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My brother, mom, and I took a 1.5 week trip to Japan and Hong Kong right after Thanksgiving. I wish I took more photos while I was there, but I was too busy 1) eating 2) planning and navigating the whole trip and 3) dealing with whiny family members who dislike waking up early and walking too much. We almost had soba/ramen for every meal while I was in Japan–still not tired of it. I wish I had more time to eat more food and to explore more of Japan outside of Tokyo, but that will have to wait for the next time when I can go again, by myself.

Tokyo is probably the only city in the world that I would not hesitate to use the subway toilets. Why are they so clean? After experiencing the hygienic miracle that is the Tokyo Metro, there is no doubt that the San Francisco Muni is disgusting in comparison. Don’t even get me started about the cesspool that is BART.

We visited Tsukiji fish market and ate a ton of sushi and kebabs of fried squid and fish. We walked through the outdoors market around Asakusa shrine. We went to the temples in Kamakura. We saw the hot springs in Hakone and soaked ourselves in in hot spring water at an onsen. We went to Ginza and saw a kabuki show. This last one I got a lot of flak from my mom and brother both of whom ardently opposed to going or seeing anything akin to museums and other “boring” stuff. Well, I enjoyed it.

We also went in time to see the last bit of autumn color.

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One of the temples in Kamakura:

 

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This is the first time I’ve been back to Hong Kong for eight years. It certainly has gotten a lot smoggier, and it definitely was not 70 degrees in December last I remembered.

Hong Kong

green tea macarons

My first attempt at making Green Tea Macarons. Still don’t understand why they’re such a big deal. They taste good but not particularly awesome. I will probably make more just because I like the challenge.

The tutorial from the website I found the recipe was actually quite helpful.

Matcha Green Tea Macarons from Iron Whisk

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Almond Shortbread Cookies from House to Haus

I’ve spent the better part of the past month reading at my lab desk.  Experiments have come to a screeching halt as the lab prepares to move to the new neuroscience building.  And so I have seen countless hours tick by as I sift through pages of research, trying to find inspiration to write a research proposal for my upcoming pre-qualification exam.  Unfortunately, the only insight that I’ve gleaned from these reading marathons is: 1) the brain is complex and 2) my ideas are stupid and/or already done by someone else.  Oh the wonderful world of research.

It doesn’t help that my running routine has also been temporarily halted due to a strained tendon.  Thus, I cannot even look to exercise to relieve the insanity…and restless muscles.  All this sitting around has made me painfully aware of my incredibly awful posture.  My favorite position to assume, it seems, is to have my feet propped onto a slightly open drawer to the side of my desk, while I sit with my waist twisted to face the front.  And since all my work is tied to my laptop, I have to crouch my back with my neck locked forward.  This can’t be good.  One day, I fear, I will find that my body is perpetually stuck in this position.  In any case, this increased inactivity certainly spells doom in the future.

On another note, if you’re looking for a fun book to read, I found Jonathan Tropper’s This is where I leave you perfect for that purpose.  Comical, well-written, and light but not superficial.  It’s nice to find a book that can actually make you laugh out loud.  At least, for me, it’s a nice respite from all the science jargon that I have to deal with every day.

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These make great bite-sized snacks to bring to a party.  I used almond extract instead of ground almonds.  And slightly less butter to make the dough a little stiffer so that the piped stars would hold their shape; which, however, makes it much harder to pipe out of a bag and very hard on your wrist.

Brombeerbusserl from Delicious Days

You know that feeling of clarity, the one that comes with knowing exactly what you want to do and where you want to be?  It was what I felt when, marveling at the simple and eccentric behavior of a fish, I realized that I could spend my life studying the brain.  It was the excitement when, touring the UCSF campus, I saw clearly how naturally I could fit in.  It’s the restlessness I feel, now that I know what lab I want to join for the next six years.

I haven’t finished my last rotation yet, but I have a good feeling that I will be choosing my second lab.  It’s not what I imagined I would do–not what I had planned at all.  I came to UCSF thinking that I would use molecular tools to dissect the behavior in fruit flies.  On a whim, because I needed to find a third lab to fulfill my requirements, I picked one that studies songbirds so I could at least say that I tried something out of my field.  I’m really glad I did, because it turns out that I love my “get in, get out quick” rotation.

I don’t know how to describe what jumping fields from molecular to systems is like.  It involves learning a completely different set of tools.  No more genetics and molecular biology, all the things that I had been trained on.  Instead of asking questions at the intracellular level, I will be stepping back to study how activity is coordinated and processed through circuits to generate behavior.  I will be diving head first into electrophysiology, so that I can understand how information is passed along ensembles of neurons.

Isn’t it funny how doing something out of your comfort zone helps you understand yourself better?  But it’s not that I am doing a complete 180.  I am just rediscovering what I really want to do and why I decided to pursue neuroscience in the first place: to understand the underpinnings of behavior.  Behavior, it’s what floors me every time.  Sure, I could study signaling pathways and molecular mechanisms that could affect behavior somewhere far down the line, but to know the functional interactions between neurons will require that I reach beyond what I am familiar with.  And I am so excited to start.

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Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

I am a peanut butter fan, love the creamy stuff.  I finish a jar every 1.5 weeks.  For these, I used Trader Joe’s PB with Sea Salt, and I cannot stop thinking about popping the next cookie into my mouth.

 

You know, I wouldn’t be a Christian either if I hadn’t let myself take a chance.  It’s just interesting to think about, isn’t it?

For the past three days, I was on a retreat with my graduate program in Asilomar.  The conference grounds is in Pacific Grove (next to Monterey), right near the dunes and only steps away from a beautiful sandy beach.  During the day, I milled around the rocks near the waterline, peeping into the shallow pools that gather in the crevices.  Green algae and anemone line the walls of these pools.  I loved squatting down and looking at the bony, crater-like barnacles and clusters of small, black mussels clinging near the bottoms of these rocks.  They are are submerged with each wave, reappearing as the water recedes.  Strewn across the sand are carcasses of kelp, their long, brown limbs tangled up with each other.  They smell of sea water and decay.

The sand next to the water is moist and firm.  It feels cool underneath my toes; occasionally I let the waves crash over my feet, rising towards my knees.  The water is ice cold and numbs my skin.  The sand around me moves with the force of the water, and for a moment, the ground becomes soft and loose, except for the small bit of sand underneath my feet, trapped by the weight of my body.

It’s not a quiet beach, but it’s not crowded either.  Mostly there are residents walking their dogs and mothers with their toddlers.  It’s a nice place to come to when you need to be reminded of life’s enormity.  When I look at the water, I imagine what it feels like to swim into everything and nothing.  I think about the complexity and fragility of habitats.  I think about the diversity and connectedness of life.  I think about all the things that happen with or without our knowing.

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Night is when the beach is most incredible.  There are no city lights to disturb the shine of the stars.  There are no bridges and cars to distract from the darkness.  There is only you, the crashing waves, and a glimpse of what lies beyond our world.  This is the place where you go to be humbled.

On our last night there, we crowded around a small fire on the beach.  The sparks and embers fly away on the wind, and the smell of burning wood clings onto our clothes.  I imagine what we look like from far away, a speck of red-orange light glittering in the dark.

Because we are students, we talk about school, labs, and professors.  The conversation is light, so I am surprised when I hear an older student speak candidly about her struggles with graduate school.  About depression, confusion, and dissatisfaction.  “It isn’t that I don’t know where I want to be and how I want to get there; I’m just tired of waiting for things to happen.”

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I do not know how to respond.  Briefly, I wonder if that is what I will be feeling in the next six years.  Suspended in time, trapped between stages, too far in to turn back–too far in to dare to turn back.  After fighting so hard to get here, was I supposed to be here at all?

“I believe happiness in this world is unattainable.”

Someone asks, “What is your definition of happiness?”

“The freedom to do what you want to do.”

I say nothing because I do not know what to say.  I wonder what it means to have that freedom.  If I would know what I wanted to do; if I would be satisfied with what I wanted to do; if there would always be something else that I’d what to do; if I am, then, responsible for everything that I want to do.  Will I find myself in all the things that I want to do?

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I catch the streak of a shooting star.  We are engulfed in mysteries, surrounded by emptiness with millions of unknown stars staring back at us.  Somewhere out there are processes that we do not understand–cannot even begin to imagine to understand–even as we stand here, trying to understand ourselves.  Yet, in this directionless and overwhelming expanse, I don’t feel lost.  I am awestruck.

I may not know much, but I know enough that the creator of everything in this world and beyond, from the microscopic plankton to the fiery masses in the celestial heavens, knows everything there is to know, including me.  “For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

There was a time when, seeing a shooting star, I would’ve wished for health, success, or love.  Tonight, I wish that You will always be with me.

“I see your power in the moonlit night, where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright.  It’s all proclaiming who you are.  You’re beautiful.

Almond Biscotti from Edible Moments