May 22, 2009

Chuck Norris Baseball Facts

I've been posting about baking far too much lately, so here are some Chuck Norris baseball facts (inspired by Halos Heaven) for my non-baking friends:

Chuck Norris doesn't steal bases. He is given them as gifts.
When umpires make a call, they turn to Chuck Norris and say, "If that's alright with you, sir."
Chuck Norris once hit a home run through the Green Monster.
The Milwaukee Brewers added a new feature to Miller Park: everytime Chuck Norris hits a home run, Bernie Brewer will slide into a mug of blood.
When Chuck Norris plays third base, the first baseman wears a catcher's mitt.
Teams recently started employing the Chuck Norris shift, in which all eight fielders stand in the bleachers and the pitcher stands behind the batting practice screen.
Barry Bonds did not take steroids. He was touched by the right hand of Chuck Norris.
When Chuck Norris bats, he hits 2.000.
Monument Park is actually a memorial to all the players beaned by Chuck Norris.
The Tampa Bay Rays took the "Devil" out of their name because it was trademarked by Chuck Norris.
Players who hit behind Chuck Norris don't get any RBI, because Chuck Norris always drives himself in.

Review: Smitten Kitchen's Russian Black Bread

Chuck Norris doesn't use a bread knife. He uses dental floss.
Chuck Norris doesn't bake bread. He scares it into baking itself.
When Chuck Norris kneads bread, the neighbors feel the tremors.

Smitten Kitchen's Russian black bread is an intensely flavorful pumpernickel. Many adjectives could be used to describe it. "Hardcore" comes immediately to mind. This bread has seventeen ingredients, including unsweetened chocolate and shallots, or double what any normal bread on God's green earth should ever have. Step aside, my friends, because this, this is Chuck Norris bread.

Since this is a recipe review, I won't provide you with a recipe or any other pictures. For those, you can head on over to Smitten Kitchen and marvel at the fancy camera work. Instead, I'm going to give you the low-down on the recipe:

1.) Make it now. It's a messy, complicated dough, but it makes an insane amount of a delicious, aromatic bread. The apartment will smell like pumpernickel for the next few days, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

2.) When Deb at Smitten Kitchen tells you that you can make rounds or loaves, what she really means is that you should make only rounds. The crust on this bread is delightfully cruncy and thick, but it doesn't set up quite right in a loaf pan. It needs to be exposed to air; otherwise, it kind of crumbles and falls apart. So, make rounds, please. They're more aesthetically pleasing anyway. And, as you can see in the picture above, they slice beautifully.

3.) There is no real need to grind up the fennel and caraway seeds. The dough is so large that a few tablespoons of seeds are hardly noticeable.

4.) If you're like me and regularly alter recipes accidentally on purpose, do not fret. This bread (or any yeast bread, really) is resilient and can take pretty much any substitutions or alterations. I, for instance, stupidly added extra chocolate (cocoa powder + shortening for those of you without unsweetened chocolate on hand). It turned out perfectly all the same.

While the dough might kick your ass, the finished product is a pungent and delicious kick in the tastebuds. Unless you want to feel the wrath of a Chuck Norris roundhouse, you might want to get into the kitchen and start baking.

May 21, 2009

Cooking with Apples, Part Deux (Updated)

I've had some leftover red delicious apples sitting in my fridge for a while now. I baked an amazing apple coffee cake with some, but I needed something else to finish off the rest of them. Thankfully, Rachel came to the rescue and told me how to make applesauce. Just boil some peeled, cored, and sliced apples and toss the results in a blender. Simple, right? Before you answer that question, have you ever seen me cook? Nothing is simple in my kitchen.

I bought a cheap apple corer to commemorate the occasion and promptly peeled the apples and sent them through the gauntlet of blades.

A close-up of the victims.

Since I can't follow anyone's directions (even my own; I've written down some of my recipes, but I never actually follow them), I decided to make flavored applesauce. The only things I had in the house (remember, we're moving soon) was some blueberry pomegranate juice and some frozen Maine blueberries. Blueberry applesauce it is!

I boiled four apples in a thin layer of the juice (around ¼ cup), then covered and simmered for almost half an hour. The smell was kind of bad, so I decided to sweeten them with around ¼ cup brown sugar. That's entirely optional, though.

Once that was done, I tossed the apples and some of the juice (leaving a small amount in the pot) into the blender. I threw some blueberries on top for good measure.

Blended it all together and it turned out beautifully.

If you can't see the texture, enlarge the photo. Trust me: it's perfect. And the taste (even though I've only had it warm) is quite delicious. Most importantly, for once, it actually was simple.

Tonight I'll be trying this ridiculously complicated black bread for a potluck at my wife's work. I've never worked with half the ingredients (shallots? really?), so wish me luck.

Update: after checking the cooled product, it thickened more than I anticipated. Suggestion: double the liquid base (you can use water, fruit juice, apple cider, apple juice, etc.) so you don't have to add apple butter and fruit juice to thin out your applesauce. Just an idea.

May 15, 2009

Make This Coffee Cake Now

Please? It's the best coffee cake I've ever had.

Adapted from a recipe by Emeril:

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups self-rising flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
2 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped

½ cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ stick unsalted butter, softened

½ cup packed light brown sugar
½ tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. water
I came into some apples recently. Unfortunately, they're red delicious apples, which don't hold their shape when baked. Since I'm not all that fond of eating apples straight (especially red delicious), that meant something with chopped or pureed apples.

I stumbled upon Emeril's recipe and am very, very glad I tried it.

Start by placing a stick of butter in a large bowl and half a stick in a medium bowl.

While those are softening, whisk together the self-rising flour and 1 tsp. cinnamon in an even larger bowl.

Once the butter is soft, cream together with the brown sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, incorporating thoroughly. After one egg, the batter will look deliciously peanut-buttery. After the second, it will look runny.

Make a well in the flour and add what you just mixed to the flour. Add the sour cream and vanilla, stirring together. Fold in the chopped apples. The finished batter will be extremely thick (perfect for that crumb texture). Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 13x9 baking pan. Pour the batter into the pan.

Prepare the crumb topping by mixing together all four ingredients until the result resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle uniformly over the surface of the batter.

Place in the oven. Bake approximately 35 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Let cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the three glaze ingredients. It's okay if the sugar doesn't dissolve fully.

After the cake has cooled for 10 minutes, drizzle the glaze over the top and let harden slightly.

I cannot say enough about the results. The texture is divine, and the apples give it a light fruity taste. I love the taste of brown sugar, too, so truckloads of the stuff can't hurt.

The cleanup's a bitch,

but well worth it. As I said before, this is the best coffee cake I've ever had.

I still have four more apples to use up. I'm thinking about making apple dumplings. Any other ideas for good apple dishes that could stand some red deliciousness?

May 14, 2009

Some Baseball Questions

With popular color analyst Jerry Remy on indefinite leave after a bout with lung cancer, NESN has turned to a revolving door of analysts to patch the hole left behind by the RemDawg. The experiment has seen everyone from Dennis Eckersley to Kevin Kennedy to Dave Roberts try their hand at analysis.

Even the best baseball commentators say some absolutely ridiculous things. I chalk that up to a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that most analysts are former players. If you think about it, most field managers are ex-players, but very few general managers or front office professionals are. That is partially because the front office has to deal with so much more than just the game of baseball. But, it is also partially because ex-players tend to rely on instincts and feelings and can rarely view the game as a business or from a critical distance. Remy occasionally said some ridiculous things, but he was always able to view the game the way any good analyst should: from multiple perspectives. He recognized the value of statistics and of subjective, intangible evaluation.

Without Remy in the booth, I've been listening a little more closely to his temporary replacements. Just the last couple of games, they have said several things that have baffled/puzzled/intrigued/infuriated me. Mostly, though, they have made me wonder. If I were a smarter/better person, I would whip out the ole sabermetrics and try to find some answers to the questions they've raised. Since I'm not, I'll just ask the questions. These are some thing that I would love to have someone (other than me) complete a statistical analysis of:

1.) Does ritual trump athleticism or vice-versa? Commentators frequently assert that a player seems "out of sorts" or "uncomfortable" because his routine is off. Japanese players struggle because the American baseball is a slightly different size than the Japanese ball. Position players commit more errors when they play in a position they're not used to. On one level, that logic absolutely makes sense. Baseball players are creatures of habit (which makes me wonder: how much of "home field advantage" is mere comfort?). On another level, though, that logic makes no sense to me at all. These players are paid millions of dollars to be athletes. They should be able to throw a cantaloupe if required, right?

2.) Every time the Sox have the bases loaded, the graphics folks at NESN kindly provide us with the hitter's career numbers with the bases loaded. Almost invariably, the average hovers around .360 and the RBI total is about the same as the AB. Then, also almost invariably, the analyst will assert that the hitter is "clutch" with the bases loaded. My question: how much of the .360 is the hitter's "clutch-ness" and how much of it comes from the fact that pitcher's are usually not on top of their game when the bases are loaded. In other words, are bases loaded averages inflated by hitters capitalizing on a taxed pitcher?

3.) Kevin Kennedy, my favorite of NESN's stopgap announcers, constantly referred to 2-2 as the perfect "running count." Why is that? Do certain counts actually lead to more successful stolen bases? It stands to reason that first pitch steals are successful more often than steals later in the count (if only because the percentage of straight steals is higher on the first pitch). Beyond that, I have no idea. Joe Posnanski has a great piece on hitters' vs. pitchers' counts. I would love to see a similar piece on what happens on the rest of the field for various counts.

4.) The only claim that has truly infuriated me was the idea (perpetrated by both Eck and Kennedy) that a baserunner can "do more damage" by staying at first base early in a count than by stealing second base on the first pitch. The theory behind this is seems sounds: the pitcher will throw more fastballs to the hitter with the threat of the steal looming. Honestly, though, isn't it always more damaging to have a runner on second base? Would you want a speedy runner to pull up with a single instead of taking a clear double? If the guy is going to steal anyway, why not do it early in the count and increase the likelihood of him scoring on a single?

5.) I'm always fascinated by the tension between rationality and emotion. When K. and I watch TV, she always complains that characters do things that just don't make sense. I always remind her that they are often in the midst of emotional turmoil and therefore not entirely rational. Of course, these things are not entirely mutually exclusive, but they tend not to mix well. Thus, I always wonder when commentators talk about a player being "distracted" or "consumed" by emotion. Most analysts say that they will "take" the "fiery, passionate" guy over the lackadaisical player (read: J.D. Drew). Then, they turn around and claim that players (pitchers mostly) are too emotional and therefore more likely to get distracted and not execute properly. Is emotion a strength? Does it have any tangible effect on a player's performanace?

These are all questions to which I have no answer. I am only a baseball fan, and one with no advanced knowledge of stats, at that. I am curious, though. Mostly, though, I want Remy back.

May 13, 2009

Ryan Zimmerman's Hit Streak Ends :(

I had no idea Ryan Zimmerman was such a ... player. *Laugh track.*

Sorry for the outage lately. Big baseball post coming up; hopefully some baking posts, too.

Until then, my friends.

May 5, 2009

The Life of a Graduate Student

I'm never quite sure how I'm supposed to feel about it. Graduate students, querulous animals that we are, like to complain about having lots of papers to write and grade. I would often agree: juggling all the concerns of a teacher and a student at once can be frustrating and tiring.

But then, as I drive through the rain to go to the gym, I watch the undergrads filing from building to building, exam to exam, and I realize: I get paid to sit at home, read some books, and write some stuff. That's a pretty nice gig, right?

May 4, 2009

Pecan Pie and Banana Nut Muffins

I'm moving in less than a month and will be coming into a lot of free time in approximately 48 hours. What to do but bake? I have a lot of stuff in my pantry that needs to be eaten, and baking is the best way I know to use up ingredients pre-move.

I've had some recipes from Simply Recipes waiting, so I decided to take the opportunity to try them. First up is a classic pecan pie, which, for the record, I always seem to screw up.

This recipe is delightful, though, and the added molasses and brown sugar makes for a dark filling that isn't too syrupy sweet.

For the record, I was able to eat a quarter of the pie in one sitting, something I would never be able to do with a regular pecan pie.

Grade: B+

The second recipe I butchered is Elise's take on banana nut muffins. Of course, I only had one banana in the house, so I had to dramatically abbreviate and alter the recipe and combine it with a package of banana nut muffin mix.

Despite all my attempts to the contrary, this recipe turned out quite well.

They're basically your classic banana nut muffin. The mashed banana makes them much more moist than muffins from the package, though.

Grade: A-

I will be reviewing some other recipes in the coming weeks. The fewer non-perishables I move with, the better. I inherited almost a dozen red delicious apples, so expect some awkward apple recipes soon.