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My macaron obsession

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We have a loose tradition with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law-to-be to get together every few months and undertake a baking project out of one of the cookbooks that we both have. That is when my macaron obsession began.

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We made chocolate ganache macarons from the Flour cookbook; I made them again later, trying to add some color (see above). While they were delicious, they didn’t look like beautiful macarons you see at a professional bakery. While I don’t at all consider myself an artist, the closest I get to it is making edible art through food. I love beautiful food.

I recently quit my job (more on this some other time). I had about 4 weeks of vacation time that I slowly burned off during the summer before my last day in early September. During my time off, I decided I was on a quest to learn to make beautiful macarons, with the goal of making them as parting gifts for my co-workers. I considered seeing if I could intern at the macaronerie (Miam Miam) down the street to learn the secrets of macaron making. Then I decided to do what I always do when I want to learn something: I looked up and reserved every macaron book I could find at the Boston Public Library. Once 4 came in, I canceled the rest of the reservations (I did, after all, have to bike all of them home from the library).

I read all 4 books two times each (they are 75% recipes, which I skimmed). But I wanted to read, reread, and study the methodology to understand what I would need to do. Never have I been so methodical in the kitchen, where the slogan is to “approach cooking like love: with reckless abandon”. Each book detailed a different process, with each adding it’s own weird urban legend, such as:

  • you must open the oven door 2 times halfway through
  • you must prepare the egg whites 4-5 days in advance
  • you must rapt the cookie sheet the counter several times after piping
  • you must sift everything twice
  • you should dry the cookies for 30 minutes under a fan in an air conditioned room
  • …and many more 

I didn’t want to screw this up, so I decided I would start off doing almost all of these weird requirements.

At the same time, I began volunteering at Community Servings and took a brief class on safe food handling and working in a professional kitchen. I brought that into my home kitchen, especially since my macarons would be gifts. 

To take a step back: What is a macaron? Is that those coconut mountain looking things? No, those are macaroons. French, or Parisian macarons are the little, often colorful, airy little sandwiches with a magical texture and interesting flavors. They are made with eggs whites and almond flour (which I bought after a 3 hour experience/debacle blanching and making our own flour). There are traditionally 2 methods to making macarons: the French method, where you make a meringue by beating egg whites with sugar, or the Italian method, where you make a sugar syrup and beat it with egg whites. I am French and it seemed easier, so I go with that method.

I’m not going to tell you all the steps to make the macarons (at least not right now), but I was very pleased with my first batch – coffee chocolate. As I made them, I had all 4 books laid out on the living room floor and would read the same step in each book to try to combine all the things they said (very typical of Jenny’s cooking). But it paid off – they were perfect and they looked beautiful. I was so excited, I just kept looking at them. I did it!

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Chocolate coffee macaron

I got a little more confident to get a little more reckless for my next batch – matcha green tea. I didn’t exactly have a recipe, so I modified the chocolate cookie recipe to take green tea powder instead of chocolate and modified the coffee buttercream to use green tea powder instead of instant coffee. Another hit!

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The next two batches got a little tight on my deadline for my last day. The sifting of the almond flour and powdered sugar was time consuming and prepping the eggs 4-5 days ahead (then taking out 2 hours before use) proved to require some serious planning.

I got a little more reckless and since I didn’t have orange extract, I used triple sec, (an orange liqueur) instead and made orange cookies with an orange chocolate ganache.

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Last, I totally screwed up my measurements (and by measurements, I mean weights  – everything was weighed in grams to get an exact amount) and messed up the amount of ground hazelnut I needed to use. In the end, it worked out and I made hazelnut chocolate macarons, in a gorgeous turquoise color.

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Macarons are piped, using a template for consistency

I found these cute presentation boxes on Amazon. They came without directions, but I figured out how to build them and built each by hand and created a box label. 

Overall, it was a good fun learning experience. Look for these tasty treat to come to a special event near you!

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

2 Years and a Video I never Posted

David and I just celebrated our two year wedding anniversary, which is crazy because it feels like not too long ago that I was blogging about wedding planning!

I realized that while I did a ton of work to make an awesome wedding video (which I put to DVD), I never shared it online! It’s below; note that the first 18 minutes are a video slideshow of the whole wedding weekend (set to music associated with it) and the second 18 minutes are the actual wedding ceremony. Enjoy!

 

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2016 in Marriage/wedding

 

Cruising: Simple Advice

This is the third and last blog entry about our cruising experience. Check out previous entries about what we did and vacation vs travel. Here is some quick and simple advice – some of which I wish I knew before going!

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Get a room with a balcony: This is our top advice. Spend the extra money, it is worth it! We sat on our balcony to watch the sun rise and set, arrive and leave ports, to read, to drink, and just sit in the quiet of the night looking at the stars. Your balcony is your direct connection to the beauty around you.

Ditch the smart phone: Depending where you go, it might not work on the boat. We didn’t pay for wifi and it was sort of amazingly freeing to have no internet access for 11 days. Take a digital detox. I enjoyed my phone as just a time-telling camera.

Bring a watch: This way, you don’t have to carry your valuable phone everywhere. And you do need to know the time to get to activities on time (like the hairy chest contest or your boat’s departure).

Bring booze! Check out your ship’s alcohol policy. We could each bring on a bottle of wine but nothing else was allowed. We snuck on a coconut water box filled with rum and buried it in our suitcase. They didn’t look too closely. Drinks were very expensive on board so it was nice to have our own stuff. From talking to other people on the boat, it seemed that everyone brought their own booze, ranging from putting a bunch of nips in their pockets to just putting a bottle in the suitcase to buying unused shampoo bottles and filling those up. We also enjoyed cheap local beer while in port.

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Watch the stars: Find a quiet place at night to sit and looking at the ocean and watch the stars. We passed a lot of time doing this.

 

 

 

 

 

Pick your room carefully: They say that the further back in the boat and the higher up, the better. I’m not sure, but being higher up is good because that’s where the activities are and your balcony will have a better view. Also look at the ship floor plan and see what is above and below you to avoid getting a room above the disco that goes til 2am, which is what we had.

Take the stairs: There was all-you-can-eat soft serve iceceam 24 hours a day. Really, take the stairs.

Choose late dinner: Our boat had early seating dinner (6:00) and late seating (8:15). The late seating was good for us because we ate a late lunch every day and it left time to swim, workout, nap, and shower before dinner and “going out” for the night.

Don’t worry about cash: On the boat, there is no money exchanging unless you go to the casino. You are automatically charged a daily rate for tips and anything you buy gets charged to your room account. We do recommend getting some $1 bills and smaller bills from the service desk to have them for tipping and spending in port.

Plan ahead (activities):  Before your trip, take out a guidebook from the library and learn a little about where you are going and what you might want to do while there. Look on TripAdvisor or other travel websites about tours and activities. Book these activities before you go so you don’t have to stress about it while on your trip. The activities offered through the cruiseline were a little on the pricey side, but also so easy. Our dinner tablemates booked daily tours and activities independently ahead of time – a lot of work up front but makes the vacation smooth sailing.

Prioritize what you do: The cruise ship and options of things to do in ports are completely overwhelming. Decide what you really want to make sure you do and prioritize that. Everything else is bonus – you will go crazy if you try to do it all!

Try not to be overwhelmed when entering port: Exiting the port “village” that had restricted access and entering into where touts were was really overwhelming. There are a bunch of taxi drivers and tour guides offering you their services. This is their job – they make their living on tourism. They aren’t begging or necessarily trying to rip you off – it’s just how things work.  If you have an idea what you want to do or where you want a cab to, ask at the tourism desk ahead of time how much you should expect to pay so that you don’t get taken advantage of. 

Appreciate the people: We had several interactions with people (taxis, buses, restaurants, etc) in which local people expressed genuine happiness that we were there and love of their island. They want you to enjoy your time and have a good experience so that you will come back and tell others good things about their island. For the most part, their economies as based on tourism. 

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If you choose to go on a cruise, are considering going on a cruise, or use this information to help you plan a trip, let me know in the comments!  If you have your own advice to give, leave it in the comments for others!

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2016 in Travel

 

“You’re not Cruise People” – Travel vs Vacation

“I’m interested to hear how you liked the cruise. I wouldn’t consider you just not cruise-people, I might go so far as to call you anti-cruise,” a friend said to me on a phone call the other night. I chuckled as he said it, nodding knowingly. This was essentially the same sentiment we heard from several people upon return from our Caribbean cruise.

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I couldn’t help myself. I held the monkeys.

The short answer: We had a great time, but it’s really what you make of it. I wrote earlier this month about all of the things we did. You could go on the very same cruise and spend all your time laying around, or in the casino, or you could go to the gym 3 hours a day, or spend every minute in port shopping. Nobody forces you to do anything – it’s a choose-your-own-adventure, with a lot of choices available to you. You choose how much fun and adventure you will make out of it. And let me tell you, we are fun!!!

A funny story: At ports, people will mostly do organized excursions or simply head to the beach via taxi. This is mostly what we did, except in Barbados. David and I were like, oh no, we’re adventurous, independent travelers. We will do some organized tours, but we will also adventure on our own. When we returned to port in Barbados, a tourism board person was surveying people about what they did, how they got around, and how much money they spent. When we said we walked into town, went to the parliament, took a taxi to the local history and culture museum, and took a local bus to the beach and spent about $32, she gaped at us, “You must have been here before then?” “No, we’re just adventurous….”

My revelation at the end of the trip is that there is vacationing and there is traveling.

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Vacationing: the purpose is usually to relax and vacate from daily life. You don’t stay anywhere too long and you consume the place. Discomfort is minimized as much as possible and you do activities that are mostly the same anywhere. You’re a tourist and not really getting a sense of what local life is like. You might be on a beautiful beach in Mexico, but you really might as well be on a beautiful beach anywhere. Overall, our cruise was a vacation.

Traveling: you’re actively seeking out what it’s like to be a local and get off the beaten tourist path. You explore the culture, language, food, and history of an area. You’re having new experiences and getting pushed out of your comfort zone. Everything isn’t always great – you struggle through language barriers and hardships and grow and learn from the experience. This was our day in Barbados.

As I prepared this blog, I found a slew of people writing about travel vs vacation (like here, here, and here). Some have an I’m better than you air about them (not super uncommon – maybe endemic to “independent travelers”).

I don’t think one is more “right” or better than the other – they are just different.  It’s all up to your preference and what you need at that point. We love to travel adventurously, but sometimes it’s nice to just take a vacation! That’s where the cruise came from – we didn’t have the time or energy to plan a big trip. But we also love to travel because of the effect it has on us as people.

What do you think? Do you think or feel there is a difference or one is better than the other?

It might be a vacation when this happens...

It might be a vacation when this happens…

PS I promised an entry with advice…this fell out of my brain first. Next one will be advice and then I’ll move on from writing about the cruise…

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2016 in Travel

 

“You’re Going to Be Bored”: Our Caribbean Vacation

Last week we returned from an 11 day trip to the Caribbean, which included a 7 night cruise on the Carnival Liberty. We were pretty quiet about going on this trip – partially because I was slightly embarrassed to be going on a cruise (“you’re not the cruising type”), partially because we only booked it about a month ago,  and because we’ve been on a social media diet.

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People we did tell were surprised, since it’s not our usual style of travel. We’re more ” go ride elephants people” than “lay on a ship lounger with a tropical drink people”. We don’t sit still much and we don’t like to do what everyone else is doing. “You’re going to be bored” we were told.

We’re back, we weren’t bored, and we had a ton of fun! This blog entry is going to be a recap of the trip with fun pictures and videos. The next blog entry is going to be more about advice for going on a cruise and our experience “as non-cruise people”.

Like I said, we weren’t bored. On the ship we:

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we got challenged to ping pong by a bunch of drunk guys who said “you must have a table at your house”

  • played mini-golf
  • went on the water slide (a lot. see video.)
  • went in the hot tubs (all of them)
  • went in the pools (all of them)
  • ran the track
  • went to the gym (almost every day)
  • played ping-pong
  • played shuffleboard
  • went to several comedy shows
  • went dancing (80s night!)
  • stopped into the piano bar, casino, karoake, an art auction, and booze sampling
  • watched a movie (The Martian) on the top deck at 10p in the middle of the sea
  • went out to dinner
  • napped daily
  • watched the sun rise and set (almost daily)
  • colored
  • read
  • played cards
  • studied the constellations
  • went to a few shows
  • listed/danced to the Latin house band

If anything, we were too busy! I didn’t sunbathe at all, or take the time to do any shopping.

The ship arrived in a new port each day, around 7-8am and we had to be back on the boat by 4:30p, so we tried to make the most of each day. You bet we were running down the dock at 4:28 on a few of the days!

Our itinerary was:

  • Puerto Rico
  • St Thomas
  • Day at Sea
  • Barbados
  • St Lucia
  • St Kitts
  • St Maarten
  • France (see below)

Having basically a half day in a place doesn’t give you much time to really get to know the place, but we managed to:

  • go river kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking in St Thomas on an organized tour
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Pretty buildings in Barbados

  • explore Barbados on our own, visiting the Parliament, the national museum, and a beach, and successfully taking a taxi and the local public bus

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  • take a driving tour of St Lucia that ended at a type of state park (Pigeon Island). We hiked to the top of an old fort for excellent views, then enjoyed some time on the beach. While on the beach, some local fisherman did net dragging fishing, which was interesting to see (see below video).
  • read for a long time under a tree on a very quiet beach (Frigate Beach), as well as enjoy a show put on by diving pelicans in St Kitts. We also adventured to do a 1 hour ocean kayaking rental at about 2:45p…into a bad head wind. It was a bit too stressful to make sure we made it back on the boat.

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  • ride bikes in (very) hilly St Maarten. Jenny managed to ride the longest, hardest, sweatiest hill she’s ever ridden. Luckily, we enjoyed an almond croissant in France before that specific climb. That’s right, I said France. The island is divided into 2 separate countries – half being part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and half being part of France. Not a possession, but actually France. When they declare a national snow day holiday in France, the tropical island of St Martin also has a snow day (and boy do those on the Dutch side hate that!).

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In a few places, we managed to grab a few cold beers (“Carib Beer” and “Piton Beer”) in the little villages that surround the cruise ship terminal. 2/$5 beers and $6 mojitos were a far better deal than the $6 beers and $9 mixed drinks on the ship!

We also tacked on a few days on each end in Puerto Rico, where we enjoyed going on a food/walking tour, visiting old forts, speaking Spanish, eating mofongo, and visiting 2 different caves.

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We even found our own natural seaside swimming pool that we enjoyed for a good long time before heading to our isolated, treehouse-esque mountain retreat.

That’s the short version of a recap on our trip. Were we bored? No, I don’t think so. If anything, we were too busy (enjoying ourselves). Look for the next blog entry, which will be more about advice for others, and our experience of being “not really cruise people”. 

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2016 in Travel

 

Screen Time

I haven’t had a tv in my home for 6 years. I used to say it sheepishly or pretend like I knew what people were talking about when they referenced things on tv. Then I would say it proudly that I didn’t have a tv – I didn’t have a box with a screen that played mindless entertainment and advertisements to distract me for hours. In the last year or two, I realized I was wrong – my home does have that box, but it is in the form of 2 iPhones, an iPad, and 3 laptop computers.

Have you ever thought about how many hours you spend looking at a screen – either a tv, computer, or phone? Some days, at the end of the night, I confess, I am certain that it’s more than or close to 12 hours.  Work has been crazy, so I’ll spend 10 hours at my desk. If I take the bus/train, I look at my phone while waiting and riding. Then when I get home, my “reward” or wind down time is spacing out on my phone – checking Facebook or Instagram or the weather or email or the news. If I have any energy left in me, I do things from my to do list, which frequently involve using my computer. My phone sleeps next to my bed – the last thing I do before sleeping is look at it, then when I wake up in the morning, I pull it into bed and go back to checking through all those same websites in case I missed anything while sleeping and to prepare for the day.

There have been numerous interesting articles about our  society’s addiction to Facebook and other social media. I can’t say it as well as they can, but I can feel it – the impulse to just “check in”. Standing on the train platform, I can’t help but pull out my phone to browse through Facebook. Waiting to meet someone, I stare at my phone to keep myself busy.  It’s a need to see what other people are doing, a need to feel busy, and seeking approval (how many likes or comments can you get?).

I can’t remember enough to find the article, but I also read an article about how Facebook can make us feel sad and/or inadequate – everyone else’s life looks so awesome because we only post the good stuff. She has a great job. They are on a great adventure. His marriage is perfect. Life is all roses.  Or if we post the lousy stuff, it’s seen as a cry for attention. Maybe we need to get off-line all together?

Does anyone else feel this push? What do you do about it? I think just being more conscious of it helps. My phone is going to sleep in the living room and not go in the bedroom. I have deleted the Facebook app and will erase my saved password from Safari. I will not use looking at my phone as a reward or wind-down when I get home – I will read a book or stretch or go for a walk. I’d like to try to make Sunday’s as much as a screen-free day as possible. One thing I might do is turn my phone off more often so that I don’t just absent-mindedly pick it up and start flipping through it. If it’s off, I have to consciously turn it on and wait for it.

I don’t know the answer to this 21st problem, but I feel it. And we all see it. Just look around.

P.S. Don’t think that I don’t see the irony of the amount of time I spent looking at a screen to write this, as well as seeing what feedback comes in…

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2015 in Lifestyle Design

 

The Power of Traveling Alone

Last weekend I traveled alone to Seattle for a conference. While I have flown to DC, Florida, and Wisconsin alone, there was always a friend waiting on the other end to visit and stay with. This time, I was mostly alone. And it was so empowering and confidence-building. Don’t get me wrong – I love traveling with David (home is wherever I am with him) – but this brought a different level of self awareness and push out of the comfort zone.

 

Upon arrival in Seattle, I got off the plane and navigated myself by train to my AirBnB – staying with Julian and his wife (who I dubbed as my Japanese parents). I headed to downtown to grab a shiny new green Pronto bikeshare bike.  And of course, the first street I went on was the biggest hill in the whole damn city – I could barely walk up it with the bike, nevermind ride. I rode around, went to a park and a bakery, then met up with a friend (ok, so I wasn’t completely alone) for happy hour.

 

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I had my revelation of empowerment on that first night. I was on my way back to my AirBnB, riding a bike down that giant ass hill, alone, at night, in a city I didn’t really know. The air rushed past my face as I sped down the hill and let out a “yeehaw!”. I didn’t feel anxious – I felt exhilarated. I had flown across the country and made my way around a new city. It felt good.

During the rest of the trip, I navigated bike share around the city, went out to lunch alone, and sat at a bar alone. I have always read things about how empowering it is (especially for a woman) to travel alone and be comfortable and confident in yourself to sit alone – and I was always like ‘yeah yeah ok, but I’d rather be with David instead’, not really comprehending the point. As I sat alone at a bar drinking a margarita snacking on tacos while drawing and watching gymnastics on the bar tv (I know, can you believe it?), I felt pretty proud of myself. Because, while I wished David was with me, I could do it on my own and be okay with it.

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Was I acutely aware of myself as a woman alone? Yes. Was I unsafe or reckless? Did I feel unsafe? The answer is mostly no to both of those. It was calculated risk. We were in Seattle for a day on our honeymoon, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. I had a detailed bike map of the city. And stayed on the roads with bike paths/lanes. I’m pretty city savvy and street smart. I had a formal conference and network of people. I knew people in the city, including some folks from Boston attending the conference.

I get the feeling my little trip is just the tip of the iceberg for what they they mean when they talk about women traveling solo, but I’ll take it. Has anyone had any similar experiences? I highly recommend for anyone to try traveling on your own. It doesn’t need to be a trip across the country. It might just be taking a trip on the train to a nearby city and spending the day there alone. You will learn and grow and become more comfortable with yourself.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Lifestyle Design, Travel