31 October 2008

Deutsch im Blick

Is it sad that i'm excited to have discovered that there is now a sister site to ut's français interactif, Deustch im Blick? Actually, I'm too excited to care if it's sad or not. francais interactif is the online "textbook" used in the beginning French classes at UT Austin. It's how I learned French, and i really enjoyed using it to learn. They have tons of videos, tons of sound files, tons of ways to make you remember stuff. And for the grammar, they had a really cute story using various French speaking animals. And now there is a new German version! francais interactif was made in 06, this german one is made in 08, and already I can see the technological improvements. (Especially in the videos - less noise, yay!) My only complaint so far is that the person reading the vocabuary doesn't leave a lot of time to repeat after them. But perhaps German is spoken faster than French?

I'd already decided that i was going to start learning German by September 09. I actually wanted to start it next semester, Jan 09, but I decided to instead take another French class and continue with that. I want to have a stronger control of French before I deviate and forget everything, like I did with Spanish. Their website isn't done yet, but from what I've peeked at, I love it! This time, instead of a french animal love triangle, it uses characters from grimm's fairy tales in a modern setting. And I love love fairy tales. I really enjoyed using francais interactif, so I know for sure I'm going to love the heck out of Deustch im Blick! And once I master German, I'll return to Spanish! I love how happy languages make me.

26 October 2008

Not a successful day in the kitchen.

The days where absolutely nothing works out, it happens. But it's okay, we all need these days because it makes us learn. And isn't that most important?

Project #1: Make Macarons. (again).
My ceramics professor once said, the absolute worst thing for a student who is firing their kiln for the very first time is for it to go perfectly fine. Because the student does not truly understand or learn how a kiln functions - the small tune ups, adding air, reducing air, coaxing the flames in certain areas - you only learn these subtle things by trial and error. Which is why although I was overjoyed when my first attempt at macarons were a success, I really didn't learn a thing. It definitely made me overconfident, and I only began learning after my 2nd, 3rd, and now 4th and 5th attempt. Hopefully by attempt #10 I'll get to know these finicky things more!


rejects
What made them fail so miserably? I did the French method of making them, which is easier yet pickier. And I folded my batter one too many times and ended up with a very runny batter, which produced these babies. They produced a very flat macaron with very odd edges, they didn't necessarily crack, but they did bunch up. Oh, and the circle shape completely vanished.


ugly macarons assembled
Once assembled, they don't look too bad. But they definitely still taste good!


a bit better
I tried a third time, this time making sure not to over fold and push out the air bubbles. They kept the circle shape and didn't crack... but they were flat. And I think it is because I did not let the macarons rest and sit out before I stuck them into the oven. But i also think it is because maybe I folded a wee too much again as well. And for those curious - I used a filling of butter, sugar, almond flour, and hazelnut hot cocoa powder! I was ready to try for a third shot, but the grocery store was completely out of almond meal. And from my past experience, I wasn't about to go and make my own. So thus ended this round of macaron experimentation. I think next time I want to go back to the Italien meringue method.


Project #2: Make Creme Brulee
I had a ton of leftover egg yolks. What to do with them? Oh... I also had no flour either. So I decided to try and make creme brulee. However, i also did not have: ramekins, giant roasting pan, torch. I did, however, have sugar, whipping cream, and vanilla extract. So I followed this recipe using some glasses meant for drinking and a round shallow cake plan. I didn't let it bake long enough and so my creme brulee didn't set completely. So the top tasted fine... just not the bottom. But i'll devote another day to creme brulee, this was just something to try to use up those yolks.

Project #3: Make Mayonnaise
Another attempt to use up all those egg yolks, I was going to make mayonnaise! Inspired partly by my French teacher last semester who seemed aghast when nobody in the class knew how to make mayonnaise ("it's very very easy! you just mix some eggs, some mustard, some oil" pssh, i say to that!) and by a lovely book I bought in France called Mon cours de cuisine : Les basiques 80 recettes illustrées pas à pas. It's a beautifully illustrated book with step by step photos, and I just love the layouts and design. The very first recipe was making mayonnaise, so i decided to start with that.

recipe
I adore this book! I even bought another in the set dedicated to pastries. I think my next goal is to make every recipe form this book. That way, I can say I have mastered the basics! But of course I must try to make mayonnaise again.


sloppy
My attempt. It didn't work because 1) I didn't really have exactly 2 egg yolks, 2) I didn't have powdered mustard and used the spready kind, 3) I didn't have sunflower oil, but most importantly, 4) I got lazy and didn't read the instructions and dumped all my oil in at once instead of little by little.

Conclusion: 3 things that did not got as plan! Perhaps due to lack of planning. Well, definitely due to lack of planning. Lots of things learned that won't be repeated next time, and now I'm determined to make a good batch of mayonnaise as well as return to my glorious first time perfect macarons!

25 October 2008

snacking in venice

I am a snacker. I much prefer having a bite of everything rather than everything of one thing. Everytime I turned my head in Venice, I saw something new and enticing, so what follows are all the yummy things I found.

fish.
The last dinner I had with my photography group at Il Ridotto. According to the journal I kept, the fish was 16 euros... but i didn't write what kind of fish it was. I do remember, however, that it had scales. Which I didn't know you weren't supposed to eat until I thought it was really uncomfortable when those scales scratched my throat.


fried goodness
lots of various fried things... i remember a lot of them being squishy. note to self, instead of just taking pictures and taking business cards, start writing down what you ate so you actually remember...


dessert
somebody got dessert so i took a picture of it! isn't it pretty?


Crostini
Now, this I remember! These toasted bits of bread are served as bar snacks to keep you drinking - but I had them for lunch instead because they are cheap at about 1.50 euro a piece. They are bite sized, and are just sprawled out for you to pick. The one on the very left is radicchio and gamberetti, which according to google is some sort of leafy green and shrimp. They were all delicious!


strawberries
I love nothing more than eating fresh fruit, especially then they aren't shipped from California! Italian strawberries in italy = perfect combo for me.


have your pick of meat.
This was taken at a little "grocery" store on the island of Burano. They had raw meat for you to take home, cheeses to pick, some dried foods, but most importantly, you could pick a bread, pick a meat, and they'd slap together a sandwich for you. Actually, this style of eating is common all over Italy when you want a nice cheap meal. However, this place made the most delicious sandwich I had in all of Italy. The people were so nice, and I miss it so! Had i not had to take a boat there, I would have eaten there every day.


smoked mozzerella
my FAVORITE. I could eat these all day. from the shop mentioned above. With my sandwich, I had some cheese!


more yummy mysteries
same shop on Burano, sides to pick from.

cheese! who doesn't love cheese?
The shop is called Antica macelleria gastronomia Rosso di Rosso Alessandro. If you ever find yourself on Burano, have a wonderful sandwich here! They are located at Via S. Mauro 19, 30146 Burano (ve), TEL. 041730022. And aside from the food being delicious, the people there were so down to earth and happy to talk! I think being away form all the tourists of Venice also made me enjoy Burano so much.


granita
you will see these everywhere. basically, it's shaved ice, but very fine bits of ice so it's smooth and not chunky at all. they come most often in fruity flavors, such as lemon or orange, but sometimes you can find other flavors. it's a very refreshing treat/drink


chocolate bread?


a cake
I wish I had had an opportunity to eat one of these. Unfortunately, I wasn't going to buy a whole cake just to have one slice! So i don't really know what's inside it, or what it tastes like, but at least I can admire the outside.


fruit marzipan
aren't they pretty? they're not real fruit, nor are they plastic, but they are marzipan! Marzipan consists of sugar and almond meal, and in America it's often used to sculpt 3d objecs on cakes because it's easily moldable. In Italy, they are shaped and painted into fruit, and are called Frutta martorana. According to this website, they were used to decorate trees by nuns to impress a visiting clergyman, and because of the success many new forms and shapes emerged. Now, they are enjoyed as treats! I'll admit that I didn't try one (ate too many other things!) but I was definitely attracted to their vibrant colors.


another cake!
yet another thing i didn't eat. i'm going to guess it's chocolate, and that it tastes delicious!


cake
if only I had room in my stomach! but I did enjoy looking at the pattern on the side.


sandwich
sometimes, a simple sandwich is all I need to be happy! tuna and egg, if I remember.


cookie
giant pistachio cookie! how often do you see a big green cookie? not often! this was filled with raisins and almonds. and it was not very sweet, which I enjoyed. but it was definitely too big for me!


marshmallow
italian marshmallows are gorgeous! just think about our funny american cylinder shaped ones and then look at this ribbony pink one!


tea-room?
just a shot into a pretty tea room on the San Marco Plaza. I never went in, but I always looked inside at the people sipping cafe and eating desserts!


sweets


sweets counter
My favorite! I love how if you stand there, you are encircled completely by beautiful desserts.

pink cuteness
I thought this was strawberry chocolate, topped with a white dot with mini sprinkles.


pink sliced open
until I bit into it! It was a mini layered cake! i love unexpected surprises.

Conclusion: Did you notice... no gelato!? Don't worry, I did eat it, but I wanted to show other yummy things from Venice! I wanted to try as many different things as I could, and that's not hard to do when all the windows have something delicious looking. What I miss most, however, is that little store on the island of Burano.

22 October 2008

French and Chinese

It's very funny how things work out in the end.

I took French for the first time last semester. And then I studied it on my own throughout the summer and up until now. I knew for sure I had mastered and learned everything in 2nd semester French, but I needed to prove it so I could take the third semester. So, I took the French placement test, and 65 dollars later I neverously waited for my results. What if I didn't even place out of beginning French? What if this was a huge waste of time? Is it even possible to skip classes? I felt like out of place when I took the test with a bunch of freshman who had taken years of it at high school, after all, what was a senior doing taking a placement test? I got my results back... and I placed out of the first four semesters of French.

Uhhh.

I didn't mean to do that.

I only wanted to skip one semester! Not three! It didn't seem plausible that I could possibly be ready for 5th semester upper division French, and I thought to myself that something must be wrong with this test, it was too easy and put me too far ahead! I decided to go talk to the French undergraduate advisor. He basically confirmed what I feared... that based on my test scores, i should enroll in 5th semester French. And if it was too hard, then to drop it and enroll in 4th semester. But that I definitely did not need to enroll in 3rd semester (which was my original plan.)

After that I went to speak to a professor who was teaching 4th semester, I trekked to his office and asked for his opinion. He said he couldn't really judge me yet, and that his only concern for me was writing since the placement test was entirely multiple choice. I mentioned I had penpals I wrote to, and he said if I sent him a writing sample he'd be able to judge better.

So, I sent off an email that contained as many grammar points as I could fit without interrupting the content of the message:

Salut!

Je suis l'étudiante chinoise qui vous a rendu visite hier, lundi
après-midi. Je ne peux pas vous montre une lettre que j'ai écrite à ma
penpal parce que j'écris toutes mes lettres à la main. Donc, je vais
vous écrire une nouvelle lettre. Je sais qu'il y aura beaucoup
d'erreurs, mais j'espère qu'il est possible que vous puissiez
déterminer mon niveau plus précisément. La semestre dernière, j'ai
appris un peu de français et je l'ai aimé beaucoup parce que le
français a ouvert des portes et des fenêtres culturelles pour moi. Et
après la fin de cours, je continuais mes études français durant mes
vacances quand j'ai décidé que les langues étrangères étaient devenues
mon autre passion. Je pensais que mon passion était seulement les
arts, mais en ce moment j'ai deux passions dans la vie. (Peut-être
j'ai trois passions, parce que j'adore aussi les pâtisseries! Des
gâteaux, des macarons, des tartes - le style raffine du pâtissiers
français m'intéresse!) Je ne veux pas oublier tout ce que j'ai appris.
Je pourrais écrire plus, mais je ne pense pas vous voudriez lire un
roman.

Quel niveau est-ce que vous pensez que je devrais prendre?
Merci beaucoup d'avoir pris le temps de me parler.

A plus tard,
Cathy

PS: Je dois admettre que je consulte le dictionnaire souvent quand j'ecris.
PPS: J'espère que vous passez une bonne journée!

And I received this reply:

Mademoiselle,

J'ai lu avec intérêt votre lettre. Oui, il y a quelques petites erreurs, mais je pense qu'elle est suffisamment bonne pour vous permettre de vous inscrire dans le 320E pour le semestre prochain avec d'excellentes possibilités de réussite. N'ayez donc pas peur: vous êtes bien préparée pour votre entrée dans la "upper division!"

Cordialement,
PF

! I'm reassured more now that an actual professor believes I am ready for upper division. I still feel nervous over the fact that I'm skipping so much... but if a placement test and two people believe I am ready for 5th semester French, then ready I will be! And my favorite part about his letter is from the first sentence: avec intérêt. With interest. My letter was interesting to him! And that's just a reminder, as important as grammar and correctness is, content and idea is always more important. It gives your work heart and appeals to people to actually want to read what you want to say.

Now... Chinese!
I've taken one accelerated Chinese course, which covers two semesters of Chinese in one semester. And I am currently in the second level accelerated Chinese course, which also covers 2 semesters. So when I take Chinese next semester... i'll be taking 5th semester Chinese. Isn't that a funny coincidence?

I never ever thought I'd be taking 5th semester French and Chinese at the same time, during my last semester of college! It's going to be challenging but I am so excited to pursue these two passions of mine.

20 October 2008

Cookies from May

A pretty empty post content wise, just pictures of cookies that I made back in May. I haven't touched sugar cookies since, so although it's old, it's current as well.

a rubber duck
If you really want something... buy it. A few years ago, I spotted the cutest three dimensional cookie cutters from Williams-Somona. I want to say it was 2004... or 2005... I don't remember. But I do remember the cookie cutters. They cookie cutters that produced cookies that fit together to stand up. But at the time, I felt that... i think.... 20.00$ was too much for cookie cutters. (I'm just now realizing how difficult it is to write things by memory!) However, i never forget the cookie cutters, they were never far from my heart. And in 2008, I finally caved. I found them on ebay! I don't remember how much I paid, but I think with shipping it ended up being the same amount as the original retail price. So, i didn't lose money, only time, but it was okay, because now I was finally united with my dream cookie cutters! And so, here is one cookie from the set - a rubber duck and some water! The moral of the story is that, if you feel you really like something, maybe don't buy it right away, but at least buy it within the week if you feel you want it. Don't leave it to chance and ebay, although it worked for me!


Obama cookies
I made these for a friend's birthday. She's a huge Obama supporter, and these definitely made her happy! As I've learned, red is the toughest color in any art from. It's hard to get reds in glazes in ceramics, it's difficult to get a bright red patina on copper, red fades like crazy in photography... it's just a touch cookie to master, but when you do get it, it's worth it. Same with icing. The red gel coloring I was using kept turned out pink, I absolutely could not get the deep red. Until I used up the entire red gel coloring. An entire little bottle when all I usually need is a few dabs! But a worthy sacrifice for such a color.


side view
and you can see my uneven outlining skills.


The real birthday cookie! with my signature bow :)


birthday message
unfortunately, i can't spell. or count. but i can improvise! it's a good thing our brain doesn't need a complete word to understand the meaning, only the beginning, end, and vowels I think.


side view to get some depth!


mini cookies!
Mini cookies are my favorite because I like small things. For me, when things are smaller the cuteness factor shoots up. And I do love cute! Plus, they take less time, let me experiment more, and also are less calories! Yum!

Conclusion: My 2nd time doing royal icing and sugar cookies. I think this satisfied my fix because I haven't done this style of decoration since. I'm not a fan of doing things over and over again, but I'll eventually return to these cookies! I'm going to have to, because I've accepted a friend's request to make wedding cookies in May of next year. I can't wait!

17 October 2008

Penpals

One of my greatest pleasures in life is writing to my penpals, my friends, and my family. And by writing, i don't mean through email - I mean with a pen, on a sheet of paper, sealed in an envelope, and sent off with stamps.



I will probably never again see these envelopes and letters once I mail them, but that is the beauty - Once I send them off, they begin their own journey. Whether they end up in the trash or treasured forever, I don't mind not knowing.



I think personal touch is missing in our hectic modern lives, and I love the slowness of every step in writing and reading a letter.

The simple pleasures I love, in no particular order.
1. buying the stamps at the post office
2. having to calculate the postage and make it exact with various stamps
3. looking at stationary and deciding what to get
4. writing with a pen
5. peeling the stamp / licking the stamp
6. sealing the envelope
7. dropping them off into a mail box
8. sitting down and writing
9. receiving a letter!
10. reading the letter - i savor each moment, never rush it
11. signing my name once i finish writing a letter
12. folding the paper in half to make it fit into the envelope
13. deciding what color pen to write with
14. writing the date on my letters
15. seeing the stamps that the postal services add to the envelope
16. writing in a different language

16 things that make me happy from one simple task!

A good penpal website I use is Interpals. Just make you use common sense when deciding who to be penpals with. It's just like any other online community, but I've found some gems through it!

12 October 2008

The Evolution of Cookie Design

It all began with my determination to learn how to ice cookies. All I knew was the icing from a tub, or icing from a tube - but those really give off childish results. And I wanted to make something a bit classier! So thus began the quest to learn how to decorate cookies!

Everything pictured below (warning, lots of them!) happened in December 2007. I've posted some of these photos on flickr, and wrote a shorter entry on my (now defunct) vox blog, but I figured they deserved a proper rewrite.

Attempt #1. Confetti Cakes by Elisa Strauss, p.53
I actually tried to make the sugar cookie dough for my first attempt, but it was a complete failure because the recipe was misprinted. The recipe called for 4 cups of flour, which I thought was odd, but I followed it blindly... only to not have a dough at all. I did some googling and the publisher has a note online about it being 2 cups of flour. Relieved that it wasn't me, but frustrated because of wasted time, I decided I wasn't going to attempt to make any more cookies until I got the icing down. However, don't let that misprint make you avoid the book! It is beautiful, especially the stacked cookies, which were extremely influential to me later on.

Attempt #2. Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough
Slice and bake! After attempt number 1, I needed a break from making dough.

All the perfect shapes I cut out in the dough poofed out!


So I retrimmed them after they were baked.
If you decide to do this, do it when it's still warm before the cookie hardens.


And restacked!


All the excess.


First attempt at decoration.


Disadvantage of cutting the dough after it's been baked = ugly edges.
At this point, I'm still learning how to pipe the icing so my lines are pretty uneven and shaky.

Attempt #3. Pecan Shorties/Kroger Sugar Cookies
I then decide that I want to skip the whole baking process and continue my focus on icing, so I bought the cheapest pack of cookies I could find at the grocery store. The cookies themselves tasted nasty, but it's okay, it was all for practice.

Lines are not as shaky, but the fill icing is still too watery.

Fill icing? What am I talking about? In this method of icing cookies, you need only one type of royal icing but in two formats. You need a stiff icing for outling the cookies or piping dots. This icing holds it's shape wherever you put it. You then have that same icing with water added to make it runnier, and this is the fill icing. You use the runny icing to fill in borders you have created with the stiff icing. However, if your fill icing is too stiff, it won't flow, and if it is too watery, the water will evaporate when it is dry and you are left with barely any icing since it was all water to begin with.

And if your borders are not completely sealed, the fill icing will run away!


Attempt #4. Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough
I had another roll in the fridge, so I thought I might as well use it up. This time, I rolled out my dough, then refrigerated it, then cut it out, hoping it might reduce the poof. It didn't. Only later did I realize that no matter what I did, it would always spread because the dough contained baking soda, a leavener that helps the cookie rise. Or, unwanted help in my case.

The theme this time was blue! And squares and flowers.


It's getting there!


Attempt #5. Target Sugar Cookies
Still not confident enough to bake my own cookies, I bought some fresh made cookies from the one and only Target. Plain circles for another intense practice round.


I masterned the icing consistency for the pink! But definitely not the white.


Can you see the difference?
You can't really tell any of this stuff immediately as it looks fine, it's when it dries that you realize what's wrong. The white icing had too much water, so when it dried, all the water left with barely any icing.


I like the direction of this batch!


Still playing.




Here, I am playing with the icing tips - the difference between a fine line and a thicker line.






Part of my inspiration were easter egg decoration!
That explains the pastely colors.


Marbeled cookie
In this cookie, once you fill the cookie with one icing, grab another runny icing and make some stripes. Then use a toothpick and run it the opposite direction to manipulate the direction of your lines.


reject cookie.


Just for kicks, I put them back into the original container!


Attempt #6: Beautiful Cakes & Cookie Craft
For my final attempt, I used two different sugar cookie recipes just to play around with.

Attempt #6a. Beautiful Cakes by Peggy Porschen, p.118
After being kind of discouraged by my previous efforts, I saw this book at Barnes & Noble and was inspired again. Beautiful cookies, cupcakes, mini cakes - tons of inspiration! I loved how in one recipe, she decorated the cupcake holder, not just the cupcake itself. Visually gorgeous.
The cookies were okay, seemed to have little taste. However, they kept their shape beautifully.

Sugar cookie ingredients:
Unsalted Butter - 1.75 sticks
Sugar - 1 cup
Large Egg - 1
All-Purpose Flour - 3 cups
Vanilla Extract - 2 tsp

Attempt #6b. Cookie Craft by Valerie Peterson & Janice Fryer
I also love this book! It is a visual delight to flip through. I first saw it at BookPeople, my favorite bookstore, and bought it a few days later. It is full of ideas to inspire you, and tons of random cookie tips as well. I love how they use simple shapes and simple lines to create really striking designs (that's too many s's right there..) And the illustrations are too cute. It's a great book to get you thinking about the different ways you can decorate a cookie.

Sugar cookie ingredients:
Salt - 1/2 tsp
Unsalted Butter - 2 cups
Sugar - 1 cup
Large Egg - 1
All-purpose flour - 3 cups
Vanilla Extract - 2 tsp

The only difference between this recipe and the one above was the extra 1/4 stick of butter + 1/2 teaspoon of salt... and what a difference! These cookies had a richer and more delicious taste. But to be nit picky, they had more shrinkage than the Beautiful Cakes (#7) recipe. Not enough to make me care though, just something a noticed. But these definitely tasted the best. I', not sure if it was the extra butter or the salt, but the tastebuds definitely knew something was different!


Cooling down.


I "glued" them together using dots of stiff icing.




I really like layering - they are mini cookie cakes now!










Mini stacked cookie cakes




You may not be able to tell, but this one has little hearts swirled in it.












Thin lines = sore hand from pressing on icing bag.


What's so special about royal icing? It's that smooth matte surface that just draws me in!






This color combo just pops, doesn't it?


The simplest design, yet the cutest.


My 4 favorite ones from the top.


I'm really pushing the bow motif, aren't I?


White on white, you can't get more elgent than that!

Conclusion: I accomplished my original goal of learning how to use royal icing! Nothing I ever make comes out great the first time. I'm always refining, practicing, working, thinking about solutions, changing - and by doing that, I learn so much more than if everything had worked perfectly the first time. But i am very very happy with the progress I made with these cookies, even though it was at frustrating at times. The most important thing is to keep on decorating, as the ideas will start forming and you will naturally become better with every attempt. What's funny is how later on these cookies influenced my ceramic work - I really enjoyed taking things from the kitchen and applying it to things in the studio. I made another batch of cookies in May, but I will post those cookies later.