Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters

I wanted to link to my recipe for Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters in another post I’m writing, and I realized I’d never blogged about it. My bad. Here it is, with the story.

hitchhikers guide to the galaxy book coverWhen I was about to turn 42, I of course wanted to serve Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters for my birthday. Not the real thing, of course — they can’t be mixed in Earth’s atmosphere — but a reasonable approximation.

So we went online, and found approximately 894,589,760 recipes for it. Trouble was, most of them involved gin, to approximate the Arcturan Mega-gin. Trouble was, I don’t like gin.

But we found this one, and loved it. It has just about everything a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster should have. It looks really alien, like something they’d drink on Star Trek. It’s entertaining and dramatic to put together. And its effects are, in fact, very similar to having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick. It’s one of those sneaky drinks that’s waaaaaay more intoxicating than it tastes: it goes down sweet and easy, you keep tossing them back… and soon you’re putting plastic cocktail monkeys in your hair, and trying on other people’s pants, and telling total strangers how awesome they are and how much you love them.

Blue curacao
Sugar cubes
Bitters (we used Angostura)

Ahead of time (you can do this a day or two ahead of time, or whenever you like, really), pre-mix a mixture of:
1/2 blue curacao
1/2 vodka

Also ahead of time (shortly before the party):
Prepare a plate of sugar cubes with one drop of bitters on each cube (this approximates the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger).

As guests arrive:

Fill a champagne flute mostly full of champagne, about one shot short.
Add one shot of the curacao/vodka mixture.
Drop in one embittered sugar cube.

Do these one at a time for each guest: it’s pretty to watch, and the embittered sugar cube goes “fizz fizz fizz” in a very dramatic way when it’s dropped into the champagne/ vodka/ curacao mix.

Drink only with people you trust. And beware the plastic cocktail monkeys.

Blogathon for SSA: Roasted Vegetables

And for my final non-kitten-themed post for my stretch of the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon: roasted vegetables.

Hey, it’s late. I’ve been at this all day. Give me a break.

I just want to say that roasting has given me a whole new love for vegetables. I now think that almost all vegetables should be roasted. Roasting brings out both the sweetness and the earthiness of vegetables. It somehow both condenses the flavor and smooths it out. And it’s ridiculously easy. Cut ‘em up; drizzle some oil on them (enough to coat them); put some salt or spices on ‘em if you feel like it, or not if you don’t; stick ‘em in the oven at 400; roast ‘em ’til they’re done.

You have to use a little more oil than you do for some other cooking methods, which may be an issue if you’re counting calories. But I’ve found that I eat more veggies if they’re cooked to be delicious — and eating more veggies is a huge part of healthy weight management. So it all balances out. And it balances out in the direction of deliciousness.

This post is the last one of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Not counting the kitten pics, which will continue until SSA Week is over. Donate today!

I’ve posted some quotes talking about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome, and why they deserve your support. If you have a story or a comment about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome — post it in the comments, and I’ll post it in the blog! Along with kitten photos, of course. Support the SSA!

Blogathon for SSA: Living in a Neighborhood

I’m home now. But I’ve been spending much of my Blogathon day in one of my local neighborhood cafes. It’d feel too cooped up to just be on the computer at home all day… and besides, I can only use the computer at home for about four hours at a stretch, since Comet consistently chews through any charger cord the minute I get it out. (She’s chewed through a total of three now. And yes, I tried putting that Bitter Yuck stuff on it. She sniffed it, and then took a ginormous bite. She loved it. She was like, “Hm — a touch bitter at first, but on reflection it adds a nice layer of complex piquancy to the computer cord, which is delicious but may be just a tad simplistic on its own.”)

Anyway. I’ve been working in one of my local neighborhood cafes all day. And in the few hours that I’ve been here, three different people that I know have walked by the cafe, and have stopped in to say Hi.

I talk a lot about my neighborhood, and all the things I love about it. I talk about the food, and the street art, and the fashion, and the food again.

But honestly? I think the thing I love most about my neighborhood is that it is a neighborhood.

I love that almost everything I really need and want is in walking distance — and that it’s a pleasant, delightful walk. I love that when I walk in my neighborhood, I run into people I know. I love that some of the people I know in my neighborhood are friends, who I know from the usual “friends of friends” sources — and that some of them are merchants, barristas and clerks, cafe owners and donut mongers, people I’ve met because I live here and who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I love that, when the Giants won the World Series and we all poured out into the streets, Ingrid and I ran into the people who do our taxes.

I think neighborhoods are a little like locally grown and produced food: something that used to be a classic and even conservative piece of American life, and that are increasingly being swallowed by corporate monoculture. And I think this is sad. I think neighborhoods are neat. They shouldn’t belong to a handful of relatively privileged, middle-class urbanites. They should belong to everybody.

If there’s a moral of this story, I guess it’s this: Urban planning matters. Boring moral, I know. Hey, it’s ten at night at the end of a long blogathon day. What do you want from me, anyway?

This post is part of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Donate today!

I’ve posted some quotes talking about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome, and why they deserve your support. If you have a story or a comment about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome — post it in the comments, and I’ll post it in the blog! Along with kitten photos, of course. Support the SSA!

Blogathon for SSA: Cardamom and Language

I was making cardamom simple syrup for a cocktail (recipe here), and having an imaginary conversation in my head where I tried to explain why I’m so obsessed with cardamom… and I was realizing that I don’t have good language for flavors. There are the obvious ones, obviously — sweet, sour, etc. But I was trying to describe in my head what cardamom tastes like, and realizing I had no idea how. It’s sort of sweet, but not quite; it’s sort of pungent, but not quite. It’s a Middle Eastern spice that goes equally well with sweet and savory dishes: it somehow makes sweet dishes more savory, and savory dishes subtly sweet. But that’s not very descriptive. Thoughts? And thoughts on how we use language for flavor? I can think of a zillion ways to describe what things look like, but very few (apart from the obvious ones) to describe how they taste.

BTW, it turns out you don’t have to shell a zillion cardamom pods by hand to make cardamom simple syrup. They do sell pre-shelled cardamom pods. Wish I’d known that for my 50th birthday.

This post is part of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Donate today!

I’ve posted some quotes talking about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome, and why they deserve your support. If you have a story or a comment about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome — post it in the comments, and I’ll post it in the blog! Along with kitten photos, of course. Support the SSA!

In Defense of Pretentious Hipster Douchebaggery, Culinary Edition

“No, I do not want a beer. I just got back home to San Francisco after a week in the South and the Midwest. I want a ridiculous, pretentious, overpriced cocktail with a lot of stupid crap in it.”
-Greta Christina

Yes. When it comes to food and booze, I am one of those pretentious hipster douchebags. I’m one of those people who creams in her jeans when she sees the word “local” on a menu. I’m one of those people who pisses themselves over artisanal everything: artisanal bread, artisanal donuts, artisanal ice cream, artisanal coffee, artisanal chopped liver. I’m one of those people who gets all excited about weird flavor combinations that seem like they were randomly grabbed out of a hat: donuts with chocolate and rosemary, ice cream with bourbon and corn flakes, salted lavender shortbread, gazpacho with strawberries, raspberry and red pepper sorbet. I’m one of those people who will happily pay twelve bucks for a cocktail if it’s made with basil and cardamom bitters and a single-barrel whiskey I’ve never heard of. I’m one of those people who will happily pay eight bucks for a chocolate bar if it has smoked salt and was produced by a worker-owned collective. I’m one of those people who will walk an extra ten blocks to Rainbow Grocery for coffee, because they have decaf French roast that’s fair trade. I’m one of those people who wants the bartender — excuse me, the mixologist — to invent a cocktail for me on the spot, based on my suggestions of base liquor and flavor profile. (Typically “bourbon” and “spicy.”) I’m one of those people who grills the waitstaff (politely, of course) on the exact provenance of the meat, and whether it was raised and killed in a manner that befits my ethical standards. I’m one of those people for whom “Portlandia” is a documentary.

And yes, I will grant you just about every criticism you care to make, trivial or serious, about this pretentious hipster douchebag culinary culture. Yes, it’s pretentious (obviously). Yes, it’s smug and full of itself. Yes, it’s relentlessly trend-hopping. Yes, it often takes itself way too seriously (although to be fair, most of the pretentious culinary hipsters I know have a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing). Yes, it has more than a whiff of classism and snobbery about it. Yes, the hipsterization of food contributes to gentrification, and thus to pricing poor and working-class people out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years. (I once read a definition of a hipster that was so scarily accurate it made me cringe: “You complain about gentrification even though you’re one of the people responsible for it.”) Yes, in a blind taste-test, I probably couldn’t tell the difference.

I will grant you all of that, and more, with no argument. I will simply ask you to grant me this, or at least to consider it:

Pretentious culinary hipsterism is one of the few forces pushing back against the relentless corporate monoculture that’s demolishing local food.

I spend a lot of time traveling around the country doing public speaking. When my hosts ask, “What kind of food do you like?”, I typically answer, “If there’s a local specialty, I’d like to try it. If there’s a great local barbecue joint, a local diner that’s been here for decades, something along those lines… I’d love to go there.”

And all too often, they look at me blankly, and take me to a chain restaurant.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for their hospitality, and the company is the main point anyway. And I don’t blame them for taking me to a chain. Because in much of the country, that’s all there is. In much of the country, there is no local diner anymore. In much of the country, when you go out to eat, your options are Chain Restaurant A, Chain Restaurant B, Chain Restaurant C, or Chain Restaurant D. In much of the country — especially (and tragically) in the South and the Midwest — local food culture is being crushed into the ground by the gargantuan Godzilla foot of corporate monoculture.

And in much of the country, when there is an alternative to corporate monoculture restaurants, it’s the pretentious hipster place.

These are the places that are supporting small local farmers. These are the places that are networking with other small businesses. These are the places that are reviving and perpetuating local specialties. These are the places that care about tradition, and ritual, and the ways that food connects us to our homes and our ancestors. These are the places where the waitstaff doesn’t turn over every three months; where the waitstaff sticks around long enough to get to know your name, and for you to get to know theirs. These are the places where the waitstaff are often the owners. These are the places that are building neighborhoods. These are the places run by people who give a damn about serving their customers a fresh, delicious, nutritious, high-quality product. These are the places run by people who think food should be prepared, and eaten, with love.

It’s funny. These used to be classic American values. Old-fashioned, conservative, Norman Rockwell values, even. I’m not sure when they turned into the hallmarks of pretentious urban hipster douchebaggery. Probably around the time that sucking the dick of multinational corporations became the hallmark of American patriotism.

And that’s exactly my point. Somewhere along the way, “American patriotism” mutated into “abandoning everything that actually makes America special and kind of cool.” Somewhere along the way, “American patriotism” started to mean “handing everything over to our corporate overlords, so they can grind it into a mass of indistinguishable mincemeat and sell it back to us at three times the price.” And pretentious as it is, smug as it is, self-conscious as it is, artisanal locavore hipster food culture is pushing back against all that.

If the choice were between the artisanal hipster place serving locally sourced cheese plates with spelt bread and pepper jam, or the unpretentious family-owned diner that’s been serving the same pancakes and fried chicken for three generations… this would be a different conversation. But increasingly, that’s not the choice. Increasingly, the choice is between the artisanal hipster place, and Applebee’s. Bennigan’s. Boston Market. T.G.I. Friday’s. Increasingly, the choice is between homogenized, manufactured hominess… and the unique flavor of a place, self-conscious though it may be, that actually turns a location into a home.

I’m not going to pretend that eating lavender shortbread is a revolutionary act. I’m just saying: I’m happy that this choice exists. I’m happy there are people making this choice available. And I want to give them their props.

Preferably with a rosemary garnish.

Happy 50th Birthday To Me… and My Half-Century Cocktail Recipe

Happy birthday to me
I don’t live in a tree
But I look like a primate
Because I am one!

Happy birthday to me! I’m 50 years old today, a fact that I’m mildly weirded out about. On the other hand, as they say, it beats the alternative. And I plan to spend my fifties exploding stereotypes about people in their fifties… so that should be fun. I think the next fifty years are going to RAWK! (Insert embarrassing mental image of middle-aged person making the devil-horns rock-and-roll gesture.)

And we invented a cocktail tonight in honor of the occasion! I’m calling it a Half Century. It’s not wildly freaky or anything — it’s roughly a whiskey sour made with lime juice and cardamom simple syrup — but it’s awfully damn delicious. And it has qualities both of a classic cocktail and a weird modern spicy cocktail, which seems appropriate for the occasion. Plus it has cardamom! Nature’s perfect food. [Read more...]

Greta’s Amazing Chocolate Pie

This is an old post from my archives, which I’m reprinting today for obvious reasons. Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post here that wasn’t about weight management, and I just made this pie for my birthday, so I thought I’d share the recipe.

This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday this year (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.



1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

A quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth- feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes at 450 degrees, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 325 degrees, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)


Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This year was the first time I tried this experiment, and I think it was a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode.

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! I’m toying with the idea of adding liquor, like rum or Kahlua or madeira. Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka.

Speaking of which:


For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

But I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. And yes, I realize I am a bad, bad person for running this recipe in January, right when lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight. What can I say. I’m an atheist, and therefore have no moral foundation and no reason to have compassion for others. Happy eating, and happy New Year!

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Cute Kittens: Compare and Contrast

I’m currently working on a piece comparing the child rape scandal at Penn State with the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s making me sick and sad. Over on Facebook, I pleaded, “Can’t I write a piece comparing chocolate chip cookies with cute kittens?”

And it was pointed out, by more than one person, that there’s no reason I can’t do both.

So. Chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens. How are they similar? How are they different? Is one superior to the other; are they equal/ are they simply not comparable with one another? Let’s discuss!

Similarities: Chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens are both wonderful. They make you smile. You can curl up with both of them on a rainy day, and it’s comforting and homey. They both have a tendency to leave detritus on the sofa — either in the form of cat hair or crumbs. They’re both soft and warm (not always the case with chocolate chip cookies, but often).

Differences: Chocolate chip cookies are delicious. They’re extra-delicious with coffee. They smell good. They have chocolate in them. You can bring them to work and leave them in your kitchen for your co-workers to enjoy. (I suppose you could do that with cute kittens, but it’s probably inadvisable.) You can make them yourself at home, which makes your house smell wonderful, or you can buy them at your favorite cafe or bakery.

Cute kittens, on the other hand, are fluffy. They’re alive and conscious, and you can interact with them and have a relationship with them. They love you (sort of, in their self-absorbed cat way). They scamper. You can dangle toys in front of them, and they’ll bat them around in an entertaining way. The bounce around the house going “boing, boing, boing,” and then suddenly fall asleep. They have big adorable eyes.

Conclusion: I am in favor of both chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens. They have some important similarities — mostly in the area of wonderfulness. They do, however, have some important differences, and are difficult to compare, since they serve such different functions in our lives.

Thoughts? How have these important issues played out in your own life?

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.