Happy Sunday – I hope you’re enjoying the sunshine! Unfortunately, I’m stuck inside today studying for my written Food Science exam tomorrow (our cooking lab final exam is on Wednesday). As you can imagine, I’m seriously counting down the days until my last final on May 15th. I get an entire TWO weeks off from school (including a week in California to visit my family) before organic chemistry hell begins – so I’m very excited.

Over the course of the semester, I’ve noticed that I’ve left studying more and more to the last minute for each exam…kind of just started studying for this one yesterday…I’m sure it will be fine. Time to learn the fine art of cramming, given I have already mastered the art of procrastination. 🙂

Thankfully, I got to enjoy the slightly chilly but beautiful weather yesterday during my first long run outing to Prospect Park. I can’t believe it took me this long to run in Brooklyn! I wanted to check out the first 7M of the Brooklyn Half Marathon course and also just needed a break from Central Park. I am definitely going back – was a slightly longer journey but worth every extra minute. It was relatively quiet during our first few laps (my running buddy and I started nice and early), super green, had a different vibe that I liked and somehow the smaller loops made the miles go by quickly. I had feared doing four + loops would get really boring, but those 12 miles flew by! Maybe it was just the fact that we were in a new environment.

As for hills, I was trying to gauge if it was about the same as Central Park, so I could prepare E given he won’t have a chance to check out the course before May 19th. If you run counter-clockwise, there is one big hill that isn’t quite as steep as Harlem hill but it’s longer (about 0.4M). You run two loops, so you hit that hill twice. I think it probably ends up being about the same. I compared last week’s 11.25M Central Park run to yesterday’s 12M Prospect Park run – and they were both around 430ft elevation gain, and that was with us going out of our way to get more hills in yesterday (we did one loop in the opposite direction, which was a bit harder).

Lastly, I loved that we were able to end our run right at a farmer’s market. I always take the train back to Union Square after a Central Park run and get to hit the market there, but it’s not the same as finishing a run and immediately refueling with a coffee and some well-deserved goodies. It reminded me of being back in London and hitting Borough Market after a river run.

Wandering around farmer’s markets after a long run is dangerous though – I somehow managed to resist eating everything in sight, knowing I had another long day of cooking ahead of me. It hasn’t been the healthiest week, with bread and pastry classes as our last two labs, but it’s been fun! Here’s a shot of *some* of the baked goods we made (many were still in the oven when I took this, including my carrot-raisin muffins) – I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many muffins, cookies and scones in one day. It’s a good thing I ran long on Saturday!

On Friday night, I did a huge shop at TJ’s to stock up on all kinds of things so that I could practice cooking for my Food Science final exam. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the show Chopped on the Food Network, but that’s essentially half of my exam. The first part is testing our knife skills, then the second part is testing us on three of the MANY techniques we’ve done, and lastly we get four secret ingredients and must turn it into a fabulous meal. Our professor, along with my Physiology professor, will serve as our panel of judges, walking around and tasting/critiquing everyone’s food. I’m surprisingly nervous – I love to cook, and I think I can make something good, but I am a relatively slow cook and I’m not a huge fan of the chaos in a busy kitchen. I would NOT survive as a professional chef, that’s for sure!

So, what have I practiced so far? On Thursday morning, I made poached eggs, which I placed on top of roasted sweet potato and onions. My eggs didn’t come out perfectly – I was using medium sized eggs so I didn’t have as much white as I would like – but I think I have the technique down. Friday night, I made quinoa, which was a bit challenging given I don’t have a lid for my pot, but a plate sufficed (kind of). I pan seared some chicken and attempted to make my first sauce – used white wine to deglaze and then added chicken stock. This is very simple, except that I was very tired after a long day (I had been up in the Bronx for a City Harvest training – which is going well btw!) and didn’t pour off the hot oil. So, of course I set off the smoke alarm and my sauce was a disaster. Thankfully, the chicken tasted great as did the roasted Brussels sprouts and fennel, and the braised fennel I had made earlier. For the sprouts, I did what my teacher told us and put aside a bunch of leaves, tossed them in some olive oil and salt and roasted them separately after the sprouts to incorporate some nice crispy leaves into the rest of the dish.

Yesterday’s menu included mushroom risotto, pan fried chicken and pan fried fish (I wanted to practice breading and pan frying things, as I never do this for myself), banana muffins, braised chicken legs and making sauce thickeners (roux and slurry). I didn’t get to the last two items, but everything else went quite well! For the risotto, I used a Lidia’s Italy recipe, although I used baby bella mushrooms and sauteed them after adding the onions and shallots. Super easy and so delicious – I can’t believe I haven’t made risotto before. My arm hurt from all the stirring though!

Making muffins was my food science experiment – I took an old recipe for “healthy” banana bread that I’ve used in the past and tried to improve it based on what I’ve learned in class. I won’t go into the science here, but as you surely know, each ingredient (sugar, fat, type of flour etc) plays a specific role in the outcome of a baked product, and you can’t randomly add ingredients as you can do (to an extent) in cooking.

Now that I am starting to understand the science behind it all, I looked at my old recipe and it didn’t really make sense – I don’t even know where I got it from, or if I made it up, to be honest. Why was I using more baking soda than powder? I never really understood the difference between the two until now, and it seems like it should be the other way around. Why water and not milk? Why was I using all whole-wheat flour? Surely to be healthier, but it leads to a different texture and volume than half whole wheat half white. Why egg whites and not whole eggs? So I thought I could play with the ratios and ingredients to make it better while also practicing the “muffin method” of mixing: sift your dry ingredients, in a separate bowl combine your wet ingredients, mix them together with a few strokes and then put them into your muffin pan and into the oven.

I’m not an experienced baker and don’t have many pieces of equipment in my apartment (like scales) so I still didn’t really know how much of each thing I should be using – for instance, if I was balancing the apple sauce and mashed banana with the appropriate amount of flour, sugar etc – but I tried to look at different recipes and the info in my textbook to make an educated guess. I made my own applesauce by slicing two granny smiths and cooking them with a little water and cinnamon, and added a dash of lemon juice at the end. SO GOOD and so easy. I removed the skins (and ate them – yum!) and added them to my two mashed ripe bananas. I used two medium eggs rather than three egg whites; two teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda; one cup whole wheat and one cup white flour; 1/2 cup milk rather than water (kinda guessed on the amount – but wanted to try using milk); 1/2 teaspoon salt; about 1/3 cup chopped walnuts; and one teaspoon each of cinnamon and vanilla. Here’s the result:

So what was my verdict? The flavor was GREAT – definitely improved upon the old recipe (although to be fair, it really needed improving – tasted way too healthy). The egg yolks added some fat which made them more tender and added flavor, as did the milk; the white flour improved the texture/volume and together with the altered chemical leavener ratios, made the muffins less dense than my previous batches. They didn’t have any oil or butter though, and I’m not sure I got the dry to liquid ratio quite right – the were a *tiny* bit dry, so maybe I could’ve used a bit more milk or even lowfat rather than nonfat milk, or a little vegetable oil, but for a healthy muffin I was VERY pleased.

The other issue probably was from overmixing, which leads to too much gluten development and thus a tougher product. One of the important things about the muffin method is NOT mixing until the batter is smooth – a few lumps are okay – so you just mix until the dry ingredients are moistened. I struggled with this because I needed to mix quite a bit to get all the dry ingredients moistened, which perhaps means I didn’t have enough liquid. I know I overmixed because there were some holes in my muffin – otherwise known as tunneling. They also were a bit less tender than I had hoped, but overall the texture was good considering the ingredients. I had a few this morning for breakfast and they were delicious with my coffee – not sure they will stay fresh for very long though without any oil or butter, so I put most of them in the freezer for future snacks. Here are a couple photos – kind of looks like a smiley face, a kind of evil this-is-what-you-avoid-when-making-muffins face!

Right, well it’s now getting late and I still have hardly studied for my exam, so I better get to it!

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