Sunday, June 12, 2011

No, I don't drink coffee

I sort of like coffee now. Before my sister starts to do a dance in the barista area of her favorite independent coffee shop, I need to explain. I still don't drink coffee. I find the taste of coffee bitter. Or, I should say, I now find
the taste of coffee by itself bitter. This week, I have learned something new - coffee WITH quality chocolate wrapped in something else (like a coffeecake, perhaps) doesn't taste bitter. In fact, it tastes amazing.

I can't explain why I didn't figure this out earlier. I know that everyone and their neighbor's neighbor has discovered the world of dressed-up coffee drinks with shots of flavorings, foams, steamed milks purveyed by Starbucks and kin. But, I don't drink coffee. (Do you sense my incredulity?)
My first exploration of coffee in baking this week began with a kids' sleepover. The usually demanded breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes spongy with syrup and ignored fruit made me nauseous. The kids don't mind repetition,
but it makes me feel tired. So, while the charming-while-asleep room of girls slumbered on, I thumbed through one of my favorite all-things-before dinner brunch cookbooks and found a coffeecake with chocolate chips. (Chocolate chips make almost anything palatable to children ages 2 to 22.) It wasn't just chocolate chips, it was chocolate coffee cake with chocolate chips. No, it was mocha chocolate coffee cake with chocolate chips. Mocha? That's java code word for coffee and chocolate, right?

The kids were initially suspicious of the coffeecake, but after the first bites, I took the silence in the dining room to indicate approval. Score one! With sleepovers, you learn that not only are your kids ridiculous in their rejections of all things orange or green or smelly or fishy or simply unusual because they have never heard of it in their short lives palate-challenged, but so are other people's children. The coffeecake, baked in a bundt pan I've owned for 21 years and bought at an honest-to-betsy yard sale in New Hampshire when first assembling my (then tiny) newly married kitchen, was moist, with good volume and a not-too-dark not-too-milky coffee chocolate flavor that actually made me think there was a reason coffeecake could have coffee in it. In a word, it was yummy.
Later this week, I needed to bake a cake. Yes, needed. I'm taking part in a wonderful informal cake decorating class on Saturdays offered by a woman who has travelled the world with her considerable Wilton cake pan collection, teaching friends, work associates, orphanage children, strangers and people like me to decorate cakes. The class is wonderful and a challenge for a traditional bread baker who never wants to be a pastry chef in her life type person. Yet, after four or five weeks of making cakes and frosting (lots and lots of frosting), I start to balk and look for something a little different.
The normal frosting for a Wilton class is shortening-based. Yes, the stuff you get on kids' cakes everywhere around the world. Why? It is ridiculously easy to make--you don't have to turn on a burner or pull out a pan--and it is temperature-stable, which means newbie student tolerant. This is not the frosting used by most professional bakers in Europe and the more rebellious in the US. Yes, it has that Crisco-coating tendency, but you can dress up the flavor quite a bit with chocolate powder, butter flavoring, vanilla, orange, lemon, etc. It benefits from one or more of these additions. I've faithfully creamed pounds and pounds of it (sounds better if you say the number in kilos as it is lower) over the last month.
Not this week, I said in my head. I had made a lovely devil's food cake recipe in the shape of a cat (it was shaped cake class day) and, even though I sruggled to get the moist, heavy cake out of the pan, I couldn't bear the
thought of putting Crisco on it. Instead, I found a seemingly-easy recipe for French Buttercream icing, the one with the boiled sugar syrup and egg yolks and a pound of real BUTTER. I wanted my icing to be dark because my cake was dark and I had already learned about the chocolate crumb issue with light colored frosting from an earlier class debacle. (I don't care what “they” say about a crumb coat, you really should just decide on anything other than chocolate cake if your design vision calls for white frosting.) The deceptively-short, not telling the whole truth recipe had some side notes, including one for chocolate and then one for mocha. I'd learned in class that both chocolate and coffee are great ways to make dark icing colors.

The buttercream was amazing, but temperamental. The heating of the sugar syrup requires some patience and then thin stream of the syrup into the egg yolks requires a skill I have not quite perfected. The result was a not-so-temperature stable, but truly lick-the-spoon fabulous frosting. (I can state this because at the decorating class, my classmates kept licking the spatulas I had used to mix in colorings or scoop the frosting into pastry bags.) I had to repeatedly re-freeze the blasted wicked wickedly good frosting and my efforts partly melted into a smooth-coated, instead of shaggy, cat during the 15-minute car transport back to my refrigerator.
I'll post up the recipes soonest. Or, maybe not as we are to begin the wonderful, but incredibly long trek back to the US this week. A piece of the kitty cat mocha buttercream-frosted devil's food cake will probably be desired around hour 20 of the journey. Who knows? By hour 30, I might be ready for an actual mocha.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Better Watch Out

Updating a blog is a bit like a job, unpaid, fun, but sometimes challenging. A friend emailed me today, wondering why we had quit updating. Sigh. I could claim mitigating circumstances: the challenges from here include blocking and slow to intermittent to non-existent connections. Really, though, I've just been struggling with the concept of blog. Do people read it? Do they care? Who are they? Do I want them reading it? Is this just an open journal, preserving our adventures for our kids to read later?

My friend (who I had no idea actually read our blog, much less was interested enough to spur me on) gave me the kick in the pants I needed. So, with my one-year only Girl Scout fingers raised, "I promise to update our blog more regularly."

Today's topic is urban obstacle running, which is how I like to refer to my runs around town. Now, I need to first say that I am thankful every day I run that we live in a place where I can run on the streets safely and freely in normal running kit, including shorts. Friends in other countries are not so lucky, living in locations that are either not safe or do not provide personal liberties for women to run in public.

I often run from our house out to one of the main roads. At the juncture, I need to choose to run right which takes me (eventually) around the lake, intermixing road, sidewalk, lake park trail and parking lots or left to quite a bit of large and small road running. Running here requires scanning, a technique I have named to describe the process of constantly shifting sight from right in front of my feet to ahead to the sides to determine what obstacles are coming. Obstacles here range from the mundane of car traffic to the more interesting. Street dogs, pedestrians, bicycles are all assumed. Perhaps more unique is the surface, the terrain.

At one point in time, the city built a sewage drainage system bordering streets with sidewalks placed above the drainage system. That point in time was a long time ago, at least judging by the current state of the sidewalks (and the drainage system). Pedestrians of all sorts must pay attention - the sidewalks are decaying daily, creating craters, pits and unstable areas that are really better off not explored by feet and ankles. Some of these pits drop down two to three feet into the sewer - not where I want to lose my shoe or twist an ankle. In my recent desire to improve my running to the point of less to no pain and moderate enjoyment, I have been practicing "barefoot" running techniques (actual barefoot running might not be advisable here - the authors of such books talk about choosing not to run in areas harmful to ones' soles). My urban obstacle runs are perfect practice for being light on the feet, lifting up, not plopping down. The zig zags and up and downs from sidewalk to road to sidewalk to leaps over holes or ditches encourages that light feeling of just touching down on the earth. Today, the run was nice, aided by a breeze that kept me upwind of most of the garbage areas and cooled the rivulets of sweat down my back. I saw two young chickens rummaging in the undergrowth, an assortment of dogs who like to sit on top a five-foot stone wall (for a better view?) and the morning bicycle delivery guys with their bikes stacked impossibly high and wide. A most enjoyable start to the day.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Biking in Burma

Biking here in Yangon is certainly an interesting prospect. There are a few challenges that make it rather exciting to jump on the bike and ride;

  1. road conditions (or lack of road)

  2. traffic (watch out for the buses and taxis especially)

  3. pedestrians (standing on the white line is a safety zone - you may not be able to see me, but you can't touch me if I'm standing here!)

  4. dogs

  5. cows

  6. unmarked road repairs (traffic cones don't exist - road repairs are usually marked with a pile of rocks right in the road)

  7. broken down cars (repairs are done where ever the car breaks down. If the driver gets a flat in the middle lane, that's where he'll stop and make the repair)

  8. and poor lighting.

But, all things considered, I've only had a couple of close calls so far, nothing serious. Although the traffic is crazy here, nobody gets irate and road rage is certainly not an issue. The traffic and people kind of "flow" around each other versus following any rules or obeying any lane markings. I make an odd enough entity - helmet, gloves, water bottle, tricked-out bike, big Caucasian guy - that most people stare and give me a fairly wide berth. Often the children in cars will goad me on when they pass, all in a good-natured way, and I'll be compelled to sprint out and pass them, much to their delight.

The roads themselves present the greatest challenge. There's really only one road that is good enough for road biking for any distance, so I'll ride that out-and-back two times a week or so with my friend Chris H. Otherwise, it's mountain bike time to negotiate the pot holes and other road hazards. I usually leave early mornings about 5 a.m. when the traffic is thin and the riding less risky. I've been all over Yangon now, gotten lost most every time because all the side streets look the same and there are few street signs here. I eventually find my way back using the GPS.

There are a surprising number of bikers (not the commuters) who ride, especially on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Most are Myanmar, some are expats or other embassy folks. There's even a Myanmar Cycling Federation that I want to join, just so I can say I'm a member. Plus, we have Bike World, a great little bike shop run by an Australian, Jeff P., who also organizes tours and rides.

Biking is a passion and no matter where you go, you're bound to run into someone else who shares that passion. Even in Myanmar. So, come ride with us.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Life so far in Burma

So, we've been in Burma for 2 months now and we've had time to acclimate to living in this Junta-run country. It's not quite what I expected in some ways. Here are some of the more interesting things we've noticed.

1. Considering the international sanctions against Burma, I've been surprised by the rather robust availability of nearly everything. Sure, there are some "American" items that you can't get; peanut butter being one of those essentials. I take that back, you can get peanut butter, if you don't mind a Chinese version or Thai version. Luckily we brought a good stock with us. Heatherly makes fun of my addiction to Jif Extra Crunchy; but I'm not the only one as we've given some away already to other perfectly sane and discriminating friends. Otherwise, if you're standing in one of the markets, you could just as easily be in a market in China or Thailand or Singapore.

2. Cash and lots of it. You can't do anything by credit card here, so you must pay in cash. Which wouldn't be so bad if the value of the Myanmar Kyat were a little better. Right now it's at about 1000 Kyat for each dollar, so a trip to the grocery store to get $60 to $80 of food requires one of us to be the "bag" man. The predominant bill is the 1000 Kyat note, so you have to count out 60 of those. Heaven knows how making a big purchase would go down, such as a $30,000 car. I imagine we'd need a couple of heavies for protection, a non-descript briefcase and a mutually beneficial location in a semi-public place. The transaction itself would take hours (1, 2, 3, 4....).

3. Roads are rough in most places, harder to describe the farther out you get. Sometimes a road is simply where the houses are not. And there aren't that many of them outside the towns.

4. News is not the Washington Post or the New York Times, not even Fox or CNN. The main newspaper of the Burma government is 1 or 2 pages of national "news" and 20 pages of international news that tends to be more supermarket tabloid. The information age is an infant here.

5. Restaurants are everywhere! For a country where the average income is about $2 a day, there are a ton of restaurants in Yangon. We haven't had a chance to go to many of them yet, but the ones we have gone to are pretty good.

Although there are other things that define and distinguish Burma, there is common ground. The people are gentle, friendly and, like all of us on this dust mote in God's great universe, just trying to live, love and find some happiness in life. Despite the poverty and difficult living conditions we've seen, they are still moms and dads, working hard to raise their children and maybe, just maybe, find happiness in seeing their children's children.

Children's children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children. Prov 17:6

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One shoe less

Come Friday, we will have been here in Yangon for a month. I truly find that hard to believe as I feel still transitory, in motion, yet I know we have also settled a tiny bit. We know where to find yogurt and good French croissants (day two thanks to our sponsors!), how to ride in and pay for a taxi, the three major north-south and two major east-west roads in town and the all-important wisdom of always carrying a camera, bug spray, after-bite, hand sanitizer and plenty of local currency no matter where we are headed. Oh, and to always look down while walking to avoid the holes in the sidewalks that open up to another subterranean sewer level two to four feet below.

Indeed, one of those holes claimed Maiya's right Teva flip flop. It was dark and we were walking back to the appartment from a good, Euro0-style (with prices to match) pizza place. The sidewalk was dark and the random holes only shades darker or lighter, depending on the random headlights of oncoming traffic. Maiya skipped, stumbled a bit and then cried out, standing on one foot, that her shoe was gone. She cried. I gave her a piggy-back ride back home. MeiLin plotted how we might come back with a flashlight or in the morning to rescue the shoe. Maiya wimpered again for her shoe. I stated uncategorically that the shoe was gone, not to be retrieved three feet down in raw sewage, and that a shoe was minor -- it could have been Maiya's foot or whole leg. MeiLin continued to plot retrievals for days as we passed the area in cars or taxis. Maiya gained a new pair of local, harder plastic flip flops. And, I placed the order online for a new pair of Tevas.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

So much, so little

All that we need for the next six weeks is in a closet. Everything else has been wrapped, boxed, padded and lugged down the crazy town home stairs and then packed into crates--most headed for a three-year storage and a few to meet us in Rangoon later.
The girls have been at the grandparents' this week, enjoying those last precious days together. We also thought it would be less disruptive for them if they didn't see their world packed up and taken away piece by piece.
We hit a zenith in possessions about 8 years ago and have been purging every move since. Yet, still we have much, too much. In fact, once it is boxed away and taken, I don't feel much need. But, put those five ink pads, 2 stamps and four books the packers missed in front of me and I feel a tug. I might need these, right? Take them away again, please, before I figure out how to squeeze them into our ridiculous luggage count.
I miss the girls and am looking forward to a week on the 40' boat with galley kitchen. All we need is right there.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Off we go, into the wild blue yonder...

I love living in our nation's capitol. There's always something going on, something to do, and most of them are FREE!

The US Air Force Band plays at the Air Force Memorial every Wednesday and Friday night from June through August. Since Heatherly was working, the girls and I took some chairs, a blanket, some bubbles and camped out under the clear, blue sky on a spectacular night with warm breezes and great music.

Now, I'm not sure if the girls really enjoyed the music. They spent most of the time blowing bubbles at each other and the kids around them. But, at least I was outside with my girls, away from the cares of the week, relaxing and walking down memory lane with the jazz band.

Great night. Looking forward to the next evening concert.