Thursday, October 9, 2014

Macaroni and Cheese from Nelly's



As one of my Facebook friends kindly pointed out in a mass post, I have been attending a lot of sporting events with my boyfriend lately. This is not because I enjoy them—I'll make that perfectly clear—but because everyone must make concessions in the name of a happy relationship. Speaking of concessions, have you ever bought food at a sporting event? You probably shouldn't. Whether at a stadium or at a bar, the choices are fried, fatty, or, well, that's about it. Now I love me some fried pickles, but after eating them every time I set foot into Hard Times Cafe to keep my boyfriend company while he indulged in football, I was ready for a break.

So we went to a different sports bar this Sunday: Nelly's in DC. Their menu was notably lacking in fried pickles, but featured my favorite alternative: macaroni and cheese! I ordered it. Here's a review.

When the plate first arrived in front of me, I was cautiously optimistic. A thick golden layer of what appears to be real cheddar is always a good start. Underneath the top coat, the sauce was suspiciously liquidy, arousing my worst fears of synthetic cheez, but the top coat was so perfect that I really didn't mind.

I loved it. It even had a little greenery to add aesthetic value. Nice, though non-nutritive, touch.

Flavor-wise, it was also pretty tasty. Everything a macaroni connoisseur could ask for.

My one complaint was that the noodles were a little softer than I like, but not inedible.

The really standout thing about this mac & cheese was that it tasted good even as a 4-day old leftover. I microwaved it on a styrofoam plate (hello, cancer!) and then gobbled it up shamelessly.

I rate it one happy noodle for best sports bar macaroni yet, and one happy noodle for cheese overload, and one sad noodle for being a little mushy.


1 happy noodle1 happy noodle 1 sad noodle

The Mood Noodle rating system is not based on a fixed scale, but is a much more subjective system based on what makes me happy and what makes me sad.
Any number of happy noodles and comparatively few sad noodles constitute a good rating.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sweet & Natural Chocolate Chip Cookie

 
This cookie is vegan, so it's 4 dollars. For those 4 dollars, I got 145 grams of cookie, which equates to 2.75¢ a gram, or the worst giant cookie value I've encountered in a good long while!

Even before I opened it, the odor wafted out from the wrapping, and I didn't really appreciate the smell. It did not smell like chocolate, or sugar, or cookie, or any of the flavors I enjoy, but I was willing to open it up and see if the smell was improved by being separated from its coating of cling wrap.

It took all my strength to break off the first piece, which is never a good sign, although scattering of crumbs was minimal.

But for all my effort, I was still disappointed by my first bite. The cookie's taste lived up to its smell, being kind of bleh (or as my boyfriend put it, "feels like it's missing something". The chocolate chips were up to par, marginally redeeming the lackluster (bordering on unpleasant) taste.

I did enjoy the hint of coarse sugar in the texture. The little gritty bits were a surprising pleasure to my teeth, but they didn't do enough to counteract the overall dry and tough nature of the cookie.

This is one rare instance where I feel the cookie could have been improved by being less giant. It would have still been too crunchy, but it wouldn't have been such an ordeal to break and bite into.

The Bottom Line

Taste:2 out of 5 stars
Texture:2 out of 5 stars
Price:1 out of 5 stars

Friday, September 26, 2014

Six of one, half-dozen of the other

It took me 2 years, last time, to come up with a bloggable list of things I like, but this time I've done it in 6 months! There are only 6 items in this list, but I've balanced it out with 6 things I dislike, so you should have a nice reading experience that runs the gamut of human emotion! Starting with anger.

Things that annoy me

  1. Soup spoons

    Call me microcephalic, but I have a hard time fitting soup spoons into my mouth. I'm sure I could do it if I wanted, but it seems an unreasonable effort to contort my mouth so weirdly just to fit some vessel of liquid into it. I don't even like liquid foods! When restaurants only provide me with a soup spoon, my level of life satisfaction goes down, just a little bit, never to be recovered. Thanks, restaurants.
  2. Microwave timers being left paused

    This is one of the hazards of living and working with other humans. Inevitably, one of them will cook something in the communal microwave and then remove it with a few seconds left on the timer. Seriously, people, you cannot wait 7 more seconds for your food to finish cooking? It's really that hard to push the cancel button after you close the door? You have to leave it set on 7 seconds indefinitely, to, at best, confound me when want to cook something and waste a few precious moments of my time...or, at worst, completely hide the microwave clock I'd really like to be able to use to tell me what time it is!
  3. Winter

    In my last list of peeves, I complained about opening the window in winter, and this won't be the first post in which I've mentioned my distaste for cold weather, but in case you weren't certain, I'll lay it out for you: I hate winter. And it keeps coming back every year!
  4. Faucets on a timer

    In some public bathrooms, there is something I like to call the Faucet of Doom. This amazing feat of technology puts the faucet on some kind of spring-loaded delay, so that the water only runs for an arbitrary amount of time before shutting off automatically! As you well know, people can't be trusted to turn the faucet off after they are done with it, so this is the perfect way to conserve water. It is also the perfect way to drive them mad when the water invariably turns off while they are midway through rinsing their hands.
  5. Microsoft Excel not reading my mind

    In the same ironic way that Autocorrect on your phone keyboard continually makes your life harder instead of easier, Microsoft Excel easily brings you to the same level of irritation with just one simple trick! When you type data into a cell and then drag the corner to fill the adjacent cells, Excel guesses whether you want to paste the same value in every cell or "fill series," automatically incrementing the value in each cell by 1. Somehow, Excel always guesses wrong.
  6. Web page advertisements that play sound

    And, finishing off this list of negativity, here's an annoyance that I'm sure everyone who's ever browsed the web in their office can understand. You're minding your own business, trying to read an innocuous article, when suddenly you hear some simpering mom talking about how awesome Wal-Mart is. Really loudly. She is an advertisement, and even if you can find which browser tab is playing the ad, chances are you can't turn off the sound. Or if you do, it will start right back up again the moment the next ad autoloads. This, in my humble web developer's opinion, is usability at its worst. If you must present ads on your site that are videos, do it when the user is already going to watch a video—not by interrupting her while she's trying to quietly read something. That's the fastest way to get me to exit a website immediately.
Now let's turn that frown upside-down and take a look at the things that make me happy (this half of the list actually filled up first, meaning I must be learning the elusive habit of optimism! Or at least I can hope so...)

Things that joy me

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, joy's not a verb, but it makes for a nice rhyming structure in my headings)
  1. Skunk cabbage

    Eastern Skunk Cabbage along brook in sprintime
    Photo courtesy of Williamwaterway
    You would not think that something with "skunk" in its name would make it to the top of someone's happy list (even one like this one which is in no particular order), but skunk cabbage does mine. This big ol' smelly leafy weed is one of the first plants to pop up in swampy areas when the weather starts getting warm. Although its preferred habitat is another strike against it in many people's books, its role as a harbinger of spring is, for me, a huge asset. After all, you only need to read up a few paragraphs to be reminded how much I hate winter.
  2. Being able to breathe through my nose

    Having spent the majority of my childhood with a chronically stuffy nose, I have a hearty appreciation for the gift of nasal breathing. While my nose is a lot better behaved these days, every once in a while, a head cold—or the weather, or some cruel alignment of the stars—will turn it into a congested mass of misery. This makes me curse the day I was born, feel strongly that oxymetazoline HCl is chemistry's greatest gift to humanity, and reaffirm that I really love being able to breathe through my nose.
  3. In-browser developer tools

    When I first started building websites, I used WYSIWYG tools such as the much-renowned (that's sarcasm) AOL Press and Netscape Composer, and my designs were so simple that I never needed to analyze how they worked. Then, gradually, I learned about the magic that is CSS, I started working on complex sites with so many layers of styles (cough — Drupal)  that it would take days reading through styles to figure out why a certain element was blue, and I discovered in-browser design tools. Thanks to Firebug and the developer tools that now come standard with every browser, I can solve problems while looking at my actual site. It sounds simple, but boy, would I be lost without it!
    Oh, and these helpful little workhorses aren't just for the web developers among us; they can be for anyone who wants to take control of their browsing experience. Have you ever gone to a site and been prevented from interacting with it because some stupid popup asking for your email takes up the whole screen? Well, you can use your developer tools to delete that popup from the HTML, so you can actually see the site and decide whether it's worth giving them your email.
  4. Self-threading sewing machines

    In a similar "thread," if I may be so obvious with my puns, technology has come a long way since the invention of the sewing machine. My newest machine threads itself, with but a little assistance from me, which is infinitely delightful when I consider how much time I used to spend licking my thread and poking it at the needle in the hopes of getting it through the hole. The new system isn't perfect, sometimes requiring a few tries before the microscopic hook engages the thread, but I'm grateful for it nonetheless.
  5. Driving up a bridge into the sky

    The closest thing to ascending to heaven while one is still alive is probably driving up onto a bridge. What a glorious sight, to look up and see nothing but sky ahead of you! I get really excited about this every time. I don't have any photos of this, because I'm usually busy driving when I see it, but here's a picture someone else took: http://www.salenalettera.com/2013/07/a-bridge-to-baytown.html
  6. Degreaser

    If you haven't noticed, the predominant theme in this particular happy list is things that make my life easier, so I'm rounding it off with a cleaning product. For years, I struggled with  hideous messes on the backsplash of the stove, ghastly streaks all over my toaster oven, and black smears of countless fingerprints on my doorframes and light switches. Nothing would remove them. Until I finally capitulated to common sense (and not to my "all-natural homemade everything" policy) and bought some degreaser. Now I can remove the aforementioned hideous messes in a few swipes of a rag. Wow. Would someone like to use me in a degreaser commercial? I'll do it for free!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Adventures in Cooking: Cake pop bars

I'm not a big fan of cake, so the first time I tried cake pops (last summer), I was rather surprised to find I liked them! I liked them so much that I contemplated making some of my own. I even looked up some recipes, which is how I learned that their secret ingredient – the thing that makes them taste so good and not at all like normal cake – is cream cheese. But really, who was I kidding? How could I, in good eco-conscience, willingly create a treat that required the use of a disposable lollipop stick, just for the aesthetics!? And all that effort, baking and rolling and freezing and decorating, only to make something I was just going to eat? Not going to happen!

At least, it wasn't going to happen...until I started thinking about that block of cream cheese, sitting in my refrigerator, bored and lonely...and how there was a precedent for making a treat that is traditionally rolled into balls and dipped, in a much less labor-intensive bar form instead.

And so I made it my personal mission to find a way to make cake pop bars! Here is the recipe, in classic Adventures in Cooking style.

Ingredients:

1 package of Oreos
2/3 package of cream cheese
candy melts (melting chocolate)

  1. Remove Oreos from package. This is an actual step in my recipe because it gives me the opportunity to bring up the fact that you probably don't have Oreos. You don't have Oreos because who wants to pay 4$ for a 14.5-oz pack of cookies when they can buy the Target brand sandwich cookies for $2.09 and get an extra ounce in the bargain? So open up your pack of Market Pantry sandwich cookies and begin to contemplate how many cookies are in that extra ounce and whether you should modify the recipe to account for that.
  2. Use a food processor to crumble cookies. If you don’t have a food processor you can put the cookies in a large plastic bag and use a hard object to crush the cookies as finely as possible. You don't have a food processor, and you don't have a clean plastic bag, either (because buying bags just to use them once would be wasteful), so improvise by emptying the industrial-sized bag of M&Ms in your fridge and using that. Eat a couple M&Ms.
  3. Because the bag has been previously chewed by the dog, allow cookie crumbs to spill out of the holes and onto the counter. Be unsuccessful in completely crushing the cookies (despite the use of a heavy cooking pot in lieu of a rolling pin, because who has one of those lying around!?) and so move them into the blender.
  4. Blend cookies several times. Spray more cookie crumbs on counter.
  5. Get cream cheese out of refrigerator.
  6. Realize you probably should have let the cream cheese soften before attempting to mix it into the powdered cookies, so take a break. Start writing a blog post about this recipe or something.
  7. When you come back 2.5 hours later from selling stuff on eBay, in a bowl, combine Oreo cookie crumbles and cream cheese. First try to do this with a wooden spoon, but find that the cream cheese is too attached to itself to want to mingle with the crumbs. Then try using an electric hand mixer. Spray more crumbs on counter. Go back to the wooden spoon, spill more crumbs, then finally decide to wash your hands and knead that stuff!
  8. Form dough into one large ball and chill in refrigerator for about 30 minutes or the freezer for 10 minutes.
  9. Three hours later, come back and read the next step, which says "Now, roll dough into 1.5 inch balls." Realize that since you wanted to spread the dough into a pan rather than roll it into balls, it was probably counterproductive to refrigerate it. Oh well. Forward momentum!
  10. Ignore the following step: Use the second half of my Cake Pop Recipe to complete your pops. I like to serve mine chilled. Recipe will yield approximately 25 cake pops.
  11. Instead, press the cake pop batter into an 8x8-inch pan.
  12. Get out a bag of white chocolate. Overestimate how much you need, then melt it in the microwave per the instructions.
  13. Spread melted white chocolate over pan of batter with a rubber spatula. Realize you have either not melted your white chocolate enough, or it is just too thick by nature, because it is dragging crumbs of cake pop batter wherever you spread it. Eventually succeed in spreading the now-blackened white chocolate over the entire pan.
  14. Cut the bars while the white chocolate is still hot, because it is far too thick and certainly won't be cuttable while it's cool.
  15. Take some photos, go wild with the filters, and try to make it look delicious!
  16. (Optional) You now have 1/3 of a package of cream cheese and some unknown quantity of white chocolate left over. Imagine what kinds of Adventures in Cooking you can have with that!

This recipe was lovingly modified from one I found online.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Take Note

In the days before I worked at the University, I had a foolproof mechanism for taking notes on the things I wanted to blog about—I typed them into a text file entitled "things to blog about".

Once I started my desk job, though, that no longer worked, as I did my blogging at home but my idea-inventing at the office. So over the past 2.5 years, I have been questing without cease to find the perfect note-taking solution (mostly to house topics for my blogs, but also to store the many random thoughts that flit across my brain over the course of a day).

In my first month of work, I tried and rejected Google Docs, emails to myself, and Microsoft SkyDrive (now called OneDrive), and Evernote.

I then decided that, since the big names were letting me down, I would go small-time. I started with some rinky-dink online app that I can't remember the name of. It appeared to be a free-time solo project of some software developer, and I wouldn't be surprised if it no longer exists. I liked it because it could store plain-text notes that wouldn't add a bunch of wacky formatting into my blog when I pasted them. I disliked it for many more reasons that I can no longer remember.

After that, I stumbled upon a little gem called Springnote. After using it for a while, I deduced that it was some kind of knockoff of a more popular platform called Springpad. It was also not primarily developed for the English-speaking audience, which always gave me trouble when I needed help with one of its features. I hadn't been using this service for very long when the entire Springnote platform shut down.

After that, I moved on to Catch Notes. I always enjoyed Catch, if for no other reason than its colorful interface.  However, Catch Notes soon went under as well, obliging me to scramble for another note-taking service.

Next, I went with Springpad, the big cousin to my beloved Springnote. One of my favorite features of Springpad was the bookmarklet that would allow me to add any web page to my Springpad notebook with just a click (kind of like Pinterest!). That and the cute "binder" covers that you could use to style your notebooks. However, no one should be surprised when I say that Springpad went the way of all its predecessors: that is, into oblivion.

Fortunately, Springpad provided its users with tools to export notes into a similar application: Evernote. So I reluctantly went back to the service I'd tried and rejected in the past. Evernote's spartan and utilitarian interface did not bring me joy the way Springnote's had...and a bookmarklet was hard to find and even harder to get to work consistently. But Evernote is the tool of the masses (second Google result for "online note app" as I write this, the first being a Mashable post from 2008 singing the praises of the late Springnote), and I probably should have just stuck with it from the beginning.

I've found that pasting into my blog from Evernote is not as messy as I thought—I simply strip the formatting and delete the empty paragraphs that always seem to show up. I guess I'll be content. But if you've learned nothing else from this story, you've learned that the note-taking services I like to use have a tendency to go out of business. So other Evernote users, be warned. Your app might be next!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Panera chocolate chip cookie



In my work as a Giant Cookie blogger, I have reviewed a passel of cookies from Panera.
Yet somehow, in my vast experience, I never got around to blogging the common, classic chocolate chip cookie. Until yesterday.

Then I unwrapped the cookie, generously bought for me by my boyfriend for breakfast on Sunday, and treasured unopened for a whole day, before I devoured it. My other experiences with Panera cookies indicated that I'd probably find this one pretty tasty.

In order to give it the fairest review possible, I prepped my tasting powers with a hefty dose of nasal decongestant. Somehow this didn't seem to completely restore my sense of smell, but I soldiered on, concluding that, despite my crippled olfactory system, the cookie still tasted good. It wasn't too sweet, it wasn't too salty, and it wasn't skimping on the chocolate chips.

But its real winning point was the texture. Soft, yet with a thin crust, it was, to the poet in me, as a thin layer of ice that has formed in the sun on a deep bank snow. Sometimes only the center of the cookie is truly the perfect texture, but this cookie was just right, almost right to the edge.

The Bottom Line

Taste:4 out of 5 stars
Texture:5 out of 5 stars
Price:Unknown

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An insider's Guide to working with AT&T Wireless (Or A Phone of One's Own, Part 3)

Have you read the story of how many times I got conflicting information about procuring a new phone through AT&T? Are you thinking about using my advice on buying a new phone from someone other than AT&T but not sure if that's the right choice for you? Are you as confused as I was by AT&T in general, but specifically about the differences between AT&T Next and the traditional  system of wireless contracts? Then read on for a crash course.

In the past, getting a new phone every two years was as simple as renewing your contract and saying thank you. Maybe if you were into newfangled technology, you'd have to pay a bit for your fancy-schmancy handset, but you got a hefty discount as long as you renewed the contract. This is still possible, but AT&T is moving away from this system. Nowadays, most everyone is using a fancy-schmancy phone, and it's not economical for AT&T (and, from what I hear, other carriers as well) to continue offering them for next to nothing. So they are encouraging all their customers to switch to the new AT&T Next plan, where you buy your own phone (still at a discount, but a smaller one than you would get with the new contract), but in exchange, you pay a lower per-line monthly access fee (if you're using the Mobile Share Value billing plan). Although I didn't believe it at first, you actually save money in the long run by going with AT&T Next (because if you choose the new-phone-with-contract option, you lose that discount on your access fee). If you're as skeptical as I was, check out this handy calculator that they have created for you.

Now, here are a few caveats. They kept specifying that this pricing system applies to the Mobile Share Value Plan. If there are still other plans available, and if you're on one, I don't know whether it's still going to be cheaper to use the AT&T Next purchasing option. But since that's the plan I'm on, I'm telling you how it is for me! The other caveat: AT&T also allows you to bring your own device. If you are willing to do the extra research and the shopping around, you can almost certainly get the same phone for less if you buy it from another retailer. That's what I chose to do (the phone that I chose isn't even available through AT&T), and in my next post, I'll share more tips for how to shop for phones in the great wide world beyond the AT&T store.

What is a Mobile Share Value plan? Well, I don't know exactly. What I do know is that while before, my line was allotted a certain number of gigabytes of data all to itself, now everyone on my family plan is sharing all the data in one big pool (cue the "MOM! Billy's hogging all the data!")

If you are going to put on your gauntlets and do business with AT&T Customer Service or visit a retail store, I strongly encourage you to do four things first:
  1. Make sure you are an authorized retail user. If you're on a family plan, only the account holder has permission to actually make changes to the account. But an authorized retail user, such as Yours Truly (I'd like to thank my dad for making this possible!) can buy a phone and renew his or her contract and things like that. This is a must for those who are geographically separated from the account holder by 500 miles or thereabouts. You will need to get the account holder to add you as a user, but once you have, your life will be easier by at least 5-fold.
  2. Make sure you have the last four digits of the account holder's social security number. Even if you're an authorized user, they won't allow you access to account details without additional proof of authorization. For example, I could not get the refund on my ill-advised SIM card purchase until I provided these magic numbers.
  3. If you're going to visit an AT&T store, make an appointment first. When I arrived for mine on a Sunday afternoon, I was the only one with an appointment, which automatically put me ahead of the 7 walk-ins on the waiting list. Even so, I had to stand around waiting for a good 10 minutes, and then someone messed around with the wait list and accidentally removed my name before I was called, just adding to the annoyingly long wait and obliging me to have a loud conversation with my boyfriend about what had happened to my name until an employee noticed I'd been skipped over. This leads me to my 4th point.
  4. Be ready to be proactive.* There are some very stupid people working for AT&T. All sorts of accidents happen and all sorts of misinformation are dispensed like candy. Everything you get told, check and double-check. It's a hassle, but it's better than getting billed too much, which seems to be the usual result of these miscommunications.
And lastly, before you put on those gauntlets, be aware of the distinction between AT&T and an AT&T Authorized Retailer. This is a tricky one, because AT&T authorized retailers are apparently allowed to have huge signs with the AT&T logo (albeit with the words "authorized retailer" next to the logo). They can look just like an AT&T store, but they can apparently charge you 20$ for a SIM card which a company store would give you for free. Who knows what insidious other ways they may be different!? So be cautious when shopping; visit an Authorized Retailer at your own risk, and be sure to double check on any of the fees before you hand over your credit card.

Following these steps to success, I am pretty sure that you can navigate the morass of confusion and have a happy (OK, OK, I'll settle for semi-functional) relationship with your cellular service provider!

*Some people would argue that my strategy for getting service in point #3 would be better classified as passive-aggressive, not proactive, to which I have to agree, if it had been an actual strategy. To my credit, at the time, I was just trying to figure out what had occurred and not actually opening a conscious bid for attention. It just happened that the issue did get resolved without my having to actually approach anyone—phew! Another win for the avoidant person in me!