Friday, December 31, 2010

Lessons from 2010, and Grapefruit-White Chocolate Macarons

While I'm not the biggest believer in new year resolutions, I am a big believer in taking time at the end of each year to think about what's happened and what I've learned.  This year, 2010, was, for me, one of those incredible years in which so much happens and so much changes--one of those years in which nothing goes according to plan and the universe throws literally everything it can think of at you.  But, all of it, in the end, turned out for the best (I think!), and I've taken quite a few important lessons to heart along the way, which I hope you don't mind that I share here.  (And, I'd love to hear what you've learned in 2010 in the comments below!)

Lesson 1.  It's important to be scared.

One of the major changes that happened this year was that I switched from my original and intended field of study in school to a different one altogether, basically upsetting every plan I'd ever made for myself within linguistics.  When I confessed to one of my advisors how deathly scared I am of being in this new field, she calmly said to me, "Being scared is good for you, Stephanie. You need it."

My advisor, as usual, was completely right.  Being scared really kicked my once-lazy butt into gear.  And, having to constantly face up to and overcome things that scare me taught me that, when I put my mind to it, nothing is insurmountable, even if it may seem that way initially.  Sure, I'm still pretty terrified about my new position in linguistics, but the important thing is that I'm not petrified by it.

Lesson 2.  Hard work pays off.

Growing up, my mom always accused me of skating by on "talent," that I never worked hard for anything I did.  And I can admit now that she was right.  But lacking "talent" in this new field of study I'm in, having to play catch-up this late in my graduate career, and being plain ol' scared forced me to work harder this year than I've ever, ever worked before.  (Side effect, though: sleeping less than I've ever, ever slept before...!)  Practice and dedication, it turns out, can make up for a lot.

For example, at the beginning of one of my school terms this year, I remember being so afraid and so intimated by this one professor that I seriously considered dropping out of her workshop because I thought that I just didn't know enough about the topic to keep going.  Thankfully I didn't, because by the end of the term, I'd learned and practiced so much that I could carry on a proper and in-depth conversation on the topic with the professor and offer insights that she hadn't thought of!  That was one of the best and exciting moments of 2010 for me--realizing that through all of the late nights and painful work, I'd actually improved!

Lesson 3.  Be super thankful for the people around you.

I would have never, ever gotten through the vicissitudes of 2010 if it weren't for the incredible support of those around me.  At every point throughout the year when things took a turn for the worst, someone always stepped in to help me out of it, making me realize how unspeakably lucky I am to have an invaluable support structure to lean on when I need it most.  Now more than ever, I am appreciative of people who have faith in me even when I don't: just knowing that someone out there believes in me forces me to work harder and try to live up to that expectation.  It's the one of the best motivators!  (On a related note, never let nay-sayers get you down, either!)

For the final recipe of 2010, I really wanted to make macarons because they represent to me a perfect embodiment of the lessons that I've learned this year.  I started out 2010 making successful macarons before I had read very much about them.  Then, as I started reading more and more about macarons and hearing about how fickle they are, they became incredibly intimidating to me.  Suddenly, every batch that I pulled out of the oven was a huge failure--cracked tops, sunken tops, lack of feet, under-baked, completely brown--you name it, it happened.  Finally, I just gave up and stopped making macs altogether.

One day, I realized how foolish it was of me to completely abandon macaron making just because I was scared of them, and I decided that I would make macarons and only macarons until I got them perfect again.  It turns out that what happened was that I'd memorized the recipe wrong, (stupidly) placing the rack in the wrong section of the oven, but even after I figured that out, I kept practicing batch after batch until the macaron shells came out consistently and to my liking.  And now, I can make macarons.

These grapefruit and white chocolate macarons (grapefruit shells with white chocolate buttercream and grapefruit curd) are for you all--a little tart and sweet (just like 2010 was) to accompany your midnight flutes of champagne--as a thank you for all of the support that you've given me on the blog this year!  It's truly been an extraordinary year, and knowing that there are people out there that I can share my love of desserts with (even virtually) is always a comfort for me and makes me so happy!  :-D!  So, thank you!  and Happy New Year to everyone!  May 2011 bring us even more valuable lessons--and more importantly, even more delicious sweets and eats!


In 2010, I...

stayed in the Northern California redwoods--one of my favorite places on earth--for a week.
was cited for the first time in an academic journal.
made two wedding cakes.
went to Los Angeles to visit one of my best friends--twice!
had so many wonderful friends over for dinner and dessert.
submitted my first academic article for review.
attended two schools.
went to Bouchon and Tartine bakeries.
posted 12 different pancake recipes.
had Korean fried chicken to celebrate Hanukkah.

Read on for recipe...

Saturday, December 25, 2010

To you all...

Best wishes for the merriest of Christmases!

<3, Stephanie

Thursday, December 23, 2010

PotW: Christmas Morning: Cranberry-Nutmeg Pancakes with Lemon Curd

When it comes to the holidays, I'm a huge stickler for tradition.  I always cook fish on Thanksgiving.  I always make a shopping trip to San Francisco in the days leading up to Christmas, even if I don't need anything.  Despite the fact that my parents have long ago upgraded their tree, my Christmas tree is still this old fake one that doesn't even look like a tree, carted by hand by my grandfather decades ago all the way from Taiwan and decorated with pipe-cleaner ornaments that I made in kindergarten or with ones that I've received as presents throughout the years.  Even the star on top of the tree is an old, taped-together end of a fairy wand that I used to have as a kid.  I firmly believe that tradition gives things character and whimsy, and they let you enjoy just a tinge of comforting nostalgia at the end of every year.

Another Christmas tradition that I always had was waking up in the morning and practicing piano before opening presents--granted, this started out more as a forced lesson in discipline imparted by my parents than a "tradition," but over the years, it grew into part of my Christmas morning routine.  But, after I moved away and my piano moved with me, I can no longer wake up on Christmas morning in my parents' house and play before the day gets started.  So, I've since replaced that musical tradition with a food one: Christmas morning pancakes.

Each year, I ask my dad a few days before Christmas what kind of pancakes he'd like, and the answer is always "blueberry."  While there's nothing wrong with blueberry pancakes, I decided this year that we need a little creativity, so this is what I'm planning on making come Christmas morning: cranberry nutmeg pancakes with meyer lemon curd and warmed cranberries.

I knew that I wanted to make something with meyer lemons, because I always regard meyer lemons as nature's little Christmas gift to me--they show up right before the holidays and mark the beginning of my favorite citrus seasons: meyer lemons and, shortly thereafter, blood oranges.  Then, I've sort of been fascinated by cranberries as of late whenever I've been in the kitchen, transforming them into everything from cranberry sauces and cranberry bavarians to cranberry savory dishes.  Plus, they seemed like a natural stand-in for blueberries to appease my dad: round little colorful fruits in his pancakes.  Together, I love how the sweetness of the meyer lemon curd complements the tart bursts of the fresh cranberries perfectly.  Since it's usually cranberry sauce that's sweet and lemons that are sour, this role reversal is a fun variation for the taste buds.  And, can I mention how Christmas-y the bright red cranberries look?!

Anyways, I hope that you are all having sweet and wonderful holidays and enjoying your traditions, both old and new (make sure to tell me about them in the comments below!)!  Here's wishing you a fantastically merry Christmas, an awesome winter solstice, and a happy everything else in between!

Read on for recipe...

[previous Pancake of the Week: Chai pancakes with black tea-poached plums]

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Brandy Hard Sauce

The perfect antidote for working so hard that you honestly don't know what day it is anymore and the sun rises and sets without you even noticing?  Old friends and good food.

Two of my wonderful linguist friends from college came to dig me out of my hole visit me yesterday, and we spent the day laughing and catching up and cooking amazing food and walking around the deserted campus in the brisk cold--and, for me, basically learning how to have fun again.  It was nothing but absolutely divine.

For lunch, we whipped up a vegan feast, gossiping, giggling, and reminiscing with each other while cooking away in the kitchen:

fresh dragonfruit
arugula, pomegranate, toasted walnut, and candied ginger salad with lemon-tangerine vinaigrette 
roasted acorn squash with sage, meyer lemon zest, cherry wood-aged balsamic vinegar
sauteed kale with onions and fresh cranberries
mint and licorice tea
Danish chocolate wafers and coconut-cinnamon sorbet

After living on almost nothing but frozen pasta'n'cheese, peas'n'carrots, and strawberry lemonade from Chez Trader Joe's for the past few weeks of paper-writing and finals, this meal was exactly what I needed: fresh, in-season, minimally and beautifully prepared greens and reds and oranges and whites, with a side of lovely conversation, familiar company, smiles, and laughter.  Food for the soul, indeed.

In the evening, after one of my friends had to leave, my other friend and I were commiserating about both having sadly missed out on pumpkin pie this year for Thanksgiving when it hit us: we clearly needed to right this wrong and make pumpkin pie.  And so we did, and I have to say, this pumpkin pie with caramel brandy hard sauce is probably my favorite pumpkin pie I've made to date.  The crust is super flakey, brushed at the last moment in the oven with heavy cream and sprinkled with turbinado sugar to give it extra gloss and crunch.  The filling is the perfect custardy consistency, packed with spices and not overly sweet at all.  But what really, really makes the entire pie is the caramel brandy hard sauce very generously drizzled on top.  Caramel on its own is good, but caramel with brandy?  We were eating the stuff straight out of the pot before it even hit the pie.

So if you feel overworked this holiday season, here's my prescription for you: old friends, raucous laughter, a fresh, hearty meal, and caramel brandy hard sauce (really, the pie is optional).  That combination will cure a lot.

Read on for recipe...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gorgonzola, Pear, and Balsamic Honey Galette, and Q&A Part 2

When the holidays roll around, I totally get sugar overloaded.  Between the cookie swaps and the baked goods-laden office holiday parties and the highly addictive ginger fudge that dear friends bring for you from Scotland--all of which are delicious, mind you--, it gets to be just too much sweet, even for a sugar-addict like me.  So here's my solution: disguise the cheese course as something between dessert and dinner: a gorgonzola, pear, and balsamic-honey galette with toasted walnuts and a thyme-flecked crust.  = layers of juicy sliced pears accented by crunchy and nutty toasted walnuts sitting on a bed of pungent melted gorgonzola cheese, all wrapped up in a flaky crust with sweet balsamic honey glaze.  It's sweet and savory rolled into one and made extra perfect by a glass of red wine and just maybe a fireplace, if you have one (here's a virtual one, if you don't).

Now to finally return to part two of answering your questions before we all get far too wrapped up in the holidays and completely forget about it!  (Looking for part one?)  Okay, ready?  here goes...

Q: If you could only have one spice in your kitchen cabinet, what would it be?

Oh, this is a super tough one.  My first instinct would be nutmeg.

Q: You have tons of great recipes (thanks!), but do you have fails, too?  How much experimenting do you have to do before the recipe comes out right?

Oh yes, I have plenty of baking and cooking fails, plenty of stuff that goes straight from oven to the trash.  When I was learning to make macarons, for example, my roommate would gawk at how many trays of perfectly edible but chewycrackedsunkenfootless macarons were tossed.  (Turns out, part of those macaron failures were caused by the fact that I had just memorized the recipe wrong, but still.  ><)  How much experimenting I have to do really depends on how much I'm fiddling with an existing recipe or whether I'm developing a new recipe from scratch.  One valuable lesson I've learned though is that following my instincts usually saves me from recipe failure--it's really the times when I deviate from what my inner voice is telling me that things start to go seriously wrong.

Q: What is your favorite dessert to make?

I can't decide!  Really!  Can I cheat and say that my favorite dessert to make is the one I'm making at that point in time?

Q:  Do you have any embarrassing baking stories to share?

I do!  So many!  Perhaps the most infamous of my embarrassing baking stories happened the night before my senior English thesis was due in my college years.  My professor had invited all of us in the seminar to her house for dinner the night the thesis was due so that we could turn in our work and then enjoy a good meal together.  For some reason or other, I was elected to bring the dessert, for which I planned to make a chocolate Viennese layer cake.

But, I am and have always been a huge procrastinator.  (And perhaps I was worse as an undergrad, though that's seriously debatable.)  And so there I was, the night before my thesis was due with a thesis to write and a cake to bake--oh, and I didn't start until well past 10pm because I'd also had rehearsal, et cetera, earlier that evening.  At the same time, I wanted to make some lemon lavender pound cakes as thank yous to my professor and some other people in the class who'd helped me out on a different project.  So long story short, I'm there, baking and writing my thesis simultaneously.  I finish the lemon lavender pound cakes without a hitch, but by this time, it's about midnight already.  I then get started on the chocolate layer cake.  The first problem: I'd left one of my cake tins at my parents' house so I could only bake one layer at a time.  The first layer goes in and comes out perfectly.  The second layer goes in, and while it's baking, I get back to work on writing my thesis.  Until...

Oh crap!  I didn't set the timer on the oven!  !#$)*&!  I was a far less experienced baker back in those days, and our apartment oven didn't have a window, so I (stupidly) kept opening the oven door to check on the cake--which of course caused the cake to fall.  *That* went directly into the trash.  By this time, it's about 2am and I still have half of my thesis to write and no dessert to bring.  And I decide to start over, but with cupcakes instead of a layer cake.

Now comes the second problem: my cupcake tins at the time were hand-me-downs from, like, the 80s from my mom, so they were pretty horrific looking, with random black stuff caked all over them.  Not all of the cupcake molds were filled by the recipe I had so after a few minutes in the oven, the oven started smoking fantastically... which of course set off the fire alarms! ... which of course woke up my extremely angry roommates ... and of course it's well past 3am at this point ... and of course I still have a thesis to write.

Yeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhh.  In the end, the cupcakes were finished as was my thesis.  The dinner party at my professor's was lovely, and I returned home to an exploding and disastrous mess in the kitchen to clean up.  Moral of this story, kids?  Don't try to write your thesis and bake 2 cakes in the same night.

Q: Do you listen to music when you cook?  What is your musical playlist for when you bake?

Do I listen to music!  Perhaps this is best illustrated by a crappy cellphone photo my friend took of me one day while I was baking...

Yes, that's me, and yes, I dance and sing ridiculously when I cook!  The musical accompaniment to the photo above was this song, but really, I listen to anything and everything when I'm in the kitchen.  My playlist lately has been Christmas music (of course), Girltalk's All Day mix, random pop songs, and a recording of California All-State Wind Band 2003 (it was a particularly good year).  My roommate and I also went through a time period when we memorized the entire Avenue Q soundtrack in the kitchen.

Q: Which one of your PotW is your favorite?

Ooooo, hmm.... I'd have to say these meyer lemon ricotta pancakes with lemon curd and warmed blueberries.  Mainly because I'm addicted to meyer lemon curd.

Q: Which do you think is best: rice, pasta, bread, potatoes?

Rice. When I was young, they called me "rice tub."  No joke.

Q: If I gave you $10,000 to go on a holiday (and you could only spend it on a holiday), where would you go?

At this point, I'd say anywhere but here!  I'll take anywhere nature-y and away from too much civilization where I could walk around with my camera all day and try to capture the beauty of the world on film a little SD card.  Antarctica!  The Maldives!  the deserts of Egypt!  The Canadian Rockies (a personal favorite)!  the American Southwest (another personal favorite)!  Costa Rica!  oh, *sigh*  Why must you torture me with thoughts of a holiday?!

Q: I know on your 'about page' you said you don't know what you want to be in the future, but have you gotten any closer to the answer?  What do you want to be when you grow up?

If there's any lesson that I've really taken to heart and had to learn in 2010, it's that the best laid plans of mice and men always go awry.  I've always been a planner, and when things finally blew up in my face this year, I'm trying out a new philosophy: do now, plan later.  So now, I'm working on being the best damned linguist-cum-food-photographer-on-the-side I can be, and we'll see how that works out.  And, as a mid-life crisis, you know, maybe I'll open my own dessert studio.

Q: "Want to know what 'random forests' really are?" <- Yes! I want to know!

Okay, for you crazies out there, see this quick start guide to random forests here.  In short: it's a statistical method.

Q: Can you give more info on the Bay Area Food Bloggers get-together?

If you're in the Bay Area, make sure you're part of the Bay Area Food Bloggers Google group!  We always have get-togethers in the works.

Thank you all for your wonderful questions!  I hope you have as much fun reading the answers as I had answering them. :-)  I know I haven't answered your food photography-related questions, but I'm working on that as a special pet project over Christmas break, I promise....

Now, onto cheese and pear and flaky nom-niness!

Read on for recipe...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wait for it...

Getting less than six hours of sleep every night since September (and around three or four on average) is finally catching up to me, and I find myself falling asleep everywhere--walking, sitting, reading, writing, typing, blogging.  I have jet lag without ever having left the time zone!  (My friends and I have decided to coin the term "grad lag.")  Anyways, on that note, I'm forcing myself to bed "early" tonight in hopes of resetting my internal clocks, so the post I have planned for tonight will have to wait until the morning.  Until then, the sweetest of dreams to y'all!

For a peek of what's coming tomorrow, hop on over to flickr....