Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lemon Almond Scones

Enough with the ranting. It's time to get back into the holiday spirit. Here is an original recipe for lemon almond scones. I cut them into Star of David shapes to make them festive for Chanukah.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
3 tablespoons powdered milk
6 tablespoons lemon juice
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup slivered almonds
1 egg mixed with 2 teaspoons of water

Preheat oven to 375 deg F.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon juice, powdered milk, egg, vanilla extract, and almond extract. Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture.

Grease a baking sheet with oil or shortening. Sprinkle some flour on a sheet of waxed paper and spread out the dough on the paper. With a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to 1/2 inch thickness. Using a biscuit cutter or a Star of David cookie cutter, cut out individual scones and place them on the baking sheet at least 2 inches from each other. Baste each scone with the egg mixture, and sprinkle almonds over each scone.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until they are lightly browned and slightly firm to the touch (or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean).

Remove the baking sheet to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer the scones to the wire rack to cool.

Makes about 20 small scones.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Annual Chanukah Rant

And now for my annual Chanukah rant.

Why are there so few quality commercial songs for Chanukah? For an industry long dominated by Jews, you would think we would have tossed ourselves a bone every now and then. I feel like the cobbler's children...never wearing good shoes because the cobbler sells all the good ones.

To be fair, percentage-wise there are very few quality Christmas songs as well. The difference is that Christmas has sheer volume on its side. For every 1000 pieces of Christina Aguilera/ Vanessa Hudgens/ Perry Como holiday treacle, the industry produces at least 10 pieces that you wouldn't mind hearing the other eleven months of the year, such as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Wizards in Winter (although even that has pretty much run itself into the ground).

I have four basic rules for judging the quality of commercial Chanukah music:

  1. It should not retell the story of Chanukah.

  2. It should not compare Chanukah to Christmas.

  3. It's sole purpose should not be to retread an old joke.

  4. I should be able to listen to it in July without vomiting.

For example, Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song violates rule #2 and comes close to violating rule #3. In fact, by now the song has been so overplayed, that it has become a joke of itself.

Mama Doni's song Chanukah Fever breaks rules #1, #2, and #4, although I might listen to it again just to hear the word "latkefied."

Chanukah in Santa Monica, an old song by Tom Lehrer, religously follows every one of the rules to the letter. It tells you absolutely nothing about Chanukah, It doesn't mention Christmas at all, it finds humor in geography rather than food, neuroses, or assimilation, and I still find it funny in July. Furthermore, any song that rhymes "Shavuos" with "St. Louis" is destined for greatness.

I am willing to bend some of these rules for music that is truly innovative, entertaining, or just plain different. For example, my pick for last year's Chanukah album of the year was definitely Erran Baron Cohen's Songs in the Key of Hanukkah. To quote his Website:

The record is indeed a collection of songs that brings the ancient music of Hanukkah kicking and screaming straight into the 21st Century.

The album is collaboration between Baron Cohen and an eclectic group of Jewish musicians ranging from Ladino singer Yasmin Levy to the black orthodox Jewish rapper Y-Love. My personal vote for the breakout song of the year was Yasmin Levy's Ocho Kandelikas who puts more passion into a single word than the rest of us put into our entire honeymoon. However, my family voted for Baron Cohen's own "Dreidel" which took what could have been simply another rehash of "I Had a Little Dreidel" and made it innovative, interesting, and very cool.

But that was last year. What is the breakout album or song for 2009/5770?

I personally am leaning toward Senator Orrin Hatch's Hanukkah Song. Hatch resides far, far outside my own political Zip code, but I love the idea of a Mormon U.S. senator writing the lyrics to a Chanukah song, putting the song to music by a Jewish woman who writes Christian songs in Nashville, and getting a Syrian-American woman from Terre Haute, Indiana to record it. I mean really...only in America.

I am also putting in a vote for Ocho Kandelikas by Hip Hop Hoodios because I am always willing to support a Jewish Latino Hip Hop group on novelty alone.

So, dear reader, I leave it to you. Who am I missing? What is the best new Chanukah song or album for 2009?

Happy Chanukah!

I was not ready for Chanukah.

I think I have finally caught up with the holiday now that we are well into the third night, but it really should not have taken me this long to wrap my brain around the 25th of Kislev. I mean, we have been well into December for almost two weeks now, and I should have been marking off the days with my own Jewish version of an Advent calendar.

Excecpt that I didn't. Maybe my subconscious was rebelling against the over-hyping of the December holiday season, and I was trying to place the holiday in its proper medium-grade cultural and religious context by reducing my anticipation. Or perhaps my brain was focusing on the imagery of the final night with all the candles burning bright instead of the first night with its scintilla of illumination. Or maybe I just haven't been getting enough sleep these days.

To make matters worse, we can't find all of our best Chanukiot (Chanukah menorahs), and we are relegated to a palsley two. I have until the end of the holiday to find the rest of the chanukiot so we can appropriately celebrate what I lovingly refer to as, "The Fire Hazard Night."

Thankfully, the holiday lasts eight nights, which gives me time to catch up. I've already made latkes and sufganiyot. I've already played dreidel with my kindergarten students. I've already watched my children open up two nights of presents. I think I've caught up to the holiday.

All I need now is a small paper fire on the mantel, and the holiday will be completely kosher.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Noah's Ark Class Poster

On Sunday mornings, I teach the kindergarten class at our synagogue religious school. I don't know how many PhDs in molecular biology teach kindergarten students, but I definitely believe that more of us should. Perhaps kindergarten education should be a requisite for medical and legal continuing education as well. Of course, we would call it something else, such as Advanced Studies in Humanistic Perspective.

You simply can not think too much of yourself when you teach 5 year olds. You can not take yourself too seriously when you are dancing around the classroom, flapping your arms. You can not worry about your professional image when you are reading a book that requires silly sound effects. Your students will see right through any conceit and call you on it.

That's why I have my students call me Mr. Winicur or Mr. Zev or sometimes just Zev if they can't remember the "Mr." part, but definitely not "Dr. Winicur." Protocols for honorifics are not worth their time and not worth my time. I figure that I can teach them respect for adults without confusing them about what to call whom when. Life is tough enough.

Part of my challenge is to come up with new and exciting ways to engage the students, particularly since I have such a mix of kids. Some of my kids are learning about Judaism for the VERY first time and some of them have been going to Jewish day school every day for the past three years. Some already know how to read, and some are just learning their A-B-Cs. It's a challenge.

So, whenever I come up with a new and exciting activity, I feel compelled to share it and, of course, brag about it. Just because I can't show off to them doesn't mean that I can't show off to YOU.

I call my activity the Noah's Ark Class Poster. Feel free to use it, but please reference me by name whenever you do. My name is Dr. Zev Winicur.


Noah's Ark is one of the best stories for kindergarteners because it bypassess all the boring theology, dogma, and philosophy, and cuts right to the fun stuff: animals and boats. Kindergarteners understand animals and boats.

1 piece of poster board
1 permanent marker
coloring pictures of animals (two of each animal)
coloring supplies (crayons, markers, pencils, etc.)
glue sticks

  1. Draw an ark on the poster board. It should take up most of the posterboard. It doesn't need to look pristine, but it helps if it is vaguely boat shaped. See the picture above.

  2. Find pictures of animals that can be colored in, and make two copies of each animal. Make sure that you have enough DIFFERENT animals so that there is one animal per student. I found (stole) many of my animals from various sites throughout the Web. I don't guarantee that I was not using copyrighted pictures, but I figured the chance of litigation by kindergartener was relatively low.

  3. Put one stack of the animal pictures on the tables in front of the students.

  4. Fold the rest of the animal pictures (the counterparts), and "hide" them around the room. You can decide how well to hide them based on whether you want this to be a remedial exercise, an afikomen hunt, or Indiana Jones's search for the Ark of the Covenant.

  1. Have each student select a picture from the pile on the table. This is their starting animal.

  2. Tell the kids that they must help Noah round up all the animals to put in the ark. To do this, they must find the other animal somewhere in the room.

  3. Tell the kids (AND THIS IS IMPORTANT) that the task is not complete until EVERYONE finds their animal. Therefore, if they come across an animal not their own, they should help their friends by saying, "Does anyone need a giraffe," etc.

  4. Once the kids all have found two of each animal, let them color their animal and cut it out.

  5. As each student finishes with their colored animals, have them glue the animals to the ark.

  6. Proudly display the class poster for at least three weeks until the students get bored with it.
This was a wildly successful activity. First of all, I was able to illustrate and personalize the story of Noah hunting for two of every animal. Second, the kids learned to work together. Many of them really got into helping their friends find their animals. Third, this is a class project, not an individual project, so the kids get to see the fruits of their labor in class every day. More importantly, the parents finally get a day free of tzotchkes that must be displayed on the refrigerator until it crumbles into dust.

No wonder the parents love me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The True Lesson of Sesame Street

With all due respect to Robert Fulghum's heartwarming book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (some might go as far as to call it "literature of ipecac"), I think we need a companion book, All I Need to Know I Learned on Sesame Street.

For example:

  • The world is a diversity of races, ethnicities, colors, and felt patterns.

  • Impulse control, particularly with respect to cookies, is overrated.

  • Math is fun, particularly if it is punctuated with lightning.

  • Corporate sponsorship is ubiquitous ("This episode was brought to you by the letter 'R', and the number '12.'")

However, I think two of the most important lessons are:
  • Know the people in your neighborhood.

  • Surround your personal experience with people from many ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, and ESPECIALLY professions.
This second point is most crucial. Too often, we are constrained by our own professions and social groups. We are afraid to make friends outside our comfort zones. It is vitally important that we extend ourselves. Our social networks should include business people, medical professionals, lawyers, taxi drivers, police, firefighters, teachers, computer programmers, and artists. How else can we gain a balanced perspective of the world? How else can we teach our children about infinite diversity?

How else can we barter favors or seek free advice?

Let me put it this way...if I know that if I have a legal problem, medical problem, security problem, or computer problem, I have people I can contact who will point me in the right direction, even if they can't directly help me.

That is the true lesson of Sesame Street.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Repo! The Genetic Opera - WTF?

Yes, kids...WTF means "What the fooey?" Just ask your parents.

My wife and I found the perfect Halloween that left us scratching our heads and asking each other, "Did we just share the same hallucination?" The movie is called "Repo! The Genetic Opera". It is a goth sci-fi horror rock opera. And you know that you just don't run into many of those at the family theatre these days

The movie has an impressive cast: Alexa Vega (definitely moving past her Spy Kids years), Anthony Stewart Head (very reminiscent of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer work), Paul Sorvino, Sarah Brightman, and a cast of others I had never heard of before. It also stars Paris Hilton perfectly cast as a character who needs to look alternately trampy and vapid. Not so much "vampy" as "trampid."

The backdrop of the movie, a goth sci-fi horror rock opera, is definitely original. In the future, an epidemic of organ failures devasted the planet and GeneCo, a multi-billion dollar biotech company, emerged. GeneCo supplies organ transplantation for a profit, and the company offers financing for those who can not afford new organs. Of course, if you can not make your payments, an organ repo man comes to collect your organs. Due to a bill passed by Congress, organ repossesion (carried out by skilled assassin surgeons) is now legal.

Onto this rather gruesome cinematic canvas comes a bizarre story of Nathan Wallace, an organ repo man (Anthony Stewart Head) who's daughter (Alexa Vega) has a rare blood disease that she's been told she inherited from her mother. She doesn't know that her dad is a legal assassin and not a doctor as he claims, but as she escapes from her room, which has become her prison both methaphorically and practically, she starts to discover just how dangerous the world is around her.

The president of GeneCo, Rotti Largo, is dying and must find an heir. Too bad his children are all murderous, psychotic nincompoops (this is my description, not can't use "nincompoop" in a goth sci-fi horror rock opera). And, as you will find out, Rotti is not only Nathan's boss but responsible for the death of his wife 17 years ago...even though Nathan blames himself for her death.

Oh, and there's a graverobber who steals dead bodies to steal their fluids to make Zydrate, a cheap, highly addictive pain killer used by people who are addicted to multiple surgeries.

At this point, you are either a) curious about the idea, b) totally sold on the concept, or c) already losing your lunch in the toilet just at my description. If you are c), you should probably skip this one, particularly since it was made by the producers of the "Saw" movies. It is definitely not a movie that I could in good conscious call "good" or even "above average," but it is definitely engaging, enthralling, and very, very different.

It has Anthony Stewart Head who is a fine actor who can alternately do bookish everyman, hardened psychotic killer, and rock singer...and have you believe all three. It has Sarah Brightman, who lends some gravitas to the opera part of the rock opera. It has Alexa Vega, who is a rising pop star and effective actress in her own right. It has Paul Sorvino playing the bad guy and singing (who knew?). And it has Paris Hilton. But frankly she doesn't get in the way of the experience as much as you would think.

It is an experience. Whether you find it a good experience, bad experience, or overly medicated experience depends a lot on you. But no matter who you are, you will definitely come out of the movie asking, "What the fooey?"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Hilly Hundred

If I may be allowed a conceit, I would like to pat myself on the back. I am pretty darn proud of myself. This past weekend, I biked the Hilly Hundred.

For those of you outside the fair state of Indiana, the Hilly Hundred is a bike tour of south central Indiana that covers 100 miles of hilly terrain over 2 days. It is a gorgeous ride, a wonderful way to meet new friends, and an incredibly grueling event.

Allow me to put this into perspective for you. I am 41.2 years old, and I make my living by sitting at a desk and typing. Before 2 years ago, the farthest I had ever ridden in a single day was 10 miles. Before 4 days ago, the farthest I had ever ridden in a single day was 40 miles. And to top it off, I own a Schwinn Criss Cross hybrid bike. Think of it as the Subaru Outback of bikes (sturdy, reliable, poor gas mileage, and definitely not a Ferrari). At best, I am an Aspiring Cyclist. By that, I mean that I am definitely a step above the general cyclists who only bike occasionally or for fun around their neighborhood, but I am not yet a Pserious Psychlist. I am sure you all recognize the Pserious Psychlists. They have the equipment, the uniform, and above all, the attitude. They zip by you on the Monon Trail at 200 miles an hour on their Trek bikes with pencil-thin tires and seven bottles of water clipped to the undercarriage. They wear skin tight biking pants, and they sport biking jerseys advertising their favorite sponsored biking team including (I'm not making this up, I really saw it) TIAA-CREF.

With mid-life staring me in the face, I needed a new physical challenge in my life. The Hilly Hundred was just beckoning. I thought, "What the heck?"

When I arrived at Ellettsville High School Friday night to register, I fully expected to be surrounded by 25 year old hardbodies with bad attitudes. Instead, I found myself surrounded by thousands of friendly people, ranging in size from skinny to portly, ranging in age from 8 to 85. Maybe, the Hilly Hundred isn't so tough, I thought to myself. Sure, it's 100 miles, but look at all these "normal" people. Heck, if they can do it, I can do it. I even rented a spot in the gym to throw my sleeping bag to show everyone that I was a normal person just like them. Just a bunch of normal Aspiring Cyclists out to have fun.

The next morning, as I was pulling on my eclectic biking gear gathered over two years of sporadic spending (bike helmet, $80 biking shorts, $10 sweat pants, $2 gloves covered by what I think were old gardening gloves, two sweatshirts, a fleece jacket, and three pairs of socks), I noticed that everyone around me...and I mean EVERYONE...was putting on quite a different uniform. Everyone had biking tights, nearly everyone had windbreakers, and most had biking jerseys. I felt like an outsider at a superhero convention. I started to feel just a weeee bit out of my depth. And this was before we started biking.

The first couple of miles were uneventful, although they were misty and cold. I got used to people zipping by me with a friendly, "On your left." What they were really saying was, "On your left, but aren't you cute for trying!" At about 7 miles in, I decided that I needed someone to bike with, someone to help me keep my pacing. I saw a gentleman in front of me who seemed to be going my speed. I sped up a bit to introduce myself and see if he minded some company. Just as I got close enough to see his face, I realized that man was about 80 years old. There is nothing more demoralizing than realizing that the one person you can keep pace with is an old guy of 80. "On your left," I said and forced myself to pass him.

Luckily, I did eventually meet a lady who was there with her family. Her family members, who had all zoomed ahead of her, met up with her at the first rest stop. "This is Zev," she told them. "He's by himself." Thankfully, she didn't add, "And isn't he cute for trying." The group immediately adopted me as one of their own and became my cheering section. I would like to give a shout out to Mary Therese, Bill, Kevin, Andrew, and Joe. Thank you. You kept me going.

Saturday, the first day of the tour, was all about survival. My goal was to get through the tour without requiring the assistance of an oxygen tank or rescue from a pick-up truck. I made it up as many hills as I could but walked part way up some of the steeper ones. Mary Therese naturally rode up every hill at 4 miles an hour. "That's OK," she said. "Many people walk up the hills at their first Hilly. I don't anymore, of course. My family would give a hard time if I did."

In other words, she was saying, "Don't you worry your pretty little head about those big hills. When you grow up, you'll be man enough to ride them all the way." Grrr. So, naturally, Sunday I had to ride up every stinking hill. And the hardest hills...they were all on Sunday. When I hit Mount Tabor (0.2 miles but a 20% grade), I found myself ascending at a glacial speed, repeating my new mantra, "I paid for this...I paid for this..."

The important thing is that I signed up, I showed up, I rode it, and I loved it. The Hilly Hundred is not just a bike tour. It is truly an event unto itself. They feed you, they entertain you, and they thrill you. You meet Aspiring Cyclists, Pserious Touring Psychlists, and yes, occasionally some Psuper Pserious Psports Psychlists. The guy who slept next to me in the gym rode 100 miles on Saturday...and THEN rode the 50 miles on Sunday. Why? Because he could. And good for him.

The funny thing is that I thought the Hilly would be an endpoint, a single tally on my bucket list. I thought I would finish the ride, flip the bird to the universe, and get back to my office and computer. But even as I sit here nursing my hobbled legs, I am planning for next year's Hilly. I am hooked, and there is no turning back.

Of course, I hope to meet up with Mary Therese and her family again. We'll ride together, eat lunch together, and laugh about the wimps carrying their bikes up the hill. And of course, there's an old guy I need to burn past. Hopefully he'll be back. He is so cute for trying.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Healing Power of Denial

My mother tells a wonderful story about a friend of hers back in graduate school who once explained how he dealt with a cold. He explained that he crawled into bed with a bottle of tequila.
"Does that help?" my mother asked.
"Oh, Sandra," he answered, "who the hell cares?"

A stroll through the self-help section of any major bookstore leaves us with an unescapable conclusion: we have not given nearly enough recognition to the healing power of denial. In fact, denial is passed over as a psychological modality. Personally, I think that positive thinking is an outdated schema. Have we not yet learned that thinking good thoughts day in and day out is taxing to our psyche, whereas denial and negative thinking is simple and cathartic? When someone tells you to, "Have a nice day," do you actually start to think about how you can have a nice day, or do you think about how you can do bodily harm to the well-wisher?

I am going to write a book titled Who the Hell Cares?: The Healing Power of Denial and Negative Thinking. It will have its own place of honor in the self-help section of the bookstore. It will have a place of honor because none of the other self-help books will talk to it. This, of course, won't bother my book, because it will spend every evening coming up with new ways to deface Wayne Dyer's cover jacket photo.

See, I'm feeling more relaxed already.

Speaking of denial therapy, my wife had a dance performance last Saturday night. She did a bang up job (of course), but she was concerned about feeling congested the morning before the performance. "It's just allergies," she told me. And it was just allergies, all the way through the performance Saturday night, after which, on Sunday morning, it turned into a whopping case of the flu.

This coming Saturday, I am biking the Hilly Hundred. I am doing everything possible to shield myself from my wife's flu (getting a flu shot, sleeping in another bed, spraying my surroundings with disinfectant, dosing on vitamin C and elderberry extract, chewing whole cloves of garlic...). I even have been drinking my new favorite vitamin C drink, which is kind of like a poor man's Tequila Sunrise. I call it a Tequila C.

Tequila C

1 highball glass
3 ice cubes
1 jigger tequila
juice of one lime
3 oz orange juice (or enough to fill up the remaining space in the glass)

Mix all ingredients. Drink.

Every now and then, I started to feel a little tickle in my throat or a touch of congestion, but I know that because of all my preventative measures, anything I am feeling is simply allergies. And it will stay allergies through the end of the Hilly Hundred.

Of course, I fully expect to get one whopping case of the flu on Monday morning. But that's okay, because I can simply crawl into bed and cuddle with the remainder of the bottle of tequila. And will it help me recover? Who the hell cares.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

There's a Sukkah Born Every Minute

You will not find it in the Hebrew Bible, you will not find it in any tractate of the Talmud, and you will probably not find it in any rabbinical responsa, but I am convinced...firmly convinced...that for a sukkah to be kosher, it needs to be kashered with the blood of the builder. A sukkah is not complete until you have picked up a splinter, cut your finger on a jagged edge, whacked your thumb with the hammer, dropped a 2x4 on your head, or - as was the case with me two years ago - broken your pinky while trying to readjust a sagging wall.

I am a little concerned that this year, I have yet to kasher the sukkah. In fact, unlike nearly every year in the past, the sukkah building went swimmingly well. IN FACT, I would go so far as to say that this year's sukkah is the most structurally stable, best decorated, and least injurious sukkah we have built to date. I am terribly worried that on the last night of Sukkot, a sudden wind storm is going to lift up my Ford Taurus, smash it into the sukkah, and spray the house with wood shards, the largest of which will embed itself into my forefinger when I leave the house the next morning and kiss the mezuzah.

So, maybe I had better enjoy the sukkah while I can.

I think I should write a book titled How Not to Build a Sukkah. Although I am in no way an expert on sukkah building, I am quite accomplished at finding ways to do it wrong. For example:

  • Never store the wooden beams upright. Make sure they are flat. Otherwise, the boards will warp something terrible and make a "Sukkah with a Bad Attitude."

  • Never use steel fence posts for your sukkah unless you have a post hole digger to sink the posts into the ground. Otherwise, the posts won't stand up by themselves and you will be forced to reinforce the structure with duct tape. You will have the only redneck sukkah in the neighborhood.

  • Never build your sukkah so that one-quarter of it rests on the patch of lawn that suddenly slopes downward. Enough said.

This year, I decided to start over with a new design and new materials. I could go into details, but suffice it to say that the simple design took into account many of the "Don't Dos" that I described above. The final sukkah was just large enough for us to drag in three sling chairs so we could sit back and eat our pizza under the stars.

I say three chairs because Shirah made it perfectly clear that she was not going to sit out in the cold. Me, on the other hand, after everything I did to erect the stupid thing, I want to get my money's worth, even if it means brushing my teeth and getting in my pajamas in the sukkah. Now there's an image you didn't need.

Changing subjects quickly...I came across a wonderful activity to do with kids during Sukkot. I tried this out with my kindergarten religious school class, and it was a big hit.

I used graham crackers, cake icing (Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker), pretzels, and any vibrantly colored kids cereal (eg, Trix) and made sukkahs like the one in the picture. There are various tricks one can use to facilitate the building, but the basic idea is that you use the icing to stick everything together (wall to wall, pretzels to roof, cereal to walls, etc.). The construction requires a light touch (which may be challenging for young children), but the icing sticks everything together incredibly well.

Maybe I should start using cake icing on my real sukkah. I could have the only epicurean sukkah on the block. Well, maybe the only redneck epicurean sukkah.

Monday, September 28, 2009

G'mar Chatimah Tovah

Yesterday I completed, formatted, printed, and sent off The Yearly T'ruah, the Winicur family newsletter. I had set a goal of getting them in the mail before Yom Kippur, and I did it. Saturday afternoon, I stuffed about 25 High Holiday greeting cards in the mailbox. Never mind that they won't be sent out till Monday. I set my High Holidays goal and hit it.

I'm sure there is a greater lesson to be found here about waiting until the last minute to seek God's forgiveness on Yom Kippur when we had the entire year to make amends. If it weren't so late in the evening, I'm sure I could come up with a fascinating parable or amusing story to illustrate this.

Maybe the simple explanation is that Yom Kippur is our deadline for atonement and amends. Yom Kippur is the stop production, go to press, put your money down, show your cards moment when there are no more excuses. We have to face the new year with whatever we have. For one day, we stop all work, stop all pleasure, and reset our spiritual clocks. And then the deadline passes, and we can get on with our lives.

For all of you fasting, may you have an easy fast. For all of you reflecting, may you find peace in the new year.

And for all of you reading The Yearly T'ruah...may you not do any spit takes in public.

Shanah Tovah.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Most Forgiving Honey Cake

Why is it that High Holidays always sneak up on me? How is it possible that year after year, I hit mid-September and suddenly realize that not only have I failed to write The Yearly T’ruah (our family newsletter), but the well of creativity has run dry? How is it conceivable that days before Rosh Hashanah, I suddenly realize that I have not yet baked any honeycakes or round challot? Where does the time go? It’s not as if Rosh Hashanah jumps around the Gregorian calendar. “What? Rosh Hashanah is in February this year? How odd, it was in late June last year.”

I have never been good with long-term planning. In fact, Shirah and I, after many years of marriage, finally discovered that our lives would be much easier if she took on the responsibility for long-term planning and I took on the responsibility for short-term planning. She is an excellent calendar keeper. She keeps all the family appointments, maintains our social calendar, and reminds me of upcoming events. I, on the other hand, make sure that we get to said events on time. It took us many years to hone this partnership, and we are considering trademarking our methodology, writing a self-help book, and selling it on late night TV.

If only I could finish writing this stupid family newsletter first.

Speaking of forgiveness (which we weren’t really, but segues take too much time), I have noticed that honey cake, a staple of Ashkenazic Jewish High Holiday tradition, is one of the most unforgiving cakes in the world. I have tried a variety of recipes, and they all follow the same theme…if you overbake this cake by 5 seconds, you might as well use it as a door stop or perhaps as some piece of minimalistic public art. How ironic that we celebrate a holiday about forgiveness with one of the more unforgiving delicacies. I have spent years hunting for a recipe that doesn’t prompt people to say, “Wow…that tastes…um...exotic. Especially the roasted flavor.”

After years of searching and experimenting, I present Zev’s Honey Cake recipe. I stole most of the recipe from Epicurious, but I have made enough changes that I now choose to claim it as my own. The biggest change is that I removed the mind altering drugs (coffee and brandy) and added carob powder and clove. Although clove has analgesic properties, I do not consider it a psychoactive drug like caffeine or alcohol. This is the perfect cake to serve to friends and family with alcohol or caffeine intolerances.

Of course, I eat my honey cake with a big cup of Irish coffee…but that’s just me.

Zev’s Honey Cake

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. clove
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1 cup honey
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbs. carob powder mixed in ½ cup hot water
2 large eggs
¼ cup packed brown sugar

Prepare a 9” x 5” x 3” loaf pan by oiling the pan well, dusting it with flour, and knocking out the excess. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk together flour, cinnamon, ginger, clove, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Whisk together honey, oil, and carob water in another bowl until well combined.

Beat together eggs and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed 3 minutes. Add honey mixture and mix just until blended at a medium speed, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and mix with a spoon until just combined. Finish mixing the batter with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom of the bowl.

Pour batter into the loaf pan and bake for 30 minutes. Cover the top loosely with foil and continue to bake until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick or skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Cool on a rack 1 hour.

Run a knife around side of the cake, then invert plate over cake and invert cake onto plate. Turn cake right side up on cooling rack and cool completely.

Zev’s notes:

  • Cake keeps at room temperature 1 week if wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or in an airtight container.

  • Resist the urge to cut into the cake to taste it while it is still warm. This will release the steam, and the cake will dry out sooner.

  • Let the cake sit at least one day before serving. The cake gets moister after a few days…or at least that’s what I’ve read. I usually can’t wait that long.

  • Remember to err on the side of underbaking rather than overbaking. Once the cake has baked 45 minutes, check it ever 3 minutes or so. YOU CAN NOT UNDO AN OVERBAKED HONEYCAKE.
  • Friday, September 18, 2009

    L'Shanah Tovah from the President

    L'Shanah Tovah Tikateivu. May you all be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life, and may you have a sweet new year.

    President Obama's Rosh Hashanah message to the country (and the world) is a wonderful message. I think our Rabbis should play it before their sermons tomorrow morning (on a timer so as not to violate Shabbat...obviously).

    Sunday, August 30, 2009

    Mimbibbit - Part 1

    Thank you, all of you, who participated in the second annual Monon Milestone Birthday Bike Tour. That is now the official name, mostly because I want to see if I can get people to casually refer to it as the MMBBT (pronounced "mimbibbit"). Hey, if Hoosiers can refer to IUPUI as "ooey-pooey" without giggling or refer to Broad Ripple without saying, "Mmm...that sounds good. I'll have a scoop too," than mimbibbit seems like a small leap.

    We had beautiful weather on Saturday. Eleven of us (including me) started out together on the Monon, and probably no more than three of us (including me) actually finished the 34 miles round trip including the newly opened Westfield leg of the Monon. It doesn't matter. The fact that I got ten other people to join me was a great belated birthday present. And the fact that the youngest member of our group, who is only 7 years old, managed to bike at least 9 miles, is nothing short of amazing. You know who you are, and you are my hero.

    Only one of the group refused to wear a bike helmet. You know who you are, and your mother and I are about to give you some major aggravation. Be prepared.

    I find the Monon trail to be a fascinating ride, mostly because it cuts a cultural swath through the Indy metro area. There is no better way to understand Indianapolis/Carmel than to ride the Monon.

    At 16th Street, you start at the Frank and Judy O'Bannon Old Northside Soccer Park, where you are sure to find young, athletic African men playing soccer. The international flair provides an interesting multicultural start to the trail.

    You immediately travels north past lumber, construction, and trucking companies to see the blue collar backbone of our city.

    You pass several grassy parks and eventually crosses Fall Creek to see a more pastoral view of the city. There is a rough, unkempt, authentic feel to this part of the trail...a feeling that even in the midst of the urban city, nature can take care of itself for a while.

    You ride up to 38th Street, and if you can cross the two-lane road without dying or (worse yet) soiling yourself, you can pass by the Indiana State Fairgrounds. You will not actually see the fairgrounds themselves, but you will see all the trailers parked outside the fairgrounds. This provides an interesting view of all the "real" people supporting the State Fair. Actually, this part of the ride is kind of boring.

    You travel north to see the backyards of many lower class houses. Slow down to watch people fixing cars, playing basketball, cooing over babies, mowing lawns, and generally being real life people.

    Look to the right to see the Indiana School for the Deaf. It is a beautiful campus. The sunflowers are in full bloom now.

    Continue north to Broad Ripple. Here everything feels more overgrown but in a controlled way. Lush gardens pop up right and left. The houses are still small, but the gardens make them look more young professional and less working class. To the right, you will pass Canterbury Park where a volleyball game between attractive 20-somethings is almost always in session. Young parents are strolling about the playground with their infants and toddlers. Most of them eye me suspiciously. I speed up.

    Be careful. The traffic is increasing on the path, although nearly all of the pedestrians and bikers are still pretty respectful of the rules of the road.

    Eventually you get to Broad Ripple Avenue, the new hippie business district. Take a jaunt over to Good Earth Natural Foods to stock up on Tiger's Milk bars. Or better yet, stop over at Red Mango Frozen Yogurt, a trendy new yogurt restaurant. Try their Tangomonium with fresh mango topping or (better yet) fresh raspberries.

    North of Broad Ripple Avenue, high school students, college students, and young professionals walk and ride up and down the path. This is a great place to hang out if you want to pretend that you are still young and hip. Just please don't use the term "hip". That and your receding hairline will give you away.

    At 67th Street, you pass the Indianapolis Art Center. Stop at the sculpture garden if you have a minute. Some of the art is incredibly engaging, especially the giant balls woven out of wicker...assuming they haven't taken them down yet.

    As you get closer to the White River, enjoy the greenery. This is one of the prettiest parts of the trail. However, be careful. You are now entering the Zone of Extreme Stupidity. Here is where you are most likely to meet wildly veering pedestrians on cell phones, little children vapidly exploring the wrong side of the path, and hard core bikers speeding past you at 25 miles per hour without announcing themselves. It is hear that you are most likely to lose an appendage or wrap your bike around a baby stroller.

    Please be careful.

    However, the greenery is stunning along Marott Park. Next to this stretch of path are dense patches of trees, thick vines hanging low, and lush ground cover. It's a bit spooky at dusk. Not that I ever ride at dusk since that's against the rules of the trail. Obviously.

    However, just north of 75th Street, stop for a minute at the entrance to the Indiana School for the Blind. This is a great place to eat your Tiger's Milk Bar and feel the tiled bas-relief sculptures standing tall like turquoise crystals ready to orate a mysterious ancestral history. They are very cool.

    You continue north to 86th Street where you stop at Chris's Mexican Food to get a scoop of ice cream (assuming you are not already full from the frozen yoghurt and Tiger's Milk Bars). Chris's Mexican Food used to be Chris's Ice Cream Shop, and the irony is that the ice cream is much better now that the place is under new Mexican management and no longer called an ice cream shop. It is worth the stop, even if only for a $2 child size cone.

    North of 86th Street, the trail stretches out into long stretches of new development. I call this the badlands. The badlands continue to 96th Street, where the Indianapolis portion ends, and a friendly sign invites you to Carmel, "A bicycle-friendly community." Naturally, you continue on...

    (To be continued)

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009

    The Graduate Student Quiz

    As a much as I love being the proprietor of a virtual restaurant, it is not what I would call a lucrative career choice…if by lucrative one means making any money whatsoever. Therefore, like most residents of the blogosphere, I am forced to seek a day job, one that provides me with a daily income, a feeling of self worth, a sense of personal accomplishment, and a legitimate excuse to get out of the house and maintain some sense of personal hygiene.

    As a medical writer for a continuing medical education provider, part of my job involves writing grant applications and proposals to seek new sources of funding. Some of the proposals are small and some are big. Some of the proposals follow traditional models and some require more innovative thinking. Some of the proposals have long turnaround times and some have looming deadlines. As a matter of fact, I am currently working on one of those big, nasty, non-traditional proposals right now, and its deadline is looming ever closer like a hungry vulture circling over a wounded kitten.

    Oh, yes. Just try to get to sleep tonight with that image stuck in your mind.

    Interestingly, my recent work developing experimental designs for healthcare education studies has reminded me of my graduate school days. Thankfully, it reminds me of the good years of grad school – the years of exciting scientific discovery and learning – not the bad years of having my soul sucked away by experimental failure, impossibly high expectations, lack of direction, and a general erosion of self worth. It was kind of like a prolonged dementor attack without the giggles.

    Yes, grad school was a mixed bag for me. In fact, it was in my last year of grad school that I wrote a quiz titled, “How close are you to finishing your thesis?” I think there were 5 questions to the quiz, but unfortunately only 4 of the 5 questions remain.

    For all of you grad students out there, take heart. It will all soon be over, and it will get better. Of course, then you will have to find a REAL job. But that is your problem.


    1. What is daylight?

      1. God smiling on the earth

      2. That period of time between sunrise and sunset

      3. Something to do with “saving” and “time”

      4. A vicious lie

    2. Your friends think you are:

      1. A lot of fun to be around.

      2. A little stressed.

      3. In major need of a vacation.

      4. What are “friends”?

    3. Which of the following is the most stressful?

      1. Writing your thesis

      2. Cooking dinner

      3. Tending to a bleeding ankle while alien space invaders are firing on your encampment and your mother is standing over you discussing health insurance

      4. Can’t tell the difference

    4. When someone asks you, “So, how’s the writing going?” you answer:

      1. “Thank you. It’s going well.”

      2. “What writing?”

      3. “Leave me alone.”

      4. “I will kill you, and they will never find the body.”

    The Fourth Law of Thermodynamics

    My father in his former life was a physical chemist, so I've known the first three laws of thermodynamics since I was about 7 years old:

    1. Heat and energy are conserved. (You can't win.)
    2. Entropy is always increasing. (You can't break even.)
    3. It is impossible to cool a system to absolute zero. (So don't even try.)

    Frankly, I think there should be a fourth law: There are an infinite number of people ready to burst your bubble at any given time.

    About a week ago, I was seated next to a colleague who I knew was an avid biker. "Hey," I said proudly. "Last Saturday I biked the Monon trail...34 miles!"

    "Hmm..." he said gruffly, "last Saturday I biked 160 miles. I did the Ride Across INdiana."

    "Oh," I said. And then feeling like I ought to comment further on his understated accomplishment, I added, ""

    Yesterday, after a long day of work, I took a long bike ride up and down the Monon. I wheeled my bike back to the office just as one of our directors was leaving the building. Feeling somewhat proud of myself, I told her in as cool and matter-of-fact a voice as possible that I had just biked 22 miles. "Wow," she said. "That's great. Good for you! You know, when I was in college, I used to bike 20 miles every day."

    Yes, an endless supply of killjoys...

    So, I hope, Dear Reader, that you will not let the air out of my tires (metaphorically speaking) when I tell you that I plan to ride the Hilly Hundred next October. The Hilly Hundred is a bike tour in central Indiana that covers 100 miles of hilly road over two days. It is a grueling event of camaraderie and endurance...or at least it certainly sounds like it based on all the promo material.

    Last year, upon facing my 40th birthday milestone, I biked the Monon trail round trip. At the time, 34 miles seemed like a daunting and yet doable personal goal...a feat of strength to show the world that I could take 40 in headlock, throw it to the ground, and give it one hell of a noogie.

    Yeah, well that was last year. Onward and upward. So, I'm telling you all now of my plan to do the Hilly Hundred . I figure that if I mention this publicly to enough people, I won't be able to wimp out. Nothing keeps you on track of your personal goals like public humiliation.

    However, the Monon Milestone Birthday Ride is now an official yearly event. I am planning the ride for August 29th, a mere 16 days after my birthday. You are all invited, and I hope you will join me on the 34-mile ride up and down the Monon trail. As we did last year, we will celebrate the end of the ride with drinks and dinner at the Broadripple Brew Pub.

    And any of you who wish to join me on the Hilly Hundred, please do so. But if you do, please try not to ride circles around me or brag about your own bicycling exploits. I have a fragile ego, and I have enough killjoys in my life.

    Monday, June 29, 2009

    Orzo Ruach Pasta Salad

    I came up with this pasta salad recipe on the drive home from work the other day. I had to prepare something for a potluck dinner, and I needed to do something different. I just couldn't face doing the same Mediterranean-ish rotini pasta salad with feta, mint, cucumber, tomato, and red wine vinegraitte. Granted, that's a good dish too, but I had done it to death and ennui was setting in. So, I came up with a new recipe, and I'm very proud of it.

    The name of the recipe is a Hebrew pun, but it's probably not worth trying to explain it on the blog. Just pat me on the head and say, "That's nice dear."

    This recipe makes quite a bit as you would expect for a potluck dish. If you are making it for your family, I would recommend cutting in half. Or make the full amount and bring it for lunch the next day. Everyone will ooh and aah...right before they defrost their Lean Cuisine.

    Orzo Ruach Salad

    1 ½ cups dry orzo
    2 cups cooked chick peas
    1 medium-size cucumber
    1 large tomato
    ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
    ¼ cup kalamata olives
    ¼ cup sesame seeds
    ½ cup water
    2 Tbs. lemon juice
    1 Tbs. olive oil
    ¼ tsp. salt
    1 tsp. sesame oil
    ½ tsp. cumin
    2 cloves pressed garlic

    Cook the orzo according to package directions. It should be al dente. Drain the pasta.

    Coursely chop the cucumber, tomato, and olives and mix into the orzo.

    In a food processor, process the sesame seeds until they become powdery. Add the remaining ingredients and continue processing until the dressing is thoroughly mixed and slightly frothy. Mix the dressing into the orzo.

    Thursday, June 18, 2009

    My Buddy Carob

    Show of hands many of you came of age in the 1970s? OK, good. Now how many of you had parents who belonged to a food co-op? Wonderful. Now, of those, how many of you remember carob? Great. One more many of you have introduced carob to your children?

    Both of you? Thank you. I hope you two are proud of yourselves. You may put your hands down now.

    For those of you who know nothing of this wonderful fruit, carob (a.k.a. St. John’s Bread a.k.a. locust bean a.k.a. boxer) is the edible pod of the carob tree. Carob trees are large trees (50-55 feet at maturity) that primarily grow in Mediterranean climates. Carob pods contain both pulp (90%) and seeds (10%). The seeds yield locust bean gum, a complex polysaccharide (galactomannan) which is an important commercial stabilizer and thickener in bakery goods, ice cream, salad dressings, sauces, cheese, salami, bologna, canned meats and fish, jelly, mustard, and other food products. The rest of the pod can be roasted and ground into carob powder which is made into a wide variety of foods, including drink mixes, baked goods, candy bars, candy-coated fruit and nuts, and ice cream.

    Carob has a very long and proud history. Its seeds are very regular in size and are thought to be the origin of the word ‘carat,’ as jewelers would use carob seeds to weigh out diamonds. Due to its high sugar content and relatively low cost, carob pulp was among the first horticultural crops used for the production of industrial alcohol by fermentation in several Mediterranean countries.

    Carob seemed to really come of age in this country back in the 1970s, primarily as a chocolate substitute. Carob powder is higher in fiber, calcium, and vitamin A than cocoa powder, and it is lower in saturated fat, theobromine, and caffeine. More recent studies have shown that carob plays a role in treating hypercholesterolemia.

    Back in the day, healthfood stores and restaurants sold carob goodies in every shape and size. I fondly remember the healthfood store in South Bend, Indiana that sold carob ice cream along with its bran muffins and fruit juice-sweetened cookies.

    So, what happened? Where did all the carob products go? Why is it so hard to find good, tasty, sugar-sweetened carob candies nowadays? I am sure that the food scientists and agronomists will point to the world-wide decline in carob production over the past 50 years primarily due to low prices and low consumption. However, I blame it on all the idealists and hippies and new agers and health foodies. You all got lazy. The moment those first studies came out linking dark chocolate to antioxidants, you dumped carob like a bad prom date.

    Shame on you.

    Granted, as a chocolate substitute, carob is a paltry surrogate. Carob truly has its own personality. It had a roasty, earthy, sweet flavor that does not have the bitter refinement of chocolate. It is the Jerry Garcia of confections.

    However, carob will always have a place in my heart. When I was a young boy, I was allergic to chocolate. From the age of about five through high school, I ate no chocolate. Picture it: no Three Musketeers bars, no Klondike bars, no Oreos, no Hydrox, no Hershey bars, and no M&Ms. I grew up eating only half of black and white cookies. I could only eat two-thirds of Neapolitan ice cream. Chocolate was this ubiquitous presence, always laughing at me, taunting me, giving me the proverbial wedgie.

    But carob was my loyal friend. Carob stood by me when chocolate left me out in the cold.

    So, even now that I have outgrown my chocolate allergy, I still have a soft spot for carob. Every Tu B’Shevat, I make carob bars (recipe to come later). I still occasionally make carob chip cookies, carob brownies, and carob cake.

    A couple of weeks ago, my youngest son begged me to make some peanut butter carob chip cookies. I happily acquiesced. When my wife, who equates dark chocolate with earthly pleasures usually only found in the Kama Sutra, heard what we were making, she had only one question. “Why?”

    How could I explain to her the nostalgia, the comfort, the companionship inherent in a single carob chip? How could I explain to her the childhood memories that flood back every time I open a canister of carob powder? I didn’t even try.

    “Why not?” I answered. And that seemed good enough for her.

    Tuesday, June 2, 2009

    Almond Chipotle Burgers

    Almonds have an exalted place among the "superfoods," foods that go bey0nd basic nutrition to help fight disease or improve health. Almonds provide a nutrient-dense source of vitamin E, manganese, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, fiber, riboflavin, monounsaturated fatty acids, and protein, and they have been shown to reduce low-density lipoproteins (the bad, naughty, evil cholesterol often portrayed with a pencil-thin mustache and a black cloak). Almonds have a low glycemic index and do not adversely impact insulin sensitivity. Furthermore, almonds can be an effective part of a weight loss strategy even though the nut is 50% fat by weight. According to a review in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture, "habitual almond consumption does not lead to weight gain, and their inclusion in low-calorie diets appears to promote more weight loss than a comparable carbohydrate-based low-calorie diet."

    Furthermore, nutritionist Monica Reinagel (my latest hero/obsession) reported a study in a recent Ask Monica blog that found that those people who chewed almonds for a longer period of time (40 times) felt more full than those who chewed them for a shorter period of time (10-25 time). I don't know if the take home message of the study was that almonds are an effective appetite suppressant or that masticating is good for you, but I think it's worth mentioning nonetheless...particularly because I heard it from Monica. And she is my new obsession. Or did I mention that?

    Anyway, here is a good summer recipe that came to me tonight in a flash of inspiration. If you can cook these over a charcoal grill, go for it. Otherwise, the broiler works just fine.

    Almond Chipotle Burgers
    2 cups almonds
    1/2 small onion
    1/2 green bell pepper
    1 carrot, peeled
    1 medium stick of celery
    1/2 cup rolled oats
    6 oz. tomato paste (1 small can)
    1 egg
    1-2 tsp. dried chipotle pepper, ground in a mortar and pestle
    salt and pepper to taste

    Preheat the oven on the broiler setting. Grind the almonds, onion, bell pepper, carrot, and celery in a food processor. Mix in by hand the rolled oats, tomato paste, egg, and dried chipotle pepper. Add salt and pepper. Form the mixture into 10 burger-sized patties and cook under a broiler for 2-4 minutes per side.

    This burger is best served on a bun with a slice of tomato. The cool of the tomato perfectly balances the spicy burger.

    Wednesday, May 20, 2009

    You Will Eat It and Like It!

    As I get older, which seems to be happening with increased rapidity these days, I become more and more convinced that what we all truly need is someone to frequently push us out of our safety zone. Such a gadfly (or motivator, depending on your point of view) is necessary, not only for our own personal growth as individuals but for our very survival as a species.

    When we are young, pretty much every authority figure serves this purpose. I know I serve this purpose for my children on a daily basis. I am reminded of my role in their lives every time they look at whatever I made for dinner. "What's in this?" my oldest son always asks me with an accusatory look on his face. "Oh, the usual," I say, "raw meat, nitrites, trans fats, gasoline, and thumbtacks. Oh, and a dash of ketchup." And then I make him eat his spinach frittata.

    When we grow up and we have no one to force us out of that comfort zone. Sure, we do the minimum amount possible to keep ourselves healthy...usually...but at a certain age, we develop a voice that says, "I don't HAVE to eat that if I don't want to. And no one can make me. Nyeah."

    Of course, everybody's comfort zone is different. I once worked with a woman who brought rice cakes and yoghurt for lunch EVERY DAY. She was an avid biker and a consummate health nut (which means that she was healthier than me). We were talking once about Pesach and having to go without grain products for a week. "Oh, I could never do that," she said somewhat dismissively, "I could never deprive myself like that."

    I thought, "Oh, yes, you could! You just don't WANT to and there is no one out there to MAKE you."

    I am reminded of the commercials I constantly see on T.V. that go something like this:

    "After my triple bypass, my doctor told me that I had to cut back on my salt and fat intake. I didn't know if I could do that. I didn't want to sacrifice taste. But then my wife told me about Honey Fiber Crispies." [Man puts handful of sugary looking snack in his mouth and lights up with a huge smile] "I guess this is a sacrifice I'll just have to make."

    Whenever I see a commercial like this, I want to jump through the T.V., smack the man in the back of the head with a 2 x 4, and shout, "Listen, you idiot! You are 55, you look about 50 pounds overweight, you probably haven't seen a vegetable that wasn't batter-fried in 2 decades, and you just had a major cardiovascular event. If your doctor tells you to EAT this 2 x 4 that I'm beating you with, you will do it gladly without ever asking for ketchup!"

    And then I would keep on beating him with the wooden board for good measure. Just to make my point.

    I think I need that voice of "in loco parentis" to constantly push me a little further outside my comfort zone. Sure, I became the president of the Indiana Chapter for the Society for Technical Communication 2 years ago. Sure, I started working out a year ago with Krav Maga (until my doctor made me stop a month ago while my herniated disc heals). Sure, I cut back my caloric intake to record breaking levels...for me. But that was yesterday. What have I done today?

    Well, I suppose I could beat myself with a 2x4. Or maybe I could eat the 2x4. But I'm dipping it in ketchup. We all have our limits, you know.

    Monday, April 27, 2009

    Globe Spinner Dinner

    When I was a young lad, my mother read in some family magazine about "Globe Spinner Dinners," a great activity for the entire family. The idea was that you set a special night to be a "Spinner Dinner" night, you spun the globe and randomly selected a country (although you may have had to do it a couple of times if you kept hitting the ocean), you prepared a dinner based upon the cuisine of the country, you dressed up in costumes from the country, and you researched information about that country. The evening became a culturally educational evening that allowed everyone a chance to take part. Those who didn't cook could read up on the country in the World Book Encyclopedia and report to everyone else on the such trivia as the country's population, topography, government, language, religions, customs, or main industries. Other people could ransack their closets to come up with costumes that mimicked to some vague level of accuracy the costumes worn in a Hollywood movie about the country. And other people could go to the liquor store and buy beer from the country in question. Everyone took part.

    I have tried to introduce Globe Spinner Dinners to my family, and so far my youngest son has become the most interested in the idea. I warn you, however, if you plan to do a Spinner Dinner...PLAN AHEAD. Don't decide you are going to do a Spinner Dinner TONIGHT.

    I was discussing that night's dinner with my youngest son when he suggested that we make it a Spinner Dinner evening. I thought, "Sure. China's a big country. The chances are pretty good that I can make Chinese or Indian or something else Asian tonight."

    We got Botswana. Thank heavens for the Internet. I was able to save face and create a meal that very day.

    Our menu consisted of pap (a traditional porridge made of corn meal) served with a vegetable potjie (a traditional stew made mostly of root vegetables). We had a morogo (spinach) dish with orange bell peppers and peanut butter (very good, but a bit of an acquired taste) and watermelon. Oh, and I introduced the kids to ginger beer.

    I had wanted to find Reed's Extra Ginger Brew (the super potent, less sweet ginger beer), but all I could find was the Reed's Premium Ginger Brew (the very strong but slightly less potent, sweeter ginger beer). It was probably all for the best. Better they should start off with the lighter ale before I introduce them to the hard stuff. But I digress.

    Considering the limited amount of time I had to shop for and prepare the meal, it came out very well. My oldest son researched some information on the Web about Botswana, although nobody dressed up in traditional garb.

    That's OK. Next time, I will get my wife involved, and we will plan this a good week in advance. That way, not only will I have plenty of time to prepare a traditional Swaziland feast, but she will be able to sew me a costume as well.

    Just like the one in the movies.

    Monday, April 20, 2009

    Orange Sunset Served in a Soothing Mug

    This past week my darling wife was under the weather. She made puppy dog eyes at me until I made her an Orange Sunset, one of her favorite drinks when she is sick.

    Making the drink was the easy part. Selecting an appropriate mug, on the other hand, took a bit more time. I am not a superstitious man when it comes to most of my daily habits, but I do admit to a certain degree of mystical practice when it comes to selecting the proper vessel for a heated beverage.

    Very simply, the mug must match the purpose of the drink.

    For example, in the morning, my coffee mug must be minimalistic and energizing. There must be no floral patterns or fancy type fonts. If I select the mug with the Colorado columbine, I might as well drop a couple of vicodin and bring a pillow to my desk.

    On the other hand, if I want to settle myself down at night with a nice cup of chamomile or jasmine green tea, I will go for the gray mug with the winter forest scene or the free mug I got with my last Gevalia order that greets me with delicate gold lettering, "By Appointment to his Majesty the King of Sweden." If I pick the mug with the snappy logo that I got at a technical conference, I will be up all night trying to list all the movies that Tim Burton directed that Danny Elfman did NOT do the music for.

    So, I very carefully chose the winter forest scene for my wife when I made her the Orange Sunset, and I am totally and completely convinced that it helped in her convalescence. Had I picked the wrong mug, she would have been up all night hacking and coughing and mentally writing middle eastern choreographies for her dance troupe. And all because I gave her a hot, soothing drink in a Far Side mug.

    Who am I to taunt the lesser deities of warming beverages? This is serious stuff.

    Anyway, here is the recipe for Orange Sunset.


    2/3 mug of orange juice
    1/3 mug of water
    1 tablespoon of honey
    1/4 tsp. cinnamon
    3 whole cloves

    Mix all ingredients together. Simmer on a low heat for about 10 minutes. Serve warm.

    If you do not like whole cloves in your teeth, strain the drink before serving. I, on the other hand, fully believe in the healing power of whole cloves, so I always leave them in the mug and suck on them when I have finished the drink.

    Friday, April 10, 2009

    The White House Seder: Was It Good for the Jews?

    Once again, the Obama White House has made history. And this time, I just do not know how to feel about it.

    President Obama hosted a second night seder in the White House tonight. This was the first White House seder attended by a sitting president. The seder was relatively small, and included only about 19 people including the president and his family. Guests included Valerie Jarret, one of Obama's closest advisors; family friend Eric Whitaker; Reggie Love, Obama's personal aide; Melissa Winter, Michelle Obama's deputy chief of staff; White House videographer Arun Chaundhary, along with his family; Eric Lesser, a personal aide to senior advisor David Axelrod, and a number of other advisors. Eric Lesser, 24, led the seder.

    The seder meal was "kosher-style," which means that it was not kosher for Passover, but presumably did not contain cheeseburgers, shrimp, pork, or leavened bread.

    This seder is big news. By hosting a seder in the White House, Obama has made a point of showing his support for a) the Jewish people, b) his Jewish advisors, and c) diversity in general. After 86 years of a National Christmas Tree, the Obama White House has finally put a spotlight on the best Jewsih traditions and pushed our culture and religion, not our political issues, to the national center stage. The symbolism of the gesture surpasses the symbolism of the seder plate itself.

    And yet, I find myself underwhelmed. I am sure that Eric Lesser, a rising star in the Democratic political landscape, did a fantastic job leading the seder. But still and all, this was not the seder I had hoped for.

    A national seder is a watershed event. A seder in the White House should match the enormity of the event itself. Every part of the seder should be scrutinized since the seder is meant to represent the entire American Jewish community.

    At an absolute minimum, we should all be asking these very important questions about the seder:
    • Who led the seder? Was it a leader in the American Jewish community? Was he or she Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or unaffiliated?

    • Was the seder kosher for Passover? Did someone kasher the White House kitchen? Was the caterer kosher? Would observant Jews actually be able to eat at the national seder?

    • What was on the menu? Did a famous chef come up with an innovative, new take on matzah ball soup? Did the menu incorporate recipes from around the globe?

    • Who asked the four questions? Did the responsibility fall to Sasha? Did she do them in Hebrew? Did she sing them?

    • Who found the afikomen? What sort of prize was the lucky finder able to negotiate with the president? Did the finder get a college scholarship or just a shiny silver dollar?

    • Was Debbie Friedman invited? Well, was she?
    And that is just for starters.

    Many Jewish leaders felt snubbed that they were not invited to the seder. I can understand their feelings of disappointment, not simply because they were left out of what should have been the social event of the season, but also because the event was NOT the social event of the season.

    Imagine if the president decided that instead of a National Christmas Tree, he was simply going to put up a small Charlie Brown tree in the oval office and invite a few close friends over for spiked egg nog. There would be rioting in the streets and Obama would be a one-term president. And all because he simply wanted to make Christmas a small, personal family celebration.

    So, the Jewish community is STILL waiting for a National Passover Seder. When this does eventually happen, when a current or future president decides to bequeath a higher level of significance to both Passover and the Jewish people, then, and only then will the Jewish people have truly arrived in this country.

    I only hope I make it on the invite list. I want to sit next to Sasha and Malia. I'll even teach them to sing Daiyenu until their parents beg me to stop.

    Thursday, April 9, 2009

    Passover Traditions

    Chag sameach! Happy first day of Pesach. I hope that all of you observing Pesach were able to celebrate in style last night. If not, hopefully you will celebrate in style tonight. If not, well hopefully you are able to hunker in a corner somewhere with a piece of matzah and bottle of wine.

    We hosted a seder last night for 11 people (7 guests plus my family). I finally got smart this year and took a full vacation day so I could prepare all the food. As it was, I still ended up rushing around at the last minute trying to get everything ready. This is standard operating procedure. No matter how many days ahead of time I begin the process, I must spend the last two minutes before our planned start time saying, "Aaaah! Salt water! We're supposed to have salt water!"

    We tried a host of new recipes this year, opting for a more Sephardic meal. As usual, we had the Sephardic charoset of oranges, dates, nuts, and grape juice. The main course was Pesadic spanikopita pie, garlicky stir fried green beans, curried white and sweet potatoes, and a quinoa pilaf. But of course, we had to start with vegetarian matzah ball soup and the walnut onion salad (mocked chopped liver). Those two are absolutely critical. Even if we decided to do something wacky like an all sprouts seder, we still would have to have matzah ball soup. I'd just sprinkle the sprouts in the soup.

    I am curious. Do any of you get innovative on Pesach, or do you always have the same meal? If you do get innovative, do you have certain dishes that are absolutely required year after year, NO MATTER WHAT?

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009

    Moscardini de Pesach a la Winicur

    The countdown to Pesach has begun. The house is almost completely kashered, the baking and cooking for the seder is underway, and we have now reached the most difficult time of Pesach...the days of final chametz. Now is when we have used up all the good chametz, and we are trying to find something to eat amongst the last few scraps of usable food. We can't break into the matzah yet, but we don't have anything to put in our sandwiches other than bread itself.

    As a matter of fact, today I had a glutenschnitzel sandwich. That means that other than the tomato sauce I smeared over it, I had wheat gluten breaded with corn meal between two pieces of bread. It was like a super chametz sandwich. Tonight, I stopped at the store, bought a 8-count package of tortillas, a can of black beans, and a small can of corn. Combined with the last of the leftover rice in the fridge and the non-kosher for passover salsa, we suddenly had a wonderful burrito meal with hardly any leftovers. And tomorrow, I'll take the last of the stir fry and noodles for lunch.

    Trying to make the chametz come out even before Pesach is almost an art. Open question to all of my readers: What do all of you eat on the last couple of days before Pesach? Do you kasher your kitchen weeks before and eat out for 10 days straight? Do you put all your chametz in a bag in the fridge and sneak your sandwiches out to the garage until you finally sweep up that last bread crumb with a feather and a candle the night before?

    When you live in Indianapolis, you have to prep for Pesach ahead of time. If you haven't bought your Doc Brown's kosher for Passover black cherry soda a couple of weeks before Pesach, then good luck finding any at all.

    I'm sure that all you folks in Skokie or NYC or Israel can go into the local Walmart any day of Pesach and find whatever you want whenever you want it. But for the rest of us in the Midwest (i.e. outside of Chicago) we have to plan ahead. It just makes us better than you. Or something like that.

    Switching topics rapidly, I finally worked out a good recipe for Passover moscardini, an almond cookie usually made for Purim. If any of you can give me a historical background on this cookie (or even a good picture of what it should really look like), I would be much obliged. These cookies taste wonderful, but they are possibly the most unappetizing looking pastries that I've ever made. What can you expect? They are dark brown cookies with flecks of white in a nondescript tubular shape that looks like...well, you get the idea.

    So, I've played with the recipe to make it look more like mandelbrot. At least now it looks like a cookie I'd actually want to eat.

    Moscardini de Pesach a la Winicur

    1 1/4 cup almonds, toasted then finely ground
    1 1/4 cup sugar
    1/4 cup cocoa powder
    1/4 cup matzah cake meal
    1/3 tsp. cinnamon
    2-3 tsp. orange zest (1/2 an orange)
    1 egg, slightly beaten
    1 egg yolk

    Preheat the oven to 350 deg F. Oil a baking sheet and coat it with matzah cake meal.

    Combine all of the dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix the egg and egg yolk into the dry ingredients and stir well.

    Press the dough firmly into a long mound, about 3 inches wide by 9 inches long by 1 inch high. Taper the edges so that when you slice the loaf, you get moon-shaped cookies.

    With a sharp knife or a pastry scraper (a pastry scraper works very well), cut the mound into segments, each about 3/4 inch thick. Place the segments cut side down on the baking sheet, each about 2 inches apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes till just firm. Remove cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely.

    Yields about 1 1/2 dozen.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009

    The Secret to Weight Loss

    I don't mind telling you that I've lost some weight recently. As a matter of fact, I've lost about 14 pounds in 8 weeks. Not only have my friends started to notice, but casual acquaintenances are commenting. The conversation usually goes like this:

    "Have you lost weight?"
    "Why yes, thank you for noticing."
    (quickly) "Not that you were overweight before..."
    "Yes, and thank you for that as well."

    Hey, I take my compliments where I can get them.

    A friend of mine asked me how I did it. He made it sound like it was a great secret, privy only to a select few who have paid $200 to the Church of Weightlossology. "Well," I said, looking as sincere as I could, "I tried something new. I started eating less and exercising more."

    It's amazing I have any friends left at all. Now you see why I grab all the compliments that I can.

    However, his point is well taken. Weight loss is not easy. If it were, Jenny Craig would be out of business. So, I thought about the question, and I am now going to reveal the secret to weight loss.

    Before I do, I should warn you that I am not going to reveal any step-by-step methodology on how to count Weight Watchers points, track simple carbs, lift weights, walk 1,000 steps every day, or only eat foods that begin with the letter 'Q.' There are countless books, Websites, and counselors out there that are more than happy to take your dollar and give you a plan of action complete with color brochures, Excel charts, and a 1-800 hotline. What I am going to tell you is the SECRET part.

    SECRET PART #1. Do not go it alone.

    For the second year in a row, my workplace has sponsored a Biggest Loser competition. Not too surprisingly, this program has been VERY popular. I signed up this year as well as last year.

    The basic idea is that you form teams, and the team (not individual) with the greatest weight loss wins. In other words, if you decide to go on an eating binge, you don't only get dirty looks from the person in the mirror, you get dirty looks from your teammates as well. Public humiliation is powerful motivator.

    Actually, my team this year is much more gung ho than my team last year. We are developing strategies, giving each other advice, and cheering each other on. We are trying to create a supportive environment to encourage each other to hit our target weight. We have plenty of time for dirty looks closer to the end of the contest.

    SECRET PART#2: Assume that you have no will power.

    I am convinced that most diets fail because they rely on the dieter to actively make good choices on the fly. THIS WILL NOT WORK. If you have a bag of Doritos and a bag of carrots in your desk, you will always go for the Doritos. Always, always, always. The only hope that you have is to REMOVE THE STINKIN' DORITOS FROM YOUR DESK.

    In other words, to be successful, you need to set up your lifestyle so that you don't have to make hard choices. I often eat oatmeal for breakfast because it is easy to make and it has only 2 Weight Watchers points per 1/2 cup dry. I keep 1 cup snack bags of Honey Nut Cheerios in my desk drawer because they give me a satisfying 2-point snack in the middle of the day. To be serious about losing weight, you need to figure out how you plan to thwart your best attempts and stop yourself early on...not midstream. I KNOW that I have no will power. So, I don't even try to tempt myself.

    If your office brings in donuts on Friday afternoons (as one of my previous jobs did), you may need to take drastic action. Duct tape may be required.

    SECRET PART #3: Make it easy to get exercise.

    I go to Krav Maga class 2 to 3 times per week. I have worked out my schedule so that I can stop off there on my way home from work. I also periodically take a walk at lunchtime. I have mapped out a 1-mile circuit from my office. Not only do I get exercise, but I also get to take a 25-minute stress break during lunch.
    This is a brilliant way for ME to get exercise. However, it might not work for YOU. You will have to figure out your own way to get exercise. However, whatever you do, it is best if you remember SECRET PARTS #1 and #2. In other words, you need to find people to make you get exercise, and you need to make it as easy as possible. If you have a choice of taking a walk or eating a bag of Doritos...well, you get the idea.

    So, that's it. That's my secret. Oh, sure...there is other stuff to worry about like nutrition and weekly weigh-ins and drinking plenty of water and strength training vs. cardio training. But none of that works without the secret parts.

    Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to go preen in front of the mirror. And maybe I'll even compliment myself. I'm not proud.

    Monday, March 23, 2009

    Social Network Information Value (SNIV)

    Allow me to present a thought experiment.

    Social networks are complex entities. In fact, social network analysis has evolved as a mathematical tool to model the intricate workings of social networks. Mathematical algorithms that map out social networks include the social network potential (SNP), a mathematical coefficient that represents both the size of an individual's social network and their ability to influence that network. Many variables contribute to a person’s SNP, including group memberships, leadership roles, peer recognition, publication of electronic and non-electronic media, and frequency of past distribution of information within a network.

    Although social network analysis is an effective tool for mapping out the complexities of social information exchange, this inherent complexity is also its shortcoming. Social network analysis focuses on the network itself, not on the individual. What appears to be lacking is a simple metric that measures the magnitude of information a person exchanges within a social network regardless of the type of information exchanged, the complexity of the network, or the level of influence the person has on the network. I call this measure the Social Network Information Value (SNIV). It is defined as: the magnitude of information a person exchanges within a social network. This magnitude is defined by two factors: 1) the overall size of the network in terms of direct contacts to other people (via an electronic or physical medium), and 2) the amount of personal information (P) that the person exchanges with each member of their network. If one considers that each person in a social network has a certain amount of personal information that can be shared, the maximum value of P=1 (or 100%) only happens if a person shares EVERY bit of personal information, including demographic information, private medical information, personal thoughts, secrets, etc.

    A visual model of SNIV is shown below. Person A and Person B each have multiple direct contacts (smiley faces). Imagine that the size of each smiley face represents the amount of information exchanged. Person A exchanges more information with her close friends than does Person B, but Person B has more direct contacts overall. Therefore, Person B may have a greater SNIV depending on the exact number of contacts and the amount of information exchanged with each contact.

    Mathematically, this can be expressed as:

    Where n equals the total number of personal contacts in the social network for a given person, Pi is the percentage of personal information exchanged with each person i, and P bar equals the average amount of personal information exchanged.

    In reality, this model is slightly more complex. P, the percentage of information that one exchanges with a social contact, is really a combination of the personal information that one gives out (shares) and the personal information that one receives (cares). People within a social network do not necessarily give and receive information equally. Some are more likely to relate information about their personal life, but do not wish to hear about the lives of their contacts. Others may thrive on gossip and scuttlebutt, but they are very protective of their own privacy. By plotting a person’s overall SNIV on a y-axis and a person’s ratio of sharing to caring on an x-axis as shown below, one can visualize four emerging population segments: Hermits, Socialites, Voyeurs, and Exhibitionists.

    Hermits have very few to no personal contacts, and they exchange little to no information. Socialites have many social contacts, and they maintain a balance between information given and received. Voyeurs and Exhibitionists are obviously the extremes of the sharing/caring balance described above.

    Therefore, if one assumes that P is in fact the sum of the share factor (percentage of personal information one shares with each contact, S) and the care factor (percentage of personal information one receives from each contact, C), the SNIV equation is rewritten thusly:

    In other words, a person’s SNIV consists of the total amount of information one gives out to one’s contacts plus the total amount of information that one receives from one’s contacts. To maximize one's SNIV, one needs to balance sharing and caring.

    More importantly, a related value can be calculated to ascertain a person’s potential for engaging in a social network. I call this value the Social Network Information Threshold (SNIT). The SNIT can be defined as the total amount of information one is willing to give out to one’s contacts plus the total amount one is willing to receive. The quotient of SNIV over SNIT (QSNIT) reflects the balance of one’s potential for sharing information compared to one’s actual practice of sharing information.

    The psychological implications of this balance could be a whole field of study in itself. A person with a QSNIT of 1 is in equal balance. Whether this person prefers to be a Hermit, Socialite, Voyeur, or Exhibitionist, this person is exactly as connected as he or she wishes to be.

    However, a QSNIT below 1 suggests that the person is not as socially connected as he or she would like, and this could lead to feelings of alienation and depression. A person operating below threshold must find a way to reconnect with a social network to maintain balance. Simply establishing personal connections is not enough to raise one’s QSNIT. One must actually exchange personal information to raise the quotient.

    Social network sites are effective ways of raising a QSNIT in that they give a person an almost limitless number of contacts and an easy way to exchange information. What has to be managed, however, is exactly how much information is given or received. The ease that one can disseminate personal information to others through a social network site can artificially raise a person’s QSNIT above 1. When this happens, a person moves past their privacy comfort level. What is most insidious about social network sites is that a person may not realize they have exceeded their privacy comfort level until they take a full inventory of their contacts and their level of intimacy, at which point their privacy has been compromised beyond repair.