Friday, August 31, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: PB&J Fluffernutter Bars

I'm pretty proud of my treat this week.  This is the first time that I've made something that is more my own than someone else's.  The various elements are borrowed from others, but the construction of them all together was all me and my own tasty genius.

I told you when I made my own marshmallows that my mind was bursting with ideas.  Well, like Athena popping out of one of Zeus' migraines, this delicious dessert came from that inspiring brainstorm.  Fluffernutters are an instant association for me when thinking about marshmallows.  And adding the eternal pairing that is peanut butter and jelly just seemed too perfect to pass up, especially in the first week of school.

So I decided to take a simple crust of crushed cookies and melted butter, layer that with smooth peanut butter, grape jelly, and then top it off with a gorgeously grape marshmallow.  Oh yes, you're with me, aren't you?  In case you're still on the fence, here's a close-up of those resulting layers:
Okay, so because this is more my own recipe than any one other person's (thought shout-outs go to Crazy for Crust and this Bukisa article), I'm going to try and write it all out for you:

First, for the crust:

  • 20 peanut butter sandwich cookies, crushed (I used a mix of Girl Scout Do-Si-Dos that I had in the freezer and some Nutter Butters)
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
Either in a food processor or in a manual show of aggression, crush the sandwich cookies and mix with the melted butter.  Press this mixture into the bottom of a 9" x 13" pan lined with parchment paper.

On top of that, you'll spread:
  • Creamy peanut butter (as much as you like)
  • Grape jelly (again, as much as you like)
Let this chill in the fridge.  You can either start making the marshmallow immediately, or wait a little while.  When you're ready, take:
  • A 3 oz package of Grape Instant Jello mix
  • 1 tsp unflavored gelatin
  • 2/3 cup boiling water
  • 3 Tbl corn syrup
  • 1 cup sugar
In a medium saucepan over heat, whisk together the boiling water (I went ahead and heated the water in the microwave beforehand), the Jello mix, and gelatin.  Make sure everything dissolves completely, then add the sugar and corn syrup, continuing to whisk until everything has mixed together.

Pour this mixture into a fairly large bowl and place it in the fridge to set just a little.  I gave it 30-60 minutes, you just want it thickened a little, cooler to the touch.  Then, using an electric mixer, whip the mixture until soft peaks start to form.  It's going to grow (hence the large bowl) and turn white.  This will take several minutes, just keep checking every so often until you get those soft peaks.  Then pour the whipped mixture into the pan and spread it evenly over the top.  Put the pan back into the fridge to set for at least a few hours, or overnight.

The cutting into squares part is perhaps the most tedious.  Take hold of the parchment paper and lift the bar out of the pan and onto a cutting board.  With a sharp, non-serated knife, carefully cut into squares.  You'll likely need to wash off the knife every so often to avoid sticking.  As you cut squares, coat the sides of the marshmallow layer in powdered sugar, either rolling them or dusting on each side with a sifter.  This keeps them from sticking when you put them into whatever container you choose.

And depending on your generosity in sizing the squares, you will have many wonderful bites of deliciousness like this:
I recommend keeping them bite-sized, just because the marshmallow layer is so much softer than the cookie crust, so getting multiple bites can be a little tricky.

For anyone with childhood memories of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, there's an element of nostalgia that plays perfectly with the fun of the marshmallow.  I'm really happy with the way these turned out, it's definitely not the last of my marshmallow experimentations.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The end of an era

Calling the retirement of Andy Roddick from tennis the 'end of an era' probably sounds a little inflated. But I'm not talking about an era in the history of tennis, though that certainly can be argued.  After all, he's the last American man to have won a grand slam, to have held the number one world ranking, and he's been the driving force of the Davis Cup for years.

But no, this is the end of an era for me personally.  The commentators talk about watching Andy grow up on the court, and the truth is that I grew up along with him as a tennis fan.  Andy's the first player I really ever rooted for.  Yes, I loved Sampras, the king of Wimbledon, but Andy was my guy.  I cheered like nothing else when he won the US Open.  I cried like no other with each Wimbledon final.  I've seen him play three times: once at an exhibition match while I was in high school, then at the US Open years later just before starting another year in college, and finally when he bring the Davis Cup to Austin. 

And there's a part of me that owes something very special to Andy.  Because the night before Andy played in that last Wimbledon final, I was making all of those prayerful promises that fans make when they really want something.  Please, just let Andy win.  If Andy wins, I'll clean out my closet.  If Andy wins, I'll floss twice a day.  If Andy wins....I'll lose the weight.

If you know me in real life, you already know, but otherwise, I should tell you.  I used to weigh much more than I do now.  I lost a lot of weight in high school and then gained it all back plus interest throughout college.  There was no particular reason why this, the first summer after graduation, should be the moment when I really did lose the weight and keep it off.  There are, I'm sure, many more blogs' worth of things to say about it.  But what matters is that that promise, not even spoken aloud, just made to myself, that I would do it for Andy, somehow that carried through even the disappointment of his loss.  

I started slow, I began writing down everything I ate, I counted my calories and had my base metabolism tested.  I wore a pedometer and made 10,000 steps a day a requirement.  And each day that I did it built upon each other, making it easier to keep going just by virtue of momentum.  Until finally, a year, maybe a year and a half, later, I was a hundred and fifty pounds down.  I know, it's still a crazy number for me.  But that's what it is, and I've managed to maintain it.  

Is Andy Roddick the reason I lost the weight?  Of course not.  But it's just one of those associations that makes the news that this US Open will be his last even more emotional for me.  Because yes, it's about the game.  But it's also about the part of my life that happened alongside that game, and the milestones I marked with his victories and losses.  And that makes it hard to say goodbye.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Knit and tell: Fabulous Street Urchin Hat

I thought I'd start up another little series here and show off some of the finished objects (FO) that I've accomplished in my years of knitting so far.  Especially because I so want to tell you about the things I'm doing now, but I can't because they are for a swap and there is the slim chance that my spoilee will read this and discern that I am their spoiler and ruin the surprise of their goodies to come.  So I shall divert my enthusiasm and tell you about other things I have crafted.

And my debut entry is...the Fabulous Street Urchin Hat!

This hat was an in-betweener project earlier this year that filled in a gap between swaps.  It's a super-simple pattern, and the perfect opportunity to put one of my crazy colorways to good use.  I'm always drawn to the bright and widely variegated yarns, but then have a tough time figuring out what to knit with them, because any interesting stitch work (not even real lacy stuff) will get lost.  But this lets the Dizzy Lettuce Cash Worsted show off just how awesome it is, and the colors keep me from getting bored while knitting.  After the rib you're just knitting around and around, with some YO, k2togs every once in a while to create holes.  Then when you've cast everything off, you take a ribbon and thread it through those holes, up and then back down again, scrunch the side of the hat and tie a pretty little bow around it.

And voila!  You are now ready to audition for a role as a child of the revolution in a whimsically technicolor performance of 'Les Miserables'.  Just hand me a bedazzled broom for sweeping the streets of Paris, and I'm there!

I haven't gotten to wear this too much yet, but once cooler weather prevails I'll be sporting my my scrunchie all around town.  I'll try not to break into song.  Well, not too many times.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Froyo files: Tutti Frutti

I can't explain it, because it makes no sense, but last weekend was the first time I had been to this froyo place.  It's almost absurd, given how often I'm at Sunset Valley getting:

  • Craft supplies at Michael's
  • Knitting magazines at Barnes & Noble
  • Clearance clothes at Kohl's
  • Goodies at World Market
  • Nail polish at Ulta
  • Sandwiches at Schlotzsky's
See?  I'm there a lot.  But I finally checked out the froyo spot tucked into the corner, and I'm sure going to be checking it out a few more times from now on.

Tutti Frutti: 5207 Brodie Lane, Austin, TX 78745

When I visited: Saturday, August 25th, around 2 pm

Cost per ounce: 40 cents

Number of flavors: 12

Sorbet options: 1

Nutritionals provided: There's a binder at the register if you want to see them, online as well

Experience: You can tell it's froyo season, everywhere we've been the past few weekends has been, not to say busy, but adequately stocked with customers.  Again, sample cups at the register ensured that we could try everything out.  I will say this: the dispensers were a little over-zealous in getting froyo into my cup, and my samples were larger than I really needed or wanted.  But that's not really a negative.

Looks like they have a dedicated sorbet option, which is good, since that's Mom's go-to.  This time, however, it was Hawaiian Punch in rotation, which is one of the few that does not tempt her.  I tried it, and it was, well, it was Hawaiian Punch, so it depends entirely on your feelings about that.  I also tried their soy bean yogurt, and that was a little odd.  Not sure about that one.  Peanut Butter was another odd one, because it tasted more like actual peanuts than peanut butter, if that makes sense.  It was in the same machine as the Vanilla, and I found that the two swirled together was a little better.  The Cheesecake was also a little lackluster, not quite rich enough.

The nice thing about summer is that the seasonal flavors tend to be fruity.  So Mom ended up with a trio of flavors in her cup: Strawberry, Triple Berry, and Peach.  The Strawberry was different to the Tart version we love so much, but good in its own right.  And both the Peach and Triple Berry were very flavorful.  I also had a little of all three, along with my beloved Taro.

Worth a revisit?  Definitely, solid yogurt, reasonable price, and the location can't be beat.  I skimmed the nutritional binder, and that just made me want to try all the other flavors, so I'm sure we'll make sure to find ourselves here at a froyo appropriate time again soon.

Wait, is there an inappropriate time for froyo?  Hmm...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Are you ready for!

Yes, yes, I know that football is coming.  And I'm excited, sure I am.  I have become one of the legion of Americans waiting to see if the officials will come back from their lockout, how Peyton will play for the Broncos, and how long it will take for it to be Tebow time in New York.

But right now, what's important is an Olympian still seeking a grand slam gold, a missing Rafa, and an ever-more-obvious lack of roof.  That's right, it's the US Open.  As the commercials say, it must be love.  No matter how deeply I am pulled into the mainstream sports, my ultimate loyalties will always be to the slightly more indie game which has been with me from the start.

If football is a high school jock, what is tennis?  Maybe the preppy nice girl.  I don't know, I'm still distracted by the fact that the school year is just starting here.  Forgive me, I'm a student for life.  Seriously, if I could make a living taking classes, that's what I'd do.  Preferably at Sarah Lawrence.

And if I did that, I'd go to the US Open every year.  I went once, and got to see Berdych, Federer, and Roddick play, and Murray on the practice courts.  Got Tommy Robredo's autograph as well.  Unfortunately, it didn't give him luck enough to win, but I still cherish it.  Here's an action shot of Roddick from then:
I'll be following Andy with ever-escalating hopes, as well as the rest of the players, for the next two weeks.  Hopefully this morning's deluge of rain will be the last we see until the winners have safely raised their trophies.  Because as amusing as it is to see Tom Rinaldi standing in the middle of Arthur Ashe in full flood regalia, I'd rather be watching match play.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A summer's eulogy

Commiserations, students of the Austin area.  Tomorrow is the first day of school.

Instead of wandering towards your bed in a leisurely fashion sometime before the sun comes up and sleeping until high noon, tonight you will have to set an alarm which will force consciousness on you at a time you may have forgotten existed with an 'a.m.' next to it.  You will drag yourself out of bed and into what you hope will be the outfit that will set you onto the path of popularity this year.  It will be just the start of a terribly trying day that will end only with the certainty that you must repeat it again and again for nine more months.

This is difficult time, I know.  And I also know that recognizing the trials of others is not something younger generations are praised for.  But I feel I must attempt to impress upon you that you are not the only ones who suffer.  Perhaps the knowledge that we are joined in this struggle will give you strength as you step onto the school bus or make your own way to class.

Because while today is your first day journeying in the wee hours of the morning, this is a trek that us poor cubicle dwellers have been making day in and out all year long.  And while we don't get three months off, we do enjoy the three months when school traffic dissipates and leaves a relatively open road for the morning commute.  Tomorrow our briefcases, purses, and lunch totes will feel just a little heavier as we know that along with the 9-to-5-ers, we will be bumper-to-bumper with a whole new batch of road warriors.  My own time from driveway to desk will increase by 50%, which is depressing since I can't even knit in that time.

So Godspeed, young students.  I will attempt to console myself, as my car crawls along the road, by telling myself that it is all worth it for your education.  So please, go learn something.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Morning Edition of frustration

I try not to get overly political, because that's not the point here.  But this morning I experienced one of those annoyances that isn't about politics, it's just the reaction any time that you hear something that you know to be untrue.  It just happens to involve politics, so forgive me the faux pas.

I've taken to listening to NPR in the morning, taking in the day's news and generally easing into another work day.  This morning, there was, as there has been every morning since Todd Akin made his, umm, interesting comments, a report on the fallout.  The Family Research Council is one of the few standing behind him, and the head of their political action committee, Connie Mackey, came on to talk to Steve Inskeep about how partisan the media was, because while this blew up, no one had covered how Obama had said that men shouldn't be involved in any women's legislation.

Here's the thing: the comment she's referring to...I heard it.  On NPR.  It was covered, in fact it was covered in its full context rather than the extrapolation Mackey offered.  And thus, an angry tweet was born.

And just to emphasize the non-politics of my pet peeve, I had the same reaction when Michael Kors told a designer he didn't understand why he had put a turban on his model.  Michael, it was because he was in the bottom the week before, he was wearing a turban, and you told him you loved what he was wearing and that you wanted to see that style in his designs for the runway.  Did you mean 'slap a turban on your next look'?  Probably not, but don't pretend you have no idea where that came from.

See?  My irrational desire to yell at people who live in my electronic devices knows no limits.  We won't discuss last night's episode of Project Runway.  I'll just say: Ven has just as much trouble talking to/about real people as he does designing for them.  He should halt his attempts at either.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Froyo files: Yo-Way

For all of the frozen yogurt places popping up everywhere, it's still amazingly easy to find myself not passing one without making a concerted effort.  Super-South Austin is sorely lacking in frozen yogurt.  But for those truly dedicated to enjoying some, there are a few options.  Last weekend, Mom and I decided it was worth going a little out of our way to try this out.  Well, for her to try it out, I had been once before almost a year ago with co-workers for 'dessert' after having lunch at Kerbey Lane.

Yo-Way: 4301 West William Cannon Drive #160  Austin, TX 78749

When I visited: Saturday, August 18th, around 2 pm

Cost per ounce:  41 cents

Number of flavors: 10

Sorbet options: 1

Nutritionals provided: Yes, per 1/2 cup

Experience: Busy busy!  Families were clearly celebrating the upcoming start of the school year with one last froyo fling.  Sample cups were sitting on the counter, ready to go, which is nice because it means that even if the cashier is busy weighing someone else's swirl of yogurt, you can still start sampling right away.

At first I was worried that there wasn't a sorbet option for Mom, because the first four cubbies of flavors were all dairy, but there was a fifth hiding around the bend on the left in the photo with some Key Lime.  Score!  It also had Coconut, which I love.  The Strawberry we both agreed was alright, but not as good as the tart varieties at The Yogurt Spot or Chill Out.  The Cheesecake was good as well, and I really liked the Thin Mint, had a great balance of chocolate and mint.

In the end, we both went for the Key Lime, and I went ahead and added a little Coconut and Strawberry.  Plus fruit for both of us.  One thing I really appreciated: the pieces of kiwi were cut to a bite size.  A few other places have left them in chunks slightly too big, and a plastic spoon is really not a tool for cutting that chunk into two.

We ended up standing outside to eat our yummies because all of the tables inside were taken, and the chairs for this table had been purloined by another family.  But I preferred being outside to being a little too cold inside, and since it had just rained it was cooler than usual, and the frozen yogurt kept us refreshed as well.

Worth a revisit?  Yes, this is a great option for those who are further south but still want their froyo.  If, say, Yogurtland was just as close, I would probably go there before going here, but rather than driving an extra dozen miles each way, this is a very solid entry into the South Austin froyo market.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Summer Berry Jam Muffins

Small things are cute.  Kittens, gnomes, Polly Pockets, they all owe at least part of their awesomeness to their size.  And so the only thing better than cupcakes cupcakes!  Or in this case, mini muffins.  I still have jars and jars of jam just waiting to be added to my baked goods.  They've topped cookies and been spread over bars, so next up I thought a filling in a muffin would be nice.

I used this recipe as my starting point, and as I was mixing it up, I could definitely tell that this was a muffin rather than a cake mix, much more doughy.  An interesting aspect of this recipe is that you literally mix all of the wet ingredients, then add the dry.  No creaming the butter and sugar together.  I did substitute dried orange zest for the lemon, because that's what I had in my pantry from Penzey's.

I should also admit to having been a bit of a lazy baker this time around.  I didn't sift my dry ingredients together before mixing into the wet.  And I didn't so much spoon the jam into a well of batter as spoon it onto the top as best I could, and try to cover it completely with the remaining batter.  The resulting muffins are thus not as perfectly pretty, and the jam did escape a little in some cases, but I cavalierly decided that that didn't matter.  The more confident I get as I bake, the less fearful I am of slight deviations from the plan.  As long as they were muffins and they had jam, that was the goal.

Muffins are always skirting the edges of breakfast versus dessert.  I decided to push this even further by glazing them.  I took the powdered sugar which was spiked with green sprinkles for rolling the pineapple marshmallows of last week and some orange juice and just drizzled this on top.  The result is probably a slightly puzzling green glaze that might imply some sort of basil action going on.  But no, it's just orangey.

I think the way I presented these muffins in the the kitchen area might reveal more about myself than I intend.  Namely, how working in documentation means that I can't just leave muffins of varying flavors without including some sort of diagram in order to guide potential eaters to the jam of their choice.  I just had to partition the plate into thirds, place each variety in its own section, and then mirror this organization on a Post-it which labels each muffin as either Peach, Strawberry, or Blackberry.  With, of course, an over-arching description that these are muffins with an orange glaze.  Information is power, people!  And delicious, information is also delicious.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Easy like Sunday morning, random like Tuesday Morning

For years I avoided Tuesday Morning, thinking it was just going to be full of potpourri and figurines.  Neither of which I have much use for.  But, in fact, this store is like one of Forrest's box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get.

Along with some figurines and a little potpourri, there is also a fairly random assortment of items ranging from books to beauty supplies, crafts to cooking.  I once ended up walking out with about a dozen skeins of Louisa Harding yarn.  Mom's come back with armfuls of circular knitting needles.  This past weekend, I nearly bought nine bottles of China Glaze crackle nail polish for $9.  I stopped myself, but only because the bottles came in boxes of three, with the same color in each box.

Thankfully, we have a Tuesday Morning conveniently located next door to our grocery store, so we can just pop in every once in a while to go treasure hunting.  If you've passed this place a few times and never taken a look, I recommend it.  You might not find anything the first time around, but you might also end up like me and barely make it to the register with all of your skeins still in your arms because you just couldn't decide on which shawl to make with which colors, so you covered all your bases and bought almost all of them.  The one time that happens is worth all the times it doesn't.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Samantha Stephens, she's oat-standing

Okay, so last month I discovered that Yahoo's new CEO was part of the cupcake cult along with me.  Now I read that there's a woman in New York who is one of the secret Order of the Oats, another food obsession of which I am a card-carrying member.

Samantha Stephens is the owner of a place called OatMeals.  It's basically a house of oats.  You get a bowl of oatmeal and a buffet of toppings to choose from, like a froyo shop.  And we all know how much I love those.  What really puts it over the edge for me is that along with the traditional sweet oatmeal concoctions, Stephens also has toppings for those who have discovered the wonder that is savory oatmeal.  Health and budget brought oatmeal to Stephens initially, but like the rest of the Order, it's oatmeal's potential to be transformed into an endless variety of combinations.  Although the whole health angle gets a little skewed by the possibility of adding in bacon.  But hey, bacon is good for the soul.

All I know about Stephens is what I read in Serious Eats and on the restaurant's website, but it's enough to make me like her.  She left J.P. Morgan to open this shrine to oats, adorned with various oat-y memorabilia, and offers toppings like figs and gorgonzola based on the rationale that 'You see salads topped with [it], so why not oatmeal?'  She even offers baked goods made from oatmeal and oat flour.  Oatmeal cookie dough truffles?  This is the exact toll price to cross the bridge of lifetime friendship with me.

I'm still vaguely planning to get myself up to New York eventually, and this place is now on my list of things I must do.  And if Stephens just so happens to be there when I visit, we might just become BFFs.  We can reenact the bowl-sipping scene in 'Beauty and the Beast' and make a serious dent in that 50-pound sack of oats.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Apparently I'm retro now

Sometimes very important and meaningful things in life remind you that days are turning into years which are passing and leaving you older.  And sometimes it's a reality television marathon.

When I'm at my desk in the office, podcasts are my audio tune out for the silence, which crazy as it sounds I find much more distracting.  Yesterday I was working from home, and so it's the television that provides the droning.  And I happened to stumble upon a marathon of Laguna Beach, which provided a background of guilty pleasure nostalgia to contrast my e-mailing, Excel spreadsheeting, and XML debugging.

This show completely falls under the 'against my better judgement' category.  I know it's not a good show.  I know that it's the audio visual equivalent of McDonald's, because not only does it provide nothing of nutritional value, but when it comes down to it, it isn't even that tasty.  But that doesn't mean that you don't sometimes just want that very particular taste.  You can't help it.

This was like plopping down and eating a Happy Meal.  And maybe playing in the pool of plastic balls.  I couldn't help but remember when I first saw this semi-scripted, totally stylized view of high school.  The first season aired during my own senior year, so as much as I didn't want to admit to following the lives of these people with whom I shared an age group and not much else, there was something undeniable about watching them graduate and seeing them deal with their eventual partings at the end of the summer.  I watched it as I lived it, and now I've seen it with my own graduation a memory.  Still gets to me.  But then, I'm easily gotten to, sentimentally speaking.

My short stay back in the land of MTV was...I won't say enlightening.  But there's always something interesting about looking back.  I enjoyed my Happy Meal.  But now I probably need some cultural veggies.  Some PBS, perhaps?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Meet Jack!

Well, there goes the Olympics, hopping into a bedazzled cab with the Spice Girls and a giant octopus.  That's how I want to leave every party from now on.

But as we say goodbye to the athletes, let's say hello to someone very special: Jack!

As in, the Union Jack monster I began at the start of the Games and completed on Sunday.  Isn't he precious and patriotic?

He was mostly done by the end of the first few days, body and appendages all complete.  It's those finishing touches, the eyes and the mouth, that had to be carefully considered.  Eventually I defaulted to Rebecca Danger's standard zigzag of felt, slathered in decoupage and weighted down until dry.  Of course, the only appropriate volume for such a task was the complete works of Shakespeare.

But the flurry of fiber crafting is never over.  I'm currently working on some epically colorful spoilage for the Favorite Color swap, but you won't be seeing any of that until my spoiler does...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fascinating phone calls from very important people

I've never been the biggest fan of the phone.  It makes me feel awkward, dialing the number, you hope correctly, and listening to each of the rings, wavering between wishes that someone will pick up or that no one will answer.  And if they do answer, who knows who they might be.  Or whether they will know who you are.  Do you announce yourself, or simply say, 'Hello'?  One could be construed as redundant and overly formal ('Yeah...I know'), and the other could be an embarrassing assumption ('Hi...and this is?').

Note how each of the examples of failure contain the dreaded ellipses.  It's the dead air, the pregnant pauses, that strike fear in the heart of every phone-phobic.  Even the simplest of calls, placing a food delivery order, was something I avoided in college, silently willing my friends to use their phones instead.  The pressure of placing the order the 'right' way brings up too many variables, from whether to use the numbering system or the names of the dish, to how fast you can list off each item, it's the worst combination of human and machine interaction.  Takes away all the visual human cues but doesn't supply the simplicity of automation.

Anyway, as you now know, the phone and I are not friends.  This is only exacerbated by my office phone.  It embodies all of the flaws of its clan, plus it's very own impossible to navigate voicemail system.  And no one ever really calls me.  They call for whoever it was who was sitting here before me.  I direct them to their new extension, or they just end the call without asking.  There are only two things which can come from the phone: frustration and annoyance.

It's most benign offense is to simply be a momentary waste of time, as it was this morning.  The dreaded red light was blinking signalling that someone had called, blasting the area around me with rings while I wasn't there, and had left a message.  This meant finding the little piece of paper with my passcode number and the cheat sheet of what number plays the message, deletes the message, etc.  All before I've had coffee.  This is a very stressful task. 

And though I know that in all likelihood this message will hold nothing revelatory, the possibility remains that something has exploded, and in moments I will be drawn into chaos.  My cursedly vivid imagination runs wild as I wait for the inane automated voice to tell me the exact moment of  attempted contact.  Finally the message plays...

"...[hangs up]"

And now I can go back to the rest of my morning routine, checking the minefield of my inbox for overnight calamities and marveling at how glamorous and high-flying office life really is...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Homemade Pineapple Marshmallows

It's an annoying question that knitters hear a lot: 'You know you can just buy those in a store, right?'  Yes, we are all aware of the modern convenience of walking into a place of business and purchasing from their stock something which is merely a shadow of the awesomeness of the handmade crafting we are doing.  Thank you.

Self-righteousness aside, even the things that you almost always buy from the store can be made extra special by, well, making them yourself.  Marshmallows so fall into this category.  Easily picked up at the grocery store to be enjoyed in s'mores, sweet potato casseroles, or baked banana desserts, marshmallows are a magical cloud of sugar and air.

Perhaps it's that airy quality that makes them a little intimidating for someone like me, who consider themselves enthusiastic treats-makers, but not necessarily expert in the finer points.  Like the ever-scary soufflĂ©, I had a dread that somehow rather than creating something light and fluffy, my adventurous attempt would end in deflated tragedy.  But I can proudly state that fluff glory was mine.

Even though these are homemade, there's still a little 'cheating' involved.  Namely, rather than using Alton Brown's recipe, I instead tried this one from someone on Bukisa that uses Jello flavored gelatin as well as a little additional unflavored gelatin, some corn syrup, sugar and water.  The best part?  No candy thermometer!  Something about that made me feel more confident about my ability to execute this recipe successfully.

I followed the directions, heating just long enough to dissolve everything together, then chilling for, say, 30 minutes before whipping out the electric hand mixer.  And magically, the translucent yellow goo became a white foam which eventually formed soft peaks.  And after a few hours chilling in a pan in the fridge, they cut into cubes pretty easily to be coated in powdered sugar.  Since I was doing pineapple marshmallows, I added some yellow and green sprinkles in there as well.

See how tropical and pretty?

Let me tell you, homemade marshmallows are so much softer, fluffier, and just all around tastier than the ones that come out of a bag.  My mind is racing with the possibilities.  Crazy-awesome s'mores, cupcakes with a marshmallow frosting, the most extremely decadent hot cocoa ever.  And did you know, they make cranberry Jello?  It's going to be a good fall...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hulu happily ever after

My dad does not do cable.  He is a sworn enemy of Time Warner Cable, despite having to rely on them for internet service.  He's very proud of his cable-less status, and the various means that he is able to access his shows without them: digital over-the-air, Netflix Instant, and now, Hulu Plus.  Now that it's on the Apple TV, it's part of his patchwork programming plan.

Which works for me, because Hulu has all those shows that I meant to watch when they were on, but didn't necessarily get around to figuring out exactly when it was on and before I knew it, the season was over.  For example, 'Grimm'.  It starts up again tonight (hey, I wrote an article about it for Examiner, go read it!), and I'm not all caught up yet, but I have finally gotten around to seeing 3 or 4 episodes of the first season last week.

Here's my expert review: I like it!  It's cute, a little bit scary, a little bit funny, and just fun to watch.  I like things that twist sci-fi into other genres, like Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, umm, things Joss Whedon didn't make too.  While this isn't his show, it does have two writers from Buffy and Angel, so maybe it's not a surprise that I like it.

I also want to catch up on the other fairy tale show from last year: Once Upon a Time.  I watched the first episode, but yet again fell prey to the 'when, again?' and didn't see any subsequent episodes.  The fact is, I just tend to watch more cable than network television.  When I flip through channels, I usually stay in the range between HGTV and USA, sometimes going as 'high' as MTV and as 'low' as Lifetime (if I think there's chance 'Project Runway' is on).  I don't turn to the big four unless there's something in particular on.  And now that the Olympics are over, I probably won't watch as much NBC in the rest of the year combined.

Because I don't care if they put it on Hulu or not, there aren't enough Olympic promo spots in the world to make me want to see 'Go On' or 'Animal Practice'.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A flipping good find, old chap

Most of the time, channel surfing yields only reality television and an eventual settling on something on the Food Network or HGTV.  But every once in a while, I get drawn into something good.  Case in point: A Yank at Oxford.

You have to love TCM.  Because once you get caught up in one of their classic movies, there aren't any commercials to break the spell.  So when I caught a glimpse of this about 20 minutes in, there was no escape.  I was in from Robert Taylor's ridiculous run around the track to his final bump against Cambridge.

It's a cute little classic, black and white, with plenty of Oxfordian quirks.  Like loyal porters serving a student's every whim, dining hall food fights, and a good debagging.  However, unlike an episode of Inspector Morse or Lewis, no one ended up dead.  There was a scandalous Vivien Leigh, though. Apparently this role was part of the reason she ended up in 'Gone with the Wind'.  Because when you're looking for a Southern belle, you look in an Oxford bookstore for the owner's philandering wife.

Seems that TCM was focusing on Lionel Barrymore for the evening, but I think this movie is more well-timed for being a perfect example of the British love of track and field, just in time for the end of the Olympics.  So while NBC had their weird little pause in coverage between the daytime and prime time, I was still technically knitting on theme for Ravelympics.

Which I'm pretty much done with, actually.  It's those pesky finishing details.  I cast off my second dishcloth in the pair on Wednesday, they both just need to be blocked and have the ends woven in.  And the monster has eyes, but he needs a mouth.  Or, to be British about it, a gob.

So there's a random film recommendation for those who want to know why the British crowds seem so excited by

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Red Velvet Brownies

After more than a year of working on a particular project, and having launch dates continually pushed back for reasons which continue to pop up out of unexpected places, reaching any sort of finish line feels like something to be celebrated.  It isn't what we initially planned, and it isn't done by any means.  In all likelihood, it will never be done because it will constantly evolve.  But there was a mark of completion that I was able to check off this week, and thus, baked goods needed to be particularly good.

To me, that means red velvet.  There is a right way to do red velvet, with buttermilk and cocoa and not just using food coloring and chocolate cake.  I aim to one day complete a true red velvet myself.  But for now, when I do red velvet, I'm cheating.  In more ways than one, because these came from a cake mix.  The recipe itself even comes from Duncan Hines.  I like taking something basically readymade and doctoring it up to make it my own.

I followed the recipe, substituting cocoa-roasted almonds for the walnuts for that additional chocolate factor.  I also ended up with about 3/4 a cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips, but I filled in the rest of the cup with some white and milk chocolate chips as well.  Because I like my brownies to have as much chocolate  as possible.  Not just because it's chocolate, but because I prefer a dense, chewy brownie.  It may be made from cake mix, but it's not supposed to be cakey.  I also didn't do the fancy frosting marbling, and I considered just leaving them 'naked', because they were already rich enough on their own.  Instead, I just used a reduced-sugar canned frosting.  It was in the pantry, and, um, reduced sugar means it's not that bad for me, right?

I say me, but really I mean me and everyone I work with.  Because I'm not taking full responsibility for a tray of those things.  No no no no, I must spread the guilt around to those near and dear to me.  And so I set out another temptation in our little cubicle kitchenette/coffee area:
I like that someone took the initiative to get a knife involved to cut even smaller pieces.  The person who did this did not just eat half a piece, though.  He cut half a piece so that he would only have eaten a total of one and a half rather than two.  Maybe next week I'll bring something 'healthier' in to make them feel good about themselves.  Like muffins.  Healthy, healthy muffins.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Froyo files: Chill Out (San Antonio)

I owe Groupon a large debt of thanks for being the reason I first went to this particular purveyor of frozen yogurt.  I snapped up a deal as a good food stop during the Yarn Crawl last year, and since then this place has ranked high on my list of favorites.  Anything that brings my mom and I to San Antonio also brings us here, so after consoling ourselves with the loss of Yarn Barn by buying all of their yarn, I moved onto the next stage in grieving and had a big cup of froyo.

Chill Out: 4718 Broadway Street  San Antonio, TX 78209

When I visited: Sunday, July 29th, around 3 pm

Cost per ounce: 42 cents

Number of flavors: 10

Sorbet options: 2

Nutritionals provided: Online, and printed in-store

Experience: I love this place.  It's locally-owned, and the first time we ever came here the owner was telling us about how they had worked on the flavors for quite a while to get them right.  You can absolutely tell.  You can't really go wrong with anything you choose here. And I was pleased to see that we're not the only ones to think so, it was pretty busy.  So much so that I couldn't snap a pic without catching a few unsuspecting customers mid-swirl:
There's always at least one dairy-free option, and now there's also a sugar-free option available as well. My favorite is the Taro, which unfortunately wasn't on the menu this time around, but when it is, it's some of the best I've had.

Instead, I settled for the Pink Lemonade Sorbet, very summer appropriate, with some Strawberry Tart.  This was just as good as the stuff I had at The Yogurt Spot the other month that was such a revelation.  Fruit was, of course, a required accessory.  Mom had her personal favorite here, Dulce de Leche, and she also had some Cafe Ole, a coffee-flavored yogurt.  This is a pretty big deal, because Mom doesn't even like milk in her coffee, so for a dairy product to please her with a coffee flavor, it's got to be a pure flavor.
You'll notice she couldn't even wait for me to take a picture to start enjoying.  Also in the self-serve (and all delicious, because of course I sampled them all): Dutch Chocolate, Vanilla (no sugar added), Cake Batter, Tart, Banana, and Watermelon Sorbet.

Worth a revisit? I'm already looking forward to the next time I'm sure I'll be in the area, for the Crawl in October.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The ecstasy of an epiphany

There is no high quite so pure as the one that follows when you have an idea, and it turns out to be a good one.  Of course, I'm no authority on other sources of highs.  But this was way better than, say, an overdose on coffee.  It might even be better than chocolate.  Because as good as chocolate is, it has rarely made me want to run down the hallways of my office screaming, 'Oh yeah, I am just that awesome!'

I would try and explain the source of this fantastic feeling, but I've tried it twice already with people who aren't involved, namely my mom and dad, and it loses something in translation.  Basically, there was a problem, and we figured out how to solve it.  But everything we knew told us that that shouldn't have been the solution, that according to 'the rules' of DITA (and I've already lost most of you here, I know), this shouldn't be something we needed to fix.  It didn't make sense.

Unless, of course, you are me, and you think of something that maybe is the factor that hasn't been considered.  Bam!

I should admit here that not much of the situation is altered by my revelation.  The solution is still the solution for the most part, and it's still a necessary fix for what we are doing.  But it makes so much more sense now.  And I'm the one that figured it out.  There's just something so validating about that, that makes me feel like I am the right person for this job, not just the person who happened to be hired.

This does not mean that I'm not eating chocolate later tonight, though.  Hey, I have to celebrate, I had an epiphany!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cubicle kitchen: Good Day, Sunshine Cookies

I did quite a bit of baking last week.  Because along with my crumbling jam cookies and oxymoronic garlic cheese bread, I also made some cut-out cookies.  Just give me a poncho and call me Martha!

Of course, I'm sure Martha doesn't start with a recipe from Land O'Lakes, but you work with what you have.  In this case, what I had was a need to make some orange-flavored sugar cookies using cookie cutters.  This was for a swap Mom was doing, themed around ducks.  So what better treat to send than duck-shaped cookies?  And orange because, well, duck a la orange!  Puns are delicious.

I made up the dough, substituting orange extract for the vanilla, and adding in some zest for good measure as well.  After a few hours in the fridge, Mom was in charge of the cut-outs.  She had a hard time working with the dough as time went on, but after she had all the ducks she thought she could fit into her swap box, she made me some circular cookies as well.

I just grabbed that shape because it was the easiest given the rapidly declining workability of the dough.  But when I glazed them, I decided that these weren't just sugar cookies that happened to be orange-y.  No, clearly these were now sunshine cookies.  Orange juice, breakfast, it all made sense.  So along with a mugful of powdered sugar, some orange extract and enough orange juice to get the necessary icing consistency, I added some food coloring to make these a sunshine yellow.  And then I even put a few on a yellow paper plate for you guys for an even sunnier effect.
Are you feelings the rays?  This was another well-received goodie by the co-workers.  Now, I know that people getting free cookies aren't exactly going to criticize them, so each week I'm usually looking for one particular example of someone liking them to make me feel like they aren't just humoring me.  In this case, a co-worker who, like me, counts her calories, had two.  So there you have it.  These cookies have been deemed worth indulging in by someone with high standards.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Give it your best?

The other night I was watching some tape-delayed primetime Olympic swimming drama, and a thought occurred to me.  It was a semi-final race, and the commentator was remarking that a particular swimmer needed to save their legs and 'only' swim a certain time here in order to qualify for the finals.  They had other races to swim, and there was no need to burn out a world record when they would have to do the same again tomorrow, or even later that day.

While I've been watching the Olympics, I haven't been up on all the news.  Despite my dad accusing me of watching one stream on the TV and another on my iPad (I wasn't, I just had what was streaming online via my iPad plugged into the TV to make the picture bigger), I'm focused mostly on the tennis, with the primetime coverage in the background while I knit and draft blog posts in the evening.  I also want to catch some women's soccer, but that's another story.

So I only vaguely remembered hearing about this badminton scandal, where people were up in arms and players were retiring from the sport altogether because teams were deliberately losing matches in qualifying rounds because they didn't need to win them to advance, and losing would actually give them an advantage in later rounds.  They were disqualified for not performing to their best ability, and it's been a huge scandal of sportsmanship.

I'm just not sure how the two things are so different.  A swimmer only swims fast enough to make it to the finals, a team only wins the matches that help them win the tournament.  They are both examples of holding back.  I can see where it's not really fair to the audience, to watch something that isn't a competitive ideal.  But in my mind, this is a fault in the organization of the tournament if teams can extract so much advantage from this.

Just another thing to ponder this Olympics as I knit furiously.  Because I'm always putting forward my best crafting efforts, I have completed one of the lace dishcloths in a planned pair.  Can you see the hearts?

The Union Jack Monster is nearly done, by the way, there are just some finishing touches to be decided and done before he's ready for his close-up.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My jammin' cookies are crack-a-lackin'

After massively restocking in Fredericksburg, I've been keeping my eye out for recipes that use my new yummy jams.  One of the classics is thumbprint cookies, simple sugar cookies with little wells for jam or other spreads.  This recipe from Two Peas & Their Pod struck me with it's simplicity.  I mean, four ingredients?  Sign me up!

One thing to note is that this recipe calls for the jam to be added after baking.  I liked this because I wanted to bake the cookies a day before I actually served them, and I didn't want the jam to soften the cookies in the meantime.  I could probably have done the same thing with any other recipe, but since this one told me to, all the better.

I got the dough together, but I really wouldn't call it a dough, because it was so super-crumbly.  I thought I must have done something wrong, but I powered through even though I couldn't quite turn them into the 1-inch balls with thumbprints because they were falling apart.  I just tried to get them as close to the intended shape as possible, slipped them into the oven and crossed my fingers.

Thirteen minutes later, I did, in fact, have cookies.  I wasn't entirely confident in their ability to act as conveyors of jam.  So when I did top them with jam, I did anyway with any notion that the jam would be contained.  Instead, I took my peach blossom jam, a few tablespoons, and mixed in just a little water in a mug, then heated it in the microwave until it was more like a glaze.  I spooned that over the cookies and let the sugary goodness drip over the sides through the deeper cracks of the cookies.

Here's how they looked as I took them to the Ravellenics cast-on/Olympics opening ceremony viewing party:
Probably not the prettiest cookies, and I won't lie, I was worried that I'd still have 18 of them at the end of the night.  But no, just two remained (so I got to try one - yummy!), and I was even asked for the recipe.  Just goes to show you, even when you think something has gone wrong, it can still be right.  And tasty.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Olympic sport of sports coverage

When I think about the Olympics this year, it's mostly connected with Ravelympics/Ravellenics.  I'm almost done with my Union Jack improvised monster, and have already started my second project, a pair of dishcloths.  I can knit things up so much faster now, it's amazing.

It seems like there are two things everyone not crafting is talking about when it comes to the Olympics: the Queen jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond, and how awful NBC's coverage is.

For my international readers, and any Americans not watching, NBC Universal is showing live coverage of the Olympics online as well as on their basketful of other networks, like MSNBC and Bravo.  NBC itself also has live coverage throughout the day, with occasional breaks for local news, etc.  However, they are saving what they feel are the most popular events to show on tape delay in primetime.  Basically, pretending like we don't already know what happened earlier in the day.  Because we don't go online, watch ESPN, or listen to NPR.  We also wear corsets and have candles in the streetlamps.

This is nothing new for NBC.  Their desire to pretend that we live in the dark ages of information is something tennis fans know all too well.  Until this year, we were being held hostage by their coverage of the last week of Wimbledon, when they would put semi-finals and even the finals themselves on tape delay and block any means of watching live.  Thankfully tennis seems to be the one sport with great TV coverage because it's taken over daytime on Bravo.

Live is an important concept for sports-watching.  Aside from it being far less fun when you know the result, you lose that irrational suspension of disbelief that makes you feel like you can actually impact the way your team or player performs if you just shout a little louder, clap a little harder, or think more empowering thoughts.  And without that, a lot of the magic is gone.

You know who's good at magic?  Mickey Mouse.  Disney and ABC are one and the same, and they also include among their ranks the powerhouse of sports programming: ESPN.  ESPN, which, starting this year, had the entire Championships live.  They had it on ESPN2, then simultaneously on both ESPN and ESPN2 in the second week to catch all the important matches.  They even had it online on ESPN3 where you could choose to watch matches that would never make it onto the air.  The finals were live on ESPN and then rebroadcast on tape delay on ABC. So those who only get those basic networks still got to sleep in and watch on their own time with the same kind of coverage, while a whole lot of us got something a million times better.

All I'm saying is, NBC likes to pretend that gymnasts are actually getting their medals at 4 in the morning in London.  If they keep pretending, soon they are also only going to be pretending to have contracts for all of these events.  They have until 2020 to get it together...