Sunday, January 29, 2012


Is it just me, or is macaroni and cheese getting a lot of attention in the media these days? Every time I check out at the grocery store, I see some other cooking magazine touting its unbeatable macaroni recipe. Maybe it is just me, because macaroni and cheese is probably one of my favorite foods, and when macaroni is mentioned, I am bound to take notice.

And lately, I've been trying a lot of macaroni. When I went to visit my friend in New York City and was asked what I wanted to eat (because that's basically what people go to New York City to do: sightsee and eat), I said "cookie dough. And macaroni and cheese." So we tried several macaroni-serving establishments (we failed to find many cookie-dough-serving establishments, but did locate some cheesecake, which was an acceptable substitute). When I go out to eat, and macaroni is available, it's almost always what I order.

Since I have become such a macaroni connoisseur, it is time that I add "Macaroni Reviewer" to my list of accomplishments. From now on, whenever I try a macaroni and cheese dish – be it homemade, frozen, or served fresh from a restaurant menu – I will share my opinions here on this blog. I'll even include photos—though since I'm not in the habit of carrying my bulky camera everywhere I go, you'll have to settle for out-of-focus cell phone pictures.

Let the MacaroniQuest begin!

With the restaurant I visited yesterday: Eatonville, in Washington DC.

As you can see from the photo, my macaroni had to share a plate with my boyfriend's nasty fried chicken and collard greens (one thing you learn quickly as a Macaroni Reviewer is that your favorite entree is rarely ever presented as an entree, but rather a very costly side dish), but the delicious biscuit serving as a divider between them made up for it.

The macaroni and cheese was a delight as well, with nice chewy spiral noodles and a coating of melted cheese on top. Since (even though I claim to be a connoisseur) I can't really tell one good macaroni from another, I will only rate them as Siskel and Ebert (used to) do: Thumbs up or thumbs down.

I give this one Thumbs Up.

And since that's such a lame rating system, I'll add a factor: Presentation Value. Since I didn't order this side a la carte, I don't know how it looks when it comes a la carte. But I have to say the cheese topping and the spiral noodles were a good choice. So I would probably rate it highly.

As an added bonus, the ambience inside Eatonville was kind of fun. Though it took me a while to realize the restaurant was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, it was easy to pick up on the Old South vibe, what with the leaf-shaped fans on the ceiling, and the fact that all the waitresses wore little hats! I think, now, that that was some special event they were holding, and not a regular thing. But cute anyway!

Monday, January 23, 2012


When you have worked the last six years in a beverage-focused field and also magically start receiving Shape magazine in the mail without ever subscribing, you end up reading a lot of things about the health benefits of various drinks. Things like:
With all this compelling evidence, it's hard to justify my abstinence from these popular legal drugs.

I have tried them both, so I can't say I'm a "substance virgin," (and therefore don't have anything to protect) but I can say (with pride, I'll add), that I don't have to drink to have fun, and I can wake up in the morning without my cup of joe. But does personal pride outweigh the potential for a greater quality of life? Is it time to hop off the wagon?

Here is an in-depth analysis of the issue.


...Is probably one of the most disgusting food-like substances that exists. It tastes ghastly, it stains your mouth, it aggravates stomach problems, and it turns otherwise sane people into savage beasts when it is not available.

I don't think there is any health benefit short of immediate prevention of acute death that could turn me into a coffee drinker. The only way to make coffee palatable is to heavily infuse it with sugar, which I daresay negates its positive effects.  Perhaps if I could take it as a supplement (say, in one massive dose that I could quickly down with a cup of good old water), then I'd be willing to give it a try, putting it on the same schedule as my almost-daily-except-when-I-forget-which-is-sometimes-days-in-a-row multivitamin and calcium tablet. But to actually drink it--especially the 4 cups a day required to prevent diabetes? No way!


I have avoided alcohol on principle since I was a proud underage goody-goody, and on basically the same principle after I crossed that magical 21-year mark. My ostensible reasons are:
  • It tastes bad
  • It's expensive
  • I don't want to get addicted
But I think, deep down, my real reason is just vanity. I am so above all those corporeal pleasures. Look at me with my little halo. Tra la la la la.

Anyway, isn't the whole point of drinking to get drunk? If you have to stop at one glass, why bother in the first place? All one serving does for you is fill your mouth with a terrible taste, add a lot of calories to your diet, and subtract a lot of dollars from your wallet. Is a daily shot of fattening, expensive, unappetizing alcohol worth the reduced risk of depression? Gosh, just the thought depresses me.
Besides, the same article that says that alcohol drinkers seem healthier in their old age also says that alcohol drinkers have a 30 percent higher risk of dying of breast cancer. Case closed.

But what am I going to do with that bottle of wine I got as a Christmas present?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

7-Layer Bars, Improv Style

This is the tale of the confluence of a series of events leading to another Adventure in Cooking! 

I love sweetened condensed milk. I eat it straight out of the can because I do not love my arteries nearly as much. Recently, I bought a can of the stuff and discovered, upon reaching home, that it was dented at the rim. I am OK with a dent anywhere else on a can, but if it's on the rim, I worry that the integrity of the can may have been compromised and germs have scurried their way inside. I prefer that my death by sweetened condensed milk occur gradually, rather than in one bacterial showdown, so I put it back in the car to return to the store and left it there for several weeks. During those several weeks, we had a few warm spells which heated my car to tropical levels, and when I found the can again, I decided it would be too hazardous to return it to the store, lest they restock it and unwittingly infect someone with salmonella. But I couldn't let it go to waste, so I decided to heat it for a short time in a double boiler to sort of pasteurize it. This is normally how you make dulce de leche, but I figured if I just didn't heat it as long as they recommend for making dulce de leche, then it wouldn't caramelize.

Alas, when I opened it, it had turned a light caramel color, and no longer tasted quite like sweetened condensed milk. And while caramel is good for many things, it is not good for eating straight out of the can, so I put it in the fridge and let it sit.

Enter Event #2. I also love 7-layer bars. I first discovered them at Firehook Bakery in DC and promptly decided they were my new favorite cookie. Assuming they were some proprietary recipe of the local establishment, I made a point of picking up one of the delectable bars every time I passed by. Later, I encountered them at Bob Evans in Sylvania under the pseudonym of 7th heaven bars (ironically, right after having brought one of the DC bars to Ohio so I would not go dessertless in a potential time of need).

The availability of 7-layer bars in multiple locations made me believe that the recipe may not be such a closely kept secret after all, and with a going rate of $2.25 a cookie, being able to prepare them myself could be quite a financial boon. So I searched the Internet and found the recipe with embarrassing ease. Immediately I noticed that one of the ingredients was sweetened condensed milk, and I thought of my lonely caramelized can sitting in the fridge.

Here are the ingredients, and how to prepare them with Val's Galorious panache.

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup butterscotch chips
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 1/3 cups shredded coconut
Preheat oven to 350°F and get out a 13x9-inch pan.

Make the graham cracker crumbs first. Assume that one plastic-wrapped package of graham crackers equals 1½ cups, and crush them in the package by banging them against the countertop. When that fails, step on them. When that is not wholly effective either, transfer them to a colander over the 13x9 inch pan and shake them until all that remains in the colander are the big bits. Crush them with a ladle.

Then read the recipe, which tells you that you are supposed to melt the butter in the pan first. Transfer the cracker crumbs to a plate and melt the butter in the pan. Go ahead and use salted margarine—who actually has unsalted butter just lying around? When it is melted, slosh it around all over the pan and replace the graham cracker crumbs. Follow them with the chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, walnuts, sweetened condensed milk (this will be quite a challenge, because the milk has thickened in the heating process and has subsequently been stored in the refrigerator, and your fingers are already occupied, being crossed in the hope that your modified milk will not ruin the recipe), and finally the coconut.

Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown around the edges.

The result of my Adventure in Cooking? Pretty good. The modified sweetened condensed milk didn't seem to have any detrimental effect on the overall taste. They were a little gooier than the bars I buy in stores, but I like gooey, so they were perfect for me! And the salted margarine was actually a nice counterpoint to the outrageous sweetness of the rest of the ingredients. But the graham crackers were not uniformly mixed with the margarine. Next time I think I'll stir it up and pat it in.

One more thought: Since the object of making these at home was to save myself a bit of dough, it's only sensible to calculate the total cost of this endeavor:
chocolate chips--1.70$,
(I don't have my original receipts, so most of these prices are just guesses, and it bears saying that I usually don't buy candy chips unless they are discounted to less than the standard price that I used in the calculation.)
Total price for the recipe: about 9.55$.
Divided into a minimum of 9 bars (and those would be pretty hefty bars), that's a dollar a bar--a significant savings over the store-bought ones. Guess I know how I'll be getting my 7-layer bar fix from now on.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Week 2 (and 2 thoughts on grammar)

As my second week as a real office employee was passing by, I gathered my thoughts for future blogging and tried to put them into words. This proved to be difficult. Not because I didn't have the words, but I didn't have anywhere to put them.

When I was working at home, I had a text file where I stored all my thoughts and blog topics. When I worked at MOM, I just never had thoughts. On the rare occasion when an idea surfaced, I typed it into my phone, which was quite a hassle, for my fingers just can't seem to get the hang of a phone keyboard, and my phone just can't seem to get the hang of loading apps efficiently.

Now that I'm working in the office, I'm having thoughts galore! I can't stop to blog about them, and a text file will be useless to me as soon as I leave for home.

I tried using Google Docs, but that was a pain because I have three Google accounts and the one I use for my blog is not the one I use for my Gmail, and multiple sign-in is not working smoothly. Plus, the one time I pasted text from a Google Doc, it went into my blog with all sorts of undesired formatting. I tried storing all my ideas in an email to send to myself at the end of the day, but after three days of forgetting to send the email, I knew that would not be a viable option. I then tried Microsoft Office on SkyDrive, which seemed like it was going to be a hit, until I noticed how slow it took to load. Only a few seconds, but when you're used to the instantaneous nature of a local text file, a few seconds is far too long. Especially when you have to go through this process every time you want to make a new note.

I started looking into other online storage options. I'm still looking into them. I don't know why I even told you about this, since it wasn't going to be the topic of this post, but if any of you are having similar idea-storage problems, maybe you will be interested in my reviews of the different options.

Anyway, the real reason that I'm writing is threefold:

This is a pixelated pixie.
1) Immediately after my last post, I noticed another linguistic phenomenon that I just had to complain about—the spelling of "pixelated." Yes, pixilated (with an i) is a real word. But unless you're using it to describe something that's slightly demented, you're using it wrong. If you want to talk about low-resolution computer graphics, you had better be using pixelated (with an e).

2) I thought of another mnemonic to help you remember how to use "diamond in the rough." It is actually what introduced me to the phrase: the Mary Poppins lyric, "Though you're just a diamond in the rough, Bert, underneath, your blood is blue!" Well, for this sentence to make sense, you must first understand that having blue blood is a good thing. But once you realize it is, then you'll know she wasn't going to preface "diamond in the rough" with a "though" unless she wanted to contrast it with the second phrase. Thus, if blue blood is unquestionably refined, a diamond in the rough must be unrefined.

3) I wanted to share a few tidbits about my new job. Now that the work has begun, it's kind of overwhelming! We have to redesign the site from scratch and learn a content management system that no one in the department is familiar with! Sometimes I think about all the stuff we have to accomplish and I get a little freaked out and start trying to do everything at once! Since no one has any specific role in the project at this point, we're all (3 of us, mainly) just messing around to find out what works, and I keep worrying if I try this thing, I'll end up spending a lot of time doing something someone else is already working on. Once we have established a direction, I'm sure it will be easier. But then I think about how I'm supposed to eventually train people to do this stuff that I don't understand myself, and I get all freaked out all over again. On the plus side, the department will buy me any training materials and software I think I need, which is a pretty great deal for someone who has always avoided learning out of books because it costs too much.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Usage and Abusage

So, since I first proposed making a name for myself in the grammar world, some research has revealed that, as far as catchy pen names go, "Language Lady" is just as already-taken as "Grammar Girl," but "Li'l Language Lady" isn't! So guess how I hereby christen myself!

The beautiful irony of this moniker is that li'l is probably one of the world's best examples of the worst grammar one could possibly use, and – here's the beautiful irony part – I am using it as a key element of my identity as a grammarian! Ha ha ha!

Today, Li'l Language Lady's lesson is not directly related to grammar, but instead to other ways that people can use the English language to torture poor souls such as me.

1. A diamond in the rough is not a good thing!

Certainly, it is better than, say, a lump of coal, or a maggot in a rotting banana, but it has a long way to go before it can be considered to outshine its competition. Sadly, most people use "a diamond in the rough" to refer to something marvelous in a sea of things not so marvelous. This is not the proper usage of the phrase! We are not talking about a gemstone that ended up in the un-manicured part of a golf course—we are talking about a gemstone that has just been blasted out of a mine and is all lumpy and covered with dirt. "In the rough" is used in much the same way as "in the nude," and, in fact, if you replace the one phrase with the other, you will come approximately close to the exact meaning. Or, if you need further help remembering the proper usage of the phrase, you may use this handy rhyme:
A diamond that is in the rough
Is a diamond that's not up to snuff!

2. Look it up!

If you did not know how to fly a plane, would you still attempt to take one for a spin? That would only be slightly more stupid than this practice that I am now going to call "speeing," because it sounds ridiculous and that's exactly what it is! Speeing is the act, while writing something for public consumption, of attempting to write a word that you don't know how to spell, and marking it with an "(sp?)" rather than checking how to spell it. Everyone knows that the mutilation of the English tongue is rampant on the Internet and subject to great scorn by those who love their language. You might think that by acknowledging your ignorance, you are thereby shielding yourself from the disdain of linguists, but really, you're just making yourself a bigger target. This is what linguists think when they see a spee: "So, now you're not only admitting you're stupid, but you're lazy too?" If you have access to the Internet to post whatever horrible, misspelled drivel you're posting, then you have access to a dictionary. Use it. It's a heck of a lot easier than earning a pilot's license.

3. Go ahead, make a grammarian laugh

We language purists are an uptight group, liable to boil over with rage at the slightest misplaced adverb (have you seen the controversy over "only"?). When you forget your adverb (or noun, verb, etc.) entirely, though, and completely change the meaning of your sentence, it fills us with an effervescent mirth that is entirely unlike boiling. As a quick example, see how news headline writing (which values succinctness and deadlines to an incomplete, poorly edited fault) resulted in the loss of an important section of these sentence.
"Republic Invests $20 to Modernize Country's Largest Recycling Facility" (Well, that budget explains a lot about why our recycling rates are so abysmal)
I had two examples, but the second example lost all its humor once I reconsidered its morbid subject matter, so you'll have to content yourself with just one. Never fear—I'm sure there will be many more where this came from!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Week 1

I can confidently say, after 1 week (4-day) of work at my new job, that I know everything there is to know about the University of Maryland.

But I would be telling a big fat lie.

I don't even know about my department! I think it will be weeks before I fully understand the nature of my job, but at least, on Monday, I will get schooled in the basics of life at the University. Monday is an all-day new employee orientation class put on by Human Resources. And, oh, boy, do I have questions!

I need to ask about how to get SmartBenefits, since I'm burning 3 dollars a day on transportation! I need to find out how I go about getting an ID card, since it seems obvious by now that it's not going to happen automatically. I would love a campus map and a commuter guide and information on filling out my timesheet and getting paid, and when my health benefits go into effect. And where to find that ice cream I’ve heard about!

I'm not too concerned about my actual job duties. Although to date, I haven't had much to do but clean my office and explore the website, I'm sure things will pick up on their own as the days go by. The biggest challenge that I have encountered thus far is catching the bus. My day is supposed to end at 4:30, and the bus home arrives around 4:35. Which means I'm usually running frantically in my dress shoes to the bus stop that's across the street from campus and down the road a bit. In fact, twice now,  in my mad rush to reach the stop, I've actually passed my bus sitting at a traffic light. You'd think, if I begged, they would let me on before the stop, but I'm afraid to ask because the drivers can be pretty crabby. If I miss the bus, the next one doesn't come for a half an hour, meaning a huge waste of my time and a long wait out in the cold. Note to self: get some running shoes to keep at the office.

Riding the bus has become such a source of stress to me that I actually had a nightmare this morning about being back at high school and missing the bus. Actually I have lots of dreams about high school and the bus for some reason, so it may just be coincidence.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Day 1

My first day at work was much like my first day at the last and only other desk job I ever started. It was spent "setting up:" waiting for my network ID to be established, waiting for my voicemail password to be reset, waiting for my email address to become active, waiting for my email inbox to become active, and cleaning the office. Lots of cleaning the office.

I am pleased to report that I have a spacious office – complete with its own thermostat (hooray! No freezing to death at work!) – all to myself. I only feel slightly like a pariah for having my office on the outside of the cluster where everyone else's offices are. On the plus side, this means I can watch everybody coming and going, which will make it much less likely for me to be completely out of the loop, which is my default state.

This office, however, is not exactly the paragon of offices, as the carpet is stained, and it apparently had a bug problem, judging from the three baits and multitudinous insect carcasses littering the windowsill. It also looked like it had been unoccupied for quite a while, judging from the dust and spiderwebs that also graced the window. Fortunately, I had come equipped with a rag, and I found 409 in the filing cabinet, so I engaged in a thorough cleaning and organizing session that got me through most of the day.

The rest of the day was spent meeting other people in the building (I met 2 Elizabeths and a Tim before I lost track), familiarizing myself with the website and the website redesign plan, and repeatedly testing my email account (it still wasn't working by the time I left).

Tomorrow my goal is to take a later bus and see if I still arrive on time, and to actually start doing work that's relevant to my job description.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Honorable Unmentionables

Yesterday's post introduced you to my favorite songs of 2011. Today's post will introduce you to the songs that didn't quite make the list, mainly because there were significant things about them that I just didn't like—to wit, the words.

Now, everyone knows I'm a lover of words. I blog compulsively, Scrabble is my favorite game, and I relish in inserting repartees in conversation (bonus if it's a text-based conversation!).

I love music, too, but I love it in a different way. And when my two loves come together, it rarely makes for a good experience. Kind of like when your old flame meets your current boyfriend.

Thus, while music this past year (and occasionally the year before) has been full of glorious sounds, it has almost always been spoiled by the inclusion of gratuitous verbiage.

In the Dark by Dev
This is the second song that prominently features a saxophone to positive effect. It's a catchy melody, but what is this girl singing (uhh...droning?) about? Ew! I'd rather listen to the instrumental version, even though it gets a little tedious. Someone get me the vocal track to this song—DJ Valsgalore will turn it inside out, put it back together, and create the masterpiece that this song has the potential to be!

Cooler than Me by Mike Posner
This song holds sentimental value to me, because it was playing at the ice skating rink where my boyfriend and I had our third date (awww). There is one lyric that I enjoy in this song. At 1:48, the "highbrow shoes" make their appearance: "You don't know...the way that you look, when your steps make that much noise! [silence.] Shh!" Now I do enjoy a good pair of ostentatious heels – and the clopping sound they make when you wear 'em around like it ain't — so even though Mr. Posner seems to think this is a bad thing, I enjoyed hearing about it in the song. However, most of the rest of the lyrics are dumb, made worse by the fact that they almost sound like they're going to rhyme and then don't. Of course, it was the instrumentals that originally drew me to this song. The bridges are pretty cool; however, its crowning glory comes around 4:00, when all pretense of singing stops and you hear the music the way it was meant to be heard!

Tonight (I'm loving you) by Enrique Iglesias
No matter which 4-letter verb you choose to employ in this song's title, it's still inappropriate for radio. Plus, it starts off with yodeling. Some credit must be given to Enrique for using the sentence "Let's remove the space between me and you," and thus being one of the few artists in 2011 not to incur my subject/object wrath. But really, the best part about this song is the 15-second stretch starting at 1:00, when words give way to exciting electronic sounds (and a little vocal wailing which is fortunately pretty easy to ignore).

Without You [XS remix] by R3hab, originally by David Guetta
David Guetta didn't quite land himself in the grammar doghouse with the technically correct, though awkward, "All I need is you and I." But he did then proceed to surround the questionable lyric with sentimental mush and a pretty un-catchy tune. Fortunately R3hab did indeed rehab the song, setting it to a much more interesting beat and replacing the unexceptional background music in the chorus with something veritably spectacular (check out 1:30). Unfortunately, they kept the singing.

My wish for the music world is that they will come to realize what they should have been taught in kindergarten: if you don't have anything nice (i.e. really wise, clever, and totally harmonious with the music) to say, don't say anything at all.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 in Musical Revue

I had a hard time picking out my favorite songs of 2011, because mainly the music that I liked this year came in 20-second snippets. If forced to select my top 3, I choose these, but I don't feel nearly as much affection for them as I do for the hooks, bridges, and backbeats I will describe next.

3. (defun botsbuildbots () (botsbuildbots))
This one comes from the Portal 2 soundtrack. Now, I love video game soundtracks as much as your average geek, but since the music is meant to be the background and not the main event, it can tend to be a little repetitive, which is why it only makes the bottom of my list. Still, a whole 3-disc (virtual) collection of wonderfully spooky and atmospheric electronic music surely deserves a mention. I had trouble choosing among the best three songs from the collection (all having to do with robots), but upon some puzzled contemplation of this one's title, I knew it was the one.  Sure, on the tracklist it's called "Bots Build Bots," but played in your computer, it reveals its true name, with all its repetition and glut of parentheses—it's a recursive function! Nope, your average geek just can't resist. [VIDEO]

2. Mr. Saxobeat by Alexandra Stan
If 2011 taught me one thing musically, it was that you should never say never. Being a strong opponent of jazz in any form, I have cultivated in myself a healthy loathing for jazz's best friend—the saxophone. Turns out, though, that saxophones, when played without pretension, can actually make a pretty catchy addition to a song. After I'd heard this song a few times, I knew I liked it. And then when I realized that it featured saxophones (I wasn't paying attention to the lyrics as usual, or I might have deduced this earlier), I was floored. My paradigm was shifted. Later, I was even to discover another song with saxophones that I liked (appearing next post, because this one is getting so long). My paradigm totally left the country. What makes this song better than the other saxophone song? Well, as you know, lyrics have ruined many a good tune for me, but the right accent can add interest to even the stupidest of words. Listen to how she says, "Like a freak!" That was actually the thing that first drew me to this song. [VIDEO]

1. C.L.U. by Paul Oakenfold
Last year, my top song was the TRON soundtrack. So it's only fitting that my top song this year be – yes – a remix of the TRON soundtrack! There are two things that make this song the pick of the litter: 1) The zingy sound that starts it off, and 2) the way it builds up and suddenly explodes into what I can only describe as coolness at 2:16 and 3:28! Paul Oakenfold usually doesn't impress me with his original work, but he does some bomb remixes! [VIDEO]

Honorable Mention

Being behind the times is my favorite place to be, but it means that I'm always learning about new music after it's no longer new enough to appear in my list of favorite songs of the year. Here are a few of them that totally rocked my socks in 2011.
  • Haleakala (DJ Cosmo vs. Pedro del Mar Remix, originally by Transformer on Maui)
    Written in 2009, this song only reached my ears this October. Like all good trance, it gets off to a slow start, but I have taken the liberty of trimming it to the coolest part. [mp3]
  • Cracks (Flux Pavilion Remix, originally by Freestylers - 2010)
    One day, I heard something amazing filtering through the cracks between my housemate's room and mine. I knew I had to have it, so I feverishly typed into Google the only lyrics I could make out, which were about three words spanning two phrases. Google delivered. Through this song, I discovered the weird and wonderful world of dubstep (video to introduce you to dubstep, since "Cracks" isn't the best example of the genre). Don't tell my housemate I stole it from him. [VIDEO]
  • Epicentre [First Movement] (Carbon Based Lifeforms - 2004)
    While there's nothing catchy about this song, it's definitely evocative. Evocative of what? Well, I'm not sure, but I am sure that the sounds in this song sound like they're being played backward, which remains one of my favorite musical gimmicks. [VIDEO--turn the volume up for best effect]
Because I know you are just as thrilled as I am to be hearing all of these mind-blowing, super sonic  masterpieces, I will give you a little bit of time to bask in the experience. Tomorrow (or whenever I feel like it) I shall return with a review of those hooks, bridges, and backbeats I promised you.