Armenian Imperial Stout

Stout Top

This is beer number five, stout number two. It’s from Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing (3rd edition). I don’t know any story behind the name–Papazian gives none and as far as I’m aware there was never any Armenian Empire–so I suppose it’s just a takeoff of “Russian Imperial Stout” because Armenia is (almost) adjacent to Russia. Whatever. The point is that the beer is pretty damn good.

It’s a malt extract recipe, and I got all my supplies from the excellent Oak Barrel Winecraft in Berkeley, Calif. For a 5-gallon batch, the total cost came to about $40, which is a bit under a dollar a beer. This is pretty good by commercial beer standards–you won’t find one this delicious for that price–but a bit much for homebrew, mainly because there’s just a ton of malt extract. If you’re careful you can probably do a bit better (e.g. bring your own containers to fill with extract at the store, etc), but this beer is well worth it.

Stout Zoom

(This is what I used; they’re a bit different from what Papazian calls for but pretty close.)
6.5 lb amber extract
3.25 lb light extract
1/2 lb black patent malt
1/2 lb roasted barley
Boiling hops (60 min): 2 oz Magnum hops + 1/2 oz Cascade hops
Finishing hops (1 min): 1 oz Cascade hops
Yeast Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast

Comments on the Brewing

This was a pretty standard stove-top malt extract brew. The specialty grain (black patent and roasted barley) was supposed to be steeped at 150-160 C for 30 minutes, but of course the temperature control was a bit wonky in practice. The amount of hops used was a bit of a guess–the recipe calls for hopped malt extract, and instead I put in the extra 1/2 oz Cascade for the boil. The result was not particularly over- or under-hopped, so it worked out. I tried to sparge (strain) the wort, but both the mesh bag and the metal strainer I had just got clogged, so it was about half-sparged. Finally, for various reasons I didn’t have a hydrometer at either the beginning or the end of the process, so I don’t know what the gravity was. (The recipe has O.G. 1.070 – 1.075, F.G. 1.018 – 1.025, which would give it an ABV of about 7%, which seems about right.)

I gave it about three and a half weeks in the carboy (with a blowoff hose for the first 24+ hours, which was an excellent idea), and three weeks in the bottle thereafter. The tasting notes I have in my brew notebook consist only of this: “Absolutely Delicious!!

(I will, however, take the opportunity to add a few more tasting notes here. The ale is quite bitter, but not hoppy, and very malty, but not at all sweet. It also has a very strong burnt or coffee flavor, which I find wonderful. If I were to make it again, this could go quite well with many types of additives: coffee, chocolate, vanilla, even chile would be excellent. Of course, it is also great as it is.)

Stout Full

Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge

This year's theme: hazelnuts Last Sunday, instead of celebrating our first anniversary by going out to a fancy restaurant (the plan I’ve been scheming for, well, let’s be honest, 12 months), Peter and I went to a beach BBQ to celebrate the birthday of our good friend David.  It wasn’t a tough call.  You see, David has a rather absurdly adorable baby who isn’t even 2 months old and is often in need of cuddling.  In the end, it was a perfect day to be at the beach, with a brisk ocean breeze to keep us from wilting in the sun.  It wasn’t until we received a “Happy Anniversary” card from my parents that I realized we had done absolutely nothing to celebrate (more proof that we are chronic under-celebrators).  I realize there are rules one can follow about anniversary themes, but it’s disappointing how few of them are edible.  So this year’s theme is hazelnuts.  (I thought briefly about making it chocolate, but if the point is to choose a different theme each year I couldn’t bring myself to rule out chocolate so early on.)

Mixing the fudge

The following recipe for chocolate hazelnut fudge is originally from Elana’s Pantry.  It is exceedingly simple and basically consists of roasting some nuts (after which your kitchen will smell like nutella) and making a chocolate ganache.  Unfortunately my ganache didn’t set up completely, which is probably due to the fact that the nuts weren’t roasted in time and I kept mixing the ganache to keep it from solidifying in the pot.  Despite a lack of structural integrity, the fudge has been quite popular, and is the most intensely chocolatey dessert I’ve eaten in a while.  If you prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, simply sub in milk chocolate chips.  I’m also thinking that the ganache would be amazing layered with a sweet peanut butter mixture (like lazy peanut butter cups)… maybe next year!

De-skinning hazelnuts

Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge (adapted from the recipe here)
1 3/4 (8 ounces) dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup coconut milk (unsweetened, the kind from a can)
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts, skins removed and roughly chopped

1) Line a bread pan or other similarly-sized dish with parchment paper to make a fudge receptacle.

2) Roast the hazelnuts for 10 minutes on a baking sheet in the oven at 350 degrees F.  The skins will probably get pretty black, and you may be worried that you burned them, but don’t panic because you will be taking the skins off anyways.  De-skin the roasted hazelnuts by putting them in a clean dish towel and rubbing them together.  Most of the skins should come off very easily.  Chop the hazelnuts roughly and set aside.

3) Combine the chocolate chips and coconut milk in a small pot and stir constantly over low heat to melt the chocolate and form a smooth uniform consistency.  This really won’t take long!  Add in the honey and vanilla extract and stir to combine.  Finally, add the chopped hazelnuts and stir them into the ganache.

4) Pour the ganache plus hazelnuts into the parchment paper lined dish and let sit in the fridge for an hour or more until firm.  Cut into pieces and serve!  If your fudge insists on melting in your fingers, just eat it with a spoon; it will still taste amazing!

The finished fudge

Book Report Catch-up

I’ve been lax in reporting on the books I’ve read–heck, we’ve been lax in updating the blog at all–so you’re going to get them all at once (and I apologize for the brevity). I’m going to try to remember all that I’ve read since the H.P. Lovecraft review, but I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. Without further ado:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

My copy of the book had a much less awesome cover.

100% A+++. This book was, in a word, awesome. I could call it a story of a nerdy Dominican boy and his attempt to get laid, but that makes it sound more like a bro comedy and less like the actually wonderful, literary, and, yes, heartfelt novel that it is. This was recommended to me years ago, and I should have taken that recommendation immediately, as should you.

Excession, Iain M. Banks

I never actually got a good idea of what all these space ships actually looked like. I don’t think it was like that, though.

Excession is somewhere in the middle of Banks’ Culture series of novels, which tell of the doings of a benevolent post-scarcity society of humans administered by machines (i.e. robocommunism). I don’t read as much science fiction as I used to, but the late Iain M. Banks is definitely my favorite sci-fi author at the moment. I think my favorite is still the non-Culture book The Algebraist, but that could be because I’ve been reading the Culture novels out of order. Though his novels usually have a few too many plot twists and hidden agendas for me, and are occasionally too clever for their own good, I’m never disappointed. Recommended for anyone who thinks she may like science fiction.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon

Despite the appearance, it is not, in fact a record.

Having grown up around Telegraph Avenue itself, I noticed the few bits of artistic license Chabon takes with Oakland geography, but I can’t fault the novel as a whole. At first it took me a while to get into the whole stream-of-consciousness-from-a-parrot interlude in the middle of the book, but by the third page I was digging it. Definitely recommended for Oakland natives, and really anyone who likes a good book.

The Far Pavilions, M. M. Kaye

I think a proper movie of it would be at least PG-13.

Apparently this is a classic of British India historical fiction, a subgenre with which I am tragically unfamiliar. Though the book was altogether too long, I was still sad to see it come to an end. I think I’d recommend it for airport reading if you have to fly from the west coast to central Europe on three planes, say. (Also, every story or novel I read set in India only mentions the caste system for the sake of mentioning it, as in “Oh yeah, there’s this caste system here.” What’s up with that?)

The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton

There are a wide variety of covers for this one, understandably.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of this. It starts off strong, drags a bit in the middle, then really picks up before going off the deep end on a 2001-like bender. Wikipedia says it is “sometimes referred to as a metaphysical thriller.” Well, just about everything I’ve read to do with metaphysics is bunk, but I still liked this book. I think I’d recommend this one when you’re stuck in a waiting room somewhere, so the bored and slightly anxious frame of mind engendered by the absurdity of modern society will be fresh in your mind, encouraging you to distract yourself by trying to puzzle out what the heck Chesterton was getting at with all this Christian imagery (I suspect the message isn’t really that profound anyway).

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

Apparently this is also the name of a Mumford and Sons album. Go figure.

This far too short book hails from another area of historical fiction I am tragically unfamiliar with, that of the Khazar Kingdom, the only (?) Jewish state of the middle ages. (Though I assume I am unfamiliar with other such works because this is the only one.) It tells of the adventures of an unusual pair of vagabonds as they seek to etc. etc. This was surprisingly lighthearted given its my-family-was-horribly-murdered brand of realism, and actually had me laughing at some points, something I rarely do when reading. Highly recommended, to all. Especially if you yourself are on the road, in which case you can read it back-to-back with On the Road and compare and contrast (mostly contrast).

The Widower’s Tale, Julia Glass

This one probably wins for cover-least-successful-at-getting-across-the-point-of-the-book.

I read and thoroughly enjoyed Three Junes (also by Julia Glass) a few years back, and I think The Widower’s Tale is better. This is also quite a funny novel at times–enough so that we’ll be reading in bed and Anna (reading it on my recommendation) will suddenly burst out laughing (and jerk me awake in the process). Recommended for a lazy Sunday, or as a good bedtime novel (depending on your likelihood of laughter).

The Light of Evening, Edna O’Brien

See, don’t you really get a better idea what this one is about? (There are quite a few handwritten letters in it, for example.)

A novel about an Irish woman’s relationship with her mother, and her mother’s relationship with her mother, and various travels back and forth from America. Those of you who know my taste in literature will be surprised to hear that I liked it, though I thought it could have been a bit shorter. Recommended for those who want Amy Tan, but from Ireland.

When The Killing’s Done, T. C. Boyle

They probably did well for this cover by staying away from pictures of dead pigs.

I got about halfway through Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain before it got too depressing and I put it down. When The Killing’s Done is about the less depressing subject of the eradication of pigs from the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara. While it certainly got bonus points for being local (I recognized the description of the Home Depot in one scene), it was a legitimately good book as well. I even ended up liking the character the reader is set up to hate. Recommended for those in a southern California frame of mind, or even those just wanting a brush with sunny Santa Barbara (though there was more rain in the novel than I am personally familiar with, having lived here for several years now).

A Weekend in Sweden

Lupin-alert!!!! For the second half of my Europe work trip I’ve been visiting a few astronomy friends in Copenhagen, a city both Peter and I know and love from our adventures two years ago.  Unfortunately Peter wasn’t able to join me this time; something about work and a thesis and perhaps a couple mutterings about beer brewing.  Oh well, I’ve been having plenty of fun without him, starting with an entertaining evening at the street parties organized by Distortion.  It reminded me a bit of Halloween in Isla Vista, but only some people were wearing costumes and the average age was a bit higher (minus the toddlers safely rocking out from their balconies).  I defer you to google for a realistic image of the chaos. Traditional Swedish housing design For a change of pace, my friend Andreas, his girlfriend Mia, and I decided to hit the Swedish countryside for a long weekend of staring at nature.  You see, I chose the absolutely best two weeks to visit Copenhagen, with one holiday each week to goof off and recuperate from what is starting to feel like a very long stream of never-ending travel (especially after my trip to the East coast three weeks before leaving for Europe). Swedish forest with poplar trees Thankfully, Sweden did not disappoint.  We stayed in Mia’s parents’ cabin in the Swedish woods across the road from a lake.  The cabin had canoes, fishing gear, and even internet.  While we failed to catch any fish, we did enjoy exploring a couple of islands, and being the pessimists we are, came equipped with various meats to roast on the grill instead.  On the second day, we went on an outing to an establishment in the middle of the Swedish woods where we sat outside sampling various teas (they had an impressive selection and I was grateful to Upton’s for at least a cursory knowledge of tea lingo) and some Swedish pastry that involved balls of cooked dough served with tasty jam.  On our way there, we saw two wild boar and a handful of cute baby boar from the road, apparently a very rare sight.  Between that and a bee attack in the car, it was an entertaining day. The lake where we failed at fishing Another view of the lake Spot the boar!!! To top it all off, we got to take the ferry to and from Sweden through Helsingor, which I previously visited to see Hamlet’s castle.  This time we saw the castle from the ocean view, surrounded by sail boats (probably Danes just celebrating a perfectly clear day in June, the first in more than a week) and sparkly water.  Allow me to demonstrate: Hamlet's castle with sailboats More sailboats The boat I wish we were on... Perhaps I should clarify that part of my interest in visiting Sweden was due to my heritage of being a quarter Swedish, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but apparently it’s enough to require Swedish themed Christmas parties growing up and a strong attraction to almond-flavored pastries (although not to pickled herring).  My mother was understandably jealous when I told her I was visiting Sweden without her, but I’m happy to report that Sweden is pretty much just like Maine (where my parents plan to retire), so they shouldn’t feel too left out.  For example, both have way too many large rocks and a mostly-rocky coastline, tons of forest (specifically pine trees), and both are covered in lupins. Wild strawberries

A New Sourdough Bread Recipe

The loaf in all its crunchy crusted glory

Despite previous reports, I’m still hale and hearty and a lover of a good sourdough. A recipe for Tartine’s country bread appeared in the New York times a bit ago. The Tartine bread book has been highly recommended to me (people tend to like it more than the Peter Reinhardt that I’ve been using for a while), and has been on my list of “things I’d like to probably get someday” for a while. So, naturally, I had to give this bread a shot. Since the recipe is given in full detail in the Times link, I’m not going to repeat it here, only point out what simplifications I made and still managed to be successful. And it does need simplification–the recipe as listed is a pain in the rear.

A wholey holey inside

Commentary on Tartine’s Country Bread, by Suzanne Lenzer, adapted from “Tartine Bread” by Chad Robertson

a) As I already have a starter, I do this recipe in three steps: make the leaven (wait overnight), make the dough (wait for the day), bake.

b) On Saturday night, make the leaven as specified in step 3.

c) On Sunday morning, make the dough as in steps 4-6. Use the remaining leaven for sourdough pancakes (it’s pretty darn close to the 3/4 of a cup as called for in that recipe). The recipe says to mix with your hands; for the love of god, don’t do that, it’s far too messy: just stir with a spoon.

d) Throughout the day, fold the bread as specified in step 7. (Do your best to work this into your Sunday schedule.)

e) I don’t have any fancy proofing baskets, so I mostly skip the specifics of steps 8-10. Instead, I split the dough in half and do my best to pull them each into a boule shape on a well-floured surface. I then put them in well-floured covered bowls, and put one of the bowls in the fridge, and leave the other out to continue rising.

f1) Bake one on Sunday evening/night: let it rise for as long as you can (maybe another half hour to an hour), then preheat the oven with the dutch oven in it, and bake as specified.

f2) Bake the other on Tuesday night: as soon as you get home from work, take the dough out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven and bake as before.

The only real failures I’ve had with this have been when I haven’t let the bread rise enough (while doing the folding) or haven’t let it come to room temperature before baking. As such, the Saturday/Sunday/Tuesday schedule is what works for me.

The bread is very, very good, and the crust is great. It is mostly white flour, though.

St Andrews Adventures: Part 3

(This is the third in a three-part series on St Andrews. You should catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them.)


This picture overlooks the Crail harbour

Today I set a goal of completing the Crail to St Andrews portion of the Fife Coastal Path. The reasoning was twofold: the coastal path was reportedly stunning, and I had little more to see around St Andrews, and exercise is always welcome–but more exciting to me was following up on some hints laid out in the mysterious journal I found yesterday. I’m sad to report that I did not get any pictures of it, however; I stayed up far too late last night, enthralled by it, and when I woke up this morning I had to rush to catch the bus to Crail. (The bus runs hourly, and as portions of the walk are inaccessible at high tide and high tide is due at about 2pm today, I was on a tight schedule.) Perhaps, though, this is for the best.


A section of the coastline near Crail.

The walk is supposed to take about six to eight hours, and as I had a dinner to attend, I wanted to waste no time. Crail is a picturesque fishing village–I would call it a quaint New England village, except it’s not in New England, of course. Heading north from Crail, the path is relatively wide and alternates between dirt and gravel, and is well-maintained in any case. The weather was cold and blustery (“a bit blowy” a British lady I passed called it), but it didn’t bother me. The wind had whipped up the waves, and despite the seeming violence of the water crashing on rocks, it had a strangely inviting character to it.

Constantine's Cave

Constantine’s Cave

I made good time to Kingsbarns, passing such features as Constantine’s cave and the occasional derelict building. The path wandered from the shore up the bluffs and back down again, and I kept the sea on my right, with the country on the left alternating between golf course and farmland. At various points the path passed near, and, indeed, through herds of cattle. One brown cow seemed particularly interested in me–puzzled, slightly afraid, even.

Brown Cow

The nearest approach of a brown cow

After Kingsbarns, on the way to St Andrews, the path became much more remote–despite the claims of the website I was following that it is the Crail-Kingsbarns section that is the wildest. The wind started to increase, and it began to rain. At one point, the path turned inland into a forest, yet I found myself strangely hesitant–not to enter the forest, but to leave the shore. As I did, though, the wind and rain increased, and the waves crashed ever more insistently on the rocks.

Coastline 2

The coast, closer to Kingsbarn

I do owe a bit of explanation at this point. “Perry” (this was apparently Lawersson’s nickname, go figure) had apparently been quite successful at tracking down religious folk rituals of the area. She hinted at two different points of interest in particular: the sand pile–er, Witches’ Mound–of yesterday, and a river that flows into the sea, somewhere between Kingsbarns and St Andrews. Apparently, local superstition holds that every certain number of years towards the end of May, a long-forgotten sea-god must be placated, first with a “pre-summoning” ritual around a Witches’ Mound, then with an incarnation the following day at the river. Lawersson had successfully tracked down the pre-summoning; the last entry in her diary indicated that she was going to witness it. I don’t know what became of her, but she did leave enough clues for me to determine that if I walked the coastal path from Crail to St Andrews I could find the river.

Forest Entrance

The entrance to the forest.

As I proceeded deeper into the forest, the sound of the waves, rather than fading away, became ever more insistent and rhythmic, a steady crash-withdraw, crash-withdraw. Indeed, the waves seemed to be trying to make their way up the river. The same footprints I saw yesterday became apparent in the muddy trail, though the increasing storm was eager to wash them away. I slowly became aware of what seemed to be a chanting in time with the assaulting waves, at first barely perceptible through the now-furious rain and wind. Finally I approached a semicircle of people in fantastic dress, perhaps a dozen, waist-deep in the river, facing towards the ocean. My approach muffled by the storm, I walked into the middle of an upstream bridge over the river. I cannot describe what I saw next. Some sort of… thing… was crawling up the river, propelled by the rhythmic waves and drawn by the chanting. It was so horrible, so hideous, that before I could fully understand what I saw, I ran, as fast as I could, across the bridge and down the path, which mercifully led away from the river before turning back to the welcoming sea.

I’m not ashamed to say that I fled, but I do regret dropping what I was carrying–Heather “Perry” Lawersson’s journal and research notes. I doubt it survived the heavy rain, though the storm did abate as I got further from the river. If my phone and camera had not been secure in my backpack at that point I would have surely lost them, as well. Perhaps it is for the best, though, that the journal never be found, and this all be forgotten as soon as possible. I did manage to take a couple pictures of it while I was on the bus ride to Crail, though, so perhaps that will help the interested scholar. I’m not sure that anyone will believe what I have stated–I certainly thought Lawersson’s writings were either make-believe or a hoax until I saw for myself–but I know I will never forget the chanting that followed me away from the river and haunts me still: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

As I returned to St Andrews, soaked to the bone, I became more and more dejected after I turned away from the sea. The townspeople crossed the street to avoid me, and quickly looked away when I glanced up. Dripping wet, I was also spattered with mud from my flight through the forest and tracking sand behind me from the places where the path ran along the beach. Finally, after a little girl of six or seven pointed, screamed, and ran away, I looked at myself, and noticed that webbing was emerging between my fingers, and bulges in my neck. Whatever I had seen as a result of that accursed diary had changed me, physically and mentally, and now the wind-whipped waves call to me. I leave this record only as a warning for others.

Editor’s note: This is a transcription of a recording found on a phone in a wet backpack left outside the bed and breakfast. The pictures were downloaded from a camera also in the pack, and selected in an attempt to correspond with the tale. The forest entrance was the last picture on the camera. As for the pictures mentioned of the journal itself, none were found, but there were some photos–chronologically placed before first photos of Crail–that were too corrupted to be recovered from the camera.

St Andrews Adventures: Part 2

(This is the second in a three part series on St Andrews. If you missed it, start with part 1.)

Lade Braes Walk

The whole of Lade Braes basically looked like this.

Having seen most of what the town (village?) of St Andrews has to offer, today I set off into the Scottish hinterland–or rather, I walked along the idyllic Lade Braes. A lade is a man-made stream or canal used for powering mills or simply supplying water. The Lade Braes has been unused for quite some time, but the locals have kept the trails along it well maintained.

St Andrews Wanted Poster

St Andrews does have a bit of the charmingly provincial.

There’s not a whole lot more to say about it. After a while the official Lade Braes Walk ends, and the path and the lade part ways, but I continued walking on other paths, of varying quality. I had passed a few people on the Lade Braes Walk, but there were none on the smaller paths I continued on. This was a little strange as there were clear tracks in the mud–both man and beast (dogs, I assume), and apparently recent.

Narrowing Path

The path gets narrower…

The most interesting occurrence of the day, by far, was the finding of a leather-bound journal on the ground near the end of my walk. The muddy, narrow path I had been following opened up into a clearing with a mound of what appeared to be white sand at the center of it, and at the edge of it were “The Notes of Heather Lawersson”. The entries were all dated in April and May–the last one being May 29th–and though there was no year, it was clearly at least several years old, and possibly up to several decades. She seems to have been researching folk religions, with a particular interest in those native to Scotland.

Path opens to clearing

The path opens to a clearing, with the “Witches’ Mound” in the distance.

She was apparently in St Andrews–with its history as a religious center–attempting to record what I would call Wiccan or neopagan practices. As far as I could tell, the pile of sand in the center of the clearing where I found the journal is called the “Witches’ Mound”, and is what drew her here.

I’m sad to report that I became so intrigued by the find that I stood there reading it, neglecting to note that I had the camera in my other hand, turned on, and the battery completely drained. (It had already been in near constant use since we got to the UK, after all.) I managed to get the pictures you see above off the camera, and once the battery charges I’ll upload some pictures of the journal–though I’m not sure how well her faded scrawl will come out.