Wednesday, March 2, 2016

My Last Thursday: A Tale of Woe and Joy Interrupted by Memes

I've missed writing to you guys...dissertation and general life has been a little OP lately. (OP = "over powered"'s a slang term used often in the gaming world and I've been married to a gamer for too long to not use it.) I won't waste time saying that this is me starting up regular posts again, the dissertation is still not finished (though I'm getting close!) and I have a pretty busy few months ahead of me. I'm hoping to start back up this summer, after I (FINALLY) graduate, but I'm not making any promises just yet.

Today, I'm writing to you for a different reason. I want to share with you a part of myself. I'm going to tell you a story about a villainous brain who twarts the protagonist's attempts to bring honor and glory to her house by magically removing her ability to speak coherently before an audience. The malefactor's plan backfires as our champion's army of friends strikes at the heart of the brain's self-doubt and balance is restored.

But first, if you'll bear with me, here's some background.

My personality has always been a weird combination of shyness and extroversion. I was that kid that wouldn't talk to strangers at first, but was quick to become your best friend at the slightest show of kindness. When I'm in my comfort zone, I'm very much an extrovert and I intentionally push the bounds of that zone every chance that I get. When it comes to choices in my daily life, I try to do things in moderation and to be adaptable to and even enthusiastic about change. My emotions are not always cooperative to this end. I sometimes find myself dealing with rapid emotional fluctuations that I'm assuming stem from being passionate and often too stubborn for my own good. I've never been afraid to bite off a little more than I can chew or to throw just one more iron in the fire. I'm notorious for being over-analytical, especially in social situations.

I know that I put a lot of pressure on myself sometimes, and I have recently been extra cognizant of my need to engage in activities that lower my stress-levels. I drink a lot more herbal teas than I used to. I've been enjoying an adult coloring book and brightly-colored pencils that my parents gave to me for Christmas this year. I've been laughing and singing. I've even been exercising more and trying to make healthier choices about what I eat. However, some behaviors are deeply-embedded and despite our progress, we all have our moments.

I had that moment last Thursday night, when I stood on stage, ready to deliver a 3-minute speech about my research to an audience excited by the presentations of those who went before me.

Let's back up just a moment....

I'm not one who fears public speaking. Like anyone, I do, of course, get those pre-public speaking little butterflies (Lepidopterus gastricus), the tachycardia, sweaty palms...the whole bit. However, I've picked up lots of little tricks for "beating the bear" as my voice and diction professor use to call it. It probably started in elementary school when I read Earrings! by Judith Viorst as a 4th-grader for UIL Poetry and Prose. (For those who are non-native Texans, UIL stands for "University Interscholastic League". It was created by the University of Texas at Austin back in the early 1900s as a way to provide extracurricular contests in academics and athletics. It the largest inter-school organization of its kind in the world, and I grew up thinking that everyone had it until I left Texas.) I went on competing in prose and poetry as well as other speaking events (including cross-examination debate and modern oratory) right up through high school.

Image result for theatre loveI got into band, theatre, cheerleading, and was the school mascot for a few years. I was no stranger to performance and grew comfortable with being in front of an audience...both as one of many being watched and all by my lonely. While all of these activities helped, it was theatre that probably prepared me the most for public speaking. It taught me how to project my voice, how to deal with stage fright, how to improve when you forget a line or something falls on set, how to appear natural in a very unnatural setting. After all, the show must go on!

Fast forward to college. I began what would come a very long career as a university student. As a biology major, I gave many class presentations, but the one I remember the most was that one that I gave in a capstone-like course. We were tasked with presenting a paper on any subject in biology as if it were our own research. We gave the talk to our class of peers and were critiqued by our fellow students. The written critiques were submitted to the professor, who took them into consideration for our final grade on the presentation. I had few people that I would have considered friends in the class, and it seemed that many students rallied to give points to their buddies regardless of performance. I was a bit more critical, which made me less popular despite my attempts to be gentle when expressing my opinions of their work. Needless to say, my refusal to participate in peer-politics didn't earn me may glowing reviews. Looking back and considering that this was my first real-ish scientific presentation, I did pretty well, but critiques are never easy to take...especially when some reeked of subjectivity. (Isn't it funny/tragic that we remember bad reviews better than we remember the good ones?) I'll always remember getting points off from one student who commented something along the lines of "Why do you keep saying, 'we did this' and 'my team did that'? What, did you go to the rainforest to listen to these frogs yourself?". I can still hear the snickering of my classmates followed by the sudden hush with my comment of "We were assigned to present this as if it were our own research", which was promptly followed by the professor saying, "She's right. I'm not sure why the rest of you haven't been doing it that way."
Image result for take that meme
Shortly after getting into graduate school, I began giving more presentations, leading/participating in discussions, and becoming more and more confident in my ability to speak. At this point in my college career, I've spoken to crowds ranging from less than ten people in a classroom to thousands at an international scientific conference. While some have gone better than others, I have always felt proud of my performances (and believe me, that is what giving a talk is at the end of the day) even though I've never won any awards. I'm comfortable speaking in a way that is basically improvised using a prepared powerpoint and an idea of a few talking points.

A few weeks ago, I took on a new speaking challenge. I signed up to compete in an elevator speech contest. This contest, as it exists at my school, allows you a single powerpoint slide and three minutes to explain your research to a general audience. I tried this three years ago, at the first competition like this and choked in the preliminary rounds. I did really well up until the last line of my which point I stumbled over a word, failed to recoup adequately, and snowballed myself out of the competition. Last year, I was too embarrassed to try out again...but, when I went to watch the finals, and found myself sad that I hadn't tried to compete that year. I felt that longing to be on stage and a desire to share my passion for my research with a general audience for the first time.

Image result for success kid meme nailed itThis year, I decided to get back in the saddle. I was intensely nervous about the preliminary round...I had wanted to practice more and hadn't had the time between research, dissertation writing, and submitting papers. I felt under-prepared and was afraid I would make the same mistake that I made two years previous. My advisor commented that he had never seen me so nervous before speaking...and he has seen me speak a LOT over the last four years. I just about nailed my speech perfectly in the preliminary round. The judges had great feedback and I went on to the final round, which was to be a public, televised event the following week. I added a few sentences and cut some of the words to stay within the time limit and address the comments of the first judges. Again, I wasn't able to practice as much as I had wanted, but I felt okay because I could easily recite the speech even with the changes.

Then, I made the fatal error of over-thinking and started putting unnecessary pressure on myself. I started thinking about how I would be representing our lab, which for most of my time here has been just myself and my advisor. I wanted to showcase our work for the school...especially since so few people even know that we exist, much less what we do. I wanted to get fellow grad students, faculty, staff, and members of the general public excited about the super-cool stuff that I get to work on. I wanted to make my advisor proud of my ability to engage a general audience as well as I had reached an audience of scientists. All of the finalists received a cash prize that increased in value with your placement in the competition. I dreamed about putting my winnings towards buying a plane ticket for my husband to join me for one of my international adventures...and then thought more realistically about how the money would be needed to get us through our latest financial issues. (Which I still plan to do with my I said, we all got a cash prize.) This was my chance to really show what I could do....and yet, I felt like I was not ready.

Image result for scumbag brain over think

The night before the competition, I tried on my "conference suit"...the jacket didn't fit anymore. I have gained a lot of weight from the stress of the last year and have had difficulty in exercising consistently enough to manage this. It's given me self-image issues that I fight hard enough to avoid self-loathing, but I lack the mental fortitude to stick to an exercise regimen that would actually solve the issues. I also hadn't had a hair cut in the better part of a year and felt that it looked terrible, which didn't help. I wanted to go into the competition without being self-conscious, so my amazing husband took me to get my hair cut and to buy a new suit jacket. I got home feeling like a new woman in that way that only a new hair cut and clothes can do. I was ready. But I hadn't said my speech out loud that day because I had worked all morning and then took an hour or so for self-confidence. I said my speech in my head throughout the day, but there's just something different about saying it out loud. I started skipping words and lines. I started worrying about every detail instead of just remembering the gist of what I intended to say. This three-minute structure led me to needing the speech rather than my usual free-form style...otherwise I would have certainly gone over-time.

I found out that day that we were not being judged by faculty members in our department like in the finals, but by three outside individuals. One was the new director for the state museum (a wonderful person I had met at a party several months ago and had wanted to talk to about applying for museum positions after naturally, I wanted to impress her upon learning that she was one of the judges), a state politician, and the head of a local television network that would be broadcasting the event. I wanted to make a good impression on each of these individuals, but this desire contributed more to my existing nervousness than I ever should have let it.

Image result for moulin rouge show must go on
They scheduled me to go last...dead last. I got to hear every other person speak and my nerves swelled. I was doing everything I could to beat the bear back, but he was damned persistent that day. He ended up getting the better of me. When my turn came, I walked onto the stage, ready to wow them...and I did...they were wowed by my ability to...forget my entire speech three lines into it. I tried to recover, but I just felt like I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a spiraling hole of embarrassment and mixed metaphors. I thought about restarting, but didn't think I could restart and then panicked about how I was thinking about this instead of what I should be saying next. Then I tried to move on...and failed...and again, I tried to move on...this went on for a least a minute (though it felt like forever) until I managed to squeeze out the last few lines of an unintelligible mess of words involving poop and parasites and something about scratching and diarrhea. I smiled forcibly...the show must go on...turned, and exited stage left. I got backstage and collapsed. I think I said "dammit" or something along those lines while forgetting that the microphone was still attached and on. I was mortified and in disbelief. Was this a bad dream? Please let me be worried-dreaming...nope...I was still wearing pants.

In the midst of my humiliation, I learned how lucky I was to have failed in such a safe place. The next hour was a blur of hugs, reassuring words of genuine kindness, and an overwhelming sense of community that I had not felt in a very long time. Fellow grad students, faculty and staff members, one of the judges, and even administrators reached out to console me from the moment I collapsed backstage until my husband and I left the bar that a few of us went to after the event. I wish I could remember everything that everyone said to me, but I was too busy feeling like a failure to really hear most things. I will say, that I was impressed with myself about not crying. Part of being a passionate personality is getting worked up to the point that you don't give a rat's ass about crying in's happened, but that's a different story. Somewhere between the shock and all of the support, I maintained my composure fairly well throughout most of the night.

As much as those three minutes on stage sucked and as horribly disappointed as I was in myself afterwards (and I still am, though it's getting better each day), the big lesson for me that night was that I was not alone. One of my favorite lines from youtuber Ze Frank's An Invocation for New Beginnings is, "Let me not be so vain to think that I’m the sole author of my victories and a victim of my defeats." I felt like I was surrounded by family...some who knew me well, and some who knew me just a little bit, but all of whom were there to tell me that it wasn't so bad. It was truly amazing. I'm sure there were those in the audience making their judgments with regard to how bad my presentation...if you want to call it that...was that night, but I never felt the sting of those judgments. Several people stayed behind and allowed me to get back on stage after most people had left so that I could give my presentation again to the camera. This way, the monstrosity from before would not be broadcast locally. I was still shaky and kept losing my words even as I gave the presentation again, but the tech guy was sweet enough to patiently record bits and pieces that he could try to stitch together into something comprehensible. Afterward, we went out for drinks and talked about politics and television shows and books and technology. It was the best way I could have hoped to end an evening after an academic event.

The next day, I got a few messages from friends checking up on me. They were the highlight of my day and really made a difference in my mood even though I didn't respond to them as quickly as I normally would have. I'd be lying if I said that the lack of tears persisted from the night before. My advisor joked with me saying, "It's good to know that you are human after all". I thought about Ze Frank's An Invocation for New Beginnings a lot that day, but never went to watch it because there was much work to do that day. In the afternoon, I enjoyed coffee time...first with my advisor, his wife, and students (all of whom will be traveling to Sicily this summer), and then with two friends who are graduate students in my department. Afterward, I went out to grab dinner with one of those friends and had a wonderful time getting to know her a little better. She's pretty amazing and I am very lucky to have her in my life. :) (Also, she rocked the elevator speech competition in her division that night!)

Image result for saudadeThese series of events have really impacted me in a way that I never thought a silly little elevator speech contest would. I feel like I am where I belong and words can't really express how sad it makes me to think that I am coming to this realization so close to graduation. That sense of belonging, like art and life itself, is ephemeral...which is both dismal and oddly comforting. A feeling of happiness and gratitude has washed over me, but it remains intrinsically linked to a painful sadness driven by the awareness of this state of impermanence. I'm going to miss this place and these people deeply. In Brazil, they have a word for this, saudade. There is no good English translation for this word, but essentially it means to have a profoundly deep longing for something or someone that you love and miss in their absence.

Getting back to Ze Frank, I'm starting to see this whole incident in a more positive light, though I'm still reeling from the fact that it happened at all. In his An Invocation for New Beginnings (I really do love that video...), he says, "Let me realize that my past failures at follow-through are no indication of my future performance. They’re just healthy little fires that are going to warm up my ass." I am going to let this be one of those healthy little fires.

The Moral of the Story
I didn't intend for this to get so long, but it did, and I'm not sorry. Maybe this was more for me than for you in the end. Whatever it was that motivated me to write this post, I hope you enjoyed it, learned something, and/or discovered your own sense of stubbornness by reading it through this far. I've added what I *intended* to say during my speech below. Happy reading for those of you who are interested!

My Elevator Speech

Poop and parasites; two things that I love despite what other people think. Though not always appropriate dinner conversation, poop provides a wealth of data regarding diet and disease. This is as true for what many of you made earlier today as it was for humans thousands of years ago.

My dissertation focuses on retrieving data from 1,300-year-old paleo-poops known as “coprolites”, like the one in the middle of this slide. By analyzing coprolites, we are able to reconstruct diets and patterns of parasite infections that occurred in pre-history. This allows us to better understand the origins of human-parasite associations that still affect people in the modern world.

The coprolites that I work with come from a cave in Mexico known as “La Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos”. This cave held hundreds of coprolites that were sealed beneath two adobe floors, making for some of the best-preserved parasite evidence in the world…now that’s the kind of high-quality crap that we archaeoparasitologists dream about!

The diversity of parasites recovered from this site is amazing. Starting at 12 o’clock, we see a Physaloptera egg, which is associated with dogs. Moving clockwise we see a human whipworm egg, then at 4 o’clock we see Toxascaris, another dog parasite that infects humans from time to time. At 6 o’clock are the results of a molecular test used to look for parasites that don’t leave behind eggs. Ignoring the control wells on the top left, every place that you see yellow represents a positive sample for a diarrhea-inducing parasite called Cryptosporidium parvum. Moving along, the egg you see at about 7 o’clock belongs to a tapeworm and the green egg is that of a human pinworm. Finally, the one up there at about 10 o’clock is a fluke egg. Each of these parasites has a distinct life cycle involving different hosts and modes of transmission.

By recovering parasite data, we are able to infer patterns of human behavior, for example, the dog parasites I mentioned tell us that the people using this cave had close associations with dogs and the molecular test at 6 o’clock tells us that lots of people had diarrhea. The pinworm eggs were so prevalent among the coprolites that we know the vast majority of people at this site were infected.
At night, the female pinworm crawls out of the anus to lay her itchy little eggs on the perianal folds, so you know that as soon as the sun set on La Cueva de los Muertos Chiquitos, everyone was either scratching or dealing with diarrhea.  It doesn’t sound like much of a party for them, but it does provide us with lots of information 1,300 years later!

As we continue collecting parasite data from this site, we will gain a picture of the daily lives of people who left no written record, only ancient nuggets of information reflecting what they ate and what was eating them.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

For the Love of Leftovers: Stuffin' Muffins

Hey all! I know it's been a while...I didn't realize just how much of a while until I saw that I only posted once between the end of January (2014) and now. Things got really crazy really quickly this year and stayed that way know, now-ish. I'm sure they will get crazy again, but until then I've at least got this little post for your enjoyment!

After Thanksgiving this year, I found myself with a lot of stuffing that my husband and I couldn't finish and got a little tired of eating after awhile. I stumbled upon a recipe for "stuffin' muffins" on Pintrest and decided to give it a shot. Fully expecting my husband to hate it, I decided to try to save the stuffing by making it into something that maybe I could eat for a few breakfasts or something. When the resurrected leftovers came out of the oven, I was surprised by my husband's enthusiasm. He loved them! Then we shared with the roommate...he also fell in love with them! The remaining muffins didn't last more than a day between the three of us.

Our whirl-wind trip down to Texas last week was a blast! It sent us home with lots of new kitchen gadgets (among other fun things) and with lots of food (the majority of which, admittedly, is candy). My husband was sure to ask for stuffing so that I could make the famous stuffin' muffins again. This afternoon, I decided it was time for round two of making these noms.

As with many recipes, I didn't quite follow the recommendations. In fact, I did things a bit differently even between the two times I've made these. I can tell you that both ways are yummy, and that I'm not entirely sure which I like better. (The first time, I used leftover turkey meat and the second time I didn't have turkey so I did a meatless version.)

So, without further ado, I present to you: Stuffin' Muffins!

Step 1: Preheat your oven to 350 F and spray/grease your muffin tins. I used olive oil spray and made 24 because I had lots of stuffing both times I made these.

Step 2: Crumble up your stuffing and fill the muffin tins. The first time I did this, I broke up the stuffing in a bowl and added shredded turkey. The original recipe called for adding thawed (previously frozen) spinach, but I didn't have any so I left that bit out. I'm guessing you could add any type of veggies here that you wanted, though I have yet to try such a thing. Make sure you break up the stuffing good if it's still a bit moist and sticky. On the other hand, if your stuffing is very dry, don't break it up too much! The trick here is to fill the tins, but to leave enough airspace for the liquids to seep into the breading.

Step 3: In a medium-sized bowl, beat together 10 eggs (for 24 muffins), about 1/4 cup milk (the recipe called for 2 Tbsps/12 muffins, but I sort of just dumped a little want it to be somewhat thick, but you also want it to pour easily and be enough liquid to soak all of your stuffing), salt, and pepper (seasonings to taste, but remember that most of your flavor will come from the stuffing itself, so don't over do it!).

Step 4: Pour liquid mixture over the stuffing in the tins. Only pour a small amount in each until all of the tins have liquid and then try to even out how much everyone gets. I do this and then use a spoon to transfer excess liquid from one cup into another cup that looks like it needs a bit more. Gently press the stuffing into the liquid to make sure that everything is soaked adequately. The first time I did this, that was it, but the second time, I added additional stuffing to the cups because I had it and it looked a bit too liquid-y (though I doubt it would have made a difference in taste, really).

Step 5: Bake muffins for 20-25 minutes. When ready, the bottoms should be fairly brown and the eggs should all be cooked through, leaving nothing to jiggle.

Step 6: Enjoy your stuffin' muffins before your husband and roommate devour the lot of them! ;)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Impromptu Tomatillo Cream Soup

I had no intention of blogging today, but things happened so a spontaneous post is here. As I was leaving work today to bike home, I saw a bag of tomatillos sitting on the free-stuff table in the lobby. (That's right, my department has a random free-stuff table! It's usually books and magazines, but sometimes people leave goodies from their gardens!) After confirming with the lady at the desk that they were indeed up for grabs, I stuffed them in my little backpack and pedaled home as quick as I could.

After cooling down from an intense ride and drinking lots of water, I decided I needed to decide what to do with my new treasures. My first thought was to save them for a friend who really loves tomatillos, but selfishness got the better of me. (Sorry Airicca! I hope you know I still love you!) I decided to make a soup out of them without really having a recipe or idea of what I was doing. It all happened so fast, that I didn't even any good pictures, save for a few of the final product.

Thick, creamy, tomatillo-y, deliciousness!
So here's what I did:

Tomatillo Preparation
I started by removing the husks from the tomatillos (which is where they get their other name "husk tomatoes" from) and washing the fruits thoroughly. There's a bit of a sticky residue on the fruits when you remove the husks, so washing is not only sanitary, it's necessary! Then I diced them up cutting off any questionable looking bits. (As a side note for anyone who's never used tomatillos, they are much tougher than tomatoes, so they can handle being sauteed rather than just warmed like one would do if adding tomatoes to a dish like this.)

The Saute
I diced up some red onion and added it and the diced tomatillos to a medium saucepan. I added a generous amount of olive oil and spun the heat dial up to medium-high. From there, I stirred the veggies so that they were nicely coated with oil.

The Seasoning
I am always experimental when it comes to seasonings. It doesn't always work out for me, but sometimes (like in the present situation) it works perfectly. I went in thinking I'd do a broth-y kind of soup using a bacon bullion that I picked up in Brazil over the summer, but once I got to going with spices, I decided to change it up a bit. I first added a garlic salt with parsley flakes that my husband bought accidentally when I sent him to get garlic powder. (Don't be too harsh, the man makes me sushi and grills like a boss when it's warm enough to do it.) Then I added in some celery salt, paprika, and cumin (heavy on the cumin!) to the now simmering veggies. I then stirred it well and kept it cooking until the onions began to clear and the tomatillos were softened adequately.

Gettin' Creamy
By now, I had put back the bacon bullion for a later time and called in the milk and cheese. I sprinkled enough feta cheese to just dust the surface of the amazing-smelling saute before me. I gave it a quick stir to get the feta integrated and melted before I added enough milk to almost fill the pot (about 4 or 5 cups, if I had to guess). This got stirred well.

Thickening Up
The soup looked a little thin, as one might imagine, so it was time to add a thickener. I make a quick and simple roux by adding a heaping tablespoon of whole wheat flour to my favorite shaking jar (an old pickle jar that I use to make salad dressings and other such things) and then added a bit of cracked black pepper and some of the garlic salt from before. The next step was to add a few ladles of my thin soup into the jar, close the lid, and shake like crazy! This formed a thick liquid, which was subsequently poured back into the soup pot from whence it came. After a few minutes the soup began to thicken a bit.

This little guy escaped the wrath of
my immersion blender...this time...
Using My Favorite Appliance
Those of you who know me know what's coming next. I pulled out my immersion blender (one of my very favorite things) and went to town on this soup. I got most of the big chunks, but some little guys remained and I was totally okay with that. If you don't have an immersion blender, get one. Like right now. Seriously, they are amazing. Plus it really beats trying to work in batches to get the soup in a standing blender. That's what we call "lame" and "not worth your time". Just saying, immersion blenders FTW!

And that's it! It was quick and easy with a delicious outcome! I think that the next time I do this, I'll have to take the time to roast the tomatillos first to bring out a little bit different flavor and see the difference. Until then, this was a wonderful soup, and I hope that some of you will get serendipitous tomatillos (or purposeful tomatillos, whichever you prefer) to whip up some of this tomatillo cream soup! Happy eating! :)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Dessert from Heaven: Snow Ice Cream to Start 2014

I sit here waiting on rice to cool so that my wonderful husband can finish preparing sushi for dinner (yeah...I'm pretty lucky to have a sushi-making hubby!), and I realized that I've never posted about one of my all-time favorite things about the winter...snow ice cream! Time to change that.

As a kid growing up in north central Texas, we didn't see a lot of snow. We saw a few ice storms here and there and some flurries from time to time that left a thin blanket of white across the barren fields surrounding my childhood home. These rare blankets typically dissipated within a few days, but there were a few times that we got enough snow for this. I can't remember if we were at home or if we were visiting family in another city the first time that I had snow ice cream.

After growing up and moving off to college, there several times that I remember making snow ice cream. Though still in Texas, we were further north...close to the Red River which borders that awful place we know as Oklahoma. (Oklahoma isn't really so bad...that was just my Texan rivalry showing.) Out of instinct from years of living in places that don't typically get much snow, I still grab the biggest bowl I own every time I realize that it is snowing. Now that I live in Nebraska I get to make this much more often...which is one of the few things I like about the coldness here.

Okay, enough history. Here's how it is done!

Step 1: Wait for snow
This isn't something I can help you with...

Step 2: Grab the biggest freaking bowl that you own and place it outside.
I have a gigantic black mixing bowl with a lid that I like to use (without the lid of course). Be sure to place the bowl on an elevated surface so that critters don't get into it and leave you with yellow snow! I like to put mine on my car, but if the wind is blowing too hard that may not be the best option. Use your best judgement!

Step 3: Wait some more
Ugh! All the anticipation! You don't have to wait until the bowl is full, but you want as much as you can get, so don't pull in the bowl until the snow has stopped falling!

Step 4: Finally making the ice cream
Okay, now that you have your snow, you can bring in your bowl and whip out a big spoon to get started! You will need milk, sugar, and the extracts/add-ins of your choice. Let's start with your basic vanilla. I don't know exact measurements here (they would vary by the amount of snow you have collected anyway). Start by sprinkling in sugar. You don't want to over-do it, but get a nice dusting of the granules all over the top layer of your collected snow. You can add more as you taste test if you decide it needs to be a little sweeter.

Next you want to add in the milk. This is tricky because if you add too much you get a soup rather than ice cream. Add just a little at a time...less than you think you will need as the snow will melt into it a little bit as you add it in anyway since the milk isn't quite as cold as the snow. Now add in a little of your vanilla extract. Stir your concoction gently to get it all mixed well.  And you are done! If it seems a little thick, you can add more milk, but remember that if you add too much it will get very soupy. (Snow ice cream is going to be much softer than freezer ice cream anyway, so don't be surprised if it's not what you expect the first time you make it.)

Step 5 (optional): Extras and add-in's
Now that you know the basics, you can change it up if you so desire! I like to add in coconut extract (in addition to the vanilla) most of the time. I've also done cherry, root beer, strawberry, banana, and several combinations. Fun fact: coconut + strawberry extracts = a cotton candy-like flavor! You could also add in frozen-chopped fruits or fruit juices if you wanted! I've also been thinking of using powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar, but I haven't quite tested that out yet.

Step 6: Enjoy your treat from the heavens!
Hope you make and fall in love with this tasty winter treat! It has a lot of potential for creativity and would be a lot of fun to do with kids! Happy Eating! :D

My vanilla-coconut snow ice cream from the first snow on the first day of 2014.
I accidentally added a little too much milk, but it still tasted yummy!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Day Pierogies

My Momma always taught me that New Year's Day was the one magical day a year that you needed to eat two particular foods to secure luck and money for the next year. Black-eyed peas for luck and cabbage for cash. These foods were a MUST for the first day of the year and I have carried on the tradition/superstition for as long as I can remember. (I've been pretty blessed with luck. The cash doesn't feel like its been around as much, but then again we've always managed to get by which is more than some people can say, so I'd better not break with tradition.)

Last year was the first married New Year's Day for my husband and I, so I was sure to eat lots of these two magical foods. Last year we cooked smoked sausage and mixed in sauerkraut and black-eyed peas for a simple New Year's dinner. This year, I decided to kick it up a notch with something a little more time-intensive. I read a recipe for sauerkraut pierogies online. I've always wanted to learn how to make pierogis, but I had never thought to put sauerkraut in them. Once I made this discovery it was easy to add in black-eyed peas to make this a New Year's Day kind of a thing.

So, I took the recipe and made it my own. I added in spices and other ingredients that weren't part of the recipe. I questioned whether or not it was going to work at all. I stumbled my way through and after about 2 hours, I had something great to show for it! I honestly don't think it would take that long if I had known what I was doing or had felt more confident in what I was doing, so don't let that time frame scare you off from these. I definitely plan to make pierogies again because you have a lot of room for variation....these little guys are very versatile!  I might even make this same thing next year...then again, I may try something new...who knows?! Either way, these were tasty, so here's how I did it for those that want to try it for themselves!

I had fun filling pierogies! My husband had fun watching...and less fun doing the dishes!

I don't usually structure my posts this way, but due to the number of steps, I'll go ahead and list the ingredients first. The original recipe yields 4 dozen, so I cut it in half, which is why some of the measurements seem wonky. Keep in mind that I adapted this from another recipe, so it's totally fine for you to not follow it to the letter if you chose to mix it up!

Dough Ingredients: 1&1/2 cup flower, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 egg, 1/8 cup sour cream, and about 3/8 cup water.

Filling Ingredients: 1/2 lb red potatoes (I used one big one and one small one.), 1 Tbsp sour cream, 1/8 tsp salt, 1/3-1/2 can sauerkraut, 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, 1/2 can black-eyed peas (drained), paprika and garlic powder to taste.

Searing Ingredients: 1/4 white onion sliced in strips (The recipe called for a small yellow onion, but I just used the last of one that I had.) and 1&1/2 Tbsp of butter (I may or may not have used more than this...)

Phase I: You Knead to Make Dough
My husband and my dough hook.
What more does a girl need?
Okay, down to business. You start with making the dough first because it needs a little time to rest before you roll it out. Whisk your flour and salt together in a stand mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk your egg, sour cream, and water together until you get a pretty consistent yellow, then pour that over your flour/salt mix. You can whisk this for a few seconds like I did (ignoring the fact that it says to mix it by hand) or you can use a wooden spoon like you are supposed to do to get these ingredients mixed in with one another. Your choice. Either way, mix until what the recipe called a "shaggy dough" is formed. Once it started looking dough-like, I pulled the beater, scraped it and the bowl with a plastic spoon, and gave it a quick stir to get it all mixed in. Next, I broke out my trusty dough hook and let it go to town for about five minutes. (The recipe said you could knead it by hand for eight minutes, but why do that if you don't have to?!) It looked a bit sticky, so I added some flour as it was going, but be careful not to do too much! It should eventually form a smooth wet-looking ball that may or may not stick to the bottom of the bowl just a touch. (Airicca says that this was just a factor of my dough hook not setting as low as some other stand mixers.) Remove the dough hook, loosely cover the bowl, and set aside to rest until you are finished with the filling and ready to roll (literally).

*~*Dough-making lesson*~*
My amazing roommate worked as a baker and knows all this cool stuff about making dough. It turns out that the reason we knead bread at all is to develop strands of gluten. Stronger gluten = tougher dough, so sometimes you need more kneading and sometimes you need less kneading depending on what you are going to use the dough to make. She also says that chefs always want to add four to dough, but in reality, you usually need more water than you think. The moral of the story is that you have to be careful! Don't get too flour-happy even if it seems like the dough "needs it" because it looks "sticky". This may take time to work out if you aren't lucky enough to have a baker living with you, but just follow the recipe minding your flour additions and you should do just fine! :)
*~*End of Lesson*~*

Phase II: Potatoes are Filling
The next phase of operation pierogi was to work on the filling. Pierogies are traditionally stuffed with potatoes and these babies were no different. Start by washing your potatoes and boiling them. The recipe said to do this whole, but I cut mine into chunks so that they would cook faster. The nice thing is that they cook quickly anyway because you are only boiling a small amount as opposed to what I'm used to doing for mashed potatoes or potato soup. While the potatoes cooked, I got my dough area ready by flouring the surface of my roommate's wood block (affectionately called "the beast") as well as my wooden rolling pin. I also pulled out two cookie sheets and lined them with parchment paper. This is also a good time to cut your onion up into strips and set aside if you want to get ahead of the game.

Once the potatoes are tender (can be effortlessly smashed with a fork), drain them and proceed to mash them with either a potato masher or, if you are like me, with your trusty immersion blender. Add in salt, paprika, garlic powder, and sour cream when potatoes look half-mashed and then continue mashing. Next, add in your cheese, sauerkraut, and black-eyed peas and mix with a spoon as you don't want to blend up your peas and sauerkraut. The recipe called to pre-shape the filling into balls and set them aside, but mine was so sticky, that there was just no way that it was going to work for me, so I just left them in the saucepan until I was ready to fill.

It tasted better than it looks, I promise!

Lame rap lyric spoofs aside,
here's the dough before rolling out.
Phase III: Roll Out! Roll Out! (I'm Makin' Pierogies...You Can't Stop That!)
Time for the fun part! I scraped my dough out onto the floured surface and rolled it out. My dough tried to shrink back as I was rolling, so I let it sit for about five minutes and did a little clean up to give it a little extra time to develop. After that, it was easy to roll the dough out to about 1/8" thick. This was supposed to make two dozen and I wasn't sure how looking at my sheet of dough, so I rolled it just a bit thinner (which worked out perfectly). Use your best judgement keeping in mind that the leftover bits will be rerolled and will yield more than you realize (if you are me). In the end, I made exactly 24 pierogies with only a tiny sliver of dough left behind. I was impressed because I was SURE that it wouldn't make that many after the first time rolling it out, but I was wrong! I digress. Moving on! The recipe called for a 3" biscuit cutter, but I just lightly floured the mouth of a wide drinking glass with about the same diameter because that's what I had. It worked just fine! :p I laid the dough rounds out on my parchment paper-lined baking sheets and washed my hands for the next phase.

Here I've rolled out the dough and cut a few rounds.
Here's all 2 dozen rounds. Perfect number even
if they aren't all perfectly round after moving
from the beast to the sheets!

Phase IV: Fill' Er Up!
This next step got...sticky. Until my super-intelligent husband reminded me that putting a little olive oil on my fingers would keep the filling from sticking as badly so I didn't have to wash my hands between each pierogi! (I'm a lucky woman to have a man with looks, personality, and brains!) First, I filled a large pot with water, sprinkled in some salt, and set it to boil. To make the pierogies themselves, I started off holding a round of dough in one hand, filling with the other, then folding the dough in half over the filling, and finally crimping the ends together. This would have been a lot easier if the filling wasn't so sticky! After doing a few that way, I decided to streamline it a little better an dabbed filling on each round until I was out of filling. A few of them got a little more full than they probably should have been, but hey, I didn't want to waste anything! After that and the olive oil trick, folding and crimping went MUCH faster and I had dumplings ready to go in no time!

 First attempts at filling, folding, and sealing were a bit slow...

A lonely little pierogi...

 Learned to work smarter...not harder...(Much less lonely pierogies!)

Phase V: Boil, Boil, No Toil, No Trouble
This was one of the easiest parts of the whole process. With my first batch of pierogies filled, sealed, and waiting, it was easy simply toss them in the boiling water and wait. Actually, I didn't wait, I finished filling and sealing the second dozen while the first dozen cooked, but I'm a multitasker, so you do it however you want to do it! The recipe said not to boil more than 10 at a time, but since I was only making 24, it seemed silly not to add 12 at a time....there was plenty of room. After you get all 12 in the pot, you need to run a slotted spoon around the bottoms of your dumplings to make sure that they aren't sticking to the bottom or to one another. They will sink to the bottom immediately when you add them to the water. When they float to the top, they are basically finished. The recipe says 8-10 minutes of boiling usually does this, but mine were finished in about 5-6 minutes. I let my cook another minute or so after floating up until all 12 were floating. Then, you need to pull them out with a slotted spoon and put them back onto your parchment paper-lined sheets. Don't stack them so that they won't stick together and you may want to turn them while the other batch is going so that they don't get too soggy from sitting in water if you didn't get them fully drained after you rescued them. While that last set is boiling, you can start on the next phase.

 Happily boiled pierogies straight from the pot and lined up for searing.

Phase VI: Sear Those Suckers!
In the biggest skillet you own, you want to melt the butter and toss in your onion strips. Stir the strips to coat them in the butter and gather them in the center of the skillet for a minute or so to get a little brown. Next, scatter the strips to the edges of the skillet and toss in 6-8 pierogies. (More if you have a massive skillet!) Sear the pierogies on both sides getting them nice and crispy with golden-brown splotches all over. Remove them to a plate lined with paper towels for draining. Add butter as needed and continue adding batches of pierogies until you get them all seared. If it looks like the onions are getting on the far side of well-done, you can remove them as I did. If you have enough onion, you could actually do 2-3 new batches of onion in between your batches of pierogies if you wanted.

Cooking onions in butter and then pan searing these puppies smelled amazing!
Phase VII: Challenge Complete. Enjoy your Pierogies!
Now that you have finished, you can eat to your heart's delight! My husband was sad that there was no dipping sauce...I think he was thinking about Asian dumplings...but he seemed to enjoy them all the same! I liked them a lot, but I could see a lot of room for adapting it to make them more flavorful as they were a tad on the bland side. (Which isn't always a bad thing...I like some foods to be "bland" because they still taste great even without a lot of spice!) The recipe I used added that you can use leftover mashed potatoes instead of having to essentially make mashed potatoes. (But seriously, who ever has leftover mashed potatoes?! Those disappear super fast in this house!) They also mentioned that you can freeze these bad boys before you cook them if you want to make a big batch and save some for a quick meal down the road.

Again, I know this seems like a lot of work, but it really wasn't too bad. It also would have gone quicker if I wouldn't have doubled-checked everything 3 or 4 times or if I wouldn't have kept deviating from the recipe...but in the end they came out really great so I suppose it's a good thing that I did! I hope you take the time to make and enjoy these yummy little pockets of luck and cash even if it isn't New Year's Day anymore!  Happy Eating! :D

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ode to a Fellow Female MacGyver (and to Honey!)

So this post is about another amazing Female MacGyver that lives and walks amongst us. It's also about one of my favorite things in the whole world: Honey.

Let's start by talking about that.

Honey is amazingly delicious and makes a great sweetener for tea, milkshakes, and...okay just about anything. I prefer to use honey to sweeten things over sugar whenever I can. I'm especially fond of trying different types of honeys...especially at farmer's markets.

Honey also brags of several health benefits. It's comprised of several different kinds of sugars (fructose and glucose mostly, but also maltose and sucrose). It also contains antioxidants, which clean up damaging free radicals. Honey is fairly acidic with a pH ranging between 3.2 and 4.5. This helps it to prevent the growth of bacteria (which is one reason it doesn't ever spoil). When mixed into a hot green tea or a hot toddy (honey, lemon juice, and whiskey), this powerful ingredient can do a number on the bacteria that cause sore throats. (I know this from personal experience!!)

These antibiotic properties aren't exclusively internal. In fact, there actually exists MEDICAL GRADE HONEY!!! This grade of honey has been used to treat burns and chronic wound infections. Three years ago, scientists discovered that honey's antibacterial properties derived from more than just its acidity. Apparently, a protein called "defensin-1" helps it to actually kill bacteria by destroying bacterial proteins. There are also many scientific papers describing the effectiveness of treating wounds with Manuka honey (the honey typically used for medical purposes). People have even begun to discover that honey can fight MRSA, prevent radiation-induced dermatitis in breast cancer patients undergoing treatment, and may even be able to reverse bacterial resistance to antibiotics!

Now as we talk of this honey, let me be very clear about two things. One, keep in mind that research into the pros and cons of honey are on-going and that what we know to be true now may not be true tomorrow. And two, we are talking about natural honey, not artificially honey. An article in Nature revealed that natural honey was three times better at killing bacteria than artificial honey is. This means that you want honey made by bees...not the busy kinds that wear lab coats, but the kind that buzz about collecting pollen and vomiting sweet, delicious, viscous-y goodness that is jam-packed with antiseptic and antibacterial properties.

Going way back, even the Greeks and the Romans praised the healing properties of honey. They claimed it made you live longer...and why shouldn't they? The Egyptians were believing the same thing long before that. Medical recipes containing honey date back 5 millennia. It has been used on the battle fields for thousands of years to treat wounded soldiers knowing it helped to prevent infections even before people understood what caused infections. The history of honey is fascinating and well-worth the read, but I'll spare you the stories for this particular blogpost.

Given all of this wonderfulness, you can imagine how proud I was when my roommate remembered our conversations about honey and applied them. As you may or may not know, she tragically cut her thumb badly a few days ago. She went to use our Neosporin only to find out it expired...let's just say...a long time ago. In true MacGyver fashion, she applied some raw honey to her wound and after only a day the wound had already begun to heal more rapidly than expected and the bruising/swelling had gone down a LOT.
I don't have a "before",
but here's the after and trust me,
it looked MUCH worse prior to the honey!

Earlier today, she again used honey to make these amazing impromptu candies with honey, roasted peanuts, butter, and brown sugar. That's right...she totally just made up a recipe for candy! (I've been trying to tell her that she needs to blog about them to share her creation with the world! They are delicious!)

The moral of the story is that honey is delicious, nutritious, medicinal, and good for fixing your thumb right up so you can get back to making amazing sweets for the holidays! :D

Happy Roommate = Candy --> More Happy Roommates!!!