Sunday, February 26, 2012
[Note: This is another post that I wrote last year sometime and then never quite finished. It feels a little weird when I do that because some of the details don't actually match my current life — for instance I'm pretty much done with work stuff at this point, and actually doing a much better job of staying focused and getting through things — but I decided it was worth putting up anyway. For future reference, if nothing else.]
My office when I worked in DC was in the front of our office suite, near the main door and the conference room and the receptionist’s desk. Once a year (or possibly twice? the details of this are fuzzy), we would have a board meeting that involved many people ringing the bell for the front door to be opened and coming in and out of the suite and into and out of the conference room. This event would also require the little worker bees like myself to pretend we were professional, so we’d have to upgrade our wardrobes for the day. This was definitely a hardship for me; it’s difficult for me to work and look professional at the same time.
The meeting coincided with copywriting season, which was hard enough under the best of circumstances, having to try to do it while I was dressed up with people coming and going all day was a real problem.
I remember one time complaining to my housemate Ted about it, I was talking about what a miserable day it was going to be and how I wasn’t going to be able to get anything done, too many people standing in front of my office and talking and ringing the doorbell and walking around and being in my way.
Ted didn’t think it sounded like a big deal, just normal office stuff. He said, “What, are you autistic?”
I said, “Yes, maybe I am.”
I’m pretty sure I’m not autistic, though for a while I was trying to decide if I have Asperger’s syndrome. There are about three things I’m interested in talking about, none of which are of interest to anyone I know, which is one of the signs of Asperger’s. (From Wikipedia: “People with Asperger syndrome often display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused.” Hmmm….) Though the hallmark of the condition is an inability to read social cues and to connect with other people, which is generally not something I have a problem with. So I eventually decided that I probably don’t have Asperger’s.
But I do have a lot of trouble dealing with sensory inputs, and one of the reasons I’ve structured my life the way I have is to make it easier for me to manage that. And despite the significant level of control I have over my life, I’m having trouble right now trying to get done what I need to get done without feeling like I’m always behind.
One of the things I’ve really struggled with for the last year and a half is how to balance the things I have to do with the things I want to do while still keeping my life moving forward. I feel like I haven’t done a very good job with that.
Some things have gotten done, especially work (which was actually important, I’d been in a holding pattern on some things for a while, so it was good to have some of that turn into actual projects that I actually got paid for) but many things are exactly where they were two years ago … or worse, since a bunch of things have broken but very few things have gotten fixed.
In thinking about this, I realized that when the wheels really started to come off the bus was when I started being online all the time, logging into Skype to stay in touch with the people I was working with, and being available all day, every day to take care of problems and make updates.
It’s hard to set limits when you have a constant barrage of requests. It creates a false sense of urgency, and in dealing with those, you never get to the things that aren’t sending you emails or texts or phone calls. (For instance the bathroom tub surround will remain untiled forever unless I make a plan for fixing it; it’s not going to send me a message asking when I’m going to get to it.)
So I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, and thinking about organization and managing information and setting goals and figuring out how to make things happen.
There’s a Latin phrase that means “do what you’re doing”: age quod agis. After I learned it a few years ago I really tried to stay focused on doing one thing at a time, just concentrating on what I was doing. If I was cooking dinner I was cooking dinner and if I was biking I was biking and if I was cleaning the bathroom I was cleaning the bathroom. And if I was working, I was working. But when I wasn’t working, I wasn’t working.
I seem to have lost that at some point along the way.
So I’ve decided I need to quit trying to multitask and just do what I’m doing. And maybe I’ll manage to get something done.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
I put this up last year for a belated Valentine’s Day post, and I’m putting up again this year because … well, because I love it. What more can I say.
F Minus by Tony Carrillo. Check it out at comics.com.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
One of the main benefits for me of this blog is that when I’m talking to someone about some recipe I like and they ask if I can give it to them, I can just come here and look for it and send them the link. And I feel like I’ve written about pretty much everything I like by now, so when I went to pull up a blondie recipe that I’ve been making for many years and make all the time, I was surprised to discover that I’d never posted it. (Though it’s not exceptionally cheap, so maybe that’s why.)
I also had a new recipe for blondies that are good and easy and cheap that I’ve been meaning to write about, so I decided I needed to do a quick post about blondies.
Both of these recipes are great because they come together very quickly and taste really good.
I like to make the cranberry granola blondies before road trips, or when I’m looking for something slightly better-for-you than cookies or brownies. They do have a lot of sugar, but they’re mostly granola and dried fruit, so they don’t put you into quite as much of a food coma as some other treats. Unfortunately granola and dried fruit can both be expensive, but they’re still worth making, I think.
The original recipe is from Eating Well magazine (the first iteration, from the mid-1990s) and I’ve modified it to use whole eggs instead of egg whites, because I think using egg whites is nothing more than a way to waste a perfectly good egg yolk. I’ve tried it with less sugar (they are very sweet), and you can drop it down to a cup or so, but if you go much less than that, they’re not very good. The texture isn’t right and they taste like something that’s supposed to be good for you.
adapted from Eating Well magazine
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1-1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
2 cups granola cereal with raisins
1 cup dried cranberries or chopped dried tart cherries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat together sugar, oil, and egg in a large bowl with an electric mixer on high until smooth. Add the dry ingredients and beat until just blended. Stir in granola and dried fruit. (The batter will be quite thick.)
Transfer the batter to the prepared baking dish and press to fill the pan.
Bake until golden brown on top and set when lightly pressed in the center, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool in baking dish on a rack. Cut into 20 bars.
The second recipe is one I found last year when I was looking for something new and different for Third Friday food for Scrap Exchange. I checked out the Martha Stewart Blondies and Brownies entry on the website and the one for Chewy Oat Blondies seemed like the simplest recipe. When I made it, I was reminded of the salty oat cookies from Teaism in Washington, D.C., so I sprinkled a little kosher salt on top and that definitely worked. You just need to use a little bit, though — you don’t want them to actually taste salty, you just want a tiny hint of salt.
Salty Oat Blondies
adapted from MarthaStewart.com
1 cup flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for pan
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup + 1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
pinch kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch baking pan.
Stir together flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt.
Using an electric mixer, beat butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg, and beat until combined. With mixer on low, gradually add dry ingredients; mix until just combined. Mix in 3/4 cup of oats. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Smooth batter evenly in pan. Sprinkle with remaining oats and a pinch or two of kosher salt, pressing gently to adhere. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in pan 30 minutes.
Cut and remove to wire rack and let cool completely.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
I was out of town visiting some friends last week, and one of our mutual friends recently had a birthday but didn’t get to celebrate it due to circumstances that are much too complicated to try to explain here. I said I could make something when I was up, we could have a little belated birthday thing.
I’d been with them a week or two earlier and had been talking up the brownie ice cream bars; they said they wanted me to make those. I was thinking about it and trying to figure out logistics, but then I started thinking about what I make for myself on my own birthday, which are these beautiful little chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting that were born out of an article I read in ReadyMade magazine a few years ago.
My oven has some problematic aspects to it, but I have a fabulous toaster oven that’s large enough to roast a chicken, and if I can roast a chicken in my toaster oven, what do I need an oven for? So I gave up thinking about fixing the problematic aspects of my oven. The only problem that remained — the only thing I occasionally wanted but couldn’t make — was cake. The cake pans I had did not fit into the toaster oven.
So I’d given up on the idea of oven repair, and for the time being, on the idea of cake. But I wasn’t happy about it. And one day I’m reading ReadyMadeand they have this picture of someone who make these little cakes, I think for their wedding, and they used tuna cans as the cake pans. And I was like, “Hey! This totally solves my cake problem!”
It was decidedly a Eureka moment.
With the help of my friend Bucky (for whom the cakes were subsequently named) I procured six of the proper-sized tins and made a cake recipe and baked the cake batter in the tins and there was a little bit of trial and error to get the right recipe and bake everything properly but now I have it down and the cakes are pretty amazing.
So I’m thinking about what to do for my friend’s birthday and I decided to put the question to my friend Ann, who has had both the bucky cakes and the brownie ice cream bars. Even though I already knew what her answer was going to be.
I said, “Should I make the brownie ice cream bars or the bucky cakes?” Without hesitation, she said “Bucky cakes.” I said, “I knew you’d say that.”
I told her she was biased toward the bucky cakes because she had a prior relationship with them. She said, “No, that’s not it. It’s because they’re so perfect. What could be better on your birthday than this beautiful little cake, that’s just for you, that you don’t have to share with anyone?”
I decided Ann was right.
I caught some flak from my friends who’d been looking forward to the brownie ice cream bars, but I made the bucky cakes, and promised we could do the ice cream bars next time I’m up. I’m not sure if my friend whose birthday it was appreciated the cake quite as much as Ann does, but I did my best.
The reason I like these so much is because (a) the frosting is really to die for (possibly in a literal sense, it includes raw egg yolks as one of the main ingredients) and (b) the small-sized cake means you have a much better ratio of frosting to cake than you do in a standard layer cake.
You can make the cake using any pans — or, alternatively, I could use any cake or frosting recipe in the mini pans that I use — but as far as I’m concerned, this is just right. The cake is light and the frosting is rich, and they complement each other perfectly.
Don’t waste these on someone you don’t love. And in fact, I highly recommend you make these for yourself on your birthday — that way you know you’ll have at least one thing that makes you happy. And who doesn’t want that?
Chocolate Buttermilk Cake
from The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook
2 cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 cup buttermilk
Chocolate Frosting (see below)
Have all ingredients at room temperature. Adjust the rack to the lower third of the oven; preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
Using an electric mixer, preferably with a paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and continue to cream until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, then the cooled melted chocolate.
Add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.
Spoon equal amounts of batter into each pan, spreading it to level the top. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Cool in the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Invert and remove pans; cool completely on racks before frosting.
adapted from Larry Forgione, An American Place, by way of The New York Times
1-1/4 stick butter
2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tablespoons + 2 teaspoons water
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 egg yolks
10 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter with water and cocoa powder, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and let cool.
2. Add confectioners’ sugar and vanilla, and stir until smooth. Stir in egg yolks until smooth, and then chocolate. Use immediately.
And here are my notes…
You can substitute 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour for cake flour.
Note that you need to sift the flour before measuring. If you measure then sift, you’ll use too much flour. Especially if you substitute all-purpose flour for cake flour without adjusting for that. Trust me on that one.
As mentioned, I cook these in mini pans in my mini oven. I get 15 cake layers from the recipe above. Once they’re cooked and cooled, I trim the rounded top part off to make them flat, and then I put them together to make five, three-layer cakes. (This last time I made them, though, I got five, two-layer cakes plus one extra layer. Not sure what happened there.)
I make the cakes one day, let them sit overnight, and frost them the next day.
I generally get some kind of fancy chocolate from Whole Foods for the frosting, usually Callebaut because it’s the cheaper option, but sometimes Valrhona. This is definitely a situation where the better the chocolate you’re starting with, the better the frosting will be.
In the frosting recipe where it says “use immediately,” they’re not kidding. You need to work with the frosting while it’s pourable (i.e., before the butter and chocolate re-solidify) because it’s not spreadable when it’s hardened. You’ve basically just made chocolate-flavored butter (or butter-flavored chocolate) and the way I handle it is to pour it onto the bottom layer of cake, put the next layer on top of that and press down so it oozes out the sides and then repeat with the top layer. Someone with more skill than I have might be able to actually spread the frosting all over the cake, but I gave up on that idea early, and now I deal with it like a glaze, I let it run down the sides. The finished product actually looks quite lovely.
(If you do have enough talent to spread the frosting, you might want to double the recipe. What I gave there is half of what was printed in the New York Times, because the original recipe made way more frosting than I could use. And trust me, the last thing I need sitting around in my refrigerator is a mess of chocloate-flavored butter.)