Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Christmas Cookies

John's family bakes Christmas cookies. Specifically, John's mom bakes Christmas cookies. It's not Christmas without a tray of a half a dozen or more types of cookies, each with its own provenance. In recent years, Kay has scaled back, and now doesn't make any at all unless she knows the whole family will be assembling for Christmas.

Last year, John wanted to make sure he wasn't without one of his favorite cookies, Greek Twists. So, he asked his mom to show him how to make them.

And the only camera I had on me was my cell phone camera. Still, though, I observed and documented; John mixed and baked. This was no small feat, as the recipe calls for 5 pounds of cake flour, and Kay mixes it by hand. And by that I mean, with her hands.

"What kind of Christmas cookies do you bake?" Kay asked me. This feels like a loaded question when it comes from your mother-in-law. John and I were already married, so it's not like my answer would be a deal-breaker.

Quite a few people in my family bake, but when it comes to Christmas cookies, what springs to mind is the Christmas cookie tray at my Grandma Arnold's house: chocolate chip cookies spiked with a little peppermint to make them extra Christmasy, the chewy cookies with the Hershey's Kiss pressed into the middle, and what I have thought for my entire life were buckyballs but Google now tells me are actually called buckeye balls.

I described these to my mother-in-law, and all was good.

This year, since my Christmas tradition is really more to eat cookies than to make them, I hadn't given Christmas cookies a second thought. But John offhandedly mentioned Greek twists one day, and that stuck in the back of my mind. After wandering the baking aisle at the grocery store looking for something resembling "Velvet cake flour" (found: grade 00 pastry flour), I offhandedly mentioned that I thought we could get all the ingredients we needed for the Greek twists. "OK, then - let's bake!" he says.

A couple of days and about 15 stores later (for a comprehensive/frantic search for: Crisco, molasses, Hershey's Kisses; of those, only found molasses), we were making Greek twists; the peanut butter cookies with the Hershey's Kiss (substituted a square of Cadbury's chocolate); and ginger snaps, an excellent recipe from my mom's sister's husband's family.

And while I definitely enjoy eating cookies, I also enjoy giving them away. So John headed off to work with little trays for the people in the office who make everyone else's lives easier, and we gave trays to our neighbors. But don't worry, we saved plenty for ourselves.

But I'm not telling how many are left.

So, it seems that we're carrying on the tradition of making Greek twists. If you'd like to try your hand at them, the recipe is below. They come out tasting like a light(ish) shortbread with a bit of a citrus zing. And, the recipe makes about 12 million cookies.

Greek twist recipe, as it appears in my mother-in-law's well-worn, well-loved cookbook.

Greek Twists
(from the Travis Family, via Great Aunt Rita on John's Dad's side of the family, which came to Detroit from Bitola, Macedonia, near the Greek border)

1 pound Blue Bonnet Oleo [margarine]
1/2 pound sweet butter
1 1/2 to 2 cups sugar
juice from 1 orange
zest from one orange
6 Tbsp coffee cream (light cream, or half-and-half)
2 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
Velvet cake flour (Kay gets 5 pounds; you don't always need all of it)

Cream together margarine, butter, and sugar. Add baking soda to the orange juice. Add it to the batter, then add the rest of the ingredients in sequence. Add enough sifted flour to make a smooth dough. [We used about 4 pounds for our most recent batch.] Roll out a small gob until it's pencil thin, fold it in half, and twist. Glaze with egg white. Sprinkle with ground walnuts if you like such thing. Bake in a 350 degree oven until they're light brown. The Travis kids like these sprinkled with some powdered sugar.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Watch Out, It's a Dragon (Boat)

On the 4th day of blogging, my true love gave to me...a dragon boat race.

September often turns out to be one of the best months in Cambridge weather-wise and this year was no exception. I convinced KT to take a stroll down the river for a short look at the annual dragon boat races I had heard about. A bright sun and a warm day meant she was soon chiding me not bringing newspapers and chairs as we could have happily stayed there all day. The races involved mini-dragon boats, not the full-sized one, and the crews were mainly first-timers who signed up with their company or academic department for the fundraising event. A drummer on each boat beat out the rowing rhthym. It was clearly a lot of fun, with one boat crew decked out in kimonos and another in pirate costumes. As the day wore on, it even got competitive. I've vowed to sign Science magazine up for a spot next year. --J.T.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Meet Wooly the Alpaca

On the 3rd day of blogging, my true love gave to alpaca?

One of our best unblogged trips of the year so far has to be a long weekend trip in late March/Early April to Cornwall on the west coast of southern England. We had heard how spectacular the coastal walks were and we weren’t disappointed. In the course of our 6 hour drive there, Katie found an unusual pub stop—the Eliot Arms was full of old clocks, and served delicious food.

We stayed at Caradoc on Tregardock, a renovated building on a working farm that was right on the coast—there’s a hidden surfing beach below the cliff the farm is on so crazy surfers in dry/wetsuits occasionally came through. Besides amazing views, the farm had sheep about to lamb, and a cute alpaca named Woolly who guards the sheep. What it did not have that first night there, when a biting wind swept the clifftop, was much heat. We couldn't get the wood fire going and the heat didn't kick on.
Thankfully, Sunday turned out to be sunny and relatively warm for so early in spring. We headed down the coast to Wadebridge, a village in the middle of a well-known bike route called the Camel Trail. We rented bikes and headed off to the coastal town of Padstow, which has largely been made famous as the home and inspiration of celebrity chef Rick Stein. To us, it was simply a cute fishing village, much like Bar Harbor in Maine, with great ice cream and a beautiful sandy estuary at low tide. After biking back to Wadebridge, it was so pretty we kept going the opposite way on the former railroad track, following a pretty stream through lovely woods and even passing a small vineyard. Best of all, when we got home exhausted, the heat was on and the farm owner had the fire blazing.

On Monday, we ventured north up the coast to the evocative ruins of Tintagel, a castle on rocky peninsula that, according to legend and the marketing forces of the nearby village, is the legendary home of King Arthur. From there we went someplace much more modern, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant, which overlooks one of the most popular surfing beaches in all of Cornwall. As the sun set and the surfers took their last rides, we enjoyed a nice meal prepared and served by some of the disadvantaged youth that Oliver trains at several of his restaurants.
Tuesday, we snuck in one final walk along the cliffside before heading home. We made a delightful pub stop in the village of Boscastle, which has recovered nicely it appears from a devastating flash flood in 2004. The short trip was without a doubt one of the nicest weekends we had in 2009--and we're already plotting to visit another part of Cornwall next year.--JT

Our Best of Cornwall photoalbum has some more great pictures here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

First Stop, Vienna

As I try to catch up on our year, perhaps I will shoot for the 12 days of blogging...

November was a whirlwind. Early in the month, we made a trip back to the U.S., visiting both DC for work, friends, and KT's parents and Detroit for my family. We had a great time in both places, although we as usual ran out of time to see everyone and eat everywhere we wanted. We did finally make a trip to the new location of our favorite steakhouse, had a fun happy hour at local DC brewpub, and celebrated an early Thanksgiving at my brother's house. I also got to mow a lawn for the first time in more than 2 decades, helping out my father-in-law who is on crutches due to a broken foot.

But the U.S. was just a precursor for our European adventure, which started about a day after we got back from America. I had been asked to talk on a panel at a science communication conference in Vienna so KT decided to join me, and then she and our friend AW came up with the idea of going from Vienna to Budapest to Prague and finally Munich! Work prevented me from doing the whole trip but I made most of it (more blogs to follow?!)

But beautiful (and remarkably warm and sunny) Vienna was the starting point and our hotel turned out to be in a perfect location with the cutest, best Christmas market in the city just around the corner. We had amazing potato pancakes, smothered in a salty garlic sauce, from one of the stalls. We also were near 7SternBrau, a nice brew hall that makes some tasty brews. There we got our first taste of goulash, although it would be far from our last. Vienna was also full of beautiful shops and art galleries, many with great window displays. I liked the art gallery full of "birds"(right)

My panel talk went well and I found the other talks interesting, even if they were in German--my session was one of the few in English,so I had to wear headphones for translation. The most amusing talk was from the host of an incredibly popular German children's show called The Program with the Mouse. This educational show has been on since 1971, explaining difficult topics in easy ways. From the way the audience listened and laughed to the host, and peppered him with 30 minutes of questions, it was clear the show was Germany's version of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood or Captain Kangaroo.

So what of Vienna itself. Gorgeous and grand--much more so that its current status would suggest. But Vienna used to be at the heart of Europe so it has some of the most impressive buildings anywhere (Pictures at the top is the cathedral and part of the Imperial Palace). We had a lovely dinner with friends in the very chic restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art so Vienna isn't all old stuff either. Sadly, I had to go home, leaving KT and AW on their own for further adventures...


Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Vintage Year for a Cheese Angel

In the early evening about two weeks’ ago, KT and I biked over to Jesus College for what turned out to be a delicious and entertaining event. It was a port tasting dinner organized by a local wine shop we like. As you may recall from our trip to Porto, we quite enjoy this strong, sweet fortified wine but even we weren’t prepared to drink as many ports as we did that night. In the end, we tried (I think—the memory is hazy) 11 ports and 3 wines—and KT had a new job (more on that later).

The host of the evening was a chap representing Graham, one of the biggest sellers of premium port (It's also the port company whose lodge we stayed behin in Porto--see picture on the old blog post). Most port is red but as people straggled into the hall, we started off with Dow’s Fine White port (Dow is one of Graham’s labels and unsurprisingly given the speaker, all the ports we had were from the company). With the host providing some background, we then sped through about 6 different red ports, including the varieties known as tawny, ruby, crusted, late bottle, and vintage. Vintage ports are produced from the grapes of a single year and a committee in Portugal, home of port, determines whether a particular year earns that honor (which skyrockets the price).

Next, after a mint julep made with white port, we moved onto dinner--by then everyone was in a good mood. To be honest, the food wasn’t that memorable. But we had 3 wines from Portugal (while it’s best known for port, its normal wines have improved a lot recently) and got to know those sitting next to us, which included two professors who were “wine stewards” at local colleges. This delightful-sounding job means that they buy the wine for the students and professors associated with the college—for use at dinners and for purchase at cheap prices. One of those stewards says his college’s cellar contained more than 3000 bottles—and he noted that Trinity College, the biggest here, has 14,000 bottles and spends around £3 million (around $5million) annually on wine! The other person of note we met was Dave, the chap who runs the cheese stall in the city centre market. Dave provided the cheese course for the night (picture at top) and the 3 he picked were spectacular, particularly the Glastonbury cheddar.

Some more ports followed with dessert, including the grand finale: Grahams 1977 vintage port. Unfortunately, to the dismay of the real connoisseurs, the magnum was slightly corked—the cork in the bottle had gone bad, subtly spoiling the taste. I have to admit I didn’t think it was bad—just not great.

What about KT’s new job? Well, she jokingly asked Dave if needed any holiday help at the cheese stall and he said sure, he could use another “cheese angel”. Given the amount of alcohol consume that evening, KT wasn’t sure if he was serious but she emailed him the next day and a week later had a “training” session to prepare her to work yesterday. Unfortunately, a rare snow storm struck here and Dave called to say business would be so slow he didn’t need her to stand out in the freezing cold for 8-plus hours. Oh well, perhaps another day my cheese angel will earn her wings. --JT

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Nobel Prize Made of Chocolate? (My Amazing Race to Stockholm)

It began Thursday morning with an email labeled "Urgent". By Saturday afternoon, I was eating reindeer mousse and deer pate in Stockholm at a private lunch with the 3 biologists who won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine.

Let's back up a bit. Science magazine and GE sponsor an essay contest for young biologists and every year the grand prize and regional winners get their award in Stockholm during Nobel Prize week, so that they get to meet the biology Nobel winners (Here's a description of the award and a video of last year's festivities -- there may be one of this year's ceremony posted later). This year, a colleague here in Cambridge who was supposed to host the ceremony hurt his foot Wednesday night so we were desperate Thursday to find someone to find someone for the Friday night ceremony. While I was looking forward to a quiet weekend, how could I pass this up? The only sad thing was Katie couldn't come as she had no passport--it was getting renewed as it's about to expire.

I spent Thursday racing around madly, booking my flight, bicycling over to the hurt colleague's home to get his Swedish crowns, and packing. KT was a Godsend, washing and ironing my good dress shirts even with hosting friends for a dinner. Friday morning I caught a 6:30am cab to Heathrow airport for a 10:30am flight. The whole cab ride was in heavy fog but I assumed it would burn off. Nope. I was fogged in at the airport--flights were canceled or delayed allover the place. As I impatiently waited, it became clear I might not make the 7pm ceremony in Stockholm. It didn't help that the airline rarely updated the information on the flight. Finally, however, the plane arrived and after a quick gas-up, we took off more than 4 hours late at 2:30pm (3:30pm Stockholm time). As I landed at 6:05pm, I felt like I was in an episode of Amazing race. I dashed through Customs, waited with annoyance for my checked-in luggage(checking the bag was stupid, I chided myself), and then ran to catch the high speed train that makes the 20 minute trip to the city centre train station, where I hopped into a cab to the hotel where the ceremony was taking place. I left my bags at the door and dashed be handed a glass of champagne at 7:10pm.

Fortunately, there was a cocktail party before the ceremony so I had about 30 minutes to cool down and learn what I was supposed to do! The dinner ceremony went splendidly. We were in the Hall of Mirrors at the Grand Hotel, the impressive ballroom where the Nobel prizes were given out for the first few decades. Albert Einstein and Marie Curie got their prizes in that room, which was modeled after one in the Palace of Versailles, and all the Nobel prize winners and their families still stay at the hotel (Nobel factoid: winner get to bring 16 other people to Stockholm). I introduced the CEO of GE Healthcare, made a little speech about encouraging young scientists, gave a little story about the work of each winner, and handed out the awards. At my table, I had the winner from Japan, Japan's ambassador to Sweden and several prominent Swedish scientists. The night's entertainment were 8 members of a famed 100-plus men's choir from Sweden called Orphei Drangar.

The next day was equally fun. The kids and I were transported to the Nobel Forum, the building at the Karolinska Institute where the Physiology/Medicine prize is decided by 50 faculty members. After meeting with the president of the Karolinska, we and the faculty got to ask questions of this year's winners (Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak) who had made a fundamental discovery on how cells protect their chromosomes, one that may be relevant to aging. Afterward, about 40 of us had a private lunch with the Nobel prize winners. We ate on special gold-plated china that is only used when Nobel laureates are dining at the Forum. The Nobel laureates by that point were relaxing (pictured above with GE essay winners and the Nobel Forum's attendants). They had already received their prize earlier in the week, attended the big concert, and given their Nobel lecture. Blackburn apparently amused everyone by being the first Laureate to thank her driver--the prize winners get whisked around Stockholm the whole week by special limo drivers. She also got laughs at the lunch by expressing her disappointment that the Nobel prize wasn't made of chocolate--gold foil-covered chocolate "medals" (top picture) were handed out at the Forum and we all stuffed many in our pockets.

That whirlwind was the end of my work duties--less than 24 hours of craziness!--but I then spent a delightful Saturday afternoon roaming Stockholm's Old Town. All the Christmas decorations were out and since it starts getting dark there by 3 pm, the lights were all glittering by the time the snow started falling on the Royal Palace and Christmas markets. Sunday, the weather remained nice and I walked to the Vasamuseum, which houses a 17th century warship that had sunk and been raised in the 1960s (KT went to it alsp on her trip last year to Stockholm) and took a boat tour through the canals of Stockholm. Before heading back to the airport, I went to 2 more Christmas markets, one with an ice rink and carolers singing Rudolph in Swedish and the second where I bought 7 kinds of smoked sausage to bring home to KT. Aren't I the best husband in the world--Who needs diamonds or perfume? --JT

Here's a short photoalbum of the trip (I only had my camera phone)

Friday, December 11, 2009

10 Things to Do with the DC Editors in Cambridge

This post is brought to you by our friend Sarah, who visited in September. She's far more on top of things than we are; she wrote months ago about seeing Darwin everywhere, and about our trip to the British Cheese Festival. And, well, I haven't written much of anything lately. Sorry about that, with particular apologies to the 1-7 of you who still check weekly to see if we've updated. The good news is, I'm about to start working on our year in review book, which means I'll be writing some stuff up retroactively. Anyway, enough of that. Let's get on to Sarah's ....

10 Things to Do with the DC Editors in Cambridge

1. Let KT and JT tell you where to go. They live there and have seen enough of Cambridge (and enough of their friends being tourists in Cambridge) to have a good idea of what's good, what you might not know about and what will probably let you down.

2. Go on an official Cambridge tour. Yes, it costs money (always a downside when I'm traveling), but it will give you some history of the town and university and help you to better find your way around.

3. Shop in the market square. Sure, most of the items for sale aren't unique, but the market has been there for hundreds of years, and the food can be really yummy.

4. Visit Trinity College Library. They have a 1st edition of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia with Newton's own notes for the 2nd edition, A. A. Milne's handwritten manuscript for Winnie-the-Pooh, and plenty of other treasures tucked away in glass-topped cases in the cavernous Wren Library.

5. Check out Cambridge's museums. I only made it to two--the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. I count at least six more to choose from the next time I'm in town.

6. Punting on the Cam. Much of the university, and the river Cam, are tucked away behind college walls. By punting--with beer or cider in hand--you can see some of the hidden bits.

7. Visit the Cambridge Botanic Garden. The garden was begun in 1831 by Charles Darwin's mentor, Professor John Stevens Henslow. Even in late fall, it was beautiful.

8. Go to evensong in King's College chapel. Even the nonreligious can appreciate the amazing architecture in the dim of candlelight as they listen to the choir.

9. Let KT cook for you. I'm still salivating over the apple chicken.

10. Pet Cambridge's kitty cats. They're everywhere.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Trip Report: Berlin

There are some similarities among the big cities of Europe. Settled/invaded by the Romans; experienced a period of rapid growth/decline; crippled by plague/fire; divided/united over Catholicism/Protestantism; partially/completely destroyed during the war and later rebuilt/not rebuilt with traditional/modern buildings. Of course that's an overgeneralization, but you get the idea.

Berlin's story is a little different.

You see a strip of undeveloped area and wonder why. It's because until 20 years ago there were two parallel walls in Berlin, 100 meters apart, with a trench between them that was regularly raked so they could see if anyone had tried to escape. It was called the Death Strip.

You see bricks in the road, through neighborhoods. Until 20 years ago, that's where the Berlin Wall stood.

We were in front of the Brandenburg Gate on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday afternoon; runners in the Berlin Marathon would cross the finish line here the next day. Until 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall cut right in front of the Gate. Ronald Reagan gave his "tear down this wall" speech here 22 years ago.

We walked on to the Holocaust Memorial -- officially named the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - a full city block of 2,711 concrete columns of varying heights. It's rather abstract, and I heard a few different interpretations, many of which make sense. In the center of it, where the the concrete towers over you, it's cold and dark, and gravity - figuratively, and what feels like literally - weighs heavy. On the walls of the information center is a quote that comes with its own gravity: "It happened, therefore it can happen again."

We had plans to go to Rosh Hashanah services at the 19th century Neue Synagoge; I went along, naively thinking it would be neat to attend my first synagogue in such an old, historic building. Of course, the original synagoge was completely destroyed before and during WWII; the facade and domes are a reconstruction, and the original 3,000-seat main hall exists only as an outline. Instead, we went through a chain fence, past armed soldiers, through metal detectors, up two flights of stairs, and through narrow hallways to reach a 75-seat synagogue. There, the rabbi -- a woman -- welcomed us herself and offered us English translations of the German and Hebrew service, and we watched as the small, close-knit congregation came and went throughout our two hours there. The cantor sung the Psalms in a melodic tenor voice that I could have listened to all day.  I was wrong, it turned out: It was absolutely amazing to celebrate the new year in such an old, historic building.

I expected to see mohawks and black clothes and rebels and piercings. I didn't expect to go to an artists' community that developed when squatters took over an old, half-destroyed department store after the wall came down; see an artists' premiere in a former public toilet; and attend an opera, Mozart's Die Entf├╝hrung aus dem Serail.

The reason for the trip was a ladies' weekend -- part of a group of us that started in DC and has now spread out, to Berlin, Paris, Zurich, Cambridge, and more. All of us are in our mid-30s in fairly similar genres of jobs. I expected to have a good time; I didn't expect how much I needed some bonding with peers. What a positively fantastic group of ladies.

Everything about Berlin, from the place to the people I met there, defied and exceeded my expectations. What a fantastic surprise.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"You're Not Singing Anymore"

I only started to worry when the police helicopter showed up.

But that's getting ahead of myself, let's start a few hours earlier. We woke up early Saturday because KT had to to pick up a friend at Heathrow airport and then head for Cardiff in Wales. Why? Well, it's where Dr Who and Torchwood, two of their favorite TV shows, are filmed. Equally important there's the Great British Cheese festival in Cardiff castle, I expect them back tonite with lots of cheese!

It was supposed to be another warm, sunny weekend day so after Kate left, I planned a long bike ride, hooking together several routes I had already done. Though the cloudy start never burned off, the ride was great until about 12 miles out from the house my mobile phone rings--a researcher based in Spain that I needed to talk to happens to be in England and coming to Cambridge. Did I want to meet him in at the Eagle pub in a bit? Uh, yes. I biked about fast as I can go to get home--I did 26 miles in 2 hours (Sadly, I realized marathoners run that distance in the same time!) and met the source for a 90 minute interview.

From there I biked to a Cambridge United game against the big neighboring town of Luton. Luton was a league above us last year but dropped because they were penalized for shady financial dealings. Their fans are not happy about that and a thousand or more made the short trip to Cambridge.
Wild game--United went up 2-0, and seemed in control as the ref ejected a Luton player leaving them a man down and enraging their fans, who were on the verge of rioting. Away fans are segregated from home fans but Luton fans were taunting Cambridge fans with obscene chants and tried to break by the police to "our" side (left).

But after halftime, Luton stormed back, quickly scoring 3 goals. Delirious Luton fans started chanting to Cambridge fans "You're not Singing Anymore" and "We have only 10, We have only 10". A few rows from me a fight almost started between Luton team members sitting in "our" stands and a Cambridge fan. By that point, police reinforcements ringed the field. Cambridge tied the game, but Luton scored another to win the crazy game 4-3. As I walked out of the stadium, police vans and ambulances were lined up, officers were wearing riot gear and a helicopter buzzed overhead--and the Luton fans weren't being allowed to leave until the home fans had departed.

After that true taste of English football, I needless to say biked out of the area fast and came home to watch American college footbal with their passionate, but largely peaceful, crowds!


Below are some pictures from the much more peaceful bike ride, including one from the backside of the Cambridge American Cemetary.