Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Heaps - Pasta with Artichoke Hearts

Past midnight and not quite finished with my presentation slides, due tomorrow (now today, I suppose), of course. It is quickly gearing up to be one of those weeks that seem to heap upon you until you yourself dissolve into a heap, but it could be much worse. Yes, my adviser shot instructions and advice like a firehose at my labmate and me on Monday, but it means we have a clear direction for a while. Yes, I have logistics to carefully time, plan and diplomatically carry out, but it is because I just became the captain of the collegiate karate team. Yes, I have a hard set of challenge questions opening on Thursday, closing on Sunday, overlapping that pumpkin holiday, but it means I am one step closer to an incredible opportunity to learn about data science.

This heap means that time to buy and cook food has been short. Luckily, I still have frozen artichoke hearts from Trader Joe's (probably my favorite item, outside of those amazing, huge chocolate bars). With the flour, olive oil, salt and pepper perpetually stocked in my cupboard, and some eggs and milk brought over by my wonderful, patient boyfriend, yesterday's lunch even managed that coveted title of "delicious." This recipe uses a pasta machine, but if you have a bit more time, it's easily made by hand. Of course, if you're more prepared than I am, you probably have dried pasta somewhere anyway...

Pasta with Artichoke Hearts
Inspired by the contents of my cupboard and freezer
Feeds 2 tired grad students

3/4 cup dried or 1 cup fresh pasta (see below)
2 cups frozen artichoke hearts (canned works, but I prefer frozen)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons reasonably nice olive oil*


Cook the pasta until about al dente. There are too many Italians in my lab for me to argue. Drain the pasta, reserving the water. Alternatively, I use chopsticks to fish out all the noodles, since fresh noodles have a beautiful, maddening tendency to tangle into a magnificent heap anyway.

In the remaining hot water, drop the artichoke hearts in and boil until soft, about 2 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Meanwhile, toss the pasta with the salt, pepper and olive oil to taste. Once the artichoke hearts are cooked, add them to the seasoned pasta.

Divide into preferred serving vessels (I like bowls, my roommate likes plates), and enjoy!!!

Fresh Pasta
Inspired by various sources and a lovely quote on this particular page

1 egg
Splash of milk
Water if dough is dry
1/4 teaspoon salt
~ 2 cups flour (I prefer a mix of spelt and all-purpose)


In a large bowl, mix the egg, milk and salt. Mix in the flour, kneading until it is a soft dough, neither dry and flaky nor soft enough to puddle in the bottom of the mixing bowl. Allow to rest at least 20 minutes, but it will survive up to a few days in the refrigerator. If you have extra dough left over, it stores well, protected by plastic wrap or a box, in said refrigerator.

If you have a pasta machine: Pinch off small pieces of dough and feed through a pasta machine, gradually reducing the thickness with each pass, then cutting the pasta. Flour the dough lightly, to prevent sticking.

If there is no pasta machine: Divide dough into two pieces and with a rolling pin or wine or pisco bottle, roll each one into a thin sheet. Heavily flour each side, then gently roll each sheet into logs. Slicing the logs with a sharp knife will yield lovely noodles, once each slice is uncoiled.

Boil a pot of water, and toss each batch into the boiling water once each are ready. With a pair of chopsticks or a fork, separate the strands as they cook, then fish them out once done. Fresh pasta cooks in 60-90 seconds, so keep a close watch on the pot! They also tend to foam up and bubble over when fully cooked, so it is in your best interest to remove cooked noodles promptly.

Cooked noodles stick together after a few minutes, but you can mitigate this by adding a little of the cooking water or oil and stirring frequently. Toss with your desired toppings and seasonings, and enjoy! Fruits of one's labor, indeed...

Note: It is possible to buy tasty extra virgin olive oil at a reasonable price. I prefer the ones in the glass bottles at a local grocery store. I currently have a nice one from Spain, purchased from Trader Joe's, that clocked in at about $8 for 1L.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Quiet Saturdays - Potatoes and Cauliflower Mash

I've heard that weekends alone are sad and well, lonely, but then I wouldn't be able to make dishes like this. Mushy leftover cauliflower turns into tender bits of garlicky contrast in mashed potatoes. The massive California drought (and the cost of air conditioning) encourages a reduction in the amount of water boiled. The combined result is simple, quick and delicious, with enough leftover for tomorrow. Substitute olive oil for butter to make this vegan. Enjoy your weekend!

Inspired by my mother, who can handle 4 burners at once when making dinner 0.o

1 head cauliflower
1-2 cloves garlic
1-2 tbsp olive/cooking oil
1/2-1 cup water
1 tsp salt (to taste)

1.  Mince the garlic finely and drop at the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the oil and turn the fire to low, stirring the garlic occasionally.

2. Split and chop the cauliflower into bite-sized pieces. When the garlic turns golden-brown, add the cauliflower pieces and toss to cover with oil.

3. When the cauliflower begins to brown, about 5 minutes later, add enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Allow to steam until the cauliflower is tender, around 10 minutes. Enjoy it freshly cooked! This recipe works better with leftover cauliflower that's already a bit too soft, and only uses about a third* of the cauliflower anyway.

Inspired by being a cheap grad student...

2 Yukon gold or other potatoes for mashing**
1/2 - 1 cup water
About a third of the leftover cauliflower
1-2 tbsp butter (olive oil works well here, too)
1/2 tsp salt (to taste)
1/2 tsp black pepper (to taste)

1. Peel and chop the potatoes. Place them into a saucepan, adding just enough water to cover the potatoes. Boil for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Poke them with a fork if uncertain.

2. Once the potatoes are done, add your leftover cauliflower and allow to boil again. As you stir, the potatoes will start to break down, essentially mashing themselves. I'm fond of the chunks, but I suppose you can puree them for smooth mashed potatoes.

3. Season with butter/olive oil, salt and pepper. Take a bowlful, sit by yourself, and enjoy quietly. Alternatively, serve and enjoy with family and friends! Either way, it's pretty great :)

* Why a third of the cauliflower? The first third was part of dinner for my roommate and me, the second third was devoured with baby carrots whilst reading webcomics and the third, well, it had become too mushy to eat plain...

** Mine came from the garden. The variety is a guess, at best.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Master of the Disaster - Castella Cake (Finally!!!)

I've done it. Not achieved perfection, no, for that is a journey long into the future, but one of many stops on that everlasting quest. For a while now, I've been working on a cake that's incredibly simple, but incredibly difficult to get exactly right. This is a bit of a longer post, so if you'd like to know how I have inched closer to mastering the delicate perfection that is castella cake, kindly skip to the last paragraph.

Whenever I find little flaws that don't affect the enjoyment of a dessert, I like to call them technical faults. A sink in the middle of the cake, an errant crystal in the ice cream, a dimple in the frosting, those are all technical faults. 

Almost always, it is the flavor of the dessert which is fine, but the texture which is off. Flavor comes from ingredients and texture from technique. Conveniently enough, my ingredients are always acceptable; after all, I'm the one who sources them. Once I acquire it, I yield control, other than proper maintenance (refrigerator, cupboard, what have you). Technique, however, that's the really fun part. There lies the execution, the real core of cooking and baking, kissed or beaten by environmental factors that you thought were under your control, but mock you while you whip your eggs.

Lately, I've been delving into personal development, motivation and efficiency. I want to know how I can improve my work process, and how to cast myself in the best possible (i.e. employable) light. I like to think of past experiences as ingredients and the current present as the technique. Whether baking a cake or building a business, there are only 2 things at play: what was done before, and what is possible to do now. It's not really possible to change what was done before. Similarly, if the ingredients are already bought, there you are. You can buy more ingredients, certainly, just as you can learn additional skills. Did you run out of cream while assembling a tiramisu? Walk, bike, drive a vehicle to the nearest cow or store. Are you moving to Italy for 5 years to work? Get on italki, find an Italian dictionary, bookmark Google translate, find the best pizzeria in town (I'm joking a little bit, but some of the best pizza I ever had came from a place which was run by a couple from Rome...). 

See the similarity? Both require time and another resource, usually money and effort. You can sometimes compensate for ingredients, but eventually, they have to be sourced. I liken it to learning a skill or hiring someone with the proper skills for a business, or a career. 

I find it strange that when it comes to baking, it's so much easier to just start, and force myself to go through the motions. Eventually, I'll have a cake, or dinner. Same with washing dishes or clothes, sorting, cleaning. Simple, physical tasks. For me, the mental are harder: studying, programming, applying for jobs, writing. They all require total focus, while it seems that my brain takes every moment available to shut off. My brain is either really efficient or selectively lazy, depending on the perspective. 

Not so for this castella cake. As I mused in this post, one of my weaknesses is the easy promise, even (especially...!) to myself. I'm trying to fix it, and one promise that I have kept is a castella cake for my mother. Every year, I make a birthday cake for each of my parents and my brother. Every year, since I started this, around the time I found this recipe, for over 5 years now, my mother has requested the same cake. It's not too complicated, consisting entirely of eggs, sugar, flour, milk and vanilla. Rather, it's the technique that requires precision and plain, pure, hard work. I won't list the recipe here, not when you can find it so detailed and clear on Just Hungry

This time, it even took 2 tries, since I found that you can only put one cake in the oven at a time. Luckily, I did have enough eggs to try again, and it survived the trip to Hong Kong. However, it did not survive my grandmother on my dad's side, who loves cake, but hates butter (how are we related...?!). In fact, the perfection of which I speak was actually accomplished in Hong Kong, borrowing my uncle's tiny, portable oven. One more hint: turn the oven temperature somewhat higher than recommended. That is the only change I can say for this recipe. Unfortunately, I don't know how high, since the way I found this out was that my uncle's oven is ridiculously miscalibrated. An adventure for another time...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Keeping Promises - Chocolate Microwave Cake

One of my biggest struggles throughout my life has been keeping promises. I don't mean the huge, terrible, soul-chaining, life-haunting, Lyanna Stark-type promises, but the little ones we make every day. Yes, I'll do this for you. Yes, I'll come at this time. The small promises on which common trust is based and a reliable or unreliable reputation is built. The frequent, tiny commitments.

I just had the amazing fortune of being reminded this by a close friend. I have missed two appointments in a row with her now. These are appointments that, at the time I promised, had every intention to keep. I might make the excuse that life interferes, but that's not a good one. There are really very few good excuses, when you think of it. Poor goal-setting notwithstanding, there is always a way to solve a problem or accomplish a mission. It might require unacceptable sacrifice, advance planning or both, but there is always a method. The idea is to find a method that doesn't require unacceptable compromises, but in my case, I really had just forgotten. And that is nothing I cannot fix.

In honor of this renewed commitment to keeping promises (to myself, too!), I present a recipe that I promised to another close friend last night. I have already sent it to her, but I thought you might like it, too. It's just the thing when your boyfriend craves a sweet, but you're too stubborn to buy grocery store cookies and you have only an hour before intense karate training... or it's midnight and you really should go to bed but you really want some chocolate... or your adviser wanted that problem solved before today's meeting and you thought it would only take a couple of hours, but a couple of days later it's still not solved... is that one just me?

Chocolate Microwave Cake
Makes enough cake to serve 2-2.5 people, unless someone is quite hungry...

1 tbsp butter (melted in the microwave in the cup)
1 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
3 tbsp cocoa powder (I like Dutch-processed for this)
4 tbsp granulated sugar
6 tbsp milk (I prefer 2% or whole)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp almond flour (substitute all-purpose if unavailable)
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
Pinch salt
1/4 tsp baking powder

1. In a large measuring cup (microwaved cakes seem to work better in vessels with straight sides), melt the butter and mix in the oil with a fork. Add the cocoa powder and mix until it forms a paste.

2. Add the rest of the ingredients, mixing thoroughly until there are no lumps. With this small batch, the risk of over-mixing and toughening the batter by over-developing the gluten in the flour is low.

3. Microwave for about 2 minutes. The cake is done when the top looks almost dry; it will continue to bake as it sits. Allow to cool, then enjoy! 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Summer Just Means No Excuses - Blueberries and Cream

There might be an impending career change in my future, and of course, instead of writing a Kalman filter or applying for fellowships/jobs/internships/anything that might hire a semi-trained engineer, I think I'll stay up past 4am, finally finish cooking that pot of beans from 3 days ago, work on the croissants that I started, impulsively, in the afternoon (see Kalman filter and applying for actual, plausible sources of funding), and whip together this, a take on berries and cream.

On the weekend of July 4th (Independence Day for the U.S.A. folks), my family kindly deposited several grocery items at the house. It's always a blessing and a challenge. Extraordinarily sweet of them, but it does take creativity to finish everything before insidious fuzz creeps in.

One of those items with an alarmingly close use-by date happened to be fresh blueberries, which my aunt had probably scored for less than half-price. More of an idea than a recipe, this jelly works quite well with almost any other berry or fruit that releases a lot of juice when cooked. If you are gelatin-adverse, might I suggest a cornstarch or agar pudding instead?

Forgiving Blueberry Jelly sponsored by Frugal Chinese Relatives, Inc.

1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
1 tbsp sugar
1-2 drops vanilla extract
1 tsp gelatin powder

1. Toss the blueberries and sugar in a heat-proof bowl. Microwave for around 3 minutes, until berries are hot and mostly liquid. 

2. Add the drop/s of vanilla extract. Sprinkle over the gelatin powder, then stir to dissolve.

3. Refrigerate for about 2 hours, until gelatin is set. I actually put it in the freezer for about 30 minutes, which is great if you can remember it's there.

Amaretto Whipped Cream
Inspired by one day running out of vanilla extract. You may pull my baker card now, but only if you promise to taste this whipped cream first.

1/4 cup heavy cream
Pinch (really small!) of salt
1/2 tsp almond liqueur 

1. Whip cream with the salt until soft mounds form.

2. Add the Amaretto, then whip a bit more. It will form soft peaks.

3. Dollop on top of your cooled blueberry jelly. Alternatively, it's great on hot fruit compote, cake, ice cream, crepes, and pretty much anything. I have completely ignored vanilla extract in favor of Amaretto in my whipped cream for months now, convinced that it's the most heavenly item that has ever left my kitchen. 


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Friends - Basil Ice Cream

Six months ago, our lab's second visiting scholar arrived. Our first was a cheerful Chinese girl, M. We bonded instantly, but she stayed only three months, her bittersweet departure as quiet as her arrival. D., on the other hand, blew in, a whirlwind of outgoing, talkative Sicilian with a penchant for travel and a long list of dreams. He is leaving like he came, with yesterday's going-away party culminating in turning the lights down, the music up, and dancing until 4:30 in the morning.

I've written about him thrice already, but he has changed my life. In the six short months that we've known each other, he's become one of my closest friends. Already, I've promised to graduate and visit in approximately three years (and now it's on the internet...). I've become a more confident person, seeing his total lack of pretension. I've picked up bits of Italian, decent and otherwise, and promised to Skype once a week, continuing his informal English tuition and my Italian. I've learned 6 recipes for pasta, traveled to about 20 places, attended a Catholic mass, learned the meaning of generosity and commitment, and genuinely smile more often.

All too soon, tomorrow is the day that I'll be dropping him off at the airport. Unexpectedly, he had a gift for me today: a waffle iron. Now I've wanted one for some time, since my parents bought a Belgian-style one several years ago, but this blog has seen its share of kitchen space complaints. I will discuss waffles later, once I've had a chance to really put it through its paces ;)

Until then, I leave you with this, Sicilian-style gelato using a traditional Italian ingredient in an un-traditional way. Unlike most ice creams, this one's best hand-churned. The icy crystals match well with the refreshing tingle of the basil, although machine-churning is admittedly quicker. Either way, you'll be rewarded with a gently green treat that divides Italians, but won over at least one French girl.

Basil Ice Cream (Gelato)
Adapted from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop

1 cup tightly packed basil leaves
Lemon zest from about half a lemon (optional)
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt (very much not optional)
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon Peruvian pisco (optional... the pisco, not the Peruvian. My roommate wants you to know it can't be Chilean pisco. I still haven't figured out the difference.)


Pour the cream into a large bowl, and set a strainer over it. You'll be pouring the custard into this to make the ice cream batter.

In a food processor, blender, mortar-and-pestle or some other destroying device, pulverize the basil leaves, sugar and lemon zest. Add a bit of milk, and whirl it again. Put half in the cream, and the rest in a pot on the stove. If your equipment is like mine, use a bit more of the milk to rinse out the basil, sugar and lemon from the bowl part of your destroyer. If your bowl is now actually quite clean, lucky you! Either way, add the rest of the milk to the pot.

Turn on the fire, and stir gently. Sprinkle in the cornstarch and whisk, almost constantly, until the mixture is noticeably thicker and more like pudding than milk. Turn off the fire, then strain it into the waiting cream. If you have it, add the Peruvian* pisco and stir.

Chill in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight, until cold. Place into the freezer for about 6-7 hours, stirring every 30 minutes. Toward the end, when you notice the transformation into ice cream, increase frequency of stirring to every 15 minutes if you can. Alternatively, churn in a machine. Enjoy!

* See note on the pisco above, in the ingredients list.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Making It Up To Myself - Mocha-Bailey's Gelato

I think the events in my life coincide to constructively and destructively interfere. This happens in both positive and negative directions, resulting in an irregular cosine of emotions. Recently, a string of unfortunate events (hopefully) terminated with my roommate finishing the batch of coffee ice cream that I had recently made, leaving me disappointed, cranky, and generally feeling like a child who just had their favorite sweet taken away.

Luckily, this bout of emotional immaturity brought me to this quite mature recipe. After about 10 minutes of wallowing in misery (ice cream is important to me!!!), my best friend N. called on Skype, I complained to her, she was incredibly understanding as always, and I sucked it up and made a new batch. 

A semi-botched attempted at tempering chocolate resulted in a leftover blob of bloomy, but still delicious, dark chocolate stuck firmly to a bowl. At the last minute, I hung the sieve over this bowl and strained the coffee pudding into it, hoping it'd melt and combine. My instincts were spot-on, and this afternoon, I swirled about half a shot of Bailey's into it as it churned. As I write this, my roommate (yep, same one that finished the last batch) is poking furiously at the ice cream machine, trying to remove the last traces with a rubber spatula.

3 cups whole milk
~7 oz. sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tbsp whole milk (for the cornstarch)
3 packets (equivalent of 3 cups) instant coffee
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt (add all of it... just trust me)
~3 oz. dark chocolate
1/2 oz. Bailey's (optional)


1. Start boiling the milk and sweetened condensed milk on the stove, just until it starts to foam around the edges of the pot.

2. Whisk together the cornstarch and 2 tbsp milk; you might need to add a bit more to get all the cornstarch to dissolve, or you can just add water.

3. Add the instant coffee to the hot milk and whisk until mostly dissolved. Add the cornstarch and liquid mixture, then whisk. In a few minutes, the milk will noticeably thicken into a pudding mixture. Turn the fire off and add the vanilla and salt.

4. Place the chocolate in a bowl that's large enough to contain the pudding (at least 1 quart) and balance the sieve over it. Pour the pudding into the sieve to strain it, scraping the pot with a rubber spatula to make sure you get all the pudding. Now is a good time to add Bailey's, if you like.

5. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it cool, then refrigerate it overnight, until completely cool.

6. Churn in an ice cream maker or the freezer, stirring every 30 minutes, until desired consistency. Enjoy!

Postscript: Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! I think this ice cream holds its own against all the more traditional sweets for today :) Maaaaaa.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dreams - Lemon Meringue Pie

I tease my friend D. about his dreams.

This kicked off when we marveled at sea lions in La Jolla Cove, picked up steam when we explored Las Vegas, kept popping up when we hiked in (and admired) the Grand Canyon, and most recently, revived as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on foot (twice...). You see, D. is a visiting scholar from Italy, here for 6 months then gone, back to complete his Ph.D. in Palermo. He's the adventurous type, and keen on exploring as much of the States as he can reach before returning home. The joke began when he declared, "my dream!" in his lilting Italian accent as we drove out from Riverside for each of our various adventures, and just hasn't let up.

One boy's dream is another girl's project. If his (English) word is dream, then mine is project. From trekking around the Riverside hills to my Ph.D., each one of my own dreams seems much more achievable when I call them projects and break them into steps. To me, dreams are those far-away wishes that you make, eyes half-closed, when you can't quite see how to make them true. Projects require work. Projects are real. Projects can be kneaded and folded and baked.

One such project is lemon meringue pie, but I seemed to be perpetually short of lemons, eggs or both. Turns out, though, D's favorite dessert is lemon meringue pie. The surest way for me to finally! accomplish something is a promise to another, and his birthday was in November (I'm sorry, blog!). I made it a point to pick up lemons and extra eggs the next time I went to the grocery store, and in one fell swoop, I managed to bring happiness to my friend and fulfill one of my own dreams. Then, two weeks ago was our adviser's birthday, and I could not bring myself to accept one of the too-sweet, mass-produced things from the grocery store bakery as the treat. As I muddled about in indecision, D. finally suggested lemon meringue pie again.

After making our adviser nervous about a sudden lab meeting that had been called, where none of his students would tell him the reason, we managed to surprise him with a small party. He then turned the tables by raising the stakes for next year. Apparently, when he was a grad student, someone in the lab programmed one of their research robots to drive up to his adviser with the cake. The gauntlet, it has been thrown!

The next morning, I received the news from D. that the solitary leftover slice had been a satisfactory breakfast. Dreams achieved.

Lemon Meringue Pie, adapted from use real butter
Makes one 9" pie

Pie (crust, borrowed from Chez Pim)
1 cup + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold salted butter
2 tbsp water

You'll need a large, flat surface, a rolling pin, two pieces of plastic wrap (optional, but they make life much easier..), a sharp knife, a large bowl, a cup and clean hands.

Lay one piece of plastic wrap on your flat surface. Put the water in the cup for easy access.

Dump the flour into a large bowl. Cut the butter into slices and drop them into the flour, then break them apart with your fingers. Coat each piece of butter with the flour. Add the water, mix it about with your fingers, then start to fold the flour and butter onto itself. I like to take half the mixture, dump it back on top of itself, turn the bowl, and repeat. Once you have a cohesive dough, pick it up and place it on the plastic wrap, then cover it with the other piece of plastic wrap. Start to roll it into a rectangular shape, so that you can keep folding it a few more times. If the plastic wrap starts to stretch, remove it, dust the dough with flour, replace the wrap and turn it over. Keep folding until you have a smooth, workable piece of dough. It's simpler than it sounds, and better instructions (and pictures!) are found on Ms. Pim's lovely website.

Once you have your crust, roll it out and transfer it to your pie pan. Form your edges, then put it in the fridge or freezer. At this point, preheat your oven to 350F. Once the oven is 350F, prick the pie crust and parbake for 15 minutes. This step is to prevent a soggy crust. If you have your egg whites handy, you might wish to save a few drops in a separate bowl, then brush the saved egg whites onto the crust when it comes out of the oven. This tip is borrowed from Dessert First.

Lemon (filling)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup water
Pinch salt
3 egg yolks
2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch and salt. In a saucepan, boil the water. Turn the fire off, then whisk in the sugar, cornstarch and salt and turn the fire back on. It will immediately thicken and turn somewhat translucent. When the pudding mixture starts to boil, temper the egg yolks by whisking in a bit of the pudding at a time. Pour the egg yolks and pudding back into the pan. Cook until it begins to bubble again, a bit alarmingly. Turn off the fire again and whisk in the butter, lemon juice and vanilla. Pour this into your half-baked pie crust.

Meringue (topping)
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tarter
Pinch salt
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp sugar

You need a clean whisk for this. In a stand mixer or a large bowl, whisk the egg whites, cream of tarter and salt until it forms soft peaks. Pour in the sugar and whisk until it forms stiff peaks. Top the lemon filling, preferably touching the pie crust with the meringue. Bake at 375F for 20 minutes, until a nice, light brown. Alternatively, if you are cooler than I, and possess a propane torch, please use that (and send me pictures!).


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pasta from Palermo, Sicily

It's little Italy here in the lab! My adviser is Italian, and a constant stream of visiting scholars (all but one is Italian, and we think one of the Italians will stay for his PhD...) have brought in language opportunities, jokes about espresso machines and a mild obsession with spaghetti. Over the past few months, I've become good friends with D, who happens to hail from the lovely, sun-soaked city of Palermo, Sicily.

D. is only staying here for six months, but already in the past three and a half, he's taught me to make three pasta dishes, thrown his own birthday party (it was fantastic, and involved a lemon meringue pie) visited Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Universal Studios, San Francisco, and taught Italian phrases to anyone who will listen (yes! I love languages!). On the last nights that one of our friends (the one non-Italian visiting scholar so far...) was here, before she returned to her home country, he made this particular dish. It's fast, since you can put it together as the water boils and the pasta cooks, simple, requiring eight ingredients total, and incredibly flavorful.

He likes spaghetti, but I find it messy and difficult to eat (I use chopsticks! Don't judge my inability to handle a fork properly!). I've substituted small shells, but those and macaroni happen to be my personal favorites. He also used fresh tomatoes, but it's winter in this hemisphere (even here in So-Cal) and I find that canned tomatoes are cheaper, with a more intense flavor. I buy the huge cans (cheaper by the oz.) and save them for a few days, cooking more dishes throughout the week. You should have approximately twice as much tomato as tuna. Another note is that any quality of Parmesan can be used. I think he originally made this dish with the little paper packets that come with pizza slices. Oh, and don't overcook the pasta. Imagine an opinionated Italian man lecturing you on the importance of al dente rather than soft pasta. I think David Lebovitz gets a pass, though, for being a god of pastry.

About a cup of dried pasta (or the equivalent amount of spaghetti)
2 cloves garlic
1 can tuna
About 1 can diced tomatoes
2 tbsp shredded Parmesan cheese (any quality works)
Salt to taste (about 1 tsp)
Black pepper to taste (about 1/2 tsp)
More olive oil than you think you need (about 4 tbsp)

In a medium pot, boil enough water that you can completely cover the pasta when it's added. Meanwhile, mince the garlic finely and toss it into a medium bowl. To this bowl, add everything but the pasta and mix it well. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta to the water and cook about 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Drain the pasta, and put the pot back on the stove. Add the contents of the bowl and cook just long enough to heat it through. Any longer, and face the wrath of said opinionated Italian mentioned above. Dish up, and enjoy!

Next up, the lemon meringue pie that was previously on my aspirations list!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Labmates make the work environment

This blog is veering further and further from its original goal, which was detailing my cooking and baking exploits. Then again, its name has a connotation of emergency, which is pretty widely applicable.

The real reason I wanted to write today, though, is more out of appreciation. One morning this week, my labmate arrived and we started talking. After a while, he said to me, I have a question for you. He told me about his program, which required solving a matrix calculation using a series of different parameters. He needed to solve this nine times, changing one of the parameters each time and saving the values.

About three weeks ago, I encountered a bug in one of my own programs, where I needed to solve some differential equations. While trying to set up a vector of solutions, I accidentally created a four-dimensional array, which promptly screwed up the rest of my indexing.

I recalled this and searched in Google (my default method for exploring the capabilities of MATLAB...). Lo and behold, multi-dimensional arrays, including the "cube" of values that worked perfectly for his project. And, I think I've found the solution to a problem that's been bugging me (sorry...) for a couple of days now.

This would never have happened last year, simply because I was the sole inhabitant of our lab. Even after a master's student joined the lab group, we were rarely there at the same time due to classes (mine) and work (his). This joint problem-solving was a small thing, and quite common in our lab, but in the long run, it makes me glad to be in a lab where questions are encouraged and collaboration flows naturally.

Next time, I'll return to food, a semi-recipe that this particular labmate first made for our friends, then taught me to make :)