Thursday, October 2, 2014

The State of Mollie: October 2014

Well it's official, I have finally succeeded in overloading myself. Just one month in the second year of grad school is craaaaazy and I am a wee bit overwhelmed. I feel like I have been doing many things, everything, all the things all the time, which explains my month-long internet absence. But I miss blogging (aka writing for fun), so here I am back again!


To be clear, for the most part all the things are mostly good things that I am interested in and want to do. So, other than busy, what is the State of Mollie?

Well on the school front (I will keep this brief so as not to bore you), second year woohoo! I am taking four very interesting classes this semester -- internal wars, gender in conflict, corruption in post-conflict peacebuilding, and big data for strategic decision-making. Basically, if it has "conflict" in the title I'm there. I'm also auditing a French class three days a week just for funsies. I'm also working as a research assistant for one of my professors, and also as a writing tutor (making the monies, like ya do), and also as an editor of this journal. I also have a thesis to write and a job to find...gah enough stop pressuring me!

Apple crisp with homemade cinnamon ice cream!


But the great thing about second year is that you come back and already have friends, and therefore can really hit the ground running on the social front. I've been trying my best not to say no to any social invitations, which at some point will become unsustainable but for now is quite fun. Back-to-school has also meant back to weekly Wednesday Dinners, and ooooh I have some recipes to share with you! Boston cream pie. Apple tart with pastry cream. Apple crisp and homemade cinnamon ice cream. More on that later...

Kyle visited from Azerbaijan, so of course we went to a brewery.

On the weekend report front (oh dear oh my so much too much to report!), last weekend a big group of school friends went to New Hampshire to rock climb and hang in the beautiful White Mountains. We climbed at Rumney and it was awesome!


Speaking of New Hampshire, a couple weeks ago a different group of school friends -- 24 total -- did the Reach the Beach Relay Race and it was awesome! We started Friday morning at Cannon Mountain, and 207 miles and many many hours (approximately 29) later were at Hampton Beach. I ran 19 miles total, at an average of just under 7-minute pace. Considering the MOUNTAINS I ran at approximately 6pm and 3am, I'm pretty pleased with that.



Which brings me to running. In the wake of that most fun relay, we all got excited about running (obviously I am always excited about running) and signed up for the Baystate Half Marathon on October 19th! So I've been "training" -- doing some long runs, a couple workouts, ya know the usual. I've never done a half marathon before, so I'm pretty excited.

In addition to running, I renewed my rock gym membership and have been going to climb and stretch it all out with yoga a couple times a week. Clearly my "so busy" involves more extracirriculars than perhaps it should...but what can I say? I love fun activities.



In conclusion, the State of Mollie as of October 2014 is strong.






Saturday, September 6, 2014

Travels in Turkey: Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia


Cappadocia is an adventure out of Dr. Seus's imagination.


Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You're off to great places!
You're off and away!
...
You'll be on your way up!
You'll be seeing great sights!
You'll join the high-fliers
who soar to high heights!

After a night on the bus from Fethiye, I looked out the window into the 7 am sunlight. The hilly dry Northern California coast-like landscape had transformed to a sweeping vista of even hillier even dryer Central Valley-like golden hills (clearly someone is homesick and has CA on the brain). As we descended into the Goreme Valley however, things took a turn for the weird. The hills were suddenly interspersed with giant sandstone pillars, and the washes off the giant mesa above the town reached their fingers into the landscape.


Shepherded off the bus we were immediately put into a car and two minutes later were at out hostel, which was literally built into the rocks. Morning glories and bougainvillea and roses are everywhere you go (which would explain all the rose flavored turkish delight and perfumes and soaps here). And stone of course -- everything is made of stone. After a delicious breakfast (bread, roasted eggplant spears, and big slices of fresh feta = yummm), our tour van picked us up for the day.


I'm not an organized tour person (at all), but in the case of Cappadocia it seemed like the best way to go. The sights are spread out far, so besides renting a car, there's really no other way to do it.

We started the day at a tower of cave churches built into cliffs. The area was inhabited by ancient Christians who were being persecuted by the Romans (or whomever else was invading at that point), so they built they homes and places of worship where no one could find them.


If you know me at all, or have been a Eat Run Read-er for a while, you know how much I love scrambling over rocks. Climbing into high up caves, clambering to ledges, and peering over edges -- i.e., the entire Cappadocia region -- is my jam.


Next stop was the Ihlara Valley, which is a deep canyon also full of ancient churches. We did a little (4k) hike along the bottom and had lunch along the stream at the end and it was lovely.



Third (and final major) stop that day was an underground city. It was HUGE -- a series of eight floors of caves and caverns and hallways and rooms. And there are many many more caves of this city that you can't go into, or haven't yet been excavated! On the bright side, it was nice to be underground and out of the hot sun. On the less bright side (literally), I am not a huge fan of caves so the underground city was fine but not my fave. Once you've seen one in a series of caves, you've pretty much seen them all...


And I have to share this part -- that night our hostel room was in a cave. As in, Kathryn and I climbed up a very scary ladder drilled into the rock and found two nice mattresses on the floor of a spacious well-lit cave, pleasantly separate from our hostel-mates.


Alright so the next morning was the BIG EVENT that everyone does: a sunrise hot air balloon ride. We were picked up at 4:30 am and shuttled to an office waiting area where blurry-eyed tourists sat quietly (I repeat: 4:30 am) awaiting whatever came next. They soon put us back into vans by balloon pilot. In the pre-dawn light we drove on a dirt road through the rock pillars and hills but then eventually realized that many of what we thought were hills were actually hot air balloons, slowly slowly inflating like giant elephants waking up.


We watched others and our own inflate, and then were told to climb in. The take-off (and the entire ride actually) was completely smooth and gentle. Our balloon rose to join those a few minutes ahead of us, and watched others take off below us. The sight was surreal: a slow moving invasion of tourists, all neatly contained in large baskets of 20 and propelled slowly slowly 500 feet above the ground by giant colorful balloons.


The ride in total was 45 minutes. Our pilot took us up and down with the air currents, flying over pumpkin vines and pistachio trees and phallic pillars (you know you're thinking the same thing). 


We saw the sun rise over the mesa, getting a complete view of Goreme, and finally touching down in a vineyard. I could not be happier -- what a magical way to spend a morning!


And since that started so early, we still had a full day ahead of us. Day 2 was the "red tour," which is mostly sights close to Goreme. It was a lot of ok get into the van, ok now get out, ok now back in....but I can't get over how cool the high caves and rock formations are!


My favorites were the open air museum...


...and wherever this was (Imagination Valley maybe?)...


...and this last stop because I very definitely climbed up everything. Kathryn is a great travel buddy because she fully supports, encourages, and often documents any and all antics. 


In conclusion, Cappadocia was amazing, and hot air ballooning might be the coolest thing I've ever done, and this blog post is way too long, and we did even more things than I told you about here, but basically you should just go and see for yourself. 

Next stop: Istanbul!




Monday, September 1, 2014

Travels in Turkey: Beach Time in Fethiye


After a summer of fun (and also a lot of work) in DC, my adventure itch started itching, the travel bug bit, that overwhelming urge to visit all the places took effect, and the wide world called — To Turkey it said!

My good friend Kathryn had already planned her trip, so the logistics were already taken care of. Just a bit of time online booking and I was ready to go.


After a very loooong travel experience, and a run-in with the WORST TRAFFIC IN THE WORLD (if you happen to do what I did: fly into Attaturk International, then take a bus across the city to get on a domestic flight out of Sabiha Gökçen, know that it takes 3-4 hours to get across the city), I arrived in Fethiye around midnight. I could regale you further with the struggles of multiple-mode of transportation international travel, but let's take a moment for perspective: I sat on many chairs in the sky, most of this experience involved A/C, people brought me food, and I traveled half-way around the world in just 36 hours. Technology is amazing guys, never forget it.


So anywho, I was thrilled to see Kathryn, who had been working in Geneva all summer and weekend tripping all around Europe (oh the life). I crashed pretty hard immediately upon arrival, but was all kinds of ready to go the next morning.


I awoke to a beautiful view of the harbor and a very Turkish breakfast of crusty bread, hunks of feta, some other white cheddar-ish cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and hard-boiled eggs. There's nothing like a breakfast view, and our hostel (Fethiye Guesthouse, highly recommend) definitely had that.


We took our first day easy at the beach. Blue Lagoon is the famous one, so we hopped on a mini-bus and were soon there, marveling at what a great blue color the water was! The day was hot and the water was just cool enough to be refreshing so we spent it all there. Perfection.


That evening we meandered around town, obtaining the requisite baklava.


The next day was our "sporty" day and we started it (after beautiful breakfast of course) with a short hike up to the cave tombs above the city. If you know me at all, you know that any day I can scramble up some rocks is a good day. So into the tombs we went.


Continuing with our activity, we decided to hike up the mountain above town along the Lycian Way. We didn't go far enough to see any epic views, but it was a nice (and very sweaty) adventure nonetheless.

"It is dangerous to climb on the rock and forbidden." Whoops. 

The day ended with a beach sunset (we are on the most romantic Turkish vacay ever), and the BEST dinner of the whole trip. Seriously, if you find yourself in Fethiye, go to Mozaik Bahce.

Lamb Kebabs
Mezze Platter.

On our last day in Fethiye we took a boat from the Blue Lagoon to Butterfly Valley. We "hiked" up to see the canyon waterfall (it was less than a half-mile), then hung out on that beach for a while.

Butterfly Valley

We'd booked paragliding along the coast for that afternoon, which would have been AMAZING, but tragically it was too windy and our trip was canceled. So instead we got smoothies and enjoyed our last couple hours on the beach.



That night, armed with snacks and comfy clothes, we boarded an overnight bus to Cappadocia. Turkey to be continued...




Monday, August 11, 2014

Cake of the Week: Bourbon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Curd Filling and Meringue Frosting


I hate to be the bearer of bad (obvious) news, but it's mid-August and summer is almost over. Exactly one year ago today I started grad school, which is crazy. Hallelujah right now for a semester sans pre-session this time around (and best of luck to all you back schooling it up in Boston already!).


I will be making my way back to the great metropolis of Somerville at the end of this month and will be making the absolute most of my summer until then. So far it's been a great one -- there's nothing like summertime-ing/weekend-ing in DC: friends and fun and outside activities, and a bit of work here and there too of course. AND after just one more week of work I'm going on vacation to Turkey!!! So that is awesome and you will likely hear about it here on the blog.


But back to the here and now. Summertime desserts are delicious and I've been on a bit of a lemon kick. So let me present to you my most recent baking innovation, inspired by an afternoon of not wanting to think about North African terrorism, and created for an epic end-of-summer rooftop extravaganza: Bourbon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Curd Filling and Meringue Frosting.



They are super light because there are a lot of egg whites going on here, and super-delicious. These are the kinds of cupcakes you feel totally ok eating multiples of (oh why oh why do I have no more?), so make many if you can. The frosting is magical -- I first made it long long ago for a s'mores cake and called it marshmallow frosting. Now that I'm older and far more sophisticated let's call it meringue though, ok? Ok.

The recipe sounds complex, but it's really just three simple components all put together. My roommate made ice cream last week (oh yeah), and so we conveniently had a lot of egg whites in the fridge. A word of warning though: do not use those egg whites that you buy already cracked in a carton. They are not fresh enough to whip into meringue. Also, you can use bottled lemon juice if you feel so inclined, but then you'll miss out on the zest, which gives the curd a lot of flavor.


Bourbon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Curd Filling and Meringue Frosting


White Cake Ingredients:

  • 1 cup milk, room temperature
  • 6 egg whites
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon
  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup butter (6 oz), softened

Lemon Curd Ingredients: 

  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (2-3 lemons) (do not use the bottled lemon juice)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon finely shredded lemon zest

Meringue Frosting Ingredients:

  • 2 large egg whites (about ¼ cup)  
  • ½ cup sugar  
  • ½ tsp cream of tartar  
  • ½ cup water  
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract 


Directions:

  1. For the cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with cupcake liners. 
  2. Combine milk, eggs whites, vanilla, and bourbon in a small bowl with a fork. Set aside.
  3. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in an electric mixer and mix at slow speed with a paddle attachment. Add butter. Continue beating at slow speed until mixture looks like wet sand (If you’re doing this by hand, sift the dry ingredients together and rub in butter).
  4. Add all but 1/2 cup of milk mixture and beat at medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes. Add remaining milk mixture and beat for an additional 30 seconds, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary. Do not overmix.
  5. Fill each muffin cup about 3/4 of the way. Bake 25-30 minutes, until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  6. Let cupcakes cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool. 
  7. For the lemon curd: While the cake is cooking, in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk the eggs, sugar, and lemon juice until blended. Cook, stirring constantly (to prevent it from curdling), until the mixture becomes thick (like sour cream or a hollandaise sauce). This will take approximately 10 minutes.
  8. Remove from heat.
  9. Cut the butter into small pieces and whisk into the mixture until the butter has melted. Add the lemon zest and let cool.
  10. The lemon curd will continue to thicken as it cools. Cover immediately with plastic wrap (so a skin doesn't form) and refrigerate for up to a week. 
  11. For the frosting: Put the egg whites in a clean, dry mixer bowl or in another large bowl. Have a candy thermometer (or a meat thermometer can work too) at hand. Put the sugar, cream of tartar and water in a small saucepan and stir to combine.  
  12. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, cover the pan and boil for 3 minutes. Uncover and allow the syrup to boil until it reaches 242 degrees F on the candy thermometer (soft ball stage). 
  13. When the syrup is at about 235 degrees F, begin beating the egg whites on medium speed with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer. If the whites form firm, shiny peaks before the syrup reaches temperature, reduce the mixer speed to low and keep mixing the whites until the syrup catches up.  
  14. With the mixer at medium speed, and standing back slightly, carefully pour in the hot syrup, pouring it between the beater(s) and the side of the bowl. Splatters are inevitable—don't try to scrape them into the whites, just carry on.  
  15. Add the vanilla extract and keep beating the whites at medium speed until they reach room temperature, about 5 minutes.  
  16. You should have a smooth, shiny, marshmallowy frosting. Although you could keep it in the fridge in a pinch, it's really better to use it right now.

Assembly:
  1. Use a sharp paring knife to cut the centers out of each cupcake: cut in a circle at an angle to pop out a little cone. Do with these what you will (aka eat them dipped in the lemon curd as you assemble...I will neither tell nor judge). 
  2. Scoop a spoonful of curd into the holes. 
  3. Frost liberally. 
  4. Enjoy!!



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Literary Bite: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers


The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is the best book I have read in a while. It's intense but a fast read, and so well-written that you will love it. The non-linear narrative is takes place from 2003 to 2009, in Virginia, Germany, and Iraq, from a young private's enlistment to fighting in the Iraq War to his painful return to "normal" life afterwards.

The story is sad and beautiful and painfully real all at once. While heart-wrenching is a generally overused adjective, in this case it is totally applicable. Powers writes with rhythmic concision, making me want to read some sentences out loud to get the full effect -- "The world was paper-thin as far as I could tell. And the world was the orchard, and the orchard was what came next. But none of that was true. I was only afraid of dying." It's not pretty, how war transforms the characters, but it feels true. And his descriptions of the battlefield and his emotions throughout it all make you feel like you're there.

The story is about 21-year-old Pvt. John Bartle, who fights in Tal Afar in 2003. It's about of friendship, camaraderie, and loss...though I don't want to say too much and give anything away. Ever so occasionally Powers slips into stream-of-consciousness writing at times, which I actually really liked because it's a little convoluted but just coherent enough to make you feel it. For example, this is just part of one pages-long sentence that I really admire:
“Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sign posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you goona do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, and the one person you promised would live is dead..."
The author served with the U.S. Army in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and The Yellow Birds is his first novel. The book took him four years to write, and Powers says that it started as "an attempt to reckon with one question: what was it like over there?" But he quickly decided that he was unequal to that task, because "war is only like itself".

This is the only war book I've read, so I don't know how it compares to others in its genre. Some reviews compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage.

Read this. Even if you don't read "war books." Because it's a good book, amazing piece of poetry and literature, and also because I feel like it's important. I have no idea how accurate or universal Powers' descriptions of the war and returning from war are, but I'm guessing he has a lot in common with a lot of young veterans today. This is all so very current...




Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cake of the Week: Coconut Oil Lemon Bars



Lemon bars are one of my favorite summer desserts. The only downside is that if you try to take them places in Tupperware they tend to melt into a sticky mess. So these bars seek to solve that—thanks to their more solid cookie crust, they’re a more easily transportable twist on the usual recipe. I made them with homemade lemon curd, which is pretty much substance of the gods that I want to eat on a spoon always. Plus the coconut oil in the crust gives them a special hint of extra richness and flavor.

And for the record, I’m officially obsessed with coconut oil. The many uses of this magical substance have been well-documented, so no need to get into them here—let’s just cut to the chase and talk about its utility as a baking ingredient.


I haven’t thoroughly experimented with coconut oil as a straight substitute for butter, but apparently it can be used as your oil of choice in many recipes. It has a lower melting point than butter, so while it works well in bars and brownies and cookies, I haven’t seen it used as much in cakes.  And for those of you who care, it’s vegan and paleo and a lauric acid, which may or may not be good for you, but is probably not any worse for you than other oils/butters/fats. The important part (to me) is that it’s delicious—coconut oil adds a nice hint of vanilla-y coconutty flavor to whatever you’re making.


The dough looked dangerously shiny and potentially not quite right, and as I put them in the oven, I was concerned that the bars would turn into some sort of sticky disaster. But nope! They turned out perfect! And came out of the pan so easily—ready to be packed up and taken to a picnic.

Coconut Oil Lemon Bars

Crust Ingredients:
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • ½ cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
Lemon Curd Ingredients:
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (2-3 lemons) (do not use the bottled lemon juice)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon finely shredded lemon zest

Directions:
  1. For the curd: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk the eggs, sugar, and lemon juice until blended. Cook, stirring constantly (to prevent it from curdling), until the mixture becomes thick (like sour cream or a hollandaise sauce). This will take approximately10 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat.
  3. Cut the butter into small pieces and whisk into the mixture until the butter has melted. Add the lemon zest and let cool.
  4. The lemon curd will continue to thicken as it cools. Cover immediately with plastic wrap (so a skin doesn't form) and refrigerate for up to a week. This recipe yields approximately 2 cups of curd, so you will have some leftover (yay you win!).
  5. For the bars: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish with cooking spray. Set aside.
  6. In a medium bowl, cream coconut oil and sugars until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add the egg, vanilla extract, and coconut extract. Mix well. Mix in the flours, salt, and baking powder until combined.  
  7. Gently press ¾  of the dough into bottom of prepared baking dish. Evenly spread approximately one cup of the lemon curd over dough. Use your hands to flatten pieces of remaining dough and spread it over the top, almost covering all the curd.
  8. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Cool completely and cut into squares.