Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How To...Make Your Chucks Look Fresher

As a teacher, I almost never sit down between the hours of 8:45 - 4:15 Monday - Friday. I'm either up at the board, flitting between students, or generally hopping around teaching Biology. 

So I don't wear heels. I wear my good ol' Converses to school, or as my students call them "my nasty chucks." 

Why nasty you ask? Because I've had them for 1.5 years now, and they're kinda dirty. Not gross dirty, just that they're less shiny and new. 

My students value shiny shoes very highly. I see them frequently cleaning/wiping off their shoes to make sure they stay "fresh." Anyways, my shoes got to the point where I had a student bring a brush to school and offer to clean mine. 

I can't help it if I wore them gardening...

But I digress...this post is about how to make your Chucks, or any tennis shoes really, shine again! It's quite simple really. 

What you need
Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (the regular kind, off brand works too, it's what I used)
A bowl of water 

How to do it

Cut a magic eraser in half, so its easier to hold. Then dunk it in water, and start scrubbing your shoes. It honestly doesn't take that long to see much of a difference. The magic eraser will slowly start to fall apart, that's okay, just make sure you're not sitting on a rug or carpet, otherwise it just makes the cleanup harder.

That's about it. Keep scrubbing until it's as clean as you want it. Whenever the eraser startes to get dry, dunk it in the water again. 

For this one, I just used the magic eraser along the top quickly. The picture on the left is the uncleaned shoe, and the one on the right is just after a few scrubs with the magic eraser. Massive difference.

I haven't cleaned the left side yet, but look! The right side is waaaaay whiter! 

How it works

Basically the Mr. Clean scrubs are a type of fine-mesh abrasive plastic that feels really soft when it's in mass quantity, but it's quite abrasive at the it can get into all those nooks and crannies regular toothbrushes or scrubbing will miss. It's why it's such an effective cleaner! 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why I Bake

So a few people have asked me why I bake. It's simple--baking is something I can DO. It's input to output ratio is generally equal, and you get a tangible result within a few hours usually. 

That's not true for most things in life. 

Teach for America? As a high school teacher, I take the wins I can get. Student X showed up to class on time? WIN. Student Z turned in his homework? WIN. Student D brought in a pencil and didn't pull out their cell phone? WIN. Heck, Student A stayed awake during class? WIN. 

Medical School Application? As an applicant, I take what I can get, and refresh my inbox like a rabid chipmunk hoping desperately for an interview, or some smidgen of hope that I'm not totally lost in the pile applicants the admissions committee must read. Hours of heart, sweat, and ME that goes into the essays, the personal statements, the descriptions, everything. 

Baking? Mix together flour, sugar, and butter? Shortbread cookies to feed 30! Mix together apples, oats, brown sugar, flour, and butter? Crisp for plenty! Mix together hazelnuts, chocolate, flour, sugar, and vanilla? The most tasty "nutella" cookies you'll find. 

You see the difference? 

I was wait-listed today at a school I interviewed at in September. It's odd. I was rejected from Stanford, Vanderbuilt, and Davis, without any real emotional fall out--was I sad? Sure. But was I hurt? Was I mad? No. I thought--huh, this is what rejection feels like? Not so bad. WRONG. I just didn't see myself there. 

I was mad when I got the e-mail today. I was hurt when I got the e-mail today. I was frustrated when I got the e-mail today. I'm not cocky enough to say that I thought I would get in right away, I just didn't think of how it would suck to not know. Just something I didn't think of. 

So I baked. Because it works. I think about just the baking, I don't focus on how frustrated I am, I just think--how lovely these cookies will be when I take them out of the oven! And it makes me happy.

So there, when you're frustrated, when you're irritated, when you're blergle, or whatever--bake, and bake these cookies, because they're tasty. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chocolate Lemon Layer Cake and Austin City Limits

A few weeks ago, my lovely husband took me too Austin City Limits. It's this super awesome, and super huge annual music festival in Austin with huge names like Arcade Fire, Joseph Arthur, Jack Ingram, and more. 
When I say took me, I mean actually took me. Let me be real for a second, sometimes I can be a serious "Debbie Downer." No joke. I'll whine, I'll complain, I'll say I'm too tired to drive to Austin, even though he's the one driving. 

I'll say I have too much work to do, even though I've finished most of it, there's an endless pile that I can just keep working on. I'll say I just plain old don't want to go even though we bought the tickets.
But luckily my lovely husband knows me. He sighs, waits till I'm done whining like a small, spoiled child, and says, "I think you'll have a lot o fun" and then waits for the second round of whining complains. This cycle continues till I sigh and give in.

Invariably I always have fun, and feel like a total tool for whining about it in the first place.

Anyways, it was awesome. Full of people, like 5 different stages with different types of music playing! We laid out on a blanket in the sun, munched on an over-priced soggy burrito, and rocked out. I even brought a new book I was reading, and bopped out to the music while reading.

People judged me. But not my lovely husband, who sat with his lovely head in my lap, and just relaxed while I scratched his head. 

How did I get so lucky? 

Anyways, I digress. On the way home, I had a huge craving to just EAT a lemon. But instead of having lemon inside, I wanted chocolate. Ergo, this layered chocolate cake came forth. 

It's chocolate-y, with a lemon kick and it's tasty. 

Chocolate Lemon Layer Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
2.5 cups sugar
0.75 cup unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup canola oil
1 cup greek yogurt or sour cream
1.5 cups water
2 tbsp. distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Then whisk in the canola oil, and yogurt or sour cream slowly. Then add in the vinegar and vanilla. When that's completely added, whisk in the two eggs. Make sure everything is well incorporated. 

Butter, line with parchment paper, and dust with cocoa powder two cake pans. 

Divide the batter equally among the two pans, and bake for 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. 

While it's in the oven, make the lemon curd. I've posted this before, so I'm reposting a doubled recipe.

Lemon Curd

0.67 cup lemon juice
1.5 cups sugar
2 tbsp. lemon zest
6 eggs
6 tbsp. butter 

Mix the sugar, lemon juice, zest, and eggs. Put them on a double boiler, and stir with a whisk constantly for 10-15 minutes. Two things: 1. Make sure the bottom of the double boiler doesn't touch the boiling water, or lese you'll have lots of scrambled eggs...ugh. 2. Make sure you whisk constantly, so the eggs don't scramble, but rather incorporate nicely.

After it thickens, pull it off, and whisk in the butter. Then strain it to get out any tiny pieces that did scramble. 

After the cake is done, pull it out, let it cool for 30 min.

When it's cool, pop it out carefully, and cut each cake in half. Place the bottom half on the cake stand or plate, or whatever you're planning to frost it on. 

Reserve the prettiest layer of cake for the top. 

Then pour 1/3 of the lemon curd on and spread it to the edges. Put the next layer of cake on, and pour another third of the lemon curd on and spread it around. Put the next layer on, and do the same. Put on the last layer as the top, and dust with some powdered sugar to make it pretty.  :-) You can also put slices of lemon on top if you are serving it that same day! 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review...ish: The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

Have you ever had a bad break-up with a book? One that you loved: it started out pristine and in perfect conditions, the cover calling out to you started out slow, you got to know each other and then BAM you stay up all night with each other getting more and more involved. Soon the cover is falling apart, pages are stuck together because of food stains, and it's gone from being new to worn. But you still love it.

And then one's done, it's gone from your life in a second. And you are left shell-shocked, wanting more, but knowing you won't get any.

That was like me and the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. For those that don't know me that well, this might seem a bit over dramatic, but my dear friend Sam and my husband were present at the time I finished the last Liz Salander book. It was not a pretty sight. I had become an addict. 

My literary world came crashing down around longer was I interested in reading about Sookie Stackhouse's latest vampire adventures...I could not even be consoled by the culinary humor of Goldy Schultz, the cater/part-time crime solver heroine in Diane Mott Davidson novels. 

I got over it eventually and moved on to other books, as we all do. But that one will always hold a special place in my heart. 

That's why I was intrigued by, The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg when the cover said it was meant for fans of Steig Larsson. Obviously I bought it. 
So my thoughts...without giving anything away. 

The book was a great mystery. It had the components of romance, mystery, grotesqueness, crime, and twists necessary to be a great book. If you're a fan of mystery books that are not conventional, and don't have easy to guess endings (i.e. not James Patterson novels, which...while I love, get predictable after a while), get it. 

Lackberg does a great job of building the main character, Erica Flack and the role she plays untangling the mystery after finding her old friend Alex dead in a bathtub.  Trust me, you won't guess it...unless you're one of those people (like myself) who flips to the end and reads the end first. Lackberg can definitely paint a beautiful picture, so that you get sucked into the book and feel like you're watching the story unfold before you. 

BUT...this is no Steig Larsson book. This story, unfortunately, does not have the same nuanced complexities as Larsson's book does, and since its not over 1000 pages long, you don't get the feeling like you know the characters inside and out. To put it bluntly, The Ice Princess is a decent replacement for Larsson's books, but it doesn't hold a candle to the real thing. 

In the end: I say read it, it's pretty good, but don't expect to be provoked and sucked in, in the same way you were with Larsson's books.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Not so slow food

Articles:  Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? 

Basic Summary: The article are lamenting the rise of fast food and the concurrent loss of "slow food," in the America diet. "Slow food" (a term I very much dislike), is basically food prepared at home with basic ingredients. Simply put--cooking. Bittman argues against the misconception that junk food is cheaper overall, and addresses common excuses for why people eat so much fast food--such as time, access to grocery stores, etc. He makes some good points, but fails to provide tangible advice to people trying to move away from fast food, and more towards "slow food" 

My thoughts: 

Tyler and I rarely eat out anymore. We would instead channel our "eating out budget" to eating really well in. And we do...our menu includes items like Buckwheat Crepes with chevre vegetables, orange-ginger stir fry with tofu, spinach enchiladas with green sauce, potatoes romanoff, mezze plates, and more. But I digress

I'll cut to the chase. In the article, Bittman makes several good points about why the rise in fast food consumption is silly--in large part because it's shockingly unhealthy, and it's not actually monetarily cheaper. My issue was that he seemed to dance around one of the biggest reason I think people eat a lot of fast food: it's FAST. No muss, no fuss, you don't even have to get out of your car! And the clean up is as easy as throwing everything in the garbage. 

That is very appealing when you have multiple mouths to feed, you work an 8-5 job (or more for many Americans), and you're mentally and physically exhausted. At that point, it's not a question of whether or not fast food is monetarily cheaper than buying ingredients at the stores, it's a question of how much my time is worth? 

As a young adult who was thrown head first into the professional world of teaching, where 8-4:30 really means "8-whenever grading and lesson plans are done" I can sympathize with the dread of cooking and the inevitable clean up that follows. So that's why I was frustrated that Mr. Bittman failed to provide tangible advice in his commentary about how to move away from fast food and back to real food. 

It's all well and good to say we should do that, but the real question is how? 

So here's my advice, it's by no means perfect, but it works for me. 

The way I, and my lovely husband, can eat tasty food is not because I devote an exorbitant amount of time to cooking, it's because I cook most of the food on one day. 

Seriously. I make a menu for the week, make a grocery list off that, then figure out what I can pre-prepare, and do it. So here's a few tips: 

1. Always have a weekly menu. 

This will save you time in thinking about what you're going to eat, and it will help you figure out what you can do ahead of time. 

2. Think of foods you can make ahead of time

Chili, Enchiladas, lasagna, quiche, stir-fry, burritos, rice and beans, soups/stews, macaroni and cheese, salad without dressing, and more. Because these items keep in the fridge, you can just make them one day, re-heat them and eat! Honestly, it's great driving home knowing I'm going to have spinach lasagna with salad and some warm bread when I get home, and all I have to do is cut a slice of lasagna, stick it in the microwave, pull out a little salad, and toss a roll in the toaster oven. Bam, dinner. 

3. With anything you can't make ahead of time, think of parts you can make ahead of time

For example, Friday is pizza night in our house, but you can't make pizza ahead of time, but you can make the sauce. Or tacos, I can't make those completely ahead of time, but I can cook the beans, cut up the tomatoes, and prepare other toppings. 

4. Make your lunch the night before with left overs, or make a food entirely dedicated to lunch. 

For example, this week, I made a crap ton of chili, and took that for lunch every day of the week, except one, where I had left overs. There was enough for both me and Tyler. Other days its enchiladas, or baked mac and cheese. Either way, making your lunch the night before makes you less tempted to go out for lunch. Make sure you pack extra food, like nuts, or dry cereal, fruit, or yogurt, just in case you're hungry. 

That's all I can think of for now, but it works. Try'll feel good, spend less, and eat better. Screw slow food, eat real fast food.