Sunday, November 30, 2008

Our first Christmas tree

In Ann Arbor, that is. Until last year, we've been blessed to have always been with family for Christmas since we moved here in 2003. That first Christmas was spent in Florida with Jude's aunt, the following year in Montreal with his uncle, and 2005 and 2006 were the best because we actually got to go home for Christmas.

Christmas is a big deal for my family. And putting up the tree is a huge part of that. For as long as I can remember, putting up the Christmas tree has been sort of a ritual in my house: everyone gathers in the living room- my dad's in charge of setting the tree up and laying out the lights, my mom carefully unwraps all the precious trimmings she had painstakingly wrapped in tissue the year before, warning my sisters and I to be careful as we pick out our favorite decoration to hang up. And there's *always* some kind of Christmas music playing in the background.

And so this year, as we spend our second Christmas in a row in Ann Arbor, we decided maybe we should get a tree for ourselves. University housing doesn't allow real trees, so we got a small 3-ft one from Target instead. It was an oddly emotional experience shopping for the tree and decorations yesterday. I think it's the whole mix of not being home for Christmas again, missing the whole tree ritual thing, and adopting this tradition which I've only associated with home for ourselves for the first time. It felt strange and almost a little sad. So there I was, standing in Aisle 23 at Target, holding a $9.99 tree in my arms and literally fighting back the tears...

Putting up a Christmas tree shouldn't be a sad affair and so I mustered all the Christmas spirit I could, put on my favorite Christmas album- A Charlie Brown Christmas- and spent the afternoon trimming the tree with Jude. It's a modest tree, and we didn't buy that many decorations so it's still a little bare. But this is our first tree, and so just like it took years for my family to accumulate and collect the different pieces of trimming for their huge beautiful tree, this is only the first of many trees and Christmas decorations that Jude and I will put up together. And that was the happy thought that put me in a whole better mood for Christmas :)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Once a year...

[Inspired by NYT's live Thanksgiving blog]

2:00 p.m. Bake two cornbreads for cornbread stuffing. Leave to cool.
4:00 p.m. Boil green beans for green bean casserole. Drain and dry.
4:30p.m. Cleaned mushrooms for sauce for green bean casserole. Make sauce. Assemble casserole.
5:00 p.m. New food processor attachment for birthday mixer arrives. Use it to make topping for casserole.
5:30 p.m. Freeze all ingredients necessary for pie-crust: butter, flour, food processor blade.
6:30 p.m. Put pie-crust ingredients together in food processor. Pulse 10 times. Not coming together. Dump onto counter and work by hand. Open kitchen window to let cold air in. Mutter a short prayer. Refrigerate dough.

9:00 a.m. Make large cup of coffee (note to self: need fortification for long day ahead). Eat large bowl of cereal. Will be only sustenance for next 6 hours.
9:30 a.m. Preheat oven to 350F. Take refrigerated pie dough out.
9:45 a.m. Opened kitchen window to let cold air in. Roll out pie dough. Impressed with self at pie-crust rolling prowess. Unimpressed at inability to roll to right size. Might have overworked dough. *Shoots*
9:55 a.m. Freeze pie pan.
10:00 a.m. Chop ingredients for stuffing: onions, celery, red peppers, green onions. Cube cornbread. Set aside.
10:30 a.m. Blind-bake pie crust with pie weights (rice actually)
10:45 a.m. Remove rice and continue baking.
11:00 a.m. Remove pie crust. Notes that it has shrunk. Second *shoots* of the day. Let cool. Turn oven down to 300F.
11:05 a.m. Make custard for pie. Love smell of fresh nutmeg and boiling maple syrup.
11: 20 a.m. Pour custard into pie crust. Some custard overflows behind crust because of shrinkage. Third *shoots*. First homemade pie crust might not be success. Panic.
11:25 a.m. Bake pie.
11:30 a.m. Saute andouille sausages for stuffing. Add veggies. Sweat (the veggies, not me.)
11:45 a.m. Add cornbread to veggies. Add broth. Transfer to impressively buttered large baking dish. Stuffing looks gorgeous and smells amazing.
11:50 a.m. Jude tastes stuffing. Concurs with me.
12:15 p.m. Pack everything to leave for Rick and Emilee's- green bean casserole, topping for green bean casserole, apricot ale, Grand Cru beer, stuffing. Wait for pie.
12:25 p.m. Take pie out. Bubbly and buttery. Very buttery. Custard looks good. More crust shrinkage. Don't say it...
12:40 p.m. Leave for Rick and Emilee's.
1:10 p.m. Arrive at destination. Stuffing goes in oven with foil. Watch Rick prep turkey.
1:30 p.m. Remove foil. Bake stuffing till crusty top.
2:00 p.m. Turkey goes into oil.
2:00 p.m. Stuffing comes out of oven. Turn up to 425F.
2:15 p.m. Green beans go in oven without topping.
2:10 p.m. Jason and Molly arrive with two pies, mashed potato, creamy baked potato and gravy. Yes, the carb brigade.
2:20 p.m. Rick preps prime rib.
2:30 p.m. Rick makes cranberry sauce. Kitchen smells amazing from ginger.
2:35 p.m. Green beans come out. Molly's creamy potatoes go in.
2:45 p.m. Rick adds pinot noir to cranberries. Kitchen smells impossibly better. Hunger now unbearable.
2:55 p.m. Turkey emerges. Have no words.
3:00 p.m. Prime rib goes in oil. Beautiful sight.
3:10 p.m. Set table. Sweet potatoes and stuffing go in oven to warm up.
3:15 p.m. Rick carves turkey. Sneak a bite. Swoon.
3:20 p.m. Rick slices prime rib. Needs some time in oven.
3:25 p.m. Prime rib ready.
3.30 p.m. WE EAT. Everything is deliriously good...

4:30 p.m. Burp. Finish eating a meal that took more than 24-hours to prepare. Jason crashes on couch before he even finishes chewing his last bite of turkey.
4:45 p.m. Clean up.
5:15 p.m. Wii Bloom Blox. Some attempt at activity to stimulate digestion.
5:45 p.m. Eat pies. Sweet potato pie is delicious. Custard for nutmeg-maple pie is creamy but light. A definite success. Handmade Piecrust #1, not so much. Too tough. *Shoots* #5. Will persevere.
6:30 p.m. There is talk of a movie. Slow digestion hinders motivation. More Boom Blox.
7:30 p.m. Discussion moves to videos instead. Attempt to watch Hot Fuzz not successful. Not widescreen.
7:45 p.m. Raid Wash-Rader movie library. Molly impressed by alphabetized cataloging.
8.00 p.m. Between High Fidelity and Roxanne, crowd goes with Steve Martin and big nose.
9.45 p.m. Movie was great. Laughs were big. Darryl Hannah's hair bigger. '80s David Foster pre-Kenny-G soundtrack tickled.
10:00 p.m. Collect insane amount of leftovers. Head home.
10:20 p.m. Pack leftovers in fridge. Too full to sleep.
11:00 p.m. Switches on computer for first time all day. Upload photos.
12.00 a.m. Still too full to sleep. Watch TV.
2.00 a.m. Finally comfortable enough to lie down.

Do NOTHING. Well, except sit in front of the TV watching the No Reservations marathon. I prepared two plates of leftovers for lunch us and honestly. I couldn't touch mine. I took one bite and had to put the plate aside. There was just something about turkey, potatoes and gravy so soon again after yesterday's gorge-fest that my body physically reacted against. The smell of turkey stock simmering all afternoon probably wasn't helping. Instead, I had a slice of leftover sweet potato pie and coffee.

[I know it seems like I was very conscious of the time all throughout the day, but honestly, once we were done eating (everything before that was indeed meticulously planned out- see Rick's schedule here), it all became just one tryptophan/carb-induced blur...]

1. Going in, 2. Thanksgiving schedule , 3. Turkey emerging, 4. Sweet potato pies, 5. Bountiful table, 6. "Let me at it!", 7. LEFTOVERS!, 8. Two desserts, 9. Playing Boom Blox

Thursday, November 27, 2008

To friends...

The green bean casserole has been in the fridge since last night, my first made-from-scratch pie crust is blind-baking for my nutmeg-maple cream tart, and all the ingredients for the andouille-cornbread stuffing have been chopped. We'll be off to Rick and Emilee's in a couple of hours where deep-fried turkey and prime-rib and all sorts of delicious coma-inducing carbs await. I love Thanksgiving :)

Thanksgiving's my favorite U.S. holiday. Not only because it's just one huge excuse to cook and eating masquerading as a national holiday, but because I associate it solidly with our experience here and here alone. It has no connection to home and all the emotions that comes with missing family. Christmas is always hard for me here because it makes me sad that I'm not back home. And that's saying a lot because Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. But because I've only known Thanksgiving in the U.S.-- and we've always had the good fortune of sharing it with the best of friends-- I enjoy it with no wistfulness nor yearning.

So this Thanksgiving, we want to give thanks to all the friends we've ever spent Thanksgiving with in Ann Arbor, whether it's Jude's MSI classmates in 2003 and 2004, my friend, Julie, who so generously invited me to her family's Thanksgiving in 2005 when Jude wasn't around, and for the last 3 years, Rick and Emilee with their deliriously awesome fried turkeys. Thank you, guys, for making our Thanksgivings here always something to look forward to every year! :)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lost Season 5!

Official Season 5 poster:

and Season 5 scenes in the new The Fray video:

Thanksgiving grocery shopping list

(for Thursday at Rick and Emilee's)
Red bell peppers
1 lb andouille sausages
Fresh thyme
Green beans
Cremini mushrooms
Chicken stock
Half and half
Fried onions
Panko bread crumbs
Maple syrup

Andouille Sausage and Corn Bread Stuffing
Green bean casserole
Nutmeg-maple cream pie

Tentative (in case we have guests on Friday)
Sweet potato
Brussels sprouts
Pine nuts

Roast chicken (best recipe ever!)
Sweet potato rolls
Pan-browned brussels sprouts
Creamy mashed potatoes

So very excited... :)

Monday, November 24, 2008

The perfect cookie

Take it from me, this is *the* Platonic chocolate chip cookie. The kind of chocolate chip cookie all industrially manufactured soulless mass-produced chocolate cookies wish they could be but never will. This cookie will make all other cookies shrivel up in disgust at their own inadequacy. Make this cookie once and you'll never use another chocolate chip cookie recipe again.

All those close and dear to me have heard me wax lyrical about this recipe for a while now. Three things set it apart: 1) bittersweet chocolate chips, 2) sprinkled coarse salt before baking, and 3) letting the dough sit for at least 24 hours, if not 36. It seems counter-intuitive that salt would make such a huge difference to something sweet, but it does. It imparts an unusual depth and complexity made even more extraordinary by the fact that one doesn't usually think of chocolate chip cookies as particularly sophisticated baked goods-- in fact, there are few things as simple or elemental-- but trust me on this one, it's all about the salt.

I've used this recipe twice but today was the first time we could "empirically" test whether or not letting the dough sit longer actually makes the cookies taste better. We baked up the first batch yesterday for the dismal Michigan-OSU football game and the other half for Finn's fourth birthday today. While they already tasted awesome yesterday, there a definite difference to today's cookies. A richer, almost toffee-like flavor, for sure. And a fuller mouthfeel, if that makes any sense. Jenn asked whether perfection could be perfected some more, and I say, Yup, it sure can :)

I suspect part of it also has to do with the size of these things. Because they are so big, the edges and outside get all crunchy and toasty while leaving the center still chewy and gooey from the crazy amount of chocolate chips. Like how the perfect chocolate chip cookie should be. If this post doesn't make you run out and make these cookies right this minute, read the original NYT article. You will :)

[P/S: The recipe makes several very large cookies so be prepared to share. I'm the last person to advocate restraint when it comes to anything chocolate and no one will begrudge you for wanting to hoard these cookies for yourself, but something this wonderful should also be generously shared, so go ahead, spread the love!]

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The body doth protest too much, methinks...

I think falling sick is a body's form of protest, and man is my body protesting... I'm sick for the first time this year, and it literally hit me like a ton of bricks. I probably caught something at the tail end of our trip to NY and since we've been back, I'm been coughing, sniffing, coughing some more, wheezing, and more coughing. Residual jetlag plus the weather hasn't helped either, the weather in particular- I really don't remember it being this cold this time last year. Today was in the twenties (around -5C) and even though I'm resisting busting out the heavy wool coat before December, I think I might not have a choice.

A lot of it probably has to do with my body not having rested very well the past couple of months in general. Between training for the Half in September and October and then the hectic 2 weeks at home, I haven't slept properly and my body hasn't really had a chance to just be at rest. I had to skip yoga yesterday (which made me kind of sad) and I can't go to the gym with Jude later today either. Maybe I should give myself till after Thanksgiving to just be still and get better. Try to sleep in a little, take less caffeine, and be better to my body in general. Waiting till after Thanksgiving will also mean greater motivation to hit the gym after all the indulgent, mindless eating that's in store- deep-fried prime rib, here we come! :)

Monday, November 17, 2008

New York, New York...

1. Jude enjoying his eggs, 2. Sarabeth's at Central Park South, 3. Serene and her oyster, 4. Us, 5. Uniting painting, 6. Singapore Consulate, 7. Queensboro bridge, 8. Grand Central ceiling detail, 9. View from Mitchel's apartment by night

We're back from our whirlwind trip home, only to find Ann Arbor blanketed in fog, rain, and today, snow. It's a little dismal, but I have to say, I kind of like it. Ask me again in February and I'm sure I'll have something else to say, but the period before and just after Thanksgiving, the whole first snow, cusp-of-winter thing, I can deal.

Jude and I had a little preview of the sad weather when we stopped over in New York for a couple of days. Apparently, the entire eastern seaboard was embattled with fog and rain. It wasn't the best weather to be seeing the city, but we got lucky and either stayed indoors (Grand Central Station), or it was fairly nice outside when we didn't (SoHo). Between oysters at the Station and colour-coded shopping at the awesome Uniqlo, Jude and I made the two days count. We had fun, the city was great, but in spite of it all, we ask ourselves if it's a city we could really live in.

Maybe it has to do with being in tiny Ann Arbor too long or having lost our hearts to Chicago a long time ago, but I don't think I love NY enough to want to live there. The history and culture of the place is unparalleled of course, and it's vibrant and exciting like few other cities in the world. But it's just not me. Not when the people walk just that little bit faster, the cars honk that much louder, and the rent, ridiculously, exorbitantly higher. Have I been spoiled by the Midwest? I dunno... Until we find out, we're making the best out of the 6 month long winters, our 3-storey townhouse for under $1K, and slightly more civilized driving...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sweet, happy day!

In the end, it was a wedding less defined by the handmade invitations, or the thoughtful favours, or the gorgeous flowers, or the amazing attention to detail in every aspect of the celebration; what made it the lovely wedding that it was, was heart. It was the love and affection that went into every surprise planned (!!), every speech spoken, every thanks given, and every congratulations shared that gave it real depth and meaning.

My dear sister got married this weekend. And it was beautiful... :)

1. Reception table flowers, 2. 5am in the morning, 3. Helping Jill with her hair, 4. The bridesmaids, 5. Fixing the flower girl's garland, 6. Wedding vows, 7. Dad & the happy bride, 8. Giving my speech, 9. "You may now kiss the bride", 10. Poppers surprise!, 11. Kekex surprise :), 12. Profiterole tower, 13. Dad and Mom as I've never seen them before, 14. Champagne pouring, 15. Teary Mom, 16. Us

Highlights of the church ceremony here:

Piao Zhou & Sherri from Bernard Teo on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Election by Facebook

Serene is up early to prepare for the election returns. 7:57pm
I had actually woken up at 7.00 Singapore time (6pm EST) and opened up the laptop in eagerness. Then I realized that polls probably hadn't even closed yet and promptly went back to sleep. It was fitful sleep though and I woke up half an hour later, had a proper breakfast, made myself a large mug of coffee, open up the laptop again, and planted myself in front of the TV for CNN 'live'. This was the beginning of a rapturous 5 hours.

Serene is getting emotional watching election returns and she can't even vote. She can't imagine if she had voting rights. 8:53pm
I think there was just something about watching CNN's projections, parts of maps turning blue and red, percentages going one way or another that got to me. Plus watching it with Jude's mom and talking to her about what we were seeing made me realize that Jude and I have been more invested in this elections that I had thought.

Serene says "Go Ohio!!". 9:34pm
Ohio goes blue! This made me so indescribably happy, I literally yelped! srah's status, "You're welcome!" made me smile even more :)

Serene is becoming intimately acquainted with U.S. geography. 9:44pm
Between watching John King's fancy gigantic interactive touch-screen map and the many different maps I had open on the laptop, it was like I was receiving a crash course in American geography. Eric put it best when he commented, "Nothing like a highly contested election to get you familiar with county names in states you've never visited in person!"

Serene thinks we might see Obama sailing past 300 electoral votes. 10:04pm
With PA, OH, and NY in the bag, and none of the West Coast votes even counted yet, it didn't take a genius to do the math and realize that once you throw CA into the mix, 270 would be a cinch, and 300 an almost sure thing. Final electoral vote count for Obama: 349.

Serene never thought she'd hear the words, "Coming to us via hologram..." in a real-life non-ironic context. 10:51pm
It was a bizarre Star Trek moment when we saw will-i-am "beamed" into the CNN newsroom via hologram. Fancy interactive touch-screen map I dig, hologram on the other hand, now that was a little freeeaky...

Serene is tearing... Long-distance euphoria! 11:07pm
CNN calls it! I literally started weeping. I think I updated and deleted my status several times until I felt I captured the right emotion. And still I don't think words were capable of expressing the true euphoria. No one was at home for me to shriek at/to/with so I ended up just sitting there, starring at the screen in a puddle of happy tears.

Serene Everything about that was wondeful, from the speech to how loving they are to their wives. And a puppy!! 12:20am
It was a beautiful speech. Moving, gracious, humble; that call to service, rousing. And every man should describe their wives the way he talked about Michelle Obama. And a puppy for the girls! Come on... When Joe Biden came out at the end with the two wives, it was a wonderful picture of promise and hope. And if there was ever such a thing as political happiness, I think I felt it then :)

[Compare this all to our sentiments exactly four years ago.]

And because this deserves to be played over and over again:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes you did!

[click for the defining video made for this campaign]

Enough said :)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Up with people!!!

Up With People - Lambchop

As Election Day finally approaches tomorrow in the U.S., we thought this might be an appropriate song to play for all our friends out there who are voting. As newcomers to the U.S., we sometimes don't feel comfortable speaking out about politics in person or in electronic form. But we do strongly believe that these are critical times and it's an important decision and right that the folks in the U.S. are exercising.

And so since we're not in the thick of things right now, we thought this might be an appropriate track to dedicate to all you voting folks out there. We think Lamchop's slightly obscure lyrics do not betray partisanship; rather, it's an uplifting track with chant-able lines like "Up our lives today!!" and "Come on progeny!!".

So as we count down to tomorrow, we know you guys will vote wisely, thoughtfully, and justly. Come on progeny... up our lives today! :)

-Jude & Serene

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Home again

It's like we never left. I think it's because we were back for almost two full months in July/August and it's only been another two months since, it feels like we just went on vacation.

The journey home was thankfully uneventful, and the only notable experience was probably the fact that I now know how geese feel when they're being forced-fed to fatten their livers. The thing about SQ is that they love feeding you. Every two hours on the hour and I get either a glass of water/apple juice/orange juice thrust under my face, or a packet of pretzel sticks, or a salami sandwich. While I'm asleep. I appreciate the thoughtful service-- and technically, I'm really not complaining-- but knowing how hard it is to fall asleep on the plane, I'd rather not be woken up for rice pudding, thank you very much.

I did get to watch a whole slew of movies and TV shows and that always makes me happy on a 35-hour long journey: Wanted, Baby Mama, I've Loved You For So Long, Mama Mia (I love Meryl Streep, but I couldn't sit through this after 15 minutes... It was excruciating.) 30 Rock, Californication, Mad Men, The Office, Entourage. Some were better than others, of course (again, why, Meryl, why??) but at the end of the day, as long as they distract me from the tedium of long distance travel, quality becomes secondary.
"See that girl! Watch that scene!" "If you change your mind, I’m the first in line." "Mamma Mia, here I go again." Like me, you may have spent the last 30 years struggling to get lines like those out of your head — and wondering what they were doing there in the first place — but you might as well have been trying to compost Styrofoam. Those shimmery, layered arrangements, those lyrics in a language uncannily like English, those symmetrical Nordic voices — they all add up to something alarmingly permanent, a marshmallow monument on the cultural landscape. When our species dies out, leaving the planet to roaches and robots, the insects will beat their little wings to the tune of “Waterloo” as Wall-E and Eve warble along. And the darn thing still won’t make any sense. Nor does “Mamma Mia!."
-NYT review