Ginger Gelato

Friends, this was inevitable.  I love ginger.  See the gingerbread yogurt scone post for an ode to my favorite aromatic.  I can't get enough.  It's been really hard to pace myself with two pints of this gelato in the freezer, so, I basically haven't been pacing myself.  Let's be honest, there are no longer two pints in the freezer.  

Last night, I was asked to write a short blurb on my trip to France for La Traversée de Paris in October.  Apparently the University is sponsoring a Paris-themed dinner at the dining halls on Wednesday to honor us, which will be great publicity for UChicago Crew and a free meal for me, so I don't hate it.  Why this is happening three months later, I have no idea.  But reflecting on the trip was an interesting exercise for me, not only because I had to write articulately and captivatingly about it, but also because I'm an incredibly different person now than I was then.  Well, maybe not different at the core, but in a wildly different place in my life, which of course changes my perspective on what happened then.  I've included the blurb below for you to read.  What I wound up writing sounds so rosy when I read it back to myself now.  In many ways, though, that weekend was as incredibly beautiful and breathtaking for me as I've described.  All that I wrote, all the emotions I tried to evoke in the piece, were and still are real; but that trip was also terribly painful for me, a layer of the memories I didn't include below.  I think it's better this way, not only because I'm assuming it's going to be printed somewhere for the dining event, but also because this is the way I want to remember it.  The very fact that I was able to recount my experience this way - bringing all the wonderful memories to the surface and stripping away the sad ones - demonstrates the kind of power we all have to shape and redefine our personal histories.

Forty seven hours. How can you breathe in such a city as Paris, in such a fleeting moment, without being consumed by the desire to grasp every piece of it at once?

From the very first jolt of wheels hitting tarmac at Charles de Gaulle, we were swept up and set down on the banks of the Marne. There, our incredibly gracious hosts at the Aviron Marne & Joinville Rowing Club welcomed us for their biennial celebration of the lasting friendships forged by rowing, friendships that unite both people and cities. On the eve of La Traversée de Paris, we raced, ate, and danced with our fellow French rowers well into the night; and in the black hours of the early morning, we awoke to carry our wooden shell down to the waters of the Seine. As five Chicago students in a floating parade of a thousand costumed rowers, we shared thirty four kilometers of downtown Paris from a rower’s singular perspective; a perspective, which reveals that the Eiffel Tower, Cathédrale Notre Dame, Musée d’Orsay, and all the trappings of Paris are bound by a watery thread that is stronger than both cobblestone and concrete.

Even as we laced through the streets on foot in the late afternoon light, the river wound round us, anchored us. We could still see its outline in the dark of that last, quiet night, when we stood at the foot of La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre, at the highest point of the city. Paris, colored by warm street lights and purple shadows, sprawled out before us. Although our hours in this city had passed so suddenly, we had grasped and breathed in as much of Paris as the river could hold. And that was enough.

Ginger Gelato

1 c heavy cream
2 c whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2/3 c sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger, plus 1/2 teaspoon
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger, plus 1 tablespoon
1/4 c crystallized ginger, chopped and frozen

In a medium saucepan heat cream, milk, and 1 tablespoon fresh ginger to 170 degrees F, stirring frequently.  Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat the yolks, sugar, and 1 teaspoon ground ginger until the mixture has thickened and turned pale yellow.  Carefully stream in a 1/2 c or so of the hot cream-milk mixture, whisking constantly, to warm up the yolks without cooking them (technical term: you're tempering the yolks here).  Pour the yolk mixture back into the pot, then heat slowly to 185 degrees F, stirring frequently.  

Strain the custard through a fine mesh strainer into a medium bowl, to remove any tiny bits of cooked yolk (you'll end up straining out the fresh ginger, but fear not, there will be more).  Whisk in the 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, then cool completely in the refrigerator for a few hours.  

Churn the custard in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions (~20 minutes).  When it's almost finished churning, add in the frozen pieces of crystallized ginger, being sure to separate the chunks that have stuck together.  Freeze until hard, or not, if you can't wait.  That's cool.  I hear you.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Otherwise known as Russian Tea Cakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes, snowballs, or nutty butter cookies blanketed with copious amounts of powdered sugar.  Oftentimes they're shaped as crescent moons or meatballs and then rolled in sugar; but, since I was baking with Tor, we made them in the style of a similar-tasting Greek cookie, pressing them into thumbprints and dusting them with the powdered sugar instead.  The recipe comes from a neat book on Texas-style cooking that Jimmy brought for me during crew preseason, from which I'll also definitely be making Puerco en Salsa de Comino (Pork in Cumin Sauce) at some point because it sounds super yummy.

Tor and I made a big batch of these in early January when Chicago was hit by the Polar Vortex that transformed the city into an icy Chiberian wind tunnel.  We had a cold day off from class that Monday, so naturally we watched the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy in extended edition, ate lots of dessert, and serenaded each other with verses from Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? off the Frozen soundtrack.  Because what else do nerds do on an unexpected day off from school?

Speaking of days off from school, I played hooky on Friday (mwahaha) and made an extra-long weekend for myself (taking advantage of MLK Day on Monday) to visit Jimmy in DC.  It was amazing and lovely and eeeep I'm so happy.  SparkNotes version of our adventures, since I don't want to make y'all too jealous of our little vacation: wanderings through downtown DC (featuring Embassy Row and the Lincoln Memorial), the Inter-American Development Bank, the West Wing (!!!), Georgetown's campus, and Takoma Park; lots of yummy food (read: lots of yummy bacon, and delicious French food); and some shenanigans with two of his adorable little cousins.  Of course, the precious days rushed by us, no matter how thoughtfully we cherished them, and were gone again; but they were wonderful, and so worth it.  

Mexican Wedding Cookies

1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons powdered sugar, plus ~1/2 c for dusting on the baked cookies
1 c all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 c walnuts or pecans

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cream together the butter and 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar.  Sift the flour into the butter mixture, stir to combine, then add in the vanilla.  Pulse the nuts in a food processor until ground but granular, being sure to stop before creating nut butter.  Fold the nuts into the mixture.  Roll tablespoonfuls of dough into balls, then place on the prepared baking sheet and press with your thumb to create an indentation.  Bake 25-30 minutes until set and slightly golden brown.

Dust a clean surface with a layer of powdered sugar (I just laid out some tinfoil on the counter for easy cleanup).  Just when the cookies have come out of the oven, place them onto the layer of powdered sugar and dust plenty more sugar over the top with a sifter.  I dare you to try to eat these without getting powdered sugar all over your shirt and/or face.  

Protip: you can't.  Just embrace it.

Green Tea Macarons with Meyer Lemon Curd

There are so many things that I want to be, and all at once.

I want be fluent in Spanish, and in Russian, a psychology graduate with honors from this University, a PhD student at another university far from here, a social cognitive neuroscientist, an industrial-organizational consultant, a professional chef, caterer, maker of The Best Darn Family Dinners Ever; a traveler of Chile, Russia, Ukraine, Ireland, Spain; a mother, wife, best friend, mentor; someone trusting, gentle, cautious, bold, fierce and independent, quietly confident, thankful, thoughtful, happy, serious, and yet so full of light.  I want to be inspiring, and be inspired.

I also want to be patient, and that is the skill I have mastered least.

Enter: Macarons, also known as Incredible Test of Patience and Will to Succeed.  I used a recipe for green tea macarons from Love & Lemons, and only bothered to read an excellent article about macaron trouble-shooting and tips from Not So Humble Pie after I'd burnt the sugar twice, curdled the egg whites once, didn't rest the batter long enough to prevent the baked macarons from cracking on top, and incorrectly piped the cookies such that I only got the characteristic feet on two of my macarons.  The Love & Lemons recipe did not have a lot of the technical information about macaron-making, so I definitely suggest reading the Not So Humble Pie article first.  I used the recipes for the macarons themselves and the lemon curd (see below) verbatim, so I won't rewrite them here.

I had quite the potty mouth that afternoon.

They were, however, delicious.  But infuriating.  But scrumptious.  But I almost curled up on the floor of my kitchen and cried a little after ruining the egg whites (after I'd already burnt the sugar several times and spilled egg whites all over my counter twice while attempting to measure them).  And then, when I went to make Meyer lemon curd, from The Ginger Snap Girl if you want to know, it went from smooth curd to curdled hot mess right at the last second.  Thankfully I thought to whip it up in the food processor instead of pouring it down the garbage disposal, because it turned out to be pretty tasty.

You win some, you lose some.

Baked Chicken and Lentils

I wish I were better at singing, or could play an instrument.  Damn my third grade self for quitting piano, because I definitely have great piano hands (I'm not sayin' I'm just sayin' - long, thin fingers are where it's at), can read music (maybe not so well anymore, I'm out of practice), and have a pretty decent sense of rhythm (which is oddly inconsistent with my inability to be physically coordinated in everyday life).  I sing often enough to myself, when I'm cooking or showering or on my way to class, and many a toddler has been sung to sleep when I'm on babysitting duty, but I don't have a great vocal range, or the ability to harmonize very well.

But oh how I love music.  There's very little I won't listen to, but I usually have to rely on others to introduce me to new material.  I'm not good at discovering music I haven't heard in some coffee shop somewhere, or at a friend's dorm room.  I tend to play the same songs over and over, discover new songs, and then play those over and over.  Certain songs I return to often, especially when I want something soft, gentle, and quiet.  I've got that genre down pat.  Norah Jones will forever be my favorite artist; followed by James Taylor and Jewel; then by Patty Griffin; Van Morrison; Bon Iver; and Eric Clapton.  And I really like making playlists that represent important pieces of my life, like the people or my moods or notable periods of time in my life.  Since the summer, I've been working on a song project that is basically a musical representation of my life to date.  I'll share it sometime, when it's fully updated.  Until then, this (see below) is the playlist I've been listening to fairly frequently, especially walking to class (I've been using my over-ear headphones as ear muffs, since it's frickin' cold here).

Are there any playlists you listen to a lot, or ones that you use for specific tasks like homework or cooking, or ones that remind you of someone important to you?  Maybe it's the lyrics, or the overall tone of a piece, or the style of an artist, but I love when I hear a song and am immediately reminded of someone.  Or even better, when I'm mulling over a song in my head, humming to myself, and it dawns on me that it perfectly represents someone I care about, or represents my relationship with that person.  It's so amazing that you can connect that strongly with a piece of art, produced by another human being you don't even know, just by listening.

Little reminders

1. Pompeii - Bastille
2. Mrs. Robinson - Simon & Garfunkel
3. The Water - Johnny Flynn featuring Laura Marling
4. Same Love - Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert
5. Counting Stars - OneRepublic
6. 22 - Taylor Swift
7. Waka Waka (Esto es Africa) - Shakira
8. Jump in the Line - Harry Belafonte
9. We Found Love - Rihanna
10. When You Were Young - The Killers
11. Summertime Sadness - Lana Del Rey
12. I Will Wait - Mumford & Sons
13. Let Her Go - Passenger
14. All I Want Is You - Barry Louis Polisar

Baked Chicken and Lentils

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 chicken thighs
4 garlic cloves
1 medium onion
1 carrot
1 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
Handful parsley, chopped
1 half head radicchio, sliced thinly
1/2 c white wine
~2 c chicken stock
1 c lentils

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a cast iron skillet and season chicken with 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Sear chicken ~2 minutes on each side to create a crust, then remove from the pan.  Chop the onion and carrot in a medium dice, mince the garlic, and sweat in the warm oil.  Add in the spices and 1/4 teaspoon salt and sauté, ~5 minutes to perfume the spices.  Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping the bottom (with a non-metal utensil) to remove the yummy bits and incorporate them into the sauce.  Add in the radicchio, lentils, and stock, then nestle the chicken thighs into the lentil mixture (being sure to add in the juice from the chicken).

Cover and place in the oven, cooking for 45 to 60 minutes until the lentils are soft and have soaked up the stock and wine.  Serve alongside something crisp and/or crunchy and fresh, like a radicchio and escarole salad with orange segments, walnuts, and brightly sour-sweet vinaigrette.

Red Borscht (Красный Борщ)

Felíz año nuevo mis amigos!

I'm coming along in my Spanish studies, friends.  I have a whole deck of flash cards that I am should be studying, but even the best laid plans don't always come to fruition.  I'd planned a nice, quiet week, featuring some lovely solitude and lots of work for the lab, Arete, and myself.  Life intervened, however, and I ended up spending what was supposed to be an utterly quiet and lonely New Years Eve with my lab manager, professor, his wife, and two of their friends, playing Balderdash and talking psych research until 3 in the morning.  It was grand and lots of fun; but alas, I am behind on everything again.

At the lab, though, we've finally finished coding all the data for the experiment we've been working on all quarter, so at least I was productive in that regard this week.  I even watched some Spanish YouTube videos and made a collage of sorts on the wall above my bed with several Spanish greetings, common phrases, and interjections.  I'd wanted to be farther along, though, with more verb conjugations and increased vocabulary.  I haven't cooked very much this week, either, having been fed by others on several occasions when I'd planned to cook.  Oh well, life goes on.  Tonight, I finally got around to making a huge pot of борщ that'll last me a week or so.  I make no promises about the authenticity of this recipe for Russians or Ukrainians, but it is indeed delicious.  It's loosely adapted from a classic borscht recipe on Natasha's Kitchen.  Hopefully this week I'll get around to making rugelach from Natasha too, and maybe even some green tea macarons.

I'm not one for New Years resolutions, but I will say that, this year, I want to focus on taking care of myself.  Not being selfish, not being unwilling to love deeply and care fiercely, but remembering to take a step back once in a while and evaluate, does this make me happy?  Is this fulfilling?  If the answer in my mind is a resounding no, or perhaps even silence, it's important that I change whatever it is that isn't healthy.  If there's anything I've learned over the past year, it's that loving something that hurts you doesn't make you a better person, or more righteous, or make your love more real, it makes you someone who doesn't know when it's time to walk away, to let go.

Here's to being honest with ourselves, and with each other.  Cheers.

Red Borscht

3-4 medium beets, washed thoroughly
2 baking potatoes, washed thoroughly
1 medium onion, sliced in half-moons
2 medium carrots, sliced
1/2 head of cabbage, shredded
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 c chicken broth
1/2 lemon, cut in half
Kosher salt
2 bay leaves
Handful parsley, chopped

In a stock pot filled with 10 c water, boil the beets until cooked through, ~1 hour.  Remove the beets, peel, and set aside.  Keep the cooking water at a simmer.  Meanwhile, set the chicken broth in a saucepot over medium-high heat to bring it to a boil.

Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise, then again, to quarter the potato.  Slice widthwise, then add the potato with the sliced carrots into the beet cooking water with ~1 teaspoon salt, tomatoes, onion, bay leaves, and pepper.  Meanwhile, slice the beets the same way you sliced the potatoes, so they're of equal size.  Once the potatoes are almost done cooking, add the juice of one lemon quarter (reserve the other for the end), cooked beets, shredded cabbage, and boiling chicken broth.  Adjust seasoning, then simmer until all the vegetables are cooked.  Add the juice of the other lemon quarter and the chopped parsley, as well as salt and pepper to taste.  Remove the bay leaves before serving with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt and a hunk of crusty bread.

Cranberry Crumb Bars

Quick post today, since finals week doom is looming over my head at this moment.  Currently I'm working on a paper for my genes and behavior class (an elective for my psychology major) that I'm actually really excited to write.  Each week throughout the quarter we discussed a different behavior, usually a human behavior but sometimes we looked at an animal behavior that was relevant to studying humans, and the genetic basis for that behavior, which could be one or the product of a number of factors: inheritance of a specific allele, altered expression of a certain gene (or multiple genes), epigenetic modifications (basically modifications that effect gene expression indirectly rather than directly), programming effects (when conditioned changes to the genes of parents are passed on to their offspring, usually differences in gene expression or epigenetic factors), and so on.  We learned about the mechanisms behind these factors, the ways scientists construct experiments to study them, and the specific animal systems used to model different human behaviors.  We read two or three scientific papers on each week's topic and wrote a one- to two-page response; but for the final paper, we get to choose our own topics, and we're writing longer essays involving several more scientific papers each.

I've chosen to write my paper on the genetic basis for sexual orientation.  It's really important to me to establish a biological explanation for sexual orientation, since it's often misunderstood as a lifestyle choice, sexual preference, or even psychopathology.  There's been a lot of literature that's tried to identify a gene for homosexuality to explain its prevalence among humans when it's not an evolutionarily beneficial trait (since you're not a reproducing member of the community).  In the past couple of years, scientists have moved away from trying to find a specific gene for sexual orientation, and instead have been looking more at epigenetic factors (so those factors that indirectly affect the expression of genes rather than altering genes directly), especially epigenetic changes to the parents' genetic makeup that get passed on to their children.  I apologize if this is getting too technical, but I'm nerding out pretty hard over it.  I'm integrating a few studies into a comprehensive view of sexual orientation as a multi-faceted epigenetic phenomenon influenced by both maternal and paternal programming effects and accounting for anatomical, neurological, and behavioral features that have been correlated with sexual orientation.  

So much for a quick post.  Happy first snow in Chicago everyone, curl up with your laptops, hunker down for finals, and have a snack.  

Cranberry Crumb Bars
from Deb Perelman via Lottie + Doof

2 sticks cold butter, cut into cubes
3 c all-purpose flour
1 c evaporated cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg
1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice
3 c fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon orange zest

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Line the bottom of a 13x9 inch pan (or you could use a standard sheet pan like I did, but you'll get much thinner bars) with parchment paper, and butter the sides and paper to prevent sticking.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and spices.  Work the butter into the flour mixture until the pieces are the size of peas, then mix in the egg.  When the mixture becomes a coarse meal, press half of it into the bottom of the prepared pan.

In a food processor, combine the orange juice, zest, cranberries, honey, and corn starch.  Pulse until the berries are chopped but not pureed.  Spread the cranberry filling over the crumb base, then crumble on the remaining dough.

Bake 30-35 minutes until lightly browned.  They're best on the day they're made while they're still crunchy, but are still mighty tasty the second and third day.

Thanksgiving, featuring Sweet Potato Biscuits

Do you know what day it is?

Today, my dear friends, is the anniversary of this lovely little corner of the Internet right here, otherwise known as Strong Coffee.  My first recipe for Gingerbread with Espresso Glaze was posted December 3, 2012, and now here we are, talking about a full Thanksgiving dinner.

Such fooding.
So blog.

A lot has changed since then, mostly in ways I could've never anticipated.  I'm quite the planner; not to the point where I have no room, or patience, for spontaneity, but it's definitely an impulse to make the uncertain certain.  I enjoy exercising the power of organizing chaos.  Usually I find out that I don't actually have that power; but, fortunately for my dinner guests and me, I successfully organized the chaos that is Thanksgiving.  Armed with my beautiful, glorious spreadsheet, all of my dishes turned out as planned.  And I didn't mess up the turkey!  You've probably seen a million gajillion recipes floating around the Internet in the past couple weeks for turkey: how to brine your turkey, how to not brine your turkey because brining is evil, how to cook the perfect turkey, deep fry your turkey, turkey is overrated, blahhhhhh... So I won't bore you with the recipe I used for mine.  If you want to know, it's from Alton Brown, because he the Zeus of culinary gods, just sayin'.  Let's not extend that metaphor too far, okay?  Don't go there.  He's awesome, that's it.

I will, however, share with you the recipe I used for sweet potato biscuits.  Because I would've risked the biggest, most gloriously painful food coma of my life to eat three more after dinner, if only they hadn't all been devoured already.  My post-Thanksgiving morning sandwich on a sweet potato biscuit would've been too glorious for words... If only.  But thankfully (har har) they're really simple to make.  You just have to expend a little extra effort to roast a sweet potato, and spend some extra time to let it cool down.  Then just mash it up, eating the skin as a nice little snack of course.  They were great for Thanksgiving prep, since I was able to roast my sweet potatoes on Monday, then make the dough and form the biscuits Tuesday, freezing them on sheet trays overnight before putting them in a gallon-size Ziploc, so that on Thursday all I had to do was let them thaw out on the counter for an hour and bake.  I made a double batch, which made 14 substantially sized biscuits (I mean, if I'm going to have a biscuit, I want a biscuit), and that's what I've posted below.

I won't go too much into the sappy details of Thanksgiving and the evening that followed, how loved I felt surrounded by people who care about me, how fortunate I am to love and be loved by the wonderful people in my life, to have made new friendships and gone down new paths this year, et cetera et cetera, because I'll digress as I'm digressing now into a little pile of soft cuddly mush.  Suffice it to say that I am a very fortunate person, and I love that these months of November and December always make me step back for a moment to really appreciate it.

Okay, it's biscuit time, enough of that cheesy stuff.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
from Tanya Holland at Food & Wine

2 c chilled sweet potato puree*
1 1/2 c chilled buttermilk
4 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/4 c brown sugar
1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 sticks cold butter, cubed

*To make the sweet potato puree, roast a couple of sweet potatoes at 400 degrees F.  I just poke mine several times with a fork (to release the steam that'll get trapped under the skin), drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and wrap in tin foil.  Be sure to put your wrapped sweet potatoes on a sheet pan to catch any juices that'll leak out.  Depending on the size of your sweet potatoes this'll take an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sweet potato puree and buttermilk.  Then, in a larger bowl, combine the dry ingredients (flour through salt).  Using your fingers or a pastry cutter if you have one, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the pieces are the size of peas.  If the butter has become too warm, pop the bowl in the freezer for a couple minutes.  Carefully stir the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined.

Dust a clean surface with flour, and dump out the dough.  Pat the dough down with your palm until it's 1-2 inches thick, depending on your preference.  Using a glass (or an actual circular cookie cutter if you have one, ha), cut the biscuits to the desired size.  Again, if the dough has become too warm, pop it in the freezer.  At this point, you could freeze the cut out biscuits completely to bake another time.

Brush the tops with a little melted butter if you feel so inclined, then bake for 15-30 minutes (again, depending on the size) until they're crisp on the outside and firm on the inside when you press gently with your fingertips.  Serve warm.  A drizzle of honey wouldn't hurt.