Friday, October 26, 2012

A Halloween Personality Quiz

Tell me what your favorite Halloween candy was, and I will look into your soul....
Flickr: Ninahale


You were a strong, athletic kid. You did well in school even though you didn't take it too seriously, mainly because you could intimidate the teachers into giving you good grades and you mom was an influential member of the PTA.  You were a little bit overweight but would have pounded anyone who called you fat and you still made fun of the officially fat kids.  You thought little of taking one or two extra mini candy bars when the nice lady at the door offered you a big bowl of treats or 'trading' the crappy candy from your younger siblings' bags for Snickers.

Three Musketeers
You were a dreamy, artistic child. You didn't talk much in class or have many friends, but the other kids respected you, even though you never knew this. Your mom baked a lot and made you cute bologna and cheese sandwiches for Halloween using pumpkin-shaped cookie cutters. You were expected to go on to great things because you loved reading. You wore lots of loose-fitting flowing skirts (whether male or female) in college but you ended up working in a dreary office job in publishing or something like that.

Flickr: barron
You like the colors of candy more than the candy itself. Of course you eat them in a certain order.  You kept your Halloween candy stash in a big jar or box and carefully rationed it to yourself.  But the stash got stale rather quickly, so let this be a lesson to you, oh anal-retentive one. And they really do all taste the same, it is just your imagination.

Reece's Peanut Butter Cups
You were a pretty conventional, people-pleasing kid. You were slightly overweight and your mother tried to ration your sweets, which meant you went kid of crazy at Halloween. You always ate your favorites first, punching out the peanut butter center of the large cups with your tongue or eating the mini ones bottom up first. Your candy bag lasted about two days, except for the Dum-Dum lollypops.

You were very flirtatious, even as a child. You didn't care about candy that much but you liked to eat these in a suggestive fashion, sticking out your tongue at the boys or girls you liked as you did. When you did eat tons of sugar you did so mainly because it made you so hyper you could jump on your bed for hours until you broke the box springs.

Mounds or Almond Joy
You had to assume adult responsibilities or at least an adult persona at a young age.  You were one of the few kids who looked forward to these candies.  You often see them abandoned at the bottom of a candy dish, or your own kids don't eat them, so you have them all to yourself. You stay up late at night, worrying about inconsequential things, which is when you tend to crave chocolate.

Flickr: Elizabeth Thomsen

Candy Corn
You're happy and cheerful most of the time. You loved crafts and holiday stuff, and you still do, maybe even more than your kids.  You don't understand why people don't like candy corn! I mean, omg, it's CANDY CORN!

Heath Bars
You were sophisticated beyond your years as a child and often said things that made grown-ups pause. By now you've moved on to dark chocolate but you still eat these sometimes, out of nostalgia. Unfortunately, the neighborhood kids avoid your house when you give them out.

Starburst or Skittles
You were easily seduced by advertising. What does it mean to taste a rainbow?  The multicolored nature of these also points to chronic indecisveness--what flavor do you REALLY like?  Lemon? Cherry? Or two flavors shoved in your mouth at once?

You're classy without being pretentious. You watched Masterpiece Theater as a kid but you're not above Harry Potter, either.  You're fun to be around and make people feel smarter than they actually are when they are around you.

You're slightly distrustful of pleasure.  You feel that it has to be segmented out in crisp, chocolate wafers rather than shoved in your piehole all at once.

You talked back to your teachers a lot.  You love salty things even more than sweet things but think that these are pretty awesome.

Cookies n' Cream bars or other white chocolate treats
You're very nostalgic about your childhood and have a lot of 80s memorabilia.  You always go to your high school reunion.  You pay more than you would care to say to dye or straighten your hair. You drink a lot, but not enough for you to think of it as a problem.  You consider yourself 'fun' rather than a lush.

Those McDonald's coupons for pie/ice cream cones/fries
You were smart and had a great deal of self-control as a child, but were also extremely sarcastic. Grown-ups either loved you or hated you. You kind of OD-ed on pizza in college, so now you eat pretty healthy, but every now and then you get a jones-ing for some of those fries and apple pie. Of course, they changed the formula so neither tastes as good as when you were a kid, the bastards.

Snack-size potato chips or pretzels
You took pride in being 'different' as a kid and would get 100s on some assignments and 0s on others.  You're an adult and still haven't learned that being 'different' is really just a pleasant synonym for being a pain in the ass.

Milk Duds, Raisinettes, Goobers, Dots, Nerds, Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls
Okay, maybe you ATE some of these candies when you had run out of everything else and were DESPERATE. But favorite?  Jeez, read the directions!

Nestle's Crunch or Krackel
You have a light, effervescent personality and everyone calls you 'sweet.'  But that didn't help the 'starter marriage' you entered into at 22 work out very well, did it?

Reece's Pieces
You're not a chocolate person, you're a peanut butter person.  You have at least two or three different brands of peanut butter on your shelf at any given time. Sometimes it even makes it into its way into a sandwich, but you usually eat it straight from the jar, watching old movies on TV.  ET needed to phone home, but you need to leave home.

Take 5 or 100 Grand or anything with dark chocolate
 No kid gets to enjoy these on Halloween because grownups always steal these first.

Spider rings, pennies, raisins, granola bars, Mr. Goodbars, Baby Ruths, and plain mini-Hershey bars
Again--this is a quiz on your favorites.  If you say these are your favorites you're lying or you don't exist. Well, okay, some of the Halloween pencils were kinda cool.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chocolate peanut butter caramel chip cookies

I'm unlikely to run for the presidency any time soon or even play the president on TV, but I did debate in college. I did extemporaneous debate, which makes me sound as though I'm a cool-headed person who can think on her feet.

Of course, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I'm an irrational control freak who is obsessed with controlling inconsequential things in her life as a way of ignoring her insignificance and anxiety.  But that's another post.

Despite the fact that it never taught me how to deal well with a crisis, I liked debate even though I was a very mediocre debater and only did well at one or two tournaments. My best record at any tournament by far was at the Hart House (University of Toronto) tournament, mainly because I had such an excellent debating partner (let's call him Socrates) that he made me look good, kind of like how everyone always looks like a better actor when they're playing against Meryl Streep.

As well as Socrates, two of my other friends accompanied me, R- and S-, when we drove up to Canada. We went blasting the soundtrack from Broadway musicals and late 80s hits because we were cool like that, and I really was awed by the beauty of Harthouse. I know that the city of Toronto has been criticized as somewhat boxy and provincial-looking, but I love it, and there was something ancient and regal about the university, with its echoing wooden halls and worn stones. Canadian debate tournaments tended to be slightly more philosophically oriented than policy-oriented like American tournaments, which suited me and I ended up getting second place speaker overall and first place team.  For one of the only times in my life, I had that 'woo-hoo!  I am validated, I won a shiny prize' feeling.

The tournament prize was a hip flask rather than a trophy, which I should have realized was an unintentional sign by the divine to start drinking, and quickly.

Flickr: sarah_poo

The day was capped off when all of us went into the city to celebrate with throngs of other residents, joyously cheering on the fact that the Blue Jays had just beat the Phillies in the World Series.

The next day we discovered that our rental car tires had been slashed overnight by some overzealous reveler. Ordinarily, this shouldn't have been  a huge problem--the company should have provided a replacement, but if memory serves me correctly, in Canada you have to be 21 to rent a car, versus 18 in the United States. (You can drink, apparently, but not drive in a rented vehicle).

To deal with this problem required negotiations so complex, it took almost an entire day to be resolved. By this time, our nerves were pretty frayed. S- had very fragile coping mechanisms even under the best of circumstances. She was chugging Pepto Bismol and hyperventilating into a paper bag. S- was also the sort of person who always talked as if everything was in capital letters when she was stressed out, as in: OH MY GOD, IF I DON'T GET BACK TO SCHOOL RIGHT NOW I'M GOING TO FAIL ALL OF MY CLASSES AND I'M GOING TO DIE.

Meanwhile,  I was annoying the shit out of R- because I was so fucking happy about winning I was taking our inability to leave as a sign from the gods that we should stay in Canada forever.   Only Socrates, who had won the first speaker award for the tournament, had kind of a Zen, impassive attitude about the whole situation.

I forget what was decided but the end result required us to stay another night in Canada in a motel and in the morning a rental car would be procured for us.

During the night, I was awakened to some strange moaning.  It sounded odd and high-pitched, kind of like one of those documentaries about baby seals on the Discovery Channel. S- was writhing on the bed, eyes staring into nothingness, and making odd sounds. I tried to talk to her, but she didn't respond.

Slowly, everyone else began to wake up. 

As S- stared into space and made barking noises, we used our great extemporaneous debating skills to determine what to do.  One of us decided she had gone completely insane and we should call the Canadian mental health authorities (or something like that) while another voted to take her to the hospital. Eventually, using our collective, quick-thinking skills, honed from years of debate, we opted for the hospital.

Contrary to the portrait of the Canadian healthcare system you see on Fox News, the hospital saw S- immediately.  As we waited to hear if she had experienced a psychotic break, a seizure, or was simply suffering from a potentially lethal combination of antacids and Mountain Dew, we decided to get some doughnuts. Because in a addition to free healthcare, Canada happens to sell fantastic doughnuts at its hospital cafeterias.

Unicorns.  Rainbows. Pink icing.  Happy place, I thought.  The doughnuts really did look like the following picture!
Flickr: PinkStock Photos

When we saw S- next, she immediately started yelling at us for leaving her and getting doughnuts, which was a good sign. Apparently, whatever she experienced as a result of stress, poor eating habits, and lack of sleep, according to the doctors. Given that pretty much summed up all of us, the explanation wasn't quite satisfactory, but we had no choice but to move on. The new rental car was ready for us, finally. 

“Do you have anything to declare?” the guards asked us as we passed over the border.
“Just some coke,” said Socrates.  He lifted up his red can of soda.

It took him a minute or two to realize what he had said.

Although we could have been held for hours for using a bad pun, the Canadians let us go and were only too happy to be rid of us. 

Flickr: LarimdaME
The initial phase of the return trip was uneventful until we made another hideous miscalculation: we stopped at a Roy Rodgers.

Roy Rogers are particularly disorienting fast food places—all that shiny aluminum foil and bright lights. So that’s why I think R-, punchy and hysterical and sleep-deprived, drove into a ditch as we pulled out of the rest area. 
Flickr: Malingering

Because I studied English rather than something practical, the first thing that came to mind was the irony inherent in the situation, rather than anything helpful. “I’m in a car, in a ditch, the one time in my life when I forgot to put on my seatbelt,” I remember saying.  Irony, indeed. Jane Austen would have been so proud of me.

Oh yes, we had to get ANOTHER replacement rental car and stay overnight at ANOTHER motel, because it was so late at night.

I got back to school just in time to stick my Religion 101 paper in my professor's in-box, two hours after it was due, the only time I was ever late turning in a paper, during my entire tenure at college.

So you can see why I'm very skeptical about the idea that being a good or even an adequate debater is synonymous with being able to think on one's feet in a crisis situation. Although it did teach us a lot about the Canadian healthcare system.

 Give that I'm such an indecisive person, these cookies are perfect. They're largely flourless and have the shiny, dense texture of a brownie. No need to choose between a cookie and a brownie. Can't decide between peanut butter, chocolate or caramel? These combine all three flavors.  No debate required.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Caramel Chip Cookies

--yields 24 cookies--


8 ounces of semisweet chocolate
2 tablespoons of butter
2 large, beaten eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon (or one pinch) salt

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup peanut butter chips
1/2 cup caramel baking bits


1. Melt chocolate in a bain-maire over medium-low heat with the butter stirring until smooth, remove from heat.
2. As the chocolate mixture cools, beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla extract together.  And the salt and fold the mixture into the melted chocolate. Sift the flour and the baking powder and add to the chocolate batter.  Fold in the peanut butter and caramel chips.
3. Line a shallow baking dish with parchment.  Pour in batter until it covers the surface with a thin layer. Cover and freeze for an hour.
4. The batter will have the texture of hard Play-dough by now.  Roll the cookie dough into balls approximately the size of doughnut holes.
5. Preheat oven to 350F.  Bake on parchment-lined baking sheets for approximately 10 minutes. Cool on baking sheets for 5-10 minutes or until the cookies have begun to 'set' and then transfer them to a cooling rack.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Parmesan-Romano Cheese Bread

I have learned that very often the 'easy way' is really the hard way.

One of the reasons I work out every day is because it's so fucking painful to go back to working out after a layoff. It's really easier just to get up early every day and 'do it.' It's actually easier to put in the effort

The same principle is true with healthy eating. Instead of going on a crazy 300-calorie juice fast for a quick fix so you can 'pig out' on the weekend, it's actually much more pleasurable to eat a moderate, healthy diet every day.

In middle school, I'd usually begin my book reports the night before they were due.  By graduate school, I was keeping up with the reading, taking notes on my computer when researching the papers I knew were due later in the semester, and getting up early to review the reading material before class. It wasn't that I was fanatically disciplined, but I had discovered that it was indeed easier to work a little bit everyday than binge on work for two miserable weeks during finals.

So why did I begin my ventures into yeast with no-knead bread?

My friend Aimee, who had made many loaves of bread before, got sucked into trying the famous no-knead bread that started the trend.  Her verdict: 'meh.'

I liked my no-knead challah dough coffee cake, but what with all of the waiting and the stickiness, I wouldn't call it easy.

After trying the no-knead variety, Aimee headed back to her print version of the Joy of Cooking, rose at 5am on a Saturday morning to make bread for her daughter, and by breakfast time she had two perfect loaves. Her only complaint: "two people don't need two loaves of bread!"

Aimee inspired me to make my own traditional kneaded bread.

I do have to warn you about one slightly fussy aspect of this recipe--it does have 1/2 of an egg as an ingredient. Personally, I'm 'okay' with that, but if you're not, it's very easy to double this recipe. Like Aimee, I only needed one loaf.

Other than dividing the egg, I actually think this recipe is much easier than no-knead bread. I'm sure I'll  attempt other no-knead breads, but I won't do so in the hopes they will be easier.

Parmesan-Romano Cheese Bread


3 cups-3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup grated fresh Parmesan-Romano shredded cheese (not the kind in the canister)
1 1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 package (1/4 ounce) instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm milk
1/2 beaten egg (4 teaspoons of both egg and white beaten together)


1. Mix 1 1/2 cups flour, cheese, sugar, yeast, and salt.  Add milk and egg.  Add 1 1/2 cups more flour.  Add more flour if necessary until you can knead the mixture into a soft dough.

2. Knead on a flat, floured surface for 5-8 minutes.  Place in a bowl greased with butter, turning loaf so entire dough is greased. Cover and let rise until doubled for 1 hour.

3. Punch down dough, shape into a loaf.  Place in greased, parchment-lined 9x5 loaf pan.  Cover pan and let rise until doubled again for 45 minutes.

4. Bake at 375F for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden brown.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sour milk chocolate chip muffins

"The milk's gone sour," my mother would say, making a face into her Special K.
"Toss it mom," I'd respond.
She never did.  My mother was a more fussy eater than she would admit--she hated food-related work functions because there was never anything she 'could eat,' which usually meant she ended up paying $16 for a salad with no dressing. But she liked to at least affect a total disdain about how food tasted, microwaving her tough steak at home and finishing off the container of milk, even when she admitted it had soured.

At the time I was in one of my 'almond milk' phases, so I wasn't drinking milk. 

People who will truly eat everything are a very rare breed: people who regard food solely as an energy substance, and take no pleasure in the taste. Even teenage boys who are human garbage disposals usually have preferences. 

 I could never drink sour milk.  I hated it when I lived in Boston, and the city milk seemed to go bad within a day or two. I'd pour some Frosted Flakes, slice a banana, anticipate the 'perfect bite' and....UGH!

My eating habits at the time were so atrocious, I took to buying Nestle chocolate milk, which was so full of preservatives it didn't go sour as fast. 

Sour milk, incidentally, is not the same as milk that is dangerously bad with bacteria. How odd that most people can enjoy cheese, sour cream, and yogurt, yet sour milk tastes so bad?

It seems to be a 'milk thing.' Although I've heard Martha Stewart likes to drink buttermilk straight, it's a rare person who can pour buttermilk on their Lucky Charms.

Yet buttermilk tastes so rich and tangy in baked goods and pancakes.

Sour milk actually makes a great substitute for buttermilk.   Before you call the Health Department on me, I do stress this is 'soured' milk, not milk that has gone bad.  This is a wonderful way to use up the past-its-prime milk rather than throwing it out with inexpensive pantry ingredients.

Sour cream is popular ingredient in chocolate chip muffins. Using the following recipe you can save the sour cream for your potatoes and guacamole and whip these up with sour milk instead.

For more information on sour milk, this is a great article

Sour milk chocolate chip muffins

--yields 12 small muffins--


1/2 cup melted butter, cooled
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 beaten large egg
1 cup soured whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line a muffin tin with 12 lines.

2. Mix butter, sugar, egg, milk, and vanilla in one bowl.

3. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in another bowl. Incorporate dry mixture into wet mixture.  Fold in chocolate chips.

4. Bake for 18-22 minutes, until toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'  Cool and serve.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Ex-Vegetarian Part III: Meat-o-versary

Flick: adacito
I've been eating meat for about a year now.

Within a month of going back to meat, I was shocked at how much better I felt.

At first, I added wild-caught salmon back to my diet, since this felt ethically acceptable.  It was wild!  And it was SO healthy, full of the purest form of Omega-3 fatty acids!  But that was too expensive to eat regularly, so I also added in chicken and turkey.

This time, unlike my previous ventures into meat-eating, I was just as scrupulous about what I eliminated as what I put back in.  No more processed food.  No more soy substitutes. I cut radically back on my carbohydrates, not for weight loss but to deal with my sugar cravings and crashes.

I was surprised at how much better I felt--although I didn't have the haunted 'health food' cheekbones and scrawny arms I'd developed during my strictest vegetarian phases, my waist actually grew tighter and leaner. I looked muscular and sturdy and sculpted in a manner I didn't think was possible.  I didn't feel bloated all the time from the seitan and soy--I'd grown so accustomed to feeling that way, I was shocked that it wasn't my natural state. I actually got asked by people I hadn't seen in awhile: "what did you do?  Did you lose weight?  There is something...different." But I hadn't needed to lose weight, and I hadn't.  I just looked, well, healthy.

I became able to hold a headstand with my newly discovered strength, and although I am still a slow, middle-aged runner and a timid, not particularly talented rider, I began to see PROGRESS.  Eating a truly balanced diet, rather than some weird-ass ideologically prescribed 'advertised' diet enabled me to be 'the best that I can be' even if I would like that 'best' to be 'better.'

I think that is the crux of the vegetarian paradox: some people ask--why do some people seem fine with little animal protein, while others get sick and don't flourish? The standard PETA party line is that people who 'fail' at vegetarianism didn't do it 'the right way' and point to elite athletes who are vegan and so forth.

There is no question that, as a vegetarian, I felt much better than I did as an omnivore who ate everything--including lots of cheese fries. But I feel much better now than I did as a vegetarian when I eat lots of nonstarchy veggies, unprocessed meats, moderate amounts of full-fat dairy, and moderate amounts of nuts.

That is why it annoys me so much when so many studies of veganism and vegetarianism compare the category of 'vegans' against 'meat eaters' as if that was an all-inclusive group.  Meat eaters who eat McDonald's?  Or meat eaters who are eating grass-fed beef and Brussels sprouts?

But then again, I never thought, even during my most radical phases, that vegetarianism was suitable for everyone. I was never one of those people who tried to make her dog a vegetarian and I find it very worrisome in particular when people try to make their naturally carnivorous cats go vegan to suit their ideological proclivities.   How can you claim to love animals and hate the animal instinct inside your own pets, I want to ask?  And even dealing with herbivorous horses, I've come to realize how animals appreciate and seek out strength in others, including people--not cruelty, but strength, firmness, and leadership, which is something I can't provide when I can barely pick up a heavy bucket.

I feel much better, now that I have been eating meat for a year, even though it has been a profound shift in my sense of self. So many people knew me as a vegetarian, and even some of them who eat meat seem disappointed I 'reverted' in their eyes.

It is looking through the world with new eyes.  I still feel that our food system is profoundly 'broken,' my only change in conviction is the suitability of vegetarianism as a solution for most people.  I refuse to sacrifice my health and potential to satisfy any ideology.

Maybe some people 'do fine' (whatever their definition of fine is) as vegan or vegetarian, but there is no way you can preach to someone that they will 'be healthier' being vegetarian if their own bodies tell them that is not the case, anymore than you can preach to your tabby that he really enjoys seitan more than salmon.

I still do yoga, though, and although most people I know who do yoga aren't vegan or vegetarian, occasionally I'll hear people say things like: "if only they knew, everyone would be vegan." Um, I do know.  I even took a class called Animals: Realms of Power at Harvard Divinity School in which I studied human-animal relations from ancestral times onward.  "Boca Burgers taste good instead of hamburgers!" I've probably eaten more Boca Burgers in every flavor than you have been alive in years on this planet, and no, they aren't really that good for you if you look at the label.  Or worse, the people who aren't even vegetarian but act as though being vegetarian is somehow a higher state of being. "Is a cheetah more moral than an antelope because he eats meat," I wonder?

I wish, despite saying all of this, that I did feel as good not eating meat as when I eat meat, but my body and my more focused mind tells me otherwise.

Other things went away with meat-eating that I assumed was a natural part of myself. I'm no longer cold in the fall. I can go for long periods of time without eating when I have to, and I can bake without having the urge to 'accidentally' leave all of the batter in the bowl and eat it all to satisfy my desire for sugar.

What is weirdest of all, and I guess I shouldn't say this as a food blogger, is that I no longer feel particularly obsessed with food.  I enjoy the creative aspect of baking--woo-hoo!  I made something from a formless blob of dough!  But lots of the time, I just have some chicken and broccoli and kind of forget about it all because I am busy with other aspects of my life.

I don't miss the endless planning around being vegetarian, the constant worrying of 'will they have something I can eat?'  And if they don't, when can I eat.  And the monotony of my diet, veering from processed foods to foods that took a long time to prepare (like beans) that I didn't like and don't make me feel very good.

But this leaves me between camps. On one hand, I'm not in the 'food is fun, I eat EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME' camp, because truthfully, I don't feel very good when I eat processed foods like Pop Tarts or McDonald's fries which seems to be required of the 'slumming' foodie. On the other hand, while I believe that animals intended for consumption must be treated more ethically for their own sake and also for the health of consumers, I hate PETA's guilt campaigns, such as when it tries to shame people into becoming vegan through misogynistic fat-phobia or when it claims to value human health but then gleefully publishes a list of junk food that is vegan and therefore okay to eat.

I suppose what I am passionate about is people eating food that is minimally processed, low in sugar, and relegating the wonderful treats I do enjoy baking to a reasonable place in one's diet. I am also passionate about doing things that are physical and getting away from--gulp--the Internet and bonding with animals i a meaningful fashion. But there is no label for that--I wish there was.

I guess it's kind of like how I felt about watching The Breakfast Club.  I liked the movie as an adolescent, but I never related to any of the stereotypes. I certainly wasn't the pretty 'rich girl,' although I did like the sushi she had for lunch. I certainly wasn't a 'jock' because I'm such a spazz but I do like doing and watching sports. My family life was difficult and I did not have a placid, happy home life like 'the rebel,' but I hate drinking and staying out late, setting stuff on fire, and being a badass has never suited me as it did the 'rebel' character.  I am too weird and not enough of a perfectionist to be the classic nerd; to obsessed with school and learning to be the freaky-ass 'recluse.'  And her lunch was terrifying.

I guess I am that most boring of all things: a true omnivore who eats chicken (but not nuggets) and isn't afraid of broccoli.  

The Ex-Vegetarian Part II: Unbecoming

Flickr: Muy Yum
I didn't see any weight loss or great health benefits from becoming a vegetarian. In fact, I gained weight and lost fitness. To understand why, you have to understand that I was a graduate student at the time. Besides the fact that my stipend wasn't huge, I was also in an environment where cheap (often free) and very excellent pastry and bagels were thrown into my path everywhere I looked. I lived within two minutes walking distance of a 1990s era reasonably-priced Starbucks with gigantic maple oat frosted scones and mocha Frappucinos and a Bruggers which had mediocre bagels but fancy cream cheese I could eat with a spoon. Any events involved coffee and muffins the size of a baby's head, and seminars are ideal for people to bring in nibbles like cookies.

Graduate school is also fairly isolating, which meant I could eat whenever, wherever I wanted. Which was often a pint of ice cream for dinner.  Add into the disincentive to move because of the ever-expanding pile of things to read and write and the cold Boston winter which meant that I was constantly bundled up in formless clothing, and you have the ideal prescription for weight gain.

After graduate school, however, as my interest in the arts began to resurface I began to realize the truth that 'my body is my instrument.'  I took up running, and almost immediately I felt better, lost tons of weight, and all of the problems I had assumed were naturally a part of being 'me' like allergies, insomnia, and adult acne disappeared.  I realized that to improve my running I had to change the way I ate and I radically improved my diet and stopped making pastry the cornerstone of my diet. I lived in England for two years and ate lots of cottage cheese, jacket potatoes with cheddar, hummus, ratatouille, Indian food with veggies and vegetarian sushi. I discovered fruit beyond the Red Delicious apple and even made myself vegetable stir-fries for dinner.

Not surprisingly, I associated my improved health with my vegetarianism.  However, it didn't occur to me that I had been a vegetarian before the running and healthy eating and seen no health benefits.  Correlation but not causation in terms of health improvements--I ate healthier when I became a runner and happened to be a vegetarian at the time. But then again, I was never a science grad student.

I was more active than I had ever been in my life, and my friends were more active as well. My activities revolved more around 'doing stuff' than sitting over books and coffee. Much to my frustration, I noticed that I still wasn't as fit as they were, despite all of the exercise I was doing. I was thin, but a very slow runner and pretty weak. But once again, it didn't occur me to try eating meat or even fish.  Vegetarianism had become part of my identity and to sacrifice it would be admitting I was wrong. Plus, given that I didn't have animals as much of a constant presence in my life--I lived in a tiny flat--it was the one connection I still had to my old childhood interest.

I moved back to the US because my mother's health had taken a turn for the worse, and my eating habits began to change once again.  Of course, I was still a vegetarian for ethical and health reasons--and because eating meat would be a triumph for my parents, who were now around me ALL THE TIME and kept telling me how much they disapproved of the fact I didn't eat meat. I still ran every day.

Something I did notice, however, was that I still didn't see any marked improvements in my physical fitness after the initial introduction of running. Other runners gained muscle and strength and speed; I did not. I also knew I wasn't as strong as most people who worked out as much as I did, but I just assumed once again this was a natural lack of athletic talent, and not due to the minimal amount of  unprocessed protein I was eating at the time.

My diet devolved, like most vegetarian diets do, into meat substitutes.  In England, I learned to like ratatouille and various curries, but there are a limited amount of totally vegetarian dishes you can eat without getting sick of them, and I had no idea how to cook, anyway.  My diet began to resemble that of my  five-year-old self, albeit in a slightly healthier incarnation: soy chicken patties, a side of fruit, cheese (often processed 'vegetarian cheese') or sweetened yogurt, potatoes, and protein bars that promised me complete nutrition.

If people asked me about the health benefits of vegetarianism, I would sing its praises and the praises of 'natural, wholesome rice and beans' but no frigging way was I eating that every day. Besides, rice and beans and tofu made me feel horrible and gassy.  I stuck to the Boca burgers and other hunks of highly processed products with little poetic descriptions on the side about how ethical and beneficial the company was for making its symmetrical ovals of soy protein in shrink-wrapped packages.

I did experiment with going back to meat once right after my mother died--I remember thinking 'fuck it, no one is watching me now, I can try it once.'  I walked to the deli counter at Shop Rite and suddenly felt flummoxed, given that for so many years the first thought upon entering any situation regarding eating was 'does this have meat.'  I ordered one of my adolescent favorites--shrimp salad on a croissant.  Unfortunately, this was apparently not a standard order and the teenage girl threw a tantrum.  She had to call her manager to get a special dispensation to put shrimp on the croissant and warned me that if I asked for a special request next time I would likely be charged extra.

Not surprisingly, trying meat one or two times a month had little effect on my health, and I soon dismissed my experiment.

It was going back to riding that was the real physical wake-up call, though.  I had always wanted to ride horses, but a lack of bravery, time, and money kept me back.  In my mid-30s, though, I was keenly aware of the fact that I wasn't getting any younger.  And my first disastrous lesson was a bracing slap in the face that I wasn't very fit at all--despite all the running, I lacked any real physical strength.

The more I thought about it as well, I also realized that I wasn't running very much any more. I kept having to take time off for more and more frequent injuries, which I attributed to just being older. My love of animals? I had a small, naturally well-behaved dog, but I couldn't make most animals respect me because I lacked even a basic level of fitness.

There were other issues, too--my weight fluctuated a great deal, between scrawny and puffy, but I never really felt that I looked 'good.'  So did my blood sugar, and I had constant sugar cravings.

I tried yoga, but I struggled even at that pursuit--while most people of my level of fitness could pop a handstand or headstand within a few classes, I could barely hold down dog.  And once again, I was suffering constant injuries and soreness.

I tried veganism for about a month, wondering if eggs and Greek yogurt were the source of all my ills. I think I doubled my carbohydrate intake, even without increasing my calories, and I felt awful--I gained puffy weight around my waist and arms, had trouble holding yoga poses I had nailed when I started practicing, and felt weak, draggy, and listless--I didn't even look forward to running or riding, which had never been true of me in the past.

Something had to change. I had tried everything. Soy and no soy.  Dairy and no dairy. Eggs and no eggs.  Meat was the only thing I hadn't tried. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Challah Dough Coffee Cake

So, after making my first three challahs using this recipe, I went from never having made challah to becoming challah-obsessed.

This isn't an unusual life pattern with me. I don't watch much TV now, but I have watched every single episode of Black Beauty (a rather obscure British television series for children), every Avengers with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and all the Doctor Whos with Tom Baker because as a kid when I was fixated upon a television program, the time that it was on the air governed my life. Yes, we had a VHS but seeing it on VHS WASN'T THE SAME.

Wuthering Heights, The Pony Problem, Hamlet...all had to be bought several times because I literally read them to shreds.

Fortunately, people don't listen to tapes anymore, because I also had to buy several copies of the soundtracks of Broadway musicals because I listened to them until the black plastic thread of the cassette snapped.

So, when I read on the King Arthur website that the easy challah recipe could be used to make three yeasted coffee cakes as well as three challahs, I had to give it a try.

The directions for all of these coffee cakes is pretty much the same--make the challah dough, refrigerate it for at least four hours, add in your mix-ins, let it rise for 90 minutes and bake for thirty minutes.  You can't find an easier recipe.

This would be great if you're having people over for brunch.  Make the dough, divide into thirds, and make three totally different coffee cakes.  Add some fruit salad and maybe some yogurt or bacon on the side and you've got a perfect, homemade spread.

Oh, and in case your wondering--these are coffee cakes, not crumb cakes.  There is a difference. Crumb cakes usually don't contain yeast and are topped with crumbs. Coffee cakes tend to be dry, not very sweet cakes that are perfect compliments to coffee.  They can contain crumbs but they don't have to.

I admit that the savory one is a bit of a cheat and straddles the line between a 'savory cake' and a bread, but you can call it whatever you like--the sharp cheese contrasts nicely with the sweet honey challah dough. 

Even if you don't use these add-ins, I highly recommend trying a challah dough as a sturdy backbone to 'make your own' coffee cake, no matter how unusual or plain.

Cinnamon Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake


1/3 of of King Arthur's No-Knead Challah Recipe (refrigerated for at least 4 hours)
2/3 cup dark chocolate chips
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons of cinnamon


1. Take 1/3 of the dough recipe (approximately a 'blob' the size of an orange) and mix in the chips. Press into a 9x9 round pan.
 2. Sift the sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle on as a topping.
3. Cover the pan. Let rise for 90 minutes. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350F

Peanut Butter Caramel Coffee Cake


1/3 of of King Arthur's No-Knead Challah Recipe (refrigerated for at least 4 hours)
2/3 cup peanut butter chips
1/4 cup caramel baking bits or caramel sauce 


1. Take 1/3 of the dough recipe (approximately a 'blob' the size of an orange) and mix in the chips. Press into a 9x9 round pan.
 2. Top with the caramel baking bits, if using.
3. Cover the pan. Let rise for 90 minutes. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350F. If using caramel sauce instead, swirl onto the warm cake before cooling.

Savory Parmesan-Romano 'Cake'


1/3 of of King Arthur's No-Knead Challah Recipe (refrigerated for at least 4 hours)
1/4 cup fresh shredded Parmesan-Romano cheese blend plus 1-2 tablespoons extra, reserved

1. Take 1/3 of the dough recipe (approximately a 'blob' the size of an orange) and mix in the cheese. Press into a 9x9 round pan.
 2. Top with additional cheese.
3. Cover the pan. Let rise for 90 minutes. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350F.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The 850 calorie school lunch: I do the math

Flickr: USDA Gov
I recently read an article on NPR about changes in the school lunch program. Sometimes numbers tell a story better than words, and one number resonated in my mind: 850.  The caloric maximum for a school lunch is now 850, which is actually higher than the average of 790 several years ago.

My first reaction (and the reaction of most of my friends) was 'whoa, that's a lot of food.'

However, the responses to a similar article on the school lunch issue by ABC news were far different. Much to my surprise, the outrage on the website was that the calories in school lunches were too FEW. You can read all of them on the website, but two responses stood out:

"...How has this reduced calorie and fat lunch affected a students ability to think and reason during classroom hours? The brain is basically a machine that requires fuel to operate at peak performance much like a car. Starve an engine of fuel or oxygen and it will run poorly."


"...To some children this is the ONLY meal they will get in a day…The caloric count should be raised to no less than 1000 per student per day and the condiments should NOT be counted in that count."

Suddenly, it occurred to me: hey, I can actually calculate EXACTLY how many calories I ate at lunch at school.  I believe the 850 limit is for high school, but let's take that as a rough maximum guesstimate for all grades, since there is always going to be some variation in terms of how many calories foods contain.

My elementary school had no cafeteria. You could buy food four days a week by putting change in a little manila envelope, and giving it to your teacher in the morning.  Then, the school would buy lunch.  Monday, you had a selection of hot dogs with mustard or ketchup or plain.  Tuesday I think was nothing--you had to pack your own lunch.  Wednesday was 'sub' day, which I never partook in, but the selection was a 1/4 or 1/2 a small sub.  Thursday was a choice of a small McDonald's hamburger, cheeseburger, or 6-pack Chicken McNuggets (your choice of condiments). Friday, one or two slices of pizza.  There were Dixie cups of ice cream (one flavor, 1/2 chocolate and 1/2 vanilla) at the elementary school and ice cream sandwiches at the middle school available for .25.

So, a typical day...

Chicken McNuggets with mustard or bbq sauce (280 calories) OR a kid-sized hot dog with mustard on bun (around 150 calories) OR small slice of cheese pizza (275 calories)= Around 250-300 calories on average for 'the meal'

A cup of whole milk (146 calories) or a juice drink like Hi-C or Capri Sun (126):  Around150 Calories

Ice cream cup (146 calories) or sandwich (180 calories): Let's say around 150-200

Flickr: Link576
FYI: I wasn't fat as an elementary school kid, merely high normal, although I was overweight (from slightly to borderline obese) from ages 9-17. I have been comfortably underweight ever since I lost weight beginning the summer of before my freshman year of high school.

But basically, the new guidelines don't seem so crazy now. In fact, since some teachers allowed a 'snack time' around 10 or so in the morning, which usually consisted of a piece of fruit brought from home (like (the skin off) an apple or a peach, or a chocolate chip chewy granola bar or a Nature Valley peanut butter crunch bar), I'd say that my calorie allotment for the day at school was around the 700-800 calorie mark.

Throw in around 200-300 calories for breakfast, usually a Pop Tart or a bowl of sugary cereal with whole milk and the minimal amount I was able to consume at dinner and get away with it, I probably did eat what was normal for a relatively small, inactive kid my age.  And bear in mind I wasn't overweight--yet.

How did I get fat as a kid?  Well, my parents always ate out a lot, and let's say I never ate the broiled fish or steak my mom consumed to keep her weight in check.  I started to eat more and more of the fried goodies I would order rather than pick at my food.  And I started to come home and hit the refrigerator.  I'd eat whatever desserts were in the house early in the week, but when I polished them off  and market day was still far away, then I'd eat peanut butter and cinnamon raisin bread (or butter, cream cheese, jam honey)...cereal, and so forth...My parents were older when they had me, and their philosophy was more 'stay safe and stay inside.' They nagged me to give up sweets, but never encouraged me to get outside and play.  In fact, my mother hated it when I rode my bike a very short distance to school, for fear of what might happen.

As I grew older, my lunches became more varied. Sometimes I'd skip lunch or just bring a piece of fruit to 'save calories' for later (and we all know what that results in late at night in front of the television).  Sometimes I'd have the hot dog, burger, or whatever.

Flickr: Mike Licht

In high school, I finally attended a school with a cafeteria. I never got 'the lunch.' In fact, I looked with horror upon the kids who got 'the lunch,' which invariably consisted of some mystery protein, canned peas or applesauce, milk, a questionable TV dinner-like dessert, and perhaps a starch. Like spaghetti and meatballs, broccoli in butter, a white dinner roll and whole milk.

I usually got a slice of square pizza (probably around 350 calories or so, based upon the size of similar TV microwave pizzas) or a mysteriously soft bagel with low-fat cream cheese (around 300-400 calories). Often, I'd buckle and get dessert, too, like some fat-free Hostess cupcakes.  My favorite meal at school was breakfast.  The Canadian bacon, cheese, and biscuit sandwiches held under the heat lamps were pretty tasty.  So were the chocolate chocolate chip and cheese strudel muffins.  But calorically, nothing I ate was over 300 or 400 calories.

It wasn't what I was eating in school but after school that caused me to put on weight--the emotional eating I was doing after school, and the fact that I had no physical outlet for my energies.

Of course, the poor quality of my diet did have consequences.  I literally have no memory of calculus my senior year (it was before lunch, when I was in a brain fog, for want of food). And geometry my junior year occurred after lunch, when I was ready to fall asleep after my carbohydrate and sugar-laced meal. 

I realize that my experiences are pretty typical of white, middle-class kids--poorer kids likely get a larger percentage of their calories from school. But even so, because it's so easy and cheap to buy junk food (I'm not saying there isn't cheap healthy food out there, I'm saying junk food is cheap and easy to prepare and buy when you're pressed for time and working two jobs to stay afloat), I'm sure what kids eat at home has a significant impact on their weight.

So what is my point?

Changing school lunches won't necessarily make a huge impression on the obesity numbers right away. There are still plenty of other opportunities to indulge in other areas of a kid's life.  I am not saying change isn't necessary at all, but the change isn't going to be noticeable necessarily even with this current generation of kids.

I think the calorie numbers aren't as crazy as they seem.  However, I should note that when I ate that many calories in the day as an elementary school student I had many advantages kids today don't.  I had at least a half hour to eat lunch.  I had recess and PE. My portions and choices were controlled, even of junk food, so it wasn't like a junk food playground every day. My calories were also spaced out through the day.

Calories shouldn't matter so much as the quality of the food.  Why not place more stringent limits on the sugar in food? You can still have pizza, just take the sugar out of the sauce (my elementary school pizza, in contrast to my high school cafeteria pizza was brought in from a local pizza 'joint,' which also helped the community).  Why not make smaller buns for burgers as well as make them whole wheat?  How 'bout fresh fruit that is really fresh for dessert?  Apples and oranges keep forever. Even for kids who are skinny rails, blood sugar crashes aren't conducive to learning.

Encourage kids to bring good food from home, if they can afford to do so.  Realistically speaking, no school lunch is going to please everyone. It's never going to be high in calories/low in calories/low in fat/ low in sugar/vegan/ high protein.  Parents don't always know how to pack a nutritious lunch.  Send home advice (not rules, advice) about what to pack.  Have refrigerators so kids can keep food palatable throughout the day, rather than storing lunches in their lockers.  Have a microwave so kids can heat food up. Of course, this won't help kids who are financially dependent on subsidized school lunches.

Gym.  It kills me to say this as the last kid picked at every gym class, but the one gym class I did where we ran 6 laps of the track every day actually did make an impression on me.  It taught me I could accomplish something: I could run.  Slowly, but I could run.  Now I run at least an hour, often more, a day.  I'm not a fast runner, but I enjoy it and it's definitely helped me get a healthy balance in my life.

As chronicled by Ms. Q in her blog Fed Up With Lunch, reform is coming very, very slowly, and there is always the question of how to feasibly pay for better-quality food.  Then again, the French manage to offer better food to their children within their system. They don't focus on calories but on teaching kids how to eat.  Check out this menu of the state French school system. Not a French fry on the menu and they even (gulp) served broiled fish and salad.

But I'm not sure all parents (many of whom love junk food) really in their hearts want their kids to be 'taught' in school to love ratatouille and, heaven forbid, arugula.

Sorry for the long rant--this post is MUCH longer than I intended it to be.  But I am curious--if you have the time to Google a calorie counter, is my experience that foreign?  How many calories on average did you eat for your school lunches?