July 18, 2010

scenes from the weekend

Cherries, hand delivered from Washington state, and eaten from my favorite bowl:

bowl of cherries

Evening walk down our street:

aloe plant


My plants (my cactus is coming back to life!) in white pots from Ikea:

plants on windowsill

Curtains + a dirty window:

curtains + a dirty window

Campari soda on a hot day:

campari soda

Korean food, it really hit the spot:


he did it!

Mark. finished. his. Ph.D. Let me say that again because it still sounds so crazy to me: Mark finished his Ph.D.!

He defended his thesis on Friday and it was the best day. At one point during his defense, I was so proud of Mark that my heart felt like it was about to jump right out of my chest. There he was, talking knowledgeably about restricted isometry property, sub-Gaussian random variables and oracle bounds ... and I couldn't keep the big, goofy grin off my face.

We ended the afternoon with friends and cheap champagne at Valhalla (a tradition for newly minted Rice Ph.D.'s). Mark's parents treated us to a fantastic dinner, where we toasted Mark and the culmination of 6 years of hard work. 6 years of grad school! End of an era.

July 6, 2010

do you Baggu?

So I recently decided to buy some new reusable shopping bags. Our current collection (canvas bags from Mark's math/EE conferences and a few of the rigid/rectangular bottomed variety) works okaaay, but I have some problems with them. Namely, I forget them at home. But wait, let me explain how that is the bags' fault: the canvas bags are heavy and shallow (i.e. one bag holds a head of lettuce) and the shopping bags are too rigid to fold up and stuff in my purse. "If I could just keep them in my purse all the time," she thought, "all my problems would be solved!" (See what I did there? Or maybe it's just funny when my best friend does it. Hi, Julia!)

I settled on Baggu, ordering 6 bags -- 3 in red, 3 in striped blue and white. I'm pretty happy with them, so here is a quick review. The Baggu bags meet all my requirements:

lightweight (made of nylon) but they feel sturdy;
small profile (you stuff them into a compact 5x5 inch pouch) but large volume;
they are washable; and
awesome colors!

I tested out the bags on a trip to Central Market and found that $70 worth of groceries -- including a gallon of milk, 5 pounds of flour, a whole chicken, lots of produce and various other things -- fit comfortably into 3 bags. The heaviest bags felt very secure and comfortable in my hand and on my shoulder. The handles are long enough that I could sling a couple of bags onto my shoulder. When it came time to fold the bags back up, I had no problem stuffing them back in their pouches. I also liked the shape of the striped bag enough to use it as a waterproof carryall this weekend (it seemed appropriately patriotic, with my red flats) and I say it can totally moonlight as a casual bag for schlepping around on the weekends.

One final point: Since the Baggu bag is not attached in any way to the pouch, I worry that I will lose the pouch. I mulled over this. I did find another brand of bags, Envirosax, which can be rolled up and secured like a sleeping bag but, in the end, I was more drawn to the Baggu design and colors. If you are a fan of graphic prints, however, lots of people really like the Envirosax.

July 5, 2010

the 4th.

Hope your weekends were excellent. Our 4th was quiet but nice -- Mark is in full-on thesis writing mode and I mostly kept him company at home. We drank soda chanh with lots of lime juice, listened to the Clash, ate pounds of Rainier cherries and took periodic breaks to play Word Bubbles (don't click here unless you are prepared to be addicted). And my brother and I made lunch: juicy beef burgers with harissa mayonnaise, pain au lait hamburger buns and a refreshing fingerling potato salad made with yogurt. And more cherries, of course. I used this cooking method for the burgers and was very happy with the flavor/texture. Later, we sat in the park, drank grapefruit soda and watched fireworks on the muggiest 4th of July I can remember.

And Wimbledon is over. Gosh, I realized that I have been obsessed with Wimbledon ever since I was in 7th grade... the crisp whites, the green and purple awnings, the strawberries and cream, the linesmen and women in those wonderful piped blazers and ties, and of course the tennis. I like these photos so much; looking at them, I feel as if I were there. I desperately want to go. (Mark, are you listening?)

July 2, 2010

flaky pie crust on the 4th of july

Happy 4th of July weekend! Anyone have any fun plans? Houston is dealing with the remnants of Hurricane Alex, and it is looking like our holiday weekend will be filled with heavy thunderstorms. Never mind the weather -- we'll be sharing good food with good friends no matter what! On the list: making vanilla bean ice cream, baking pie, and grilling.
Speaking of pie...


I think it is about time that I post our favorite pie crust recipe. The only way it differs from a normal pie crust is that it uses a little cream cheese, which adds a slight tang and a flaky texture without having to resort to shortening or lard. (Not that I'm opposed to real, rendered leaf lard. Leaf lard makes incredible pie crust but it is a little hard to get.) It takes a little advance planning, and a lot of butter, but the resulting pie crust is pretty great.

Mark's pie is somewhat legendary in my family. 5 or 6 years ago, we made Thanksgiving dinner for my family and Mark's friend Fharhad. I spent days planning the meal and hours grocery shopping and cooking, while Mark made the pies. We sat down to eat and, there I sat, ready to bask in praise and thanks for having made such an extraordinary meal. Of course, no one said anything (and, in fact, I explicitly remember my cranberry-orange relish went totally uneaten). Then, then the pie was served. I can't even explain to you the level of rapture with which Mark's pies were received. It was disgusting.

I've since gotten over my bitterness, because his pie really is that good (though, seriously, would it have killed anyone to try my cranberry relish?) Anyway, the pie crust recipe he used was -- of course-- from Rose Levy Beranbaum. Mark is a big fan of RLB's recipes. It's not hard to understand why, if you know Mark and if you glance at one page of any of her books -- she is extraordinarily precise in her measurements and instructions and she never cuts corners in the pursuit of perfection, even if it means that a recipe takes 8 hours. Mark is a total perfectionist and RLB has earned his trust: trust that the end product will be amazing and correct (for example, her kougelhoff is almost as delicate and wonderful as the version at Ladurée) and trust that the techniques have been refined and adequately tested.

Before I met Mark, my pie universe was limited to store bought pie and pumpkin pie, which my mom, sister, and me made every year for Thanksgiving. Mark, a Washington State resident and serious sour cherry pie fanatic, took it on himself to open my eyes to the wide and wonderful world of homemade pie.* As did his parents, fruit fanatics themselves. [You might even say the fruit doesn't fall far from the proverbial tree... that's right, I said it.] Every time we visit, a pie is cooling on the counter and we get the best gifts ever: freshly picked and home canned Washington state sour cherries, blueberries, apples and apple compote, plus addictive dried apple chips.

*For clarifying purposes, here is a very accurate depiction of our first conversation about pie.

Me: Hey, want to make a fruit dessert?
Me: Pie? Sure, I like pie. Pumpkin pie is nice. Chocolate cream pie isn't bad, either. You know, like at Waffle House?
Me: Really? Those are the only kind of pies I've had...
Mark: [falls silent, is stunned and horrified]
Me: [gamely] Well, we could try to make peach pie or something!

Flaky Pie Crust
Makes 9-inch, double crust pie

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks; 6 ounces) cold unsalted butter
2 cups plus 3 tablespoons pastry flour (244 grams); may substitute 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus 3/4 cup cake flour (190 grams all-purpose flour and 94 grams cake flour)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder, preferably Rumford or other non-sodium-based brand
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 ounces cold cream cheese, cut into 3 to 4 pieces (1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Cut the butter into 3/4-inch cubes. Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for at least 30 minutes or until solid. Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a 1-gallon resealable plastic freezer food storage bag and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Place the flour mixture in the bowl of a food processor; pulse for a few seconds to mix well. Add the cream cheese and process for about 20 seconds; the mixture should resemble coarse meal. Add the frozen butter cubes and pulse just until none of them is larger than a pea. Add the heavy cream and vinegar; pulse to process the mixture into pea-size pieces.

Divide the mixture in half and transfer to 2 separate 1-gallon resealable plastic food storage bags. (If desired, spray the inside of each bag with nonstick cooking oil spray to keep the dough from sticking.)Working with one bag at a time and leaving it unsealed, knead the mixture through the bag by pressing with the heel of your hand to help the dough come together. Remove the dough from the bag and knead it lightly just until it is slightly stretchy when pulled. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes and up to overnight.

When ready to make a pie, remove 1 disk of dough from the refrigerator. Allow it to sit for up to 10 minutes, if necessary, to become pliable enough to roll. Cover the work surface with a large pastry cloth and lightly dust with flour. Cover a rolling pin, preferably chilled or cool, with a cloth cover and roll the dough to a circle about 1/8 inch thick by 12 inches in diameter. (Alternatively, roll the dough between 2 large sheets of plastic wrap.) The dough should be smooth and cool.

Fold it carefully in half, then again into quarters and transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Unfold the dough and trim the border just short of the edge of the plate. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours. 

Strawberry rhubarb pie
Note: 3 tablespoons of instant tapioca will yield a very gelled pie filling. If you want a juicier pie filling, feel feel to try less. I think 2 or 2 1/2 tablespoons will yield a somewhat juicier pie filling, but any less may be too juicy.

3 cups rhubarb stalks, trimmed of outer stringy layers and leaves, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup strawberries, stemmed and sliced
1 cup granulated sugar
2 to 3 Tablespoons of quick cooking tapioca
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of grated orange peel
Unbaked double 9-inch pie crust (see above)
a little beaten egg yolk

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the tapioca to a spice or coffee grinder until the tapioca balls turn to powder. This helps the tapioca to dissolve evenly. Combine the rhubarb and the strawberries with the sugar, tapioca, salt, and orange rind. Let sit for 10 minutes.

2. Turn into a pie dish lined with pie crust (see steps above). At this point, you can fashion your lattice on top (you can find a tutorial here). Mark likes to form his lattice on a silpat liner and, after a few minutes in the freezer to firm everything up, you can easily pick up the lattice and place it on the pie. Trim the edges and crimp the top and bottom edges together. (Note: If you don't want a lattice top, simply drape the second pie crust on top of the filling. Trim the edges and crimp the top and bottom edges together. You will need to cut slits in the top to allow steam to escape.) In either case, brush a little beaten egg yolk over the top crust and edges.

3. Bake at 400°F for 20 minutes. Then, reduce heat to 350°F and bake an additional 30-40 minutes longer (40 to 50 minutes longer if doing a 10-inch pie).

4. Let cool on a rack at least 1-2 hours, preferably 4 hours. In my opinion, it is really best to allow the pie to cool to room temperature to let the internal juices thicken. If you like an oozy pie, however, dig in (after an hour or so).