Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween in a darkened city

Happy Halloween, readers! It doesn't really feel like Halloween much up here, in part because several drug stores have preemptively put up their Christmas displays and in part because we have no subway service and much of the city is without power. However, Astoria was largely spared. We had no flooding here, and no one in the neighborhood is without power. There are a number of trees down and several local businesses lost their awnings, but that seems to be the brunt of it. When I went for a walk yesterday, on one street there was a tree that was entirely picked up and shoved roots first into someone's windshield (the trunk of the tree then fell, destroying the frame of a second car). A trip to Astoria Park showed more trees, and some old growth ones, also felled. Interestingly, the twitter culture is rampant and every fallen tree was surrounded by a crowd of paparazzi with smart phones. You won't find any tree carnage photos on my blog, but I assure you, you don't have to look far on the Internet to find some.

While business as usual has begun in Astoria, it certainly won't return to the city for a while. Trains are still down (although the MTA twitter promises a midday timeline for when service should be restored), although buses are running. Not entirely helpful, as I passed the M60 stop this morning (one of the few buses that travels from Queens to Manhattan) and there was at least 50 people waiting for it. For those of us working downtown (well really just Sam as I work from home) most offices are without electricity anyway. The email server and website are down at my company which does somewhat limit the amount of work I can do remotely. But for now I'm content to be stranded in Western Queens for the foreseeable future.

I'm passing the time preserving apple butter for the wedding (more on that later) and avoiding working on my screenplay (although if there was ever a time I was going to get that thing done, it would be now). My screenwriting class, as well as tin whistle class, were both canceled this week. On a sadder note, for the first time in 39 years, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade was also canceled tonight. Kind of a no-brainer given that most of the parade route has no power, the police presence required to set up the route is needed elsewhere, and there may actually still be flooding in the Village. Still, I'm sorry to miss putting on my latex wounds and dancing to Michael Jackson tonight though.

Therefore, instead of pictures of fallen trees and damaged property, I would instead like to post my favorite photo of the Halloween parade last year. Many of these zombies are without power and my heart goes out to them. However, the city's response to the disaster has been very efficient and well-organized. I'm confident New York will be up and running soon and the dead will walk the streets again someday soon...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Remaining skeptical of everyone who said I can pull off bald

No loss of power yet from this media-christened "Frankenstorm" (a nice Halloween take on the usual "Snowpocolypse" or "Blizzuricane"), so I thought I'd update about this weekend before work. (The downside of working from home is that even though the subways are down, the office is closed, and every fun thing I had planned for the next two days is canceled--I still have to work.) Anyway, this weekend we threw out annual (well, this is the second year in a row that we threw one) Halloween party. Photos of the previous shindig can be seen here. This one wasn't quite as rollicking as the last one. For some reason, no one really seemed to be drinking, and yet everyone brought plenty of alcohol. All told, after the party we were left with 5 full bottles of wine, 6 complete 6-packs of beer, a handle of vodka, and the better part of a bottle of Venezuelan rum. None of which we purchased. I guess that's one way to batten down the hatches for a hurricane.

This year, being the only Halloween of our engagement, Sam and I figured we could get away with what would otherwise be an incredibly cloying couples costume. In other words, we decided to dress as each other. We reasoned it was the perfect, cost-effective costume because we could just wear each other's clothes and invest in the appropriate hair pieces. In the end, I was able to wear his pants with a belt, but he looks terribly unflattering in any dresses of mine that he could fit. We purchased him a dress in his approximate lady size at Goodwill that I picked out and deemed something that I would wear. I actually really like the dress and if it were one-size smaller it would be spared being sent back to Goodwill. We also purchased a pair of simple ballet flats for him at Payless that, now that he's told me they are quite comfortable, I actually might go back and purchase in my size.

We wanted to take a before and after picture to really highlight the quality of the illusion, so we dressed up in each other's costumes. Unfortunately, I had cut my hair shortly prior to the before picture, so it no longer resembles the wig we got him at all. In something of a Gift of the Magi Halloween edition twist, the main reason I cut my hair was so that it would fit better under the bald cap. In the end, it doesn't really matter because cheap blond curly wigs really only come in Marilyn Monroe and Farrah Fawcett, so hair-wise we were pretty much doomed from the start. But enough of my excuse-making, behold the finished product:

Can you figure out which are the real Susan and Sam? It's admittedly difficult.

Here are a couple other pictures showing a few other party people:
My friends: the sky and Dia de los Meurtos. Also, there's evidence of me in poorly fitting pants.

This photo was stolen from my photography friend. I think she captured Sam's discomfort well.

The only one who managed a full costume change mid party! Dinah was pretty angry with us for inviting Brando, but then how can you say no to that face? 
Some of the party snacks. Chocolate strawberry ghouls, caprese eyeballs, and witch's fingers.

Mary Poppins and Bert. They were kind enough to leave part of their costume behind so we granted the hostess gift of a brand new broom!

Brando with his parents and in his first costume of the night. They planned their costumes around his.

My favorite action shot of the night.
So that was Halloween part 1. Now that I've gotten all of the spirit gum out of my hair, it seems like so long ago! I'm hopeful this hurricane will blow over with minimal damage for a number of reasons, but in part because it could make way for the Halloween parade on Wednesday. Weather permitting, I will yet again be dancing as one of Michael Jackson's zombies to Thriller. Keeping my fingers crossed. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cheese bread with ease

I haven't been food blogging much (cupcake carnival of last weekend not withstanding) mostly because when I'm making food I prefer to just be making food and not taking pictures of it. However, not having a camera in some ways frees me to just not care about proper photo journalism. More importantly, I made a discovery (and I hesitate to describe it as a "discovery" when the quest really just entailed a simple google search) worthy of sharing.

I don't go to Brazilian restaurants that often, but when I do the thing that sticks in mind the most, beyond the sheer quantities of meat, is the cheese bread. Pão de queijo are little pillows of heaven replete with cheese in every bite. During an afternoon of watching football a few weeks ago (because yes, that is something I occasionally do now that I know food is involved), we ordered some Brazilian food from a place by our friends' apartment actually called Pão de Queijo. Naturally, we had to order some of the cheese bread. I hadn't been able to stop thinking about it, so I started wondering how difficult it would be to make my own. Luckily, there is the Internet. After sifting through a few recipes, I discovered this is actually one of the easiest things to make. There's even a blender version that tastes perfectly fine! Better still, it can be made almost entirely with ingredients you already have. The exception, which is in fact the secret ingredient of Brazilian cheese bread: tapioca flour. You can also use sour cassava flour. I believe that's more authentic, but it's also harder to find (at least around here).
Obviously, this is not my photo. Those are not my hands. And I did not make that particular cheese bread. It is a reasonable facsimile though.

Then this is all you need to do:

1) Preheat the oven to 450 and grease a mini muffin pan.

2) Put the following in a blender: 1 egg, 1/3 c olive oil, 2/3 c milk, 1 1/2 c tapioca flour, 1/2 cheese (I used parm, but I think any would work), and 1 tsp salt. Pulse until mixed.

3) Pour into the mini muffin cups (should make about 2 dozen). Bake for 15-20 minutes. Enjoy!

That's seriously all you have to do. They turn out a little like popovers or gougeres--crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. Instead of popovers being empty in the middle though, the center is a very moist and spongey texture. The tapioca flour makes a stretchy, chewy interior that is exactly like the pão de queijo I know and love from Brazilian restaurants. I'm actually a little concerned with the ease at which these can be made. I have a feeling this will be something of an obsession until my tapioca flour supplies run out.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Love, marriage, and cupcakes

This weekend was the wedding of two dear friends in Brooklyn. In addition to being honored to be invited to the event, I was also given the exciting privilege of baking for it. Luckily, both for the bride and for my own sanity, this did not require trying to erect a multi-tiered wedding cake, but instead to make several dozen mini cupcakes. We decided on minis because there would be mountains of delicious food at the reception (a requirement of wedding receptions that I promise to fully embrace at my own), and people who are stuffed with other food tend to find full-sized cupcakes daunting. I know from personal experience that often when I won't necessarily commit to a full-sized cupcake, I can usually find room for a full-sized cupcake worth of mini cupcakes. This is just how the human brain works.

Prior to the wedding, I baked a series of cupcakes. First, for the bride to taste and choose flavors. And then a few weeks before the wedding, I baked a few dozen just to practice my frosting skills. By the time the actual wedding came around, I was feeling pretty confident. So confident in fact that I decided to do the bulk of the work on the day of the wedding, reasoning that the cupcakes would be fresher. I would not recommend this route personally, but at least 6 dozen cupcakes is not so many in the grand scheme of things. I would have liked to take constant pictures during the process, but two things kept me from doing so. One, my camera is still not reading it's memory card, so the only camera I had at my disposal was the one on my cell phone (which I believe we've established in the past is more of a phone than a camera). Secondly, my hands were shellacked in frosting for much of Saturday morning, and I was too harried to stop, wash them, and take any photos. So all of this is to say that the few photos I'm including are of varying quality and that you will mostly have to trust the vivid (er, hopefully) word pictures I will strive to create.

The chosen menu was 3 dozen apple cupcakes with salted caramel frosting (a fitting cupcake chosen for the season) and 3 dozen lemon cupcakes with lavender frosting (a decidedly more spring flavor palette but the wedding colors centered around purple so I took advantage of that where I could.) For the apple cupcake recipe I used this one with Granny Smiths. The salted caramel frosting was actually just a basic cream cheese frosting base with some salted caramel sauce mixed in. Originally, I'd planned to garnish these with candied pecans, but what I determined in my dry run is that candied pecans on mini cupcakes just look like little turds. Instead, I opted for just simple frosting piping and an extra drizzle of salted caramel sauce on top.

The lemon cupcakes (for which I used this recipe) with lavender frosting (I used a basic crusting buttercream with lavender extract) were the more ambitious cupcake. The bride had picked out a frosting dye which turned out be a lovely pale purple. I decided to make little purple roses on these cupcakes. I bought the appropriate frosting tip and practiced during my dry run. The thing about frosting roses is that they are actually a lot easier than they look. For such a delicate flower with so many petals, they can actually be fairly forgiving flower to create in frosting because if you screw up one layer of petals, it's pretty easy to hide it with the next layer. What isn't easy is making a bunch of them. The strength required to keep a constant pressure on the pastry bag in order to get an even piping causes your hand to get quite sore after just a few flowers. I also made the rather tactical error of going to the gym that morning to clear my head before the baking so I foolishly used valuable hand gripping strength on the pull up bar and rowing machine handle. Another thing I learned from making frosting roses is that, despite being very different botanically, there's actually a very fine line when illustrating them in frosting between roses and cabbages. If you make the center bud too big and then don't angle your petals quite right, you end up with a cabbage rose. This was particularly easy to do once the frosting got too warm. Cabbage roses are a sign to put the pastry bag in the fridge for a minute and speed drink coffee.

Okay, now here are the handful of pictures I have available. I sincerely hope I was able to manage expectations on these earlier.

A single grainy photo I took on my cell phone before actually starting. I call this "It Begins OR The Once and Future Cupcake." 

This is from my dry run. I'm sad it's the only close-up I have because I didn't know what I was doing then, but hey, at least my camera still functioned. This is what a cabbage rose looks like. The effect is particularly pronounced because during the dry run, the only food coloring I could find was green.

The finished cupcakes at the wedding. Again, I can't believe I don't have any close ups of the roses. You'll just have to trust me that they turned out better than the one above.

Update: This photo was just posted by the bride! Don't know who took it, but if you zoom in,  you can see some detail.
I was very nervous during transport (sprung for a cab to take these beauties to the restaurant), but all in all I think they were a success! I got compliments from many a drunken wedding reveler, so I can only consider this a win. More importantly: the bride was beautiful, the couple were beaming with love, and all their friends and loved ones were just as happy to be there on their big day. A lovely day and evening indeed!

Monday, October 15, 2012

The inevitable result of my working from home

After my last post, I did manage to get out of the city this weekend. Albeit not to go hiking but to go to a friend's bridal shower at a restaurant in northern New Jersey. Still, if nothing else, I did see some lovely early foliage along the Palisades Parkway. Unrelated to fall, I've now been working from home for a good seven months. Except for my once-a-week visits to the office, this means I have spent many, many hours in the company of my cat, Dinah. I have quickly learned her almost unvarying routine. Which is:

6:15: Petition for food. Usually granted before I leave the house at 6:30
8:30 (on my return from the idea what she does in the intervening two hours, but it's probably some combination of eating and sleeping): Walks around demanding to be petted.
9:00-12:00: Sleeps in papasan chair by the window.
12:30: Demands to be petted. Tries to sit on my lap regardless of whether or not there is already a laptop in it.
1:00-4:00: Sleeps on the floor (on hot days) or returns to the papasan.
4:30: Petition for evening feeding, not granted until 5.
5:00: Eating.

Anyway, not one to enjoy her quiet, yet adorable, tedium on my own, I started a project a few weeks ago to monitor her daily life. (And yes, I realize the implications of this means I have officially been working from home for too long.) I started to take a picture of her every day at 10:30 in the morning no matter what she was doing. Of course, frequently I forgot or was busy right at 10:30, so the times are not really that consistent. My original plan was to record her for a month, but frankly I got a little bored. Also, my camera keeps saying it has no memory left even though I emptied the memory card. What's up with that? At any rate, I made the images into a slide show. Fair warning, the following movie is exactly as advertised and is in fact 21 un-doctored images of my cat. It's exactly as interesting as it sounds.

Just in case you didn't watch the video (I don't especially blame you), I'm including a bonus picture. Sam is going to be the wedding photographer at a friend's wedding this weekend, and the bride loaned him her fancy Nikon for the event, so he has spent the last few days figuring out how to use it. As Dinah is easily the most photogenic thing in our household, this has led to a number of quality cat photos. You can note how much nicer she looks with a talented photographer behind the lens of a quality camera.

So safe and so noble. 
Now that I see what a quality camera is capable of in the right hands, I have half a mind to invest in my own fancy camera and start this project all over again. Whitney Biennial here I come!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Missing autumn

I feel like I've been failing at autumn lately. Usually it is my favorite season where I will use any excuse to get out of the city to go hiking or apple picking or just see some foilage. And yet here it is nearly halfway through October. Apple season is effectively over up here (well at least as far as the picking them is concerned), I haven't left the five boroughs since early September, and the only leaves I see with any regularity are the ones outside my living room window (and that is not a particularly showy tree). Worse still, I just let a perfectly good three-day weekend go by without planning anything more complicated than brunch with friends.

This is not to say that I haven't been busy. But I haven't broken my normal routine to do anything especially fall-like. And, as so often happens, the month seems to be filling up quickly. Something about fall always seems so fleeting even as it first begins. The crispness in the air turns to cold and sweater weather all too quickly devolves into coats and scarves. Of course winter has it's own accompanying activities, but I just don't think I'm ready for it yet. I guess I'll just have to accept that winter will come, leaves will fall, and time will march forward even if I'm not actually taking the time to watch the leaves change.

So this post is turning out to be mostly why I haven't had anything to post about lately. Or in other words, this post is turning out to be pretty lame. The one interesting thing I did this past Columbus Day weekend was go to a Russian bath in Brooklyn. Not especially fall-like, but also not something I do every day. It was a cold, cloudy day so it was actually a lovely time to get indoors soaking in hot tubs and steam rooms. Most people there spoke Russian and while the place was definitely pretty low on the frills, it was worth the Groupon price we all paid. My one quibble would be to not advertise "access to the roof deck" as one of the purchase perks if it turns out the roof deck is just the roof of the building with some astroturf, plastic lawn chairs, and some very full ash trays. My friends and I enjoyed a few hours of relaxation, drank tea, and ate sour cherry dumplings with sour cream. All in all, not a bad way to spend a day off from work.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sunny day in Red Hook

This Sunday, I went for a walk in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Previously, I have seen Red Hook only from the inside of its IKEA, which is to say, I haven't seen it at all. The neighborhood is similar to Long Island City: industrial feeling but with a couple of really nice blocks full of cafes and bars, inexplicably high rents, and lovely views of the city. Walking is really the only way to experience Red Hook because it is fairly inaccessible by public transportation. This stroll was actually because we had to get from the closest train stop to a bakery for a cake tasting appointment (the best type of appointment there is). However, we got there a little early so we kept walking and discovered the other wonders of Red Hook: views of downtown Manhattan across the water, the largest Fairway I have ever seen that takes me back to the wonderfully huge grocery stores of suburban Texas, a number of beautiful community gardens, and some tasty looking brunch places. 

Here are a few photos (taken by a talented photographer I know and will be marrying) of Red Hook:

 Note a statue (of liberty) in the right side of the image. Also note what a lovely clear day it is!

There was a cool old trolley by the water (behind the most amazing Fairway). I'm not sure why it was there, but my photographer took a shine to it. 

 Another shot of the trolley. More importantly the building behind it. In addition to having an enormous grocery store on the ground floor, it's an amazing looking loft building with apartments converted from an old warehouse. I was all set to move in, but apparently rents run $3,800 for a one-bedroom.

One of the best things about Red Hook is the many garden shops, community gardens, and random landscaping. If there's one thing Astoria could use more of, it's green space.

 Also, some fun street art!

 This particular bar is not one of the cuter ones, but it still has a certain aesthetic value. It was near the Red Hook Lobster Pound, a restaurant I've had many friends rave about. Red Hook is also home to a popular key lime pie place. If I hadn't just tasted twelve cakes at this point, I would have been interested in doing a culinary exploration of Red Hook.

A final shot of Red Hook! One day I will return. And if I ever get a car, I will be shopping at that Fairway.