Tuesday, February 28, 2012

MacaroniQuest: Cheesecake Factory

This issue of MacaroniQuest, we introduce a new feature--the Mood Noodles rating system! I realized since my first MacaroniQuest post that I can too tell the difference between macaroni dishes, and I can distinguish varying degrees of good. So from now on I'll be giving macaronis a happy noodle for every feature which pleases me and a sad noodle for every feature which lets me down. See how it all pans - or should I say casseroles - out in this review of the macaroni at the Cheesecake Factory!

The Cheesecake Factory has many things going for it—not least of which is the awe-inspiring selection of cheesecakes that gives it its name. But even more importantly, there are several things on its regular menu that I can and want to eat.

Go back and read that again. I said "several." That never happens. As the Queen of Picky Eaters, I am lucky if I can find one thing on any given menu that meets my exacting tastes. But the Cheesecake Factory has several!

And one of them is macaroni and cheese. This hearty entree is listed on their menu as a "side dish," but it is so big, I was able to save half of it to eat later.

As with all of my favorite macaroni dishes, this one featured a breadcrumb topping. The noodles were an extra-large variety of elbows, which were quite tasty. These two features earned the dish a happy noodle.

However, the cheese had a kind of gooey, Velveeta-like texture that I did not really appreciate, earning the dish its one sad noodle.

It came in a small cast-iron dish, to assure me that it was indeed baked in a real oven. The breadcrumbs on top were a delicious and attractive touch. Presentation value: thumbs up!

1 happy noodle  1sad noodle

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Starbucks Chocolate Chunk Cookies

There was once a time when I was a Starbucks cookie junkie. Their chocolate chunk cookies were second only to the cookies I could get at Cosi, and since they were several cents cheaper, they were often my first choice to buy.

And then things changed. Starbucks changed their recipe and raised their price, and I started working from home rather than a block from their shop, and I stopped buying their cookies.

But for old times' sake, let me review these classic confections.

They measure 11 centimeters in diameter, putting them squarely in the realm of giant cookies, and an informal weighing on my postal scale puts one at 90 grams. They cost 2.07$ each (or 2.3¢ a gram), including tax, so they are not what I'd call cheap.

But are they worth the price?

Well, they are sweet, and the big chunks of chocolate definitely have their appeal. They were deliciously soft around the center; however - and it may just be the batch I tested - they were a little overcooked around the edges, giving them an unappealing chewy/crunchy texture and unpleasant aftertaste.

All in all, they're better than most retail-packaged cookies at your nearest supermarket, but I wouldn't go any farther than my nearest supermarket to procure them.

The bottom line:
Taste: 3 stars
Texture: 3 stars
Price: 3 stars

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tea for Me ... And other work related topics

Chick Pea Mystery Solved

I spoke too soon when condemning my colleagues for being fridge-raiders. On Thursday, one of my coworkers walked into my office with a sheepish expression and asked, "Were you missing some chick peas?" It turns out that one of my other coworkers had invited him to eat some of his hummus. Second coworker, not being indoctrinated into vegetarian/Mediterranean eating, had to be told that hummus was made of chick peas. When he later went into the fridge looking for it, he found my chick peas and ate them, only realizing his folly when talking to the first coworker a few days later.
Less than a month after posting my scathing comments on coffee, I am changing my tune.

Well, sort of.

As my dad commented, "Coffee is the programmer's wonder drink. I don't see how you can hold out on the nectar of the cyber gods."

And heck, I'm a programmer! At least, that's what my friend told me, though I'm technically still more of a designer.

In any case, I seem to have a developed a legitimate need for caffeine. Every day, about 45 minutes after I finish my lunch, I am overcome with an overwhelming need to sleep. No matter what I eat, be it a bowl of edamame or a cheese sandwich with all the fixins, come about 1:30, it becomes an epic battle to keep my eyes open. This doesn't happen after breakfast. I would consider skipping lunch entirely, but then I just get sleepy from lack of food instead.

So my solution? Iced tea. After deep deliberation, I concluded that despite my health reasons, I still couldn't stand the taste of coffee. And the hassle of making it (since I work in one of the few offices I've ever seen where the coffee isn't free—or even available at all!) wouldn't be worth the returns. But powdered iced tea would put me at zero risk of burning my tongue, still impart some caffeine into my tired bloodstream, provide the added benefits of antioxidants, and be quick and easy to prepare.

So I invested a couple of bucks in calorie-free mango green tea packets and let the experiment begin. It was more successful than I ever dreamed.

My iced tea packets, I discovered after buying them, only contain about 25 mg of caffeine per cup, while real tea boasts around 50, and coffee is known to contain around 120 or more. I thought for sure that my purchase was a complete waste, until I ingested my first packet and discovered that even 25 milligrams of caffeine is quite enough to wake me up, and then some.

Within a few minutes of having a few sips of my tea, I am so ready to work, I jump from task to task like a jumping bean. I find myself inappropriately euphoric, thinking thoughts like, "I'm so excited it's Wednesday!"

I'm a little high-strung by nature and it's not uncommon for me to have to forcibly reign myself in, but when I'm caffeinated, my stern self-reminders that "It's OK," and I should "Calm down!" are delivered with excessive enthusiasm, before I have even begun to panic.

I'm sure that this extreme result only comes from the fact that caffeine is such a foreign substance to my system, and I'm sure I won't have quite such a response after a few weeks of being a tea drinker, but in the meantime, it sure feels better than slogging my way through a dreamworld every afternoon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Ever since elementary school ended and the golden days of egalitarian, teacher-enforced Valentine's Day school parties drew to a close, I have not had much luck with Valentine's Days. Probably the worst was the one when, after I had spent hours preparing a special V-day treasure hunt for him, my Valentine came home late from work and promptly locked himself in his room. When he emerged nearly an hour later, he threw a box of candy hearts and a bouquet of sickly flower buds (they never did bloom) on my bed before passing out in a drunken stupor. Upon awakening, he informed me that he had driven my car up onto the curb and blown out the tire.

Most of my other Valentine's Days, I was single, and celebrated by indulging in varying degrees of bitterness.

This year marks the very first that I had the opportunity to celebrate Valentine's Day in the traditional manner – you know, by going out on a real date with my real significant other – and I aimed to make the most of it. No one was going to stand in my way!

When my procrastinating boyfriend failed to secure reservations for the restaurant he's been promising to take me to since our few-month anniversary, he transferred the restaurant selection to me (fair enough, since I'm such a picky eater) and suggested that if it was too much hassle, we might just make lasagna and stay in. I let him have it.

And by that, I mean I said "darn it."

You might think I'm being a little Type-A about it all, but I've been waiting 28 years for this, and it's my special day! I will have a restaurant! I will wear a pink dress! I will show off my relationship status for the whole world to see! These were the firm pronouncements that I made in my head.

Of course, my special day was not without its share of bumps. Since my plans were to head to dinner immediately after work without heading home in the interval, several challenges arose.
  • I chose to shower in the morning rather than at night so I could blow-dry my hair. Unfortunately, my housemate also changed his shower schedule, so I got a late start while waiting for him.
  • In the rush to get out the door, I forgot my earrings and perfume, which were going to be essential parts of my personal decor. I did, however, remember the dress, the shoes, and the makeup, which I consider even more essential elements of my decor, and my boyfriend actually complimented me at dinner, which he never does.
  • After the sudden realization that the bus was coming in two minutes, I ran to the stop at top speed...and made it, but not without a respiratory price: I spent the rest of the morning trying to clear the resultant scratchy throat.
And then there were the gustatory woes.
  • When I pulled my lunch out of the refrigerator, I found my little container of chick pea salad in my lunch bag, empty! At first I thought it might have been a packing error, but when I got home, it was clear that it had not been, and someone had eaten my lunch! I thought I could trust my office mates, but apparently we have one of those mythical lunch thieves that I never believed existed. My faith in humanity has taken something of a blow. Not to mention, I had nothing for lunch but half a cucumber, so was hypoglycemic and none too genial when we ran into traffic on the way to dinner.
  • The restaurant that I had picked out had a price fixe Valentine's Day dinner. I figure "fixe" must be some synonym for "exorbitant," because I was appalled by the sum. When I chose the place, I had mistakenly believed their regular menu would be available. It was not, and I was obliged to eat a 60-dollar meal that was less appetizing than, say, a 6-dollar burrito. On the plus side, the meal came with "a rose for the ladies," and since my gift-challenged boyfriend (I could write a whole entry on that topic alone) certainly wasn't giving me one, I had to take what I could get.
Sigh. It looks like, even though my hopes were high for things to be different, I have nonetheless kept my tradition of the Bitter Valentine Blog. Looks like great expectations lead to great disappointments, so next year, I'll return to the regular old low-maintenance me. Or maybe I'll hold out for dinner and a present.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Arrival

In English class once in high school, we had a discussion about what it means to have arrived. You have to say it like that, with the italics. I can't remember which literary character or author had done the arriving in our discussion, but I never forgot the phrase. To "have arrived" means something along the lines of  having "achieved the ultimate success."

A few days ago, sitting at the office reading Web development blogs, it occurred to me that I am an IT professional. And the thought immediately followed: "I have arrived!"

I was going to blather on about how cool it is to be an official computer geek, and how I like design but am not always as fond of designers, but it wasn't coming out well...

So instead, I'll talk about arrival of another sort: the sort that you do in an automobile.

After 6 weeks of employment at the university, I think I've finally got a handle on bus transportation.

There are six different buses that can transport me a reasonable distance to and from work and home. These six buses serve three different stops that are close to my house, and 3 different stops close to work. It took me quite a while to figure out which ones were going to get me to my destination most efficiently. This was especially difficult since the buses with the most direct route home also only service the stops that take the longest to get to.

The campus shuttle is an obvious first choice, since it's free, and drops me just a 2-minute walk from my office. It also arrives at the closest of the three stops near my home. The problem with the shuttle is its roundabout path to my house, which takes 20 minutes to traverse (for a total time of 28 minutes, including walking and waiting at the stop).

There are 2 Metrobuses that travel between my neighborhood and the campus area. Unfortunately, the stops near campus require an 8 minute walk to the office and a 10 minute walk from the office (different stops inbound and outbound), and Metrobuses make a lot of stops and don't follow the schedule very strictly. To catch either of these buses, I have to leave the office around 4:35, and I get home just about 5:00. It's a 25-to-30-minute trip—potentially shorter than the campus shuttle, but higher stress because of the unpredictable schedule, and it costs $1.50 each way.

My most recent discovery, which really puts an interesting twist on things, is that the county bus 17, which costs only a dollar to begin with, is free for University affiliates! It runs the same route as one of the MetroBuses, but it's usually less crowded and makes fewer stops. Leaving the office at 4:32, I have made it home by 4:56 taking this bus. 24 minutes! But I really have to book it to the stop, since my workday ends at 4:30. Its real benefit comes in the morning, since it arrives in my neighborhood about 10 minutes after the campus shuttle does, and gets me to the office 5 minutes before! The catch is that I have to cross a busy street to get to the stop, and yesterday, the bus actually came while I was still waiting at the crosswalk. I had to dash across the street, blocking traffic, in order to make it onto the bus.

So my conclusion after all this transit research, is that the 7-minute variation in transit times is negligible, and I should choose my routes based on cost and convenience. In the morning, that means shooting for the early campus shuttle, but on those days when I'm having trouble with my hair or clothes or alarm clock, I know I can fall back on the county bus, or if I'm really running late, the MetroBus.

In the afternoon, I also choose the campus shuttle, but if the weather's nice and I've got my walking shoes on and I want some exercise, I can hike on over to the public bus stop and take the county bus home. But even this plan presents a dilemma, as this afternoon, I walked to the public stop, intending to take the county bus, but a Metrobus came first! Should I wait the two minutes for the free bus, or save 2 minutes and lose $1.50? I chose to lose the 1.50, because I started to fear that maybe this was the day the county bus would never come.

I guess I still don't have a handle on any of it.