Saturday, June 30, 2012

30B430 Book 22: The Great Gatsby

Somehow I got through high school and college without ever reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. So I was really excited when our book club chose it for our latest book. I'll be honest, mainly because I am excited about the movie that is coming out this Christmas staring Leonardo DiCaprio.

While the book is short, just 180 pages, it took me awhile to actually get into it and get used to Fitzgerald's writing style. I also found myself looking up the Sparknotes online, to make sure that I was understanding all of the different symbolism and themes in the book. Hello high school! Except this time, I was doing it, not to pass a quiz, but because I wanted to get the deeper meaning. I cannot say that I have done that in awhile. Does anyone else do that?

I did enjoy the novel, and the tragic love affair of Gatsby and Daisy. Perhaps I need to read more classic literature, and less current best sellers. It was certainly a change of pace.

I am even more excited to see the movie. Leo is definitely a great choice for Gatsby. And I can't wait to discuss it with book club, of course.

Just eight more books to go!

Fat Cats

My cats are fat. Not "cool" fat. Or Phat. (Thank God we do not use that phrase any more). Overweight fat. Chubby little kitties.

We sort of already knew this. At their last vet visit during the winter, Stella was "solid" and Bucky was "chubby." Both have quite the belly, although you cannot really see Bucky's through his long fur.

We did a little weigh in last night...

Bucky: 14
I kept telling myself that he is just a large cat, but that is definitely not a healthy weight.

Stella: 15
Yes, my tiny little kitten has somehow surpassed Bucky. She likes to eat.

So now we are staging Biggest Loser: Pets in our home. I have been reading about weight loss strategies for cats, since we cannot exactly just throw them on a treadmill while Jillian Michaels yells at them. We are starting with a few main changes. They'll get to eat 4 times a day, but will not have food just out all the time. Just plenty of water. We are also giving them both wet and dry food. Although I hate the wet stuff, it is apparently higher in protein than the dry stuff, which is mostly carbohydrates. I read some articles that said cats are carnivores - they need meat. Actually, a mouse a day is supposedly the perfect meal for a cat. I don't need mice in my house though, so I will stick with food from the store.

And exercise? Well, we are doing our best to get these lazy cats to play. I am just glad that they chase each other a lot.

Stella is used to eating all day long, so she currently thinks she is starving. It is hard not to give in to those little kitty cries, but it is for her own health.

Any suggestions for successful pet weight loss strategies?  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Things I'm Afraid to Tell You

So the "Things I'm Afraid to Tell You" posts have been circling around blogs for awhile now. I may be a little late to the game, but it is because I have actually written and rewritten this post several times. Here goes....

1. I worry often that others do not see me as a genuine person. Maybe this is because one of my identified strengths is "Woo" or Winning Others Over. Basically, its description says that I am good at meeting people and getting them to like me. While I try to embrace that this is a skill that I have, sometimes I wonder if people see me as a superficial or surface person. That I don't have depth or substance.

2. Although I am making progress, I worry that I will never finish my dissertation. That it will just become another thing that I started and did not finish. I know that I have talked about this before, but it continues to be a mental hurdle for me to work through each morning as I try to motivate myself to write. I know that I can be my own greatest enemy here. Similar to my running training, I just need to get out of my head and do it, but that is easier said than done.

3. I wish that I had things more together when I was in college. Sure, I graduated and got good grades. And I was an involved student leader. At times, I did a great job looking like I knew what I was doing. But inside, I was a total mess. And I made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of opportunities. I know my student development theory, and that it is all part of the growth process - where the learning happens. Working on a college campus every day, I see the opportunities in front of our students, and it is hard to think about different choices that I would make, if given a do-over. I might have made the time to study abroad, to apply for a scholarship to UIFI or Leadershape, to be a better sorority president, and most importantly, to take better care of myself and not engage in so many risks.

4. I am jealous of friends who have seen the world. I listen with envy and pour over others' pictures of these amazing adventures that I have never had. I have always had this vision of myself as a world traveler, with exposure to and an enjoyment of different cultures. My life experiences would indicate otherwise. The only place I have been out of the country is Tijuana. Womp womp. I want to dedicate more of my time and my budget to travel, but also am scared of that big unknown world out there. And I sort of fear that I will never actually get to all of those cool places on my bucket list because I do not make it a priority. And that would just make me really sad.

5. If you cannot tell, I worry a lot. I am really good at dwelling on things, letting them eat at me. On working myself up to the point that I cannot sleep at night. To the point that for awhile, I was having regular panic attacks. It was very scary, especially because I was living far away from family and close friends, and was scared to share this with those living in proximity to me. I am very grateful to be past that point in my life, but still struggle with anxiety and certain triggers. Thankfully, I have learned some better coping mechanisms to help me work through those now.

Phew. That's it. Out there for the world to see.

While I value vulnerability and try to put myself out there on this blog, sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming. I was reminded of the importance of vulnerability at a staff professional development event earlier this week. The presenters shared one of the best TED Talks that I have seen by Brene Brown on "The Power of Vulnerability." I have shared it below, in case you might be looking for a little motivation to put yourself out there as well. Worth the watch.

Happy Thursday!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Patty Cake, Patty Cake...

One of my favorite hobbies is baking. I find cooking stressful. Baking is relaxing.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take a cake decorating class through the local community college. While I knew how to bake, I actually wanted my cakes to look pretty, with the little stars and such. We learned a variety of techniques that I still use quite a bit when I bake both cakes and cupcakes. I thought I would share the top ten tips I learned for baking/decorating, for any other aspiring bakers out there.

1. There is nothing wrong with using cake mix. In fact, our instructor (who happens to be one of the main wedding cake decorators at a popular St. Louis bakery), encouraged it. She said that it is more important to make your icing from scratch, but that generally the cake mixes are pretty good. One of her favorite baking books is The Cake Mix Doctor by Anne Byrn. It shares a bunch of mix ins that you can add to liven up the box mixes. Our instructor also shared that typically a boxed mix will make two 8-inch rounds. For a bigger cake, you can use the Jiffy mix to add to your batter.

2. If you make your buttercream with shortening, it is easier for decorating. My mom disagrees with me on this one, because she likes the taste of buttercream made with real butter. However, I did find the shortening-based buttercreams to hold up better over time. Plus, you can use butter flavoring to improve the taste.

3. Use a cake leveler to make sure your layers are even and sit flat. The cake leveler is another handy tool that I had never used prior to taking the class. Since cakes, square or round, tend to come out with a rounded and uneven top, this helps to make sure that the top layer sits nicely on the bottom layer. My favorite thing about taking the tops off of the layers is eating the tops while I decorate the rest of the cake, of course!

4. Stack your cakes with the tops on the inside. This is harder to explain without a picture. Basically, for a two layer cake, your bottom cake will be top up/bottom down, you'll add a layer of icing in the middle, and then your top layer will be bottom up/top down. This will give you the most flat surface to work with for the top of your cake. Plus you'll get less crumbs since you've take the top off and don't have much of a crust left on the top of the cake.

5. Always crumb coat your cake. This was probably the most important tip that I learned. I had never heard of a crumb coat before, but it is a thin, more watery layer of icing that you put down on the cake first, to hold in all the crumbs so that your top layer of icing doesn't look all messy. Here is a quick video from the Betty Crocker Kitchen, which will help explain the technique. You also want to let your crumb coat firm up before you add your icing on top.

The first cake that I ever decorated for our class. Look how smooth that the white icing is!
6. The best way to smooth out your icing on the cake is by using paper towel, specifically Viva! Did you know that Viva paper towel is the only brand that does not have a pattern? I am fairly confident that bakers are going to do their best to keep that company in business, because you can actually shape an iced cake using paper towel, once the icing has crusted a bit. It actually becomes fairly pliable after you have iced with your main layer and let it start to set.

7. To keep vanilla from discoloring your cake or icing, use clear vanilla. Yes, it may not be real vanilla extract, but if you are going for white icing, you do not want it to have a brown tinge. 

8. When adding color to your icing, always use gel or paste colors - not liquid. We probably all grew up with food coloring being those little plastic tubes that come in a box of four. However, I learned that those do not mix as evenly and give the same vibrant colors that you can get with gel or paste coloring. Plus, there are so many more colors to choose from with the gel colors. One thing that is good to know - it is very hard to make a true red icing. No matter how much color you add, it will tend to look dark pink. Black is also hard to get beyond dark grey, so if you can, use a canned chocolate icing in place of black.

My second cake. The closest I could get to red icing - still looks pretty pink.
9. Outline your designs using clear piping gel. See the really cute elephant I made? I actually got the design from a Winnie the Pooh coloring book. I put a piece of wax paper over the top, and outlined the coloring book lines with clear piping gel. I then flipped it over and transferred it to the top of my cake. It gave a great outline, which I could then trace in a thin chocolate line. Then I added my stars within the outlines, and did my shells along the bottom of the cake.  

10. Practice your different piping techniques, and learn the shapes that the different tips will make. We actually spent most of our first class learning how to properly use a piping bag with the different tips, tracing lines and shapes over waxed paper. I could still use a lot of practice.

The biggest tip I would give is to actually take a class. They are really fun, and fairly inexpensive. I took one at the community college, but you can also learn the Wilton method through classes at different craft stores.

Take a class, and you will never have to buy a cake at the grocery store again!

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