Procrasti-baking

People have many, many different strategies for procrastinating things they don’t want to do. I like to do dishes, fold laundry, make beautiful color-coded to-do lists, sort mail, organize papers and folders…anything that feels productive but isn’t what I really need to do.

I’ve heard of this being called “productive procrastination” before; the process by which you do one thing on your to-do list to avoid another thing on your to-do list. At some level, so long as I’m moving forward it counts as forward! But at another level, things can only get put off for so long before a) they expire and b) they start to stress me out because I know I’m avoiding them. So I try to engage in productive procrastination cautiously.

Of course, there are a lot of other things I do to procrastinate. I read anything, be that fanfiction, regular fiction, or on the rare occasion the news. I have definitely gotten sucked into the Harry Potter Mystery game (which will likely feature in next month’s nerd blog post, so watch out for that!) I have a list of favorite YouTube channels, including Super Carlin Brothers, Peter Hollens, and Malinda Kathleen Reece, The Piano Guys, and CGP Grey that I adore wasting time on.  These things are just straight up procrastination – there’s nothing productive about that!

I would like to quickly point out that there is a very important difference between procrastinating something and taking a break. Procrastination is an avoidance behavior where the ultimate goal is to not do something else. Taking a break is a self-care behavior where the ultimate goal is to rest and refresh. When I watch this video by Malinda Kathleen Reece and her friends singing “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman, I’m purposefully engaging in lifting my mood and taking a break. When I proceed to click on three more videos about that movie without really deciding to, now I’m procrastinating. (Yes, this definitely happened. Tonight.)

But I still haven’t told you about my favorite procrastination behavior, and that is procrasti-baking. Haven’t heard of it? It’s about to be your favorite new thing too!

It sounds like what it is; baking instead of doing whatever to-do list item is at the top. Sometimes when I do this I use one of my go-to-I’ve-had-this-memorized for years recipes, and sometimes I try something brand new and complicated.  It depends a little bit on how much energy I have and how big the thing I’m avoiding is!

The second-best thing about procrasti-baking is that I get a tasty treat at the end. But the very best thing about procrasti-baking is that I currently live by myself, which means I get to share. Generally, if I’m stressed about a school thing, my whole department is stressed about the same school thing; leaving a tray of brownies or cookies in the science office is a beautiful thing for everyone.

Does this make me a super-young department mom? Yep. But then again, I do claim the old-lady part of myself, so I’m totally fine with that!

My favorite go-to recipe is my chocolate chip cookies, which I’ve posted about before.

Your homework: How do you procrastinate? Do you differentiate between procrastination and taking a break?

Hej då,

Jamie

Advertisements

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Winter Carnival

Last weekend I got to go home to Steamboat for a day during our Winter Carnival. It was a crazy short trip – I got up on Friday and went to Vail on Saturday afternoon to TD a race – but it was worth it. It’s always worth it to go home! Jeff brought up tons of friends, Jonathan came from Utah, and Mom cooked a mountain of food.

Winter Carnival, for those who don’t know, is a winter-skiing-ranching-fireworks extravaganza. High school students get out of school to build snow sculptures, and little kids race the Soda Pop Slalom (my very first ski race). We pave Main Street with snow and have street events like skijoring and skiing off jumps while being pulled by a horse. Sunday morning we have a parade where everything is on skis, horse, or treads (like snowmobiles). But Saturday night is the best. Saturday night is the night show.

My first experience with the night show was when I was five. My coaches told Mom and Dad to dress me in something that was old and not super flammable, so I wore my dad’s old wakeboarding sweatshirt that fell nearly to my knees. I rode the poma up to the top of Howelson in the dark, and then skied down with my teammates and a road flare in each hand. We skied down in a figure-eight criss-cross pattern. Dangerous? Probably. Awesome? Absolutely.

These days they tape glowsticks to the little kids, which is not quite as hardcore, but definitely safer. The big kids still get road flares though and carry them down the outrun of the 90-meter jump and off the 60-meter jump through a flaming hoop. We have the lighted man – a guy in a suit wired with LEDs and a backpack full of Roman candles. And we have a guy who builds fireworks that require FAA clearance because they get launched two miles high. And fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks!

This year was Steamboats 105th Winter Carnival, and it was a huge part of my growing up. I was a Winter Carnival Princess when I was five, and a Royal Attendant when I was sixteen. I love taking friends home and showing off Steamboat’s particular brand of madness! And this year was no different.

As cool as Winter Carnival is, just going home is better. This year I surprised Mom; I just showed up about three hours before my brother without giving her any notice at all. And without fail, when I walked through the door I smelled chocolate chip cookies. Mom’s are special; even though we use the same recipe (in Granny’s handwriting, which is the best!), Mom’s are better than mine. They’re the right amount of fluffy and chewy and all-around delicious. It was the first recipe I memorized (although I vividly remember eating so much cookie dough that the recipe for 52 cookies only made 25) and one I still make all the time. So I thought I’d share it with you!

You need:

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened (Seriously, let it sit at room temperature for a couple of hours. It makes your life way easier.)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 1/4 cup flour
  • half a bag (or slightly more) of chocolate chips

What you do:

  1. Cream the sugar and butter together until smooth. Mix in the eggs.
  2. Add the 1 tsp of everything and mix.
  3. I like to add the flour next; Mom likes to add the chocolate chips next. I think adding the chocolate chips first makes it harder to stir, but that might be a holdover from making these when I was really little.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350F.
  5. Spoon the dough onto trays. I make rows of three, two, three, two, three (13 total) on one tray.
  6. Put two trays in the oven at a time. Bake for six minutes, switch them, and bake for 4-6 minutes more. If you have a single tray (Mom magically gets to a fifth tray) bake it for ten minutes.
  7. Immediately pull the cookies off the tray and let them cool on a tea towel.

To me, chocolate chip cookies mean home. Mom makes them to celebrate things and whenever anyone comes home. She makes them in the summer and the winter and just because. One summer she made extra batches and froze them, thinking we wouldn’t find them in the basement freezer. She was wrong. We ate them all!

The best part about chocolate chip cookies is sharing them. So your homework is about that! Find or make your favorite chocolate chip cookies and share them with someone this week.

Hej då,

Jamie

Blueberry Scones

I love scones. Scones are great for rainy or snowy days, when I curl up with tea (and usually a stack of grading). They’re also great for adventure days, when I want to snag something quick on my way out the door.

I was inspired several springs ago by a shelf full of very on-sale blueberry cartons at the grocery store to make blueberry scones. I snagged a couple of cartons and started scouring the internet for recipes. There were a million and three variations, of course! How was I to pick?

Finally I picked one, mostly at random, and tried it out. I found the scones I made were fluffly and buttery; they were utterly delicious and utterly different from my go-to scone recipe. I make Klassika scones frequently; it’s a recipe I learned in Sweden (and  in Swedish!).

The Klassika scone recipe translates (and the units convert) to this:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp baking powder
  • 5 tbsp cold butter
  • 1 1/4 cups cold milk

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Chop the butter into small pieces and cut it in (I use my hands). Add the milk and mix until just combined. Divide into four chunks and place on a baking sheet lined with foil (or parchment paper). Bake at 475F (yes, that’s correct, I promise!) for 10-12 minutes, or until they sound hollow when you tap on them.

These scones come out flaky, crumbly, and can be eaten with jam or with soup. I love them because I almost always have all of these ingredients laying around and they’re super easy to make.

But everything from the texture to the flavor were different than the blueberry scones, and I wanted to know why. I tried to compare the recipes, but too many variables were different. Yes, I’m a scientist even in the kitchen. So what did I do? An experiment! Actually, many experiments.

I started pulling out different scone recipes and trying to find similarities. I looked at British current scones, my mom’s oatmeal scones, Starbucks imitation scones…the list went on. I also baked six different blueberry scone recipes (my roommates were delighted!) in order to gather more data.

I compared the amount of flour to the amount of liquid ingredients to the amount of leavening ingredients (baking soda or powder). I compared the temperatures and bake times. And most importantly, I compared the results!

At the end of all of this, I had several interesting trends in my data, a pretty rich understanding of how to bake tasty scones, and my all-time favorite blueberry scone recipe.

First, the trends in the ingredients.

  1. I tried to scale all the recipes so they had two cups of flour. Once I did that, the amount salt was fairly constant, as was the total amount of liquid.
  2. Some scones have sugar in their recipes. This variation really didn’t affect any other ingredients.
  3. The amount of leavening ingredients varied by how much fat there was from the butter and liquids. More fat (especially if there was an egg in the recipe) meant less leavening ingredients.
  4. There was HUGE variation in the liquid ingredients. Some recipes used all milk. Some used half and half or cream. Some used an egg. Some used yogurt or sour cream or buttermilk. But all the recipes came out to between one and 1 1/4 cups of liquid.
  5. The range of butter was between 5 tbsp and 8 tbsp.
  6. Most scones bake hot, between 400F and 475F, for fairly short times (10-25 minutes). The more fat, the cooler the baking

But most important, of course, are the correlations between this and the resultant scone!

  1. Fat content is hugely important for texture. The less fat, the more dense and crumbly the scone. The more fat, the more melt-in-your-mouth kind of a texture. Fat content is controlled by the amount of butter, obviously, but also the fat content of your liquids. Heavy cream, sour cream, and yogurt all increase the fat content, while milk and buttermilk have less fat.
  2. Eggs are the other major player in texture. Adding an egg to your recipe makes scones fluffier and less crumbly. (1 large egg is a little less than 1/4 cup liquid.)
  3. Varying the liquid ingredients changes the flavor of the scones. Yogurt and sour cream give the scone a tangy flavor that I love with blueberries. Milk and cream are the most neutral liquids.

If you’re curious, there are really fascinating science/chemistry reasons for all of these things. They have to do with the gluten protein and how it gets activated by water and conversely protected by fats, why the butter has to be cold, and also with the albumin protein in egg whites.

So after all of that, I finally have my favorite blueberry scone recipe. It’s not at all static. Sometimes it depends on what I have in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel like a slightly different texture or flavor. The ingredients in bold are the ingredients I vary the most. Ingredients that are not bold are the ones I leave alone.

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3/4 tsp salt (never more than 1/2 tsp, or more than 1 tsp)
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup sugar (sometimes I go a bit less than this, but typically not more)
  • 8 oz (1 stick) cold butter, chopped
  • 1 to 1 1/4 cups blueberries
  • 1 egg
  • Equal parts sour cream and heavy whipping cream, totaling 3/4 cup, plus another 1-2 tbsp cream (I don’t like to go more sour cream than this because then there isn’t enough liquid to hold the dough together. I’ve done all heavy cream, and I’ve used yogurt in place of the sour cream, but this combination is my favorite.)
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp dried orange peel

Mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl and cut in the butter. Mix the blueberries through (check for stems and dried flowers first). In a second bowl, mix the egg, liquid ingredients, and flavorings. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix just until combined. I use my hands so I don’t completely mash the blueberries. The dough sticks as much to me as it does to itself! Divide it into eight parts and place on a lined baking sheet. Bake at 400F for twenty to twenty-five minutes, until the tops are light gold.

Mixing in the liquids is the most do-by-feel part of the whole thing. I know what the finished dough is supposed to look like, so I can figure out if I need to add more or not. The only way to learn that is by practice. Trust me, your roommates/family/colleagues will be more than happy to help you in your pursuit of the perfect scone!

I will also add the disclaimer that I really don’t care what my scones look like. You can shape them to make them more round, or make one giant round and cut it into triangles, if pretty food makes you happy. I’m just not motivated enough for these to make them beautiful.

My blueberry scones are total indulgent decadence. They are moist and fluffy and you can totally tell two of the three main ingredients are heavy cream and butter! There is a time when I want these, and there is a time when I want something different. The thing I enjoyed learning from this escapade was how to vary the scones so I can make nearly exactly what I want. I spent a long time learning the details and intricacies of this particular art, and I appreciate the depth than brings.

My homework for you: What’s your favorite kind of scone (or other baked good)? Why is it your favorite? Have you ever thought about the chemistry behind your baking or cooking?

Hej då,

Jamie

The Art of Fika

I’ve seen a lot of articles and Facebook posts in the last couple of years about the idea of hygge. Hygge is a Danish word (koselig is the Norwegian version) that means a sense of coziness, comfort, and warmth. It’s a mindset that many people in Scandinavian countries have in response to the very dark winters. It is particularly prevalent in Tromsø, one of the farthest north towns in the world. Tromsø is 350km north of the Arctic circle, which means the sun remains below the horizon for a portion of the winter.

Over the winter of 2014-2015, Kari Leibowitz, psychologist from Stanford University spent 10 months in Tromsø studying the effects of light on people’s psychology. She devised a ‘winter mindset questionnaire’ to assess people’s attitudes about winter. She also administered the assessment Oslo area, which is one of the southernmost points of Norway. Her results were fascinating. The farther north they went, the more positive people’s mindsets towards winter were. People in Tromsø make a point of creating light – whether floodlights on the sledding hill or an incredible number of candles – and of enjoying the soft colors of twilight at midday.

In many ways, this reminds me quite a bit of the other bit of Norwegian wisdom I shared with you: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Rather than  falling prey to circumstances outside their control, many Scandinavians simply do their best to adjust and move on. One town called Rjukan, Norway adjusted by building giant mirrors to reflect the sun to their town, which is at the bottom of a deep canyon. (This being said, a lot of Swedish literature, songs, and humor have fairly dark and depressing themes, so make of that what you will.)

But wait, you’re thinking. Didn’t you study abroad in Sweden? Why are you talking so much about Norway? Truth be told, I never learned the Swedish word for hygge or koselig. But one of my favorite words and ideas that I did learn about in Sweden is the idea of fika.

Fika is one of those awesome words that really doesn’t translate. Even though Swedes are known for having some of the best English in a non-English speaking country, they don’t bother to translate it and just use it the way it is. Literally, fika translates as a verb: “to coffee.” But it’s used in a lot of different ways. People have said to me, “Let’s have a fika,” “It’s time for fika,” and “Would you like to fika?” Fika can mean to take a break, to grab a cup of coffee on the go, or to meet up with coffee and pastries and friends. Fika could be at a coffee shop, on a walk, or at someone’s home. (I keep saying coffee even though I don’t drink it. Even under many, many evil eyes, I stuck with my tea. Swedes are coffee OBSESSED.)

One important distinction that was made clear to me very early was that fika was a personal, intimate invitation. Asking someone to get coffee was much more formal. Especially in the winter, fika is a really important way for people to create a cozy, comfortable space where they can reconnect with important people. Sound familiar? Even though fika is an activity rather than a mindset, it feels a lot like hygge and koselig.

Fika is central to Swedish life. In my neuroscience class, we had four hour lecture blocks scheduled. At first, I was a bit worried about focusing for four hours, but our professor quickly made it clear that there would be frequent fikas, and we could bring our drinks and snacks back to class. My apartment was on a corridor with four Swedish girls and we all shared a kitchen; they were almost always having a fika when I got home. Perhaps it has something to do with Swedes’ constant need for caffeine (and in the winter, warmth), but I loved the constancy of people connecting with their friends.

I feel like fika is an art form that not as many people have discovered in the US. We have a huge coffee shop culture, that is true, but it feels really different to me. For one thing, we don’t often have fika at home. And when we’re in coffee shops, we’re there to work or to meet people for various productive purposes, rather than to get together with an old friend. It doesn’t have the same intimate feel as fika did while I lived in Sweden. And the US has a very interesting culture surrounding breaks and productivity, which could be a whole different blog post.

I recently read this article on the BBC. It’s about US cafes that are removing their WiFi and/or banning screens. In the article, the writer describes current cafe culture as feeling “more like open-plan offices than centres of community.” Some of the cafe owners interviewed cited the need for relief from technological imbalance as the reason for getting rid of WiFi, while others cited the desire to create a place of discourse and connection. The article explores societal, psychological, and economic impacts of creating spaces like this. It is a completely fascinating article (and links to a 69 page history of the purposes of cafes!) so I highly recommend reading more than just my little summary here.

Now, I spent a quite ridiculous amount of time sitting in Brewing Market throughout my college career. One semester I totaled it up; I wrote over 100 pages of graduate-level education papers in that coffee shop. The guy who worked on Wednesday mornings, my favorite time to go, started recommending teas to me based on what he knew I usually ordered. My other favorite place to work was in the engineering center, which also had easy access to tea and snacks. I still go to coffee shops sometimes to grade or plan because I like having the energy of other people talking and working around me to help keep me motivated.

But when I think about fika, I also think about this description of the original purposes of cafes. From that same BBC article, the purpose of cafes was “to act as places for lively debate and intellectual discussion and, above all else, social interaction.” In fact, the idea of a cafe without any technology is hugely appealing to me. If people actually talked to each other, I feel like it would ameliorate quite a lot of loneliness, feelings of being disenchanted, and isolation.

I still have lots of questions in my head about this kind of a cafe. I certainly don’t want to lose the ability to work coffee shops; some of my most productive work times have been in coffee shops around Boulder. And I also wonder about notebooks and books. When newspapers came out, people bemoaned the lack of connection lost to reading on the subway or time not spent listening to the radio. Will these older technologies (yes, printing is ABSOLUTELY a technology) still create gaps between people and isolation?

All that being said, I would welcome a “No-Fi” coffee shop in Boulder. I think perhaps it might be more popular than most people would expect. And I think it might help give us a way to start learning the art of fika.

Your homework: Have you ever experienced a cultural idea that you wished you could bring home? How do you connect with your most important people? What do you think about “No-Fi” coffee shops?

Hej då,

Jamie