Mabel Overload

Version 3

It has taken me three versions of Mabel to get it right, but oh how right it is!  Version 1 entailed stretchy denim and is officially the most bootilicious piece of clothing I will ever own.  I thought about modeling it for you, but since I won’t even wear it outside, such a feat would take one too many margaritas.  For version 2 I overcompensated and used a stretchier black ponte knit and increased the size by one; the skirt almost doesn’t stay up, and I’m at a loss for how to fix it without adding absurd amounts of bulk to the waist (not, I imagine, a flattering look).  To be honest, I didn’t even finish hemming the bottom, not that it matters with knits.  Finally, for version 3 I used the original size of the stretchy denim version, flared the skirt pattern pieces, and added extra length; it is dreamy!  Soft, fluttery, and stays up while remaining work-appropriate.  I used a soft cotton-poly mix in a cream color.  Now I just need one in every color, or at least a color that isn’t partially see-through… Maybe with version 4 I’ll finally get it right!

Version 3 full skirt view

Pros: the Mabel pattern is extremely forgiving.  I’m too lazy to separately alter the front and back, so the pattern has exactly two pieces.  Yes, it makes alterations (such as adding a full skirt) almost too easy.  Next up might be a maxi length version for “winter” time.

Version 3 waist band

Cons: for the love of all things sacred, why didn’t I add pockets?  I realize that a mini skirt with hidden/invisible pockets doesn’t really work, but I was just being dense when I made the full skirted version without them.  I am now reminded of my short sightedness every time I wear version 3 because I have nowhere to put my office keys during the day (this may not sound like such a hardship, but my office mates haven’t been in much lately, so the chance of locking myself out is distressingly high).

Next up, I will have to share my galaxy sorbetto, and yes, it is as awesome as it sounds!

Version 1

Version 2



Six More

2666, Roberto Bolaño

I put this one on my list* because I read online somewhere (probably NYT, NYRB, or the New Yorker… for someone who’s never lived in New York I sure need to diversify my media consumption) that Bolaño is the best thing since sliced bread. Or maybe it was James Joyce. In any event, 2666 went on my list and it turns out my local library had it. Well, 2666 falls under the category “I read it so you don’t have to”; that is: skip it. It consists of five tangentially related books, each of which is about five times too long. I only enjoyed the last one, and that was probably because I was no longer reading a horribly depressing and repetitive recounting of feminicide in northern Mexico. I’m sure there’s lots of great symbolism and such about the decay of modern society in there, but unless you are an English major (or Spanish major, I guess) or have a companion book and a lot of time, just move on. I still have no idea what the number 2666 has to do with anything.

The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

While also rather long, this one falls at the other end of the complexity spectrum of 2666. (Well, it’s not a children’s book, that is, but it is a fantasy novel.) Marion Zimmer Bradley first came to my attention years ago as one of Michael D.C. Drout’s “worthy successors to Tolkein”, and weeks ago it happened to be on display at my library. She provides a feminist (or at least female-centric) interpretation of the Arthurian cycle, and–despite my quip to Anna one night that it mostly consists of “women herb-ing each other left, right, and center”–it is definitely worth your time, if you are at all interested in King Arthur specifically or fantasy literature in general.

Look to Windward, Iain M. Banks

Another Iain M. Banks science fiction novel, this one tells the story of two war veterans, one of a “good war” (I think) that calls to mind the contemporary view of World War Two, and the other of a civil war caused by external influence, which seemed to me to be a sort of commentary on the (most recent) Iraq War. While I don’t think it’s the most insightful commentary on the experiences of the modern veteran (for more on that, see the next book report post), it does manage to comment well on the human condition. As an aside, this is the second time I’ve read this book, because I accidentally got it from the library, not realizing I’d read it before. I suppose that’s either a negative comment on the book’s memorability or a positive comment on its quality–probably both. In any event, I do recommend Iain M. Banks’ science fiction to all, starting with The Algebraist and moving on to the Culture series (of which this is a part).

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

The unquestionable winner of this round-up, Half of a Yellow Sun follows three characters through the Nigerian Civil War. You should go and read this book right now. It is, of course, something of a downer–there’s always a certain tragedy accompanying defeat in a civil war / war of independence (except for the American Civil War, don’t get me started), and this novel provides both that, and the tragedy common to civilians in all wars, in spades. Still, you should read this book, now. It was recommended to me by the same friend who recommended The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, last time’s winner, so maybe he’s onto something.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, Rick Atkinson

These shouldn’t really be subject to a joint review, seeing as they cover different subjects, but they’re both military/political history and I read them sequentially** so this is as close of an opportunity as I’m ever going to get so here goes. The Sleepwalkers covers the political, military, economic, and diplomatic situation in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century leading up to the start of the First World War. I saw it recommended (again, somewhere online–no doubt as part of a 100-year retrospective) as a thorough exploration of the roots of the war; its thesis is that there is no single person, nation, or alliance accountable for the war but that the nations of Europe stumbled–or rather, sleepwalked–into it. I only got through about half of it before someone put a hold on it and I had to return it to the library, but it certainly seemed to do a pretty good job setting up that claim; incidentally, I now know more about the economy and politics of Serbia in 1910 than I really wanted to (it’s a rather academic book). I do intend to finish it, someday.

The Guns at Last Light, by contrast, is definitely a popular history. There’s a lot more of “…he must have thought, as he gazed out over the ____ [assembled troops, windswept plain, etc]” and general America-(and-Britain)-is-great-this-is-the-good-war kind of stuff. Nevertheless it does provide a view from the level of both the commanders (mostly Eisenhower, decent amount of Montgomery, and so on) and the common soldier. (It is also a much quicker read than The Sleepwalkers.) If you’re interested in military history–or think you might be–then definitely check out Rick Atkinson, starting with “An Army at Dawn”. (As an aside: Atkinson is much, much better than Stephen E. Ambrose–Ambrose might as well have titled his books “Hoo-rah”, so just watch HBO’s Band of Brothers (which I do recommend) instead.)

* “My list” is a bit of web software I put together for fun. The source is available here, though there’s probably a bit of work to do before others can easily set it up for themselves. (And something like Goodreads is probably better, though I prefer to keep my data to myself.)

** I did read them sequentially, but in parallel with the fiction on this list. Generally I have an “upstairs book” (fiction, bedside) and a “downstairs book” (nonfiction, morning/weekend) going simultaneously. More information than you wanted, but that’s what blogs are for, right? (My downstairs book will soon again be Bertrand Russell, for the amusement of those who follow me on twitter.)

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.