Relaxing in Stern Grove with Ok Go

Ok Go at Stern Grove

This past Sunday, I went with a group of friends to see Ok Go at the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco. Every summer, the Stern Grove Festival hosts free concerts every Sunday in this beautiful park. Actually, it’s not so much a park as it is a forest… with tall trees towering over you as you walk through and wooded areas that you’d find in fairy tales. (At one point, I half expected the trees to start talking like in Lord of the Rings.)

Sitting amongst the trees (and pretending to be wood nymphs)

We got there fairly early, about 2 hours before the concert started. However, that was definitely not early enough. Some people were hardcore and arrived at 9am to snag the best spots in the park, right in front of the stage. With all of the lawn occupied by serious concertgoers, we ventured into the woods to find a decent picnic spot. Although we were hidden behind several trees, we still had a pretty good view of the stage and enjoyed a nice picnic while we waited for the show to start.

I first started listening to Ok Go in high school, after seeing their famous treadmill video. However, my favorite video remains to be their “A Million Ways” video, in which they perform an amazing choreographed dance in someone’s backyard. I distinctly remember watching that video whenever I wanted to procrastinate doing homework and secretly longed to get three friends to learn the dance with me. However, I could never convince my friends to do it. ūüė¶

The concert was great! Ok Go is definitely a fun band to watch live. They do crazy things on stage, such as play one of the songs only using hand bells and shoot water-soluble confetti out of giant cannons. The show was so entertaining and a majority of the crowd was dancing and rocking out. It was a great afternoon filled with food, music, and friends. Not to mention, the weather was absolutely gorgeous! It’s days like those that make me absolutely, whole-heartedly love living in the Bay Area, despite all of the hardships and difficulties I’ve been facing in grad school. Even though grad school has been a tough journey, fun and relaxing days consisting of treks into the city and hanging out with friends make it much more enjoyable.

“The Country”

In my last post I talked about the city, and now we’re going to travel to the country… wine country, that is. About a month ago, my friends and I spent the weekend in St. Helena, a small town in Napa Valley. Thanks to my friend Rachel, we got to stay in a beautiful house in wine country, where we drank good wine and ate delicious food.

We spent Saturday touring three wineries: Castello di Amarosa, V. Sattuii, and Sutter Home (we had a lot to drink by that point and plus it was free, so don’t judge! :P). Castello di Amarosa aka “The Castle” was a beautiful, medieval castle that happened to also be a winery. Luckily I had done some research and found a 50% off coupon for the tasting tour. (I strongly suggest going online to find coupons for wineries. There are tons out there.) Touring the castle was a great way to start off our weekend. We saw beautiful views, drank delicious wine, and even visited a torture chamber!

The tasting actually opened my eyes up to the actual taste of wine. I’ve never really been “into” wine and didn’t know much about wine, except that I liked sweeter, white wines the most (basically moscato). But the wine tasting made me pay attention to the difference in tastes between Merlot and Cabernet Savignon. And through the tasting, I found another favorite,¬†Gew√ľrztramine.

After touring the castle, we were pretty hungry. So we headed to Gott’s Roadside Diner (formerly known as Taylor’s Refresher), a classic favorite in St. Helena. When we arrived shortly after 1pm, the line was so long! A good and somewhat bad sign. But the weather was absolutely gorgeous, so waiting outside in the warm sunshine wasn’t a bad thing. I feel that Gott’s is typical California – offering classic favorites, but with a twist. I heard the fish tacos were amazing, so I knew I had to try them. I got the Mahi Mahi tacos, but most of my friends got the Ahi Tuna tacos. And don’t forget to order a milkshake! I tried the white pistachio flavor, but I thought it was lacking in the pistachio flavor, until I reached the bottom of the cup which was filled with whole pistachios. (They probably should have chopped up the pistachios and blended them with the milkshake instead of leaving them whole on the bottom.)

After our late lunch, we headed to the next winery, V. Sattuii, which is rated as one of the most visited wineries in Napa. It wasn’t so much a winery, as a tourist destination, with a large shop selling cheese and other goods as well as a large open area where they served barbeque. The wine tasting was one of the cheapest I found ($10) and you can share it too. Even though they advertised a tasting of 5 wines, we definitely got more than that. Again, my eyes were opened to more wines as I tasted Port, Madeira, and Muscat. After getting our fill of wine, half of my friends decided to head back to the house and sleep off a bit of the alcohol consumed that day. The rest of us headed to Sutter Home, known for their cheap wine and pretty good Moscato (in my opinion). Since it was free and we couldn’t say no to free wine, we headed over there. And again, my eyes were opened, not because Sutter Home has good wine, but because it has so many wines! I naively thought they only sold Moscato!

Once we had our fill of wine, we headed back to the house to relax and cook a delicious dinner. Our menu included baked brie with honey and walnuts, grilled corn and asparagus, basil and pistachio risotto, pork tenderloin, and pear almond galette. Although our dinner was amazing, I enjoyed the time we all spent cooking the dinner the most.

That weekend was one of the most fun and relaxing weekends I’ve had. Good times don’t depend on where you are or what you’re doing. It’s who you’re with that really determines how much fun you have. And that weekend was definitely proof of that.

Holla for Challah! Honey Apple Challah

As I’ve said before, one of the blogs I find inspiration from is Smitten Kitchen. All of Deb’s posts are so beautiful and creative. I have a long list of her recipes I want to try and her honey apple challah was just the one I had to bake right away.

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Despite never having eaten challah before, I knew right away that I wanted to bake it. Perhaps it was my inner desire to be Jewish that drew me to this recipe. In middle school, I was invited to a friend’s bat mitzvah. I had never been to one before and knew nothing about Jewish customs except for what I had learned in school (and that Rugrats episode) about¬†Hanukkah. My friend’s bat mitzvah opened my eyes to a new culture. That night, I had so much fun learning about Jewish culture (and dancing) that I developed a secret desire to be Jewish or at least have Jewish kids, so that they could have bat or bar mitzvahs!

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In addition to becoming a bit more Jewish, I chose this recipe because it seemed pretty straightforward, yet challenging. It was similar to other yeast bread recipes I had looked at before – simple but still difficult. However, I hadn’t read the recipe very closely when I started and missed the fact that the dough needed to rise¬†three¬†times. Luckily I made this on a Sunday afternoon, so I had time to spare.

The recipes from Smitten Kitchen are very clear and Deb’s notes and photos are very helpful, especially for me who likes to know exactly what to expect. Her series of photos was a great reference as I made the dough, folded in the apple chunks, and braided the loaf. Not sure what happened, but I ended up with enough dough to make two loaves. One was the circular braid featured in Deb’s post and one was a traditional braid.

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By the time I got to the step of baking, I was pretty tired. Although I usually find baking relaxing, I felt this time I had bitten off a little more than I could chew. Once I finally put the loaves in the oven, I let out a sigh of relief and relaxed for the 40-45 minutes they baked. I noticed the loaves brown pretty quickly, so you should probably watch them closely when it gets close to 40 minutes. I didn’t want them to brown too much so I took them out before knowing exactly when they were done. Luckily, they baked perfectly, looked absolutely beautiful, and filled my house with the most delicious smell. Baking seems to be one of the best air fresheners for one’s home.

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I let the loaves cool overnight and took them to group meeting the next day. The best way to get rid of food is to give it to grad students, so most of my baked goods end up being eaten by my labmates. Since I’ve been regularly baking and bringing in food to lab each week, no one is surprised when another bread or dessert magically appears in lab. Luckily, it hasn’t gotten to the point where they expect me to bring in food each week.

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The bread was a little flaky and was easy to pull apart. The top had a nice crunchiness to it and the bread was actually pretty moist, which surprised me a little since I noticed the apple chunks dried up quite a bit. So instead of puddles of apple-y goodness that Deb described, they were more like dehydrated apples. Still, the challah was delicious. It had a sweetness that was noticeable, but not overpowering, which I definitely appreciated. I think my sweet tooth has been fading a bit lately.

Although this honey apple challah was fairly labor intensive and time consuming (you should really give yourself a whole afternoon or make the dough ahead of time), it was definitely worth it. The unbaked braided loaves were already beautiful and they became even more beautiful after baking. After pulling the bread out of the oven, I felt so much satisfaction. It blows my mind that one can make such amazing things from such simple ingredients. Baking is almost like magic, transforming flour, eggs, butter, and milk into beautiful, delicious creations. So what if it requires a little elbow grease and time and effort? The finished product is all worth it. The same goes with anything in life. It’s like my mom always told me when life got tough: the things that require hard work are the things in life that are worth it.

This post has been Yeastspotted.

Bunch of brunches

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Brunch has become a regular Sunday event for me and my friends. It’s one of the best ways for all of us to come together, cook and bake, and enjoy each other’s company. It’s also a great excuse for me to cook something creative. A few months ago, my friend Lin and I started looking at fun brunch recipes, from glazed avocado poptarts to savory breakfast pizza. I clicked from site to site, pinning brunch recipes for later. That weekend, I tried my hand at empanadas, which turned out beautifully as I mentioned before. Other dishes that morning included breakfast pizza topped with tomato, mushrooms, and baked eggs, a dutch baby pancake, and¬†zucchini¬†fritters.

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The next weekend, we hosted our first weekend for prospective grad students accepted into our department. We all used it just as another excuse to cook and bake. Lin bought 3 dozen eggs, two Costco packages of butter (aka 8 lbs of butter), two Costo sized bags of cheese, and tons of potatoes. We managed to use most of it up in cooking up stratas, frittatas, and lots of biscuits. Our classmate Jacob baked over sixty buttery biscuits that would make any Southerner proud. To contribute, I baked two loaves of quick bread using leftover beer as a leavening agent and banana muffins. Needless to say, our homemade brunch was a success and garnered many compliments. However, despite our amazing brunch, most of the students who visited that weekend didn’t end up choosing Berkeley for grad school. But I suppose they ought to be choosing a school for other reasons than amazing food.

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Two weeks ago, my friends and I spent the weekend up at Napa in my friend Rachel’s grandparents’ house. It was a beautiful weekend filled with amazing weather, delicious food, and lots of wine. And again, we cooked up another awesome brunch. On the menu were buttermilk and bacon waffles (Rachel was so excited to use her new waffle maker she just had to bring it on the trip), sourdough french toast, goat cheese and asparagus¬†omelets, and of course, mimosas!

Thanks to my friends, brunch has become much more than just a meal for me. It’s become an event in which we all express our creativity through cooking and baking new dishes; in which we all come together as a team and family; and in which we enjoy one of life’s simplest gifts: each other. Corny, I know, but true.

Challenging myself

At times I wonder why I chose the path I did. Before starting grad school, I had this rather naive and earnest outlook, thinking my life would continue on the linear path to success and greatness. As long as I tried hard, I’d get to where I’d want to end up. That philosophy seemed to work for undergrad. However, that’s one big difference between undergrad and grad school that I’ve learned this past year: in undergrad, you know exactly what to do to succeed: study hard and do well in class; in grad school, you have no idea what you’re doing. And for me, a person who likes to know what’s expected of her, this has been one of the most difficult things to deal with. Everyday I question whether I’m doing enough or what I’m doing is right. This doubt then leads me to wonder why I chose such a path. Why am I putting myself through this, to become a better person or just to torture myself?

I do similar things when I choose baking projects. In high school, for my French class, we could get extra credit for baking a French dessert for Christmas: either buche de noel or croquembouche. I’d say up late into the night trying to perfect those desserts, only to roll up a cracked genoise or burn my sugar coating. The one thing that I’ll always remember thinking from those experiences: “Man, French desserts are hard.”

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Having learned my lesson from those near all-nighters just baking, I’ve tried to choose rather simple, straight-forward recipes to try. I often bake quick breads because of their simplicity. However, my ambition has gotten the better of me several times. One time in particular, I stayed up till 2am making empanadas. But I should mention that I did start at 11pm. The recipe wasn’t that difficult; it was just time consuming. I’m sure if more than one person was doing it, the process would have gone much faster.

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But in the end, it was all worth it. Once I had finished baking, I took the piping hot empanadas to my friend’s house for brunch and they were a hit! The crusts of the empanadas were flaky, buttery, and golden. The spicy sweet potato and black bean filling had a depth of flavor. Everyone praised the empanadas, and even my friend’s boyfriend, who is quite the foodie chef, complimented my beautiful crust. Right then, I realized that all of that work was worth it. All of my efforts and hard work that night had made people happy and that reward was so satisfying to me.

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And perhaps that’s why I’m putting myself through all of this work in grad school – to gain the skills and knowledge so that I can help the world and make a difference. The ability to create new knowledge and spread it throughout the¬†scientific¬†community actually excites and motivates me. And the satisfaction I’ll obtain in the end will make all of that hard work and suffering worth it.