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When Josh and I were driving from Georgia to Wisconsin, we made a strange caravan. I led in Josh’s old Toyota Echo, our chinchilla Jimmy Stewart in a cage on the passenger seat next to me. Josh followed behind in a 16-foot moving truck. I was responsible for navigation and ensuring that I didn’t drive too fast for the moving truck’s capacity, although when we were going through the mountains in Tennessee the truck was able to move much more quickly than the Echo. Throughout the two-day winter drive, in which we traveled identical but solo routes, we did share one thing: listening to non-stop NPR. This included (my mom will be happy to hear) two repeated hours of Garrison Keillor, the first when we were still in Eastern time, and the second identical hour once we had passed into Central time.

We also both listened to an interview with the authors of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook. Maybe it was the increasingly cold air swirling at our ankles or the bird-like hooting of the chinchilla, or the shaking of the moving truck in the winds of Southern Illinois, but we both latched onto the descriptions of slowly braised pork and simple recipes with basic ingredients made flavorful and wholesome. As we hunched over sandwiches at a Subway attached to a gas station, we sipped caffeinated beverages and said, “Yeah, that book sounds good,” and “Yeah, pork.”

We were tired. And the chinchilla was waiting.

The cookbook has yielded some delicious wok-based dinners that we’ve greatly enjoyed, but until tonight, we hadn’t attempted any desserts. I like the desserts I’ve had in Chinese restaurants (red bean paste, I’m looking at you) and I was intrigued by the recipe for Yellow Split Pea Cake at the back of the book. With only four ingredients (peas, sugar, water, and gelatin) it seemed easy enough to make.

Not how most of my cakes begin.

Not how most of my cakes begin.

First, I cooked the peas in sugared water, then dissolved the gelatin and mixed it in. Simple as that. A quick puree in the food processor, and the “cake” (really more of a gelatin or paste) was ready to firm up in the fridge. After a dinner of braised beef in soy sauce (from the same cookbook), the cake was ready to slice.

Just like a lemon meringue pie.

Just like a lemon meringue pie.

The cake was delicious. The texture is exactly like the filling of a red bean bun in a dim sum restaurant. The flavor is sweet, but not too sweet, and sumptuous with the peas adding a depth and a heartiness that usually I don’t associated with desserts. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see that there’s a layer of not very chopped up peas at the bottom of the cake. I should have processed the mixture in the food processor longer (or tried a blender, maybe, or some other way of puree-ing the whole deal until it was silky smooth). This is the only hiccup in the cake, as chewing through peas at the bottom of a cake is, shall we say, not so appetizing.

I would definitely make this again, though, and I’d recommend The Cultural Revolution Cookbook to anyone with a wok and some curiosity about traditional Chinese food.

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I competed in the Sugar River Triathlon on Sunday, my last tri of this calendar year. It was a really good race for me, though not the fastest, and I’ll post a race report soon. I was glad to have the extra (holiday) day to recover, but I found myself really sad about the end of the triathlon season. This was my first year racing tris and I fell in love with the sport. I feel like I wasted so much time between my first and second race and like there was so much more I could have done. That being said, I swam in open water three times (four if you count my one and only practice in a lake), I upgraded my bike and my average mph, and I PRed a 5k at the end of a triathlon. I placed in my first race and I am pretty proud of how I came onto the racing scene.

But the idea that it is all over until next June is kind of sad. And the high algae levels at the Sugar River Tri had my allergies acting up so much that the entire left side of my head (eye, nose, ear) were completely saturated with congestion. The weather here turned drastically overnight, as if to put the nail in the coffin of summer, and we went from very hot to what feels like bonafide fall.

The only solution was cupcakes.

I wanted to bid farewell to a summer that has been truly fantastic for me, so I chose strawberry. Strawberry Balsamic Cupcakes, to be exact.

Josh and I recently started watching Breaking Bad from the beginning, and I commented during an episode tonight that I feel the same way about baking that Walt does about cooking meth. I like the process of it and I like the chemistry of it.

I stood for about three straight hours making 12 cupcakes, and didn’t even notice until the end how sore my legs were from the race yesterday. The concentration it took to measure every component perfectly, to blend and coax the ingredients together, to make a balsamic reduction for the glaze while simultaneously checking the doneness of the cupcakes while at the same time whisking egg whites and sugar over heat for a Swiss buttercream was like Zen for me, and although I could tell you how many cups of strawberries I meticulously diced (3 cups), I won’t (oops).

I took the recipe from my favorite baking blog: Annie’s Eats. I would estimate that probably 97% of my cake and cupcake recipes come from this blog. For cookies and brownies, I do branch out a little bit. Living on the wild side and all.

The only modification I made to Annie’s recipe was to halve it, since we really didn’t need 24 cupcakes between the two of us. (Debatable.) One of my goals for next year’s racing season is to learn more about racing and nutrition. I flew by the seat of my pants for this year, marveling at how much more food I needed, learning the importance of bananas and chocolate milk, and starting to use Gu and Nuun, the former sparingly (can’t get over how much it grosses me out) and the latter on all long bike rides. I am not trying to lose weight and I’m not doing triathlons solely for the fitness, although I do and always have liked working out. But I do want to be fast, and I know nutrition plays into that. I also like making fancy pastry and learning about awesome beer from my husband. Maybe this is the Wisconsinite triathlete balance.

There were four components to the cupcakes: cake, frosting, topping, and balsamic glaze. This meant a lot of measuring. I have several sets of measuring cups, but I have this thing about mixing and matching them. What if the 1/2 cup measure in the white set isn’t the same as the 1/2 cup measure in the red set?

Tell me those don't look slightly different to you.

Tell me those don’t look slightly different to you.

That means I spend a fair amount of time rinsing, washing, and drying. The cake was the easiest part of this to assemble — the only thing I found slightly tricky was the first instruction to melt the butter and then cook it until it was a deep golden brown. I don’t think I let this go quite long enough, but the terror of the smoke detector (have I mentioned how afraid I am of the smoke detector? It’s ridiculous, seriously) had me taking the butter of the burner sooner than I probably should have. As a result (possibly?) I wasn’t able to get the creaming of the melted butter and sugars to be quite smooth.

Smooth and creamy it is not.

Smooth and creamy it is not.

But it worked out okay, and the cake turned out just fine. Moist and springy and all those good things.

The strawberry buttercream, I’m afraid, didn’t fare so well. I have tried Swiss buttercreams about 7 times now. I’ve gotten it right once. And yet I keep going for it because that one time was the most magical, delicious, glorious frosting I have ever made. Infinitely superior to an American buttercream. My crime this time was two-fold. The first fold? Both my candy thermometers are somehow broken. That made it difficult to tell when the mixture of egg whites and sugar had reached 160 degrees.

I bet you can't tell by sight what temperature we are either. Honestly, what good are you?

I bet you can’t tell by sight what temperature we are either. Honestly, what good are you?

The second fold happened after I thought everything was going to still turn out okay. The egg white and sugar mixture whipped up into perfect white peaks and the butter mixed in okay. But as soon as I added the macerated strawberries, everything looked curdled. I knew what to do to save it — just keep beating. But then, I don’t know why, I just stopped.

The kiss of death.

The kiss of death.

The result? Oh well. But making them made me feel a lot better and a lot less sad about the end of the triathlon racing season. As for the congestion, I was pleased to see the Sugar River Tri organizers had noticed the high algae levels and gave us three free samples of Advil Cold and Sinus in each race bag instead of the usual one.

We're here to help!

We’re here to help!

It’s been so hot lately that all I can really say about triathlon training is “Uhhhhhhhhhhggnnnn,” so let’s get back to taking about food. I’ve been wanting to make cake pops for a while, and finally had a good excuse when a co-worker’s birthday was coming up. We’ve been having a lot of baked goods at the office lately, so bringing in inch-wide balls of pastry on a stick seemed like a nice change of pace both in terms of size and style.

I used this cake recipe, this frosting recipe, and these basic instructions for assembling the pops. The co-worker who was celebrating a birthday is a big fan of white chocolate, so I bought white chocolate candy melts, with brightly colored sprinkles mixed in, to create the coating on the outside.

There was no need for the whole two-layer cake linked above, so I halved the recipe, baked a heck of a yellow cake, and then fighting against all my instincts to preserve the beauty and integrity of well-made pastry, I smashed it. I smashed it real good.

The key is... wait for it... ripping the cake apart.

The key is… wait for it… ripping the cake apart.

After smashing the cake, I started adding in frosting to the cake crumbs. The instructions I followed cautioned me to not use too much frosting, but I had made a whole batch of it before I read that part, and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with a pile of leftover frosting (other than eat a spoonful every time I walked past the fridge) so I put in more than I should have. The result? Kind of oily balls of cake.

cake balls

Next step: melting chocolate and getting those sticks in. I bought the melting chocolate, the sticks, and a neat little cardboard cake pop carrier at Jo-Ann Fabrics, which has a surprisingly awesome baking section. To be fair, it’s much more focused on decorating than baking, but this was the first time in a long while that I’ve been somewhere I had to make a conscious effort to drag myself away from. (As an aside, when I was going to Jo-Ann’s website to link those supplies, I saw a note indicating that “Cupcakes are still on trend!” Phew!)

In the future, I would probably not using the melting chocolate again, but the glue-like quality of it did serve me well for getting the stick stuck in there. It was as easy as dipping the tip of the stick into the melted chocolate and then jamming it into the cake ball.

Badda bing...

Badda bing…

Badda boom!

Badda boom!

Once the sticks were in the cake balls, they went into the freezer for 20 minutes to completely solidify, leaving me to think about baking chocolate, and whether Baker’s brand white chocolate, or even Ghirardelli if I was into spending big bucks would have been a better option. I don’t know how well it would keep the ball on the stick in an anti-gravity position, but it would have tasted a lot better. It does take a lot of melted chocolate to cover the balls, though, so budget is not an insignificant thing to consider. Another possible solution would be to use the melting chocolate for the stick-in-ball part (wow) and then use a higher quality chocolate for the coating on the outside. Of course milk or dark chocolate would be fantastic, too; for this particular batch I was targeting a specific person’s taste buds, so white chocolate was the winning choice.

After the 20 minutes were up, the balls were ready to be dipped in the melted chocolate. This is to make them beautiful and also to hide the flat sides the balls acquired while in the freezer.

Ready or not...

Ready or not…

Go! Go! Go!

Go! Go! Go!

And there you go. I ran out of melting chocolate, so used the leftover buttercream to coat the remaining balls. The best technique I found for this was to put a pile of frosting on a spoon, and then twirl the ball in the cup of the spoon until it was evenly coated. For cakes and cupcakes, I prefer the flavor of a Swiss buttercream, but I think this American buttercream recipe works better for coating a sphere. The powdered sugar in the American buttercream helps the frosting adhere to the underside of the ball (it is nearly impossible to write about cake balls without creating ridiculous phrases like this.) American buttercream is also a lot easier and faster to make. It took me probably four tries before I finally made a Swiss buttercream correctly (without cooking the egg whites, which makes the buttercream gross with sort of scrambled egg bits in it), but when I did for the first time, it was a true revelation.

Once the balls were coated, I put them in the cardboard display case and stored the whole shebang in the freezer overnight until I took them to work the next day.

My beauties!

My beauties!

You can see at least three on the right side of the picture that got the buttercream instead of the melting chocolate (it keeps the ball perched on the stick or it gets the buttercream again).

The cake pops went over really well at work. There’s just something fun about eating food off a stick, and I like having a two- or three-bite sized dessert now and then.

It wasn’t until I was writing this post that I realized how many compromises I made in terms of sacrificing flavor for functionality. Maybe this is a sign that cake pops can tend to be a curiosity rather than a good investment of flavor and ingredients. Or maybe just a sign that this was my first go at it. With more tries and experimentation, I would suspect that I can find a happy solution.

Also, almost every set of instructions for making cake pops that you can find will advise that you can use a boxed cake mix. “You’ll never be able to tell the difference!” they say. And sure, you could use a boxed cake mix. But you’ll be able to tell. I’ll be able to tell. And baking one layer of a simple cake recipe is pretty easy and fast. Just say no to boxed cake mixes. Not because I think people shouldn’t use time-saving devices and not because of some vendetta against pre-made food or just-add-water food (we all use it from time to time, seriously), but because cake is my own personal slice of the universe that I am taking a stand on, and I do not like boxed cake mix. There. I said it. I don’t like it one bit.

As a final note, I had to go straight to the gym after work, and it has been approximately 5,000 degrees with 100% humidity here for the past few weeks. This is what happens to cake pops when they sit inside a cake pop display, which in turn is inside a cake carrier for an hour and a half in a hot car:

Gravity always wins out in the end.

Gravity always wins out in the end.

One of the awesome presents we received for the act of getting married was this blow torch.

Bonjour!

Bonjour!

I have wanted a blow torch for the kitchen for a long time, mostly to make crème brûlées, so that’s the first thing I did with it. I’ve enjoyed a tradition in recent years of making a ridiculous dessert to top off Christmas dinner (Twelve Layer Mocha Cake, anyone?) so I was prepared for a long and complicated process to make the perfect custard, which I preferred (pre brûléeing) to refer to as a “crème” and then torch it to perfection.

I was surprised by how easy and, well, simple it was to make what’s, in my opinion, an almost perfect dessert. I went to Epicurious for my recipe, using the classic vanilla crème brûléeto start.
Making the crèmes was very, very easy. I used to be intimidated by recipes that called for vanilla beans, split lengthwise or otherwise, but I started using them about a year ago when making caramels and they are really quite simple to deal with. I buy mine at Penzeys, mostly because I don’t know where else to get them, and a pack of three beans lasts for a long time. To use them, all you have to do is cut them in half lengthwise with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds with a spoon. They look like a cross between dirt and alien eggs and clump together in a cluster. And if they ask at the store, you probably need Madagascar vanilla, not the other kind.

I had to bake my crèmes much longer than the recipe called for (closer to 60 minutes as opposed to the 20 to 25 minutes) but then I just slapped them in the fridge and took them to my parents’ house the next night for Christmas dinner.

brulee2This is what the pre-brûléed crèmes looked like.

It took us a lot longer than I would like to admit to figure out how to use the torch for the first time.

The gas goes where?

The gas goes where?

But, paradoxically, that just makes me love the torch more. It was so difficult to get it lit the first time that I felt a lot safer about storing it in our apartment when we weren’t using it. Eventually we got the hang of it and put a tablespoon of “sanding sugar” per ramekin. I wasn’t able to find sanding sugar at the co-op, so I just bought the roughest looking sugar they had. As a bonus, you can buy as much or as little as you need, so I just got a small baggie of brown granules and hoped not to get pulled over on the way home.

I swear it's sugar!

I swear it’s sugar!

It worked great! I’d never torched a crème before, but it was super easy and fairly obvious when each one was done.

photo-37

brulee5

These were so good. The combination of the burnt hot crust and the cold creamy custard… I really do not understand why every restaurant in the world doesn’t have these on their dessert menu. They’re easy to make, don’t require expensive ingredients, can be stored in the fridge until the moment they’re needed, and taste amazing.

Since Christmas, I’ve also experimented with other flavors of crème brûlées, most recently a Coffee-Caramel variety. It was good, but I messed up the caramel so it didn’t quite have the flavor I was looking for.

That giant clump is really not supposed to exist.

That giant clump is really not supposed to exist.

I look forward to finding other things I can burn with my torch! If anyone has any favorite recipes involving fire, let me know.

I was going to write a blog post about the fancy cake I made for my birthday. I love making fancy cakes, and every year I pick my cake of choice out two to four weeks in advance and read the recipe over a few times a week to make sure I have it down. But other than “look at this awesome cake I made” —

Look…

…at…

…it!

— I don’t really have much to say about it. I love the logistics management involved in making a fancy cake to organize the production of the cake layers, the buttercreams, and the ganaches, but all I really do is follow the recipe and pay attention to details. This recipe is from a blog called Annie’s Eats, where I get 90% of the cake recipes I use. Click here for the recipe.

No, to me, the recipes that are the most interesting are the ones that I don’t have to look at. The ones I know by heart. For me, one of those is Irish Tea Scones. No matter what city, state, or country I’ve lived in, making a batch of these makes me feel like I’m at home.

The ingredients are pretty easy to come by wherever you are, although it took some figuring to try to find baking powder in Honduras. Polvo de hornear is the standard baking powder-esque ingredient there, which I finally figured out (thanks, Mom!) was a mixture of baking powder and baking soda. And that worked just fine for the purposes of making these scones.

2 cups of all purpose flour

1 tablespoon of baking powder

1 tablespoon of sugar

1/2 teaspoon of salt

4 tablespoons of butter

2 eggs

1/3 cup of milk

1/2 cup of raisins

For glaze: 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of milk

To start, mix all the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt) together in a large bowl. Blend well. Then cut in the butter.

Or, well, plop it in first, and THEN cut it in.

If you don’t know how to cut in butter, well, it’s pretty easy. I use this fancy pastry cutter that my mom got me.

Thanks, Mom!

It also works really well for making guacamole.

You can also use two knives, or just plunge your clean, dry hands into the mix and crumble up the clumps of butter. The idea is just to combine the butter with the dry ingredients, and make sure that you don’t have butter pockets floating around somewhere, just waiting to sabotage your dough.

Although floating butter pockets sound like a good idea in most aspects of life.

Then make a well in the middle of the mixture.

Well?

In a separate bowl, beat together the 2 eggs and the 1/3 cup of milk. Or, if you’re feeling tired, don’t. Just dump them in the well separately. It’ll probably be okay. Stir well. I usually take a wooden spoon, dip it in my flour jar, and then start stirring. Once the mixture starts to come together and using a spoon becomes annoying, I coat my hands in flour* and knead and mix at the same time. Once the dough has come together, dump the raisins in and knead/mix some more. If you’re someone who managed to stick with the spoon the whole time, ditch it now and either knead in the bowl 5 to 10 times or turn the dough out onto a floured cutting board and knead there five to ten times.

*I just turned to Josh and said, “isn’t it funny that ‘flower’ the plant and ‘flower’ the grain are spelled the same way?” Then I realized that I had lost my mind for a moment and forgotten how homophones work. Yes, I work with words for a living.

Some people like their scones in triangles. Me? I like ’em round. This recipe is intended to make eight scones, so I split the dough in half, then in half again, and then in half again. Voila — eight more or less equal portions. I roll them into balls and put them on a cookie tray.

Then, mix the egg and the 1 tablespoon of milk together and use a pastry brush to lightly brush the tops of the scones. I am ultra paranoid about starting fires in the oven (yes, this makes no sense), so I am always very careful not to drip any of the glaze onto the baking sheet. It’s not that anything is going to go wrong if you do, but it will make a burning smell and possibly freak you out. If you’re like me.

Fun fact: before I had a pastry brush (thanks, Mom!), I used to use a toothbrush to do this. Not the same one I used to brush my teeth.

This pastry brush is admittedly a lot easier to use on unbaked goods than an Oral-B.

You will not even come close to using up this amount of egg wash. I hate wasting food, so I usually scramble the remainder and have a tiny scrambled egg.

Then it’s time to bake! I really cannot give you a whole lot of guidance on this part. I bake them at 400 degrees and supposedly I bake them for 7 to 10 minutes, but they usually end up needing about 15 minutes. Sometimes I make the scones a lot bigger and they need 20 – 25 minutes to bake. I read an article recently that pointed out how unreliable oven temperatures are anyway, so the best advice I can give you to bake them until they’re done. Which means a lightly browned top and no dense zones when you cut one open. I always cut one open to see how it looks. If it’s not yet done, I shove the two halves back together, pretend nothing happened, and put the tray back in the oven for a few more minutes. If you make your scones in triangles, they will cook more quickly.

This is what they look like when they’re done.

To me, the raisins are the most classic way to make scones. But you can put anything in them. Some of my favorite things are chocolate chips; tiny cubes of cheese and chopped up chives; dried cranberries; and dried cherries with dark chocolate. Not all together. Those are four separate iterations, for the record.

I like to put butter on my scones and/or dip them into coffee or black tea.

YES

It’s raining, it’s 50 degrees after the hottest summer ever, and I have a scone and some coffee. Life is good.

I learned how to make crepes from a French woman I met while I was living in Honduras in the Peace Corps. After I finished my three months of training with a group of 46 other new volunteers, I was then assigned to the city where I spent the majority of my two years in country. It was a big transition to suddenly be a “real” volunteer, far away from home, and trying to accomplish something meaningful in a new, often baffling environment. I was very lucky to have an incredibly kind and welcoming host family, who I lived with for the first two months in my site, and who welcomed me as a member of their clan. And I was lucky to meet Lucie.

Lucie was a French student studying urban planning who, through a series of events that I never 100% understood (we communicated in Spanish, a second language for both of us), was completing a six month internship in Honduras working with the same municipal government that I was. Lucie and I became friends quickly through a shared circumstance – being far away from home in a foreign culture – and through a love of cheese. When my first care package arrived from my parents containing a block of four year old sharp Wisconsin cheddar, the look on Lucie’s face when she bit into it was the look of a partner in crime.

Lucie replied to my cheese offering by teaching me to make crepes on my little single burner cookstove in my bright blue, windowless apartment. When Lucie left Honduras and I had a year and a half left to go, I was very sad to imagine the rest of my time without this friend. And after a few trans-Atlantic emails we, perhaps unsurprisingly, fell out of touch very quickly. We were from different cultures, were different ages, and were in different stages of our lives. Our friendship was very much borne of a place and a situation. But I still think of her every time I make crepes. It is such a beautiful thing to be touched by the people who we encounter in life, even if we only know each other briefly.

Now on to the food.

It’s about time. I’m starving over here!

To make the crepe itself, all you need is eggs, flour, and milk. When Lucie first started to show me how to make them, I asked her how much of each ingredient we’d need. She looked at me like I was a bit crazy and said, “How can we know yet?” She then cracked two eggs into a bowl and added the tiniest pinch of flour. She whisked until the flour was incorporated, then added a little more. Once the flour and eggs started to come together, she could add larger quantities of flour, maybe an eighth to a quarter cup at a time. The key is to whisk as much flour into the eggs as you can, until the whisk can barely move through the thick mixture.

Thick AND rich!

Once the batter looks more or less as pictured above (and feels thick on the whisk), it’s time to add milk. Just like when the flour is first added, the key is to drizzle a very small amount of milk in at first, always whisking until it’s completely combined before adding more. Larger quantities of milk can be added the further along you are in the process. When the crepe batter flows off of a spoon like milk, you’re ready to cook.

That’s a fine looking drizzle you have there.

There are special crepe pans you can buy, but I always just use a regular frying pan, because that’s all I had when Lucie taught me. The key to cooking a crepe well is to oil the pan properly. I do this by pouring some vegetable oil into the pan, and then using a wadded up paper towel to wipe it all around. This spreads the oil evenly and also mops up any excess. I do this in between every single crepe that is cooked.

That scratch on my hand is what happens when playtime with the kitties gets real.

Your pan should be hot — so hot that drops of water flung on it sizzle and jump. Again there are probably fancier ways to do this, but to pour the crepe, I simply pour a quarter to a third of a cup of batter into the pan and swirl it around to coat the bottom.

Don’t even worry about the tendrils of batter. No one will ever know. Unless you take pictures of your half formed crepe and post them on a blog or something.

Once the crepe seems solid, you’re ready to flip it. A good way to test the crepe’s solidity is to run a fork along the edge of it. If the edge is lifting up and appears to hang together, you’re ready! If the fork seems to simply be pushing the crepe around, give it another minute. The crepes cook quickly, usually less than a minute on each side. To flip the crepe, the easiest method is to pry up the edge with a fork, then grab it with your (hopefully clean) fingers and flip the whole thing over with your hands.

They call ’em fingers, but I’ve never seen them fing… (c.f. The Simpsons, circa 1993)

If a crepe is all you want, you’re all set!

But… what if you want was Lucie called “The Complete Crepe”? Then you’re going to need another egg, some chopped up ham, and some cheese. Lucky you.

To make the complete crepe, crack an egg into the pan, on top of the crepe, after the flip. Do it! Break the yolk! Spread it around! Hey, even lift up the edges of the crepe and let some of the egg fall underneath!

Eggs on top of crepes? What will they think of next?

Then throw on some chopped up ham and some grated cheese. In this picture, we are using mozzarella and goat cheese.

You are so close! Just let the egg cook a little bit and then…

Oooooh, yeah….

Again, even with the egg all over the place, the easiest way to close up your crepe is to run the fork around the edge. This time, I’d recommend using the fork itself to lift up the concoction instead of your fingers. But hey, to each his own.

I hope you enjoy. I do, with some regularity, and remember a strange time in my life and afternoons spent with a friend.