Monthly Archives: February 2012

February’s Challenge: Week 1 (plus some)

I realized that I should check in and let you all know how the daily exercise thing is going.  Turns out this exercise challenge has been… well, more challenging than I expected.  There have been a number of days where I actually have been so busy, it’s been really tough to find thirty minutes, at least at a time I found to be convenient.  That actually made me feel better about how frequently I don’t exercise, if that makes any sense at all.  I guess I always assumed that I do have plenty of time, I’m just too lazy to use the time to exercise.  While that certainly is the case some days, there are also occasional days where my schedule is so packed that I think it is legitimate to put exercise as a lower priority.  I mean, exercise is supposed to reduce stress, right?  So if finding time to do it is causing stress and anxiety, it’s not gonna work very well.

But the truth is that in between the wonderful days with plenty of time on my hands and the days where I barely have a chance to eat, go to the bathroom, or breathe, are the majority of my days- the ones with at least a few appointments and/or things on my to-do list, but also lots of chunks of free time and flexibility to accomplish everything I need to.  And this challenge has made me very aware of all of the reasons and excuses I come up with to skip exercise on those days.  I don’t consider myself a workaholic, but I do tend to get caught up in things, and it feels like it would be really easy to rationalize spending a little more time to finish my statistics homework, even if it means dropping yoga for the day. It’s so easy to find things that seem more important, but I have to keep reminding myself that taking care of myself needs to be one of my top priorities.  The same way I make appointments at school, plan times to see friends, and schedule date nights with Nick, I need to claim time for myself and respect those commitments the same way I respect my commitments to other people.

So since the beginning of February’s Challenge (Take Two), I’ve stuck to my plan, and have spent thirty minutes every day exercising.  Oh.  Except for Day Two.  This is embarrassing.  That was two Fridays ago, and I just plain forgot about it.  Yeah, two days in, and I forget.  In my defense, that was the day I was making Nick’s birthday dinner, and I got really caught up in baking and cooking, and at the point I realized I had skipped exercising, it was too late.  So… I need to make up those thirty minutes.  But otherwise, there has been yoga, dancing, or walking every day.  The one thing that is bothering me is actually similar to when I did the daily blogging challenge in November.  When you have to do something every day, sometimes it feels forced and you kinda half-ass it.  So my mini-goal for this week is to be a bit more purposeful, mindful, and present when I’m exercising, rather than just going through the motions.  I know there are going to be some days where I’m just not feeling it, but I want to bring more effort to what I’m doing.

I suppose that’s about it for now.  One week down, three to go!


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Two-Cheese Baked Penne with Chard (Or, Fancy Mac and Cheese)

In addition to baking Nick’s pie last weekend, I also made him a birthday dinner.   When I was planning the menu, I had a few criteria: it must be indulgent, require enough effort to make it special, but not so much effort that I go insane, and it must include red meat.  Filet mignon was an easy choice.  (I’ll most likely be posting that recipe in the next few days….)  Some sort of potato dish seemed like an obvious accompaniment, but then it occurred to me that this was a perfect opportunity to try out one of the twenty or so mac and cheese recipes I’ve been lusting after for quite some time.   There were about three top contenders, but I settled on using Bon Appetit’s Double-Dutch Mac and Cheese with Chard as a starting point.

I’ve never actually made macaroni and cheese that didn’t come out of a Kraft or Annie’s box before, so I didn’t experiment with the recipe too much other than swapping out some ingredients.  For the record, I did consider adding some bacon (this was for Nick’s birthday, after all) but after baking a pie and anticipating preparations for the rest of dinner, I couldn’t motivate myself to fry bacon and clean up a bacon-y mess before starting the next round of cooking.  Trust me, this recipe absolutely does not need bacon.  It’s delicious and rich on its own.  But bacon would probably be a pretty awesome addition.

I resorted to using mini penne pasta when the grocery store I went to did not have macaroni (except for the kind that comes with a packet of powdered cheese sauce).  I’m curious to try macaroni in the future but the penne worked well, as they still had a hollow opening to fill with cheesy deliciousness, and they were closer to the size and texture of elbow macaroni than other tube pastas.  And I used shallots rather than garlic because I seem to have developed some sort of shallot addiction.

Cheeses… I referred to this as having two cheeses, but in a way that’s a lie, because one of the cheeses I used was actually a high-tech hybrid of Cheddar and Gruyere.  The other was an aged Gouda.  The combination was great, but don’t stress out about tracking down the exact same kinds.  Cheese is awesome.  Period.  I’m pretty sure whatever pairing you select, whether it’s based on your taste buds or what’s available, will be lovely.  Just stay away from anything too soft, since the cheese needs to be grated and melted.

My version of the recipe is halved from the original.  It yielded the perfect amount for the two of us to overeat at dinner and still enjoy leftovers the next day.

Those beautiful stems made for some very happy snacking rabbits.

Two-Cheese Baked Penne with Chard (serves 5-6, adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2009)

3 tablespoons butter, divided

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 small shallot, minced

2 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour

1 1/2 cups reduced fat milk

1 cup (packed) coarsely grated aged Gouda plus 1/4 cup finely grated (about 5-6 ounces, total)

1 cup (packed) coarsely grated Cheddar, Edam, or another cheese you like, divided

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

dash of ground nutmeg

3/4 pounds Swiss chard, stems and center ribs removed

6 ounces penne pasta (miniature, if possible)

1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs made from crustless sourdough bread*

*If you’re clueless about making breadcrumbs, like I was, you can find help from Bon Appetit here.

Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in a medium pot over medium heat.  Add onion, saute until translucent, about 4 minutes.  Stir in shallots and then flour; stir constantly for 1 minute.  Gradually whisk in milk and cook, whisking occasionally, until mixture begins to boil, about 5 minutes.  Add 1 cup coarsely grated Gouda and 1/2 cup grated Cheddar (or other cheese).  Stir until cheeses melt, about 2 minutes.  Stir in cayenne and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  While you are waiting for it to boil, preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter an 8 x 8-inch glass baking dish.  Once the water has come to a boil, cook chard until tender, about 1 minute.  Remove chard from water with a slotted spoon, transfer to plate or colander, and cool.  Reserve pot with water.  Squeeze water from chard and chop finely.

Bring water back to a boil.  Cook penne until tender, but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally.  Drain pasta and stir into cheese sauce.  Place half of pasta and cheese mixture to baking dish and spread evenly.  Top with remaining 1/2 cup grated Cheddar, and then with chopped chard.  Top with remaining pasta and spread evenly.

Melt remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter.  Mix with breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup finely grated Gouda.   Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture over pasta.

Bake penne and cheese until breadcrumbs are golden and the edges are bubbling, about 40 minutes.  Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.


Filed under Cooking, Love

Nick’s Birthday Cherry (or Berry) Pie

A few months after we started dating, I offered to bake something for Nick’s birthday.  His request: cherry pie.

Since then, I have baked him a cherry pie for every birthday.  (Well, every birthday except one, but that was the year I bought him a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, so I think I made up for it.)

The plan was to continue the tradition this year, but I hit a snag- Trader Joe’s did not have any frozen cherries.  I settled for what they called a “Very Cherry Berry Blend” but in reality was a bag of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries with about four cherries mixed in.  Ah well.  I had a feeling Nick wouldn’t complain too much.  Yes, I could have tried another grocery store, but more and more, I am embracing the challenge of working with what’s available and not wasting time and gas running around town trying to track down one ingredient.

This recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit’s Classic Sour Cherry Pie with Lattice Crust.  I love that the crust is all butter, no shortening.  It’s a little more challenging to work with, but it tastes so good.  For those of you who are intimidated by pie crust- you kinda just have to let go of the expectation that the end product is going to look like a magazine photo.  I never manage to get a pretty crimped edge, and it’s guaranteed that some of the filling is gonna bubble over the edge of the crust.  But you know what?  It still tastes awesome, and any type of lattice top, even if it’s not perfectly aligned, is going to look impressive.

I messed with the filling recipe a bit more.  Besides the obvious adjustments for the fruits used, I also upped the amount of vanilla extract and added some almond extract as well.  I used equal parts vanilla and almond, but I’m going to advise cutting back on the almond a bit.  Nick was happy with it and it tasted fine, but the almond extract was really fragrant.  And while the berry blend was fine, I am dying to make this again as a purely cherry pie.

Vanilla & Almond Cherry (or Berry) Pie with Lattice Crust (serves 8)


2 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes*

5 tablespoons (or more) ice water

*I suggest cutting the butter into cubes, and sticking it in the freezer for a couple minutes before blending the crust

Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl to blend.  Add butter and rub in with fingertips until small pea-sized clumps form.  Add 5 tbsp ice water; mix lightly with fork until dough holds together when small pieces are pressed together.  Add more water one teaspoon at a time if dough is dry.

Gather dough together and halve.  Form each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.  Let soften slightly before rolling out.


1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 cups frozen cherries or combination of berries, mostly thawed

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 tablespoon milk

Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 425 degrees.  Whisk 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium bowl to blend.  Stir in berries, vanilla, and almond extract.  Set aside.

Roll out 1 dough disk on a floured surface to a 12-inch round.  Transfer to a 9-inch glass pie dish.  Trim dough overhang to 1/2 inch.  Roll out second disk to another 12-inch round.  Cut ten 3/4-inch-wide strips from dough round.

Transfer filling to dough-lined dish, mounding slightly in center.  Arrange dough strips on top of filling, forming lattice.  (Bon Appetit has a great “how-to“.)  Trim overhang to 1/2 inch.  Fold bottom crust over lattice strips and crimp edges to seal.

Brush lattice (not edges) with milk and sprinkle with about one tablespoon sugar.

Place pie on rimmed baking sheet and bake 15 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling, about 1 hour.  Transfer to rack and cool completely.

Serve with vanilla ice cream, obviously.


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February’s Challenge: Let’s Try This Again…

Last week I declared my intent to exercise at least 30 minutes every day for the entire month of February (plus the first day of March).  I also mentioned that I was fighting a cold, and I had a backup plan in case I succumbed to the germs and had to skip a day or two of exercise.  What I did not anticipate was that the stupid cold would keep me from exercising for an entire week.

I got through thirty minutes on February 1st, and about 12 minutes of February 2nd, and then I gave in to being sick.  It’s not like I was bedridden, but whatever bug I was dealing with made walking up a flight of stairs or standing in line at the pharmacy exhausting and the constant sinus headache was bad enough that even low-key yoga was less than pleasant.  (By the way, being sick also triggered serious cravings for lots of carryout and convenience food, which is why I haven’t posted anything cooking-related in the last week.)

Seven days and one prescription for antibiotics later, I’m finally feeling normal enough to do more than sit on the couch.  I could divide the 210 missed minutes of exercise among the remaining three weeks of the month, but instead, I’m just going to start this over, and let February’s challenge run a week into March.

So… here we go again.  In case you were wondering, today’s 30 minutes took the form of a one-person dance party in the privacy of my home, which boosted my heart rate and my mood.   And considering the amount of macaroni and cheese, Chinese food, and rice pudding I ate over the last week, getting back into exercise could not come at a better time.

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