Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pretzel time

Soft pretzels hold a special place in my heart. When I make them, they remind me of Brezel, the soft pretzel rolls sold in every bakery. They were also well-loved by my friends in Australia, so they evoke memories of my time in Brisbane. 

In case you'd like to start your own pretzel memories, here's an illustrated recipe.

4 t. yeast
1 c. water
1 1/2 c. flour
2 T. oil
1T. sugar
Additional 1 1/2 c. flour (approximately)
6 c. water
6 T. baking soda

Dissolve the yeast into the water. Add 1 1/2 c. flour, oil and sugar to make a smooth batter. Stir in the additional flour until you have made a soft dough. Let rise until double, then punch down and divide into 12 equal portions. Roll into ropes and twist into braids.

The portions, the ropes and the twisted pretzels:

Let the pretzels rise for 25 minutes on a greased or floured surface. While they're rising, it's time to prepare for the bath that makes them pretzels, 6T. of baking soda in 6 cups of boiling water:

(And make sure that pot isn't aluminum, or you'll have some unwanted chemical reactions to deal with.) Boil each pretzel 10 seconds on each side, then lay them on a greased cooking sheet. Immediately sprinkle them with rock salt and bake for 12-15 minutes at 425F/200C. Take them out when they look like this:

Next time, I'm going to try making them half white and half wheat, an adaptation most bread recipes can handle. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A tourist in Baltimore, part two

Saturday was our second 'tourist in our own hometown' day, but this time we headed north to Baltimore. We spent most of the day at the Walters Art Museum, a smallish museum established by an art collector in the early twentieth century who turned his personal collection into a museum. I highly recommend it. It's not as big as a Smithsonian - we got through about half of it in a longish afternoon visit. It's entirely free, it has a vibrant kids program (as evidenced by the large number of munchkins running around), and best of all (in my opinion) it has free audio tours. I love audio tours because they let me wander at my own pace but also focus my attention on pieces I would probably otherwise miss. 

The most interesting exhibit was a series of four rooms, the aptly named "Rooms of Wonder," organized as a collector in the 1600's would have displayed them in his own home. Picture lots of wooden cabinets, filled with items celebrating nature, foreign lands, the arts, and science. It was a little snapshot into how people thought back then. For example, the Asian cabinet included items from China, Japan, and India - it was all just "the Indies" back then. And in the nature cabinet, the items represented the extremes - huge alligators and tiny beetles, because science looked to the extremes to make sense of the world, unlike today's scientific focus on the typical and average exemplars of a species.

For lunch, we turned to the best for recommendations. My cousins' cousins (I'm not quite sure how we're officially related) run a blog that reviews restaurants in the Baltimore area, Black Coffee and a Donut, and one of their recent recommendations sounded especially vegetarian-friendly. Baba's Kitchen is a tiny almost take-out restaurant that serves terrific mediterranean food. Andrew had a lamb kebab and I had a sampler platter which included the best spanikopita I think I've ever eaten.  

We had intended to visit Baltimore's Washington Monument, which is a bit smaller than DC's version, but which allows visitors to climb to the top and admire the view for a mere dollar. In the end we had to postpone because the opening times seem to be rather random - it depends if the custodian wants to hang around the whole day or not, I guess. It leaves something to look forward to next time, I suppose.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Snapshots from Chicago

I was walking around exploring on my first day, when I passed a group of teenagers boys, standing on the street goofing off. I passed by and apparently caught their eye. A few minutes later, I hear strains of “Pretty woman, walking down the street” being sung in unison behind me. It made me smile. I smiled even more when they didn't know the lyrics beyond the first line and had to  Da, da, da” their way through the next line.


Seeing Al Gore speak is apparently a religious experience for most scientists. He was the keynote speaker at our partner conference. (The conference I was attending is not nearly big enough to host such a distinguished speaker. If it had been up to my conference, I probably would have heard Al Gore’s middle school science teacher speak.)  In any case, the crowd waiting to get in got impatient and when the doors to the hall opened, people poured in, pushing so hard that I was afraid if I fell I’d be trampled. Soon after we entered, the attendants forced the doors closed and some people weren’t allowed in. After his talk, there was much inspired talk in the elevators. The last time I’ve encountered such devotion was when Leonard Nimoy spoke at a Star Trek convention.


I had to catch the train to the airport during rush hour. I was worried that my large suitcase and I would be precariously balanced while standing in a crowded car. But when I boarded, half of the seats were empty. What’s up with that? In DC, a rush-hour ride means you will be sharing a square meter of space with five of your new best friends. Does this mean the DC metro is woefully inadequate to its appointed task? Or is the Chicago mass transit system underused? What’s your experience with subways in other cities?


I am sorry to report that the downturn in the economy has also impacted the conference goodie bag. In the past when I've attended conferences, the organizers have provided the attendees with high quality umbrellas (a fitting gift for a Seattle conference) or a USB key drive. This year I came away with a flimsy reusable bag and some chapstick emblazoned with the conference logo. Chapstick? I guess I'll have to get used to attending conferences just to discus work. 

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Look, pretty pictures!

I've been working non-stop this week (and this weekend). Although I haven't had time to blog, it doesn't much matter because I haven't had time to do anything to blog about. I'm headed to a conference later this week in Chicago, which will be fun, but has also led to four deadlines hitting me all at once. I can't imagine getting my head above water until after that, so check back next week some time.

In the meantime, here are some pictures to entertain you. Remember all that advice I requested last year on how to best spend large-ish amounts of wedding money? We decided to invest not in gold or platinum, but in stainless steel.
For car repairs and assorted projects in the upcoming decades.

For many years of improved cooking (I hope), a set of three pots and two frying pans from all-clad. I must admit that they are a joy to cook with, and do clean very easily once you figure out the system. I also managed to convince Andrew to let me buy a knife which cost more than my entire previous knife set. And it chops. Very well. Enough said.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Running errands

It was a quiet weekend. Saturday was one of those days where we start running errands around noon and don't stop until it gets dark. But we did the important things: restocked the wine cupboard and the larder, secured a fresh supply of library books, and eventually procured a new microwave for my office. 

All my life I've been a religious library visitor. The adjective is particularly apt as I now read far more often than I worship. But since I've lived in Maryland I sometimes go months without visiting the library, mainly because the local branch is on the way to nowhere.  Whenever I need something to read, I pick out a selection from the already well read bookshelf, which is pretty much guaranteed to be something by Terry Pratchett. When I'm so desperate for new material that I'd chew off my own arm for entertainment, I renew my acquaintance with the library. And then I wonder why I can't find an hour once a week to get some books, because it's like a toy store. Except all the toys are all free! Who would say no to that?


The upcoming weeks is a promising to be a bit of a doozy. I've got an after-work activity every day until Friday. Two are social, and two are professional, and I'm glad to do all of them, but that's an awful lot of people time in one week. I forsee a couple of work-at-home days; I think the introvert in me would appreciate a few "let's not talk to people days." As I tend to be more productive at home than at work most days, it's a win-win situation.