Thursday, March 31, 2011

Literary Bite: My Other Life by Paul Theroux

My Other Life by Paul Theroux starts with a Peace Corps love affair in a Malawian leper colony, and follows the author from Singapore where he starts his family, to London, where he offers cunning insights on British culture, and finally ends in America.

This book reads like an autobiography, and the character “Paul Theroux” definitely has a very similar life to that of the author, Paul Theroux. But this book isn't fact, it’s a fictionalized memoir. This stylistic choice gives Theroux the freedom to embellish or change events if he feels like it, essentially freeing him from the constraints of an actual autobiography.

The “Author’s Note” states, 
This is the story of a life I could have lived had things been different – an imaginary memoir. The fact that there are limits to serious travesty and that memory matters means that even an imagined life resembles the one that was lived; yet in this I was entirely driven by my alter ego’s murmur of ‘what if?’…The man is fiction, but the mask is real.
In many ways it feels like My Other Life is a vehicle for Theroux to write about things he hasn’t developed into full stories or books (kind of how 2b1b does “Thought I couldn’t flesh out into full entries.”) Each chapter could stand alone, and Theroux ponders a huge range of subjects from “Sisterhood,” to “A Part in a Movie,” to “The Writer and His Reader,” etc. (his chapter titles are quite literal).

Recurring themes are: Theroux is constantly about to be seduced by determined but unsuitable women from whom he retreats at the last moment; the fragile but oddly intimate relationship between writer and reader; and he bears an agonizing sense of exile from an everyday, quietly satisfying domestic existence he seems to cherish but can never attain (hence his compulsive travels).

Since I’m a fan of his writing style (I loved Dark Star Safari and The Elephanta Suite), I’m happy to read anything Theroux feels like writing. I especially like reading his thoughts on writing and the writing process, since he is a very serious and accomplished author:
There was nothing that anyone could ask me about my work that I could not answer, no question about my life that I had not already mulled over. My books were the visible part of my mind. And I could not separate my writing from who I was. It was not work I preformed, it was a process of my life. (237)
This quote is long, but it particularly has lodged itself in my mind:
I needed interruptions in London because I worked alone, haunting the house all day, growing ghostlier as I wrote, and a phone call was the proof I needed that I existed. I was especially glad when the phone rang that October afternoon; I had just finished another page of my China book and I felt it was going a bit too well. A book stuck badly was a misery, but if writing came easy I suspected it of being oversimplified and second rate. (This opening, for example -- the previous three sentences -- has taken me two days to work out, about ten false starts.) (268)
Two days? For three sentences??? Maybe someday I'll be that meticulous...but right now it takes me less than 30 minutes to write a blog post! 

And a random sidenote surprise! On page 201, Theroux references my favorite Swahili saying, “Haraka haraka, haina baraka.”

My Other Life is a bit long, but totally enjoyable. Have you read it? Let me know what you thought! And if you haven't I recommend it - definitely worth the read!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cake of the Week: Red Velvet Brownies with Cream Cheese Frosting

Sometimes things are just so wonderful that I need to get up for a jump-around-arms-flailing completely ridiculous Mollie-happy-dance. What induces these spasms of joy? It can be anything - from a good run, to a workplace win, to a baking adventure gone extremely right.

And these Red Velvet Brownies are an example of extreme rightness in the kitchen (other notable happy-dance-inducing experiences were the Butterscotch Filling, and my Peanut Butter Cream Cheese Frosting…I happy-danced all around my apartment for those ones!)

These brownies are so good I made them twice in 24 hours! The first time was to bring to a bar-b-q, the second was for my roommates. They get a similar reaction every time.

First, Wow.

Next, after getting over the initial shock of a mouthful of rich and sweet Cream Cheese Frosting-covered bright red amazingness, people ask with a slightly sheepish and confused look, What exactly is red velvet anyways? Because everyone likes it, everyone knows it’s trendy, it's made into cakes and cakeballs, but very few people actually know what red velvet is.

Red velvet is a normal vanilla yellow cake, with a little bit of chocolate, and a lot of food coloring. It’s a traditionally southern dessert that has recently gone viral via the cupcake craze, and is usually accompanied by Cream Cheese Frosting. Red Velvet Brownies are like regular brownies, but less chocolate and more food coloring. I suppose you don’t need to frost these…but really, why wouldn’t you?

My recipe comes from How Sweet It Is, but I tweaked it a tiny bit to make it less sugary and even more moist. This recipe is definitely a keeper – you just need one bowl and there are no tricky techniques – this is as close to homemade brownies for dummies as you can get!

Red Velvet Brownies (adapted from How Sweet It Is)
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons liquid red food coloring (OR: I have gel food coloring which is much more concentrated, so I did about 1/16 teaspoon, i.e. a knife-point full of gel, plus 3 tablespoons water.)
2/3 cups chocolate chips (optional, I did ½ cup mini chocolate chips)
Preheat oven to 350.
Butter and flour an 8 x 8 cake pan.
In a small bowl, combine cocoa powder, red food coloring (or gel/water), and 1 teaspoon vanilla to create a paste.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, then add remaining teaspoon of vanilla. With the mixer on medium speed, add in cocoa powder mixture. Beat until batter is completely red. (If at this time your batter is NOT red, you can add a little more food coloring if desired. Color will depend on brand.) Add flour and salt, mixing until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
Spread in the 8 x 8 pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting
½ block cream cheese (i.e. 4 ounces)
¼ cup butter (i.e. ½ stick)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk (as needed)
Start with your ingredients at room temperature.
Beat the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla. Beat in powdered sugar, adding milk as needed to reach a spreadable consistency.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Running to see the Cherry Blossoms

With cherry blossom time upon us, the best way to appreciate the beauty of the Sakura (cherry blossom viewing) while avoiding troublesome tourists is to run.

I don’t mean run from the tourists (though you could and maybe should do that too) – I mean go for a run. Because while walking the Tidal Basin on a weekend afternoon is an ambitious project (due to aforementioned tourists), running it is a simple Tuesday mileage run.

The mileage you do depends on where you start, and/or how many times you want to run around the Tidal Basin. The loop itself is about 1.8 miles. (You can’t run in front of the Jefferson Memorial right now because of construction, so you have to stay on Ohio Drive behind it.)

If you want to make the route into a longer and more intense cherry blossom experience, start at the Smithsonian Metro Station and add on a loop around Haines Point, making it a 6.4-mile run.

If you’re me and it’s this morning and it’s cold and windy, but also beautiful and sunny, and you’re starting from Dupont Circle, and you want to see cherry blossoms but you don’t want to run too too long, this loop is about 6.2 miles.

And finally, if you’re almost me (i.e. starting from Dupont) but you managed to wake up earlier and have more energy than I did today (i.e. beating me at life), you can tack on a couple miles and make it into an 8.66-mile loop.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Weekend Report: Not as springy as I hoped it would be!

This weekend was cold, it actually snowed a bit late Saturday night! I love me some wintertime, but DC needs to make up its mind and commit to spring. To encourage the weather (yes, I have that kind of power) I insisted on participating in a variety of spring activities this weekend: race spectating, long running, grilling, and hiking!

Friday night I went to dinner at Dukem, the alleged “best Ethiopian in DC.” It was good…but really not as good as all the hype. We got beef tibs, a veggie sampler, and a fish stew. The food was spicy (which I like) and very oily (which I don’t like) – maybe a bit more authentic than I’m prepared to embrace. Plus the meat was a little tough and the injera (the flat bread) came cold...for a 40-minute wait, it was actually one of my least favorite Ethiopian food experiences in DC. (My favorite is Dukem’s neighbor, Madjet, and I also really enjoyed Ethiopic.)

Luckily Saturday morning was not freezing rain as anticipated, but at 30 degrees it was definitely a chilly race spectating experience (I know, spectating isn’t a word, but just go with it). I watched the National Marathon and Half Marathon from Mile 5 (at Farragut West). 6x6 and I brought the enthusiasm – I will never understand how crowds of people can watch in silence as runners race past. This isn’t the zoo people, give them some cheering love!

After warming up with oatmeal and coffee, I was ready to head out at noon for my own run. I was only up to 16 miles in my Cupcake Marathon, and Saturday was the last day to complete my 26.2! So when 6x6 suggested a long slow run to the Maryland boarder, I immediately agreed.  We did an out-and-back along the Capital Crescent Trail, running about 9:20 pace for 11 miles. Oof. That is a special brand of tired that I haven’t felt in a while!
All I wanted to do was lounge for the rest of the day, but I had a spring bar-b-q to go to and I promised to bring dessert. Red Velvet Brownies! Get excited…check back tomorrow for the details. Luckily the grill was outside but the party was inside - I enjoyed my burger in the warmth of a Capitol Hill living room.

On Sunday I went to Great Falls to hike the Billy Goat Trail for the 3rd time in my DC experience. (If you’re googling directions, search for Angler’s Inn, MD. There is a VA side of Great Falls that is not the same hiking adventure!) We were too busy scrambling over rocks to take any pictures, but wow. The Falls themselves were raging - way too much whitewater for even the most expert of kayakers!

I’m hoping that the temps will warm up to match the scenery here in DC, especially because the Newbie is coming to run Cherry Blossom next weekend. 

What did you do this weekend? Is it springtime wherever you are?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Best of the Week: #13

Here we are. Finally. TGIF!

For the third week in a row, my most popular post was Banana Nut Nutella Cinnamon Rolls, closely followed by Sister1's Dulce de Leche Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

Just look at that buttercream and swoon!

NatGeo featured some pretty amazing but horrifying pictures of the Japanese tsunami waves approaching the beach. Oof! (Source.)

And along those same lines, AidWatch published a very interesting article, Does Japan need your donation?
"Our best advice for people who feel moved to give by the tragedy in Japan: Give generously, in cash, to an organization that you trust, and don’t restrict your donation. This way, your charity can use the funds for Japan if it turns out they are needed. If not, then it is free to use your donation for another purpose, like the dozens of under-reported, large-scale disasters that CNN isn’t featuring today."

These 50 photos of basset hounds running will make you laugh, cry, and want a dog like woah. Sometimes I get so excited about running my ears flop into my mouth...

The Hungry Runner Girl shared this quote that I really liked: 
"My definition of optimism is simply the belief that setbacks are normal and can be overcome by your own actions." -Martin Seligman

And there was an amusing email circulating about Chinglish: The Universal Language. (source)

And with that I bid you, dear readers, a very happy weekend!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Literary Bite: Heart of Darkness

I read Heart of Darkness for my book club, and alas, I was not a fan. I had such high expectations! It takes place in Africa. I love Africa! But unfortunately, for Heart of Darkness-loving reasons, I like paragraphs. I use them liberally. Joseph Conrad does not. This book is a series of stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that go on for pages!

To be fair, Heart of Darkness is not all bad. It’s a classic for a reason, and it’s definitely a book meant to be studied. According to Wikipedia (sorry, yes, I just went there), “Heart of Darkness exposes the dark side of European colonization while exploring the three levels of darkness that the protagonist, Marlow, encounters: the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the Europeans' cruel treatment of the natives, and the unfathomable darkness within every human being for committing heinous acts of evil.”

The story is in the voice of a sea captain, Marlow, who sails up the Congo River working for a Belgian trading company in the notoriously brutal King Leopold’s Congo. As he travels into the depths of the jungle, Marlow becomes obsessed with the elusive Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz embodies the darkness lurking in individuals. He sees himself (and Europeans in general) as bringing light and civilization to Africa, but as he (and Marlow) travel deeper into Africa they abandon their own civility and become increasingly brutal. I think the Europeans are the ones bringing the “darkness.”

[Sidenote/fun-fact: when the Congo was granted independence in 1970 it had the highest literacy rate in Africa! Who would have thought?]

Chinua Achebe, one of the most famous African authors, argued that Heart of Darkness “de-humanized Africans, denied them language and culture and reduced them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture.” 

I totally agree, and assume that any modern reader would see the extreme racism in this book; however, it is important to consider Heart of Darkness in the context in which it was written. The book was published in 1901, at a time when racism was not an “issue” and colonialism was on the rise. Conrad traveled to the Congo in 1890 and his impressions of life there surely influenced his writing.

Like I said, I read Heart of Darkness for Book Club. But then I missed the discussion. Rumor has it there were very dark cupcakes...and a good presentation!

I won’t tell you not to read Heart of Darkness. It’s a widely read work of literature and is imitated in the movie Apocalypse Now (which takes place in Vietnam and Cambodia). All I’m saying is that if you have a thing for paragraphs like I do, Conrad might not be your author of choice. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Countdown to Race Day

The National Marathon and Half-Marathon are this weekend. I will not be racing (well duh, go here if you don’t know why), but I know a lot of people who will be toeing the line come early o’clock Saturday morning.  

Most people are running the Half, which is probably a good call. Sister2 ran the full marathon last year and I ran the last 9 miles with her. Let me tell you, after the Half-Marathoners finish and the Marathoners keep running, things get real. Basically Anacostia is 1) not very nice, 2) lonely, and 3) surprisingly (and upsettingly) hilly!

Anywho, I digress. Though I’ve never run a half-marathon (or a full one), I do know a thing or two about racing. If you’re racing this Saturday (at National or elsewhere), you are now three short days from your big day.

For the sake of future race-weeks, I have written a 5-day countdown to use as a guide (so if you race on Saturday, this starts on the Monday beforehand).

Countdown to Race Day

5 Days:
Run/workout  as you usually would. Start thinking about the race. Research the course, look at the elevation charts, think about how you’re going to run your race. (See National's Course Map and Elevation Chart.)
4 Days:
If speed-work is a part of your training program, do a final light workout. Remember, you will not build fitness in this last week. This week is to rest and maintain the work you’ve already done. So don’t worry about getting in a lot of reps or running PR paces – run about half the repeats you normally would.

3 Days:
Go for a normal run. If you’re tired don’t push it. Do not drink alcohol and minimize caffeine from now until race-day.

2 Days:
This is the most important day. Your muscles get tired/sore 2 days after activity, so take this day off. Stretch lightly. Make sure you get a lot of sleep.

The Day Before Your Race:
Eat normally and eat dinner early-ish. Go for a 2-3 mile shake-out run and finish it with a couple race-pace strides. Stretch thoroughly but not enough to make yourself sore. Check the weather forecast and pack everything you need for the race. Go to bed early, but if you’re anything like me you’ll be nervous and unable to sleep well. Don’t worry – if you rested well the night before you’ll be fine!

Race Day:
Get up early. Eat normally. Good luck!

Also read my Tips on Race Prep.

Good luck this weekend to Biochemista, Beth's Journey, Dash, Beth from SwimBikeRunDC, Liz from LizRunsDC

Who did I miss? Leave a comment if you're racing!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cake of the Week: Dulce de Leche Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

Due to the fact that Sister1 and I both have 9-6 (ish) jobs, and do many other things, and live on opposite coasts with a 3-hour time difference, we don’t talk on the phone very much. But we have developed quite the text-messaging relationship. When something delicious is concocted on either end, it’s phone-out and picture time! The caption is usually a simple name, i.e. Dulce de Leche Filled Chocolate Cupcakes! 

In a way this is gloating…my response is usually something along the lines of, GAH I hate you, why don’t you live next door so you can feed me right now?!?! But I do the same thing right back at her…so there’s that. My other (less emotional) response is Write a blog post! Because she talks about writing a guest series for me, but I can’t get her to commit! Let’s all show Sister1 some love for this recipe (and for her previous Chai Tea Latte Cupcakes), and get her to be a regular Eat Run Read contributor.

A few weeks ago I saw a recipe for Dulce de Leche cupcakes and all I could think about after was that I had to buy dulce de leche. I was in Williams-Sonoma a few weeks ago ogling their chocolate dulce de leche (which sounded delicious), but I needed the regular kind so put off making these cupcakes. Another two weeks went by and I still had dulce de leche on my mind. I just so happened to wander into Sur la Table and there it was!!!

I know how crazy this sounds. I know that you can make dulce de leche at home. But I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted the cute jar with the burlap wrapper at the top! Done.

With my dulce de leche in hand, I went home to examine the recipe that inspired this idea in the first place. Upon second look, I decided it didn’t sound all that great…so I decided to wait and let the jar of dulce de leche sit in my cabinet and on my mind.

There were St. Patrick’s Day recipes all over the internet and the Pot of Gold Cupcake from Beantown Baker looked amazing! Aha! There was my inspiration and here is my adaptation…with my favorite vegan chocolate cake of course! I have already made these twice this weekend and have decided that it is probably the best cupcake that I have ever made!

Now that I have officially gone into a self-induced sugar coma, I’m seriously considering doing BluePrintCleanse’s 3 day Cleanse and live off of green juice and cashew milk…we’ll see…more from me on that later! [Editor’s note: that sounds gross…but intriguing…I’m interested to hear how it goes!]

Easiest Chocolate Cake 
Makes 1 dozen cupcakes
From Organic and Chic
1 1/8 cups organic all-purpose flour
1 cups organic cane sugar
1/2 cup organic unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon organic vanilla extract
1/3 cup organic canola oil
1 teaspoons organic white vinegar
1 cups cold water
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line one cupcake pans with paper liners and set aside.  
In a large mixing bowl, sift the dry ingredients together.  Set aside. (I use my kitchenaid mixer bowl)
2. Whisk together the oil, water, vanilla extract and vinegar.  (I like to use a large liquid measuring cup so I can just pour it into the mixing bowl)
3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients on low speed being careful not to overmix.  The mixture will be quite wet, but that’s ok.  
4. Pour the batter until the cups are two thirds full and place in the oven for 22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cup comes out clean.  
5. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes then place on a wire rack until completely cool.
6. Once the cupcakes are cool, core them however works best for you. I use a knife and cut around in a circle. I also don’t replace the top because I like to eat those to make sure the cupcakes are good! 

7. Fill with dulce de leche and then top with a generous amount of buttercream.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream 
Makes enough to frost 24 cupcakes with a little leftover (This was enough to generously frost 12 cupcakes with some left over)

4 oz egg whites (3-4 large egg whites or about 1/2 cups)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lb unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tsp lemon extract, almond extract, orange extract, or vanilla extract

1. Lightly whisk egg whites and sugar together over simmering water until egg-white mixture is hot to touch or a candy thermometer reads 140°F (60°C).

2. Pour hot whites into a room-temperature bowl and whip with a wire whip until double in volume on MEDIUM-HIGH speed. When the mixer stops, the meringue should not move around in the bowl. 

3. Meanwhile cut up butter into 2-inch pieces. (The butter should be slightly moist on the outside but cold inside.)

4. On your mixer, remove the whip and attach the paddle. Add half the butter into the bowl immediately and pulsate the mixer several times until the meringue has covered the butter completely. To pulsate the mixer, turn it on and off in a jerky motion. This forces the butter on the top to the bottom of the bowl. Add the rest of the butter and pulsate mixer several times. Slowly increase the mixer's speed, starting with the lowest speed and increase the speed every 10 seconds until you reach a MEDIUM-HIGH speed.

5. Continue beating until the mixture begins to look light and fluffy. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl. Reduce speed to LOW. Add flavoring and continue to beat on LOW speed for 45 seconds. Then beat on MEDIUM-HIGH speed for an additional 45 to 60 seconds.