Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Public Speaking

Today I participated in a class offered through my employer on Successful Public Speaking.  I don't particularly have a problem speaking in public - in my various roles and hats that I wear - I tend to do a lot of public speaking.

It was an opportunity for me to hear about where "the knowledge bar" is these days and what the current "do's and don'ts" of public speaking are.  The instructor was outstanding (as she is in most things - although she is retiring in January and leaves some might big "ruby slippers" to fill).  I say ruby slippers - as she equated our experience today to going on a journey of unforeseen consequences, unforeseen circumstances, and unforeseen outcomes - much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  She also used some visuals, including Paul McCartney and George Harrison (she has a thing for the Beatles) and a clip from Home Improvement, specifically an episode where Jill has to give a speech.

For the class, we had to prepare (and then deliver) one-minute, two-minute, and three-minute speeches.  In the first speech, we had to "inform, motivate, or persuade" our audience about a particular topic.  The second (two-minute) speech asked us to use an illustration / visual aid to make our point.  The final speech was to use visual, vocal, and/or verbal techniques to convey our message.

I procrastinated on preparing for the speeches (much like Jill Taylor does in Home Improvement) - finally making some notes on the metro ride in this morning.  I chose the topic of professional organizations for my first speech (as most of you know, I am involved in several professional organizations, including currently serving as Chair of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference.  I spent my minute extolling the virtues of being professional active and finished under the time deadline by telling the audience to talk with me after if they were interested in being more involved.

For the second speech, I employed the visual aid of a thumb drive to illustrate what happens when you get records on a medium that is not supposed to be transferred to the archives.  Of course (for those of you monitoring - the thumb drive was my own, the other thumb drive is locked away at work).  I used the remainder of my time explaining the "problem" and the "solution" that I would employ to deal with the thumb drive transfer.

Finally after lunch (never a good time to give a speech - or listen to one, for that matter), I explained for the audience how one "Trick or Treats" with an 8-year old (LBA) and a 5-year old (SoBA).  I explained how the costume selection process went at the launchpad - LBA is planning on being Harry Potter for Halloween, while SoBA has flitted from costume to costume, before finally settling on (we think) Indiana Jones - we'll find out tomorrow what is the winner.  In order to keep the audience engaged (and use visuals), I went out at lunch time and bought a bag of Halloween candy to proffer to them, which I believe helped my case a great deal.

Happy Halloween to all of you out there!  "See you on the other side, Ray!"

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mac and Cheese Pie - With Bacon on Top

When the Brave Astronaut Clan has breakfast for dinner - the leftover bacon (more so the bacon that is reserved and not allowed to be eaten) is made into quiche for the next evening's dinner.  As has been previously noted here - one of SoBA's favorite dishes (and easy for the Brave Astronaut to produce quickly) is pasta and peas.  They are not huge fans of the prepared mac and cheese options - though they do like my MIL's mac and cheese.  While I was furloughed recently - I went back to my roots and made my mother's mac and cheese.  It was almost as good as she used to make.

I spotted this recipe some time ago and thought it might make an appearance and be very well received.

Bacon Mac ‘N’ Cheese Pie with Bacon Lattice
Inspired by Breakfast for Dessert and chef Matt Jennings’ Cheesemonger’s Mac and Cheese

For the crust:
  • 3½ cups all-purpose flour (from the freezer if possible) 
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter, cut into ½” cubes
  • ¼ cup cold vegetable shortening 
  • 1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. kosher salt 
  • 1 Tbsp. scant apple cider vinegar + enough ice water to make ¾ cup liquid 
For mac ‘n’ cheese filling:
  • 5 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 cups dried macaroni 
  • 4 Tbsp. of butter (½ a stick) 
  • 4 Tbsp. flour 
  • 2.5 cups heavy cream 
  • 2 tsp mustard powder 
  • 1 egg yolk 
  • 1 pound grated cheese — an equal parts mixture of gruyere, sharp cheddar, brie (no rind)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 
For the bacon lattice:
  • 8 slices bacon
  • 1 Tbsp. brown sugar

For the crust:
  1. Measure out all of your ingredients for the crust and make sure your butter and shortening are very cold. (It helps to put them in the freezer after they’re measured and cut into pieces. It also helps to keep the flour in the freezer.)
  2. Put flour, butter, vegetable shortening, sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse JUST until butter resembles tiny pebbles, about 12-15 times. (If you don’t have a food processor, stir the dry ingredients then cut the fats into the mixture with the tines of a fork until you have tiny pebbles and it’s pretty well incorporated.) Transfer to a large bowl. Gradually add vinegar-ice water mixture, using a fork to stir until dough is a mixture of clumpy wet pieces and sandy pieces, adding more water if dry. Take care not to over-moisten your dough — you don’t have to use all ¾ cups liquid. Watch the dough and stop adding liquid once it begins to clump. It doesn’t need to be completely stuck together.
  3. Turn dough out onto a clean counter and form into ball. Be careful not to over-handle it — it doesn’t need to be kneaded, just needs to come together. Once it’s in a ball, cut the ball in half then flatten the halves into discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour or overnight. (DO AHEAD: Can be made ahead. Keep dough refrigerated up to 2 days, or enclose in resealable plastic bag and freeze up to 1 month, then thaw in refrigerator overnight. Soften slightly at room temperature before rolling out.)
  4. Lightly grease a 9” pie plate with butter, shortening, or baking spray. 
  5. Prepare a clean countertop as workspace to roll out the dough. Sprinkle some flour on a sheet of parchment, put one dough disc on it, sprinkle flour on the disc, then top with another sheet of parchment. Using a rolling pin, roll out dough between those two sheets of parchment paper in a circular shape until its diameter is 2”-3” larger than the pie plate all around. 
  6. Remove the top sheet of parchment, then carefully pick up an edge of the round and wrap it around the rolling pin. As you continue to roll the pin, the dough will wrap completely around it so you can easily transfer it to the plate. Starting on one edge of the pie plate, unroll the dough, making sure it is centered. At this point it’s best to put it back in the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  7. Press the dough into the plate. Leaving enough dough to crimp the edges, trim the overhang with a knife or scissors.
  8. Preheat oven to 375°F. Prick chilled crust in pie dish all over with a fork. Line crust with foil or parchment paper, then fill the liner with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 25 minutes. Remove from oven; lift out foil and weights. Reduce temperature to 350°. Return to oven and bake, using fork to prick any bubbles that have formed and pressing down on them with back of fork, until crust is JUST light golden-brown, about 2 minutes longer. (It will bake again later so it shouldn’t be too dark yet.) Let crust cool completely.

For mac ‘n’ cheese filling:
  1. Boil pasta in generously salted water until just al dente, following directions on package. 
  2. Cook bacon pieces in sauté pan until just crispy, drain on paper towels and set aside. 
  3. In a large pot, melt the butter. Then stir in the flour. Whisk to combine and cook for 1-2 minutes. Now you’ve got what is called a “roux” — equal parts butter and flour cooked together. Add the cream and whisk again, let cook, whisking occasionally, for 5-10 minutes until it thickens. Now you’ve got bechamel sauce.
  4. Add mustard powder and whisk to combine.
  5. Temper egg yolk into the bechamel: To do this, take a little of your hot bechamel and put it into a bowl with the egg yolk. Whisk so that the egg heats up gently. Then dump the warm egg/bechamel mixture into the hot pot of bechamel, and whisk.
  6. Add all the cheese and stir to combine. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
  7. Add macaroni and cooked bacon pieces to cheese sauce, then add more freshly ground pepper to taste.

To assemble:
  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Fill the baked pie crust with the mac ‘n’ cheese. You’ll use all but 1 or 2 cups.
  3. Weave a lattice with 8 bacon slices (4 in one direction and 4 in the other direction — keep them long as long as possible because they will shrink when they cook).
  4. Using your fingers, spread brown sugar on the strips of bacon, then put in a 425°F oven for 15 minutes or until the bacon is cooked. Serve warm.

Monday, October 21, 2013

All About the Sprout

I like vegetables - almost all vegetables.  I am fond of the Brussel Sprout.  My sister, who knows of my inclination to the sprout, sent me a link to "9 Brussel Sprout Recipes to Make Anyone a Believer."  Here's my favorite.  Hey Mrs. BA - it's after Columbus Day - we can talk about Thanksgiving now, right?

Crispy Brussel Sprouts with a Garlic Aioli 
from Costa Kitchen

Brussel sprouts have a really delicious flavor and are almost like a more flavorful mini cabbage. This recipe can be served as an appetizer (think updated artichoke) OR as a vegetable side. You can omit the aioli if serving as a vegetable side or you can offer it separate and your guests can spoon it over the top. I made this with pork chops the other night and my husband freaked out it was so good. He’s so sweet. :) 

Also, you might be wondering why I’m using canola oil instead of olive oil. The reason is because brussel sprouts have such a unique and bold flavor and I didn’t want it to compete with the olive oil. Canola oil also seems to crisp things up a little better too. I hope you enjoy! 

For Brussel Sprouts:
  • 20 Brussel Sprouts cut into wedges 
  • Canola Oil 
  • Salt & Pepper 

For Aioli:
  • 6 tbs mayonnaise 
  • 1/4 tsp garlic minced fine 
  • 1 tsp lemon juice 
  • 1 tbs flat leaf parsley chopped fine

For Brussel Sprouts:
Place brussel sprouts on a baking sheet and drizzle with canola oil. Crack some fresh salt & pepper to taste. Mix around brussel sprouts on pan to ensure they all get nicely coated in the oil. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden brown on at least one side.

For Aioli:
Mix together mayonnaise, garlic, parsley and lemon juice. Serve in a ramekin.

Place ramekin of aioli on a plate and surround with brussel sprouts. If serving as an appetizer, put some toothpicks on the side for your guests. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Notes on a Shutdown

As most of you know, I work for the federal government.  At least I do again - today I was allowed to go back to work after I was furloughed on October 1, because the government could not appropriate funds to keep the government running.  So for 16 days, 12 work days, I sat at home.

It would be nice to say that I did something fun - I have a few friends who managed to get away for some vacation - but that wasn't an option for the Brave Astronaut Clan - LBA and SoBA had school and Mrs. BA is not a federal employee, she's paid out of a Trust Fund revenue stream - so she went to work, every day.

So what did I do with my time?  My days started with taking LBA and SoBA to school and then bringing Mrs. BA to the metro so she could go off to work.  That put me back at the launchpad by 8:15am.  Gone are the days when I would stay home from school sick and I would set myself up in front of the TV with a diet of game shows in the morning and then maybe Barnaby Jones or Jim Rockford to keep me company in the afternoon. Luckily, The West Wing is available on Netflix Streaming, so I watch several of those episodes, naturally starting with "Shutdown."

As we were looking at reduced income while furloughed, we decided to pull LBA and SoBA out of aftercare at school - so I picked them up at the end of their school day.  Then school was in session at the launchpad - and the former teacher in me supervised homework for the third grader and kindergartener.  I had planned to volunteer some time at their school - but that didn't happen.

I did some records management for the church men's club for which I serve as Secretary and for the pool.  I learned a lot about the pool going through the records - it was rather interesting.  I had planned to work on the Brave Astronaut's archives, too, but I didn't get there.

I went to the grocery store more than I normally do - which is usually on Sundays.  As a result, I cooked more - making dinner almost every night - no eating out during a furlough situation.  I went back to my youth, making meatloaf, my mother's mac and cheese, roasting a chicken, making the big meals that I can't usually do when arriving home at 6:00pm.  I also ran some errands here and there - one of the first days, I was in Home Depot at 8:30 and had my pick of employees to help me, which never happens on the weekends.  When I moved on the grocery store, I think there were more employees than customers in the store.

During this week, as the shutdown stretched on, I decided to do some serious cleaning of the house.  I intended to work on one room each day, but wanted to focus on places that were hiding things, like my desk and then Mrs. BA and my closet.  That's as far as I got with that - when the shutdown ended.

We did also do some entertaining - holding a "Furlough Friday" Pizza/Movie on the first Friday then a "Furlough Monday on the Columbus Day Holiday this past Monday.  We invited several of our friends who were also furloughed and had a good time as usual.  I went out to lunch with a few friends who were also furloughed - we decided we needed the intellectual stimulation and collegial conversation.  And of course, there was drinking, I'm waiting to hear of some poor government worker who tries to sue the government for their alcoholic problem they didn't have before this started.

Looking back, I would have taken more naps (I overheard a colleague say to our supervisor today that he had been taking a nap at 1:00 and hoped that would be OK), I would have gone to the movies or played some golf.  I didn't accomplish a great deal with my time off - I often found myself thinking, "well I can't do that - I'm going back to work soon."  It was a very strange two weeks, I may have also been a little depressed - my sister called me every day to check on me - and I thank her for looking out for me.  It was a very strange feeling - it wasn't like I had lost my job - I knew where it was, I just wasn't allowed to do it or go to it.

I also want to thank my father, who sent me a little something to help us bridge the gap in income.  It was much appreciated and helped immensely and offered peace of mind to both Mrs. BA and me.

So we're back to work.  At least until this funding deal expires . . . in January.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Garlic Shrimp

Today's blog post appears on the day that the government shutdown enters its third week.  I am still on furlough.  Up this week - house cleaning.

Evidently Mrs. BA has a thing for Fried Shrimp, which I learned about her over the summer.  Perhaps this dish would mollify her displeasure with the fall weather.

Easy & Healthy Shrimp
(no butter - uses chicken broth, white wine, lemon juice)

  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 1 1/4 pounds med raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (tails left on) 
  • 6-8 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth 
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine 
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 
  • 1/4 cup + 1 T minced parsley 
  • 1/4 tsp salt 
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper 
  • 4 lemon wedges 

In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil. Saute the shrimp until just pink, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook stirring constantly, about 30 seconds. With a slotted spoon transfer the shrimp to a platter and keep them warm.

In the skillet, combine the broth, wine, lemon juice, 1/4 cup of the parsley, the salt and pepper; and bring it to a boil. Boil uncovered, until the sauce is reduced by half.

Spoon the sauce over the shrimp. Serve garnished with the lemon wedges and sprinkled with the remaining tablespoon of parsley. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Back to the Electronic Records!

Tomorrow would have been the day that I was scheduled to return to my desk in Electronic Records at my place of employment.  However - for the past week, since October 1 - I have been furloughed from my job due to a lack of appropriations - the budget.

Washington has been a ghost down since the shutdown began.  You have all surely read of the trials and tribulations going on here in the nation's capital.  I am going to keep my tongue and not let fly with the expletives and other salty commentary.

Suffice to say, I would prefer to be back at work.  I have been keeping myself busy at home, doing some records management, house cleaning, and taking care of LBA and SoBA - who have been taken out of aftercare for the duration of the shutdown.

There is no sign of any progress of resolving this in the near future - so for now, we will sit and wait.

As far as the electronic records waiting for me back at work - they have been worked on in my institution for about forty years and thirty years ago, computers began to appear in most places of business, including the New York Times.  From scribd via kottke.

Employees of the Old Gray Lady were instructed to make sure that "nothing should be in the computer that isn't totally relevant to the production of The Times."  If individuals want to send "indiscreet or potentially embarrassing messages," they should continue to use The Times' typewriters.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The World's Best Lasagne?

According to, this is the World's Best Lasagne.  And the person who posted the recipe is not Italian.  And lives in Texas.  A few weeks ago, the Washington Post profiled the "chef" and slightly tweaked the recipe.  I like lasagne - it's a lot of work - but it's so tasty.  I also posted a lasagne recipe here back in 2008 - by local Cheverly Chef Scott.

World's Best Lasagna (Tweaked)
The Washington Post, September 11, 2013

Summary: According to, this is the Web site's most popular recipe and possibly the most viewed among English-language sites. We tested it with a few tweaks to reduce the sodium, as recommended by many comments attached to the original recipe.

MAKE AHEAD: You'll have leftover sauce, which can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months. The unbaked lasagna can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, or it can be wrapped well and frozen for up to 3 months. Defrost in the refrigerator before baking.

12 servings 

  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 12 ounces lean ground beef
  • 1/2 cup minced white or yellow onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped or minced
  • 28 ounces canned, no-salt-added crushed tomatoes and their juices
  • 12 ounces canned, no-salt-added plain tomato paste
  • 13 ounces canned, no-salt-added plain tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for the cooking water
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
  • 12 pieces dried lasagna pasta (each 2 1/2 to 3 inches wide and about 13 inches long)
  • 1 pound part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1 large egg
  • 12 ounces low-fat mozzarella cheese, sliced
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for optional garnish 

Heat the sausage in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook for 4 to 6 minutes, using a spatula to break up any large clumps, until the meat is browned with no trace of pink. If desired, drain and discard the fat. Add the ground beef, onion and garlic, stirring to combine; cook until the beef is thoroughly browned and the onion has softened, breaking up any clumps as needed.

Stir in the crushed tomatoes and their juices, tomato paste, tomato sauce and water, then add the sugar, basil, fennel seed, Italian seasoning blend, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, the pepper and half of the parsley, stirring to incorporate. Cover and cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. The yield is about 6 1/2 cups.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and then the lasagna. Cook not quite as long as the package directions indicate, so the noodles are al dente. Drain and rinse under cool water; separate them and lay them on a clean surface.

Combine the ricotta, egg, the remaining parsley and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a mixing bowl until well incorporated.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand.

Spread 1 1/2 cups of the sauce evenly over the bottom of the baking dish, then arrange half of the cooked lasagna noodles lengthwise so they completely cover the sauce, overlapping them a bit. Use an offset spatula to spread half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, then use half of the mozzarella slices to completely cover the ricotta layer. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the sauce over the mozzarella, then scatter half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano evenly over the sauce.

Next, repeat the layers using the remaining lasagna noodles, the remaining ricotta mixture and the remaining mozzarella slices. Top with 1 1/2 cups of the sauce, spreading it to cover the mozzarella, then scatter the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese evenly over the sauce.

Use cooking oil spray to coat the underside of a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the lasagna; seal the foil tightly around the edges of the baking dish. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for 25 minutes so the lasagna’s top layer of cheese is nicely browned on top.

Cool for 15 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with parsley and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Recipe Source: Adapted from a recipe by member John Chandler of Dallas and from its accompanying video.

530 calories, 15g fat, 8g saturated fat, 100mg cholesterol, 760mg sodium, 63g carbohydrates, 4g dietary fiber, 9g sugar, 33g protein.