Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Beer me!"

"Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis [principle of individuation] and relying on it."

I realize it's more than a little ridiculous to combine the jokes of beloved Andy Bernard (see blog title above) from The Office with Schopenhauer, but thus is the simultaneously academic and pop-culturally coded life led. Plus, even though this day has been insanely productive--I did the dishes, wrote the writing assignments for the next three classes, read for tomorrow's class, read about both Sologub and Bal'mont, took care of some emails, had my first day of tutoring, which seems like it's going to be a lot of fun--the prospectus is not coming together; so, not at all surprisingly, my mood is not as cheery as it might be. *sigh* There are moments when I wonder how many years stress has cruelly stolen from my life...?

Academic writing, my friends, can really be the pits. That, however, is exactly why one might choose to bake a cake. And not just any cake, but a beautiful and heavenly Chocolate Stout Cake. Though I've never really been a fan of beer (I have my moments, but it's not and probably never will be my alcoholic drink of choice), something about this cake--the very concept of cooking with beer--really tempted me. The temptation didn't even stop with adding Dutch press cocoa to two sticks of butter and beer in a saucepan; during the baking act, I was even compelled to drink the rest of the bottle of Extra Stout Guinness...and enjoy it. Maybe it was because it was incredibly unpleasant to turn my oven up to 350 degrees when it was 95 and sweltering outside. Or maybe I needed something to take the edge off of the stack of student papers (nobody likes grading; it's mean and it brings out your dark, overly critical side). The reason really doesn't matter; it was just the thing.

Perhaps my prospectus both barely exists and seems to lack either historical or theoretical grounding, but does it even matter when there's always the possibility of chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting waiting in the wings? I may just have to bake another cake to take with me to my meeting. Shameless bribery or eternal wisdom? You decide.

Then again, it could be just like baking for my own wake (I know, I know, I will tone down my melodrama. When I next post, I will be prospectus free and insanely cheerful; just wait and see!).

Chocolate Stout Cake
taken from "Cooking with Beer" on NPR
Can yield up to 19 satisfying slices

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, place a round of parchment paper on the bottom and butter it, then flour the pan.

1 cup Guinness (or other stout)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder*
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream

-Place the stout and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer.
-Whisk in cocoa powder until mixture is smooth.
-Thoroughly combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in large bowl.
- In another bowl, beat together the eggs and sour cream until well-blended.
- Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat just to combine.
-Add flour mixture and beat briefly on slow speed.
-Finish mixing by folding batter with a spatula until completely combined.
-Pour batter in the springform pan and bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 40 minutes (**NOTE: Even with an oven thermometer that guaranteed that I was at exactly 350, I had to bake my cake for at least 45-50 minutes for the center to set. I recommend that you check the cake at about 38 minutes and see how it's progressing since oven temperatures can vary).
-Place cake on a rack and cool for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and cool completely.

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

-Beat together the cream cheese and sugar.
-Add cream and vanilla and mix.
-Spread icing on top of cake to echo the appearance of a glass of Guinness and its head of foam.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mini-Milestones and Bay Adventures

It's all so familiar and clear,
My eye's accustomed to every turn;
I'm not mistaken- I'm at home;
The wallpaper flowers, the chains of books...

-Valery Briusov ("At Home"; in the photograph to the left, that is indeed Briusov, posing underneath his desk...In case you're wondering why, it's best not to ask questions; I mentioned several posts ago that these people were weird and you're just going to have to take my word--and the provided image--as proof)

I should mention that this is a bit of an "anniversary" post; "Dining with Dusty" now has 20 posts to its name! :) While 20 posts, of course, aren't all that many in the grand scheme of things, the truth is that, as much as I wanted to start this blog after my PhD exams were over, it took me a long time to actually begin writing it (as they say, "Starting is often the hardest part.")...After all, I did wonder how I was going to fit such a thing into a lifestyle that already involves too much of the written word, as well as the ever important question: What in the world am I going to write about, besides the oh so obvious topic of food? This is still a question that sometimes plagues me when I start composing these entries, yet, miraculously, the words seem to flow (and perhaps even too freely sometimes). The beautiful thing about this whole process is that it gives me hope for other looming projects involving lots and lots of writing, even if of a clearly different variety. And as I'm again drafting the prospectus, reading Symbolist literature, grading papers, both teaching and torturing my students with beloved Sologub, preparing for next week and the two deadlines I have on the horizon and still able to cook and blog, things seem to be falling into place...and even with a few surprises that seem like cherries on top (and fresh ones too; none of that jarred nonsense). In any case, I don't think it's at all coincidental that my undergraduate thesis advisor gave me a Wonder Woman journal for my graduation gift (but perhaps I sing my own praises too highly). =P

But enough of my hijinks and lyrical digressions. As happy as I am to write about Briusov and co., this is a blog about food. Fortunately, since I recently had a lovely friend visiting from the east coast, I was out and about, basically eating my way through the bay. The great thing about having friends visit is that it not only helps to motivate me to explore the area and its many offerings, but lets me show off and revisit some of favorite places as well. I then get to see how accustomed I've grown to California and how it really has become one of my many "homes." Plus, it's a remarkable way of seeing how many delicious meals can be squeezed into 4 days (calorie counting not allowed...or recommended) and even on a grad student's pathetic budget; here are some of the highlights:

1) Dolores Park and the fine offerings of the Mission, from ice cream at Bi-Rite (what do you say to some Brown Sugar with Ginger Caramel Swirl?) to sandwiches at Tartine. Can you guess which order we ate them in...?

2) After an afternoon of walking around the city and seeing Avatar in 3D (yes, somehow I managed to miss this pop-cultural moment back in January, but, thanks to Hollywood's need to milk any cow to its very lost drop, I still got the big screen experience; it really was stunning...Sadly, however, the writing was not. I was also dismayed to be faced with almost three hours of Sigourney Weaver, who, for some reason or another, I took an instant dislike to back in the day),
we headed back to the east bay for dinner at Gather, a restaurant that opened near campus in the past year and has long been tempting me. And it didn't disappoint; the cocktails and food were tasty and the service was friendly, but still I must say that, considering the portion size of each meal, it was a bit pricey. Despite my typical meat-eating ways, I went with the vegan eggplant dish and stole a slice of one of my companion's calamari pizza.

3) I've been to Pizzaiolo for dinner and drinks, but never for breakfast; clearly, this was a mistake since both the Walnut Turnover and half-buttermilk doughnut I had melted in my mouth (and gave me a sugar rush for the rest of the day). Plus, these people know how to make a cup of coffee; I was, not at all surprisingly, in love. :)

4) One might even say that the rest of the visit passed in a happy, sugary blur. We went for tasty Vietnamese food at a restaurant on Piedmont, Xyclo, where we also split mango panna cotta. Then, fully sated, we returned to my apartment to watch Hot Tub Time Machine, which, being about the '80s, was A-ok in my book....The following night we had a Pride and Prejudice fest with two friends from the Slavic department; such an event would not be complete without cookies, so, naturally, we baked. And, yes, that is sea salt you see on those cookies; sugar and salt were meant to be combined!

5) Before our "last supper," we went to MOMA. Sticking to the precedent we had established on our first day together, we had our dessert first, soaking up the last of the day's rays on the rooftop garden and splitting a slice of cake. Cappuccinos were also necessary.

You should never think there wouldn't have been room for something savory; after thoroughly exploring several exhibitions at MOMA, we headed to Maya for tacos and guacamole galore.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Toil and Trouble

“'Tis healthy to be sick sometimes.”
Henry David Thoreau

Though a sad but true fact, this past week I was grossly ill--the victim of congestion, a scratchy throat and a slight fever. I don't know how it happened. I exercise regularly, never touch anything on a bus if such a thing can be avoided, wash my hands in an obsessive compulsive manner (and even use a paper towel to open most doors of public restrooms), eat more than my fair share of fruits ("an apple a day keeps the doctor away!") and vegetables, and try to sleep 7-8 hours a night. Since in some ways I can be seen as a paragon of healthy living (or as certifiably insane) :), clearly, the real reason for this "back to school" cold must have been the 17 papers I meticulously graded, put comments on and received dirty and hurt looks for when I returned them.....yep, somebody had a voodoo doll with my name on it.

No, that's unfair and definitely wrong. The worst thing about this particular illness was that I could feel it slowly creeping up on me for the past two weeks (perhaps from the very moment I received the papers) and I truly gave my best effort in trying to ward it off with my usual round of self-prescribed cure-alls. Besides the much beloved hot toddy, just what exactly are my remedies of choice?

Soup. It's all about the soup. From curried split pea (an Alton Brown favorite; I eat this at least once a month) to my own take on miso soup, when sick I live both for and on soup alone. Not only is it soothing, but it also seems to magically cook itself. It's a beautiful thing to be able to throw various ingredients into a pot, bring it to a boil, lower it to a simmer, put a lid on it and then, in about 30-40 minutes, many nourishing spoonfuls of warmth await you! But really, even despite my general soup love, the crown jewel in my soup collection is simultaneously a combination of several recipes, the product of much experimentation and, most importantly, the most "recipe-free and anything goes" I allow myself to be in the kitchen; in short, it is a somewhat bastardized version of miso soup.

I first began attempting to make my own miso soup after a trip to Iowa a few years ago when I visited a friend who knows many secrets of the Japanese kitchen :). Shortly after my return from the heartland, I ordered a Japanese cookbook, a real classic, only to realize that I was a little in over my head. I love a challenge as much as anybody else, but there was no way that I was going to prepare for my Master's Exam and simultaneously make my own dashi, or stock. No way, no how. Plus, the one time I tried this, the dish was so bland that I decided homemade miso soup must have been outside my range. Fast-forward to late January/early February of 2009, a grim moment in my otherwise absurdly joyful and easy life and one of the rainiest winters of my California experience, and I turned to yet another miso recipe, one that seemed a little more in my range--of both abilities and taste buds. This is when I first started adding noodles and fresh cilantro, mixing miso pastes and shichimi togarashi, sometimes spinach, mushrooms or carrots....You get the picture; almost anything goes.

These days my favorite involves chicken, chili oil (I fell in love with chili oil after reading about Fuchsia Dunlop's culinary experiences in China), tofu, chicken broth, yellow miso paste, freshly grated ginger, toasted sesame oil, as well as veggies and tofu galore. Though there's no real recipe here (it would seem I'm not so OCD after all!), I would say that it's best to fry the chicken and carrots with the ginger and cooking oils first, and then to add the tofu and whisked miso (I like to whisk mine with a cup or so of boiling water, which really helps to separate it), so that the tofu can absorb the miso's flavor. Only after this should you add the chicken broth and let things simmer. After about 15 minutes, pour the soup over the waiting and pre-cooked soba noodles and top it with whatever you'd like: pepper flakes, cilantro, scallions, fresh ginger, etc.

And it really does work. After four days of eating this soup, sleeping a lot, a few hot toddies and one children's book (a must-read gem!) later, I was again feeling like my usual self...I was even able to enjoy the weekend a bit by taking a trip to SF's Asian Art Museum (yay for Chinese puppets!), happy hour pizza and a cocktail at Fly Bar (the photo of their exposed brick walls and lovely sparkly decorations is above), and baking delicious and healthy vegan (yes, your eyes do not deceive you) cupcakes! Secret ingredient in both the cake and frosting: avocados!. Inspiration: Joy the Baker, the woman I turn to after my grandma for top of the line baking advice.....

Monday, September 13, 2010

School for Fools

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
-Albert Einstein

A sad but true fact: I am a delinquent blogger. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that, since classes started, I've allowed myself to become a delinquent blogger. But, you know, it's complicated; even without seminars, there's a lot on my plate: teaching, the library, departmental gatherings, daily public transportation woes and successes, errands, etc. (Keep in mind that writing/researching figured nowhere in that sentence; yes, there is an itsy bitsy problem with that, but, for now, we'll ignore that little detail). It's no longer nearly as simple as it was this past summer when my daily thought process basically consisted of "What should I make for dinner today? Hmmm....let's try something elaborate and make dessert too!" or "What TV show--out of the 7 or 8 that I follow regularly-- will I watch today?" or "What yoga class should I go to today?" Trust me when I say that, despite the occasional complaint (and the pitiful salary), I do know that I've got a good thing going here (see photographic proof below). :)

Let me assure you, however, that even if I wasn't blogging, that certainly doesn't mean I wasn't cooking, or, at the very least, going out for amazing food. A girl, after all, has got to eat...especially when she's busily going out to birthday parties, brunches and trips to the Botanical Garden and Tilden Park, grading papers, starting to feel ill (sadly, the illness that I long suspected was lurking on the horizon has officially arrived, but this occurrence has led to the next post's--soon to follow this one; girl scout's word of honor-- recipe, so we should all be at least a little thankful) and frantically typing notes on topics ranging from the gothic to unreliable narrators before her class begins.

So, to do a quick recap of the first week of class and the 5 things that kept me from fulfilling my blogger-ly duties:

1) "What the Nose Knows: Scent and the Art of Tea": not only was this a fascinating lecture on the "way of tea" in Japan, but also gave me the perfect opportunity--and on a sunny and bright day (the rarest of the rare)-- to explore the garden. Afterwards, a friend and I, inspired by the smell of salted and preserved sakura, went in search of pie and ended up with the Apple Turnover ice cream sundae featured above. Flowers, sunshine and ice cream are, for me, the ingredients for a lovely day. :)

2) My eternal desire to have a real breakfast, which these days translates into PANCAKES. I kid you not; I am a woman obsessed. From "The Single Lady Pancake" (I don't follow the recipe exactly; chocolate, though a favorite, is more of an afternoon snack for me) to Greek-style pancakes, Tiganites, to Oatmeal Raisin Cookie pancakes, I spend more time making breakfast than I should (yes, this is what they call an addiction). Not to mention the fact that pancakes are not exactly what I'd call healthy food.....but best not to think about such things.

3) There are also those days when, because you've frantically been reading Henry James (though you love him, you do recognize that he is wordier than even you are at your worst), you just don't have time to cook, so you take advantage of the opportunity and ask a good friend, who you rarely see, to go out to lunch around campus. Such an occasion may lead you to Venus, home of the delicious Morning Glory muffin, which, yes, you might be willing to push old ladies and children out of the way for. It's that good.

4) And even in the midst of all this, it's important not to abandon the local art scene, which is why, two weekends ago, a good friend and I went to see Dan Hoyle's "The Real Americans" at the Marsh in San Francisco. The play was intelligent, hilarious and well worth the trip across the bay; it also didn't hurt that we had a pretty amazing Indian dinner at the Udupi Palace beforehand.

5) After a little hike (in appropriate shoes no less!) in Tilden and the above sunset viewing with an adventurous Greek, we went to the Cheeseboard for some pizza, which never disappoints. How can one go wrong with bleu cheese, figs and crispy crust? Yep, impossible.


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