Sunday, March 21, 2010

Super Special Birthday Cake

Today is Lance's grandma's birthday. We were supposed to go up and take her to church and have lunch on her, but then we got a foot of snow:

Crazy. Anyway, with all the snow, we postponed special meal until (probably) tomorrow, though I have to fit my 12 mile long run in there somewhere. She requested a chocolate/coffee flavor combination, which gave me lots of options. I've made this espresso chiffon layer cake before, but I wanted something different. Fancier.

So I pulled out my awesome baking book, In the Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley (a great resource for bakers, FYI) and found a recipe for a walnut layer cake (note to self: make this cake later) with espresso buttercream. Not a chocolate cake, so it didn't qualify, but I liked the idea of the frosting. So I consulted another cookbook and found a recipe for an intense chocolate cake. I decided to bake that cake with the espresso buttercream and decorate it with melted chocolate and chocolate-covered espresso beans. It turned out extremely well, and the buttercream is amazing--not a "quick buttercream," (which is just butter and powdered sugar and is usually way too sweet for my tastes) but instead one that involves meringue and obscene amounts of butter.

The beautiful, lovely buttercream:

Spreading the beautiful buttercream on a layer:

The layers all stacked up:

The finished cake:

The cake was lovely (I tasted the bits I cut off to somewhat level the layers), the buttercream is not too sweet and is also lovely (I may never make a quick buttercream again), and the cake looks beautiful and special. And as soon as the roads are clear, we'll be heading up to share it with her!

And in case you want the recipe, here it is!

Super Special Chocolate Cake with Espresso Buttercream

Chocolate Cake (from The Buttercup Bake Shop Cookbook):
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup freshly brewed coffee, cooled
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1-1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 6 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour 3 cake pans. Line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper and lightly grease the papers (can skip this step, but it helps to get the layers out of the pan)

In a small bowl, whisk together cocoa, coffee, water, and vanilla. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking soda and salt. Set both bowls aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, a few minutes. Beat in the eggs one a time, then beat in the melted chocolate. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the liquid mixture, beginning and ending with the flour, in three additions. Do not over mix.

Divide the batter among the three pans and bake 20-25 minutes, until cakes are done. Let cool in the pans for 10 minutes, the remove from pans at let cool completely on the wire rack.

Espresso Syrup (adapted from Smitten Kitchen):
  • 1/3 cup freshly brewed espresso or strong coffee
  • 1/3 cup brandy or rum
  • 1/3 cup sugar
Mix all together until the sugar dissolves (I had to heat mine slightly).

Espresso Buttercream (adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen):
NB: good quality butter and eggs are a must, since they'll really add to the flavor of the buttercream.
  • 4 large egg whites (be careful not to allow any yolk or fat to drop in)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1-1/4 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2-1/2 tbsp instant espresso powder dissolved in 1-1/2 tbsp hot water, cooled
In a pot, bring an inch or so of water to a simmer. Lightly beat the egg whites, the add the sugar and whisk until frothy. Set the bowl over the water and whisk until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is very warm (but not hot), about five minutes. Transfer to a clean bowl and whip the egg whites until it is cool to touch, about 8-10 minutes. If it's not cool enough, the heat will melt the butter and give you issues, so don't be afraid to beat it. The meringue will be stiff and glossy.

Beat in the butter, a little at a time, making sure it is completely incorporated before adding more. Don't be afraid to beat it and make sure to scrape the sides of the bowl. Once all the butter is incorporated, add the vanilla, then add the espresso mixture a little at a time, beating well.

The frosting should be glossy and smooth. If it's not (and it wasn't for me) or if it starts to separate or look funny, put the bowl over some hot tap water and whisk it until it gets smooth. It smoothed out beautifully for me (as you can see from the pictures).

To assemble the cake:
  1. Brush extra crumbs off the layers, and level them off. Brush the top of the cake with some of the syrup (I didn't use all of it--it is optional and helps to keep the cake moist.)
  2. Put a dollop of buttercream between the layers. Brush off crumbs.
  3. Frost the cake (Smitten Kitchen has some good tips--I like putting the crumb coat on, chilling briefly in the freezer, then applying the top coat.)
  4. Melt 2 oz. dark chocolate and use a fine tip on a pastry bag to make the criss-cross. Put a dab in the center of the diamonds and place a chocolate-covered espresso bean on the chocolate dots.
A perfect cake to share with a loved one for a special day.

The First Day of Spring

Last Night:

This morning:

And it's still snowing!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bag Lady

I made a bag:

It's the French Market Bag, and it was my first felted project. Also my first use of the Kitchener Stitch, which was surprisingly fun.

I started this bag a few years ago, and when I decided to start working on projects that were languishing in my project bags, I picked this one back up. It's a fairly easy pattern, and I finished it quickly, once I focused on it. I'm pretty pleased with it.

Felting was quick and easy: throw thing to be felted into the washing machine with some towels, hot water, and soap. Let agitate until desired level of felt. Dry. Tada! Felted object.

I use this for my lunch sack currently because wool is awesome and this keeps my food pretty cold if I decide to leave it out. It's also handy for toting things generally.

Stay tuned for another FO: a sweater vest!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dinner Quandries

You all know that I love to cook. Lance and I both are passionate and adamant about cooking and eating good food, shopping at the local market and natural foods co-op*. We prepare most of our own meals and love nothing more than to share our creations with others.

Lately, there's been a discussion going on in Google Reader on shared items involving food, food choices, food regulation, and how socioeconomic status plays into it all. Of course, I was vaguely aware that my ability to purchase fresh, organic produce or to buy from the Farmers' Market on a regular basis was a privilege. I don't make tons of money, but I make enough to afford good quality food, and we make it a priority to spend a bit more on it (instead of, say, paying for cable or eating out a lot).

I'm lucky to be able to have both the financial means to purchase organic produce and to have access to it. I realized, however, that not everyone lives where they can easily buy organic goods or can even afford them if they did have access. When I was growing up, my parents couldn't afford to purchase enough fresh fruits and vegetables to feed all seven individuals all the time (two adults and five children), and so we ate lots of spaghetti, ground beef or turkey, cheap lunch meat, white bread, peanut butter and jelly, and macaroni and cheese. We had canned or frozen vegetables mixed in (but not always), and I don't think we ever had a big green salad with our meals (which I eat almost daily now). We generally had bananas, and sometimes oranges or apples, but not always. I used to hate fresh green beans because I only ate the canned ones. We had our free school lunches, but as this blog points out, school lunches aren't exactly the paragon of good nutrition. We had plenty of food growing up, but now when I go to my parents' house, I have to bring my own food or I'll have a bad case of indigestion from the food I grew up eating. (Not to mention that they don't exactly good vegetarian-friendly dishes, so I just cook for myself and share with them, if they like).

People who are poor and live away from a good grocery store where they can buy anything fresh (let alone organic) don't have the same level of access that I now have to good quality food. They have to rely on the cheap, processed products they can afford and have access to for nutrition. Those in higher socioeconomic groups ignore the base problem of access, and insist that poor people are ignorant of their health and just need to be better educated**.

Another problem is that the government subsidizes the foods that have been shown to lead to obesity, diabetes, and cancer. If the government would switch to subsidizing salads and ensuring better food access for poor people, then maybe they would be able to afford to eat better and make better food choices.

Food and politics and morality are all tangled up in very wrong ways in America. Eating isn't a simple act. I'm fortunate to be able to be picky and shun processed foods, but not everyone has that choice. Sometimes all my parents could afford to buy us for dinner was a 25 cent box of macaroni and cheese and a package of hot dogs. They were sharply aware that it wasn't very healthy, but they didn't have a choice.

*We do, of course, occasionally eat something that might not fall into this category, like fried potato wedges on a road trip. But we try to mostly eat the good stuff, since too much junk/fast food makes us feel like crap.
**I do think that some education needs to happen, but poor people are not the only ones who are ignorant--middle-class children raised on pre-packaged food because the parents are too busy to bother cooking a real meal certainly need to learn that they need to change how they eat to be healthy. And a thin person who eats burgers and won't touch fruit or vegetables falls into that same category.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Miscellany of Items

  • I really need to just do my taxes. It's ridiculous that I keep putting it off, especially when the government will give me some money when I'm done.
  • I had a weird sense of satisfaction in listing my and Lance's relationship as "unmarried partnership" on the census form.
  • I didn't get into University of Illinois.
  • I have three more chances to get into a Ph.D. program (with funding, please).
  • My race this weekend (a 20k trail race) was cancelled because someone got lost in the woods on the 50 mile race the day before. The runner was eventually found and was all right, I believe.
  • Our weekend road trip started off ominously with a sick child (we were riding with friends), but it ended quite nicely with flea market shopping, games, and good food and a trip to Serenity Farm Bread (NOM) on the way home.
  • Cilantro is gross, and Taco Tuesday was nearly ruined by its presence.
  • Still running lots--I even got a Garmin!--and I signed up for the Hogeye Half-Marathon.
  • Leaving for the weekend means I have way too many items to catch up on in Google Reader. Might be time to thin the subscriptions down a bit, since I've acquired so many sharebros, and they keep Reader pretty busy.
  • I have things that I have made and would like to post about...sometime.
  • Happy birthday shout out to my sister-in-law!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Running Doldrums

A few weeks ago, I was in the midst of the running doldrums. I was dutifully running, but I wasn't super excited about doing so. I almost (or did) skip some runs, and I even failed to go to a race I signed up for. I couldn't get out of bed for the Sunday early morning group long runs, though I somehow still manged (grudgingly) to get them in later in the day.

I think that the combination of cold, increasing mileage, and lack of sun contributed to this feeling. I have to say that I'm very glad it's gone, since I'm now excited and motivated when it's time to go for a run.

Today, I meant to get up early and go run outside but failed to do so. I really wanted to get that run in today, and since I'm unable to run tonight (which I normally do with the group), I just didn't know when. The weather promised to be lovely, so I grabbed some workout clothes with the thought that maybe I would run at lunch.

And I did. And it was great. I did a 30 minute tempo run, which felt wonderful. The sun was out, the temperature was perfect for running, and the sky was so blue that I couldn't help be feel the pleasure of moving myself outdoors. I walked for a few minutes to cool down, the stretched/sat down on the lawn to finish. I came back to the office refreshed and energized.

I think I'm going to make a habit of going for long walks or short runs when it's nice. It's a great way to move more during the day (since sitting will kill you, even if you work out regularly), and it's a good break from the office. Yay for fantastic weather!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Climbing the WALL

One year, when I was still an undergrad, I overcame my fear of heights (well, falling, actually) and climbed a rock wall. It was exhilarating, I loved it, and promptly forgot about it.

A few months ago, I visited my brother. He's a big fan of rockclimbing, so he took us to his climbing gym. We climbed for a while, and I really, really liked it. When I returned home, I promised myself that I would use the wall at my gym to climb more often.

Then I forgot about it.

Yesterday, I was at the gym with some time to kill until a fitness assessment. I had forgotten my ID, so by the time I made it back, the class I planned to attend had started. I played a game of racquetball with Lance, but then S. showed up to play with him, so I had to go find something to do for 20 minutes. Then I walked by the rock wall. So I went in and climbed it.

It was so much fun that after my fitness assessment, I went back and climbed some more. I can't explain why I--girl who is terrified of climbing tall ladders and is deeply afraid of falling off of things--really enjoy climbing. It's exhilarating--trying to figure out where to go next, keeping my grip on the rocks, planning my next move. And getting to the top. Even if I miss and "fall", I simply dangle there securely until I either try to grab back on or am lowered down.

I left the wall satisfied and content, knowing that I will be making regular time in the future to climb the wall.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Difference

Last year, I tried training for a half-marathon and ended up injured and unable (or afraid) to run for six months. Last year, when I would return from my long runs, I would be exhausted and sleepy. Sometimes I would end up gobbling down whatever I could eat and would either feel nauseated or (occasionally) threw up. My long runs left me wiped for the day.

This year, everything is different.

I'm sure part of the difference is that I've been training consistently since August, whereas last year I was inconsistent and lazy about running. I'm smarter about my runs, more experienced, and in much better shape this time. And I can really feel the difference.

For example, the last two weeks we've had 10 mile runs. Last year after an 8-10 mile run, I felt horrible. Exhausted, nauseated, and I just wanted to sit in the bath tub or take a nap. This year, I feel energized. I come home and eat something non-sugary (part of my problem last time was that I consumed a lot of sugar--now I make sure to eat something with protein and complex carbs), stretch, take a hot shower, and maybe take a nap. I think my sleepiness has more to do with the 6am alarm rather than feeling completely beaten down.

The runs themselves also feel completely different. I feel strong and maintain a good pace. Last year, I was bringing up the back of the pack, this year I'm in the middle-front. That feels nice. My body hurts a little toward the end, but it's a discomfort that fades quickly after resting and stretching.

My motivation is definitely higher. I know that if I don't run consistently, I'll get hurt. So I go run even when I don't want to, which makes me feel great in the end.

I only have six more weeks until the half-marathon, and I'm starting to realize that I'm going to do it this year. And my next challenge? An actual marathon this fall. The rest of the spring and summer will be spent strengthening my body and building up my mileage so that I can tackle marathon training with the same dedication and vigor that I have had for the half-marathon.