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Friday, September 30, 2016

Monster Mochi Mess

I've loved mochi since the first time I tried it, which was in high school.  I used to buy mochi filled with sweet bean paste at Asian grocery stores, and I enjoyed getting it for dessert at Japanese restaurants.  It's pretty mainstream now, and I can get it at Trader Joe's, filled with ice cream.

It never occurred to me that I could make mochi at home, though, so I was intrigued when the New York Times published a recipe for it.  It looked simple enough, and there weren't too many ingredients, although the key ingredients I wanted--glutinous rice flour and adzuki beans--were unlikely to be found in our local Safeway.  Essentially, I would need to combine the glutinous rice flour with water and sugar and then cook it fairly briefly on the stove.  If I wanted to fill the mochi with bean paste, I would need to make that separately.  Oh, and the process of forming the bean paste-filled cakes looked like it might be a little sticky, but surely nothing I couldn't keep at bay with a dusting of corn starch.

I gathered my courage and my ingredients.  I found adzuki beans at a local Thai market.  I looked for the glutinous rice flour, and ultimately ordered it from Amazon.

One weekend, I decided to give it a try.  I started by making the bean paste.  So far, so good.  I tasted a little of it, and it tasted as I had expected.

Then I started cooking the mochi itself.  I was supposed to stir and watch for it to become shiny and hold its shape.  That happened pretty quickly, and I poured the resulting product onto a cornstarch-dusted piece of parchment paper.  So far, so good....except that the mochi was too hot and too sticky to handle.  I decided to leave it for a while so it could cool down, and, with luck, become less sticky.

A while later, it had cooled down considerably, but had not gotten much less sticky.  I decided to try my luck anyway.  I sprinkled some more corn starch on the parchment paper, and put some on my hands.  I grabbed a piece of the mochi dough and tried to form it.  It stubbornly refused to be formed into anything.  I put it down and washed a thick layer of sticky residue from my hands.

Several attempts later, I was no closer to forming cute little mochi balls.  I suddenly got the idea that instead of making lots of little mochi balls, I could make one large mochi cake that I could cut into pieces.  I put half the mochi dough in a round cake pan, spread a layer of bean paste over it, and then spread the rest of the mochi dough on top.  I ended up with this,

which is a far cry from this:

I hoped it would be one of those things that looks gross, but tastes delicious.  No such luck.  The bean paste tasted fine, but the mochi never developed a chewy texture, and remained way too soft and sticky.  I'm not sure where this experiment failed, but failed it did.  I had to admit defeat and throw it away.

On top of the disappointment of a failed dessert, I had a truly impressive mess to clean up.  It seemed like everything that was uncontaminated with sticky residue had a fine coating of corn starch on it.  Aargh!

There is at least a partially happy ending, however.  Since I had leftover glutinous rice flour that I felt motivated to use, I looked for other mochi recipes.  I found one in which the mochi was baked in the oven for a longish time at a low temperature.  As a bonus, the recipe incorporated coconut milk, which I like.  I was too afraid of another messy failure to try to create mochi balls with my leftover bean paste, but the plain mochi from the second recipe I tried was delicious, with a delightful chewy texture.  Even though I didn't make exactly what I set out to make--and my first mochi attempt bore no resemblance to anything I wanted to eat--I ultimately learned how to make something new that I would probably make again.  I think I'll count it as a win.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Catoctin Mountain And Bring On The Fall

Last weekend, we went hiking at Catoctin Mountain with some friends.  It was in part a celebration of weather cool enough to allow us to even think of hiking.  This summer, with its record string of above 90 degree days, has hung on a little too long, if you ask me.

It was a great day!  The good weather really did hold up, we had a good time hanging out with our friends, the views were beautiful, and we all felt well-exercised in the end.  Unbeknownst to us, the park had started a new program in which each hiker was issued a gnat to fly back and forth in front of his or her eyes during challenging portions of the hike.  Fortunately, that was the only fly in the ointment (ha, ha).

In addition to the pleasant weather, we had some evidence of fall's impending arrival in the few red leaves on the trees.  Bring it on, I say!

We had some sections of rock scrambling.  I made extensive use of hopping off rocks from a sitting position and crab walking.  Since I didn't fall down the entire hike, I consider my strategies a success.

A crevasse to fall in!

After hiking, we ate dinner in Frederick's old town.  I had seen signs for Frederick's old town from the highway before, but had never been.  It was a fun place to walk around with a good variety of restaurants (we decided upon Cuban).  Even after living in Maryland for almost six years previously, we are still finding new places to go.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Having Allstate Insurance Is Like Writing A Best-Selling Novel Or Winning A Nobel Prize

Ever since we moved to the DC area in February, we have gotten by without a personal vehicle.  We are lucky to live near a Metro station, and I am also lucky to work near a Metro station.  We live within walking distance of three supermarkets.  We have used Zipcar when it has made sense to do so, but for the most part, we have walked or taken Metro to get around.  As someone who has never been comfortable driving, I have found living a mostly car-free existence to be tremendously satisfying.  I felt like I was sticking it to the man when I reflected on how much additional exercise I was getting walking everywhere and how much money I wasn't spending on parking, insurance, and gas.

However, thanks to Scott getting a new job (yay!) in a location not Metro-accessible (shouldn't everything be clustered around Metro stations??), we are now getting a car.  We picked one out on Saturday and plan to bring it home on Thursday.

A vehicle necessitates auto insurance, of course.  We thought it would be a fairly straightforward process.  We last had auto insurance through Allstate before we moved to Kazakhstan, and we currently have renter's insurance through them, so we figured we would just go back to them.

It was not to be.

Scott first tried getting a quote just by filling out one of their forms online.  The system was unable to give him a quote, so he emailed the local agent.  The local agent said he couldn't give us a quote either, and that Allstate couldn't insure us until we had a year of insurance coverage elsewhere.  The reason?  Because we had a gap in auto insurance coverage.  Why would we be so irresponsible as to have a gap in our auto insurance coverage, you may ask?  Because we sold our car before we moved to Kazakhstan.  Even if we had wanted to throw our money away on coverage we couldn't possibly use, we actually had nothing to insure, since we no longer had a car.

Clearly, having Allstate insurance had become an oddly exclusive club, so Scott consulted Consumer Reports and decided to call Amica, which was highly rated.  Amica at least was willing to provide us a the tune of $4,000 a year.  Um, no. I will say that trying to gouge us at least seems like a plausible business strategy, as opposed to Allstate's deciding not to cover us at any price.  The reason was the same, however:  our gap in coverage due to our period of time not owning a car.

In the end, we went with Esurance.  We're still paying more than we ever have for auto insurance, but at least it's less than $4,000.  I guess this is another one of those hidden costs of working abroad, or at least returning to the US after working abroad.  Come to think of it, this could also be a hidden cost to anyone who sells their car and uses mass transit in order to save money, and then decides to have a car again at some point.  I will be very happy if the US can ever move past the narrative of continuous car ownership being an integral part of adult life, but we are obviously not there yet.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

So You Want To Work Abroad: Tips On Dealing With All Your STUFF

I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I put if off because I wasn't sure how to make it useful to anyone.  After all, different people in different stages of life have different quantities and qualities of STUFF.  Someone moving overseas directly from a college dorm room will have fewer possessions to think about than a family with a house, kids, and pets.  Similarly, different overseas jobs have different policies for transporting your stuff.  Some employers expect to help their new employees transport a large amount of household goods; others expect you to carry anything you want in suitcases on the plane.

I'd say we fit somewhere in the middle.  We didn't have a house, kids, or pets, but we had been out of school long enough to have acquired a fair amount of stuff.  A lot of our furniture was either hand-me-downs or IKEA, but we had some pretty decent kitchen wares.  In terms of transporting stuff, our employer was willing to reimburse employees up to a certain sum for good transported within the first six months.  At first, they said that shipping boxes through USPS was the best option, but then after we had shipped quite a few boxes, they said it was best to just pack a lot of suitcases.

Anyway, this post will be about lessons we learned from transporting our stuff to our specific job in Kazakhstan.  It will include things we did right, as well as things I would do differently now.  With luck, anyone contemplating a move abroad who stumbles upon this will find something useful!

  • Decide what you need to take with you first.  Then decide what to do with the rest of your stuff.  What do you need while you're working overseas?  Think about clothing you will need, things you might need for your job, material for any hobbies you might have, etc.  Don't be too skimpy here (for instance, you might want more than one pair of pants in case you fall and tear a hole in the knee), but not too expansive (you probably don't need ten pairs of pants).  How much stuff did you end up with?  Is it possible to transport it given the parameters of your specific job?  If not, you may need to cut down.  If there is anything you have in large quantity--whether it's shoes, craft supplies, framed family photos, or anything else--you probably won't be able to conveniently take your whole collection with you.  From our experience I will also say that if you are an academic and need lots of books that aren't readily available in-country to conduct your research, you should seriously reconsider taking this job.
          We sort of thought of this issue in reverse.  We first decided what we were going to put in 
         storage (having decided early on that there were things we didn't want to part with that were not
          practical to take to Kazakhstan).  Then we started either discarding things or shipping them off
         to Kazakhstan.  The end results were that we had more stuff over there than could comfortably
         fit into our apartment, a lot of stuff was held at customs for weeks (we actually had to buy Scott
         a second winter coat over there because the box we shipped his coat in was held up at customs),
         and we had to pay hefty customs fees to get a lot of our stuff, some of which naturally broke in
  • Think creatively about transporting items.  Many jobs overseas offer plane tickets home as part of the compensation package.  Our job in Kazakhstan was generous in that it would pay for tickets twice a year.  One thing I wish we had done looking back was to think about what we needed from August to December, and pack/ship only those things initially, with the idea of picking up more of our stuff later on.  If you aren't planning on traveling back to your home country, are any friends or family planning to visit you?  Maybe they would be willing to to bring you an item (or even a suitcase of items).  If nobody is planning to visit you, you might be able to pay a cash-strapped teenager or young adult in your life to pack and ship boxes of things.  If you can't store those items with anybody, you could designate a small storage unit as being one with the "nice to have" items, or put them in clearly labeled boxes at the front of a larger storage unit.
  • On a similar note, don't rule out using storage units.  I originally hoped to get rid of everything we weren't taking with us to Kazakhstan because I didn't like the idea of paying to store stuff I wasn't using.  If you can do that, great!  It's probably easier that way.  But storage is a relatively small price to pay compared to replacing household goods.  Aside from a few small "what was I thinking" items that I attribute to mental fatigue, I was very grateful for all the things we kept in storage because they were all things I didn't have to buy again.  I recommend climate-controlled storage, even though it costs more.
  • Consider keeping a list of any immediately useful household goods you store.  This isn't the biggest deal in the grand scheme of things, but it would have been nice to know that the shower curtain rings were going to be in the last box I opened before I bought a new set at Target.
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter.  It's fine to pay to store things you like and things you can use when you return to your home country.  But if you have something like ratty old furniture that you've always wanted to replace, now would be an excellent time to sell it or donate it.  There is no point paying either to transport or to store things you don't really like.
  • You can get money from selling things, but donating things gets them out of your way faster.  Sometimes, you really just need to get some stuff out of your home quickly in order to better sort and pack.  Donation is great for that.  Selling can be great, too, but with these caveats:  (1) It will take time and effort that you may need for some other aspect of your international move, (2) Most secondhand items will not net very much money, and (3) You may not be able to get rid of things on the schedule you want if you sell.  I would suggest worrying more about selling big ticket items (your car, etc.), and not worry too much about finding a buyer for your used gym shoes.  That being said, some methods of selling smaller items work better than others.  I may write a future post about my experience with those.
          It also pays to think creatively here.  Scott's TA was aware of our situation, and expressed 
          interest in buying both our car and any household good we were interested in getting rid of.
          I'd like to think we came up with a win-win:  He got a lot of household goods for a low price.
          We got some money for our household goods, and we were able to continue using them right
          up until the end before we moved.  Would we have made more money selling these items
          individually?  Maybe.  But it would have taken considerably more work on our part, and 
          we had plenty of other things to deal with at the time.
  • If you're being reimbursed for transporting household goods, keep a good paper trail.  This may not be as big of an issue elsewhere.  Kazakhstan is a very paperwork-oriented place.  We were told to keep receipts from shipping/extra luggage fees, and to keep any customs forms.  It turned out once we got there that we also had to provide credit card statements with the same charges as were on the receipts.  So, use credit cards, rather than cash or check, to pay for any shipments.  If you are going with a spouse/significant other, and only one of you is being employed, it's probably a good idea to make sure to use the credit card that is in the name of the employee.
  • Buy a luggage scale.  I was too cheap to buy one initially.  I figured that with my lack of upper body strength, if I could lift a suitcase even moderately comfortably, it must be less than 50 pounds.  It turned out I was stronger than I thought, and I had to engage in a horrible suitcase shell game on the airport's dirty floor while wearing the pants I was going to wear for my entire trip.  Gross.
  • Try to look at this as an opportunity.  In spite of the aggravations, I now view the massive declutterings we had before moving to Kazakhstan and before moving back to the US as very positive because they showed me that I had too much stuff, and that I could get rid of a large portion of stuff without it adversely impacting my life.  You would think that I would have learned this through my many stateside moves, but it turns out that international moves are just aggravating enough to really drive the point home.
          I will probably never be a hardcore minimalist.  I like craft supplies too much, for one thing.  
          Also, when I see something pretty, I will probably want it, at least fleetingly.  This is 
          particularly true if I feel like I'm getting a good deal on the item in question.  But I've 
          started to approaching acquiring stuff a little differently, since I've decided that stuff can 
          be as much a liability as it is an asset.  I've decided that there are very few (if any) things 
          that we could always use extras of.  I've decided that "just in case" items are very often
          "just taking up space" items.  When I buy things, I've decided it's often better to spend a 
          certain amount of money on the one item that I really want or will really be useful, rather
          than spend the same amount of money to get multiple items that aren't quite what I want.

          By having less stuff overall, I can keep a better handle on what we have.  I know better what
          we might really need, and it's easier to keep our apartment clean-ish without having to store
          excess stuff everywhere.  I imagine some people learn these lessons without having to move
          across the world, but since that's what it took for me, I take that as a positive aspect of the

Happy moving to all, and don't let your STUFF keep you down!

Friday, September 2, 2016

East England And Back

The renewal of vows we traveled to England to attend was to take place near Ipswich.  We had decided to stay in Ipswich for that portion of the trip (along with some other friends we made in Kazakhstan!).  We had, in essence, a full day to explore Ipswich itself, most of the next day dedicated to the renewal of vows, and another day to explore pubs and the coast with our friends.  The day after that, we were to return to London to catch our flight back to the US.

One of the first things we did when we got to the hotel room was to contact two friends of our who were also staying at the hotel, a couple we had met in Kazakhstan who had traveled from the US for the occasion.  These were some friends I had really missed terribly, and it was wonderful to see them again!  I'm happy to have lived so many places, but one of the notable downsides is that you're always having to say goodbye to someone.  Anyway, they came over to our room and we talked there...then talked while strolling around Ipswich to get the lay of the land...and then talked more at a Bangladeshi restaurant.  Ipswich had so many south Asian restaurants, and this one, at least, was excellent and had some dishes none of us had heard of before.

The next day brought more exploring Ipswich (as well as more talking and eating).  In spite of some of the British people we spoke to at various points in our trip seeming less than enthusiastic about Ipswich, I thought it was charming.  Being from the US, I always love seeing the older architecture that other places have.  Ipswich also had large numbers of very vocal seagulls who sounded like they were laughing(!), and creatively painted pigs all over the downtown area!

Sailor Pig! 

Architectural detail
Street market against beautiful old buildings

We also visited Christchurch Mansion, the local tourist attraction, which contained an assortment of interesting art and the like.  I liked how they tried to cover up the renovations going on!

Christchurch Mansion

That afternoon, our British friends who were renewing their vows had arranged for a group tea, so we got to have yummy tea, scones, and cakes again.  Mmmm.

I didn't take nearly as many pictures at the renewal of vows as I should have, but we had a wonderful time in a beautiful venue.  All of the "Kazakhstan guests" were together at one table, and we had a good time hanging out.  Most of us probably won't get to see each other all that often at this point, now that many of us no longer work there.

The next day, our British friends--who would have been forgiven if they had just wanted to nap all day after pulling off a large event--arranged for a group of us (including them, some of their local friends, and some of the Kazakhstan crowd) to go to a local pub, and then to a pretty coastal town (Aldeburgh) for a walk on the beach and some fish and chips.  The pub was fun.  I'm not much of a drinker, but they had great lemonade.  I was impressed that they allowed dogs in.  They also had a relatively relaxed attitude toward human children:

Aldeburgh was a very pretty beach town with a pebble beach!  I was tempted to bring home bags full of pebbles, but restrained myself and just took a few.  I was delighted to find one with a hole already in it (nature's bead!).  Our friends knew of a great place for fish and chips.  It did a very brisk business, so we got very fresh fried fish.

Crowds waiting for fish and chips 
The next morning, we took a train from Ipswich back to London.  We had been debating how to get to Heathrow, dreading the prospect of paying for an expensive cab, but also not feeling like figuring out public transportation.  Luckily, a gentleman at the Ipswich station struck up conversation with us and explained exactly how to take the Tube to Heathrow.  He didn't even have to consult a map.  I was very impressed.

It is worth mentioning here that the gentleman in question was not some young hipster.  He was a conventionally dressed man in his fifties who told us he had voted in favor of Brexit.  His counterpart in the US would almost certainly not be able to give detailed, useful mass transit information, but he could.  I think many Americans look down on public transportation and infantilize adults who don't drive, so it was refreshing to remember that it doesn't have to be that way.

My only regret on this trip is that we didn't have more time to spend.  But I'll always be glad we made this short trip now, when we had a chance to see a number of friends.  Some day, maybe we'll get to go back and see other areas of the country, but whether we do or not, we had a wonderful short vacation this time around.