating a frozen treat.

But what's most important is the yogurt.  Lots of options, which is always good, and sample cups at the ready, unlike the Yogurt Spot in Katy.  However, they're version of Taro is also unlike the Yogurt Spot anywhere, and was really disappointing.  I also didn't like the Coconut, which had an artificial taste to it.

Thankfully, along with the misses, there were some hits.  I was also surprised that their Tropical Punch was pretty good as well, because that is a flavor that tends towards the artificial, and this version wasn't.  I really liked the Pomegranate Raspberry, so that was the fruity flavor that I mixed with the Dulce de Leche, which was really good, and kind of a relief after having a few caramel flavors recently that were more salty than creamy.  I also added some Gingerbread, which compared really well with the several varieties I've tried over this holiday season.  You know it's good, because otherwise it doesn't really go with the Dulce de Leche and Pomegranate Raspberry, so the fact that I included it says something.

And Mom, as you can see, just went for the Dulce de Leche, with extra caramel topping.  And you can also see, the cuteness factor extends to the spoons.

Worth a revisit? If I lived in the area, sure.  Especially because it's next door to a Penzey's, and I love shopping their spices.  But most likely I'll just wait until I can find a convenient Austin location.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Cooking outside of the cubicle

The holidays mean getting a much-needed break from work.  But along with not having to deal with meetings, e-mails, and other office calamities, it means not getting to bake treats each week.  It's probably good to get a break from this as well, just to keep from getting 'burnt out'.  It also gives me a chance to do something other cooking for the holidays.  Specifically, savory.  Over the past two weeks or so, I've set aside my cake mixes and chocolate chips and done some different dishes in the kitchen I'd like to share.

I already told you about the cheesy muffins I made for the Yarnorama holiday party, which were delicious.  In that same post, I also mentioned the potato salad that is made every year, without fail, for Christmas dinner.  Even if, for whatever reason, it cannot be made for the actual December 24th evening, it is always a part of the belated celebrations.  Without giving away any family secrets, I can share that the salad basically consists of:

  • Potatoes
  • Mayonnaise
  • Frozen veggies (corn, peas, carrot, etc.)
  • Onion
  • Boiled eggs
  • Bologna sausage
  • Pickles (and a little pickle juice)
All mixed together in correct, though inexact, proportions, and stored in the fridge.  Sometimes it's that last part that can be the most complicated, because we are talking about a lot of potato salad.  This year, it completely filled a 6 quart bucket.  We are serious about our potato salad.

Another serious issue: Brussels sprouts.  I might have an addiction.  I was basically uninterested in them for most of my life, but maybe a few years ago I rediscovered them.  And then I made them using this slow cooker recipe from Stephanie O'Dea, and they went from just another vegetable to bona fide craving.  I'm considering how to put dijon Brussels sprouts into some kind of tart shell or flaky pastry crust for a possible birthday cake.  I don't know what it is exactly, but I love them.  So those have featured highly in my holiday eats as well, sharing side dish space with the potato salad and being the first of the leftovers to disappear.

With my mom on Christmas day, we decided to tackle something other than the traditional turkey, and instead chose toad.  Toad in the hole, that is.  In the US, toad in the hole is usually a breakfast dish of toast with a fried egg in the middle (literally, there's a hole in the toast that the egg is cracked into in the frying pan).  In the UK, however, neither eggs nor toast are involved.  Instead, it is basically sausages baked into Yorkshire pudding in a casserole dish.  Having had this in the UK, Mom and I had attempted it only once before, to disappointing results when the 'hole' didn't quite rise around the 'toad'.  This time around, we followed this recipe with great results.  The only changes we made were to use chicken sausage, and we cut the links into quarters (once in half, and once lengthwise) to give more even coverage of sausage in the dish.  It was really good, and now I'm actually wondering about the possibility of bringing the two versions of the dish together with some divots in the casserole and semi-baking some eggs in the final few minutes in the oven.

But next week it's back to work.  And I'm already plotting my baked treat to start off 2013 right.  For now, I can only say: sprouts will not be involved.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Froyo files: Yogurt Spot (Katy)

On our way to Houston, we stopped in Katy to meet some Ravellers at a yarn store.  So lets see, there were friends, there was fiber, what else could we need?  Well, some frozen yogurt never goes amiss!

Yogurt Spot: 20920 Katy Freeway  Katy, TX 77449

When I visited: Thursday, December 20th, around 1 pm

Cost per ounce: 43 cents

Number of flavors: 12

Sorbet options: 1

Experience: There were a few options for frozen yogurt while visiting a Raveler on the way into Houston, but because we know we love the flavors at the Yogurt Spot in Austin, we decided to go there.  I won't lie, I was very swayed when I read on their Facebook page that they had Tiki Taro, because I am in love with that flavor.

And it turns out it was a good thing that we knew and loved the flavors, because apparently this location has the same policy as all Orange Leafs do, which is to have the cashier pull the samples for you.  I won't rant again about how to me that means that logically they should have the cashier swirling everything, the same way ice cream gets scooped behind the counter, but you can get a tasting spoonful.  In a related note, you also have to ask the cashier to unlock the bathroom, so I guess they just really want to keep track of all of their amenities.

Because we already know Yogurt Spot is worth the ounces, we stayed and got what we knew we liked.  I also tried the seasonal Gingerbread flavor, which was good, but couldn't outrank Tiki Taro, Strawberry Fields, and Pomegranate Raspberry.
I think Mom essentially did the same, except she has Blueberry instead of Taro to complete her fruit-topped trio.  Our fellow Ravelers got the Chocolate and Peppermint, which they said was nice, not too minty.

Worth a revisit? I prefer to swirl my own samples, but for those in the Houston area, this is good quality for a good price.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Froyo files: Yogurt in Love (San Marcos)

Usually my Wednesday evenings are spent in the gym, running on the treadmill and then joining a group exercise class.  But the gym is at the office, so during the holidays I'm free to fill my Wednesdays another way, by knitting with my mom's knitting group down in San Marcos.  And as further evidence that frozen yogurt and I are destined companions, a new frozen yogurt shop just happened to open up next door to the coffee shop that hosts the knit group.


Yogurt in Love: 102 Wonder World Drive, San Marcos, TX

When I visited: Wednesday, December 19th, around 8 pm

Cost per ounce: 45 cents

Number of flavors: 10

Sorbet options: 3

Experience: Bright white and spacious, it looks perhaps a little sparse inside, but they were only in their second day of business, and the decor that they did have was very cute.  The girl at the counter greeted us and was ready to explain all about the self-serve frozen yogurt in case we didn't know.  Since we are experts at this point, the only tip we really needed from her was that because the machines are so new, they were a little quirky.  The levers were a little stiff and the froyo was flowing quite freely, which resulted in a little bit of a mess while sampling.  The yogurt could also have been a little more frozen, but these are small things that can be worked out as the shop stays open.

My favorite was the Tropical sorbet, a great pineapple-y flavor.  There were two other sorbets, Mango and Pomegranate, but Tropical won me over.  I also really liked the Strawberry, which was a yogurt rather than a sorbet, so I had that along with the Tropical and some fruit.  Mom really liked the Cheesecake, and swirled it with the Strawberry to make her own froyo version of a classic dessert.  She even went wild with some rainbow sprinkles and white chocolate chips to top it off, along with some blackberries.

The other flavors, like Vanilla with no sugar added, Chocolate, Cookies and Cream, and Peanut Butter, were also fine.  The Caramel Pretzel was a little too salty and not quite caramel-y enough.

Worth a revisit?  Yup, I think any time I get to join my Mom's knit group I'll be looking forward to some froyo as well.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry craftmas, and a happy knit year!

I hope everyone is enjoying today, whether you are doing so as Christmas Day or just another Tuesday.  In the spirit of the holidays, I wanted to thank everyone reading this blog.  In particular, I want to say thanks to all of the crafters out there who may be wondering when I'm really going to put the 'knit' in knitlit twit.  I feel a little guilty about not being either knit or lit enough all of the time.  Soon I shall flood you with some of my holiday projects, I promise, and I am resolved to do more selfish knitting in 2013 that I don't need to keep secret from spoilees and can thus post madly about.

In the meantime, I want to keep all of the crafters occupied with a little cheer I found on Ravelry today. Designer Tin Can Knits is giving away a free pattern until January 1st, all you have to do is browse through the patterns on Ravelry, and when you find the one you want in your stocking the most, add it to your cart and use the code SHARETHELOVE to check out for free.

Here's what the very generous designer has to say:
But before you begin the (pleasurable) process of choosing your gift, please take a second to do one thing for me - SHARE THE LOVE by forwarding this email to your friends, knitting group buddies, and favourite yarn shop owner - so they too can choose a gift and check out our fun-to-knit seamless designs in sizes from baby to grandpa!
Personally, I had to have Rosebud, because I love lacy shawls, while my mother couldn't resist the cables of Drift.  What will you choose?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Knit's a small world, after all

What's that, you say you weren't desperately curious as to where I was or what I might be doing that would keep me from posting for nearly a week?  Well, I'm going to tell you anyway: I was in Houston.  My mom and I took a little holiday road trip for a couple of days, just because with the holidays we actually have the time to spend a few days somewhere and not be darting immediately to and from work.  Last year we explored the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so this year Houston seemed like a natural destination.

When we went to Dallas, my mine motivation was the museums, specifically the Modern Art Museum and Kimball in Fort Forth, which I had been to for a high school Art History field trip and wanted to revisit.  There are some great museums in Houston as well, but it wasn't so long ago that I had been to see King Tut with my dad, so I we bypassed most of that highbrow tourism.  We did make two museum-esque stops, but they can have their own post later.  Mostly, I would say our Houston trip was a social visit.  Specifically, it comprised of meeting up with, in the span of three days, six people we otherwise knew only from Ravelry.

I'm on a number of social networks, but Ravelry is really the only one that I have any interest in making friends from.  Facebook is about staying connected to those I already know, LinkedIn is all about work, and Twitter is a conglomeration of headlines from everyone from 'real life' friends to frozen yogurt shops and favorite public radio personalities.  But with Ravelry, I'm engaging in a global community of crafters, a handful of which I had clicked needles with outside of cyberspace.  Over the years, I have developed what I consider to be true friendships, bonded over our shared love of crafting, as well as plenty of other subjects.

And so, we met up with a few people who I still think of more by usernames than first names.  On our way into Houston, we stopped in Katy and a fellow tennis enthusiast from the Tennis Fans Unite! group.  We both cannot wait for the Australian Open to get going and start up another grand slam season.  She's rooting for Federer, while I'm hoping that Andy Murray has finally broken his self-destruction habit in Championship matches.  But we both agree that it would be really great to see some up and comers make names for themselves.

There was even an impromptu meet-up with someone from the British Banter group, a fellow expat surviving in the wilds of America clutching her Cadbury Roses and Christmas crackers.  That was great because it literally was a case of her finding out we were in town, sending us a message in the morning and then meeting up for lunch a few hours later.  Completely unexpected, and yet it seemed so comfortable to meet up with someone who had described themselves according to the knitwear they had on, sit down and enjoy a mug of mushroom soup and just chat.

Odd Ducks is the group I swap with and spend most of my time in.  When you're swapping, you are essentially creating your own little Christmas, giving and receiving gifts themed around almost anything.  And in the process of learning what someone would like to be sent, you sort of reverse the normal friendship process of strangers becoming friends becoming people you give gifts to.  So maybe it's not surprising that the rest of our social engagements were with Odd Ducks.

First, we met up with another mother and daughter Odd Ducks duo for an early dinner and knit night at a Houston yarn store.  Then we met another Odd Duck who recently became a moderator for the group for the second time.  She brought me cupcakes from New York, and we brought her a bottle of barbecue sauce from The Salt Lick, where we had eaten lunch when we first met.  And finally, we stopped off to visit another Odd Duck on the way back home who has become our regular partner in crime for yarn crawls and other fiber events for the past two years.

Back in Austin now, ready for the start of the Christmas Eve festivities, and feeling particularly happy that I started my holidays with friends new and old, found the the fiber of the internet.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

O, Tannenbaum

Before I ever began celebrating the holidays with Yarnorama, Bastrop was an annual stop at this time of year.  For years, it was where we went to chop down our own Christmas tree at Loma Alta tree farm.

Unfortunately, last year's fires, which burned thousands of acres in the hill country, also wiped out Loma Alta.  I suspected as much, but wasn't sure until I did a further Google search this year when thinking about where the tree would come from this year.

Here's what I found (hopefully the video works):



So this year instead of a trip to Bastrop, we took a trip to HEB and found a tree there.  I'm going to hold out hope that they really will rebuild the farm, and maybe in a few years' time I'll be back, with my little handsaw, ready to return to this particular tradition.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Celebrating with Yarnorama, holiday-wise

Some holiday traditions I've had as long as I can remember.  Like the special family recipe for potato salad, which has to be prepared in the largest possible bowl and is eaten not only for Christmas dinner, but also for breakfast, lunch, and dinner again for several days afterwards until it's gone.  Other traditions are a little more new, like making the drive to Yarnorama for their holiday party.  It's only the second year we've made it, but I'm already looking forward to the third, fourth, and so on.

Preparations for this party began, believe it or not, in April this year.  That's when I bought the yarn to knit a pair of dishcloths for the white elephant washcloth exchange.  It's a fun little swap that starts off with everyone bringing a pair of dishcloths they have knit, crocheted, or woven.  Then one at a time people choose which pair they would like, except that they don't just choose from what's available.  Dishcloths can also be 'stolen' and end up being passed back and forth several times before the night is over.

In an effort to have one of the coveted dishcloths which might be stolen at least once, I made my dishcloths part of my Ravelympics/Ravellenics knitting this year.  After successfully completing my first-ever monster, I did a simple heart lace pattern for two matching dishcloths:
I'm happy to report that my efforts were rewarded with several cases of 'theft'.  In a happy coincidence, some of that demand may have been motivated by the fact that this just happened to be the same project a few of the other knitters were working on for a wedding present, so these may become a part of that project.  But I'm just glad to walk into a group of other knitters and get positive feedback for something I made.  Now I have to start plotting for next year...

I also brought with me another finished object that I'm quite proud of with ties to last year's party.  One of my Christmas presents last year was a gorgeously scrolled Turkish drop spindle from Jeri Brock, given to me by my mother to start me off spinning.  And as I reported during the Tour de Fleece, I turned out my first four skeins of yarn with that spindle and a braid of roving purchased that same night at the party.

It took a few more months for me to knit that yarn into something, but eventually it became this cowl, which I proudly wore to this year's party:
It was a completely improvised pattern of knitting, purling, YOs and picots.  It's like a fabulous collar, I love the colors.  Eventually I might be able to spin yarn with some control as to the resulting gauge, but for now I'm happy to just spin and work with whatever the results may be.  And I'm already eyeing the spinning wheels in the store.  Someday...

Being a party, it was also an opportunity to, what else, bake!  There's always a strategy to potlucks, you don't want to fill the table with just cookies, or bring anything that requires too much serving or other efforts.  So instead of regular cupcakes, I decided to switch things up and make some savory muffins.  I started with a recipe I found on Pioneer Woman, doubling that and adding a little garlic and other seasonings.  Then I took it even one step further and decided to 'frost' them with a mixture of cream cheese and seasonings, slightly thinned with a little milk.  Aren't they cute?
Doubling the recipe gave me a dozen full-sized cupcakes and 18 minis.  With one block of cream cheese, I had plenty for little star blobs on all of them, but if you really wanted to frost them, you would likely need a second block.  These are really tasty, but absolutely best when warm.  Also, I put them in paper wrappers just for ease of removal and clean-up, but they would have been fine without them, and the unwrapping isn't the easiest.  We have a few leftover which are going to be really good accompaniments with soup.

We made one more contribution to the party in that I brought the selection of DVDs to choose from to be the movie-viewing part of the evening.  Out of a selection of seven classic choices, the group decided on 'The Apartment'.  If you've already seen it, you may have already spotted the reference in the title of this post.  If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it as a sweet, sometimes sad, romantic comedy set around the holidays.  You can never go wrong with Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and Shirley MacLaine.

All in all, a great way to start off the holiday season!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Gingerbread Cookies with Spiced Apple Glaze

I've said it before and I'll say it again: my baked goods very rarely can be described in a single phrase.  It's never just 'chocolate chip cookies', it's got to be triple chocolate with added this and that and cut into the shape of a cupcake or something.  And this week was no exception.  For the final week of office treats in 2012, I wanted to be seasonal.  Gingersnaps seemed appropriate.

I may be amassing a more respectable baker's pantry, but I don't have quite the supply of spices and molasses that most recipes require, so I cheated and bought a boxed mix.  But I made up for it with the addition of crystallized ginger.  Then I decided that, hey, they make iced gingersnaps, so making a quick glaze would be in no way considered excessive.  And if there was going to be a glaze, it might as well have a little more ginger.  And then, why mix water in with the powdered sugar when there was some perfectly good apple juice in the fridge?  Apples and spices go so well together.

So you see, it's probably best that I start out with a boxed mix, otherwise I might never have had the energy for all of that improvisation.

This isn't the end of gingerbread baking for me, though.  I already know that I can 'get away' with gingerbread cookies in summer when I add lemon candies.  And Vanilla Sugar posted a great list of links to gingerbread-y recipes that I also want to try now, maybe even from scratch.


Gingerbread Cookies with Spiced Apple Glaze
made just over two dozen cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1 box gingerbread cookie mix, along with directed wet ingredients (or use your own from-scratch base recipe)
  • 1/4 cup of crystallized ginger, chopped
  • about 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • about 2 tablespoons apple juice
  • pinches of ground ginger, clove, and cinnamon
Directions:

  1. Prepare the dough as directed, adding the crystallized ginger.  For my cookies, I rolled about a tablespoon of dough and placed them 2 inches apart on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet.
  2. After the cookies have baked and cooled, take a small bowl or mug and mix together the powdered sugar, spices, and apple juice until you have a glaze consistency.  Drizzle on the cookies.  Allow to harden before storing the cookies, or serve them as is.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tokyo tales: I scream for...

Amazingly enough, I didn't eat any frozen yogurt while in Tokyo.  My Google research tells me that there probably are one or two places that do the self-serve weigh and pay thing, but there were plenty of other things for me to seek out, so rather than yogurt, I indulged in some ice cream.

Whether it was served as dessert after dinner in a restaurant or scooped into a cone as a vacation decadence in the middle of the afternoon, there was not a lick of the stuff that I regret.  Here's the collage of ice cream:


First, in the 'served as dessert' category: In the bottom righthand corner, a dainty scoop of vanilla bean to go with some fresh fruit, the finishing touch to a yakitori dinner in the hotel our second night.  The top center is a matcha ice cream that came after another dinner of grilled meats in a restaurant where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor.  After an hour or two it gets a little uncomfortable, but it's worth it for the creamy green tea dessert.  And in the top lefthand corner, that is a frozen apple which has been hollowed out and filled with an apple sorbet.  I ate everything but the very core.

And then, the specifically sought after cones.  On the left is an unabashed afternoon snack of dark chocolate sorbet topped with a grapefruit sorbet, which came from Grom in Harajuku.  You would think that after having ramen for lunch we'd have more restraint, but no.  It was delicious.

In the remaining two photos, we found ice cream in a surprising (to me) place: Baskin-Robbins.  It was next door to the Burger King that offered up the intriguing pumpkin burger so near the hotel.  As with the fast food, the novelty is in the available flavors more than anything else.  In the center photo, my cone is on the left, with a scoop of red bean ice cream atop BR's own version of matcha.  I love the strangeness of getting something so sweet and creamy from beans.  And the color is pretty too.  Dad's is in the right of the same photo, I believe it was an espresso chocolate chip.  

And then in the photo on the right, another trip to BR.  A seasonal pumpkin on the bottom, and an intriguing apple pie and tea ice cream on the top.  That was totally unexpected, but really delicious.  I wish I could get that scooped in the US, because apple pie is so American and all.  The pumpkin was also surprising, because while I expected it to be like a pumpkin pie flavor, it was far more a pumpkin-caramel combo, which while unexpected was absolutely delicious.

I also bought powdered ice cream mixes for matcha and red bean flavors to attempt to make myself stateside.  But I doubt they'll be anything more than a good reminder of the true greatness of the frozen desserts enjoyed in Tokyo.  Nostalgic scoops are better than none at all.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Froyo files: Seeing things Yo-Way

There are a few reasons I love my optometrist.  For one thing, he has all the latest technology to be able to take pictures of my eyes without dilating them, which is a huge plus.  He's also open on Saturdays, and open until 6 pm everyday except Tuesday, when they are open even later.  And it's right on the way home from work for me, so all in all, it's a pretty convenient set up when you're to-ing and fro-ing testing out various contact lenses.

But there's a an x-factor that just cannot be denied: my optometrist is almost literally right above a frozen yogurt shop.

Yo-Way is another one that I've already reviewed once.  But like Chill Out, they have earned another post.  The other weekend I stopped by the optometrist for two more trial pairs of lenses.  So it only made sense that I should test out one of those pairs while eating frozen yogurt, a very important task requiring vision.  Not only to read the flavor labels to avoid mixing mint and caramel, but depth perception is required to get the spoon from bowl to mouth successfully.  It's all highly skilled, you see.

The contacts performed their task very well, I think I've gotten the right prescription and type sorted now.  And Yo-Way also did their job, maybe even better.  I just have to take a moment to rave about their red velvet.  It was absolutely delicious!  And even better was the cheesecake, because this may be the first time a froyo has actually had that tang of cream cheese.  And when I combined the two, oh boy, it was a red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting, in swirled form.  This was two weekends ago now, so I cannot guarantee that they are still currently available, but I highly recommend them whenever they come around again, as I'm sure they will.

I'll be ordering my 'official' contact lenses this week, and I'm also planning on using up a few more of those extra flex spending dollars on a cute Hello Kitty lens case I saw at the optometrist.  Another reason to love them...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Homemade Butterfingers

After every holiday, there are always certain foods and candies left over that people don't really want to eat anymore after the festive glow has passed.  Fruit cake and candy canes, for instance, tend to outlive the momentary culinary enthusiasm that the season brings.  Candy corn is another one of these foods, outlasting almost all other candies in the clearance after Halloween.  But now, there is a use for all of that orange, yellow, and white stuff.  And that's by combining it with peanut butter and chocolate to create homemade Butterfingers.

This was quite possibly one of the most fun treats to bring into work.  People were so intrigued when I told them what they were, and even more impressed when they bit into them.  Because they really, truly are.  In fact, they might even be better than the actual thing, being fresh, just a little softer, and less teeth-sticking.  After the disbelieving intrigue is met with yumminess, the curiosity comes next, and people were quite honestly a little stunned to know that it took just three ingredients.

While I was never losing sleep wondering exactly what flavor a Butterfinger was, something about having found out and even made it myself is very satisfying.  I still find myself randomly congratulating myself.  Hey, I made Butterfingers!  That's pretty cool.

Homemade Butterfingers

Find the recipe at Plain Chicken, I didn't change a thing.  Just a warning, though: this is a little bit of a sticky mess when putting together, and cutting into squares is not the easiest thing.  But rustic is beautiful.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Magic loop lives up to its name

Having now sent out the last of my 2012 swap packages, I can now focus on any quick holiday knits for friends and family.  And then perhaps I can knit something for myself, what a change that will make!

But anyway, in the course of determining a particular item for someone on my list (with deliberate vagueness to guarantee surprise), I choose a pattern, found some stash yarn and the appropriate needles, and began casting on.  It directed me to use Judy's Magic Cast On, and though I was a little trepedatious, I did as I was told.  I was mostly able to follow the directions from Knitty, but I found this YouTube video super-helpful when I got stuck turning to knit the second half of the first round:

Funnily enough, despite the mention of socks in the Knitty instructions, and the word 'Magic' in its name, it didn't fully strike me that I was magic looping until I was actually doing it.  And then suddenly,  as I was finishing up that first round, it was like I was struck with that magic wand.  Bippity-boppity-boo!  Ah-ha, so this is what people are always talking about, getting freakishly long circular needles to do, taking classes for, and arguing the pros and cons of!  And here I am doing it!  Whoa.

I suppose it's needless to say that I'm not making socks, and never have.  I don't particularly plan to make any either, but I do love learning a technique all by myself without bursting into tears.  And if I ever get around to starting hexipuffs for the Beekeeper's Quilt this technique will certainly come in handy.  For now, it's just something else a little bit fiddly to deal with while I'm also cabling.

Stay tuned for actual details about this project.  The day after Christmas is the time for post-holiday sales and post-gifting show-offs.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Froyo files: Holiday flavors at Chill Out (Kyle)

With Thanksgiving over, it is now prime holiday time.  The bad news is the Christmas music that will play for the next month in stores.  The good news is the yummy seasonal flavors in everything from white chocolate peppermint M&Ms to, you guessed it, frozen yogurt.

I've already done my formal review of Chill Out, but I've been several times since then, and I have to say, I like it more each time.  On Friday night, we stopped in for frozen yogurt for dinner between stopping at Target and HEB.  We were greeted by the owner, and some yummy new holiday flavors to try.  Here's the breakdown:

Peppermint Stick: Mmm, minty.  Not too creamy, not to minty.  The only thing that holds me back from these is not knowing what to put on them, topping-wise.  Chocolate cookie crumbs would be good.  More calories, but good.

Gingerbread: Oh yes, this was most definitely my thing.  So good I had to combine it with the Orchard Cherry.  Which was maybe a little strange, but it certainly made more sense than putting Pineapple with it.  This was a good, warmly spicy froyo.  Would go really well with the pumpkin muffins they had on the topping bar as well.

Egg Nog: This was ready after I had filled my cup, but I did get to sample it.  Yum.  I don't know that I've ever actually had egg nog, so full disclosure there, but I thought this was good.  Would be nice with fresh fruit, since it's sort of custardy.

Turtle Bliss: Okay, so not strictly speaking a holiday flavor, but it is one that was specially blended in-house with chocolate, caramel, and pecan.  I lean towards a little more caramel, but this was really good.

So if you need a pick-me-up while crossing off names on your holiday shopping list, come try one or all of these.  While the weather still allows it!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Cranberry Lemon Cupcakes

To my mind, leftovers are just the start of a whole world of possibilities.  Yes, you can just reheat stuffing and eat it.  Or, you can reheat it and top it with a fried egg, using the herby, bready goodness to sop up the yolk.  Mmm...

Mom and I love cranberries so much we could have just eaten this leftover relish on its own, but I had to use some of it as a cupcake filling.  I call this a relish rather than a sauce because it was a chopped mix of cranberries, apples, and other fruits.  I wish I could be more specific, but this was someone else's contribution to our potluck Thanksgiving dinner, so all I can be sure of is that it was delicious.

People loved the tartness of the lemon, I think it pairs nicely with the cranberry, and has a good balance of sweetness.  This recipe would work with pretty much any cranberry sauce, though I think it's best with something with texture, chunks of actual cranberry rather than rings from where it was sitting in a can.

Cranberry Lemon Cupcakes
made a dozen regular-sized cupcakes and 45 minis

Ingredients:

Cake:
  • 1 box lemon cake mix
  • 1 can Sprite Zero
  • a few drops lemon extract
  • sprinkle of dried lemon zest
  • leftover cranberry relish (or sauce)
Glaze:
  • about 1 cup powdered sugar
  • less than a tablespoon lemon juice
  • dried cranberries for garnish

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix cake mix and can of soda together, adding additional extract and zest just to boost the lemon flavor.  Note: you can of course use your own preferred lemon cake recipe.
  2. Fill lined mini-cupcake tins about half full of batter.  Add about a teaspoon of cranberry relish, pushing it into the batter until it's mostly covered.  For the full-sized cupcakes, scoop in batter about 2/3 full, add a little more relish, and then top with a little more batter rather than pushing in the relish.
  3. Place in the oven and bake, about 10 minutes for minis, 15 for the full-size.  When fully baked, remove and allow to cool.
  4. In a mug or small bowl, mix powdered sugar, lemon juice, and water until a glaze forms.  The consistency should be relatively thick to avoid the glaze running down the cupcake liner.
  5. Using a spoon, apply a circle of glaze on each cupcake, and top with a dried cranberry.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Froyo files: Orange Leaf (Southpark Meadows)

I was so excited to see that Southpark Meadows finally had a froyo place.  But things didn't go quite as I had hoped.

This is going to be more of an existential treatise on sampling and frozen yogurt than a complete review of this place, mostly because I can't do a full review.  Because instead of providing sample cups, an employee comes out from behind the counter with sample cups to prepare them for you.  Hmm.

Orange Leaf: 9600 South I-35, Suite B-200, Austin, TX


When I visited: Friday, November 22nd, around 2 pm

Cost per ounce: 47 cents

Number of flavors: 16

Sorbet options: no true sorbet

Experience: Without ranting, let me describe what happened and how it made me feel as a customer. With the cashier by your side, you literally stand there and say, 'Okay, I'll try Gingerbread,' they put a little in the cup, hand it to you, and watch while you eat this sample.  You repeat this as many times as your personal tolerance for awkwardness allows, or until more customers come in and that one person on duty has to tend to them.  And then you are there, waiting for them to return and standing in front of the forbidden yogurt.


I only tried three flavors before the whole thing was just too awkward to stand and I was ready for it to all be over.  There were other flavors I would have liked to try, especially since they actually had quite an impressive number of them on offer.  But it felt a little ridiculous to go down the line and do them all like that. Pineapple was dairy-free, but felt more like a sherbet than a sorbet.  But it was still pretty good, and swirled with the Coconut next to it, became a good Pina Colada.  The aforementioned Gingerbread was also good, though I think with any of these spiced flavors in froyo I tend to want them stronger, creamier, just.... -er.  Similarly to the Spiced Apple Cider at TCBY earlier.

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but it felt a little like I was being accused of being a moocher, that I couldn't be trusted to sample for myself without gobbling up more than my share.  The more I sample, though, the more I buy.  And the more I tell all of you how good everything was.  Okay, there aren't that many of you, but still.  One last point: with prices hovering around a dollar for every two ounces, I think part of the business model is built-in sampling.  I understand the theory of increasing profit margins by decreasing the amount you give away for free.  But here's the actual result: my mom and I usually spend around $10 between us for each stop.  If the offerings are particularly delicious, maybe even $15.  What did I spend here? Less than $3.

I took a small swirl of pineapple and added a few pieces of fruit.  Tasty, and can I just say, I loved their spoons.  But something about the non-self-service just seemed so...odd.  I mean, if the sampling isn't self-service, what exactly is the point of it being self-service, as opposed to putting the yogurt behind the counter and having someone swirl it for you the way they scoop it in an ice cream shop?

Worth a revisit?  Yogurt-wise, yes.  Experience-wise, sadly no.  Just too complicated.  I think I'll go to the Teapioca Lounge right next door instead.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Froyo files: TCBY

Newly armed with contacts, I wanted to try them out while running.  And after that wonderful test of dust and depth perception, I rewarded myself with frozen yogurt.

TCBY5701 W. Slaughter Lane Bldg. B Suite 100, Austin

When I visited: Tuesday, November 19th, around 4 pm

Cost per ounce: 44 cents

Number of flavors: 10

Sorbet options: 1

Experience: I think this is just a genius location for frozen yogurt.  Aside from being the home of the new Alamo Drafthouse, it's still pretty much within walking distance for a great portion of the neighborhoods around Circle C.  So they are in a perfect position to catch people, which seems to be half the battle for froyo, or any business.  When we went, there were a number of kids who had clearly just gotten out of class and had come, either with friends or parents, for an afterschool snack.  


That made the taste testing a little crowded, but the sample cups were put out with the actual cups, so everything went smoothly, as people worked around each other in their strategic samplings.  My two favorites were the two I tried first: the grapefruit sorbet and the white chocolate mousse.  They didn't really go well together, though, so I did mostly grapefruit with a little Tart.  Dad did Grapefruit, Chocolate, and White Chocolate, with bits of Crunch on top.

They also had a Spiced Apple Cider which was nice, though I would have really loved it as more of an apple sorbet.  And a Honey Vanilla Greek yogurt that was interesting.  Could have been tangier, I think, but then I'm a little more of a Greek yogurt purist.

Worth a revisit? Yeah.  All in all, the yogurt was good, the location is great, and another froyo stop is added to my list.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tokyo tales: Slurping ramen

Most people associate ramen with the dried blocks of noodles that can be bought by the crateful, with packets of sodium-overdosing flavor.  As with most things, these are just a shadow of the true amazingness of 'real' ramen.  A rich broth with soft noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, fall-apart meat and a softly-boiled egg...mmm.  Just how good is it?  Well, it's probably the one thing I ate the most while I was there this time around.  There were four separate ramen meals, each unique:

1.  Train Station Ramen

On our first day in Tokyo, we wandered around Akihabara and found the restaurant supply district (which deserves its own post later) near Ueno.  At Ueno station, we decided that whatever time our bodies thought it was, it was certainly time to eat something, so we popped into a noodle shop for sustenance more than anything else.


Just a plain miso broth with some pork.  Maybe I had just forgotten how good this stuff really is, but this tasted so much better than something from a train station has any right to.  It was definitely worth the few splatters I caused from my relearning chopstick skills.

2.  Vending Machine Ramen

Next was another ramen of convenience.  After a hard day's work, Dad didn't feel like venturing far from the hotel for dinner.  Thankfully, the Westin in Ebisu happens to be right next to a shopping square, and there is an underground path allowing you to access the shops and restaurants without ever actually going outside.  We found this in the basement level, it looks like the kind of place that would be packed for lunch on a work day.

What made this a little interesting was the way you ordered.  Rather than attempting broken English and pointing with a waitress, you push the buttons on this vending machine, which spits out tickets for each item and takes your money ahead of time.

I opted for the basic ramen, plus my favorite toppings of egg, pork, and bamboo.  And a small beer, the beverage of choice with a steaming bowl of goodness.

3.  The Favorite Ramen

There was only one planned ramen stop on this trip, to the 'favorite noodle shop' located in Harajuku.  It's just around the corner from Kiddy Land, an awesome toy store with several floors filled with Hello Kitty, Disney, and other toys.  It's pretty much a given at this point that for any time spent in Tokyo, one day has to be devoted to Harajuku for shopping and ramen.
This is an almost creamy pork broth, rich from the bones boiled for hours.  Otherwise, it features the same highlights of noodles, sprouts, egg, and pork.  We also shared some dumplings, and I got an almond jelly dessert as part of a set deal.

4. Cheesy Ramen

The final night in Tokyo, we didn't really have plans for dinner.  So I Googled around for ideas in the area, and read about this place, Tsukumo, that did cheesy ramen.  I didn't know whether to be intrigued or horrified.  What I knew I was, was hungry.  Dad approved of this culinary experiment, and it was an easy find just a few blocks from the Ebisu train station.

They start out with the rich pork broth, possibly with some of the parmesan rinds going into that process as well.  And the noodles we know and love.  Then, a 'Made in Italy' cheese grater takes a huge hunk of the stuff and grates it in a heaping pile into the soup.  You add your plate of extras (egg, pork, etc.), and ta-dah!
Man, I cannot tell you how good this was.  Seriously.  It sounds a little weird, but the cheese melts beautifully into the broth and noodles.  The only comparison I can make is to a french onion soup.  So delicious.  I'm quite pleased with myself for this find, but really that's the beauty of Tokyo, it almost doesn't matter where you happen to walk into, chances are you're going to get something good to eat.

Well, with the exception of when you walk into places that aren't restaurants, of course!

There you have it, another tale from Tokyo.  It's taking me a while to get to everything, but I hope you're enjoying it, because I love getting to relive it weeks afterwards.  Stay tuned for further installments of craft stores, food, and more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Froyo files: Crazy Good (San Marcos)

The thought occurs that perhaps the lack of posts reviewing purveyors of frozen yogurt might lead readers to assume that I have stopped eating froyo.  Allay your fears, because it merely means that I have instead been enjoying swirls of dairy deliciousness in some of the same places I've already reviewed.  And I didn't think it necessary to share every bowl with you.  Most often, I've gone to Tutti Frutti, Chill Out, and Yogurt Spot, depending on which one coincides with the shopping of the day.

But this weekend, on the way back from Kid 'n Ewe, we stopped at a place I have been to before, but just happened to predate my blogging activities.  And so, another case for the Froyo files...

Crazy Good: 1504 Aquarena Springs Drive #303, San Marcos, TX

When I visited: Saturday, November 12th, around 4 pm

Cost per ounce: 45 cents

Number of flavors: 10

Sorbet options: 1

Experience: This is my mom's preferred froyo spot in San Marcos, and I like it too.  Aside from the one sorbet option, they also have a good Euro Tart and a Wildberry Tart.  Which is what I ended up having, because unfortunately the sorbet was fruit punch, and that just tends to have a fake taste to it.  But the Wildberry was really good, so I wasn't too disappointed.

There were also two cinnamon-y flavors, Snickerdoodle, and Cinnamon Roll.  Both of those were super-tasty when sampled, but just didn't make it into my final bowl selection because cinnamon and fruit doesn't melt together well.  The Irish Mint was nice and minty.  They also had a White Chocolate Macadamia, but I'm not sure how I felt about it.  White chocolate is kind of a non-flavor when it's done in something other than actual white chocolate.  It tasted a little like how certain sweet Yankee candles smell, if you know what I mean.

I want to give a shoutout to their Dulce de Leche, because even though it wasn't swirling on this particular day, it's a big reason why my mom will sometimes visit (gasp!) without me.  And also: they have an impressive selection of toppings, particularly in the sauce category.  There was a lemon zest one in particular that was really tempting, but I didn't try it because it was almost certainly not light on sugar.  But there seem to be an endless number of possibilities here as far as customizing your yogurt and jazzing it up even if you go with a plain Vanilla or Chocolate.

Worth a revisit? Yup!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A brand new face

What do you see when you look in the mirror?  This isn't so much a deep philosophical question, I mean it more matter-of-factly.  When you look in the mirror, you see...yourself.  Your face.  Every morning when you wake up and every night before you go to bed.  Usually with a toothbrush in your mouth, unless you happen to spend a lot of time just staring at yourself, in which case maybe you have a little too much time to spare.

Anyway, for most of my life, I haven't just seen my face, I've seen my face with glasses.  I think I was in third grade or so when I first got them.  And I need them, because otherwise I can't read that huge 'E' at the top of the charts.  So the only way I've seen my face without glasses is either as a vaguely me-shaped blur or with my nose practically pressed up against the mirror, which is not the way most other people would see it.

Until today, when I got contacts.

I don't plan on wearing them all the time.  Just on the odd day, particularly if I want to go running and don't want to keep pushing glasses up my nose as I go, or maybe on a random day when it's bright and I feel like wearing sunglasses.  Really, the only reason I decided to go ahead and get contacts was because my insurance will only cover new frames every other year, but lenses, whether contacts or glasses, you can have each year.  Plus, I have some flex spending money left over for the year, and if I don't use it, I lose it.  So getting contacts is like going shopping with money you've already spent.  Plus, I've always sort of wanted to try it, just to see.  Literally.

And so now, I have my first pair in.  Aside from being able to see to the side without turning my head, and dealing with the whole issue of touching my eyes so much, I'm just trying to get used to my face.  Because it's completely different.  I don't know quite how to describe it, but it's like there's so much more of it now.  My eyes are so far apart compared to the bridge between lenses on glasses.  And my cheeks, there's more of them as well.  So I'm spending a little too much time staring in the mirror, because it's not quite me.  And I keep putting my hands on my face, because it feels different as well.  My hair doesn't tuck behind my ears in quite the same way.  Little things that are completely ordinary, they are just new.

Okay, time to take them out again.  I've had them in for the allotted four hours, and I need to give myself plenty of time before dinner, since it took at least ten minutes to get them out the first time!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Pumpkin Pie Cookie Bar

Tis the season for pumpkin pie.  But why should the crust just be...crust?  Especially when it can be cookie.  When I saw this seasonal mix from Betty Crocker, I knew I had to make it.  And I've been using Hungry Girl's recipe for several years now to get the pumpkin pie feeling without the extra calories.  Putting two things like this together is pretty much my raison d'ĂȘtre, so it had to be done.

I was really worried about burning the cookie crust with the double baking, but they turned out really nicely, the filling likely keeping the crust moist, but not getting soggy.  You could probably also half the amount of dough, and get a more pie-like ratio of filling and crust.

Pumpkin Pie Cookie Bars
(adapted from Betty Crocker and Hungry Girl)
makes a 9x13" pan

Ingredients:

  • Betty Crocker Pumpkin Spice Cookie Mix (you can also use sugar cookie mix with the addition of some pumpkin pie spice, or your own recipe)
  • 15 oz can pumpkin puree
  • 12 oz can evaporated fat-free milk
  • 2 eggs (or 1/2 cup egg substitute)
  • 3/4 cup Splenda
  • 2 tsp pumpkin pie spice

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Prepare the cookie mix as directed.  Press into the prepared pan, using a spatula or your fingers to press it into the bottom evenly.
  3. Bake 10 to 15 minutes until dough is just set.  You don't want to end up overbaking the crust.  Allow it to cool at least slightly.
  4. While the crust is baking (or even once cooling), mix together the pumpkin, milk, eggs, Splenda and spice.  Pour onto the crust and return to the oven for 45 minutes.
  5. Allow the bars to cool, chilling in the fridge before cutting into squares (or triangles, like my picture).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A trip to the dentist is better than no sleep at all

I went in for my six-month cleaning today.  And there were two things that struck me.

First of all, doctor-patient small talk is already awkward at the best of times.  But it's one heck of a lot harder to chit chat when there are fingers and other implements occasionally in your mouth.  It must be a kind of fine art for dentists and hygienists, to cut through the awkwardness of the situation with conversation, and yet manage to not force dialogue while they are in the middle of something in your mouth.  No questions right before going in for the final floss, for instance.  It truly is commendable.

And second, as my chair was returning to its upright position, I felt oddly...rested.  That makes sense.  I mean, we're talking about 30 to 45 minutes where the most demanding thing I was asked to do was this aforementioned chit chat.  It's one of the few times when you can't multitask.  Kind of hard to use your iPhone, watch TV or draft a blog post.  Perhaps there's a slight uptick in blood pressure as I wait for a verdict on cavities, but really, it's a fairly relaxing break in the day.

And no, this completely random blog post was not brought to you by the remaining effects of laughing gas.  I only went in for a cleaning, and my pearly whites passed their inspection.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Enjoying fiber in the buff

Titillated?  Well, so was I, but mostly by the awesome buffalo yarn that I found at Kid 'N Ewe fiber festival this past weekend.  See what I did there?  Just a little fiber humor to start you off.

Every year, yarn events just get better and better around here.  This year in Boerne, there were even more indie dyers with yarn and fiber that I just had to squoosh.  I ended up walking away with five new skeins for my stash.  Two came from Knitting Rose, a 10% bison yarn that was really intriguing.  Apparently it gets softer as you use and wash it, and it's super-warm.  That's one reason that she said she sticks to 10%, because any more and it might just cause a Texas knitter to burst into flames.  Plus, it allows her to keep the colors vibrant, which I love.  So I got one skein that was a mix of brown and fuschia, and another with brown and teal.  Never tried it before, but now I'm planning on striping up some mitts, and probably a matching shawl or cowl.

The rest of the damage was with Heavenly Fiber.  I met these guys first at Yellow Rose earlier this year, and I was on the lookout to see them again.  We missed them in our first loop of the vendors, but finally spotted them, and I'm so glad we did.  She had lots of her gorgeous sparkly yarn, which I bought last time, and sparkly batts, which I haven't tried yet.  Next time.  What I did get this time around was a skein of worsted weight, a fingering tweed in a Firefly-inspired colorway, and a cake of deep red yarn that progressively will get darker.  It's going to be a gorgeous shawl.

There are some pics in my Examiner article.  Sorry, not too many of the specific yarns, I'll have more once I've actually knitted some of these things up.  If you happen to be one of my Texas readers, I highly recommend stopping by for next year's event.  And if not, I highly recommend taking a peek at these two online stores in particular.  They are making some beautiful things and they are also great people.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tokyo tales: Avril yarn store

Just before I found Karel Capek tea, I found Avril yarn during my day of wonder in Kichijoji.

I used this helpful post as well as their website to guide me, and found that as long as you just trust that you are walking in the right direction, you'll get there eventually.
Once inside, now that was the hard part.  I'm terrible at making decisions at the best of times, and these were not good circumstances for me to be decisive.  The walls are lined mostly with cones of different yarns that are sold by weight.  And along with having some pretty yarns in and of themselves, the main feature of Avril is combining the various yarns to create a chunkier art yarn.  So you have some nice 'base' yarns in lots of colors and gauges, and then some sparkly novelty kind of strands to mix in.  Pretty much everything is in Japanese, and I wasn't brave enough to ask if anyone spoke English to translate for me, but I was able to discern the gauge because each yarn had a card offering details on meters per 10 grams.

I experimented with various combinations, including a color-changing one-ply yarn in various shades of brown along with a strand of what sort of looked like sprinkles to perhaps make a chocolate cupcake cowl.  But in the end, doing something like that had the downside of doubling the cost, so instead I chose to just take 40 g of a heavy fingering (maybe DK) yarn that reminded me of Noro in the coloring, along with a little grab bag that had a short amount of a pre-made art yarn concoction that seemed to complement it.

In one of the crafting department stores (I hope to outline a few in a later post) I found a plain black in the same gauge also from a Japanese yarn company, called Puppy.  So these will likely be combined to create a shawlette, with the tiny yardage of art yarn going towards a knitted flower or other embellishment, possibly to act as a closure for the shawl.

I highly recommend a trip to Kichijoji and this store.  It was a really interesting experience to find something  that felt very much like a local yarn store in the US, with people knitting in the side room, etc.  The other yarn  sources I was able to make it to were all more like department stores, so this was absolutely worth the journey out, especially because Kichijoji itself turned out to be such a gem of a little town for wandering and shopping.

You know, when you next happen to be wandering around Tokyo wondering what to do with yourself.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tokyo tales: Fast food adventures

Japan has so much amazing food.  Sushi, ramen, yakitori, steak.  So maybe it's a little heretical that I actually sought out fast food on this trip and ate it not once, but twice.  But stay with me here, I did have a reason.  Before this, it had been about two years since I had actually eaten a burger and fries.  So it wasn't that I couldn't survive two weeks without pink slime.  It's that there are things that these plastic palaces only put on the menu in certain places.  And I find that intriguing, seeing and tasting what has been designed for this particular place and this group of people.  It tells you something about what they eat in 'real' food.  And it's kind of fun.

Fall was in full swing while we were there, including Halloween decorations.  I had always seen Halloween as an American holiday, but I guess it's another one of those cultural exports we're sending around the globe.  But in Japan, pumpkins aren't just for carving into jack-o-lanterns or even filling pies.  They can also be put on burgers.

Burger King has a limited edition BK Pumpkin, a 'harvest time' burger, basically a bacon cheeseburger with slices of roasted Japanese pumpkin.  I believe that technically that's a squash, but let's not get picky.  I was very intrigued when I read about this, because I love pumpkin in all of its sweet forms and regularly stir a little puree into puddings, oatmeal, and baked goods.  I had also had some raw sticks of pumpkin amongst the veggies at another more traditional Japanese dinner.  And so, it was the season to try this out.
See the pumpkin?  You can also order a 'Bomb Pumpkin' to get ten slices on this, or in fact any, burger.  But I think two slices was adventurous enough.

Actually, this was pretty good.  Well, the bacon cheeseburger part was, like most fast food, not as satisfying as it smelled, but the pumpkin part was good enough to make me think that I might try and add some to my own sandwich sometime.  Something about the bacon and the pumpkin together was good.  Who knew that pairing was out there?

And then, for lunch one day, we popped into a McDonald's.  Nothing against Burger King, but for my generation at least, they just don't have that deeply, disturbingly engrained connection.  McDonald's had the happy meals, so when I think of quintessential fast food, that's where I think of going.  This is not difficult to manage, since there is one literally on every corner in certain neighborhoods, particularly in the vicinity of public transportation.

And each of these locations, unlike the locations in the US, has an Ebi Filet-O.  Basically, it's a shrimp burger.  Shrimp ground up into a patty, coated with Panko and fried up, with lettuce and a sauce derived from Thousand Island.
I think this was more interesting, just because it was a completely different kind of burger.  Again, it was still fast food, so it could have been better, but I would eat another if I found myself locked in a McDonald's around mealtime.  And again, it made me want to try it myself at home, though I'm not sure I want to actually fry it, and I'd be worried about baking it and overcooking the shrimp.

There you have it.  Japanese fast food.  And if you're ever there, make sure you ask for ketchup at the counter, otherwise you're going to have to eat your fries naked.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Not Terry's Chocolate Orange Fudge

Well, Halloween is over, and you know what that means?  Christmas!  At least that's the impression you get from walking around the stores.  The aisles are starting to be filled with ornaments, layaway programs have already begun, and soon we shall begin the countdown to madness as Christmas music comes pouring through the speakers.  In Tokyo they were already starting to erect Christmas trees in one of the plazas.  I suppose without Thanksgiving, there isn't even a theoretical gap between Halloween and Christmas.  Even here, it seems like only grocery stores really care about turkey day, since they are the ones selling you the turkey.

Anyway, one thing that I associate with Christmas that I will always welcome coming early is a Terry's Chocolate Orange.  They aren't particularly Christmas-y, but like cherry cordials at Valentine's Day, they tend to come out around that time of year, and make yummy stocking stuffers.  This was my reasoning for turning my super-simple base fudge recipe into a salute to the delicious coupling of chocolate and orange.

This recipe is so simple, it takes literally a few minutes to make.  Then a few more minutes to cut up after it's chilled.  Perfect for when you've cultivated a reputation for bringing in treats but between jet lag, shopping, and 5k runs you didn't really have time to put a lot of effort in.  Keep in mind that this can be adapted into almost anything.  White chocolate with peppermint extract (also good for Christmas), milk chocolate with almond extract and chopped hazelnuts for a kind of Nutella fudge.  You will see this pop up again and again over the course of this blog.

And as quickly as this comes together, it disappears just as fast, because it is so delicious.  That's the best combination, easy and impressive!


Not Terry's Chocolate Orange Fudge
(adapted from Sparkpeople)
Makes about 40 squares

Ingredients:

  • 1 bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 can of fat-free sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 tsp orange extract
  • sprinkling of dried orange zest (optional)
Directions:
  1. Line a 9 x 13" (or similar) pan with parchment paper.
  2. In a microwaveable bowl, mix the entire bag of chips with the can of condensed milk.  Stir in some zest.
  3. Place in the microwave and melt carefully.  I started with 30 seconds, then stirred, and back in again in 15 second increments.  You don't want to scorch it, just get it smooth.  Stir in the extract.
  4. Pour the mixture into the pan, spreading a little to get it evenly in there.  Sprinkle with a little more zest if desired.
  5. Place the pan into the fridge and leave to chill.  Once firm, cut into squares. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tonight's to-dos

I have various tasks which I would like to make progress on in the three hours or so I have between now and sweet, sweet slumber:

  • Cutting the fudge into squares for bringing into work tomorrow (recipe post forthcoming)
  • Otherwise prepping other foods to eat while at work tomorrow in order to be nourished beyond risk of fainting after donating blood in the afternoon
  • Getting as close as possible to finishing my first knitted item for this tea-themed swap, so I can start on the second tomorrow
  • Writing at least a sizable chunk of my NaNoWriMo novel, because so far I have amassed a woeful total of less than a thousand words.  Entering into this challenge directly after a trip is not a good idea.  But I refuse to give in!
  • Hopefully not obsessing over watching election results come in, since I'm pretty sure there's no way they'll have declared a winner by the time I go to bed.
As a result, I'm afraid I cannot be witty and engaging, or share any more details on my Tokyo trip.  I will tease you, however, with hints.  I will soon share the details of yarn stores, Halloween parades, and food both fast and slow.  Until then, happy Election Day , my fellow Americans!  And happy watching the insanity from the outside and marveling to the rest of the world.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tokyo tales: Karel Capek tea shop

It's so hard to know where to start in regaling you with tales of Tokyo.  But I suppose all of the best things start with a nice cup of tea.

I'm currently in a tea-themed swap on Ravelry, so it was on my mind throughout the trip.  I had a few ideas for places to find a few bags, but funnily enough, my favorite find came once I was in Tokyo.  The first day we had to wander around, my dad and I went to a department store that mostly carries electronics, but also had a floor of books and magazines.  I love Japanese magazines because, apart from interesting fashion editorials, they tend to come with fun freebies like little tote bags.  While browsing through these for the best free gift, I found one magazine that was more like a catalogue for a Karel Capek tea shop.

For those who don't know, Karel Capek was a Czech author.  He's most famous for coining the term 'robot', but I think he's worth reading for more than that.  For example, The Gardener's Year is a short and sweet little book that is hilarious for those with or without a green thumb.  Though he's not a household name, he apparently made enough of an impression on Utako Yamada, a Japanese children's book author and illustrator, to name her tea store after it.

Now in it's 25th year, there are multiple locations around Japan, mostly in the Tokyo area.  I decided to venture out slightly to Kichijoji to visit the original.  It's a few stops by train outside of the city center, and there's also a great yarn store here (more on that later).  Getting there is like getting anywhere in Japan for a foreigner.  It requires a some research and a little luck.  Their website provides a little map sketch for each location (this is the translated page for Kichijoji), which when combined with an additional map of the area gave me a sort of idea of where I was going, several blocks from the train station.  Mostly, though, it was luck that had me turning onto the correct streets.  And thankfully, on the corner of the final street there was a building with a sign for ASA, which was also on the online sketch.  After walking half a minute I spotted the telltale signs.
Inside it was positively bursting with teas that each smelled delicious and had the most precious packaging ever.  Plus, you are greeted with a small sample cup of tea and half a biscuit to snack on.  I tried Milk Caramel, and it was so good.
It was so hard to decide what to bring home with me.  The mugs were lovely, but I knew that they wouldn't be the easiest things to pack.  Plus, the tea was expensive enough on its own.  In the end I settled for a sort of sampler pack with about a dozen flavors, and a reusable shopping bag.  I should have gotten one or two more, because they were the best deal and are a very cute way to remember the store.  I plan on carefully cutting the tea bags for later display, because the illustrations are worthy of wall space.  They also have a lot of really cute brochure and catalog things.  Really, this is a feat of merchandising genius mixed with good brew.

In search of more bags, I tried to visit their location in Ginza, but unfortunately it was being renovated at precisely the time I was in town.  I did find them again in Jiyugaoka, after a lot of wandering around with no idea what I was looking for.  They didn't have any bags at this location, it was a bit smaller, but they did have another flavor of tea, Marron (like a chestnut, seems to be a popular fall flavor here) so I decided to splurge and get a tin of this one.  I've brewed one cup of it so far, and it's very nice.

It's going to be tough drinking these teas knowing that I can't really get any more, but I'm going to try and just enjoy what I have and hope that online ordering becomes easier.  Until then, happy memories and a few aww-inducing photos like this one.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Domo Arigato, Japan!

I'm back!  Not only was I allowed back into the country, but so was my suitcase full of tea, yarn, fabric, Hello Kitty, and other goodies.  I have many tales to share, of searching for yarn stores, slurping Ramen, and doing it all with a camera around my neck.  Because there's no pretending you're not a tourist in Tokyo, best to just embrace it.

I arrived back home yesterday afternoon, so for Halloween I was a jet lagged zombie.  And between that, returning to work and starting NaNoWriMo today, I'm just not prepared to break all of the awesomeness down for you yet.  I'll try to whip something up tomorrow to start the series off, but for now, my update is just that I'm back.  Hi!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Gone Tokyoin'

This past week or so has been a busy haze of finishing swap packages, starting swap packages, crawling for yarn, working, and then...preparing for my trip to Tokyo.

I know!  I've kind of sprung this onto you, blog readers, sorry.  I'm starting the day-long journey of flights tomorrow morning, and will return just in time to be a jet lagged zombie for Halloween.  That gives me nearly two weeks in a wondrous city of wonder.

It also gives me mere hours to finish packing.  It's amazing how the things you need start adding up, the more you pack, the more you need to pack.  I'm trying to stop myself at one knitting project, because I know you always think you'll knit more than you actually end up being able to.  I was unable, however, to bring fewer than three books.  I'm weak.

I plan to take many pictures and return with many stories to share of foods, fiber, and other fantasticness.  In the meantime, enjoy an extra few moments in your lives while I am unable to post regularly.  See you in November!

Cubicle kitchen: Peppermint Patty-cakes

I have a tendency to stockpile ice cream.  It's not my fault, Blue Bell just has so many good flavors that are only available in half gallons.  And given that I eat them one serving at a time, it takes a while, and sometimes I'm just ready to move onto another flavor before working through a full carton.

Which is why I love the fact that ice cream can be melted and baked into a cake mix to give you a moist and delicious cake with a variety of flavor combination possibilities.  I decided that chocolate and mint would be a refreshing one for this week.

Peppermint Patty-cakes
(adapted from Cookies and Cups)
Makes about 72 mini cupcakes

Ingredients:

Cake:
  • 1 box Devil's Food cake mix
  • 1 pint mint ice cream
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp peppermint extract
Glaze (see directions for amounts):
  • powdered sugar
  • water
  • peppermint extract

Directions:
  1. Make sure your ice cream is completely melted.  You can either leave it out on the counter for a while, or take a shortcut and zap it in the microwave until it's soup.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Beat together melted ice cream with cake mix, eggs, and extract.
  4. Fill mini-muffin cups 2/3 full with batter.  Bake for about 10 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Let cakes cool on rack.
To make glaze:

  1. Fill a mug at least halfway with powdered sugar.
  2. Add a drop or two of peppermint extract.
  3. Add a little bit of water and stir, repeating until the glaze is the right consistency.  It should be thin enough to drizzle onto the cakes, but not too thin.  Be careful when adding the water, it should only take a very small amount, perhaps a teaspoon.
  4. Drizzle onto the cakes.  I like to do this while they are sitting on a wire rack with a cookie sheet beneath it to catch the drips.
  5. Repeat until you've glazed each cake.