Monthly Archives: September 2006

Fear and loathing in Pasadena

It’s happening. I’m beginning to hate my thesis. As much as write, as much as I frustrate myself belaboring the nuance of suggestive but insubstantial assertions, as much as I bear down to squeeze out each successive word and marvel at the genuine scholarship that my impacted genius must surely produce… as much as any of that, I am begin to resent every word, every phrase, and every jargon-laden sentence that I type. This is not helping.

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The inexorable anguish of thesis writing

As my deadline looms fast, every moment becomes one of increasing anxiety. In all ways this assignment, as I’m choosing to think about it, represents the most Herculean academic effort of my long and checkered career. I say assignment, because the only way I can wrap my mind around the task of writing this, the fact of writing this, is to think about it a series of term papers, the last battles of a finals week chock full of science writing. Deadlines. Successive, relentless deadlines that I’ve always been so good at pushing up against, finding their soft edges and making my space there, in the interstices, always on the cusp of too late.

Of course I’ve left things slide too long. It’s not a new story, or one that is particularly mine in this process, but nonetheless my deadline feels like a cliff, a chasm spanned by a bridge in hopeless disrepair and yet I go speeding toward it, one hand on the wheel, pedal to the floor, focused more on what’s on the radio than what’s in front of me.

Things I’ve done to avoid writing: reorganize the kitchen cabinets, re-digitize my CD collection, rearrange furniture throughout the house, laundry, put the furniture back the way it was before.

Help. I’m drowning in my own self-pity.


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Amaretto Ice-cream

This was a quick throw-together to pair with the pear upside down cake, but it included a new, lower-fat ice cream base, so I’ll mention it here.

1 1/2 cups half and half
2 extra-large egg yolks
1/3 cup of sugar
2 tablespoons Amaretto

Put the half and half in a saucepan and heat it up until it simmers. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together vigorously. It helps to do this in a heavy bowl as you’ll see in a minute. When the half-and-half simmers pour it into the egg mixture. You want to do this in a thin stream, while you continuously whisk the eggs. Take the saucepan in one hand and the whisk in the other and you’ll get the hang of it. The heavy bowl is it doesn’t get too squirrelly on you while you try and whisk it without hold the bowl.

Pour the mixture back in the saucepan now and continue to whisk the mixture over low-medium heat making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as you do this. You’re trying to make sure that none of the egg cooks out of the mixture and sticks to the bottom of the pan. To do this, you want to keep the mixture as homogeneous as you can, mixing it to keep the temperature even throughout. When the mixture reaches 190 degrees, take it off of the heat and stick the pan in a bowl of ice water. You don’t really have to do this, but I’m always paranoid about cooking out the eggs, so once I get the custard to thicken, I try and cool it is quickly as possible.

Put the mixture in the fridge or freezer until it’s pretty cold but not frozen. Throw the Amaretto in, give it a good stir, and then put it in your ice cream maker. Enjoy.

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Pear Upside-down Cake

pear cake

As the name implies, this cake is baked with the pears on the bottom and then flipped onto a plate. The pear and caramel mixture is something akin to the apple bottom of a tart Tatin and recipe is, in fact, only a slightly adulterated version of the Barefoot Contessa’s tart Tatin recipe.

I served this on Tuesday night with an Amaretto ice cream and two different guests shamelessly scraped the plate for crumbs afterwards. I take that as a good sign.

Overall Rating: 9

Recipe for the bottom:
2 ripe pears
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water

I think the toughest part of this recipe is making the caramel. For some reason I have a bad habit of burning caramel, but this process works for me. Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan and cook over high heat. You may swirl the pan gently, but do not stir it. Do not stick anything into it, except a candy thermometer, if you have one. When it gets to a nice amber color, or about 360 degrees, take it off of the heat immediately. It will take a while before it starts to change color at all. It will simmer for a while and you’ll wonder if it will ever get any color at all, and then all at once it will start to change, and you’ll worry that it’s not dark enough, but once it gets golden throughout, turn it off.

Butter the bottom of your baking dish. I like a fluted pie pan for this. Peel the pears, halve them, core them, and then slice them thick. Arrange the slices on the bottom of the pan and then gently pour the caramel syrup over it.

Recipe for the cake:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer using the paddle. If you don’t know what that means, it’s the process of beating them together for a bit until they got sort of fluffy and glossy, like icing. With the mixer turned all the way down to low, add the eggs one at a time, then add the sour cream, lemon zest, and vanilla. The batter should be nice and even at this point.

Measure the flour, baking powder and salt and sift them together. Add them to the batter and mix briefly. Once the baking powder hits the wet ingredients, it is going to start making little bubbles. You want those bubbles to stay trapped in the batter and make the cake rise once it’s in the oven. If you keep mixing the batter after the bubbles form, they will sort of fizz out of the batter and the cake won’t rise. So, mix it only enought to get the wet and dry ingredients combines and then stop.

Pour the cake over the fruit and smooth it out evenly. Bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, until the top of the cake is golden. Take it out of the oven and set it on a rack for 15 minutes or so to cool down and set. After that, loose the cake by running a knife or spatula gently around the sides and then invert it onto a serving dish. The easiest way to do this is to turn the plate over, cover the cake with it, grab the two together and then flip them as one. Remove the baking dish and you should be all set.

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Fresh Fig Pizza

fig pizza

Clearly, our household is enamored with figs right now. ‘Tis the season, and some generous friends have given us a bounty of figs from their neighbors yard (if it hangs over the fence its fair game). So, we decided to try fig pizza and the results were unbelievably yummy.

The pizza had onions, gorgonzola, ricotta, and a balsamic reduction to pair with the figs (the reduction stood in for sauce), and the resulting pizza was suprisingly well structured considering that it had no obvious binder. The lack of sauce probably helped with that.

The pizza dough recipe came from the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook: The Best Recipes. What they describe as dough for 1 medium pizza was plenty (the recipe makes dough for three), and the remaining dough can be frozen or used to make foccacia.

My Rating: 9

Recipe for pizza:
1 medium pizza dough (recipe follows)
8 or 10 fresh figs, sliced to 1/4 inch thickness
4 oz crumbled gorgonzola cheese
8 oz fresh ricotta cheese
1/2 of a medium onion sliced paper thin
hefty drizzling of balsamic reduction (recipe follows)
Olive oil for the pan.

Start by placing your pizza stone on the middle rack of your oven and cranking the heat up as high as it will go. Pizza stones hold a lot of heat and it takes a while to get them hot, so you have to do this early. It’s going to want to heat for a good 20 minutes. You’ll turn the oven down when the pizza actually goes into the oven, but the stone will cook the crust a bit hotter from underneath.

Let the pizza dough rest on the counter a bit. Any time the dough gets hard to work with, or seems to spring back when you try to stretch it out, let it rest a little.

Roll out the pizza dough to be about 2 inches larger around than your pizza pan. The best way to do this is to flour everything well and then roll lightly with a rolling pin, flipping the dough over and turning it 45 degrees each turn (if you turn it 90 degrees, you’ll make a big rectangle. a big octagon is closer to a pizza shape).

Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into the pizza pan you will be using. This will help the outside of the crust get a nice, almost fried crispiness. You don’t have to do this, but it does help. Spread the oil around and then place the pizza dough over the pan. It should be bigger than the pan. That’s good. Roll the extra edge in to make the crust. Cover the pan with a dish towel and let it rise for about 15 minutes.

Now, top the dough with everything else in the recipe. Have fun with it. Place the pizza pan in the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees. It should take about 20 minutes to cook, but keep an eye on it. You want the crust to be nice and golden and the cheese on top to begin browning a bit too. When the cheese gets golden, you know you’re done.

Let the pan rest on the counter for at least 5 minutes before cutting it. Trust me on this one, it will hold together a lot better.

How to make a balsamic reduction:
I find this easiest to do in a stainless steel omelette pan. The large surface area for evaporation and the reflection on the bottom make it easy to see how thick the liquid has become. The basic process is a matter of simmering down a bunch of balsamic vinegar (medium heat), and then usually adding a little bit of sugar at the end. You should reduce the liquid by about three quarters (1 cup of balsamic –> 1/4 cup of reduction). If it starts to look too thick, you can add a little bit of fresh balsamic to thin it out, and sweeten with a sprinkle of sugar.

Pizza Dough:
This is a basic pizza dough recipe that appears in a number of cookbooks. This version is from America’s Test kitchen.

1/2 cup of warm tap water
1 teaspoons of yeast
1/2 cup of room temperature water
1 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cups of bread flour
3/4 teaspoons of salt

Put the warm water and the yeast in a measuring cup and let the yeast proof for 5-10 minutes. It should foam. Add the rest of the liquid to the measuring cup. Put the flour and salt in a food processor and let it run for about 30 seconds. With the machine running slowly pour the liquid through the feed tube. Once the dough comes together into a single ball, stop adding the liquid. I know there is a temptation to add all of the liquid and see what happens, but the dough will be wet and hard to work with if you do.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and form it into a ball. Put that ball of dough into a very lightly oiled bowl and roll it around so that the outside of the dough is slightly greased. The reason for doing this is so that the skin of the dough doesn’t dry out as it rises. If the outside dries out, it will resist expansion and retard the rising process.

After the dough has doubled in volume (1-2 hours), press it down (traditionally it’s called punching it down), turn it out onto a floured work surface and you’re ready to go.


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Variations on a theme: Oven-baked Fig Pancake


We were so excited about the peach pancake that we decided to experiment with a slightly different method, and with different fruit. The results were considerably different, though still very tasty. Using a heavy cake pan instead of skillet seemed to have the most impact. With straight sides, the rising batter climbed right up and formed a shell. Also, I think the height of the sides had the effect of sheltering the top of pancake from circulating hot air. It came out well, but wasn’t quite as exciting as the peach pancake.

To accompany it, I made a simple cinnamon custard.

Overall rating: 5

For the pancake recipe: Oven-baked Peach Pancake

Substitute quartered fresh figs instead of the cooked peaches, and a cake pan.

For the custard:
1 cup milk
1 egg
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Whisk everything together in a metal bowl set over a pan of bowling water. Stir constantly until mixture thickens (about 10 minutes for me).

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On Surgery

Last Thursday, I went under the knife, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I went under the little miniature camera and scissors and pincers, and whatever else they managed to cram into the small holes now healing in my abdominal wall. No, no, they probably did use a knife to make the small holes at least.

Maybe I should start over and say that I had a hernia repaired on Thursday, or more precisely I had two hernias repaired on Thursday. It seems that while the tissue on my right side had given up and let my intestines through, the tissue on the left wasn’t far behind. So, a surgeon went in and fixed it, as surgeons are wont to do, and now I am recovering. A couple of quick notes on surgery, for those uninitiated in the laparoscope: the surgeon makes three small incisions, one for the camera and light, and then two more for tools (surgery requires a little leverage).

Surgery also requires room to work, and since they don’t cut the area open for neat little laparoscopic surgeries, they have to create some room on the inside, so they pump carbon dioxide into the holes, and blow the patient up like a football, more or less. This means that, after the fact, I am left with three small scars where the tools entered my abdomen, and an immeasurably stretched, ripped and bloated feel in my abdominal muscles. I guess that is in part due to the swelling in the muscles, and maybe a little leftover trapped gas (they can’t very well squeeze it all out, have you ever tried deflating a football?) and maybe just residual stretch and tear, who knows.

Anyway, wish me a speedy recovery.

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