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Et Tu, Monkey Bread?


I did not grow up with things like monkey bread or pull-apart bread or other fascinating pieces of American culture people have managed to turn basic cinnamon rolls into (I had cinnamon rolls, homemade ones, we were not savages). So I had an idea about monkey bread until very recently, and that idea was that it had something to do with monkeys and therefore was banana flavoured.

It turns out this is not true at all.

Monkey bread has nothing to do with monkeys. It has to do with the feeling people have when they pick something apart with their hands, which is that they are like monkeys, but I can tell you from careful observation that monkeys actually would just pick up a whole loaf of monkey bread and eat it straight like god intended, because it doesn't need to be peeled and monkeys are all business when it comes to food.

That was a bit of a divergence. This is about monkey bread or pull-apart bread, and brief expedition I took into the genre.

I've been working my way through types of cooking lately: I had a couple of weeks where I worked on pretzels. I did a madeira layer cake with lemon curd and passionfruit-strawberry jam filling, plus a Swiss meringue buttercream that is inevitably going to lead me down a Swiss meringue pathway very soon.

I'd gotten started on this path with a simple idea: I could make fast cinnamon rolls by using my rolled biscuit recipe -- my goal for 2016 was to get good at making biscuits and that worked out like a charm -- and spreading the dough with cinnamon sugar and butter.

Cinnamon roll biscuits

That worked great! But the quick icing I made came out too runny and sticky, so I began to explore frostings of various kinds. As part of those frostings, I also looked into other kinds of rolls to drizzle those frostings over, but to be honest I like the impulsive bake of the biscuit rolls.

So my idea was that right now I could explore pull-apart breads and end up with monkey bread because monkey bread has bananas in it. Except of course it doesn't. So unless I am willing to reinvent the genre (I probably am), I've reached the end of that road.

I made this bread: Cinnamon Sugar Pull-Apart Bread. I don't have instant yeast because I don't have a bread machine (any more; I had one in architecture school but ended up giving it away because I mostly used it to make dough and I already have a Kitchenaid for that). So I made some minor changes to how the ingredients went together to proof the yeast properly.

Mine came out looking like this:

Pull-apart bread out of the oven

It kind of collapsed in the middle which was OK, but I didn't have the right platter to put it on so I had to kind of lay some plastic wrap down under that end.

For the icing, I did a simple powdered sugar and milk icing. I watched a dozen videos on this online and discovered a couple of things:

1. You need to make way more than a reasonable person would ever use, because the ratios are touchy and you have to keep adding a little more sugar and a drop more milk to get the texture right.

2. It comes out better when you use a mixer to beat the heck out of it.

That was the trick. I made about four times as much of the stuff as I drizzled on the top of the bread, and the consistency was perfect. It stayed white and distinct, so it was a graphical element and not just general stickiness.

Icing on the cake

The bread was also really good. We ate it with friends the next day and between four of us ate the whole thing. My next foray, I am guessing, will have to be banana-flavoured.

More on Running


So I finished C25K. It's basically 8 weeks long, but I took 8.5; I stretched out the last week because it had been hot here and running is harder on my heart when it is hot. And I hate running in the heat, so there.

The program had actually had me thinking a lot about running when I was a kid, and how different it is now. I started running in high school, when I joined the cross-country team to hang out with friends. I don't know why I did this, because honestly I've always thought of myself as a fairly inactive person, but also I have this kind of closet jock thing going on.

I found I liked running, but running did not seem to agree with me. I'll spare you my extended-play rehash of every running injury, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time in pain, and eventually a doctor told me to stop running or risk not walking.

But I never really gave up on the idea that I might be able to run again. I replaced it with biking and swimming, and those are good and fine things on their own, but I really missed running.

While I was at Cal Poly it occurred to me that sports medicine had made some huge leaps since the eighties, and I was in a school with a football team and a clinic. So I saw a sports medicine doctor and he told me to go ahead and run, but to build up to distance slowly. The idea being that running is a contact sport, you and the ground, and you need to acclimate your body to the impact. I had been injured from the start and never really recovered because nobody told me I needed to start slow and acclimate my body to pounding the pavement (and all of my injuries were from that contact).

That fits with what I remember of the experience: my first day of cross country was an easy run, but our shortest run was still three miles long. Nobody ever talked about teaching your body to take the contact, perhaps because school sports were really meant to be for kids who had been doing sports of some sort since they were very small and had built up that base. Even in college when I got back into running for a while, I started out with runs that were really too long. I am here to tell you that any training program that suggests you can run a marathon in 12 weeks is misguided and will lead to injury.

So that's where C25K comes in. When I talked to the doctor at Cal Poly, he suggested I use it as a framework (it had only recently come out and everybody was talking about it, if I recall correctly). I got a brief start on it, but changing up your exercise routine when you are in the middle of doing a design thesis is not the best of ideas. Fast forward to my home-care physical therapy after the stroke, and when my physical therapist told me I could run on the treadmill (which we bought shortly after I left the hospital) at a very low speed as long as I alternated with walking and kept my heart rate low, I decided to give it a try again.

It was pretty good. The week or so before starting the program I did regular run/walks using the treadmill's "Hills" program. I found I preferred using C25K, because it has a nice structure to work around. I especially liked using the app on the phone and running on the treadmill, where seeing my stats was easy to do without nearly running into a lamppost, and where I had very fine control over my pace.

So when I was getting to the end of the program I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. And I decided to do it again.

Here's the thing: these beginning programs are hysterical to somebody who hasn't done any serious running in 20 years. They assume your starting pace is a 10-minute mile. A 10-minute mile is very respectable, and I'm sure it's a slow run for some people, but if you have never run before, or if it's been some real time, that is totally insane. It's not just the stroke; I'd been doing this fitness boot camp thing and running quite a bit, and I'd have been hard pressed to run the first C25K workout at even a 15-minute mile. I know a lot of people who start this program who have literally never exercised in their entire lives. Somebody who is honestly stepping off a couch into a running program is going to be closer to a 20-minute mile.

So I started doing C25K all over, only instead of run/walk I'm doing my running pace for the run parts and upping the pace by 0.5mph for the running part (that's how the treadmill handles speed). When I finished the 8 weeks I was running a 15-minute mile (I could go a little faster, but not for the entire duration), so that's 4.0mph, and my running parts are at 4.5mph, which is a 13.3-minute mile. Still not a 10-minute mile. I'm taking it slow and working up there.

(I also changed to using the the Couch-to-10K app for this session. I'm not sure if I want to do the whole thing; I'd like the mileage of the 10K training program, but I think I'd prefer it spread over every weekday rather than three times a week. I think I can do that. In any event, the really different part of the C210K program is just tacked onto the end of C25K, so I won't have to decide if I wanted to do that for a while.)

It's not 100 percent smooth sailing. I've had to walk some of the walk parts instead of jogging them. I've had to go slower. I'm still working on my heart rate and getting my breathing in order. And I'm still overall staying a little slower than I'd really prefer. But I know that if I just keep working on it, it will get better, and I am now further into a training program than I have ever gotten without any kind of injury or nagging pain. I hardly even ache the day after my runs. Yay for slow but steady training.

A bit ago I was talking about my terrible running and the experience of breaking the 15-minute mark with a friend who asked, basically, "aren't you embarrassed to talk about how bad your running is in public?" And no, I'm not. I am running because I enjoy running, and because I am allowed to do it. I'm not interested in racing, so I don't care if my pace is terribly slow, because in my opinion it's better to run really badly than to not exercise at all. It is sometimes hard to put yourself out there and talk about how much you suck at something, but if you never ever do anything except what you already are perfect at doing, you will never learn and grow as a person.

And yeah, I want to be the sort of person who is so good at running that they think a 10-minute mile is a light job that any beginner could manage. That'd be great. In the meantime, I'm just enjoying the running and trying not to get injured.



We did a lot of cooking this year, because we had three Thanksgivings in a row.

It started out on Tuesday with an early stinky-fish day (when the stinky fish man comes to the house with a box of fish for good boys and girls).

Fish Day

That's Noel picking bones out of the whitefish.

Making gratin

For Wednesday we made Noel's potato gratin. The secret is you deep-fry the potatoes first.

For Thursday I made two pies:

Apple crumb pie

Apple crumb, and

Boring pumpkin

*yawn* pumpkin. The pumpkin was by request; I rarely make it because I find it boring. Though I did get a recipe the day after Thanksgiving for a pumpkin pie with a pecan-pie topping which sounded much more interesting. I also hardly ever make pecan pie because it is so sweet.

The crust decorations are little crust cutters from Williams-Sonoma. The set has a leaf, an acorn, a pumpkin, and a turkey.

Crust decorations

The fancy cutouts require a bit more attention lest they burn, but I think they made the pies look very fancy. And the chasm in the pumpkin pie was easily hidden with whipped cream.

Be the Bomb You Throw


Here's something I did recently: signed up to be a marrow donor. I'd like to say I did it for all kinds of altruistic reasons: generosity, caring, that sort of thing. I mean, I've been an organ donor since I got a driver's license, my family knows my feelings about that and agrees with me that if any part of me is useful after I stop needing it, take it away, doctors.

And I have genetics that reach into central Asia, which is where the banks have limited matches and are always looking for more. Maybe I could say I joined the registry because they needed me.

But I really did it for selfish reasons. I'll never meet anybody who gets my liver, or my heart, or my corneas with their superhuman vision. But if you donate marrow, you might get to meet the recipients. You might get to meet their families. They will have your blood inside them (their blood changes to your blood type!).

I hope I never need to go to the marrow registry. But I also hope that the swabs I sent in last week are a match for somebody, and I can help save a life.

(And yes, I do give blood, but that's a totally selfless donation. I wanted to do something a little more selfish, too.)

Some Celebrations


We've had several celebrations in the last month. I thought I'd share some photos from some of them.

The second weekend in November we flew to Minnesota for a surprise birthday party for my in-laws. Noel's parents were born within two days of each other, and they were both turning 70, which is a pretty significant birthday. With the help of an old friend, we tricked them into coming to a restaurant where the three kids and I were waiting to surprise them.

In-laws with cake

They were very surprised and a great time was had by all.

In-laws birthday party

There's the family all together: Joanne (the family friend who helped coordinate it and managed to keep the secret perfectly), Lynn, Anne, Michael, Sandy, and Noel. In front of the restaurant.

Day after in Minnesota

The next day, the weather gave them another surprise birthday present, which was several inches of wet soft snow. My sisters in law immediately got stuck in the driveway while going shoe shopping.

Verb party

The next weekend, A Verb for Keeping Warm had their store-warming party, a big celebration of their fancy new location in a real retail space. I'm a big fan of Verb, and next weekend I'll be teaching a class there on the physics of spindle spinning.

Verb cake

They had this awesome cake, made to look like a bundle of fiber in their "Thai Iced Tea" colourway.

Then it was time to plan for Thanksgiving. I started by taking out the traditional turkey mold.

Turkey cake mold

I love this mold, but unfortunately I can only justify using it maybe once or twice a year.

Pumpkin ginger cake

I modified my last pumpkin pie turned into cake recipe to make it spicier (it tasted a little bland even to me, which is pretty bland indeed), but I didn't like how the cake came out of the mold. So the next few days were spent on experiments and then truly deconstructing the idea of cake.

But you'll have to wait for the big reveal on the final product, because the day before Thanksgiving is also a holiday in our house; it is Stinky Fish Day. Noel stays home from work and the Stink Fish Fairy (the Fedex guy) brings the special package from my family:

Stinky Fish Day

It's a big package of fish and bagels from Zabar's.

Dogs keeping close on Stinky Fish Day

A good time was had by all, though not everybody got some fish. (The dogs traditionally get the skin from the whitefish, though, so there was a happy ending for them, too.)

For Thanksgiving dinner we brought the potatoes and the dessert. We re-imagined the potatoes as a trifle, layered with hash browns at the bottom, then purple mashed potatoes, then potato gratin, then white mashed potatoes, then purple again, then a piped layer of mashed potatoes beaten with extra cream to make them pipe better.

Potato trifle

The deonstructed deconstructed pumpkin pie turned into layered pumpkin desserts: the bottom layer was a circle of pumpkin cake soaked in ginger syrup, then a ginger-fig filling, then a boiled sugar frosting, then another layer of pumpkin cake, a layer of whipped cream, and a little miniature bundt cake top. It was kind of over the top, but it worked OK. Too bad I was totally stuffed from eating an entire turkey drumstick before we got to that course.

Deconstructed deconstructed pumpkin pie

And by popular demand, I made Charlotte's peanut butter cup cookies, all six dozen of which were devoured or squirreled off by the other diners (and since we have two cake's worth of trimmed pumpkin cake bits to eat, this was not a problem).

Peanut butter cup cookies

Of the three things we made, I was most impressed by how fun it was to pipe potatoes.

This week I will make the mincemeat filling for our Christmas pie. We're having friends over and baking a ham (or two). There may be piped potatoes involved.

A Few Tales of Cooking and Learning


The jelly I made over Christmas turned out very hard; it becomes more liquid on heating, but is really a candy rather than a jelly. I know what I did wrong, next time it will be better, yadda yadda, but I still find the world of jelly-making much harder than jams. Everything is so much more delicate and complicated. It's fascinating, in much the same way that methodically reducing recipes used to be fascinating. (Plus, I have like 30 jars of the stuff to deal with now.)

I won't have a chance to do anything about it until our next fruit crop comes in, which will be midsummer sometime. Until then I have bought a new book on jellying to study. When I'm not studying for my professional exams, that is.

In the meantime, we took a trip out to Japantown yesterday and bought a ridiculously complicated rice maker. Noel immediately loaded it up with brown rice, and we had brown rice for dinner last night, then lunch today. It's safe to say that the rice maker is a win. It certainly makes a better brown rice than we do.

We had piles and piles of winter greens in the fridge over the holidays, and were just unable to keep up with the supply from our CSA box. And a bunch went bad or marginal when we were away over Christmas. So last week Noel declared greens bankruptcy and fed them to the chickens (who have eaten quite a bit of them but still prefer grass for reasons of their own); what doesn't get eaten there gets composted, so it's all good. Of course, on Friday there was a box full of even more greens, and we're right back on the downward spiral.

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Three Photos from Elsewhere


It's notable that on our recent jaunt through the cold parts of the United States, I took three photos, and all of them were of cases of food. Although one is actually a photo of the case itself, rather than the food (which was unexceptional).

A brief tour? Certainly. Here we have the Philadelphia airport, F Terminal, after a red-eye to Pittsburgh, a one-hour layover, and a quick hop to Philly. F Terminal is where you go when you are going to fly into Ithaca, so at the holidays it is usually packed with people I've known since childhood. I don't know if any of them were there this time, because I was so tired I could hardly see. I did see this, though:

Pastry case at Au Bon Pain

The brilliance of this design may not be obvious. Let me describe it. I am standing outside the store (Au Bon Pain, for those who must know). From the outside you can see the pastries, and their little nametags, and their prices. But you can't choose anything, so if you can't make up your mind you can stand there and gape without blocking the way of somebody who is ready to choose something. Or without being blocked by some simpleton who must stand in front of the case blocking the view for everybody else.

Even better, you can see whether you want to haul your pile of luggage into the store to get a pastry at all. The window case makes a million kinds of sense in a high-traffic, high obstruction environment like an airport. Now they just need to put one at the pre-made sandwich counter at the lunch place near my office.

From Ithaca, we went on to Minneapolis (via a bumped partway through our three-leg trip, so we spent much of the day in Philadelphia airport drinking wine at Vino Volo). From Minneapolis there was nothing to do but drive three hours up to New York Mills, MN, to see family. And when one goes to Mills, one must stop at Motley to visit Morey's for stinky fish of all sorts.

We bypassed the lutefisk (we'll be enjoying its flavourless, textureless jelliness at a smorgasbord this weekend).

Morey's seafood - lutefisk

Instead, Noel got some smoked whitefish (because I like it better than salmon) and a little tub of something terrible involving herring that I don't want to think about. His parents got a package of frozen salmon burgers that we had for dinner that night (they were very good, tasting of smoked salmon with a bit less slippery a texture than you usually get in a whole-fish product).

Morey's seafood - smoked fishes

Then it was back to San Francisco, and a quick drive out to Sacramento to pick up the sausagesdogs from Dog Camp, and we were able to collapse in a little pile. Seven days and seven cities (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Ithaca, Minneapolis, New York Mills (OK, not really a "city"), Denver, Sacramento).

Too Much Jelly


I have spent much of this week in a jelly-making frenzy. We had this large bucket of quince left over from the annual quince harvest, you see, and it needed to be made into jelly. Or something.

So now I will give you a guided tour through the first stages of jelly-making.

What I Did All Weekend (and Today)


OK, so let's just admit that this blog has become less a regular thing and more a periodic thing. That's fine: I spend a lot of time and energy on the work on Casa Decrepit these days, which pretty much uses up my blogging energy. But I did some non-house things this weekend! Look!

For example, on Saturday we went to a big Open House and Holiday Gift Sale at The Crucible. The Crucible is awesome because a) it is right next door in Oakland, so it is convenient, as opposed to Techshop, which requires what can be a two hour commute and b) it has a ceramics studio. I got into a good conversation about slipcasting with one of their ceramics people; I'd like to be able to find a nice studio to work in since plaster mold making is pretty messy. We shall see what will come of it.

Open House and Sale at the Crucible

Also, despite the fact that it poured rain on us while we were hauling the tree and decorations out of the basement, we got the tree up and decorated. Yay, us. And on the pink Sunday of Advent, too, which is pretty good for not having really planned it.

Christmas tree up and decorated!

The only fly in the ointment is that we needed some replacement bulbs, and when we went to a few stores to try to find them, the places were practically cleared of Christmas stuff. That's right: I bet you didn't realize Christmas is over, and the clearance sales can begin. So now if you don't plan to have all your Christmas decorations up and running by Thanksgiving, give up; you will not be able to find replacement bulbs or even a few strands of tinsel garland. This is the same logic by which it is impossible to find a bathing suit in August, or a sweater in February. If you don't plan ahead, you don't get anything.

Anyway, the tree looks a little lopsided, and we are missing lots of bulbs from one strand of lights, but it's up. And look at my fun new ornament, purchased last weekend at a women's crafts fair:

Super fancy new ornament

I love how it's kind of creepy and weird and also awesome. It's a partridge in a pear tree, obviously, inside of a goose egg. If I'd had infinite money, I would have bought the set of twelve. But no infinite money, and just one goose egg ornament. I guess a partridge egg would have been impossible to come by.

So that was my weekend. To make up for a relatively unproductive weekend, this morning I did some cooking:

Experiments in Alcohol


This evening Noel and I made some quince ratafia. We used a recipe I found online, which is always a crapshoot. The idea is pretty simple: you shred some quince, stuff it in a quart mason jar, and add sugar and spices (we added cinnamon and ginger; the recipe called for mace but we didn't have any), cover with vodka or brandy and let it sit for a couple of months.

We tried a few variations on the recipe: with vodka, with brandy, one jar with both, and then finally a few jars with shredded quince and rum (leaving out the sugar and spices on the theory that rum has quite a nice flavour of its own to impart). The jars are now nestled in the fridge infusing away.

This is all in an attempt to use up the last of the quince, of course. We're really not very big drinkers, and when we do drink it's usually a glass of wine rather than hard liquor. So the fact that we have twelve quart jars full of liquor is kind of amusing.

When we got the quart jars, we also got some half-pints, so I'll be spending some time very soon making quince jelly, as well. Or anything to use up the rest of the quince, which have been sitting in a bucket in the dining room for months now.

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