Monday, December 26, 2005

Happy Birthday Jesus

Not that we think Jesus turned five this year...rather, "5" is short for "Christmas 2005". Actually, that's the only number candle we had. We went with it after we considered sticking regular candles in the cake and realized we didn't have 2005 of them.

This is the chocolate-peppermint layer cake I made twice while at my parents' house. Can't speak for anyone else but I'm sure my consumption of it had a strong connection to the five or so pounds I gained while we were there. I might add it was pretty much worth it. This is a delicious cake, if you don't mind me saying so myself. Recipe follows!

Chocolate-Peppermint Layer Cake adapted from Cook's Illustrated

1/2 cup cocoa , natural
2 teaspoons instant coffee
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons peppermint extract or 1/4 teaspoon peppermint oil
1 cup whole milk plus 2 tablespoons, room temperature
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs , at room temperature

1. For the cake -- Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8-by-1 1/2-inch round baking pans with lots of cooking spray.

2. Whisk the cocoa, instant coffee, flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl and set aside. Add peppermint to the milk and set aside.

3. Beat butter in bowl of electric mixer set at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 30 seconds. Gradually sprinkle in sugar; beat until mixture is fluffy and almost white, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating 1 full minute after each addition.

4. With mixer on lowest speed, add about 1/3 of dry ingredients to batter, followed immediately by the milk/vanilla mixture; mix until ingredients are almost incorporated into batter. Repeat process twice more. When batter appears blended, stop mixer and scrape bowl sides with rubber spatula. Return mixer to low speed; beat until batter looks satiny, about 15 seconds longer.

5. Divide batter evenly between pans. With rubber spatula, run batter to pan sides and smooth top. Bake cakes until they feel firm in center when lightly presesd anad skewer comes out clean or with just a crumb or two adhering, 23 to 30 minutes. Tranfer pans to wire racks; cool for 20 minutes. Run knife around perimeter of each pan, invert cakes onto racks. Reinvert cakes onto additional racks; cool completely before frosting.

For frosting, I used my favorite buttercream recipe, which is not for the exact and goes something like this: put 1/2 stick of softened butter in a bowl and beat until creamy. Add some milk or half and half and a bit of peppermint extract or oil. Dump in powdered sugar and mix again. Add more powdered sugar or more milk until desired consistency is reached. Frost the first layer of cake out to the edges but not down the sides. Sprinkle with crushed peppermints or candy canes. Set on the next layer and repeat; again, don't frost the sides of the cake, just let a bit of frosting drip here and there if you are feeling artistic.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Off to Or Eh Gone

Though we spent a major portion of this year in downtown Tokyo, our official residence is in Illinois. Just say that out loud, and I'll tell you where you're from. If you said "Ill-ih-noise," you're not from anywhere near here. And I'm not upset at your faulty pronunciation, because hey, I'm not from here either.

I'm from Oregon. Did you say "Or-eh-gone"? Then you're not from there. Furthermore, I'll never be able to invite you to go along for a visit to that beautiful land of mountains, ocean,'ll never lounge lazily in the drivers' seat of your car while someone pumps gas for you and you'll never shop madly and without restraint, cackling as you check out without paying sales tax. To earn access to all these wonderful benefits, the least you can do is learn to say "Or-ih-gun". That's more like it.

So traveling over to the West Coast is not quite the same trek as heading to Tokyo, but the four-hour flight is something to be reckoned with. Particularly when one's travel companion is two and a half, and the stingy airlines don't even dole out snacks without a three dollar penalty fee. But this time, I had a plan. Koji and I were scheduled on the seven p.m. flight, so I figured if I deprived him of his nap, as soon as I settled him on the plane, he'd sleep and I'd read a book.

Too bad he fell asleep in the car on the way to the airport.

And then didn't even think of sleeping again until Portland was clearly in view. Once he heard the landing gear drop, he was out. But not before! Until then it was hour after hour of drinking and eating the provisions I had shlepped on, reading, coloring, playing Narnia with the cool toys that come with Happy Meals right now. (We had Lucy and Mr. Tumnus to keep us busy, but I was busier laughing at Koji's attempts to say "Mr. Tumnus") Oh, and a few trips to the restroom to change diapers; Koji is now officially MUCH taller than the tiny little shelf airlines provide in their restrooms for diaper changing. Perhaps potty-training is a good New Year's resolution?

When I called Mom after our arrival on the PDX tarmac, I had a bit of shock: Oregon weather had gone weirdly Chicago-like; with the roads covered in black ice, Mom and Dad were still nowhere near the airport though they had been approaching slowly for more than two hours. Keep in mind that this is a one hour trip in normal weather... I felt bad asking them to keep coming, but any other transport to Salem would have suffered the same fate so it seemed best to just sit and wait for them.

Once I decided to take a seat at the Stanford's that has opened recently (recently as in since the last time I was at PDX), I felt pretty good about waiting. For one thing, Koji was OUT in his stroller. Transferring him from his car seat on the plane to the stroller was no problem; that's just how unconscious he was. Furthermore, Stanford's is where we had our wedding rehearsal dinner. So though I wasn't at the same location, the ambience was similar and I enjoyed time for nostalgia. Not to mention I was finally able to read my book in peace!

Once Mom and Dad finally arrived, they joined me at Stanford's and grabbed some dinner before we attempted the return trip. We made it to their house without incident around 1 am. Without question, the six and half hour round trip they made to PDX to pick us up was their most arduous ever.

Hopefully they found it worthwhile; I know we did!

Friday, December 16, 2005

What Personal Space?

If, in spite of various glimpses I've tried to give you of life in Tokyo, you really can't imagine it, please look at this!

Fortunate Aogu, in the months we spent living downtown, he was able to walk to work. Those streets can get crowded but they're never in the same league as the commuter trains from downtown to the suburbs.

You'd think looking at this series of photos would make me deliriously happy to be back in the land of abundant personal space. I don't know. The other day I realized with more than a bit of sadness that these days, with the exception of weekly trips to the market, I literally never see anyone that I don't know. No wonder I'm not as inspired to post...not that we don't have any entertainment around here, as you know, Koji has that one sewed up.

Guess I miss people watching, even the people who were in my space.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

No Need to Fly into Midway

One of Koji's favorite activities right now is throwing. We're working hard to help him remember that he is allowed to throw balls, and that's about it. Not food. Not other toys. Not friends (just kidding, he's pretty strong, but not enough to bench-press a friend...yet).

Getting him out of the bathtub is usually a chore because I'm shouting, er, quietly insisting that he put his bath toys away in the bucket while he's merrily tossing them in all directions. Fun times.

A minute ago, he got the idea that it would be fun to throw a piece of paper. One of his better ideas, don't you agree? And more so if it was a paper airplane, right? But what do I know about making paper airplanes? Nothing! Folding paper in general is not something I consider one of my prime skills, in spite of years of living in Japan. The origami tradition didn't rub off on me somehow.

So of course I had to look online for directions. First I tried this one. "Multiple folds of paper concentrate the center of gravity well below and forward of the wings for hang-glider stability" sounds great, but unfortunately turned out to be a little too hard for me to duplicate.

Next I tried Joseph Palmer's PL-1. This is a keeper! Not too difficult for a less than dextrous mom to make, yet flies pretty well. Phew. Now we can fly and land our planes in the safety of our living room and continue to avoid dangerous Midway!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Engineer or At Least Construction Worker

Feeling pretty accomplished right now, as this morning I built an airport, a train station, a bus station...

and a train table with an intricate track laid just so around all of the above mentioned landmarks. Christmas is starting a little early in our household this year, mostly because I just couldn't wait for Koji to have this train table. Oh, and because it would be difficult and ridiculous for us to take this table to and from Oregon all so he could open the box under the tree on Christmas Day?! I like "on the day" celebrations and rules, perhaps more than most, but I wasn't about to try and make this one happen. After all, Koji doesn't totally get Christmas yet, though he quite likes to shout, "Kih-mas!" when he spots a decorated tree.

You likely won't be bothered reading the full review posted at the link above, but my experience and opinions are nearly identical to the those of the reviewer. Except for this important difference:

it took me FOUR hours to put it all together. And I cussed twice. Are we having fun yet?

Won't Do It

Saving money on food is a great idea.

But I still don't want to become a freegan.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Surprise Prayer



ケンとあやとメーゲン 寝ますように
ママ パパ 怒られないように寝れるように

Koji's becoming more and more fluent with his bedtime prayers, but he still managed to surprise us tonight.
This is what he prayed:

(I pray that) Ken, Aya and Megan will be able to sleep
(I pray that) I'll be able to sleep so Mama and Papa won't be mad at me
Tomorrow I'll eat some cheese

Best-looking (Hawaiian) Cowboy in Town

All credit to our wonderful friend and photographer, Jennifer Schuman. If you live in the Chicago area, please call her to do your wedding or other portraits, because she is GOOD. We aren't getting paid to say this, we just want to because it's true!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Starbucks is on Every American Corner Because...

A quote from the following interesting story about caffeine:

Americans seem most in need of concentrating their thoughts, since their average daily consumption of 236 milligrams of caffeine, equivalent to more than 4.5 cups of coffee, is three times the world average.

Whoa! No wonder everyone seems so jittery!