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Juan came to spend Christmas with me and brought along a nasty cold from Boston. With my powers of gentleness and patience, I nursed him back to health. But, of course, he had to give it to me too, because that’s just what boyfriends do. So while he started to recover, I found myself incapacitated by a drippy nose and muted taste buds. We spent most of our holiday curled up in my living room couch under a comforter with a box of tissues and a bottle of Robitussin to share between the two of us. But even in our misery, our appetites for good home-cooking were not thwarted. With my new Smitten Kitchen cookbook, we made gnocchi in tomato broth, leek fritters, and roasted tomatoes and onions over garlic toast. Easy recipes that make great food without too many fancy ingredients and too much prep work!

The rest of the time, we spent marathoning Alien movies. Alien. Aliens. Predators. Aliens vs Predators. Prometheus. Nothing brings out the holiday cheer like creepy chest-bursting humanoid bugs. I like cheering for tough monster-kicking heroines while jerky male characters get eviscerated. One note on Prometheus, if you haven’t seen it, you might not want to bother. It has all of the action but lacks the good plot lines that made Alien and Aliens so good. It touts itself as a prequel to Aliens but answers almost none of the questions about how Aliens came about, leaving you with just plain confusion at the end. The only thing that made this movie worse was the terrible acting. The main female lead was especially annoying and pales far in comparison to Ellen Ripley. Also, what’s up with Charlize Theron here? She’s awful! Spitting out cheesy lines for a role that I’m still not sure was even necessary for this stupid film. They could write her out and use the 10 minutes it would’ve saved to answer HOW ALIENS CAME ABOUT.

Finally, this holiday, Juan got me hooked onto the animated series, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. I can’t believe I was such a snob about cartoons and comics before, because this show is awesome! It’s so much better than the 2012 Avengers movie, which I thought was way too cheesy and predictable. But that’s because cheesy hero lines aren’t cheesy when they’re coming from animated characters! The writing is also pretty impressive. In the span of two short seasons, they’ve managed to introduce, interlink, AND finish several story arcs. All my questions were answered by the time I breezed to the end of the series. My only disappointment is that they’ve canceled this show only after two seasons. Nay, say it ain’t so! What can I do, except to now turn to The Ultimate Spider-Man series, which is also proving to be quite good.

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Crepe Cake from The Primlani Kitchen

By the time Juan and I finished with this recipe, we have become experts on crepe making. Our first couple of ones were soggy, broken messes until we realized that the reason we couldn’t flip them over was because we were undercooking! It was smooth sailing from there on. I kind of wish that I had used the crepe cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook instead of this one. This was kind of plain even when I substituted the milk with Trader Joe’s vanilla flavored coconut milk (which turned out great if you just dial the sugar and vanilla down when making the pastry cream). This cake could’ve shined more if I had used some fruit. Next time, I may use berries or banana slices to decorate the top. Or even mash up the berries into the pastry cream to spread between the layers.

Last month, Juan and I discovered that Boggle on Xbox is extremely addicting. We also discovered that I am a huge sore loser. Normally, I don’t have such a competitive streak and I know how to lose gracefully for most things. I’m sure most people are the same way until they find that one sensitive spot. Well, Boggle seems to be mine.

If you play Xbox Boggle, the best–and potentially most dangerous–option is the one where the combination of tiles can rearrange when you’ve found a word. This is great because you’ll always have novel combinations to work with when both players are stuck. But it also means that you have to race against your opponent if you’re trying to grab overlapping tiles; otherwise the letters will get scrambled and the wonderful, beautiful, perfectly arranged word that you were just about to enter would disappear right before your eyes, leaving you with the cold fury and bitter irritation of one who just had a golden opportunity stolen from them.

Unfortunately, when it comes to handling game controllers, Juan has the advantage of adept fingers with hours of practice playing RPGs. I, on the other hand, touch a controller maybe three times in a year, maybe. In fact, I’m the person who runs into the banana peel in Mario Kart even though there’s only one peel in the middle of the freakin’ wide road. That’s how adept my fingers are.

So after losing my tenth game in a row, I couldn’t help but throw my controller aside in a fit of hurt pride.

“Why do you keep taking words from my area?!” I yelled. And I’m searching for a good insult. Something that will really hurt.

“Space hogger!” said I, the best name-caller in the world.

“But baby, at least you won the first game.”

I rolled into a ball in the corner of the bed. From my sulking position, I look over with tears in my eyes, “Yea, but I like to win in the beginning and the end.”

And Juan just laughs.

These days, I’ve discovered Scramble with Friends on my iPhone. Not only does it take the problem with controllers out of the equation, but I’m also kicking Juan’s ass. So for now, I’m quite content. I’ll even be okay if I lose a game or two.

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Double Chocolate Sour Cream Cake from theKitchn

I made this cake a few weeks ago for somebody in my lab who was leaving. This probably would be my favorite go-to recipe for simple, moist chocolate cake that’s easy to impress with the right frosting and decoration. Personally, I adore mini-cakes, so I used half of the batter to fill two ~4 inch cake pans to make a mini double layered cake. And the rest I just threw into a regular 9 inch pan and gave away to my friends. Not only are mini-cakes easier to transport, they make you feel like you’re not indulging too much when you eat it. I don’t know if I especially like the pistachios with chocolate. Maybe almonds or walnuts, but I do love the green and brown colors.

We could spend hours in the kitchen.  Juan would be stirring something at the stove, while I drown out every sound with my electric mixer.  Juan will perfume the house with the wonderfully piquant smell of sizzling garlic, while I fill the room with the sweet fragrance of bread and cookies.  And in between all the cooking and baking, we somehow manage to fight the pile of dirty dishes at the sink.

We get really excited when we make plans for all the foods we want to make.  But more than that, we just love being in the same kitchen.  I love sitting at the counter with my laptop, ruining my appetite by stealing pieces of chopped vegetables from Juan’s cutting board.  I love that he never wants to tell me what he’s cooking despite my persistent questioning.  I love watching him carefully place the finished product on a clean plate.  And I love the look on his face as he waits for me to take the first bite, eager to hear my thoughts on his newest dish.  It’s not often that we have somebody special to cook for–that’s a blessing bigger than the food itself.

Here’s some of the yummy goodness that’s come out of the kitchen this week.

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It has oats in it, which means it’s healthy, right?

I love the smell of baked jam as it emerges from the oven.

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Today, I came home for lunch to find this waiting for me–Juan’s special twist on the Bahn Mi.  Chicken marinated with sesame oil and soy sauce, stuffed into a loaf of french bread coated with a garlicky butter spread.  Cucumbers, carrots, and scallions soaked with rice vinegar made it a full sandwich with a nice, tangy crunch.  I wish he could make this for me everyday.

And of course, Juan’s favorite meal that he insists on making for me almost every chance he can get…brunch!

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Cheery red tomatoes, simply sauteed

Bursting through the skin with its own juices

Portobello, lightly salted and unadorned

Makes the perfect side to a homemade breakfast

A dash of cinnamon and hints of citrus

Frames every bite of these golden toasts of happiness.

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