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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Downtown Christmas, Visit 1

Yesterday, James bought me a much-needed and even more appreciated new bicycle! It's an absolute wonder, feeling like my ride is working *with* me instead of against me! And I'm riding it everywhere I can find the excuse to ride.

This morning, my brother-in-law, Ken, dropped my sister and their kids off downtown and came over to park at our house. Then we both rode our bikes downtown to join them at the Chuy's Children Giving to Children Christmas Parade.

We had a very cool adventure before the official parade even started! We needed to clear the Capitol from the north before heading down toward 3rd, because Congress south of the Capitol was closed for the parade. Brazos doesn't go through, so my plan had been to take San Jacincto, which was also closed to traffic. There was a police officer standing there, and I asked if it would be okay for us to bike through. He said, "Sure!" There were people walking, too, from wherever they'd parked.

As Ken and I made our way down San Jacincto, we passed the Angry Birds balloons, cheer teams, a unicycle club, and other parade participants. They were actually starting on San Jacincto, getting the bands geared up, getting the kids psyched up ("Let's smile! It's show time!"), and making sure that they were all on the same page before they burst onto Congress.

The organizers were very intent on what they were doing, and we almost got run into several times, but we weaved in and out of the parade entrants. There were people taking pictures and filming, so I was glad I had on my festive zebra-print Santa hat, because maybe it helped me fit in.

We rode past the 501st Legion and Darth Vader and some friends... and finally broke clear of the parade route after several blocks. It was fun, though!

We met up with my sister's family and watched the parade from a lot closer than I'd anticipated, having gotten there literally as it was starting (obviously). 

Shades of "The Music Man." Anyone?

If that were diet and if I weren't already married, we might have something special.

Excited to see a greyhound adoption group representing!

After the parade (actually, a bit before it was officially over, but we were all about beating the crowds), we went a couple of blocks over to the Four Seasons. Every Christmas season, they have a gingerbread display in the lobby. They actually have open houses with cider, and where you can chat with the pastry chefs, on December 4 and 5 from 5-6PM.

This year's theme is Whoville from "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." Each of the pieces is for sale, with proceeds benefiting Seaton Shiver Center, which treats cancer. Here are pictures of the village and each piece, in case you want to decide on which to bid before you head over.

Stay tuned! There are more Christmas festivities to come from...

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Friendly Thanksgiving Rant (that was interrupted by sleep cycle)

An excerpt from "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.  No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells.  Oh, glorious.  Glorious!
"What's to-day?" cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
"Eh?" returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
"What's to-day, my fine fellow?" said Scrooge.
"To-day?" replied the boy.  "Why, Christmas Day."
"It's Christmas Day!" said Scrooge to himself.  "I haven't missed it.  The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like.  Of course they can.  Of course they can.  Hallo, my fine fellow!"
"Hallo!" returned the boy.
"Do you know the Poulterer's, in the next street but one, at the corner?" Scrooge inquired.
"I should hope I did," replied the lad.
"An intelligent boy!" said Scrooge.  "A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there -- Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?"
"What, the one as big as me?" returned the boy.
"What a delightful boy!" said Scrooge.  "It's a pleasure to talk to him.  Yes, my buck."
"It's hanging there now," replied the boy.

"Is it?" said Scrooge.  "Go and buy it."
"But sir," said he, "It's Christmas Day! Surely you can't expect the Poulterer to be at work? He is with his family, as all people should be on this sacred holiday. Your crass consumerism is ruining everything that this holiday means and this country stands for! You, sir, are a scoundrel!"


It is 10:29 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. Judging by the Facebook feeds I am seeing, many of my friends are what I've seen categorized lately as "part of the problem." *My* problem is that I'm not exactly certain what "the" problem is.

Perhaps some people think that "pushing Christmas earlier and earlier" is the problem, but Christmas decorations show up at Hobby Lobby during the Back-to-School season, so none of the stores that are open today are breaking any new ground there.

Also, some people feel that Christmas is "too commercialized." If you think that, then don't buy presents for people for Christmas. I wish I could make stuff for my family (whom, by the way, I don't feel culturally obligated to ply with tokens; it's a good time, and I love thinking about honoring them with an appropriate gift on Christmas, their birthday, or any random Tuesday), but I am not that talented. So I buy things. Is that crass? How much food was at your Thanksgiving meal? Did you grow all of the food yourself? My guess is that most of us bought our food at a store. And that most of us made and ate too much. So why not attack our own "proper" family celebrations as being greedy and contributing to stores' robust sales in a way that just encourages evil corporate ballooning? Gluttonous? Wasteful? Hoarding resources to which less-fortunate people do not have access. I don't feel that way, but I'm just being the devil's advocate. We're all mad at Wal-Mart or other "big box" stores, but if we think they and their shoppers are "part of 'the problem,'" then we need to examine our own culpability.

Others might be upset that the people in retail have to work and be separated from their families on Thanksgiving. Lots and lots of people work on Thanksgiving: healthcare workers, first responders, gas station attendants, hotel staff, cruise ship employees (actually, tons of people in the hospitality industry), people in the armed forces, the folks who man the Butterball Turkey Hotline, television hosts and anchors, people responsible for utilities, transportation providers (bus drivers, airline pilots and attendants, etc.)... And then there are the people who volunteer to do work on Thanksgiving: college football players and cheerleaders, people who feed the animals at the shelters, people who feed people at churches and soup kitchens, the folks manning the dozens of "turkey trot" races that happen on Thanksgiving day, etc. But retail workers "having" to clock in seems to be the only one that cheeses us off and makes us say "enough is enough!"

I think some people feel like this is akin to a human rights issue... that businesses "forcing" people not to hang with their families today is a kind of abuse. So, I'm guessing most of us have jobs here. How many of you have to do stuff for your job that is not your favorite? When I worked at Terra West, for a while we didn't have an office cleaner, so we rotated cleaning duties. I was a crack receptionist, dang it, but once a month, I had to clean the toilet that we, our customers, and random people off the street used impunity. It was disgusting. But I did it. So did the office manager. So did the licensed Realtor/property manager. If it had been so distasteful to me that I would not do it, I could have quit that job and done something else. "But these people can't quit," you might argue. "They're lucky to have a job at all, in this economy." Um. Right. So. When you work for a boss, you do what they tell you to do.

Personally, the times I've worked on holidays have been fine. When I worked at a grocery store, there was a festive atmosphere, everyone brought snacks, and the people who came in were lots of fun. I remember one lady asking the store manager to put on Muzak instead of the game, because the main reason she came to the store was to get away from football. Plus, I got time-and-a-half, so that was sweet. Then I just showed up at the family's house when I got off work, and everything was ready to go!

I was also on call when I was a property manager. I would get emergency maintenance calls, and, believe me, when you tell a tenant that her stove breaking down ON THANKSGIVING does not constitute an emergency as outlined in her lease, you're going to be on the phone a long time, and you're going to be called a lot of names you don't want your mom to know about or it would break her heart.

Still, neither of these enterprises lasted from sunup to sundown, and I never felt that my obligation to work "ruined" the holiday.

Finally, I think the point most people want to make is that this is all about consumerism and capitalism gone wild and the greed of corporations to make a buck. Well, maybe sort of. But businesses are in business to - ta da! - make money. So, yes, they're going to do it when they can. However, a friend of mine who owns his own business mentioned that he might be called in today to work and might not. He has an air conditioning and heating company. If your heater shut down today, and you had family over, and you were all horribly uncomfortable, he would come to you if you called him. He wouldn't do it for free, though. He is a business man and would charge you for a service call; and, likely, he'd charge you an increased fee because it *is* a holiday. Is he greedy because he will work on this day? Is he greedy because he's taking money and being all capitalistic? Or is he providing a service for which you would be grateful and therefore meeting the needs of his valued customers?

What if the people doing the shopping today aren't all the crazy idiots you're going to see on YouTube tomorrow? What if "Black Friday" (now, apparently, "Black Couple o' Days") is a tradition for them? What if hitting the stores to find the best bargains and make their money go as far as possible is a bonding experience for an aunt and her favorite niece? What if that man has wanted to get those earrings for his wife for three years but just hasn't had the money... until they went on a loss-leader sale that was only for the first three people in line? What if the getting out and the shopping for Christmas is done in genuine excitement for the joy the shopper is going to bring a far-flung friend?

What if going shopping as a family tradition, or even on ones own, because one needs a break from the potential stress of some family interactions, is not morally inferior to however it is some of us choose to spend our Thanksgiving? To going to a football game? To sitting on the couch with a beer or twelve watching a football game? To shooting one's wife to death in the card game Bang! because one needs three more cards and suspects his wife of being an outlaw, but really she's a renegade, and one not only gets no extra cards, but also gets shot to death himself during the next couple of turns, meaning that the outlaws win, and isn't that some sweet justice, sweetheart? To engaging in gluttony in the name of gratitude? Or maybe even to engaging in gluttony as the celebration itself, accidentally eschewing intentional expressions of gratitude? To going as a family to a theme park? To serving at a homeless shelter on a day when volunteers are a dime a dozen and those places need help in the middle of March, too?

I've seen that a lot of people are mad about this. If stores being opened on Thanksgiving ticks you off, then don't go to the store on Thanksgiving. If you feel that there is a morally superior way to express gratitude, then do that. I think we have freedom to let other people do other things and not decry the end of civilization as we know it.

Personally, I don't go to the Black Friday sales because I dislike crowds and waiting in line to check out. But I saw your pictures on Facebook. You moms with your daughters. You dads, reluctant, serving your daughters by taking them. You mall-walkers. And I don't think you're part of any problem.

If someone had to work yesterday and missed their family entirely, and it was the only chance all year they have to be with their family, then I do feel for them. I really do. I also feel for soldiers stationed overseas. For obstetricians whose deliveries took longer than they'd expected. For the guy who had to snake a sewer line because someone's kid flushed a ball down the same toilet that six or seven people used after, but before they realized that there was a problem. We can't all be present for everything we want to do. We miss weddings because we can't take the time off of work. We miss reunions. We miss Christmas because we want to travel and that's when we could get a cheap ticket, so the family celebrates Christmas on Boxing Day. And America and Christianity and gratitude and generosity survive, because, seriously guys, this is what we do.

Why are we so mad?

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, and if you couldn't spend the actual day with your family, I hope you had another day to celebrate (like I did; my daughter's with her dad, so we did Thanksgiving last week). If you went shopping, then good on you, you crazy people. I had lunch with friends, might or might not be bitter about a card game, went on a walk with my sister, then was home in my fuzzy PJs meaning to have a nightcap but petering out too early.

We are going to a game store for their Black Friday sale today... but we're not in any hurry. And you know what? If someone wishes me "Happy Holidays," I'm going to smile back and thank them and wish them the exact same.

I promise you, no one is trying to take anything away from you guys. This is a free country. We are not being persecuted. To call anything that is happening a "war" on anything is an insult to people who are actually fighting wars. We all need to calm our collective booties down and spread some peace and love, okie doke?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pi Squared!

'Tis the season. The season for pies. I like pies. I mean, the same way I like hamburgers. They're good. But I don't usually seek out pie, unless it's maybe Key Lime pie. Or cheesecake. (Is that a pie?)

I can't remember making much pie, ever... although I've made a few quiches. And I did make a sweet potato pie once that was surprisingly delicious, and which I made mostly because James thought it'd be a funny thing to do to torment his brother, who really likes sweet potato pies.

However, James had a pecan pie "contest" at work, and since I don't like pecan pie at all but have had a recipe a friend of mine found and made several years ago, I was eager to give this recipe a try: Beezer's Bourbon Bacon Pecan Pie.

You can see the recipe at the link, but here are a couple of highlights:

There is literally as much bacon as pecans.
The only difference was that James had this whiskey he wanted to use. FYI, all bourbon is whiskey. But not all whiskey is bourbon. Anyway, we used this stuff.

The pie turned out marginally attractive, but amazingly rich and tasty. This was a surprise to me, because, as I mentioned, I'm not a pecan pie fan.

I blind baked the crust and even added an egg wash at the end to keep the filling from leaking through. When the crust was empty, it was loose in the pan, having shrunk just a bit even though I'd put weights in it. However, once the filling was baked in, the crust glued itself to the bottom of the pie pan. I think that if I made this pie again, I'd line the pie pan with parchment.

For taste alone, though, I highly recommend the recipe.

The cherry pie didn't have to be pretty at all. That's why I didn't worry much about the crust edges. The reason that tin *is* lined with foil is because I needed to be able to take the entire pie out and move it...

...Into here.
Yes. It's true. This is the Cherry Bomb, a recipe from a site that warrants a second look or third, the concept being that this dude made a pie every week for a year. There are some fun ones, and this is another that was found by the same friend. I never need to look at the internets for pies myself! I'll just keep stealing these.

So, basically, you lightly bake a layer of the cake and then you put the cherry pie on top of it.

Then you cover the pie with the rest of the batter.

Bake it, and you end up with a cake that doesn't even wink to the presence of a pie inside it.

A very simple, soft-hardening icing (softer than straight chocolate chips, harder than a ganache, still pliable when cold, but not runny), which I just used on the top instead of icing the whole cake (a move I will explain shortly), and here was the finished product.

This is a cross-section of the cake.


This cake/pie "(or "pake," may "Drop Dead Diva" rest in peace) was a bit challenging, and I think that if I make it again - and I likely will make it again - here are some things I will bear in mind and/or change. Consider this a complement to the recipe.

1) If you have a 9-inch Springform pan, you're going to need an 8-inch pie pan. Fortunately, I had a left-over tin from Marie Callendar's, which was perfect. Otherwise, you need a much bigger Springform pan. The diameter of the pie has to be quite a bit smaller than the cake. How close this was made me nervous. I was very afraid that after I pulled off the Springform side, that cherry pie filling was going to ooze out. It did not. But I want more of a margin of error.

2) The cook times in the recipe are a LOT faster than my experience. It says to bake the bottom layer "5 to 10 minutes." Mine was still liquid at that point. You can tell it's still very raw when I did remove it from the oven, which was at about 20 minutes. Fortunately, the sides were solid enough, and the pie slid down into the goo, which made some room for it.

3) I would use 2 crusts for the pie. I thought about blind baking one crust, then blind baking a second on top of that for structural support. The pie basically flopped open once I depanned it, and I was fortunate to have it sploop into the chocolate batter as well as it did. It was literally falling apart. The two bottom crusts was my first idea, but on second thought, after baking the cake, I decided something different. Which I'll tell you in #5.

4) The baking of the cake is supposed to take "40 to 50 minutes" after you top the pie off with more chocolate batter. I cooked mine for at least an hour and a half, and it was still a little jiggly on top, but the edges were drying out so much and it was smelling so done that I was afraid that it would burn.

This applies both to 4) AND 5)...

After the cake sat in the refrigerator for several hours, I found that this had happened.

It's possible that the cake was undercooked and fell, but there wasn't any chocolate goo under the sinkhole; it was cherry pie. However, this is why there wasn't enough frosting for the sides. I had to use it as Spackle. It looked beautiful and made the cake decadent, plus being able to see the sides of the cake was kind of fun, since I knew there was pie in there but you couldn't tell from looking.


5) I'd actually made the second crust on top, and be sure to seal the two crusts together very well. This would help both with the structure of the pie in moving it, and hopefully offer some support for the cake on top of it. As you can see from the cross-section of the pie, the crust almost melts into the pie, anyway, so I think it'd work.

That's it! It was still delicious and pretty enough. I was just very nervous about it.

Now go make some pie!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Homemade Gnocchi

The grocery store where I shopped last time did not have gnocchi, but I wanted to use my full eMeals menu for the week, so last night decided to try making gnocchi myself. It looked labor-intensive, but fairly straight-forward.

1) Overbake potatoes on a layer of salt (this is so that the heat can get all the way around the potatoes.

2) Peel the potatoes. Literally every recipe I saw, whether it was for boiling or baking, included leaving the peel on until after the potatoes were cooked.

3) Shred or rice the potatoes. I used a cheese shredder (as recommended in one recipe) and think, in hindsight, that I need a ricer to do these correctly. Another recipe recommended using a fork and a light touch to shred the potatoes, leaving them still light and fluffy. I really think the cheese grater and using a fork means a high potential for "chunkage," which I feel is the enemy of good gnocchi.

4) Make a well in the potatoes and add your eggs and whatever else. In this case, it was nutmeg, garlic, and shredded Parmesan cheese.

5) Mix that with your hands.

6) Sprinkle 1/2 of a cup of flour over the mixture, and fold. Do not knead. Then keep adding flour until you have a dough.

7) Cut the dough into 4 to 8 pieces, rolling each piece into a 1/2 inch log. Then cut those pieces into gnocchi-sized chunks. 

8) Apparently the most difficult thing about gnocchi is learning how to form them. You don't "have" to do it right, or have ridges, but that's a point of pride and the ridges hold sauce better. I didn't feel too much pressure to form them because I knew I'd processed the potatoes less-than-ideally and they weren't going to look too nice, regardless. There are pages and pages and videos like crazy on YouTube about shaping gnocchi.

9) Let the gnocchi dry. I sat mine in the oven with the light on. It had mostly cooled after baking the potatoes, so it was just warm and really dry. One recipe recommended putting the tray in front of a fan for an hour.

10) Freeze or cook the gnocchi. You boil water and do them in batches. They spring to the surface when they're cooked, which takes only about a minute and a half.

I didn't take a picture of our finished meal, which was delicious, but was very saucy and not-photograph-conducive. They were passable, but it was a lot of work for the one meal. (I do have half of them, unformed, in the freezer.) I have made pasta from scratch, and it's SO much cheaper and it's so easy, I think it's well worth the effort. Gnocchi, maybe not so much. But if someone gave me a ricer, I'd absolutely try it at least one more time.

If you have some gnocchi sitting around and want to try something easy and delicious, here is the recipe we used, courtesy the eMeals Mediterranean Menu. If you haven't checked out eMeals, you should! It's fun and delicious!


½ (17.5-oz) package potato gnocchi
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk
⅓ cup crumbled blue cheese
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta according to package directions. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic; saute 30 seconds. Stir in flour; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly with a whisk; cook 2 minutes or until slightly thick. Stir in blue cheese. Stir in pasta; spoon mixture into a baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle pasta with Parmesan cheese and nuts; bake 20 minutes or until golden. Sprinkle with parsley.

Night Walking

Over the past few months, I've shown you some of my neighborhood, but it's always been during the day. What about nighttime? One of the beauties of living at the Nuthaus is that the nightlife is plentiful. We live close enough to the famous 6th Street that we can walk there and enjoy all it has to offer without having to deal with traffic. But last night, I just walked around our general area to give you an idea of what's going on in the West Campus area at night.

Of course, there are the requisite bars and chains and restaurants, but you know what those look like. Except, I did take a photo of one chain that is near and dear to my heart.

Tiff's already has the Christmas lights up!

This is the ghost of an old dry-cleaning/steam laundry operation, I think. They still do dry-cleaning and alterations and laundry, but they must have a more compact facility in which to do it.
 This next one isn't decorated for Christmas. This is always what the courtyard looks like.

It's the Inn at Pearl Street, and their courtyard is so beautiful and so tranquil. Even though this is just off of Martin Luther King, Jr., they have a number of fountains softly babbling and sometimes, quiet music playing. It drowns out all of the traffic sounds.

Meanwhile, across the street from the Inn, someone was having a fancy party.

The food smelled awesome, the guests were all talking (ignoring the emcee), and while I tried to get the next picture, I got to listen to a sweet jazz singer performing "Summertime."

Austin is growing, so there is always construction.

Another place to stay, Hotel Ella.

This is Rio Grande, one of my favorite streets to bike. It has dedicated bike lanes going each way.

Some of the student residences already have their Christmas lights up, too!

The Rancho Rio Eatery on 26th and Rio Grande.

This next one is on Guadalupe, NOT at the Rancho Rio Eatery, and not a restaurant at all!

Mmmkay... so, were they having problems with people touching/erasing it?

And then there's this guy waiting for me.

Home, sweet home!