Archive by Author | Julia Vans

This is what a Nike ad looks like…

Back in December, my dad unearthed our box of camcorder tapes. My family got a video camera when I was about 7 and we were really, REALLY into it for a couple years; my life from ages 7-10 is highly documented. Outside of that timeframe, I’m not quite sure what I did because it’s not forever imprinted on a VHS tape somewhere. Among the gems of our tapes was our masterpiece classic “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” (in which my brother puts on the type of British accent that you would only find in a movie like “Richie Rich” and tours our home) and a recording of my soccer team awards picnic. As my coach was handing out my coveted participation trophy, he announced: “This is to the player who, at the beginning of the season, didn’t know what to do with the ball. But she has improved a lot and she doesn’t run away from the ball anymore!” I gleefully accepted my trophy for playing on the Red Apples, not realizing that my biggest accomplishment in an entire season was not running away from the ball. This did not bode well for my future.

Around October of last year, I decided it would be a good idea to run a half-marathon. I don’t know what came over me, but somehow I found myself registering for a race and forking out a whole lot of money to run 13 miles in one day. I thought that maybe with a specific goal in mind and maybe some neon colored spandex, I could become one of those people who got some sort of intrinsic joy out of running.

I’ve had my encounters with running in the past, but they haven’t been too kind too me. In high school, I came home from the first day of JV field hockey crying because there was too much running. My sophomore year of college, a friend and I tried briefly to become runners. We made a training schedule, put big bows in our ponytails, and attempted to look like we knew what we were doing as we slowly trotted along. That attempt ended as quickly as it began–though that ½ mile that we could prance down the street without difficulty was pretty great.

I promise I earned this and didn't just steal it.

I ran the 13.1 in March and contrary to what my 7, 14, and 20 year old selves would have believed, I actually survived. I told some of my kindergarteners at school the next day that “I ran a race at the beach” and they immediately wanted to know if I won. When I told them I came in 4,082 out of 8,000, one boy commented “that’s really bad” (thanks, buddy.) My lessons in kindness were not all lost though, because I did have one sweet one look up at me and say “Oh…I wish you came in first,” which made me feel like the best.

I haven’t yet found that endorphin-fueled existence that I’ve been waiting for, but I have found running to be a really great excuse for carbs. I’ve been on a big scone and bread baking kick lately, which has made me keep running so that I don’t look like a monster in my hot pink running spandex. Around mile 8 of the half marathon, I kept thinking that all I wanted when I was done was a couch, a warm scone and a cup of tea. I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted that way more than the four free Yuengling’s that were waiting for me at the finish line. It’s not the Nike motivational ad I was hoping I’d feel like back in October, but I suppose running for the love of scones works well enough for me. Motivation is motivation right?

Chocolate Chip Scones, adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s Scottish Scones in A Homemade Life (sidenote: a delightful read)

1 ½ cups flour (1 cup whole wheat + ½ cup all-purpose is how I go)

½ cup rolled oats

½ tsp salt

2 tsp baking powder

4 tbsp cold butter, cut into ½ inch pieces

2 tbsp sugar

¾ cup chocolate chips

½ cup milk or cream

Optional and delicious: a handful of dried cranberries and/or chopped nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, oats, salt and baking powder. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, rub the butter into the flour mixture until the mixture resembles coarse oatmeal and the butter is reduced to pea-sized bits. Add the sugar and chocolate chips and stir to incorporate. Add in the milk or cream and stir gently to combine. I find it easiest to just mix with my hands at this point, but a spoon works fine too. Form the dough into a rough mass and turn it out onto the counter. There will be some excess flour at the bottom of the bowl—don’t worry about that, just turn it out onto the counter with your mass of dough and incorporate it as your work with it. Form the dough into a disk, about 1 ½ inches thick, and cut it into 6 pieces. Transfer the scones to a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the bottoms are lovely golden brown. They’re best eaten with 1-2 days. After that, freeze them (wrapped  individually in plastic wrap and stored in a zip-top bag) and defrost in a 300 degree oven or toaster oven.

Cookie Math

One of my biggest goals in life is to be the kind of person who can, at the drop of a hat, whip up something like a loaf of bread without even glancing at a recipe. I know, I know. I dream big. But I think it’s a valuable life skill—one that could give me a whole lot of street cred. Okay, perhaps only a little street cred in Pleasantville, but street cred all the same.

That goal, however,  is only secondary to the thought of having a set of skills that could get me out of any situation. You never know when the only way out of an obscure and/or life-threatening situation could be a basket of muffins or some chocolate cake. Personally, I would be tempted to forgo my plans of pulling off the perfect jewel heist if the museum guard offered me a fresh baguette.

Baking is indeed a science, where things need to be put together in just the right way to get the desired result. Coming up with your own recipes is a tricky business that takes a whole lot of trial and error. In attempts to move closer to my goal of becoming the most threatening character on the block in Pleasantville, I checked out the book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman from my library over winter break. The idea of Ratio is that behind every recipe is a simple ratio to describe the relationships between the ingredients. Knowing the proportions of basic ingredients like flour, sugar, eggs and butter, and how they fit together is the key to cooking by the seat of your pants. And for me, Ratio was the key to total kitchen domination.

Reading through the book, everything seemed to make sense. For example, bread is essentially a 5:3 ratio of flour to water, with some yeast thrown in to the party, that is infinitely adaptable. It makes total sense. But then I read and re-read explanations, attempting to put them to use. And unfortunately, that’s when it hit me: ratios are the only part of basic math that make my brain to feel like it was trampled over by a Clydesdale the longer I try to figure them out. The idea makes sense, but attempting to adjust the ratios to units of measurement so that I could actually make them into recipes was a daunting task.

I wasn’t willing to give up on the dream completely, so I tried out the most basic ratio, a 1:1:1 cookie. I could totally handle that. I figured this balance of butter, sugar, and flour would yield something buttery, light and crisp almost like a shortbread. I was in the mood for chocolate, so I set to work devising a chocolate shortbread.

I was a little skeptical of my choices when the dough turned out to look more like dense brownie batter than shortbread dough. But I forged on, scooped it with a melon baller onto cookie sheets, and threw them into the oven, hoping for the best.

And the best was exactly what I got. They’re not pretty, but they tasted so wonderful–the perfect mix of sweet, salty and chocolatey. And even though it was for but a brief moment, I had conquered math and was rewarded with cookies.

Chocolate “Shortbread” Cookies

These aren’t your typical shortbread cookie, but that’s the closest I can come to describing them. I’d recommend refrigerating the dough for at least an hour before baking, but I’ve made them without doing that and they’ve turned out fine. They are delicate cookies, so make them small and allow them time to cool before removing them from the cookie sheet.

½ cup butter (1 stick), at room temperature

4 oz. semisweet or dark chocolate, melted

½ cup sugar

½ cup flour (I use whole wheat)

¼ cup cocoa powder

¼ tsp salt

Beat together the butter and sugar in a medium bowl. Add in the melted chocolate and stir until combined. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cocoa powder and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, stirring until just incorporated.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough for 1-2 hours.  Remove the dough from the fridge and preheat the oven to 350F. Scoop the dough out by rounded tablespoons onto a cookie sheet (using a melon baller is helpful to ensure that each cookie is the same size). Flatten the tops of the cookies using the palm of your hand and bake for 6-8 minutes, until crisp around the edges. Wait until the cookies cool for a few minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.

Dr. Pepper Brownies?

Sometimes, after mindlessly surfing the internet for hours upon hours, I snap back to reality and find myself deep in the archives of a parenting website. That’s when I wonder to myself, “Who am I and how did I get here?”

I found myself in such a circumstance a few nights ago after watching Half Nelson, a movie starring Ryan Gosling as a drug-addicted junior high history teacher. Pleasant, right? So as soon as the movie was over, I ended perusing pictures of desserts on the internet in an attempt to counteract the unsettled feeling that movie left me with. A few episodes of Cheers later, I somehow found myself on a parenting website, reading a post about something potentially magnificent: Dr. Pepper brownies.

Normally I’m not crazy about gimmicky recipes like this; I’d rather just have a really good brownie and maybe some Dr. Pepper on the side. But there was something too intriguing about this not too try. Will I like chocolate and cherry together? Will they be fizzy? And how does soda in a brownie even work? I was skeptical, but the fact remained: I like Dr. Pepper. I like brownies. So why not?

The original “recipe” consists of mixing a box of brownie mix with some diet DP and calling it a day. Somehow I just can’t bring myself to call that baking, so I had to mix up a recipe on my own, sans-brownie mix, just to see what it could possibly be like.

The verdict?

eh.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I wasn’t a big fan. They actually ended up more like little cake squares, which is fine, except for when you’ve got your heart set on eating a brownie. These tasted mostly like Dr. Pepper, whatever flavor that actually is, with a slight pinch of chocolate.

I hate for my first post to share something that was less than spectacular but that’s how the baking adventures work sometimes: lots of trial and error and being tempted into baking disaster by weird things like Dr. Pepper brownies. Needless to say, I won’t be posting the recipe because I’m not too proud of them. Brownies are one of my favorite things in the world and I’m not willing to perpetuate the existence of a brownie that is anything less than spectacular.  If you want to call it Dr. Pepper chocolate cake, maaaaaaaybe I’d be okay with it. But a brownie? Not at all. I promise, on my Girl Scout honor, to share a delightful, so-good-you’d-eat-it-for-breakfast brownie soon. But until then, my adventure in soda-brownie science will have to suffice. 

Word of the Day: Pleasant

Hello friends and internet! I’m Julia and I’ve taken on the daunting task of corresponding on all things pleasant. I’d like to think it’s my specialty, given the sometimes outrageous lengths I will go to in order to make my life more pleasant.  Of course, when I say “all things pleasant,” I mostly mean desserts. I often bake more than is acceptable for someone that doesn’t live with an army of hungry teenage boys, but it’s the only way I know how to exist.

I graduated this past May and did what any typical college graduate seeking excitement and new opportunities would do:  I continued to live in the same apartment and go to the same school. I put off the real world just a little bit longer and went to grad school for education. I’m about to start full-time student teaching in kindergarten, which simultaneously makes me excited and exhausted. But as much as I love kindergarten, I like my kitchen the best. Unlike kindergarten, it always smells good, it’s appropriate to use knives, and I can listen to the country fitness Pandora station as loudly as I want. There’s something weirdly calming about beating your fists into bread dough, as I would imagine Carrie Underwood would be doing if “Before He Cheats” was set in a bakery and not a bar parking lot.

Since I spend most of my time alternating between grad school and my kindergarten class, I have to be even more ruthless about forcing pleasantries into my life. I’ve always gone out of my way to decorate my living space, make useless crafts, and have baked goods at the ready. Grad school isn’t gonna stop me now.  I’d like to think it’s my job on this blog to cut the sarcasm with recipes and pictures of cookies. Or add the sarcasm to the internet discourse on cookies. Maybe both.

Do I need to backup my claims of pleasantries? Here's some proof.

 

See ya soon, with cookies and pie and other delightful things.

Love, Julia

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