Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Life: Baozi (Part 3 - Dough)

To get that really beautiful white buns, you'll need special bleached flour from an Asian foods store.  However, regular all-purpose flour will look fine and provide a better taste, so don't feel that you need the bleached flour.  This recipe makes 16-24 steamed buns, depending on how large you make them, and takes several hours, so leave yourself plenty of time.

Baozi Dough

1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon white sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup warm water

1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder

Note: you can make this in a bread machine or by hand.  If made in a bread machine, be sure to add the ingredients in the order listed.
Combine the first set of ingredients - yeast, sugar, flour, and warm water.  Let sit for 30 minutes.  It should be foamy and bubbly (that's how you know the yeast is alive!)

Add to the yeast mixture all of the remaining ingredients, starting with liquids.  Knead until dough is smooth, 10-20 minutes.  You may need to add a little extra flour, but try not to add too much.  If you keep kneading it should stick less.  Place in a lightly greased bowl and let rise 3 hours.  It will triple in size, so make sure your bowl is very large.

Punch down dough and knead about five minutes on a lightly floured board.  Divide into twenty-four (or sixteen, if you want larger buns) balls and let rest five minutes.  Then roll each dough ball out to roughly 1/8th-1/4th inch thickness and fill.  Bring the edges of the dough together at the top and pinch to seal.  Place on a parchment paper square and let rise 30 minutes.  If you have a bunch of steamer baskets, let the dough rise in the steamer basket so you don't risk deflating it when you transfer it to the basket.  (If you don't have a bunch of baskets, just be careful when you move it!)

Bring a pot of water to a boil and set your steamer basket or colander with dough packets inside.  Place the lid on top and steam for fifteen minutes.  Remove lid and basket; swap out buns for the next set and continue until all buns are steamed.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Music: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Movement IV

I was late in coming to Beethoven's Fifth.  I've loved the Sixth Symphony since childhood (thanks, Fantasia!) and the Ninth is such a masterpiece (and so recognizable) that it sort of slipped in under the radar.  I played the Seventh in high school, which sealed it among my favorite Beethoven symphonies, but it wasn't until college that I had a chance to really study the Fifth.  The opening to the first movement is one of the most famous motifs in classical music - the short-short-short-long pattern has been linked, among other things, to the Morse code for V (which uses the same pattern), the WWII campaign "V is for Victory" (as the Roman numeral for 5 is V), and to imagery of Fate knocking at the door. 

But today let's listen to the final movement.  In this symphony, the third movement moves directly into the fourth movement with no break, so you may hear a bit of overlap at the beginning of the recording.  Beethoven wrote this symphony during his so-called "heroic" period, when he had nearly entirely lost his hearing, and this final movement is indeed both victorious and triumphant.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Monday Writing: Star Wars (Trailer 2)

Yes, yes, it's not (strictly speaking) writing, but....hey, Star Wars!

By now, I trust, everyone has seen the new Star Wars teaser trailer.  If not, allow me:

Every time I see one of these trailers, I get more excited.

There so much to (potentially) love.  The opening shot alone is a masterpiece, setting up the post-war world in one long beautiful visual, and the combination of Luke's line from Return of the Jedi set over new images creates a perfect blend of original trilogy nostalgia and new film excitement.  It's a gorgeous mix of old and new.

This trailer is more heavily female than the first, with a shot of Leia (presumably) receiving a lightsaber and new character in action (running, looking, offering a helping hand.)  I can't even begin to tell you how unbelievably awesome it would be if the new female character was the lead - Luke or Leia's daughter, perhaps - but I have to admit I suspect that's probably not the case. 

The stormtrooper is also back, yielding more questions - is he really a stormtrooper, or someone in disguise?  What's the meaning of his dismayed look?  What is he fleeing (and why)?  Why are there still stormtroopers at all - vestiges of the old Empire or beginnings of a new one?

And of course, ending with Han and Chewie was a stroke of genius.  I hesitate to say that the original trilogy's success was entirely due to Harrison Ford, but it must be admitted that he really made that series.  Sure, Luke and Leia were the protagonists, all caught up in the Force stuff, but Han was the cool one.  He lightened the seriousness of Luke and Leia's characters without falling into the trap of lines for laughs - and perhaps most importantly, Harrison Ford recognized when a scene needed some good improv.  This ending says, "Hey, fans, we have new stuff, but don't worry - it's still Star Wars."

December 18, everyone!  Mark your calendars.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Life: Baozi (Part 2 - Fillings)

The really great thing about filled buns is that you can fill with with literally anything your heart desires. Bao are traditionally filled with veggies or meat or a sweet red bean or lotus paste, and there are a million and one recipes online, but if you’re not in the mood (or don’t have the ingredients) for a specific recipe, you can wing it on the spot. Your main goal is to come up with something bursting with flavor and in small enough chunks that one can easily eat it. Below are some ideas for basic fillings - feel free to substitute as needed. Note that depending on the size of your buns, you’ll want 1-3 tablespoons of filling per bun. The recipes below all make 2 cups, or enough for about 8 buns.

BBQ Chicken

Siu char pork is one of the most common fillings for steamed buns, and if you have access to it, or the ingredients with which to make it, you’re sitting pretty. If, however, you’re trying to come up with a meal on the spot and still have some leftover chicken sitting around, this recipe is your friend.

2 c chicken
1-2 Tb barbecue sauce (to taste)

Shred or finely chop the chicken. Combine with barbecue sauce.

Stir Fry Veggies

This recipe is incredibly flexible depending on what you have in your fridge or cupboard. Some options include cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, onion, green pepper, celery, or zucchini.

2 c finely chopped veggies
1 Tb oil
2 tsp soy sauce
1 Tb hoisin sauce (optional)

If you have a wok, now is the time to break it out. If not, heat the oil over medium high until a drop of water sizzles fiercely in the pan. Throw in your veggies, being sure not to crowd the pan (you can do two or three installments if needed) and let cook, stirring or tossing frequently, for about a minute. Add the soy sauce and hoisin sauce, if you have it, and cook another minute, stirring often. Remove veggies from heat promptly.

Sweet Red Bean Paste

For you dessert-y types, this sweet, substantial filling will definitely hit the spot - and it’s super easy to make! Most recipes will require you to buy dry beans, but I was in a hurry and went with canned instead. You have the option to press the beans through a sieve to make a smoother paste, but I didn’t and it still turned out delicious. So here is the short version of sweet red bean paste.

2 cans beans
2 Tb sugar
½ c water

Combine beans, sugar, and water in a small saucepan.  Cook until boiling, then let the water cook down, stirring until the beans soften and begin to form a chunky paste.  Remove from heat and process in a food processor until smooth.

Next week: making the dough and steaming your buns!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wednesday Culture: Cephalopod Self-Portrait

One of the great and terrible things about academia is that you can write a paper about anything.  Oh, there are limits and gatekeepers, of course; your paper won't get far if it's not in your subject area or if it's completely nonsensical or doesn't have any foundation in reality.  And of course, your papers reflect on you as a professional, so there are some self-imposed restrictions as well.

That is why I am thoroughly delighted but not surprised to see this headline on io9:

Giant Prehistoric Krakens May Have Sculpted Self-Portraits Using Ichthyosaur Bones

For once, I'm going to tell you to read the comments, particularly that of angusm (currently third down.  You'll know it when you see it.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Monday Writing: Fitness Tips for Writers

Writing, as a rule, tends to be fairly sedentary work.  With exceptions for bathroom breaks, snack breaks, and writer's-block-pacing-around-the-room breaks, the expectation is that one parks oneself in front of one's writing utensils and stays there until the day's word count is complete.  But that's a lot of sitting, and as we now know, long hours of uninterrupted sitting bring with them significant health risks. 

Fortunately for writers, even those chronically short on both money and time, these risks are both easy and cheap to combat.  And as a further bonus, exercise has been proven to boost creativity.  So get those butts out of those chairs and try a few of these fitness tips to get your mind and body active.

1. Standing Desk 
Researchers in Sweden recently discovered that even making as small a change as standing rather than sitting improved health in people's telomeres (caps on the end of our DNA strands that determine cell aging.)  People who incorporated more standing and less sitting into their daily lives had younger-looking cells.  A standing desk can be built for as little as $22, so don't let cost be a factor.  If you really want to go all out, consider adding a treadmill so that you can walk and type (or walk and check email).

2. Five Minute Breaks
If a standing desk isn't in your future, set an alarm and take a walking break for five minutes every hour.  Stand, stretch, and stroll around your house - and no need to raise a sweat.  Even slow walking can reverse some of the unhealthy effects of sitting.

3. Get Outside
The CDC recommends 2 hours and 30 minutes of brisk walking every week.  That breaks down to roughly 25-30 minutes a day - but you don't have to do it all at once.  Three ten-minute brisk walks will do just as well, and better still, will keep you moving throughout the day.  Since it may be hard to get up a good pace inside, take a trip outdoors and walk a couple of blocks quickly to get your heart pumping.  If you work from home, this is a great way to incorporate errand-running into a day packed with writing.

4. 10,000 Steps
If you find you do a lot of walking in your day to day life already but you don't want to have to add up five minutes here and five minutes there, consider investing in a pedometer.  Your goal?  10,000 steps per day, as advised by the U.S. Surgeon General.  Your five minute breaks and brisk ten minute walks will help your steps add up quickly - and provide motivation to incorporate more as needed.

5. Exercise Videos
YouTube is your friend when it comes to low-cost exercise.  Check out BeFit for an entire channel of short, free exercise videos, or look around for some of the brand names - Jillian Michaels' videos usually require a mat and a pair of weights, but otherwise they're ideal for small apartments and they'll definitely get your heart rate up.  Always remember to check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, and ease yourself in gently if you haven't worked out in a while.

For some, walking and exercise videos can't replace the ease of hopping on a machine or three at the gym - but with most gyms charging an arm and a leg for membership (plus an add-ons, trainers, or classes) the cost can be out of reach for the self-employed.  Look around for local community centers or a Y.  Both are usually affordable and frequently provide financial assistance for those who need it.  And some will even provide you with a few free sessions with a personal trainer when you sign up.

7. Find A Buddy
There is no motivation like having another person relying on you for an exercise session.  If you have a co-author or critique group or writing buddy, consider setting up a walking group or exercise date on a regular basis.  Not only will you both reap the benefits of exercise, but you'll have a chance to swap ideas or troubleshoot a plot problem that's been holding you back.  Win-win!

How do you incorporate exercise into your daily life?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday Life: Baozi (Part 1 - Tools)

I was first introduced to humbow (or baozi, or just bao) in San Francisco when I was a little girl.  The snowy white buns with the sweet red filling were highly popular with my family, and whenever we ventured out for dim sum, humbow made an appearance at the table.  When we moved out of California, dim sum became a less frequent excursion, and for several years humbow faded out of my diet.  And then three things happened: one of my friends visited China, I moved to Seattle, and I saw Firefly.

Firefly, influenced as it was by Chinese culture, makes a point of fresh bao in one of its episodes.  I don't know for sure if that was what set off my craving, but it was around that time that I discovered Uwajimaya and bags of frozen bao.  I had previously only been familiar with char siu bao - buns filled with barbecued pork - but Uwajimaya opened my eyes to all the possibilities of bun fillings: sweet red bean, mushroom and vegetable, lotus seed.

For awhile, frozen bao satisfied my humbow cravings.  But then, in the midst of an iced coffee and kahlua gossip session, my friend mentioned that we could try our hands at making bao.  Revelation!  We looked up a recipe online and ransacked her kitchen, mixing up a variety of fillings as the dough rose.  Lack of a proper steamer basket led to some improvisation with a colander, and several hours later, we munched a little dubiously at our concoctions.  That first attempt looked like sad little blobs of dough, stuck to the colander so that it ripped and spilled filing everywhere when you tried to pry it up, and was thoroughly under-cooked.

In the intervening years, I've found better recipes and learned a few of the secrets to making good bao.  One of the wonderful things about something like bao is that you can fill them with anything you like - or nothing at all, if you run out of filling.  I recently used up some leftover chicken by tossing it with soy sauce and barbecue sauce, and it had a delightful tangy flavor.  The recipe itself is actually very simple, but there are some tricks along the way to making bao that rises properly, cooks all the way through, and doesn't stick to everything.

There are a few tools that you will need for making bao:

Pot with a nice wide mouth and a fitted lid in which to boil water
Steamer basket to fit the above (if you do not have a steamer basket, you can make do with a colander, but a steamer basket will make your life a million times easier)
Parchment paper (you can make do without this, but again, it will make your life so much easier)
Mixing bowl and fork or wooden spoon

And that's it!  Assemble your tools, and next week we'll look at the dough recipe.