Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Presents and Hanukkah Challah!

I am so excited. It is 6 days till I fly home to Cali and 9 days till Christmas!

These last two weeks of work have been and will be good training for me. MB has been training me on polymer synthesis and functionalization. I am rather slow and doubtful with everything I do, so I endlessly ask MB questions. Really, I'm asking for confirmation that I'm doing each and every step correctly. Every time I ask, I feel bad for asking. I know I should not feel this way for making sure I am doing things correctly, but I feel like I come off as confused, childish, forgetful, and slow. As someone who is used to getting things off the bat, slow understanding is hard to get used to. Most of all, due to my personal desire to not be a burden to anyone, I hesitate from asking because I do not want to bother others. This is a learning process, but to be effective, I need to learn to how to open myself to help and asking for help. Nothing is overnight, but I wish I was a bit faster...

Little snippet of my life, but back to fun holiday stuff! That's what ya'll want to read about, right?

So this weekend, I mostly took for holiday present shopping. I'm super excited. I have all my gifts almost ready for my co-workers and boss, and I managed to find some stuff for my family. One cool new thing I'm doing this year is doing glassware painting. I bought some glass cups from Target and a glass paintset from Michaels and will do some cute designs unique to the giftee tomorrow! I hope I have retained some of my painting skills from high school. It's been a while.

After watching "The Hobbit" today (which was very good and much recommended! Only, my eyes were sore after staring at the big screen for 3 hours...), I went home, ate, rested, and then mourned the fact that I was out of bread. I have a professed love for Blue Baker and their amazing baked goods and their half-price day-old breads ($2.25 for an artisan loaf, hellsyeah!), but I actually got tired of forcing myself to eat two loaves of their yummy beer and multigrain breads before they went bad for the past two weeks. So, I decided to make challah.

Challah, if you do not know, is a Jewish egg bread. It is slightly sweet and soft and pillowy. It makes an awesome French toast and goes well with raisins, nuts, or other things mixed-in. You will see it has a nice golden crust and is most often presented as a braided loaf. The special Sabbath and holiday meals begin with two loaves of challah. Each loaf is a braid of six strands, and the two loaves combined represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

The choice of challah was also prompted by the recipe on the side of my bread flour bag. I saw it, read the rise time (1 1/2 hrs) and the fact that there is only 1/4 cup of oil and said, sure! I love making things with less oil and less sugar to try and bake healthy. This was my first time making challah, though, and the process went rather least, up to a point. I made the dough, kneaded it by hand (I'm getting better at this!), let it rise. I punched it down after an hour (an a nap!), kneaded it, rolled out three strands, braided it, and let it rise again. I came back and was super excited. It was rising beautifully and looked gorgeous! But then I realized my mistake. I put it into too small a baking pan so the edges were right up against the side of the pan. Knowing what I would do next would cause some detriment to my risen dough, I quickly shoved/threw the loaf into a larger pan. My loaf immediately deflated. Saddened but not discouraged, I let it rise again. Lo and behold! The loaf rose again, albeit not as high as before, and I finished the preparation and baked it.

The smell was so good throughout the baking process. But then, I noticed the smell was cutting too strongly through the air. The baking time on the bag said 35-45 minutes, and I had put the timer on for only 30 minutes. I rushed to the oven, pulled open the door and saw the unquestionably dark brown crust on my challah. After pulling it out of the oven, I let it cool down and hoped for the best. Luckily, 28 minutes was just long enough to make it harder than desired but not burnt. I sliced off a piece, tasted it and did a little body shake of joy! My challah tasted amazing! For having just 1.5 Tbs of honey, it was surprisingly and satisfyingly sweet. The top crust provided a nice crunch to accompany the soft airy inside. The only things I could tell, was that the bottom crust was too dark and hard for enjoyment, the loaf could have been airier and higher rising had I not deflated the loaf and let it rise for another half hour, and there may be a slight dryness from being baked too long. Other than that, I am super proud of this yeast baking experiment and will probably make another challah loaf again soon!

Challah (adapted from recipe on HEB Bread Flour bag)

2.5-3 cups Bread flour (do not use all-purpose or wheat)
2.25 tsp instant yeast (1 package)
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp turmeric (adds the nice yellow color - no artificial food coloring necessary!)
3/4 tsp organic granulated sugar
1/4 cup oil
1.5 Tbs honey
2 eggs (room temperature)
1 egg + 1 tsp water (for egg wash)
Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for topping (optional)

1. Combine 2.5 cups of the bread flour, the instant yeast, salt, turmeric, and sugar in a bowl. Stir till well-mixed.
2. In a small bowl, beat eggs, then add in oil and honey and beat till combined.
3. Make a well in the center of your dry mix. Pour in the wet mixture and stir with a wooden spoon till just combined.
4. Measure our 1/2 cup of the remaining bread flour and sprinkle some onto a clean surface. Knead the dough (7 minutes by hand, 5 minutes using machine), adding more of the remaining bread flour as necessary to get a smooth and elastic dough.
5. Lightly grease a bowl, place the ball of dough inside, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let rise till doubled in size (about 1 hour). Punch down the dough and knead till smooth.
6. Separate the dough into 3 (or 6) equal-sized balls and roll each one out into a long rope. Place them next to each other and carefully braid from one end to the other (handle the dough lightly). Pat in the ends to make them nicely rounded and to seal the pieces together. Let rise till doubled in size (about another hour).
7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease and flour a large baking pan.
8. Beat the remaining egg with water. Lightly brush the top of the challah with the egg wash and sprinkle on sesame seeds or poppy seeds, if desired.
9. Bake the challah in the center for 20-25 minutes. The challah is done when you tap the top and it sounds hollow. Let the loaf cool on a rack.
Makes 1 loaf.

I hope you try this easy bread recipe. I think it will get you into yeast baking as it has done for me. It's easier than cinnamon rolls, I think, and tastier than wheat bread loaves. the braiding was not hard at all, either!

In the meantime, don't get too stressed out with holiday shopping, crazy holiday shoppers, and getting things ready for the holidays. Take things easy and remember: this season is about enjoying your time, your life, and your friends and family.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pho John - College Station Restaurant Review

I'm taking this weekend to do things for myself, rest and relax. The past week was too crazy. End of class project and paper, organizing an event social, doing research, giving two presentations. I managed to do it all (minus the last presentation, which ended horrifically), with some bumps in each one, but I am still alive. This research stuff is super stressful, especially given that I have a  PI with EXTREMELY high expectations and an intense personality. She's great and makes opportunities for us, but she knows how to make us work exceptionally hard to become exceptional researchers. I am just thankful to have such a supporting lab group and family and friends.
From First is so true.

I went out yesterday with my other BMEN PhD friends and we said to each other, gotta stick together through this hard sh*t. And yeah, we gotta stick it out. Next five years are gonna be hard and hellish, but we gotta fight for these small achievements and for our future goals...

With this goal of relaxing, I went out to eat pho and exercise with my buddies today. I got sick this past weekend and a hot bowl of soup, especially pho, always makes your body and your day better.

There are only three Vietnamese restaurants in College Station. Last year, I tried Rosie's Pho and enjoyed their pho and their smoothies. This time, I wanted to try Pho John, which I heard good things about too.

The inside is actually very spacious and kept very clean. The tables and chairs are pretty and also kept very clean.

The menu includes classic rice noodle bowls (bun), pork and rice plate, egg noodle dishes, curry, tofu and rice, and other rice plates. They even have Vietnamese iced coffee and bubble tea, although the bubble tea is kind of expensive ($4.55!) There is a kids menu that includes pho and two rice plate options.

What surprised me the most on the menu was that they offered BRISKET with their pho. I saw that and immediately went for it, except I ordered the kid's bowl ($4.50 ish). It came out and was definitely enough to fill me up. It seemed like what a small would be in just a smaller bowl. Lots of noodles and lots of meat.

Let me say WOW. The brisket was slightly thicker than the usual rare-sliced beef, which I really liked. It was tender and didn't have a lot of stringy pieces. The soup was super tasty but I could have done with more broth. The noodles sucked it up too fast and pho really needs to be swimming in the broth. Despite that, it was very tasty and hit the spot.

The garnishes that go with the pho came out so fresh looking I was amazed. Being from Little Saigon in SoCal, I am used to getting semi-old and wilted herbs and vegetables with my food at Vietnamese restaurants. The freshness and quality surprised me and made me happy. The basil that came out was so fresh and bright. The limes were super juicy.

My friend got the chicken pho and they gave huge chunks of what looked like nicely boiled chicken. Looked good and my friend said she really liked the broth.

My other friend got the vermicelli bowl with beef and eggroll. She liked it. The nuoc mam came on the side in a cute little bowl. The bowl for her vermicelli and meat and vegetables was very beautiful.

Another friend got the rice and pork plate. Looked good and fresh. Came with nuoc mam as well. No broken rice here though.

Two friends got the mi xao dong (fried egg noodles in the shape of a nest, covered in an oyster sauce saute of beef, chicken, and fresh vegetables). Looked very good, presented very beautifully, and a large portion.

I also got tea ($2.25 ish) and it came out very hot. Oolong tea. Awesome and just what I needed.

The price is higher than what you get in Little Saigon or Houston, but I believe it's worth it. The quality, presentation, taste, and portions are perfect.

I will definitely return, now that I know how amazing brisket is in pho.

Price: $3-5 appetizers, $7-12 entrees, $2-5 drinks
Food: 5/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Return factor: 5/5

Pho John,
1901 Texas Ave S,
College Station, TX 77850