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January 16th, 2009


11:23 am - Thing 6
I remembered the sixth thing I made last Friday: Kale chips. These have potential, although I ruined most of them and nearly burned down my kitchen on the first try. I might try them again. My recipe had me coat some chopped kale in olive oil (not extra-virgin), vinegar, and salt and then cook at 350 for about 20 minutes or until they were dry and crisp. I turned on the oven, prepped the chips, put them on parchment paper-covered cookie trays, and put them in the oven right as the thermometer hit 349. (It has a digital temperature display that lets you see what the temp is as it increases to your setting.) About five minutes later, it still hadn't officially hit 350, but I smelled a little smoke. I figured it was because the olive oil had a lower smoke point than I thought and didn't really think anything of it. About five minutes later, the thermometer still hadn't reached 350, but it was clear that something was really wrong. The kitchen started getting really smoky really quickly, so I turned off the oven, removed the kale from it, turned on the fan, opened the door, and cursed myself for not knowing how to open the windows. Meanwhile, the smoke detector went off, and Jon removed the battery. The kale chips that weren't pure black were actually pretty good, and I ate those up before throwing the remnants away. The parchment paper was very black as well. Parchment paper should be oven-safe up to at least 400 degrees, which led me to formulate a theory that there was an oven malfunction. My theory is that after I put the kale in when the thermometer said 349, the oven kept heating up but for some reason didn't trigger the "stop heating up" mechanism, thus burning my poor kale. It worked fine when I made the meringues later that night, so I guess it was just some flukey thing. I would like to try them again because the non-burned ones had a really great crispy texture, and the combination of kale, salt, and vinegar is quite good. I have another recipe that only calls for a 250-degree oven, so I might try that, or I might try the 350 one again and hope that there is no oven malfunction.

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January 15th, 2009


05:31 pm - Friday cooking bonanza
I was going to write about this earlier, but I didn't. I was feeling really beat last Friday, so instead of going out for a friend's birthday I decided to stay in and cook a little bit. It ended up being about 5 hours straight. I remembered making six things, but I can only think of five, so maybe I'll have to update this sometime when I remember my last thing. I am presenting them one by one, but I worked on them somewhat concurrently.

Thing 1: Candied citrus peels
For Christmas, I made candies for many of my relatives. I made a pine nut-almond brittle and candied citrus peels. I now love candied citrus peels and plan to make them on a somewhat regular basis. They're quite easy to make. First, save your citrus peels for a while. For me, these were mostly grapefruit and Meyer lemon peels (see below), but there were a few regular lemons, tangerines, and oranges too. Get as much pith as you can off of everything but the grapefruit and cut into strips that are about the size you want your candy to be. This is easiest immediately after you peel the fruit, so I just do it before putting them in a jar in my fridge. Put your peels in a saucepan and "cover" with water. They kind of float, so interpret cover as you like. Bring to a boil and drain. Repeat three times, for a total of four boilings. Then cover them in water once again, add a ton of sugar (the recipe I use says 2 1/2 cups for 4 grapefruit peels; I put in between 1 1/2 and 3 cups depending not very strongly on how many fruits I used), bring to a boil, and simmer for 2 hours. Put them in jars with syrup and store in the fridge until you're ready to eat them. At that point, I like to drain them on a wire rack for about 16 hours and then roll them in granulated sugar. They're delicious and look pretty, too. You can eat them straight from the syrup if you want, too.

Thing 2: Meyer lemon curd
My aunt has a Meyer lemon tree, and for Christmas she gave me several lemons. They are plump and juicy, and the peel is really flavorful too. I have been using them in all my usual lemon places and finding reasons to use them. For dessert at Christmas dinner, she made a tart with a pie crust, lemon curd, and fresh fruit, and it was wonderful. I got the recipe from her and made myself up some lemon curd. It only uses 2/3 cup of lemon juice (about one Meyer lemon), but the lemon flavor is really strong. Here is the recipe:
4 Tbs unsalted butter, room temp
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon zest

In large bowl of mixer, beat butter and sugar about 2 minutes. Slowly add the eggs and yolk. Beat for 1 minute, should be thick and cream colored. Mix in lemon juice. The mixture may look curdled, but will smooth out as it cooks. In a medium saucepan, cook over low hear until it looks smooth-any curdled appearance disappears. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and reaches 170 deg. F. Do not let it boil. It will take about 15 minutes and should leave a path on the back of a spoon. Remove from hear, stir in lemon zest. Transfer to a bowl. Press plastic wrap on top and chill.

The recipe worked perfectly, and the curd is delicious. I like to eat it on vanilla ice cream with blueberries, or just with blueberries.

Thing 3: Paneer
I sometimes make paneer, which is a very simple, mild cheese, when I have leftover milk. It's a good amount of work, but it's really cool to watch chemistry in action in the kitchen. It's very simple to make. Just take a bunch of milk (over 1/2 gallon is preferable because most of it becomes whey, which you will probably discard), bring it to a boil, stirring constantly, over high heat. Add a dilute solution of vinegar until the milk starts to curdle. Pour into cheesecloth-lined strainer or small-holed colander, push as much whey out as you can, and let cool. The harder you push, the harder and more stick-together-y your cheese is. I used mine in Indian food on Tuesday night. It doesn't have much flavor, but the texture is really neat, and it tastes a little fatty and rich.

Thing 4: Toasted almond meringue bowls
Since the lemon curd called for two egg yolks, I had two egg whites sitting around, so I decided to make something with them. I thought it would be cool to make something that could hold some lemon curd, so I decided to make little meringue cookies shaped like bowls so they could hold the curd. I used Mark Bittman's meringue recipe and folded in some finely ground almonds at the end because I like lemon and almond together and it seemed less boring. I don't have a stand mixer, and it nearly killed my hand-held mixer. The motor kept making sad motor sounds and slowing down, and for a while I was worried that I'd never get stiff peaks. I think I added my sugar too quickly and it kind of overloaded it. I was worried that my peaks were never really stiff, but they baked up with a really nice, light, crunchy texture, so I guess I did just fine. I was really impressed with how much volume egg whites have when you whip them up. Two egg whites and 1/2 cup of sugar (and small amounts of other ingredients) made a dozen or so fairly substantial meringue bowls. So the bowls are really tasty, but I think that their flavor is too subtle to be appreciated with lemon curd. The curd is really tart and aggressive, so you can't really taste the nice toasted almond flavor. But overall, a success, especially considering I wasn't even planning on making it at the beginning of the evening.

Thing 5: Mysuostur (Brown Icelandic Whey Cheese)
I said that people generally discard whey, but you don't have to. I had heard that some cheeses are made of whey, and a google search led me to this website: http://icecook.blogspot.com/2007/08/brown-whey-cheese-mysuostur.html
Always up for a new culinary adventure, I decided to give it a go. It took a LONG time for the whey to reduce by 2/3, and when I added the other ingredients, it seemed like nothing was happening for a LONG time. Jon wanted me to give up on it, but I stuck with it until it started to thicken. I didn't really know how long to let it thicken, and I think I let it go too long because I would not describe mine as a "soft, spreadable cheese". When in the fridge, it gets as hard as a rock, so I have to microwave it to get it spreadable and then eat it really quickly before it gets too sticky. The taste is interesting. It is definitely very caramel-y but also a bit salty and tangy. I kind of want to try it again because I think I'll know to take it off sooner, but it was also a giant pain, so I might not. Does anyone know anything else good to do with whey? It seems like a shame to waste it.

So my evening ended up being very busy, but cooking makes me really happy, so I was glad I spent it that way. My Meyer lemon amaretto sour, which is currently my drink of choice, didn't hurt things at all.

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January 3rd, 2009


02:59 pm - Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs
I finished Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman on New Year's Day. I guess he's some pop culture critic. Jon read a bunch of his books recently, so I wanted to see what they were like. It was OK. I felt very strange sometimes while reading it because he talked about a lot of pop culture stuff with which I am not familiar, but the way he says it, it's like everyone knows who these people are. Some of it was entertaining or maybe even insightful, but a lot of it just seemed kind of pathetic. Caring too much about pop culture seems pathetic to me. I guess that's what makes me an elitist. There were little "interludes" between the chapters that were often pretty fun. I don't think I'll read any more of his books. After about 75 pages, I just wanted it to be over.

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January 1st, 2009


03:13 pm - J. S. Bach
A couple days ago, I finished my bast book of the year, J. S. Bach by Paul Hindemith. I picked it up in a Half Price Books about a year ago because I like both of those composers. It seems to be a speech that Hindemith gave at some Bach anniversary event. It's always nice to be reminded that no matter how experimental and jarringly modern their music is, almost all musicians and composers love Bach and believe that he wrote the most perfect music imaginable. Hindemith talks a little bit about how we have built Bach an undeserved pedestal and that he was just a person, but he also venerates him appropriately.

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December 31st, 2008


11:24 am - End-of-year meme
I stole this from dsch.

1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before?
Many things but nothing profound.

2. Did you keep your new years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I basically kept my resolution to floss my teeth every day. I probably missed 15 days or so due to forgetting the floss on a trip or being really tired.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
No, but a lot of people seem to be getting pregnant. I'm especially happy for Chris and Renee.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
A close friend in grad school lost her brother, and that has been on my mind a lot.

5. What countries did you visit?
Canada (Vancouver and Victoria). I also visited some states: Rhode Island, New York (twice), Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Washington.

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?
A metal spatula so Jon will shut up about how we need to get one. A theorem.

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
I failed my advanced exam on July 15. I passed it on August 27. Jon and I started the moving process on August 11.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Passing my advanced exam.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Not working more diligently on math after passing the exam.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I had a bad cold for the first few days of 2008.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Just Raspberries.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Jon's, as usual. My family was on very good behavior over both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
A couple school friends.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Rent, food.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The symphony on September 26.

16. What song will always remind you of 2008?
Not sure.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
i. happier or sadder? Probably happier.
ii. thinner or fatter? Probably the same.
iii. richer or poorer? Not sure. Rent is slightly higher now, but I'm pretty good at saving.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Thought about singularities of harmonic maps between positive-genus Riemann surfaces.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Procrastination. Worrying. (Answer accurate but stolen from dsch.)

20. How did you spend Christmas?
We left Houston at 10:20 and got to my grandmother's house in Dallas around 2:20. We opened presents and ate Christmas dinner with my grandparents, parents, sister, aunt, uncle, and cousins. My cousins and Jon taught me and Rachel how to play Texas hold 'em. Then Jon and I went to watch the Mavs game with high school friends. The next day we did Christmas with my mom's parents and hung out with friends again. We also went to a wedding and saw more family and friends while we were in Dallas.

21. So nice of you to ask a deep question here...

22. Did you fall in love in 2008?
No. But I stayed in love.

23. How many one-night stands?
None.

24. What was your favorite TV program?
Lost. It was also my only TV program.

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
I'm not a hater.

26. What was the best book you read?
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Not sure.

28. What did you want and get?
Ramekins.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
Get Smart was a lot of fun. The Dark Knight was really good too.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 25. It was a Saturday, so I played frisbee in the morning. Then Jon and I threw a housewarming birthday party that evening. It was pretty fun.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
A theorem.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?
Jeans and a t-shirt. Sometimes jeans and a polo shirt. I did some more sewing this year, so I also wore a bathrobe I made a lot. My favorite outfit of the year was the dress I wore to the wedding. It is deep red and fits me perfectly because I made it. I wore it with black flats, a black cardigan, and a silver and black necklace.

34. What kept you sane?
Jon's love and encouragement. Cooking.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
John Lithgow. I got his autograph after seeing him in All My Sons on Broadway.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Am I a bad citizen if I don't really have an answer? I'm glad there is no chance Sarah Palin will be president in the next four years, but I didn't get too worked up about politics this year.

37. Whom did you miss?
I'm not sure. I saw a lot of friends this year. I wish I had gotten to see Jo more.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Elena the new post-doc is pretty great. She is good at frisbee and sent me a postcard. I met many of Jon's relatives. They are all good people.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008:
Failure is possible. The world keeps going with or without me.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:
No thanks.

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December 29th, 2008


12:05 am - The Tales of Beedle the Bard
Yesterday night I started and finished The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling. First, a note on the physical book. It is very short, the type is large, and there are only sixteen lines of text on each pages with rather narrow margins. Clearly she's a creative lady and could have written more stories. It just looks scammy. Maybe she was going for a younger demographic? Anyway, the stories are OK. The fake notes by Dumbledore are odd but cute. The stories themselves are typical fairy tales. They're fun because it's fun to imagine living in the wizarding world. It's a good book to read on Christmas break if your mom happens to have a copy in the house already.

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December 28th, 2008


11:54 pm - M. Butterfly
A couple days ago I read the play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. It won a Tony in 1988, and John Lithgow played the lead on Broadway. (He and I have a cosmic connection: I got his autograph once.) It is a wordy play, not an actiony play. It is based on a true story and set in the mind of a French ambassador who used to work in China and is now in prison for giving secrets to a spy who was his lover and secretly a man. He is a Madame Butterfly fan, and the way he tells his story has it parallel the opera. The play talks a lot about treatment of women and oriental fetishism. I liked the play. It managed not to sound dated. A few times that it could have, it was satirizing the character who talked like that. The story is, of course, titillating, but that's part of what kept my attention. I felt sorry for the main character but not too sorry, which I thought was just right.

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December 24th, 2008


04:37 pm - books 2008 in review
So far this year I have read 36 books, not counting the books I read for the math department children's book club. It's possible I will read one or two more before the year ends since I'm on break right now. This is definitely the least-booky year I can remember. I have enjoyed writing about my reading, although I often feel like I have nothing to say. It gets me writing, and as I'm reading, I often think about what I will write, which keeps me more engaged. I plan on continuing this. I am also going to try to read the stuff I've been putting off because it's intimidating, which means that next year might be low in number of books read, but hopefully I will expand my mind more than I would have otherwise. I also want to tackle the shelf of books to reread. I have trouble doing that because even though I want to reread them, I have so many books I haven't read the first time yet. I like having systems, so I might try to read two new ones and then one old one or something like that. Or maybe I'll have the first new book of the month be a reread. We'll see.

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04:29 pm - The Keep
I finished The Keep by Jennifer Egan today. I started it on Monday. It is not a great book, but it was quite entertaining, and I really wanted to keep reading it. I liked that characters ended up not being who I thought they were, both because they matured and because initial impressions can be misleading. Egan uses two first-person narrators over the course of the book, and one of them is also a third-person omniscient narrator, and I think she navigates it very well. After reading two chapters, I told Jon, who has already read it, that I thought the book definitely had the potential to make me think Jennifer Egan was a wanker, but I did not think that. I don't want to give away too much of the plot because the joy of the book is watching it all unfold, so I will just say that it was interesting and engaging. Very good school vacation reading.

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03:28 pm - Shostakovich: A Life
After reading two books in the middle of October, I didn't finish another one until a few days ago. It was Shostakovich: A Life by Laurel Fay. In part, this was because I started and stopped a couple other books first, which is rare for me, and in part because it was a much slower read for me than most books are. It's clearly meticulously researched, which sounds like a no-brainer for a biography, but it sounds like it was quite difficult because of the secrecy that surrounded everything done by the Soviets during his lifetime. The book is 488 pages, of which 286 are the text itself. There is also a very long Notes section, a glossary of people, a chronology of works, and an index. I read the notes that had content and not just a citation.

Reading the biography definitely made me realize what an important political figure Shostakovich was. For most of his life, he really was the face of the official party position on the arts. He was famously censured and accused of formalism for one of his operas as a young man, and there were occasionally other works that were sabotaged by the authorities, but his public remarks were mostly pro-government. Of course, we want to believe he was a secret dissident, and deep down he clearly didn't agree with government telling artists how they should create art, but he basically did everything in his power to get on their good side instead of standing up to them. I don't want to use the word coward because I have no right to judge people living under such an oppressive regime for doing what they had to do to stay alive. It is a little disappointing, though, because we want our heroes, and Shostakovich is definitely one of my musical heroes, to be heroic. He was just a man, and a sickly, shy, scared one at that.

I really enjoyed the section about the 13th symphony, Babi Yar, because I had seen Yevtushchenko, the poet, in September, so that symphony was in the front of my mind when I was reading the book. I also think the book did a good job putting the music in context. Now when I listen to different works, I have some idea of whether he had recently been censured, whether it was an occasional piece written for an official Soviet holiday, or what. I have recently come to realize that while all Shostakovich sounds like Shostakovich, there are many, many different manifestations.

I found the book somewhat dry, but I didn't mind it. I like to feel like I am given facts. Too much prettying them up and talking about emotions makes me feel like someone's trying to sell me something. I got the impression that Fay was trying to write an objective story of his life and act as a corrective to both the "official" Soviet version of his life and the "he was always a dissident" version portrayed in Volkov's "Testimony". I did wish there had been more music talk, but this was about the history, not the music. Much of the book was about the fact that the real story is somewhat hidden by the official Soviet story and that Shostakovich was a very private man. I am sorry that we will never know what was really going on in his mind.

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