To Die For, Part I

Monday, January 30, 2012

FINALLY! A RECIPE! (But still no picture … sorry. I’m doing the best I can.)

This recipe is not cheap, not easy, not healthy.

It is, however, really good.

I pulled this recipe ages and ages ago but I’d never made it because it is a multi-day process and it just didn’t seem worth the effort. I didn’t want to go through all that and have it be not that good. But then I needed something to bribe people with and I figured this might work.

I was organizing the Swap-O-Rama this year and I needed to make sure I had enough people around after things were over to help with cleanup. The Swap ended at four o’clock. I told people that I was making brownie ice cream bars but they weren’t coming out of the freezer until four-thirty, so anyone who wanted one had to stick around and help with cleanup until then. Worked like a charm.

Turns out the recipe is from Martha Stewart and it’s on her website. (I had a photocopy from the magazine, but the magazine name wasn’t anywhere on the page so wasn’t sure what magazine it was actually from.)

You can get the original from the website, but here is my version, with some comments.

Brownies
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Filling
4 pints vanilla ice cream

Chocolate Coating
40 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 stick unsalted butter

Commentary
(1) I am not Martha Stewart-esque enough to pull off a full chocolate covering; mine just had a small-ish amount chocolate on the top, none on the sides, and that was fine.

(2) I wanted to use good ice cream (Haagen Dazs Five is my current favorite) and could not bring myself to spend $16 on ice cream for a recipe that I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, and also four pints of ice cream seemed excessive for the number of people I was feeding. I used two pints, and had a smaller proportion of ice cream to brownie than you would have if you used the full amount. (Alternatively, you could use only half the brownie, or adjust as desired to get the right volume of ice cream with your given thickness of brownie.)

(3) 40 ounces of chocolate for the coating is insane. You don’t need that much.

Here’s what I did.

1. The first day, I made brownies, following the instructions as given:

Melt together 6 ounces of chocolate and 1-1/2 sticks of butter in the top of a double boiler. Whisk 3 large eggs in a large bowl; add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla and stir to combine. Stir in the butter and chocolate mixture, then fold in 3/4 cups all-purpose flour.

Pour the batter into a 10 x 13 pan lined with parchment paper. Cook at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Do not overbake; a cake tester should not come out clean.

I actually cooked them in small loaf pans because of the limitations of my oven; I think that worked better, it made it easier to work with in later steps.

2. I let the brownie sit overnight. (I can’t remember if I put it in a plastic container or if I wrapped it in plastic wrap and then covered with foil — anything along those lines would work.)

3. The second day, I softened the ice cream slightly and beat with an electric mixer so it was spreadable but not melted. I do not have a paddle attachment, so I just used the regular metal beaters.

I put the brownie back in the small loaf pans and spread the softened ice cream on top of it. (I had started to follow the instructions to take the brownie out and trim but then decided that was just a waste of brownie and my friends probably wouldn’t care how straight the brownie edges were. So I didn’t trim, just used as is.)

4. I put the pans with brownie covered with ice cream back in the freezer. I increased the coldness of the freezer to make sure that it got really solidly frozen. I left it overnight.

5. The third day, I melted maybe 8 or 10 ounces of chocolate. I attempted to follow the recipe and melt chocolate with butter, but it didn’t seem like the consistency was right so I ended up adding a little bit of vegetable oil and that seemed to work better. I don’t remember what kind of chocolate I used, if it was just a bag of chocolate chips or some kind of chocolate from Whole Foods. I feel like I might have used better chocolate (Valrhona or something) for the brownies and regular chocolate chips for the coating, but I’m not sure about that at all. Basically any chocolate coating, such as melting together a tablespoon of oil with a bag of chocolate chips, would work.

6. I brought the ice cream bars out of the freezer one pan at a time (this is where having them in small pans worked better), took them out of the pan, and cut them into small squares. I did not trim them to make them even. No one I know cares how even the edges of their brownie ice cream bars are.

7. I attempted to cover them with chocolate and the first attempt started to melt the ice cream and all of the chocolate slid completely off onto the counter. From this I learned that you need to let the melted chocolate cool a little bit before attempting to put it on the ice cream. (That might obvious to other people but it wasn’t to me. Now you know.)

I very quickly realized that I lacked the skill to fully cover the ice cream bar, and I didn’t want everything to melt, so I just poured some chocolate over the top, spread it around a little bit, and didn’t worry about covering anything or how much was there.

I wrapped the squares in waxed paper and packed into plastic containers for storage and put back into the freezer. I transported in a cooler.

I gave one to a friend who worked an early shift and wasn’t able to stay later, I saw her just before she left and she said, “That was possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”

Really

really

good.

They were worth the trouble.

And if I make them again, I’ll try to take a picture that does them justice.

A Dangerous Notion

Friday, January 20, 2012

This is something I started writing in spring 2010 when I was blogging about my weekly food purchases, and noticing the implications of doing that normal everyday thing in an oddly public way. On the one hand, buying food is not a deeply personal experience, but on the other, it tells a story about yourself that you may or may not want the world to know.

I was reminded of that idea this week with the divorce announcements of two high-profile bloggers, personal finance blogger J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly, and uber-blogger Heather Armstrong, known the world over as Dooce. Thought it might be worth expanding it a little, wrapping up, and posting.

So here it is.

====

There was an article in the N&O recently [oops, not recent anymore, April 2010], picked up from the New York Times, about all of these internet services that allow people to broadcast everything that’s going on in their lives — not just Facebook and Twitter but things like Blippy (which includes information about everything you’ve spent money on) and Foursquare (which announces exactly where you are at any given moment).

They talked to someone who is a big fan of the services and when asked about the privacy implications, he said he didn’t mind having everything about him on the internet, in fact he embraced it. He said, “I simply have nothing to hide.” [Somewhat random aside, I just need to say that when I first started hearing about these types of services, I thought, "Yeah, everyone thinks all of this is a great idea until they want to start having an affair." Come on people, think ahead!]

I just need to say that I think this is a terribly dangerous notion, the idea that anyone who doesn’t want everything they ever think or do or say posted on the internet for public consumption has something to hide.

One of the things I found exceptionally weird about my food projects was the level of detail I chose to put up on the internet for everyone who ever googles me to discover and read. I went from being really happy that when you searched for my name I didn’t appear until the second or third page, to having pictures of me eating soup and videos of me showing the contents of my refrigerator to reporters as the first hit. Oy! What was I thinking?

There’s nothing wrong with anything I’ve done, and there’s nothing particularly embarrassing about it, but it definitely affected my thinking — you can’t help but think, “How is this going to look on the internet?” every time you make a decision about something you’ve committed to blogging about. And that may have positive benefits — if you’ve told everyone you don’t eat junk food, you’re going to think twice about getting a Big Mac — but I don’t necessarily think it’s a healthy way to live. Because if you do get a Big Mac, you’re probably going to figure out some way to not talk about it, which is weird, or if you own up to it, you’re going to have to write about it and feel bad about it, which is also weird.

I think that people should be able to live their lives and not have to worry all the time about how it’s going to look to other people. And not feel like they’re “hiding” something if they don’t want it posted on the internet. Or actively (or passively) lying about what’s actually going on because they’ve decided they don’t want to talk about it.

Before the release of The Social Network (better known as “the Facebook movie”), there was a long  article in the New Yorker about Mark Zuckerberg. His stated reason for starting Facebook — and his ongoing contention — is that the world would be a better place if it was more “open and honest.” He feels like having all of this information about everyone easily accessible on the internet breaks down barriers and brings people closer.

I think it’s worth noting that Facebook was designed for college students. I think most people’s life when they were in college was probably simpler than their life is now (assuming that you are not a twenty-year old student at an elite institution) and some things that make sense when you are twenty might not make sense a few years later.

I so far have remained one of the thirty-five per cent of internet users who are not on Facebook, so I have only anecdotal evidence to draw from, I can’t speak from my own experience, but it seems to me that the way people get around this is to create an “online persona” that for some people is very close to who they actually are and some people is not. People set up a filter for how they deal with Facebook, just like they do with other areas of their life. So in that sense, it’s not more open and honest, it’s just another layer for people to negotiate. Not sure if that was what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind.

Right now I half wish I was a sociologist who studied online communities, because I think it would be fascinating to look at the intersection of public and private, how it changes as people move through various stages of life, and what are some of the unintended consequences of social media. Last I checked, J.D. Roth’s divorce announcement had garnered more than 500 comments. He’s not a blogger like Dooce, who has made a living writing about his private life, but the reason his site is popular and compelling is because of the personal connection people feel to him, which was built over years of his incorporating details from his life into his writings. There was really no way he could not mention this change in his life, but in so doing, it required him to put his private life out to the public in a way he might rather not have done (and in a way I’m sure his wife would really rather him not have done).

Which takes me back to the original point of this post, which is that just because you don’t want everyone on the internet to know everything about you does not mean you have something to hide.

And it is my firm contention that the world would be a better place if everyone stood their ground on that one.

What’s Next

Sunday, January 15, 2012

I don’t actually know the answer to that question.

The main work project I had going since mid-2009 (or earlier than that, actually — it started in 2008, though it went in fits and starts for a while) ended at the beginning of December. Now I’m trying to work through the things that had been neglected while I was taking care of that, and also trying to wrap up a few other projects that have been going on.

I have a lot of partially written posts, mostly random thoughts about frugality and lifestyle-type things, and I’m going to try to work through those and take a second look, finish what I can, and get posted.

My real-life food project for now is to try to eat for $100 a month including the food I buy for Scrap Exchange Third Friday receptions.

For the past year or two I’ve been making most of the food for the gallery openings, because the food I get is cheaper, better, and we don’t waste anything because I handle the leftovers and either freeze and use them again the next month (for instance crackers and juice) or incorporate into my next week’s meal planning (for instance crudité, which I can use in a stir fry). For 2011, I counted that as a separate budget line and didn’t worry too much about how much I was spending.

I just looked at the totals, and I averaged $42.04 per month for that line, including wine but not including food for the holiday party, which I was reimbursed for. (I spent about $150 on stuff for the holiday party, about half of which was used and reimbursed and the other half counted as grocery expense for me.)

My food average for the year was $101 per month which was much higher than expected due to a really stupid mistake I made with how my tracking system was set up.

[And I know probably no one cares about the details of this, but I'll give them anyway, in the interest of full disclosure.

I used to track everything in Quicken, but it was on an old computer and when that computer finally died and I went to try to get a version of Quicken that would work on my new computer, I discovered it was $75, which seemed like a lot to pay for a program that I used only a tiny fraction of, and that left my historical data in a format that required a special program to access. I tried various alternatives and finally settled on an Excel spreadsheet for tracking day-to-day expenses that I would then transfer into a Filemaker database at the end of the year. The Filemaker database includes all of my historical data exported from Quicken in addition to the more recent data transferred from Excel. This has worked well.

I gave up on Quicken in 2009, but I wasn't actually making any money at that point so tracking expenses wasn't an issue. I know that might seem backwards, but my goal is to spend the right amount of money -- when I have no money, the right amount of money to spend is none. I don't need to track that. Also I think I was trying to be less OCD and not track so much, but in doing that, I discovered that I like tracking expenses, I find it relaxing. Also when I actually have money, it's important because it keeps me from spending too little on things I do care about and too much on things I don't care about.

So in 2011, I went back to looking at monthly expenses more carefully, but I was doing it out of Excel instead of the way I used to do it, and was figuring out a new system. The way I deal with grocery money is to put cash on a Whole Foods card and use that for my normal grocery purchases. This simplifies tracking and also lets me handle cash in a way that works better for me; if I run out of cash, I can still buy food.

In my tracking spreadsheet, I deducted the amount left on my Whole Foods card at the end of the month from the month's total but I failed to add that amount to the following month's expense. Duh. So I'm tracking and I'm like hmm this is interesting, this seems lower than I would have expected, guess things are just going well. And I spent money in a way that I wouldn't have if I had actually had the right number. In December when I looked at the final totals in a different way and had the actual numbers come up I was like what?? And then I figured out what had happened and felt like a dumbass. But it was what it was, nothing to be done.]

So for 2012, I would like to spend $100 on food for me and Scrap combined, though I think I will exclude wine. Mostly I get two-buck Chuck (which is actually three bucks), but it still adds up. And I never use any of that for myself, unlike the food, which I end up using as needed.

If it turns out this endeavor seems worth writing about, I will. (And hopefully take some pictures, even I have started to miss not having any pictures on this blog. Where are the pictures? Maybe I’ll just start taking pictures of random things and posting them, since I can’t seem to manage to ever get any pictures taken of food.)

So anyway, that’s what’s going on here. For starters, I’ll try to get the odds and ends finished and posted and see how that goes, then take it from there.

Hope all is well with you.

MLaTPW Part III: Gratitude

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

[This is the third -- and final! -- post in the My Life and The Pioneer Woman series. Here are direct links to Part I and Part II.]

I feel like I don’t read at all anymore (though I do still aspire to someday getting back to that life that I once knew) but back when I did read, one of my areas of interest was sociology/social psychology — books that explain how people think, how people see and understand the world, and why people behave in the ways they do (which is often not rational and can work against one’s own self-interest). Sometimes knowing why you think or act the way you do doesn’t actually help anything, but sometimes it does.

Two of the books I read that I liked were Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. Both of them deal with how people feel about their lives and what factors contribute to those feelings, and while there is some overlap between the books — in many cases they use the same studies to illustrate points — they are coming from different angles. Stumbling Upon Happiness focuses more broadly on how we feel, what makes us happy and why things we expect to make us happy often don’t, while The Paradox of Choice focuses specifically on how making choices impacts how we feel about our lives, and provides concrete steps people can take to increase satisfaction with the choices they make and their lives in general. Both books are worth reading.

One of the things that Barry Schwartz talks about in The Paradox of Choice is how a key factor that leads to unhappiness is comparing yourself to others and focusing on what you don’t have that you think your life is missing, instead of on what you do have that you makes your life better. (“When life is not too good, we think a lot about how it could be better. When life is going well, we tend to not think much about how it could be worse.”)

Which brings me to The Pioneer Woman.

Aspirational blogs like The Pioneer Woman are similar to lifestyle magazines like Real Simple or Martha Stewart Living (not to mention all of the advertising we are constantly bombarded with, from television, radio, magazines, websites…) in that they are designed to make you focus on what you don’t have and think about how your life would be better if you had A or B, or did X or Y.

One of the main tools Ree Drummond uses to drive traffic to her site and generate page views is product giveaways. She gives away everything from flowy tops from her closet to Kitchen-Aid mixers to high-end SLR digital cameras. Product giveaways on her site generate up to 10,000 comments, and are a key part of her business strategy.

As noted, her site is aspirational, she is creating a brand, and her site is designed to make you compare your life to hers. (Or at least to her life at it is presented on the blog — whether or not that is her actual life is an open question.) It causes you to think about what she has that you don’t, and to hope that you might get a little piece of that when she gives some of it away.

But generally, getting something like that will not make you happy. It may make you feel good for a little while, but there is likely to be no real long-term benefit, due to what Barry Schwartz refers to it as “the ubiquitous feature of human psychology[,] … a process known as adaptation.”

As Schwartz describes it:

Simply put, we get used to things, and then we start to take them for granted…. When I first got cable TV, I was ecstatic about the reception and excited about all the choices it provided (many fewer than today). Now I moan when the cable goes out and I complain about the paucity of attractive programs…. Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experiences doesn’t sustain itself.

You end up on what researchers have dubbed the “hedonic treadmill.” You buy things that make you happy, and then you get used to them, so you buy more things — bigger, better, faster things. The cycle can go on indefinitely, but you’re never really happier than you were before. How much nicer is the car you drive now than the first car you owned? It’s probably a lot nicer. Are you happier with it? Probably not. Were you happier after the vacation in Europe than you were after the camping trip? Were your friends more interested in looking at your pictures? (Umm … no, they were not.)

There’s a constant escalation of purchases and activities, yet you are left at the same level of happiness. (I think it actually might better be called the “hedonic stairmaster” — you’re climbing and climbing yet not getting any higher.)

One strategy for getting around this that is not discussed in either book but that I have found to be generally effective is to consciously limit your purchases. If you  buy only things you need or truly want — after much thought and trying alternatives and seeing how it is to live without them — they will in fact make you happy when you get them. For instance I had a wood stove installed in my office last year and I love my wood stove with all my heart, it was the best sixteen hundred dollars I ever spent. I also continue to love the Terry road bike I bought in 1992, and my down comforter, and the hand-me-down cowboy boots my friend Rah gave me….

So I’m not going to say that things can’t bring joy, they can. But most things don’t, and the more things you buy, the less likely it is that any one of them will make you happy.

One of the reasons I love my wood stove and bike so much is because it took me forever to talk myself into getting them, and I spent a significant amount of time without them, thinking about what to do. When I finally did get them, I really, really appreciated them. And even now, when I use them, I remember what it was like to not have them, which makes me continue to value them highly.

So that’s my own personal strategy for making sure that things I get live up to expectations — don’t get very much, and only get things you really want.

Another strategy is the one outlined in The Paradox of Choice, which is to practice gratitude — to consciously spend time thinking about how much better things are than they could be, reflecting on what parts of your life bring you joy and satisfaction, and taking time to note what you do have that you love and value.

As Schwartz explains:

Finally, we can remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have. This may seem trite, the sort of thing one hears from parents or ministers, and then ignores. But individuals who regularly experience and express gratitude are physically healthier, more optimistic about the future, and feel better about their lives than those who do not. Individuals who experience gratitude are more alert, enthusiastic, and energetic than those who do not, and they are more likely to achieve personal goals.

And unlike adaptation, the experience of gratitude is something we can affect directly. Experiencing and expressing gratitude actually gets easier with practice. By causing us to focus on how much better our lives are than they could have been, or were before, the disappointment that adaptation bring in its wake can be blunted.

(To support these conclusions, he cites the work of Professor Robert Emmons at UC Davis, a leading researcher in the field.)

So the next time you are tempted to go read The Pioneer Woman as a way to escape from the tedium of your day-to-day life, thinking it will be a little break that will make you feel better, you should instead practice experiencing gratitude for what you do have.

Schwartz even gives advice on how to do that. He recommends the practice of  keeping a gratitude journal, adopting a simple routine:

1. Keep a notepad at your bedside.
2. Every morning, when you wake up, or every night, when you go to bed, use the notepad to list five things that happened that you’re grateful for.

As Schwartz notes, “These objects of gratitude occasionally will be big (a job promotion, a great first date), but most of the time, they will be small (sunlight streaming in through the bedroom window, a kind word from a friend, a piece of swordfish cooked just the way you like it, an informative article in a magazine).”

He also says that you will likely feel silly or self-conscious when you start doing this, and you may have trouble thinking of things. But the more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more natural it will feel.

You also may find yourself discovering many things to be grateful for on even the most ordinary of days. Finally, you may find yourself feeling better and better about your life as it is, and less and less driven to find the ‘new and improved’ products and activities that will enhance it.

So the bottom line is … stop comparing your life to everyone else’s … stop thinking about what you don’t have that you “need” … and start thinking about what you do have that you love. It will become a self-perpetuating cycle, the more you do it, the better you’ll feel, and the more you’ll be aware of that you are grateful for, which will make you feel even better.

The End.

(And this is the last time I will write a post about The Pioneer Woman. I promise.)

Happy New Year

Monday, January 2, 2012

Okay so I know I left things hanging for the past few weeks.

Scrap holiday party food took a bunch of time, though I was nicely rewarded when someone who had been enjoying the offerings seemed like he was going to compliment something and then just said, “Everything on this table is exceptionally good.” Apparently he couldn’t narrow it down to just one thing that he liked.

The egg nog managed to live up to expectations, and my generous neighbor Ron donated four loaves of bread from his bakery, Loaf, which was a huge hit. Especially since I served it with fresh butter, made using the clothes dryer as a churn.

[How do you do that? Basically you follow the instructions given here, but instead of shaking the jar, you put the jar in a plastic bag and make sure the lid is on REALLY tight, and wrap it up with padding (I use dish towels) and put in the clothes dryer,  and run it on air (i.e., NO heat) until the butter has formed. I've done it before, but it took longer this time than I remembered, at least an hour, maybe an hour or an hour and a half. I'd set the dryer for 20 to 30 minutes and was doing other things, so I'd just let it sit until I managed to check and see if it was done and if it wasn't, I'd put it back in for more. I meant to stop when it was fluffy, like whipped cream, before it has fully separated and formed, but didn't manage to catch it in time. And then I made the mistake of putting it in the fridge instead of leaving it out so it would be spreadable. So a little bit hard to work with the bread, but tasty nonetheless.]

And then I was so enjoying my holiday peace and quiet that I couldn’t bring myself to write anything. But I am still planning on wrapping up the My Life and The Pioneer Woman series with a final post with my advice for what to do instead of comparing yourself to others. Hopefully it will be worth the wait.

And I am uncharacteristically (and somewhat sadly, I might add) without blogging obsessions at the moment, and have been left to spend my work breaks looking at house tours on Apartment Therapy, in the hopes that it will motivate me to get going with the house stuff I need to do. It has been motivating enough to get me to think about things, but not to actually do anything yet. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

At any rate, best wishes for a joyous and prosperous 2012, and more posts coming soon.

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