Back From South Carolina

I spent the past week in South Carolina attending Lauren's various family Christmases. Good times. We left on the 21st in the midst of whiteout. Getting from home to the Battle Creek area was a nightmare, and in retrospect we took a HUGE risk driving that morning. At the same time I understand that the weather got worse the next few days and we never would have made it out had we not left then. All in all the roads were terrible for 90 miles and then dry and windy for the last 900. If you're wondering what kind of toll driving 16 hours and 1,000 miles twice in just over a week takes on your spirit, check out Lauren's dog:

This is essentially a "before" picture, taken Christmas night or sometime between Thursday and Sunday.
Here is a "during" picture, taken in the car during the daylight driving hours:

Later in the drive, after the sun went down:At home, after the car was unpacked:
As you can see Josslyn seems to get the crazy eye in photos when she is happy. And yes, that is a hooded soccer sweatshirt that she is wearing. Its made for dogs and it draws a lot of attention.

We were stopped at a Subway in Jellico TN mid-afternoon and realized we were out of dog food. We packed what we thought would be enough, but ended up being about a half a day short. So we head inside, and as always Joss jumps into the driver's seat for whatever reason. So we order our two subs, and then Lauren says "actually we're going to need a third, make it a six inch oven roasted chicken breast on wheat." and then declines to have it toasted, microwaved or heated in any way by saying "cold is fine, its for my dog". Then during the toppings portion of the sandwich assembly she says "and that one (the dog's sandwich) needs tomatoes and carrots" without any further explanation, at which point our sandwich artist chimed in about things her dog does and doesn't eat, making things slightly less awkward. Finally I explained our situation so that we weren't the yuppie couple that regularly feeds our sweatshirt wearing dog fast food sandwiches, to the local residents of some random town in Tennessee.

Adopt A Class

This is how I have basically spent the last week of my life. What you see below is the finished product. I was involved in every step but the good parts. Lauren's company adopted an area pre-kindergarten class for Christmas, collected some money and then purchased presents for 31 kids. My role was that of the informal budget consultant. Lauren was in charge of the creative part of the project so I tagged along to chip in the occasional "this is half off" "31 x 5 = $150" "look these markers are $3.49 for 8 and those ones are $2.99 for 10". So we spent last Thursday night at Jo-Ann Fabrics buying enough fleece to make 32 fleece handbags. Lauren was the one with the sewing skills, so after Thursday night I was there primarily to draw straight lines, make cuts and pin fabric. Pretty much every night between Thursday and last night we were marking, cutting or sewing fabric for these bags. The rationale being that when you have 31 kids wrapping paper is going to cost you about $40, which is $40 less you can spend on presents. So by stuffing the presents in these fleece bags (which cost about the same in raw materials) the kids would have something useful to keep afterwards.

Each bag contains: a hat & mitten set, Crayola crayons and markers, construction paper drawing book, a Dr. Seuss book, 2 canisters of Play-Doh and a wooden Christmas ornament with the student's name inside.

So every night in the past 7 days have been spent doing some part of this project. If it wasn't going from Meijer to Costco in search of better pricing it was going to the fabric store to pick up some odds and ends or simply spending 15 hours on the weekend marking, cutting and sewing fabric. Last night however was especially brutal because Lauren and I tried to get Christmas cookies (for a separate project) baked at the same time we were finishing threading the drawstrings on these gift bags.

Long story short, we finally went to sleep about 4am with the bags finally finished and about 150 cookies baked and decorated.

It was worth it though. I may revisit this post in the near future, but I am dead tired right now and I go on vacation to 72 degree Charleston South Carolina in 2 days. My mind and body are limping to the finish line.

Well, That Didn't Last Long

In my last entry I lamented the new emphasis on healthy foods only that I was being dragged into. Today I am pleased to report that this appears to be over, or least scaled back to an acceptable compromise. A week from Saturday Lauren and I leave for South Carolina, where we'll spend 9 days or so with her family. This means we need to have our own Michigan Christmas responsibilities taken care of by next Friday.

Last night we decided it would be nice to give people some baked goods as a small but thoughtful Christmas present. We were inspired by the Food Network's 12 Days Of Cookies celebration. Lauren's cookies will be going primarily to co-workers and mine will be given to friends. But before any of that can happen we need to choose at least one recipe and give it a trial run. So last night we selected Paula's Loaded Oatmeal Cookies:

* 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
* 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
* 1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
* 2 eggs
* 1/2 cup buttermilk
* 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1 teaspoon baking powder
* 1 teaspoon ground ginger
* 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
* 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
* 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
* 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
* 2 1/2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
* 1 cup raisins
* 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
* 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
* Brown Butter Icing, recipe follows

Using an electric mixer, cream together butter, shortening, and sugar in a bowl until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until mixture is light in color. Add buttermilk. Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice; stir into creamed mixture. Fold in oatmeal, raisins, walnuts, and vanilla, blending well. Drop by rounded teaspoons onto cookie sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Drizzle with Brown Butter Icing.

Brown Butter Icing:

* 1/2 cup butter
* 3 cups sifted powdered sugar
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 3 to 4 tablespoons water

In a small saucepan heat the butter over medium heat until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Remove saucepan from heat; stir in 3 cups sifted powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in enough water (3 to 4 tablespoons) to make an icing of drizzling consistency. Drizzle on warm cookies.

The only thing I would change from this recipe is the amount of icing. The recipe makes about 50 cookies. You could hit 60 if you're really anal about your portions. However the icing recipe makes enough to dunk 60 cookies like an Oreo in milk. If you're just drizzling you can cut the icing in half, unless you're big fan of diabetes. We baked them for the full 15 minutes and they still came out very moist. Even Lauren liked them, and she doesn't like Oatmeal Raisin cookies.

In The Doghouse?

Clearly this is an advertisement for some kind of jewelry company, but it is hilarious nonetheless. I find it especially funny because I know I am destined to wind up there in the very near future. I am not sure how or when, but I can feel it. In fact I feel like Phil Collins in that song.

The reason being that there was no food lab this past Saturday night. Someone, I won't say who, decided that "we can't eat like that anymore" because "I've gained like 5 lbs since Thanksgiving" and all the other post-Thanksgiving complaints you can imagine. I believe that sentiment is being compounded by the fact that this person will be seeing members of their extended family in a couple of week while attending two or three Christmas dinners.

So last night we went grocery shopping and in the final salvo of good eating for the foreseeable future we got ingredients for a white chicken chili, which I proceeded to screw up by forgetting to add the shredded cheese and sour cream. Subconsciously I was already defeated. The remainder of our grocery store bounty included the following:

Whole Wheat Pasta
Baby Corn
Red, Yellow, Orange Bell Peppers
Fat Free Lactose Free Milk
Raspberry-Acai Berry Juice
Ground Turkey
Lighty and Zesty Italian Dressing
Blackberries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Pineapple, Mangoes
Long Grain Wild Rice

I can't even remember the other things we got, but needless to say I am not overly excited. The food itself is fine, most of it was on sale, its going to taste just fine and its healthy. But just seeing it all at one time in the shopping cart or listed in this blog entry is really devastating.

And if she ever finds out I wrote this I am definitely going to be in the doghouse.


If you have a laptop, do yourself a favor and don't eat anything near it. Its an easy rule to follow when you first get a laptop and the pain of paying $800-$1200 on something that can easily be knocked over or dropped is still fresh in your mind. But as the years go on you tend to take your laptop for granted. Well I made the mistake of eating next to my laptop this morning, as I do many mornings in an attempt to stave off hunger until lunchtime. Stupid trail mix. I was typing an email when I noticed that the H and J keys were awfully firm. So I took a peek and noticed a tiny peanut shard resting underneath them. I figured it would be easy enough to pop the keys off, remove the obstruction and move on. After all I've done it on my desktop computer many times. Wrong.

Fearing that I had broken something I decided to pop off two of the lesser used keys Q and Z so I could examine the assembly of the key's undercarriage and put my H and J keys back together. This worked for a little while, and for a brief moment I considered leaving everything intact and sliding the Q and Z coverings into the H and J slots, since I don't look down while I type anyways. But I quickly found out that in popping the keys off like a desktop computer, rather than gently sliding them off I managed to damage the metal lock that keeps the key in place. There are four tiny little clasps, thin as a than safety pin with the durability of a wet noodle. With these broken I really had no hope. So I (barely) managed to get Q and Z back where they belong, J was damaged only to the point that the back of the key sticks up when you press the key. The H is gone forever.

While I was tying this entry I got the bright idea of again using a less important key to put in the space of the H, since the bottom clasp of the H is only damaged, not broken. I figured at best it would give the H the exact opposite problem I am having with the J key. Amazingly it worked. So now I have no - key, and a - where my H should be. Its confusing when I do look down.

Of course replacement keyboards for laptop computers aren't something you can ever find locally. So I have to order myself a new keyboard. Its going to put me out about 3 days and anywhere from $12-$50. The local repair shops need the same three days to order the same keyboards I've found, but they're going to charge me $75-$100. Its good to be your own computer guy.

Lesson learned: Don't eat peanuts or trail mix near your computer. And if you do, please me more cautious in removing the keys on your keyboard when you spill.

Breakfast For Dinner

I had breakfast for dinner last night. French toast with a side of sausage. It was awesome. I haven't made this French Toast in a while, but the best part about it is how well it freezes. I can make the full recipe on Sunday night, freeze it and have breakfast on the go for the rest of the week. Just turn the toaster dial about halfway (so it heats for about 2-3 minutes), put your frozen French toast in and you're done.

I think the original recipe is from Great Harvest Bread Company, but since they seem to be dying off where I live I am going to claim it as my own.

I use Texas Toast for this recipe. I mention this because usually when I tell someone this recipe they either don't know you can buy Texas Toast at the grocery store or they get confused and think I'm disgusting for using garlic bread to make my French Toast. With the internet and hyperlinks I can quickly illustrate the difference.

6 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk, can be skim or any other
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cinnamon, optional
Nutmeg, optional

Mix everything together, batter your bread, throw it on the griddle and cook until golden brown. It will make an entire loaf of Texas Toast (plus an additional 3-5 pieces), which is roughly twice the thickness of normal bread.

Pumpkin Turtle Cheesecake

For dessert today my family will be having this Pumpkin Turtle Cheesecake that I stumbled upon in the checkout lane of the grocery store. The recipe is from the Pillsbury Thanksgiving Classics Cookbook.

* 1 1/2 cups chocolate graham crackers (slightly more than 1 sleeve)
* 1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

* 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
* 1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
* 4 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
* 1 cup packed brown sugar
* 2/3 cup granulated sugar
* 5 eggs


* 1/2 cup pecans (or walnuts), toasted and chopped
* 2 ounces bittersweet baking chocolate, coarsely chopped
* 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
* 1 cup caramel topping

Mix the crushed graham grackers and melted butter to make the crust. Spread the crust in the bottom of your springform pan and compact it with something wide and flat (I used the bottom of a coffee mug). Pre-bake at 300 for 8-10 minutes.

Using an electric mixer mix the room temperature cream cheese, making sure to get rid of any lumps. Add eggs one at a time while, scraping the bowl in between to avoid lumps and promote a homogeneous mixture. Add sugar and continue to mix. With the brown sugar be sure to break up any hard sugar balls with your fingers. The mixer won't do the job.

In a separate bowl mix the flour, pumpkin spice and pumpkin filling.

Add the pumpkin filling to your cheesecake filling and mix thoroughly. Your end result should appear to be a very light orange with freckles typical of a pumpkin pie. Don't worry if the batter doesn't taste good on its own. Some cheesecake is like that. This is one of them.

The recipe calls for a 75-85 minute bake at 300 degrees. I use a steam bath for my cheesecakes so I pushed the temperature to 325. Every cheesecake is different, so either way you should bake for about 70 minutes and then check periodically to see if the cheesecake is set and golden around the edges and slightly firm in the middle.

Cool at room temperature for 2 hours, and in the refrigerator for 4 additional hours (or overnight).

For the topping I chopped and toasted (aka sauteed) walnuts and set them on top. Then I steam melted (stainless steel mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water) a 1/2 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips, dipped the tines of a fork in the melted chocolate and pretended to write cursive over top of the cheesecake. Same with the caramel (though I used the microwave). That gave it the wacky, artfully out of control look you see.Later tonight or tomorrow, I'll add an update to the bottom of this post and let you know what I thought about its taste.

Final Verdict:
Not as sweet as regular cheesecake, not as pumpkin as pumpkin pie. So in the end it sort of leaves you pining for both. A decent recipe, but not anything to write home about. The guests enjoyed it more than I did, but I felt like they would have been more impressed by a normal cheesecake with similar toppings.

Spinach Balls

I just wanted to share a quick recipe with anyone that might need a last minute idea for Thanksgiving. My mom makes them for Thanksgiving every year. I credit spinach balls for helping me turn the corner on the "I don't like vegetables" days of my youth.

Spinach Balls (makes 35-40)

4 - 10 oz packages frozen spinach
4 - large eggs
3 tbsp - italian dressing
1 - bag of large, caesar cut croutons (crushed)
1 - medium purple onion, chopped
1 - red/yellow/orange sweet bell pepper, chopped
1 - clove garlic, minced
1 tsp - Nutmeg
2 - tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tbsp - extra virgin olive oil (optional)
1 pkg - Shredded cheese (Asiago, Parmesan, Mozzarella)

Defrost, drain (extremely well, press if necessary), and chop (if not already chopped) frozen spinach. Crush croutons into crumbs, scramble eggs and mix in bowl. Add nutmeg, cayenne pepper, garlic, olive oil to crumb/egg mixture. Add spinach in 4-5 separate handfuls, mixing/kneading by hand for even distribution. Add chopped pepper and onion, mix/knead by hand. Add 1/2 package of shredded cheese, mix by hand, add Italian salad dressing, mix by hand.

Scoop into ping-pong ball sized portions and place on parchment paper covered cookie sheet, sprinkle with cheese, cook in center of over at 350 for approx 15-20 mins or until exterior is slightly browned/crispy.

Some ingredients/seasonings (such as the salad dressing) can be added/subtracted/changed to taste. Much of the flavor comes from the crushed croutons, so if you wanted to go for a stronger garlic flavor you could get a different type of crouton, salad dressing and cheese to make that work. The onion and pepper are primarily for color.

ICA: Thanksgiving Showdown

I finally managed to catch a replay of the Iron Chef America: Thanksgiving Showdown from a week ago. The thing about Iron Chef is that I always hate the judges. They're always so pretentious. Cady Huffman annoys me not only because she spells her name stupidly, but because they believe I am supposed to be impressed if they refer to her as an actress. Her IMDB profile shows a few episodes of Law & Order and not much else. Is she related to somebody famous? If you're going to give me borderline celebrity, give me someone that probably resents the way their cookie crumbled. Give me Frank Stallone, Eric Roberts or a pre-Desperate Housewives Terri Hatcher type. Someone that needs the Iron Chef camera time to reinvigorate their career, not some goofy attention whore that is just happy to be invited back.

The judges for Thanksgiving Showdown were Tiki Barber, some food critic I don't know and Lou Diamond Philips. Possibly the least qualified panel to judge a rare 2v2 Iron Chef partner battle. Don't believe me, listen to Tiki Barber. "I like bacon", "I just keep going for the bacon" and "I'm just eating". Followed up in the second dish with the question "how did you make this?". Tiki, I don't know if you realized this but you were sitting inside Kitchen Stadium 15 feet away while they made your entire meal. What have you been doing for the last 60 minutes?

I don't know what to say about Lou Diamond Philips. He tried. He gave his best attempt to play the "acting is in my past, I'm a savvy restaurateur these days" role like Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Republican Governor's conference.

The one thing I would like to know is how I can audition to replace The Chairman? That seems like a pretty cushy job. You pace around Kitchen Stadium wearing hideous color combinations, occasionally stopping to shout the name of the secret ingredient. I wonder how much he makes.

Beer Lab

In my free time I also brew my own beer. Not in the turn my nose up at store bought beer because "the best beer is beer that was handcrafted in the Bavarian hinterlands with water from a prehistoric glacier" kind of way you seem to find with most homebrewers. I still drink Miller Light and other domestics and for the most part I try not to push my homebrews on other people. So I am not your typical homebrew guy. For me it seems to be more of a scientific fascination. I like to figure out why these ingredients make this beer taste like that or exactly how two different strains of yeast alter the taste of identical batches of wort (unfermented beer).

This weekend I made two 5-gallon batches of beer, both as Christmas gifts. I don't want to give away any secrets so thats all I'll say about who hand their hands in helping me. I'm an extract brewer that does partial boils on my stove. So I don't have any grand delusions of being a master brewer. But I do need to keep better track of what ingredients I'm using and in what amounts so I can reproduce a beer if it turns out really well. So this blog entry is as much for me as it is for anyone else.

Irish Red Ale (Brewed Nov. 21)
6 lbs - Liquid Pale Malt Extract
1 lb - Raw Honey
0.5 - Cara-pils
3 oz - Roasted Barley 300L
1oz - Amarillo Hops (60 min to boil)
1oz - Amarillo Hops (15 min to boil)
White Labs Irish Ale Yeast (WLP004)

American Amber Ale (Brewed Saturday Nov. 22)
6.3 lbs - Liquid Amber Malt Extract
1 lb - Crystal 10L
1oz - Amarillo Hops (60 min to boil)
1oz - Cascade Hops (15 mins to boil)
White Labs California Ale Yeast (WLP001)

Both of these brews take about 4-6 weeks until they are finished, or at least drinkable. Christmas is five weeks away so I am going to cross my fingers and tell the receivers that they'll better results if they wait until New Year's to open them up. It won't hurt them to open one on Christmas Day, but I wouldn't expect it to taste done.

I probably should have done this earlier, but five weeks early or not a gift card is a historic achievement in my career as a Christmas shopper.

Sticky Buns Defeated

Last night we used our Saturday night food experiment to revisit last weekend's sticky bun nightmare. During the week in between I got a tried and true recipe from the mother of a friend, and used that to make our dough (using all-purpose flour only).


2pk (1/4 oz. each) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
3 Eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk or sour milk
1/2 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
3 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup wheat germ

Note: All-purpose flour can be substituted for wheat flour and germ, in roughly the same quantity--then you can skip the step of combining them in a separate bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a small bowl, stir, and let stand until soft, about 5 minutes. Reserve.

In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, buttermilk, and butter, and beat till smooth. Stir in reserved yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the flours and wheat germ. Then add 3 cups of the dry mixture to the wet ingredients, beating until well blended. Add 2 more cups of the dry ingredients and beat until the dough just holds together. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead for 1 minute. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Knead the dough again, sprinkling on the remainder of the flour mixture as needed, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turn, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until about doubled in bulk, about 60 minutes.

From this point on, we finished using Bobby Flay's filling and sticky bun goo, but that only accounted for half of the dough. The awesome thing about this dough recipe is that its versatile enough to make cinnamon rolls or sticky buns, you just need to decide for yourself how you finish once the dough has risen and has been rolled out.

These buns sticky buns are cartoonishly large, to the point that you might suspect they'd been stolen by a cartoon character from a window sill in the deep south. This recipe makes 12 rolls, so we used six last night to make sticky buns and saved six for Monday morning to make cinnamon rolls. All we'll need for that is to bake the rolls, take some softened cream cheese and mix it with a small amount of milk and confectioner's sugar to make a topping.

Thank you Rebecca and thank you Cindy for helping me out on this.

(By the way, here is the rest of that recipe:)

Punch the risen dough down and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out into a 15x24-inch rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Sprinkle the reserved filling over the dough, gently pressing the mixture into the dough with your fingers. Beginning with the short end, roll the dough up like a jelly roll. Slice crosswise into 12 equal pieces. Place the slices, cut side down and barely touching each other, on top of the glaze in the pan. Cover, and let rise in a warm place until puffy and almost doubled in bulk, about 25 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake the buns until golden brown on top, 25-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan to set the glaze, about 5 minutes. Invert onto a serving tray or another baking sheet and allow the glaze to dribble down the sides. Pull apart and serve warm.


1 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup dried currants
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans

combine all in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Reserve.


1 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cup [acked brown sugar
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup small pecan halves or coarsely chopped pecans

Mac & Cheese Throwdown

Last night we had a special Wednesday edition of FoodLab. Lauren has a Thanksgiving potluck lunch at work on Friday and everyone has been asked to bring a side dish. So she thought this would be a good chance to make Delilah's 7 Cheese Mac & Cheese from Throwdown with Bobby Flay.

The recipe:

  • 2 pounds elbow macaroni
  • 12 eggs
  • 1 cup cubed Velveeta cheese
  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, melted
  • 6 cups half-and-half, divided
  • 4 cups grated sharp yellow Cheddar, divided
  • 2 cups grated extra-sharp white Cheddar
  • 1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella
  • 1 cup grated Asiago
  • 1 cup grated Gruyere
  • 1 cup grated Monterey Jack
  • 1 cup grated Muenster
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
The first thing we did was head to grocery store to check out these cheeses. Its a good thing I wasn't buying, because cheese is expensive. Gruyere is $8 a block. Block Asiago cheese is almost $6. Extra-sharp white cheddar was $5. You can see how this is going to turn out, and so could we. So we dumped the Gruyere, found store brand block cheese at 3-for-$5 for the sharp cheddar and monterey (pepperjack), found a small block of Muesnter for less than $4, used a bag of shredded mozzarella rather than the block. The only truly expensive cheeses we needed were the Asiago and Extra-Sharp White Cheddar.

Next we halved all of the ingredients because this was supposed to be dinner for two. In addition to that we figured out that we didn't want an egg souffle, so we used a quarter of the 12 eggs to make our half batch. Lastly we used milk instead of half-and-half, because we're not gross.

Half of that recipe filled a 13x9 baking dish to the hilt. It seemed as though it was going to be a little runny, but after baking it for an hour, the eggs did their job and firmed everything right up. In fact one more egg would have been too dry, and I probably would preferred a little more creamy balance in the cheese. So we probably need to adjust the milk or butter. I would never use 12 eggs for this recipe unless you'd rather end up with some kind of weird scrambled egg macaroni bake for dinner and breakfast. What it comes down to is that if you're used to eating Velveeta shells and cheese, this recipe isn't going to deliver a high-end version of that. This mac and cheese is more of a casserole you cut with a fork. In terms of price, if you make the original recipe you're going to end up with a $50 mac & cheese that serves 15-20 people. If you halve the recipe and catch a break on some sales, you can get two $16-20 meals that will feed a large and hungry family.

The half recipe make more than enough to feed 6 adults. I was disappointed and disgusted to see how much mac & cheese we had left last night. I'll enjoy it for lunch today and then swear off mac & cheese for a few months. This recipe is pretty good, but I can easily see why Delilah lost the Throwdown.

Saturday Night Food Lab

The last month or so this is how I've spent my Saturdays

AM: Go the YMCA
Noon or 3pm: Watch Michigan football, eat lunch
3-5pm: watch Food Network, specifically Throwdown with Bobby Flay, get dinner ideas
6pm: Go to Meijer, buy what I need to make my crazy Food Network recipe
7pm-12am: Make some crazy meal

So I have decided to call it Saturday Night Food Lab, since Lauren and I generally try to make something we've never made before. This coming Saturday should be really interesting, because boneless skinless chicken is on sale at Meijer this week ($1.99/lb!!). My preliminary guess is something like chicken cordon bleu or some other chicken dish that requires flattening chicken with a meat hammer.

But before that happens I need to share the disaster of this past Saturday night. Saturday afternoon Lauren and I watched Throwdown with Bobby Flay. In this episode he had a sticky bun battle with Joanne Chang of Boston. We thought that might be a nice thing to have either as a late night snack or for nice, easy breakfast. The sticky buns have to rise and proof for a total of about 5-7 hours, so it was best to get started early.

The recipe is not hard. Warm milk, flour, eggs, butter, vanilla, sugar, salt and yeast. Oh how I hate yeast. So we make these sticky buns about 7pm Saturday night and the first step is to add yeast and sugar to warm milk, then let it sit for 5 minutes until it gets foamy. "Foamy" isn't exactly a scientific measurement. So we stare at it, see some bubbles around the edge and a think skin on top and wonder if that is considered "foamy". We let it sit for a few more minutes and doesn't get any foamier so we decide that is probably what they mean. After all its warm milk, sugar and yeast, what is there to screw up?

We do all the other steps, add the flour and let the dough hook go to work. We set it aside and check back in hour later to see if our dough ball has doubled. Maybe? I doubt it, but I don't have a set of those calipers doctors use to pinch your body fat during a physical, so I can't really be sure. When it comes to dough, I kind of have an out of sight, out of mind attitude. Using my eyeball to determine whether or not a dough ball has increased in size just doesn't work for me.

So we proceed with the 4 hour refrigerated proofing, assemble the "goo" and pastry, cut the sticky buns and let them rise in a finished state for another hour. At this point its after midnight and I can see the writing on the wall. Even if they're any bigger than they were an hour ago, they're still not big enough. We bake them anyways and about 1:15am we sit down to a nice treat of unleavened sticky buns. Basically brown sugar syrup covered hockey pucks.

Sunday we go through all of this again, using a different packet of yeast. This time the milk/yeast/sugar mixture seemed thicker, had slight yeast bubbles on top and had been thoroughly brought to temperature and remained at the recommended temperature for activating the yeast for a full 20 minutes or so. The dough ball never rose and is still sitting its bowl this morning.

This is the third time we've struck out making some kind of yeast dependent breakfast pastry. I hate yeast. It freaks me out every time I make beer because I have to use yeast and the instructions always say that the yeast will begin fermenting within 12-15 hours but if nothing has happened within 48 hours you have a problem. However I've never once had the yeast become active within the 12-15 hour early period. It almost always takes 36-48 hours, which basically become an awful 1-2 days of me wondering if I was careless and just wasted $40 worth of beer ingredients. But even so, I've not yet had a batch of beer go bad on me because of problem with yeast, and beer takes about 6 weeks and 18 hours longer than sticky buns.

I just don't get yeast, and that bothers me even more.

Chicken Pot Chicken Pot Chicken Pot Pie!

Saturday morning I woke up at 8:45am, drove down to the YMCA and took part in my very first spin class. It was tough, sometimes annoying and definitely challenging but overall it was a good experience. Chances are I'll go again next Saturday. The only problem I found with going to spin class (I can, and will, refer to this way as though its something I've been doing for years) is that it gives me a false sense of accomplishment. So I spend the rest of the day going *stretch* "I need to go to the grocery store, but boy am I sore from spin class. I'll just finish watching this show and then I'll go."

Well "this show" turned into the Michigan game, a small nap and then about 3 hours of Food Network. After all of that I helped Lauren get some laundry done and made plans for dinner. We've gotten in to the idea of making at least one new dinner or lunch each week or so and slowly increasing the degree of difficulty. The last new one we did was chicken salad, which was followed by a really good egg salad. This time around we settled on homemade chicken pot pie. We used Paula Dean's "Lady & Sons Chicken Pot Pie" recipe as the base and then improvised from there (changes in bold):

Did I mention we started about 9:45pm? Thanks alot spin class.

Chicken Pot Pie (Degree of Difficulty: 6)

4 sheets frozen puff pastry
2-3 cups diced chicken (cooked)
1 egg, beaten
Seasoned salt and pepper
1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups milk

1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 small yellow onion, minced
1 cup frozen green peas, cooked
1 cup chopped cooked carrots
1 can (15 oz) corn
1 cup sliced mushrooms

The first step for this recipe is to take the puff pastry out of the freezer and let it sit at room temperature. For the chicken we used four thighs and one breast skinned, boned and cubed. I did a quick Italian dressing marinade before sauteing the chicken and onions in a skillet.

While I was doing that Lauren started the pie filling by melting the butter and then slowly adding flour until the mixture reached the consistency of peanut butter. When she dropped off to chop mushrooms and carrots I added the cream and milk to the butter/flour mixture. We've basically watched way too much Iron Chef America. I think secretly we both think that is what this is all building to even though we don't really have the necessary training. You'll notice later (the crust) that our timing kind of sucks.

The original recipe called for four cups of heavy cream, but we had some reservations about that amount making things too creamy. So we used half the amount and made up the difference with milk.

At this point Lauren steamed the carrots and then sauteed them in chicken stock with the mushroom and garlic for about five minutes, adding the peas and corn for the final two.

When that was finished we added the chicken and vegetables to the sauce, brought it to a high simmer and then moved on to crust. For the crust what you need to do is roll out the puff pastry, brush it with egg and butter and set it inside a pie plate or casserole dish. Place the bottom crust in your baking dish and bake it at 350 for at least 10-12 minutes (or until golden brown or flaky). The bottom crust will NOT cook substantially once you've added the filling. Add the top layer of puff pastry to cover your pie and cook for 15-20 minutes (or until golden brown).

This recipe makes enough filling for two 9 inch pies. We used an 8x8 baking dish. Any unused pie filling freezes easily, so you can store it for a future meal.

We finally finished around 10:45pm, but it was worth the wait. Overall this recipe cost us almost $40, but that includes a number of questionable and "bad luck" purchases of things we should have had but happened to be out of. Flour, $2.50 organic peas, $5 organic butter, $9 of puff pastry when we could have used two $1.50 frozen pie shells or made our own dough with the flour we just bought.

In case you were wondering, this was the highlight of my weekend. Doubly so since it started snowing last night, because that means I'm going to make the backup pie tonight or tomorrow while I lament the arrival of winter.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy

I would guess that roughly 10-15% of the conversations (phone calls especially) I have from week to week start with some version of "Ba, something is wrong with my computer... I think I have a virus". I'm not here to complain, those calls usually allow me to trade information/services rendered for beer or small amounts of cash that usually end up buying beer. But lately I've run into a couple of nasty viruses myself (through very little fault of my own) that cost me a half a day at work and made me reformat my hard drive at home. The worse of the two calls itself XP AntiVirus 2009, and it essentially hijacks all of the links in your web browser in an attempt to make you think you need to buy a $50 software package. The second virus I came across was Zlob.DNS.Changer. It inserts a little program that constantly changes the default DNS settings in your TCP/IP configuration. Or in layman's terms it blocks you from getting to the internet. Awful awful stuff.

So I am going to lay out the best combination of free virus/malware/spyware removal tools that I have come across in quite some so that you can install them and perhaps one day give your friendly neighborhood (family) computer guy a night off.

The Tools:

AVG Free
A full-featured anti-virus program, free for personal use. In my experience, the software (like all super protection anti-virus suites) are a little clunky and irritating in the way it slows down your computer's startup times. Once you install this you're probably going to want to disable most of the tools and just leave it in place as a weekly virus scanning tool.

Lavasoft Ad-Aware Free
A great secondary spyware/malware removal tool. This primarily identifies and eliminates dialers, Trojans, viruses, bots, rootkits, data miners, aggressive advertising, parasites, browser hijackers, and tracking components. This program doesn't generate a whole lot of false positives, so you're going to be able to quarantine/delete pretty much everything that comes up in your scans.

Spybot Search & Destroy
Spyware/Malware removal tool. This digs a little deeper than Lavsoft Ad-Aware because it gets into the elimination of problematic registry entries. The best feature about this program is that the spyware/malware definitions are updated almost weekly. This program doesn't generate a whole lot of false positives, so you're going to be able to quarantine/delete pretty much everything that comes up in your scans.

Hijack This
A free utility which quickly your computer to find settings that may have been changed by spyware, malware or other unwanted programs. This program does NOT discriminate between legitimate programs and intruders. It simply generates a list of the processes being run on your computer and allows you to enable, disable or delete them. You probably DON'T want to run this without at least consulting with your local "computer guy".

Winsock XP Fix

This tool can often cure the problem of lost connections after the removal of Adware components or improper uninstall of firewall applications or other tools that modify the XP network and Winsock settings.

So here is a quick order of operations for how to use these tools, should you ever get an infection:

1. Turn Off System Restore: Go To My Computer -> Right Click -> Properties -> System Restore -> Turn Off System Restore.

2. Reboot Your Computer Into Safe Mode: Restart the computer, Hold F8 and then choose Safe Mode.

3. Run Ad-Aware. Approximately 30 minutes. Quarantine/delete findings. No restart required.

4. Run Spybot Search & Destroy. Approximately 40 minutes. Write the names of the scan results on a piece of paper, then Fix/delete findings.

5. Go to Start -> Run -> then type msconfig. Click 'Startup' tab and select "disable all". Reboot into Safe Mode. Approximately 2 minutes.

6. Call your "computer guy". Run Hijack This while he's on the phone. Read results and ask for advice. He should be able to tell you what to look for based on the results of the Spybot findings you wrote down. Approximately 5 mins.

7. Run Winsock XP Fix. Approximately 3 minutes.

8. Restart your computer. As you enter your normal windows startup Spybot S&D should begin another scan. Let it complete, fix/delete the findings (30-40 minutes) and then see if your computer behaves normally.

Since the nastiest viruses block/alter your internet connection, I recommend downloading these programs and saving them to either an old thumb drive you have lying around, or your computer's desktop. The steps I listed obviously take a long time, but its going to take twice as long if you have to use a second computer or leave your house to download and transfer all the necessary tools.

I'm not even joking when I say that I might stop by Office Max, buy a handful of their old generic/clearance $5 thumb drives, load this software on them and give away as Christmas gifts.

I'm Back... With Chicken Salad

With some encouragement from Rachel (The Sheldons), I have decided to return to maintaining a blog. Since I last did this I've added a few new hobbies. So this time around the blog is going to center primarily on beer, cooking and baking, television and movies. Technology is probably going to come up as well.

On to the chicken salad. I've wanted to make it for quite a while now. I don't really know why. One part is because it seems healthy. Who knows, it might actually be healthy, but either way I can walk around the house thinking "I could have eaten pizza, but I made something healthy". The other part is that I hate paying $5+/lb at the grocery store for chicken salad because usually it kind of sucks. At best I find most deli salads to be way too hit or miss to take the gamble. So I waited for chicken breasts to go on sale and then made my move. Here is what I used:

  • 1.5-2 lbs boneless skinless chicken breast, cubed and marinated in Italian salad dressing.
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup real mayonnaise
  • 1 cup (2 stalks) diced celery
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup - sliced red grapes
  • 1/3 cup - crushed pecans
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
Saute the chicken 5-6 minutes (or until cooked all the way through) in a skillet, drain any excess liquid and then cook it "dry" for another 2 minutes to add color. Empty the chicken into a large mixing bowl, add celery, salt and pepper. Squeeze lemon juice, add mayonnaise, stir thoroughly, add grapes and pecans, stir again and then serve.

You can probably add the ingredients in any order you want, but I figured the idea of having the grapes was to keep their original flavor for the complimentary sweet/salt/sour flavors in the chicken salad.

This recipe makes about 6 large sandwich size servings, maybe more. I split the leftovers with Lauren, so I don't know exactly what she got out of the portion she had. I'd estimate that when it was all said and done, this probably cost me $15 with a loaf of (Aunt Millie's 12 Grain) bread and some Swiss cheese and made about 3 lbs of chicken salad. So maybe it wasn't a whole lot cheaper than the grocery store, but at least I could be sure it didn't suck.

That photo is not the actual dish I made, but in the future I'll try to take pictures of the food I blog about.