Unexpected Wrench in the Tday Plans

Two years ago Tawn and I hosted a lavish Thanksgiving dinner for 14 guests.  I cooked the whole menu (except the bird, which I had done at the market and delivered) and we sat at a neatly decorated table on the patio next to the pool.  It was quite impressive, if I do say so myself.  It was also overwhelming so last year Thanksgiving was hosted at someone else’s house.  This year we are doing it again… although a wrench was just thrown into our plans.

To save some myself some of the hassle, this year we billed it as a Thanksgiving Poolside Potluck Picnic.  Instead of cooking everything, I’ll just do the bird, stuffing, and gravy and let others fuss over the side dishes and desserts.  We’re also dispensing with the fussily decorated table and are instead just using the tables and chairs already available on the pool deck. 

Well, that is what we were going to do.  Until Tuesday, when the condo management posted a notice in the elevators announcing that a two-month rehabilitation of the swimming pool would commence the next morning.

Now, the rehabilitation is much needed.  There are many broken tiles (I cut my foot badly a few weeks ago and considered posting the pictures but they are just too bloody) and this work should have been done a few years ago.  But must it begin this week?  And with only one day notice?

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So the question was, how would this affect Thanksgiving?  We’re expecting about two dozen guests and there is no way I can put them in the house and serve food.  Poolside is out, of course.  Thankfully, three weeks ago a small cafe with outdoor and indoor seating opened on the ground floor of our condo.  It is a pretty space and hasn’t started to get a lot of traffic yet.  Tawn and I went to talk with the owner yesterday and she agreed to rent it to us for the afternoon (we’re holding the dinner on Saturday since everyone is working here on Thursday).

We’ll see how this new space works but I’m glad we didn’t have to cancel.  The cafe has an oven and refrigerator, so we’ll actually have better facilities at hand than if we were by the pool and had to keep running up two stories to the condo.  Whew – Thanksgiving is saved!

 

Chocolate Raspberry Torte

A little bit more about the cake I baked for my 40th birthday.  For all the cooking I do, I don’t have a lot of experience with cakes and cake-like desserts.  I’m more of a bread man, myself.  Nonetheless, I decided to make a cake because it is always a good experience and there was a recipe for a Revamped Chocolate Torte in the November-December issue of Cooks Illustrated that looked worth a try.

I started the recipe on Thursday afternoon with a little prep work, then did the actual baking on Friday afternoon.  Overall, I think the cake turned out okay although it is such a rich cake – nearly flourless – that it wouldn’t make my list of favorite cakes.  But then, I’m not a big cake person.  One challenge is that the recipe uses a food processor, which I don’t own.  Instead, I used a stand mixer.  Things seemed to work okay, but I don’t know if the slower speed of the mixer affected the texture at all.

I’ll give you a rundown of the recipe and the preparation process:

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The first step was to make some almond flour, basically finely-processed almonds.  You can buy this in some markets (it is used to make macarons, for example) but the recipe explains how to make it yourself since you use a relatively small quantity.  Take 1 cup (4 ounces) of sliced almonds and lightly toast them.

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Then process in a food processor for a few pulses until finely ground.  You then add 1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) of flour and 1/2 teaspoon table salt and process it a few more seconds to combine.  Not having a food processor, I used a coffee grinder attachment for my blender and it seemed to work okay.

Note on food processors.  I had one in the US and didn’t seem to use it often.  But nowadays I keep encountering recipes that call for a food processor, especially in the making of quick and easy pastry dough.  I may break down eventually and buy another food processor. Cooks Illustrated recommends the 12-cup Kitchen Aid model.

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Next, melt 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate with 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) of butter in a bowl set over simmering water.  After smooth, remove from the heat and cool to room temperature, adding 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and 1/4 teaspoon of instant espresso powder.  Not having that, I had to use instant coffee.

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While the eggs are cooling, process 5 large eggs in the food processor until almost doubled in volume.  Not having the processor, I whipped them with the mixer.  I think this may have made the texture a bit more dense than had I used the food processor.  As the eggs are being whipped, slowly add 3/4 cup (5 1/4 ounces) of granulated sugar.  What you see here is the almond/flour/salt mixture, the egg/sugar mixture, and the chocolate/butter mixture.

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Start by gently folding the egg mixture into the chocolate mixture using the whisk.  This does not have to be thoroughly incorporated.

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Next, gently whisk in the almond-flour mixture.  Divide the batter between two 9-inch cake pans lined with parchment.  The pans were not buttered and floured.

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After baking about 15 minutes at 325 F.  Allow the cakes to cool in the pans and then remove.

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Spread a filling made of 1/4 cup raspberry jam and 1/2 cup raspberries (I used frozen as fresh are way too expensive here), mashed together. 

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Add the second layer of the cake, inverted so the bottom of the cake is facing up, giving you a relatively smooth surface with which to work.

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To glaze the cake, melt 5 ounces of bittersweet chocolate with 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream over a simmering pot of water.  Then pour the glaze onto the cake and use a spatula to spread it evenly over the cake.

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You can then add almonds to the side of the cake.  I think I was supposed to use lightly chopped almonds but all I had were the sliced almonds.  This is kind of a messy prospect.  Also, you can decorate the top of the cake with fresh raspberries, which I didn’t have.  The biggest challenge for me was that the glaze didn’t have a smooth, liquid consistency.  Maybe it needed to be melted a bit further or have just a little more cream in it so it poured over the sides in a smooth motion?  This is where my inexperience with cakes comes in.

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Per the recipe, I put the cake in the fridge for a few hours to let the frosting set.  I didn’t get it removed early enough, though, and when it was served it was still pretty cool and the ganache was solid.  When I arrived at the restaurant I should have asked them to leave the cake out rather than put it in the fridge.  Anyhow, it was tasty enough and considering it was for my own party, I think it turned out pretty nice.

I hope you enjoyed this cooking adventure and encourage you to try the cake yourself.

 

The 40th Party

Just a quick photo entry.  Not too many words.  Tawn and I joined a small group of friends at Soul Food Mahanakorn for dinner to celebrate my birthday.  The food (Thai) was very good as usual and other than the oddity of being served sparkling wine in regular wine glasses (which the owner caught and corrected), everything was very enjoyable.  It rained heavily during dinner, the first rain in a few weeks.  Afterwards, the evening air was cool and relaxing.

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From the left: Doug, Tae, Tawn, Tod, Matt, Suchai, Ken, and me.  We are missing Doug’s girlfriend Bee, who arrived late from work.

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Suchai and Ken goof around for the camera.

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The T-Team: Tae, Tawn, and Tod.

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Slicing my own birthday cake.  How come I’m doing all the work?

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Chocolate raspberry torte.  Made it myself and will write more about it tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

 

Thoughts on My 40th Birthday

Since the day my nieces, now ages 4 and 7, were born, I have been writing them letters. These letters are being collected in a box for them to open when they turn 18. The letters are a combination of funny anecdotes about their childhoods, memories of my life, snapshots of daily activity, and also my reflections on issues, events, or subjects that I think would be worthwhile for them to read when they are young adults.

Normally, I don’t share these letters. But in light of today’s milestone, I thought I would share the letter I wrote to them today.  If you’re keen to watch the video version of me reading it, it is embedded below.  Otherwise you can just read it.


Dear Emily,

Today is my 40th birthday. In honor of the occasion, I want to take a few minutes to collect my thoughts at this milestone birthday and share them with you. Most people seem to dread each passing year and milestone birthdays depress them. Quite the opposite to this, I have found that each passing year gets better. I learn more about life, make new friends, have new experiences, and perhaps gain a little wisdom. To that end, if any of the wisdom I attempt to dispense in this letter turns out to be incorrect, I’ll still have my 50th birthday on which to correct myself before you are old enough to read these letters.

There are myriad lessons on life that are worth learning. Some that strike me as the most useful:

Live to your fullest potential. Your life is an empty vessel that will be filled with experience, activity, relationships, and accomplishments. How full will your life be? So few people are born with the advantages you enjoy. Honor that privilege by making the most of it.

Most people go through life not paying attention. Especially in a world in which communication is happening more quickly and the volume of information we wade through gets greater by the day. By not paying attention, people miss out on a lot of the beauty, a lot of the details, a lot of the important things, and a lot of the opportunities that come along.

The beauty brings joy, the devil truly is in the details, the important things can easily get lost in the chaff, and the opportunities can end knocking on an unanswered door.

Opportunities tend to present themselves more clearly than you would expect. Not only do you have to be paying enough attention so as to recognize them, you also have to be willing to take advantage of them.

Be willing to take risks, explore, push your boundaries, and test your limits. This doesn’t mean that you should do foolish things – although a little foolishness can be a good thing – but rarely will you grow if you only stay within your comfort zone. Try things that you think you couldn’t possibly do and you will be surprised by how things end up just being the baby steps to even greater accomplishments.

Exercise. Not only should you test your limits in terms of experience but you should also push yourself physically. Modern life is increasingly sedentary, a lifestyle for which our bodies are ill-suited. Make movement a part of each day. This doesn’t mean you have to be an athlete, nor do you need to suffer from worry and self-consciousness about your body. Just be active. You will have a greater appreciation for your body and will be healthier for it.

Eat well but don’t fret about food. Americans (and, increasingly, other cultures) have come to obsess about food in an unhealthy way. Enjoy food, but enjoy good food. Too often we mistake an overabundance of additives and preservatives that trick the chemistry of our tongue and brain for truly enjoyable and satisfying food. Eat a wide variety of foods, both for your good health as well as for the enjoyment of trying new things. Practice moderation in all things, including moderation.

Human beings are social creatures. Cultivate relationships by giving unconditionally, without the expectation of getting anything in return. Be caring and compassionate. Give to others, be charitable, be generous.

Assume the best of others. Be quick to forgive, quick to assume you have misunderstood, quick to let go of anger or grudges. They are seeds that bear only bitter fruit.

Things do not buy you happiness. There is nothing you will buy in this life that you will be able to take with you, so don’t accumulate unnecessary things. When you do spend your hard-earned money on things, wait before buying. Compare quality and buy the best quality you can afford, for it is better to have a few good things that last years than an abundance of things that break or wear out quickly.

Be thankful for the things you have – not the physical things – but the blessing of your life. Even when you are facing suffering and difficulties, it is all but certain that there are millions of people whose lives are much worse off than your own. While that may seem cold comfort at that moment, if you can focus your attention on the blessings you do have, it will make you appreciate the situation more.

Finally, cultivate happiness in the present. There is nothing you can do about the days that have passed. There is nothing to be gained by worrying about the days that are to come. There is only one moment that exists, and that is “now”. So be fully present in the now, enjoy it, and make the most of it.

Those are my words of wisdom to you on my 40th birthday. We’ll see how well they hold up when you read them in another eleven years. By then, I may have revised them significantly. But I suspect that while I will learn more lessons in life, these fundamentals won’t change all that much.

Love,

Uncle Chris

What about you?  What lessons have you learned over your years?  What advice would you want to share with someone who is becoming an adult?

Demolition of the Siam Theatre

Pent-up anger fueled the flames of arson when forty days of anti-government protests ended on May 19 with the surrender by protest leaders to the police.  The crowds that had blocked one of Bangkok’s main intersections for more than a month dispersed but before they did, violent elements in the crowd set fire to several buildings around the city in what appeared to be a deliberate and preplanned attack. 

In addition to more than 80 people killed and 2100 injured during the protests, one of the victims of the arson attack was the the 44-year old Siam Theatre, which was one of only two remaining single-screen first run cinemas in Thailand’s capital.

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Photo courtesy Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project

Opened in 1966 in Siam Square, one of the first shopping areas in what is now the nexus of Bangkok’s lively Ratchaprasong shopping district, the Siam Theatre along with its sister complex, the Scala, were a reminder of a bygone era.  Tickets were still paper and you chose your seats from a photocopied seating chart, which the ticket cashier then dutifully crossed out with a pen.  The ushers, uncles that seemed to have been working at the theatres since the very opening, dressed in black slacks, white shirts, and yellow jackets.

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In the aftermath of the fire, the bulldozers have moved in and started to demolish the burned out shell and surrounding shops.  The property owner, adjacent Chulalongkorn University, has long held a master plan to redevelop this area into a more modern shopping complex as they did just down the block a year ago.  Their good fortune, then, that this damage paved the way for the master plan to be implemented.

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One wonders why we need another mall in a neighborhood (and an entire city) that is teeming with them.  Siam Square and the Siam Theatre were unique elements of the city and were especially important to teenage and university life.  As I understand it from my friends who grew up in Bangkok, hanging out in Siam Square was a rite of passage in that period of life where you transition from childhood to adulthood.  Another few blocks of those memories have been razed.

Thankfully, the Scala Theatre and the nearby Lido three-plex, both operated and owned by the same family that owned the Siam Theatre, continue to operate.

 

Saturday Night Update

Edit – Forgot to include the video and picture of Saturday dinner!  Apologies for reposting.

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Saturday night.  After a full day of working on the computer and a full day for Tawn out running errands and catching up with various friends, he is working on a blouse and I’m preparing dinner.  Something very impromptu, made only of what odds and ends are in the kitchen.  The result: pan-fried polenta topped with tomato sauce, bacon, and Italian sausage served with a mixed green salad.  Not the healthiest main course, probably, but the fridge is a bit empty of veggies other than salad.

It has been kind of busy lately.  The first trio of several guests the autumn arrive just before Thanksgiving, and I’m trying to get a very expansive work project (now in its fourth month) completed before then, so that I can spend some time with them while they are here.

On top of that, Tawn and I are hosting Thanksgiving at our place this year.  It will be held on Saturday instead of Thursday because Thanksgiving is a US (and Canadian) thing and nobody in Thailand other than the US Embassy staff is getting Thursday off work!  We expect close to 20 guests and will be doing a poolside potluck.  A few decisions I’ve arrived at: I am going to roast only turkey breast, not a whole turkey.  I am going to roast it in advance, slather it with drippings and broth, and reheat it before serving.  I am also going to make my gravy in advance from roast chickens.  Seriously, with 20 guests and a small kitchen, I am not going to try and do a whole bird and I’m not going to spend the $100 it costs to buy an imported bird and have it roasted at the market.

Recently I made a third attempt at Macadamia Nut Cream Pie and it was similarly soupy.  Here’s a short video in which my irritation almost starts to show.

Seriously, what is the problem?  Well, the good news is that this evening I whipped up a fourth batch of filling and it appears to be setting nicely. Two hours in the fridge and it is pretty firm.  But here is the problem: I wasn’t very scientific in my approach so I can’t tell you exactly what the fix was.  I bought some new cornstarch and threw out the old, just in case that was the issue (which seems unlikely).  I also modified recipe #3, a Betty Crocker recipe for vanilla cream pie, increasing the egg yolks by one, reducing the sugar slightly, and almost doubling the cornstarch.  The scientists among you will shake your heads at my technique, but I really can’t keep baking pies, each time changing one element à la Cooks Illustrated.

I’ll try it again soon and include a pie crust and take some pictures.  Please, dear deity of the kitchen, let the me replicate my success with this recipe!

My aunt, who was like a substitute mother for me once my parents moved out of the Bay Area for the Midwest, recently underwent some serious heart-related surgery and apparently is doing very well.  I’m so relieved.  There are people in life who have an especially profound impact on us, who shape elements of our outlook on life.  My aunt’s attitude of “there’s always room for one more at the table” has shaped my approach to hospitality, party-throwing, and friendship for more than two decades.  I hope she is back to hosting parties very soon.

In other news, I found out that Tawn’s fashion school, which is affiliated with a school in Florence, has an exchange program.  He could go study for a semester in Florence with no additional tuition costs.  Room, board, transportation, etc. would be an additional cost – a very significant one! – but at least no more school fees.  I don’t know how we could swing this but my job location is very flexible and I would certainly love to live in Italy for a few months.  Maybe I can take a leave of absence and study Italian cooking!

Okay, those are the things on my mind.  I’m going to go watch episode 2 of the PBS miniseries Circus.