Thirty-Two

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Right.

So.

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I had a birthday earlier this month. To be honest, this may be the first year when I haven’t given much thought about it, no major self-reflections on where I am in my life, about the past year or what I want to tackle in the future. No convincing myself that age is just a number and you are only as old as you feel. Perhaps because I had been crazy with work or because I knew I was going to spend the day with my family. Or more likely, because I didn’t really want to think about it.

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Thinking about cake, however, was something I could gladly spend my time on. By the start of March, my yearning for spring is all-consuming, so I tend towards fruit-filled cakes (see last year and the year before). This year was no exception, and as I had the pleasure of spending the weekend with my family in Washington, which includes a four-year old niece and a year and a half year old nephew, I steered away from my inclinations towards coffee and alcohol in my dessert.

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I’ve had this recipe for Poppy Seed Layer Cake with White Chocolate Cream and Strawberries saved for many years, but never a good opportunity (or crowd) to serve it. This is not your typical birthday cake (i.e. cloyingly sweet and overly dry), instead, its bright with lemon infused throughout and dotted with poppy seeds. The white chocolate cream? Out of this world and a perfect complement for the strawberries. It makes a large cake – so invite your favorite people to share it with. My cousin, notoriously picky (especially for non-chocolate desserts) even went back for a second piece.

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I may have had a second piece also … it was my birthday after all, and if nothing else, I make damn good dessert.

 

Poppy Seed Layer Cake with White Chocolate Cream and Strawberries
from Bon Appetit
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Poppy Seed Cake
3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons lemon zest (I used 3 lemons)
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
 
For white chocolate cream:
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
8 ounces white chocolate, chopped
3 cups chilled whipping cream
 
2 1/2 cups strawberries, sliced and halved
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For the poppy seed cake:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 10-inch-diameter springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides. Line bottom of pan with waxed paper; butter and flour paper and sides of pan. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Cut in 6 tablespoons butter and set aside. Beat sugar, remaining butter and lemon zest in large bowl until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in lemon juice and vanilla. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in 3 additions each, beating just until blended. Stir in poppy seeds. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake until cake is golden and tester comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Transfer pan to rack. Run knife around pan sides to loosen cake. Release pan sides; cool cake.

For the white chocolate cream:

Combine 1/2 cup sugar, eggs and lemon juice in top of double broiler set over gently boiling water. Whisk until very thick and candy thermometer registers 160°F, about 3 minutes. Remove from water. Add chopped white chocolate and whisk until smooth. Cool to room temperature. Beat heavy cream and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in large bowl to firm peaks. Fold in white chocolate mixture.

Assemble cake:

Turn cake out onto work surface. Peel off paper. Cut cake horizontally into two equal layers. Transfer one cake layer to platter, cut side up. Spread 1 1/2 cups white chocolate cream over the cake layer. Arrange sliced strawberries in single layer over chocolate cream. Spread more white chocolate cream over the strawberries. Top with second cake layer, cut side down. Spread 3 cups chocolate cream over top and sides of cake. Garnish cake with strawberries cut in half.

Soup Club II

What a week.

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No, scratch that. The entire year of 2013, with the exception of a few days in February has been work-intense. First it was the grant, and now its long days at the bench in preparation for spending a week with a collaborator in Seattle. As much as I love food and cooking, when work takes over I completely abandon my kitchen. There was more than one day during this past week that I had a beer and ice cream for dinner. Does it make it better if dinner was had at 10 pm?

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Thank goodness for Soup Club – it ensures that I eat well at least once every other week. This past Wednesday, I brought a Broccoli and Roasted Garlic soup and some Cheddar Pecan Cayenne crackers to share with the sixth floor labs in the Molecular and Cellular Biology building. Given there was less than a cup leftover, I’d say it was a success. And as an added bonus it was remarkably easy – even for soup.

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I love the green of this soup – it oozes vegetable-ness without feeling or tasty healthy. I’m not a a vegetarian or eat dairy- or gluten-free or strive to make food with limited fat content, but this soup satisfies all of those (the crackers, however, do not) and is a happy coincidence with a robust flavor and depth. Adding the cheese crackers – while no longer dairy-, gluten- or fat-free add a pleasant crunch to this silky smooth soup. It’s a nod towards springtime, which cannot come quickly enough for me, while maintaining a winter heartiness.

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Make the soup. It won’t take long and you’ll be better for it.
Broccoli and Roasted Garlic Soup with Cheddar Pecan Cayenne Crackers
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Broccoli and Roasted Garlic Soup
from the LA Times
 
1 large, plump head of garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion, chopped
3 broccoli crowns (~2 pounds), florets roughly chopped, stems peeled and diced
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 cups vegetable broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
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Cheddar Pecan Cayenne Crackers
from Martha Stewart Living
 
1/2 cup (60 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 cup finely ground toasted pecans
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons butter, cut in pieces
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
up to 2 tablespoons water
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For the soup:

Roast the garlic. Heat the oven to 400º. Cut off the top one-half inch of the garlic head to make a “lid.” Drizzle the cut surfaces with a little olive oil and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Replace the lid. Wrap the garlic in foil and place on a baking sheet. Roast until the garlic is tender and a rich golden color, about 45 minutes. Unwrap and cool.

While the garlic is roasting…

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter, then add the onion and cover with a lid. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chopped broccoli and potato. Add the broth and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and partially cover the pot. Simmer until the potato is very tender, about 30 minutes. During the last 5 minutes, squeeze the roasted garlic into the pot, discarding the hulls. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Purée the soup with an immersion blender (or in batches with a blender).

For the crackers:

Preheat the oven to 350º. In a food processor, pulse the flour, pecans, salt, black pepper and cayenne. Add the butter; pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the cheese, pulse until the pieces are no longer visible. Gradually add water until the dough comes together. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and divide the dough into two parts. Roll each part out to 1/4 inch thickness – keep well floured (if not, it’s difficult to transfer to a baking sheet). Cut dough with a small cookie or biscuit cutter. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake until the centers are firm to the touch, about 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.

The truce is over…

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Winter and I had a truce this year – and I think we had a good run. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was happy with winter, but this is the first year in Minneapolis where I haven’t been actively angry with it. I consider this in and of itself to be major progress and a huge step towards actually admitting that I live here.

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However, the truce is over. It’s mid-February and I desperately need winter to be over. No more snow, no more slush, no more ice and no more days below freezing. I’m finished with the whole damn thing. I want to pack my boots up and stow my sweaters away. I am anxiously awaiting the time when socks become optional and I live in my summer dresses. To be able to bike work again and see green in the trees. Eat fresh vegetables and drink beer outside. Breathe.

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But what I can do right now, despite the winter season is continue to make (and consume) copious amounts of ice cream. Of the Bourbon Brown Sugar variety. It’s cozy, complex and has me thinking about it constantly. There is a fair amount of alcohol in it, which not only brings out the bourbon overtones but does beautiful things to the consistency of this ice cream. (Alcohol freezes at lower temperatures than most freezers are set at). Spoons smoothly slip in to sneak another bite. It’s been my constant companion as I dream of far-away places.

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Bourbon Brown Sugar Ice Cream
makes ~1 quart
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1 cup heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup + 3 Tablespoons brown sugar, divided
pinch of salt
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons bourbon
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Pour heavy cream in a large bowl, set mesh strainer atop and set aside. In a large pot heat the milk, 3/4 cup brown sugar and salt over medium heat until steam starts to rise. While the milk is heating, stir together egg yolks and remaining 3 tablespoons of brown sugar in a large bowl. Once the milk is warm, slowly pour it into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Transfer the milk-egg mixture back to pot and return to medium heat. Cook until mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Pour through mesh strainer into heavy cream. Stir in vanilla extract and bourbon. Chill thoroughly. Freeze in an ice cream maker.

Expectations

(Woosh)

That was January, flying out the window. I won’t lie, January 2013 was a pretty complex month me. I spent most of it hibernating in my apartment (and the numerous days of sub-freezing temperatures only reinforcing my behavior).

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I tackled ghosts from last year and it was more difficult and took a larger part of me than I anticipated. 2012 was a hard year and it was only okay because I had allowed myself the year to heal. Heartbreak takes time, I had learned the hard way previously in my life and as such, I had no expectation that I would bounce back quickly. But when the one-year mark passed and despite a significant career achievement, I was disappointed in myself, an emotion that digs deep into my mind and settles in for while (and let’s face it: it’s the middle of winter – who doesn’t want to settle in for a while?). And once that happens, it’s nearly impossible to get yourself out of that downward spiral.

Why wasn’t I happy yet?

I’ve all but abandoned this blog – it’s primarily been about food, yet I don’t want this to be a perky, isn’t-life-grand!!! and OMG are you as obsessed with quinoa as I am? sort of space. Those sorts of blogs are increasingly irritating to me, resonating as shallow and superficial and isn’t something that I want to participate in or even be associated with. I have no interest in food styling and having a whole cupboard full of food props. Instead, I strive to have similar tones of emotional honesty that I read here and here. (I’m not entirely sure if its a coincidence that both authors live in the Pacific Northwest). Don’t worry – I still love food.

It’s just that I’m moody.

And that mood has had undertones and, in most cases, overtones of sadness. There’s been a rain cloud that’s been hovering over my head for longer than a year now – and in January I got fed up with it. I tried to actively push it away. Turns out, it’s pretty challenging – pushing a cloud. I even went to a pretty terrible social dating event that completely freaked me out and made me realize that perhaps telling myself that I was ready isn’t actually the same as really being ready. Did I mention that I am currently writing a big career development grant? No? Well that’s happening also and wrecking all sorts of havoc on my mental state.

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And then suddenly, my perspective shifted. I read two articles (one I can’t recall where I found and this other one). The first referenced a book I distinctly remember reading as a 10th grader for Honor English, Man’s Search for Meaning. Now, while I remember reading it, I can hardly recall any of the details aside from it was written by a psychologist and Holocaust survivor. But, this article, the one I can’t seem to place, made the point that you don’t need to be happy to having meaning in your life. It’s a somber thought, I know, but it made me realize that perhaps I shouldn’t have happiness be the state I aim for. There is oodles of meaning to my life and it turns out that this emotion is much more important to me.

The second article centers around the idea of joy. That it is not only distinct from the idea of pleasure (my first cup of coffee in the morning is a moment of pure pleasure); but that joy is intense, complex, simultaneously surreal and yet fully rooted and at times exceedingly uncomfortable. As I’ve been holed-up, writing my grant, I’ve come to realize that’s how I feel about science. Being a scientist is hard (and not because you have be super-duper nerdy smart, but for a whole host of other reasons). I’ve even at times considered leaving it – but something, something that has always seemed beyond definition, stops me.

I’m pretty sure that something is joy.

Then a funny thing happened. Once I let go of the idea of happiness, accepted the meaning in my life and realized my joy, I’ve been able to see things clearly. It feels different. It feels good.

Oh, and that rain cloud? It seems to have lifted.

My Break-up Nature Paper

I have an article in Nature that is going to be published at the end of the month. As a biologist, it’s kind of a big deal. Academics are horrible elitist snobs and the truth is, where you publish your work matters and Nature is at the top of the food chain. So this is a notable accomplishment.

I got the final acceptance letter of the manuscript exactly one year after a significant relationship ended. That break-up was instrumental in fueling the progress of the project. I was left homeless for several weeks, relying on the hospitality of friends, and spent long hours working in the lab on nights and weekends so not to take advantage or disrupt my hosts’ everyday lives. I spent my summer holed up, digging deep into the ancient literature (for my field that means the 1950s and 60s) and writing the manuscript, the perfect excuse to not go out and enjoy the weather or have a life. This fall was a whirlwind of travel, revisions, rebuttal letters and calls to the editor and finally acceptance.

It’s normal for me to hate a paper by the time it gets published. You spend inordinate amounts of time fussing with the explanation of the details of an experiment, the formatting of the figures, finding the balance of conveying the meaning and relevance of your results without overstating. It’s exhausting and by the end of it you can no longer see the story through the words. This particular paper has been more painful than most for a whole variety of reasons.

I know that I should be proud of this accomplishment, that it’s worth celebrating, but I find it impossible to do so because my thoughts almost immediately turn to the driving force of this paper. I vowed that I would try and get back ‘out there‘ once this paper was finished. Now that I received the pre-prints and we have a tentative publication date, that time is nearer than I’d like or am ready for. I’ve held on to this heartache longer than I should have. Tying it tightly to this paper was an excuse to not let go or possibly allowed me to avoid dealing with my feelings. I don’t discuss it, my horror story of a break-up but I carry it around with me; my own personal rain cloud. I’m not angry, but rather, severely disappointed in what happened and, at least for me, disappointment is a more difficult emotion to resolve than anger.

I’ve been hibernating lately (which the weather in Minneapolis facilitates nicely this time of year), acting the recluse, mostly because I’m terrified of the idea of letting somebody into my life, and becoming a part of somebody else’s. The problem is, that I miss it terribly and readily admit that I am lonely, but I haven’t gathered quite enough courage to make it happen.

Looking at the pre-prints of the Nature paper (meaning that it’s typeset and actually looks like what will be printed and is no longer a drab Word document) allowed me to read the article with a new perspective – as reader and not as an author. It turns out, it’s pretty cool stuff. I had forgotten that. Yet, woven within the text are the discussions over authorship order, the last minute hobbled-together experiments, the frenemy-like correspondance with reviewers and the agonizingly slow response from the editor. Ultimately, the paper is stronger and better written because of it all. But those challenges are not easily forgotten.

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 This is a self-portrait from a few days ago. I like it because this girl (although I don’t know if you can call somebody approaching 32 a girl) looks interesting. She has bright purple hair and likes to wear jewelry, but not makeup, and has a style that garners compliments from strangers. She has a nice smile and intelligent eyes, and although you might not see it in this photo, has a highly expressive face. She’s even been called charming and people like to be around her. Yet, without a doubt, there is more than meets the eye, as life experiences shape and change who you are. I just hope that it’s for the better.

I don’t have a good conclusion for this post, or my life for that matter. It’s only fitting, I suppose, just because you’ve published the paper doesn’t mean that you are finished with the story…