Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Salted Dark Chocolate Espresso Cookies

First off, I want to thank you all for your amazing and supportive comments on my last post! I love that I have such an inspiring and talented group of readers for this blog, and it makes me so proud to be able to connect with you all through this forum. The post has just been republished on my school's main arts site!, with the hopes that it'll engender even more awareness and discussion and might help other students in similar situations. It's a bit nerve-wracking for me to have the post published on the school's website, since I'm so accustomed to hiding my arts life from my academic life. But, I'm trying to live my life more unapologetically, which means learning to be braver about sticking my neck out there. Courage, people!

Second, I want to extend wishes and thoughts to everyone on the East Coast right now--I hope you all weathered the giant Frankenstorm alright and are all safe and sound (and have power and water!).

Meanwhile, I *just* realized late last night (I guess technically it was early this morning, but I have a strict rule that "night" doesn't end until I go to sleep :)), that it's Halloween today! Happy Halloween! And where the heck did October go??? Usually I love to celebrate Halloween. Not only is it an awesome holiday in its own right, but it also kicks off two months' worth of holidays, all the way through January, and I love the buzz of celebration and excitement that you feel starting October 31 all the way up until New Year's Eve.

This October, however, I fear that I've been living under a rock in a cave, buried deep under piles of papers and essays and commented versions of essays to turn into papers and more deadlines for papers and essays (much to the glee of my dissertation committee, it seems....). I've barely even touched my kitchen, except to make tea or to heat up whatever leftovers I'm fortunate to have in the refrigerator. Although, you shouldn't pity me too much--my leftovers have been a decently tolerable combination of Indian food, Asian fusion, and awesome Chantal Guillon macarons. :). Luckily, deadline season will come to a close soon, and hopefully life can return to some more semblance of "normal," whatever that may be.

So finding balance in life isn't easy! This week, I could feel the cracks starting, that creative part of my brain tick- tick- ticking away from disuse while it's been shoved aside for academic deadlines. I could feel my eye actively start framing the world around me in photographs wherever I looked, I became inseparable from my camera phone, my normal doodles in the margins of papers became even more involved, and I started having un-suppressible, obsessive thoughts about dark chocolate with port-soaked cherries. And then it happened: writer's block. BAM. Right in the middle of a streak of productivity, there was an essay that I just. couldn't. write. No matter how many days I spent or how many new drafts I started--nothing. Argh!

So finally, deep into one night of frustrated non-writing with deadlines looming, I walked away from the computer and into the kitchen, pulled one of my current cookbook favorites off of the shelf, and flipped to the deepest, darkest chocolate recipe I could find. I can always count on Alice: these dark chocolate espresso cookies (with a few slight modifications from her original recipe) were exactly what they sound like, the very essence of chocolate. Made completely with unsweetened chocolate (make sure to break out the good stuff in your cabinets), these amazing bites come out of the oven so perfectly melty, with the giant chocolate chunks in their molten centers wrapping you up with this warm bittersweet hug in such a good way you never thought bitter, unsweetened chocolate could. After they cool, the cookies are still perfectly gooey. I used coconut oil instead of butter in these, and if you eat a cookie ever so slowly, you'll get just the faintest hint of sweet coconut flavor come through like a streak of sunshine. Then, the hit of smoked sea salt flakes sprinkled on top brings everything together--really, chocolate just shouldn't be eaten without a bit of salty sophistication to it! Be forewarned that these cookies are rich. I don't normally drink milk, but I needed a shot of milk next to these.

I guess the million dollar question here is whether these cookies cure the stubborn affliction of wrtiers' block? Well.... the next day, I wrote my essay! Of course, I'm not quite sure if it was eating these cookies that did it. Or, if it was baking these cookies and then bringing a box of them to my advisor's office, where she sat and ate them while offering sage advice on how I should approach my essay. I guess ultimately, it doesn't matter. Writer's block is gone, and so are the cookies now. :)

Here's wishing everyone a Happy Halloween! I guess I'll celebrate it a few days late after the deadlines of this week are past, but at least that lets me take advantage of all the 2 for 1 deals on leftover Halloween candy on November 1. Mwahaha! :)

P.S. Also a big thank you to my good friend Priscilla, who is an uber-talented knitter, and made me the cup/bottle warmer.

Read on for recipe.....

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On purpose, rhythm, and writing your own damn story

It hasn't escaped my attention that this blog seems a bit neglected as of late, but I hope you all will excuse me for the long silences because for the first time in what I feel like is years, I am going full force after something that I want: a goal, a purpose, a reason. And reaching for that almost unattainable goal, one that makes the tips of your fingers tingle when you feel as if you can almost touch it--it feels really good.

For those of you who don't know, over the past few years, I've been living something of a double life. Yes, there's the photographer and baker (and self-taught-muddling-through-it-sort-of-but-not-really graphic designer) that you know from this blog. But I am also a scholar, a linguist, and an academic (or at the very least, I'm in school to become one). And I am very serious about both lives.

But, the message that I kept hearing all around me was, "You can't do both. You have to choose one. People have one passion, one career, one love, one thing to give everything they've got to. Pick one." I was accused over and over again in academia for not being serious enough, for letting my attention wander (Thankfully, my advisor has never uttered these words to me, even if she may think them, and for that restraint and solidarity, I am incredibly, unspeakably grateful). In the food and photography world, I kept holding back, feeling guilty that I was doing two things, not putting my all into going where I wanted to be, into developing into the artist I wanted to fulfill in my head (My friends had an on-going betting pool to see how long it would take for me to quit academia for photography, which was fun to joke about but wasn't particularly helpful). This requirement that I eventually choose just ONE distressed me greatly, and I wound up wasting time not on scholarly or artistic pursuits but on stressing out, feeling completely paralyzed, that I just didn't know which to give up and that I didn't want to just completely carve out a whole, integral part of my identity and throw it away.

Right about when I was begrudgingly and reluctantly coming to terms that I had to make this hard choice, a few miraculous things happened. First, that workshop I was talking anxiously about in my last post? It was amazing. (I'm self-congratulating a bit because I co-organized it. :)) Though there were the tough moments, like the moment someone asked me the hardest question that you can ask me about my dissertation work (aka: the question you hope in your heart of hearts that no one will ever ask you), everything that happened at the workshop--the good and the ugly--all reminded me again of why I love linguistics and being an academic. It affirmed my feelings that I just do. not. want to give it up, no matter what nay-sayers were telling me. And more than that, it was inspiring: the determination that I came out of that workshop with was, do everything in your power to get there.

Then, a couple days later after the workshop, I attended this panel that was organized by a group for Diversity in the Arts at my school on being a career artist. I didn't go into it expecting much, and I had signed up for it a long time ago, before everything else had gone crazy, so I went anyways. The panel was mostly okay and not very applicable to me, until I met Pireeni Sundaralingam.

Pireeni Sundaralingam is a poet, an accomplished artist with publications, readings, residences at museums, the whole shebang. But crucially, Sundaralingam is also a neuroscientist, a legit, trained-in-the-sciences-at-Oxford-and-worked-at-MIT-and-UCLA-and-holds-an-academic-post scientist. She, my dear readers, is TWO things at the same time. And doing amazingly at both, to boot.

I spoke one-on-one with Sundaralingam as soon as I possibly could after hearing her tell her story at the general panel. I desperately wanted to know, "How is this possible? How do you go through your life and choose BOTH, not settle on just ONE, like everyone tells you to? How do you do it!" Here's what she told me (though I can't recount them as eloquently as she said them):

  1. Make your own story. Just because everyone else might think that there are certain paths that you must take from point A to point B, be your own pilgrim and blaze your own path. It is your story to tell and no one else's, so have the courage to live your own story. And, Sundaralingam said, everyone behind you will thank you, because as you turn around, you'll see that you've just cut out a new path from point A to point B for others that are in the same situation as you.

  2. Be unapologetic. There will always be the nay-sayers. But again, don't let them write your story for you, and don't let them make you feel bad for writing your own story. At the end, you'll be the one who's won.

  3. Find your rhythm. Balancing more than one passion isn't going to be easy. It's harder than just having one thing. But, as evidenced by Sundaralingam, it's achievable. The key, according to Sundaralingam, is to find the rhythm between the two parts and to rely on that rhythm.

Meeting Sundaralingam and hearing her advice was invaluable to me. It's so rare to meet people who are practicing academics and scholars but who also have something else that is an equal part of their identity. I am sure these people exist--and that there are more of them than I realize--but it's rare to meet them and to discuss these things publicly since to have two (or more!) parts of your life that you're 110% serious about is so stigmatized. Wherever you all are, if you're out there, I want to hear from you, because we need each others' support!

So where does this leave me? After these few roller coaster weeks, here I am, learning to unapologetically go for what I want, the life that I want to live. Of course, I haven't found my rhythm yet! Psh, that will take years, no doubt, and patience is something that--though it doesn't come so naturally to me--I need to remind myself to have. I hope you'll all have patience with me and with this blog, too, as I try to figure things out. For the first time in a long while, I don't feel paralyzed anymore. I feel as though I know what I have to do, and that Purpose (with a capital "P") is so empowering. So, I'll be back. The photographs and the desserts (and the sort-of-crummy-but-I'm-learning design) will be back. Just be patient. I'm working on that rhythm.

x, Stephanie

Monday, October 8, 2012

White Grape Sorbet

This is one of those weeks that calls for a quiet simplicity to my dessert. Something unfussy, deliciously straightforward, cleansing. Because inside, I feel like this. And this. What can I say? I have a nasty habit for biting off more than I can chew, spreading myself far too thin (it's funny how many food-based sayings there are for this situation). This week, there's a Big Deal workshop that I'm co-running at school, and not only do I have to take care of all these organizational details, but I'm also supposed to give a talk there in front of all the Big Wigs who are coming (somebody just shoot me now, because that's a much more pleasant fate than standing up there in front of people who are 10,0000-gazillion times smarter than I am, who will be looking at me, the polite few will be kind enough to wear these fake smiles and nod gently even though they are smiles and nods of pity, and the not-so-polite few will no doubt just tear me apart in the Q&A session. Just thinking about it makes me want to find a giant rock-cave and crawl into it, never to appear again.) Then, we're also running way late on our sated schedule, and my life in general is just. a. mess. Despite how everything looks clean and put together here on the blog, know that it's my happy place, my simple place, where I go to get away from the disintegrating chaos that is my week. *deep breaths.*

So this white grape sorbet, a counterpoint to the dark and boldly purple concord grape sorbet that I made last year, is the perfect therapy for this week. The sorbet is made from these absolutely beautiful green grapes that my mom brought me a few weeks back. They were perfect and rustic specimens of grapes, slightly bruised light purple in some areas, clumped tightly together on the stems, with leaves still winding around the clusters and pockets of cobwebs hidden inside. I love it when I get grapes like this, which look real like how grapes fresh off the vines should look and not like the plastic-ky, cleaned-up versions of grapes that you see floating in cellophane bags in the supermarkets. The grapes and the sorbet taste equally clean, with a mild sweetness, refreshing and quietly subtle.

Wish me luck with this week--I'll see you at the end of it, if I survive!

Read on for recipe....

Friday, October 5, 2012

TGIF: the Ice Cream Bar, San Francisco

Last Friday, Scharffen Berger hosted its second annual San Francisco Bakery Crawl to kick off their annual Chocolate Adventure Contest. The crawl is always a blast to go on, being an awesome chance to visit several of the "hot right now" SF bakeries without having to worry about traffic and parking around the city! Score! :) One of the stops on this year's tour was The Ice Cream Bar, which is this awesome old-fashioned ice cream counter and soda fountain that makes you feel as if you've stepped off the street from modern-day San Francisco into a time warp back to the wonderful art deco age of the 1930s. Though we didn't get to try any of the Ice Cream Bar's famed ice cream sodas, they did serve up some delicious ice cream sandwiches, and I'm itching to make another trip back to the 1930s Cole Valley to try their soda offerings. --that and I'm such a sucker for art deco anything. :)

(though in an odd counterpoint, every time I think of soda jerks, I get this song stuck in my head.)

Happy Friday, and I hope everyone has a great first weekend of October! (already?! yikes!)

[A big thanks to Scharffen Berger for hosting me on the bakery crawl. As always, I would never write about anything here that I didn't personally try and like enough to want to share it with everyone.]

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Peach and Lemon Verbena Pie, and a virtual pie party!

A few weeks back, Sarah (of the vanilla bean blog), Hannah (of honey & jam), Beth (of local milk), and I were a-tweeting and a-twittering (or whatever kids do these days) about pie, lamenting the fact that we were too far away to try each others' scrumptious-sounding crust-and-fruit creations. But, not to fear!, we decided that an on-going virtual pie party was the second best thing. Sarah hosted us all last week on her blog with tiny little peach pies-in-jars, and it's my turn now. :) So, welcome all! to the Virtual Pie Party, part deux.

Like Sarah, I just couldn't let the last of the season's peaches at the market pass without one final hurrah. I love late season peaches. There's this one stand in particular that has these beautiful and super sweet giant yellow peaches that only come out late in the season, with the flesh of the peach falling effortlessly off the pit inside. I used these last summer for one of my favorite cakes on this blog, and I've been waiting and waiting for them to show up again since. This peach and lemon verbena pie showcases these peaches perfectly, with a deep dish form so as to stuff as many peaches into a single pie as I could... naturally. :) I've also been itching to use the leaves off my finally-flourishing lemon verbena plant (especially after I managed to kill one already earlier in the summer!), and the touch of lemon verbena lends an incredibly bright and fresh streak to the sweet cooked peaches inside the pie. The crust itself also has a bit of almond flavor thrown in, for an amazing scent fresh out of the oven, and of course I couldn't resist finishing off the thick lattice with an extremely generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar for a crunchy, candy-like top.

Sarah served her peach pies with a side of Ella Fitzgerald playing in the background--a detail that I love and appreciate, especially because my undergraduate honors thesis was all about Ella. But in my current tired and sleep-deprived state, the song that kept popping into my head when I thought of my peach pie was this. Yeah, very cultured. Okay, okay... the next song that popped into my head was at least a little bit higher up on the culture scale: Nina Simone's Four Women ... which, on some level I guess is fitting for this virtual pie party of made up of four women bakers. :) (though this is definitely not what the song is about!) Of course, thinking of Nina Simone led me to think of Rene Marie's "O Nina!" tribute (sorry, couldn't find a recording online), which appears on the same album as one of my favorites. Of course, you can't get me talking about my favorite jazz artists/albums/tracks without mentioning Diana Krall's cover of "A Case of You", Carmen McRae's Great American Songbook (this album is seriously life-changing), and--this is how we get back to Ella--Ella Fitzgerald's Harold Arlen Songbook. Jazz vocalists are a dangerous subject to bring up around me...I could go on and on about this forever and bore everyone here to death!

Hm... somehow I don't think I've been the greatest host of a virtual pie party, prattering on about music instead of pie and blogs and photography. But "quirky" sort of comes with my territory. :) Sarah, Hannah, and Beth: here's to hoping that one day we'll all be able to get together in one place to share pie and coffee and long discussions of music!

(Ack! I realized that this very meandering post turned into a music link fest. Might as well throw this one in there and be done with it. ;P)

Read on for recipe....