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The Perfect Autumn Day (Lemon Almond Butter Cake)

October 30, 2015

There was never a more perfect Autumn day than this past Saturday.  Neither a single footprint could be found in our little Medieval town... Nor could an empty parking space near the entrances to nearby mountain hiking paths...

We chose a new trail path to a hidden lake (Bergsteiner See) - small in size but big in charm.  It was surrounded by the golden hues of Autumn, Summer's final encore.

The gorgeous colors that abound this time of year are the very things that get me out of my end-of-summer sadness.  I really don't enjoy when summer ends.  This is what the end of the year feels like to me.  The beauty of the changing of the leaves is so striking... a gracious reminder that life goes on... that summer will come again.

There is still fun to be had... as the crispy, fallen leaves beckon us to kick and stomp and throw and roll around in them.  Such childhood memories!

We finally arrived to the lake... A few other hikers in quiet contemplation at this place of solitude where the mountains rise high above you and the trees sing the season's good tidings.

Back home on the ranch, we ended a nice day of fresh air with a cake that was a first for me.  From a NYT recipe, this cake was sweet and then tart, soft and then chewy, cakey and then nutty... Each bite was different than the last. It was delicious.  And, another good way to use lemon curd besides in a tart. 

Til next time!  

I Fall Hard

October 13, 2015

The Uffizi Gallery

October 9, 2015
Continuing on with our grand "Sisters Only" adventure, my sister and I finally got to tour the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  I've seen mostly Modern Art museums in my travels... but this was my first Renaissance art museum.

Located along the banks of the Arno River, the Uffizi building complex was designed by Giorgia Vasari for Cosimo I de Medici to be offices for the Florentine magistrates (Hence, uffizi meaning 'offices'), and also to display the prime artworks of the Medici family.


The gallery is a great architectural masterpiece.  From the plan below, one sees the building is split into two corridors with an open space in the center.  The internal corridor is so long and so narrow - it is considered the first regularized streetscape in Europe.


It is a huge building complex... it has three floors and looms over you... it surrounds you, wraps itself around you... and yet instead, it also feels like it is light and lifting upward.  There is life inside - pedestrians walking, street performers, artists and caricaturists...


If you look to the top of the walls all along the underside of the ceilings, you can see many portraits of dignitaries who came to visit.  Coming to visit Firenze typically meant staying several weeks or months...  During their stay, dignitaries often had their portraits painted.  The portraits hanging in the gallery now are all reproductions... and the originals are safely tucked away.


The frescoes along the ceilings of the first corridor are by Alessandro Allori.  It is painted in the Grottesque style (which is different from the grotesque we know today).  This style blurs the lines between art and nature, reality and fantasy... and is highly ornamental.

Grottesque, 1581, Alessandro Allori

Right up to the Renaissance, during the Pre-Renaissance, paintings looked a lot like what you see below:

Left: Cimabue, Santa Trinita Maesta', 1280 (Cropped Image) Right: Giotto, Madonna d'Ognissanti, 1310

The perspective was still very two-dimensional.  People look flattened onto the canvas.  Notice how the angels look like they are cardboard cut outs placed one in front of the other.  The knowledge of anatomy and physiology was basic at best.  Also, the halo usage is very frequent in these paintings.  It was also customary to never paint someone you know into the composition - a big, no-no.

But, then there were signs of things changing.

The Baptism of Christ, Verrochio, 1475

The Baptism of Christ was finished in the studio of Verrochio in 1475.  It depicts the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It was not uncommon during these times for several people to work on a single painting.  Let's say the master painter would do the main character while the students or apprentices would do the landscape, the supporting characters, etc.

In this painting, a soon to be well-known student, named Leonardo da Vinci, painted the angel on the far left, the landscape in the background, and the water at the men's feet.

It was a huge breakthrough when this painting was unveiled.  Everyone was amazed at the softness and youthfullness of the angel, the realistic transparancy and rippling of the water, and the sense of distance of the landscape.  And notice the haloes becoming more realistic and less like golden orbs.

Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci, 1472 (Cropped Photo)

The Annunciation was also another 'collaboration' between Verrechio and his student, Leonardo da Vinci.  It is said that Verrechio left a note for Leonardo to finish the angel wings and background landscape.  This is the first time angel wings are depicted as bird wings with feathers.

The story tells of the angel, Gabriel, coming to Mary to deliver a message... that she would miraculously conceive and give birth to a son...  but, interestingly enough, there is a room with a bed shown on the right.  Hmmm...

Madonna and Child with Two Angels, Filippo Lippi, 1465

Remember the no-no about painting people you knew?  Well, Filippo Lippi's painting, Madonna and Child with Two Angels consists of models he knew quite well - his wife and three children.

The main child, depicted as a boy, was really his daughter.  And, the child hidden in the background is of one of his other children who had passed away at a very young age.

The angel in front was of his other son Fillipino, who would also grow up to be a painter like his father.

Something people also did not do before the Renaissance was to have their own portraits done.  Was the above portrait a move towards the modern selfie? 

Posing in profile in the Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino, Battista Sforza and Federigo II da Montefeltro by Piero Della Francesca, the Duchess and Duke of Urbino are painted as facing each other.  We are looking at the good side of the Duke because it is said that the other side of his face is distorted and his vision is impaired due to injuries in battle.  Look closely and you will see a very funny shaped nose on the Duke.  It is also said that he wanted to excel in battle and so had doctors shave off a bit of the bridge of his nose so that his remaining good eye could see better.

Notice that the Duchess looks a bit pale?  Well, she passed away prior to this portrait... ergo her bluish, greyish complexion.  Look at the detail of her head dress.  It took the ladies of those days hours to do their hair... and speaking of hair, that high forehead line was made intentionally by plucking and shaving.  A high forehead meant higher standing.  Notice the blond(ish) hair color... women spent hours (or days!) trying to lighten their hair... often sitting for hours in the sun with their hair soaked in horse urine.  Oh, yeah.  That's right.

Notice, also, the sleeve of her dress.  In those days, women could easily open up their sleeves to give a quick wipe of their arm pits.  It was "common knowledge" back then that bathing and hygiene were bad.  People often went for long periods of time without bathing... and even longer periods without washing their clothes... until the Plague, and things definitely started to change!!

Hello to the female body!

Venus de' Medici

The Venus de' Medici captures the moment she supposedly emerges from the sea, alluded to by the dolphin.  Her origin is unknown... but historians believe she is from the 2nd Century BC and is perhaps a marble copy made in Athens, Greece.  She is a navigation point from which the progress of the Western classical tradition can be traced.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1480

Ahh, the famous Botticelli - The Birth of Venus 

The painting depicts the birth of Venus as an adult woman emerging from the sea and arriving at the shore.  There is similarity between the Venus de' Medici as Botticelli studied this sculpture prior to this painting.  There is so much symbolism and variety of interpretations that I won't go into that here.  I'm just happy to see women being subject matter other than as the Madonna.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, 1482
More celebration of divine love, the world's new fertility, and the eternal spring.  The bodies of women are softer and fuller.  There are many types of different flowers in the painting... we see more of the natural world entering the composition and the symbolism.  Oh,  and women seem to be having a better time in their lives!

Carita, Francesco Salviati, 1543

In Carita (Charity) by Francesco Salviati, we see the mother and child theme evolving into something more sensual... the woman's body is exposed, more realistic... rather than the previous Pre-Renaissance two-dimensional flatposes.  Preportions are becoming more true to life.  Facial expressions are more real.  Body positions are more probable...

Adoration of the Child by Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1619 (Cropped Photo)

In the Adoration of the Child by Gerrit Van Honthorst, we see a painting that uses an incredible lighting effect known as chiaroscuro, which creates a sense of volume in the space by using a
value gradiation of color... here, we see a very dark background moves into a very light, almost illuminated point in the composition.   The eyes move from the darkness into the main point of the painting - the child.  Van Honthorst was a Dutch painter who was a master of this effect.  There is great control and focus pulled from the viewer's eyes by the artist.

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, 1475

Remember when painting someone you knew or even looking outward from the canvas were frowned upon during Pre-Renaissance times?  Well, by the 1400's, many people of great stature were included into paintings - men of great wealth, politicans, even the artists themselves were in the painting.

In Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo the Elder can be seen kneeling in front of the child... and Botticelli, himself, dressed in orange, looks out from the right corner of the painting.  This reminds me of when Alfred Hitchcock (or today, Quentin Tarantino) make cameos in their own films!

Death of Adonis, Sebastiano de Piombo, 1511 (Cropped Photo)

Adonis is known in Greek Mythology as "an annually-renewed, ever youthful vegetation god, a life-death-rebirth deity whose nature is tied to the calendar.  He is the archetype applied to modern handsome youths." (Thanks, Wiki!

His dying is depicted in the Death of Adonis in the presence of a group of young girls around the poet Sappho.   There is so much action in this painting... the women surrounding the poet, the woman and child, Adonis dying off to the side... now, paintings are becoming full on stories that are caught in a specific moment.

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, 1592 (Cropped Photo)

Speaking of action and capturing the moment, the next two paintings do a great job at letting the viewer into the very dramatic act of killing.

Around this time, the Church was looking for a new style, different from Mannerism, and in stepped Caravaggio, who invented a radical realism that combined a close physical observation with an even more dramatic use of chiaroscuro that  came to be known as tenebrism (where the shift from light to dark is extreme, using very little intermediate value gradations).

For more on the symbolism of the sacrifice of Isaac, go here.

Judith beheading Holophernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620 (Cropped Photo)

Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the few women painters of the Renaissance.  She was introduced to painting in her father, Orazio Gentileschi's, studio.  She showed great talent and was heavily inspired by Caravaggio during that period.  Her father was working with Agostino Tassi and later hired him to tutor his daughter privately.  It was during that time that Tassi raped Artemisia.  After promising to marry her, Tassi broke his promise and Orazio pressed charges.

Artemisia took all of these events to heart and used them in her feminist themes in her paintings.

In Judith beheading Holophernes, we see Judith at the very moment where she is bracing herself right as her sword penetrates the neck.  The blood is spewing everywhere, there is only darkness as the background.  We are pulled into this very dramatic, very private moment.

In the painting, we see a second woman holding down Holophernes.  She represents the solidarity and unity of women.  When Artemisia was raped, she cried for help, but the woman who rented the apartment upstairs ignored her cries and pretended nothing happened.  This woman was the only female figure in Artemisia's life (as her mother died when Artemisia was twelve)... and this betrayal only solidified Artemisia's strong sense of women standing together.

Supper Party, Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1619 (Cropped Photo)

Some moments capture not only death and dying, but also more common events like pulling a tooth.  Even this moment is pictured happening right at the table during a supper party.  There seems to be conversation and music while the two ladies tend to the gentleman with the sore tooth.  The elder lady in the corner seems to be enjoying this man's pain!

. . .

So, we have now seen several of the many changes in art during the Renaissance period.  It's a rapid evolution given what the art looked like during the pre-Renaissance, don't you think?  I think life got real for the first time since halos and angels and the consistent religious themes of the past decades.

Real people are in the picture now... with three dimensional bodies and surroundings... doing real activities... telling a variety of stories from the mundane to the dramatic... and they are even looking out of the frame back onto the viewer.

Instead of only viewing into the painting, I think now a viewer looks into a painting and the subject looks right back at them in a way that is very much alive... I see these subjects looking back at me and I wonder what they must be thinking... what are they trying to tell me.  If they are indeed alive, in that weird movie kind of way, do they see me and wonder what's going on in the world I live today??  What would THEY think about our lives?

And, maybe that was the point during the Renaissance - the rebirth of man... a thinking man... who learned and questioned his surroundings. 

The goal of art is to get you to think... about something... anything.  Feel something... anything.

But,  all I can think of at this very moment is if Keanu Reeves is a time traveller?  Because maybe he (or his doppelganger) was living in Florence around the 1500's?  What are you trying to say to me, mystery man in Portrait of a Man?  Apparently, I'm not the first one to think of this!

The Portrait of a Man, Parmagianino, 1530

Tuesday Tidbits - Life In Between

October 6, 2015

+ Cuba's lung cancer vaccine

+ the secret language of assisted suicide

+ the evolution of Alzheimer's disease

+ surgery without blood transfusions?  

+ cheap new test to tell you every infection you've ever had?

+ the country that bans divorce

+ thoughts on child discipline 

+ ten story factory turned playground 

+ more women in the delivery room

+ birth as a natural process, not emergency

+ are parents bias towards first-borns?

+ unrealistic views of death?

+ when you are addicted to your phone

+ what doctors know about death

+ how Navy SEALS conquer fear

+ why women struggle with self promotion

+ and why they should embrace it

+ independent mothers of Iceland

+ modern doctor house calls

+ a different approach to kids and bad behavior

+ crisis in the Pharma industry

+ psychological problems of climate scientists

+ free play is the best summer school

+ regret over how a dying parent was treated

+ a doctor who really feels your pain?

+ dark side of emotional intelligence

+ introversion - Dutch military's secret weapon

+ pathologists - whose patients are already dead

+ how to be mindful of screen time

+ the link between emotion and attention 

+ the unaddressed toll of emotional labor

+ the history of potty training

+ national security trumps torture concerns

+ why lonely people stay lonely

+ are lonely brains different?

+ kids in foster care

+ ob/gyn in Sierra Leone

+ praise for the intellectuals

+ exhausted superkids

+ what emotions are and aren't

+ why we need older women in the workplace

+ a daughter watches her homeless father

+ long term effects of tattoos

+ a hoarder's tale of redemption

+ menopause... and the origin of cheating

+ snobbery science

+ misunderstood on the internet?

+ a doctor at his daughter's hospital bedside

+ when success leads to failure 

+ the opposite of hoarding

+ you are more likely to die in a hospital on these days...

+ have women lost the war on women?

+ secret world of women surgeons


Xiu Mai - Vietnamese Meatballs

October 1, 2015
Now, why did it take me THIS LONG to make Xiu Mai or Vietnamese Meatballs?  My go to for meatballs has always been the Swedish ones.  I mean, I love the Swedish meatballs at Ikea and I also make them from scratch at home.  What's not to love?  

But, why have I never made these meatballs before?  When I come home to visit, my mom always makes a pot of these with warm, crusty baguettes.  And, we eat til we have food coma.  Maybe it's because this is a dish that my mom always makes... and I didn't want to mess it up and make something LESS than what I remember with my tastebuds and my memories?

I'm Asian.  Maybe it's genetic (to always try) to make your parents proud... regardless if they can see what you're doing or not!  Don't know how they did it... but even thousands of miles away,  I can still hear my mom or my dad in my ear telling me how I should be doing it. 

Anyway, yesterday I felt the craving... and I felt that it was time.  Time to make my mom's meatballs... and of course, I couldn't get her on the phone... so I was on my own.

I looked at a few recipes and two seemed up my alley.  

Charles Phan's Mom's Meatballs [Credit:Eric Wolfinger]

Charles Phan is a Vietnamese chef over on the West Coast who owns a restaurant called The Slanted Door.  Something about him and his cookbook convey to me that he knows how to do it authentically.  Even though his recipes can be quite lengthy with tons of ingredients, I like his process.

And, because I live way over here in the Alps, the Asian section of my personal pantry is quite basic... so, I chose Food for Four's recipe because I had all of the required ingredients! Yay!

If you can't find fresh Vietnamese baguettes like me... just make your own!  Start by watching this video from The Beth Kitchen to see how easy it is to make from scratch!  Luckily, I live in an area where bread is somewhat of a national treasure... so, a nice Austria baguette substituted quite nicely.

Need some fresh Vietnamese pickled veggies?  Try this recipe from White on Rice Couple.

Here's a video of the whole shebang from Helen's Recipes on YouTube. 

Xiu Mai from Helen's Recipes [Credit:Link]

Let's get started!

Xiu Mai (Vietnamese Meatballs)
Makes approximately 30 2-inch meatballs

Aromatics to be halved between sauce & meatballs

  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 shallots, minced
  • 2 yellow onions, minced
Note: I say minced here because I have my handy mini chopper on hand.  If you are, indeed, doing this by hand, then a good chop of the above is ok, too!

For the sauce

  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 of aromatics
  • 3 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1-2 pieces of porcini mushrooms (optional, I like the added umami with these!)
  • 2 C water
  • 4 Tbsp ketchup
  • 2 Tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 tsp sugar
  • 4 Tbsp tomato paste

For the meatballs

  • 1kg ground pork
  • 1/2 of aromatics
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp black pepper

For the Fixings

  • fried shallots (garnish for the meatballs)
  • fresh baguette
  • sliced cucumber
  • sliced avocado (a break from tradition, but I love it anyway!)
  • cilantro
  • some Vietnamese pickles

Cooking Directions
  1. First, make the meatballs.  Add all ingredients and mix by hand.  Roll into golf ball size meatballs. Do not over handle these babies.  Just get them into a roundish shape and move on.  You don't want tough meatballs, now do you?  Now, set aside.
  2. Next, make the sauce. Add the oil and heat over medium heat. Add the aromatics and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes or until softened.
  3. Add the extras - diced tomato and porcini mushrooms.  Cook for a few minutes then add the water, ketchup, fish sauce, tomato paste, and sugar.
  4. Increase the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil.  Add the meatballs into a single layer. (See note.)  Crowding is totally ok so long as the meatballs are submerged completely in the liquid.  Then, decrease the heat until the liquid is at a steady simmer. Cook for 45 minutes, with minimal stirring.  Do NOT bring it to a boil or stir rigorously as the meatballs can break apart... which isn't necessarily THAT bad, because it'll make the sauce even better! (Charles Phan purees a portion of the ground and adds it to the sauce - I see where he was going here!)
  5. To test if the meatballs are ready, spoon out a meatball and cut it open; it should no longer be pink in the center.
  6. Remove from the heat and serve right away. 
  7. Serving suggestions - over rice, as a meatball sandwich on a baguette with all the fixings, or just use the baguette as a utensil and soak up the sauce and pieces of meatball in one bite!  Or make smaller bite size meatballs with slices of baguette for appetizers at a dinner party.  What a great alternative to Swedish meatballs!

To prep or not to prep the meatballs: Food for Four mentioned that you can steam these bad boys prior to adding them to the sauce.... or as an alternative, lightly pan frying to brown them a bit and to give them some shape to help them hold onto this shape after their time in the sauce.  Try both if you like.

I did neither.  I just threw them into the sauce like Charles Phan's recipe.  I tried to call my mom for her take on this... but she wasn't around.  Boo.  So, I just went with my (lazy) gut!

But, if you do decide to just toss them into the sauce with wild abandon... take note.  You must skim off all of the scummie bits that float to the surface.  And, in this recent attempt, I had a lot of it.  I almost wondered if it would ruin my sauce... but, I stayed the course and continued to skim, and skim, and skim... until there was none left and my sauce was perfect.

These tasted just like my mom's meatballs... she would be so proud!