Book Club – February 2021

For me, the absolute best place to read is a coffee shop.  It’s the perfect amount of background noise and the best ambiance.  Here are the two standouts that I read this month:
Long Bright River” by Liz Moore
 I loved this addictive procedural about two sisters navigating the opioid crisis from opposite sides.  I couldn’t put it down – it was unglamorous, but compelling and heart-wrenching.  
A Promised Land” by Barack Obama
I listened to the audio version of this book, which I can’t recommend enough.  I like that you can hear him wince when talking about his frustrations or hear the joy and satisfaction in his voice when he tells a corny joke.  It made me feel so nostalgic thinking about the 2008 election – which was a very exciting time in my life. 

See what else I’m reading on Goodreads

 

Blueberry Scones

The best compliment to a nice coffee is a nice treat.  A truly delightful pairing partner to coffee is a classic blueberry scone.  I love this recipe from Martha Stewart because the ingredients are simple, it comes together really quickly, and you don’t need any special ingredients.  The recipe works great with frozen blueberries – which I often have on hand.  I like to make a double batch and freeze half for later, sometimes just baking off one or two at a time (just before baking, I like to put them on a sheet pan, let them freeze, and then stick them in a freezer bag or Tupperware – then just maybe add a few minutes to the baking time). 

Ingredients

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/3 cup heavy cream, plus more for brushing
2 large eggs

Method

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl (I like using the biggest bowl I have). Using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until largest pieces are the size of peas. Stir in blueberries and lemon zest. 

In a small bowl, whisk together cream and eggs. Make a well in center of flour mixture. Add cream mixture; mix gently using a wooden spoon until dough just starts to come together.  Don’t over mix

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to bring together. If you’re using frozen blueberries, be delicate — otherwise the whole thing will turn purple. Pat into a 6-inch square, about 1 1/2 inches thick. Using a sharp knife dipped in flour, cut dough into four squares. Cut each square in half diagonally to form eight triangles. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush tops with cream and sprinkle with more sugar. 

Bake until tops are golden brown, 20 to 22 minutes. Let cool on sheet 5 minutes, then transfer scones to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Espresso at Home

One of the things I’ve missed most about the world during the pandemic has been hanging out in coffee shops, so I’ve spent the past year turning our apartment into one.  It’s partly why I bought those nice speakers (mentioned in the last issue). I started to think about how I could bring more coffee shop vibes into our apartment, and it’s turned into a full-blown hobby.  With so little else going on, the little ritual of making a great coffee in the morning became the highlight of my day. I’ve been sampling different roasts from around Pittsburgh and beyond, measuring every detail about my espresso to get the perfect shot, and failing at latté art.

The Brew StationBreville Bambino Plus

When I traveled to France during college, I fell in love with espresso.  Since then, I’ve always wanted to have it at home.  When I realized we’d be working from home indefinitely, I invested in a basic espresso machine.  I bought a Breville Bambino, which I liked because it was small and beginner-friendly.  

I didn’t expect to get so invested in the science of brewing a consistent, perfect shot.  While the Bambino does make great espresso, there isn’t a lot that can be controlled about the other little details that go into each cup (like water temperature, pressure, extraction time, etc). Even when I control for as many variables as possible, I still get different results.  This is me being really, really picky.  Overall, it still makes great espresso and I’ve found that the most important thing is starting with great beans. 

With the Bambino, I also got a grinder and kettle (for pour overs, French press, Americanos, or tea).  The grinder is the Baratza Encore, which is considered a great all-purpose Burr grinder.  It’s better suited for pour-over and French press than espresso, but it does the job.  I also decided on the Fellow kettle because it is so well designed, but I also like that you can set the exact temperature.

Practice makes… progress 

I’ve learned how to pull shots from my espresso machine.  Measuring progress making espresso shots is easy because everything is measured in seconds and grams.  Latté art is different and most of the time, I get blobs and swishes of milk instead of precise leafs, hearts, or flowers.  There are a lot of things that factor into latté art: the freshness, temperature, and texture of the milk, the angle which the pitcher is held as it froths, the angle the pitcher is held as it is poured, etc.  It is not as easy as it looks.  I also don’t drink lattés every day, so it I don’t get as much practice as I’d like.

Practice makes… progress 

Supporting Independent Coffee Shops

Beans 

This may sound obvious, but the most important component to a great shot of espresso is freshly roasted beans.  While I love the selection from Commonplace, our favorite coffee shop in Squirrel Hill, I’m having fun sampling different roasts.  I’m keeping a little log of every type I’ve tried this year.  So far, our favorite is shop out of Wisconsin called Ruby Roasters.  Because of the shipping costs, it’s pricier than buying from a coffee shop in the neighborhood, but it’s definitely the best.  If you have any favorite roasters, please let me know! 

Merch

In addition to shopping small for all of my coffee beans, I’ve been slowly collecting merch from my favorites.  I’m currently living in this shirt from Commonplace, which is incomprehensibly soft.  Rob and I also have matching sweatshirts from Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine.  I think it’s a great way to give coffee shops a little extra support now.

Subscribe 

At the beginning of the lock down, I joined Tandem’s “The Good Thing” coffee and vinyl subscription.  There is a waitlist to join!  Each month, Tandem ships out a bag of beans and a record.  I love that they include a flyer talking about why they chose the record.  Subscriptions like this are great because they give business a guaranteed stream of revenue.  I’m also considering subscribing to coffee from Ruby Roasters

Commonplace TCommonplace CoffeeTandem’s Coffee & Vinyl SubscriptionCommonplace MugBaratza Encore GrinderThe Boy with the Arab Strap on VinylBreville Bambino PlusFellow KettleKLVN T

For a nice treat to go with that coffee… see my posts about scones and cardamom swirl bread

Book Club

Recently, I did something that has always felt very off-brand for me.  Since all branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh closed, my access to books has been seriously limited. So I ordered a Kindle.  Why did this take me so long?  The Kindle has been around for at least a decade and are relatively affordable.  I love it for so many reasons: books can be downloaded instantly, the backlight, font, and text size are adjustable, it’s light and comfortable to hold.   And the best part?  Library books can be downloaded for free using the Libby app.  I’ve also started using Libby to download audiobooks, which I love for fiction.  

Anyway, here are some of the best books I read this year: 

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino – Tolentino nails what it is like to be a millennial woman right now.  I read this book in one sitting. 

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener – this is a great peek into the world of tech start ups and hits very close to home for me

Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms by John Hodgman – I met Hodgman last year and got my copy of this book signed.  I also love his podcast, Judge John Hodgman 

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris – Sedaris is my favorite author; his books are like candy for my brain. 

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson – I’m currently reading this book.  It’s basically history through the lens of the house, which is fascinating. 

The Edit – December 2020

The Edit 

Zella Top, Pants, Aesop Soap, Six Seasons, Speakers, Turn Table, Journal

All the best things I bought in 2020 were things that brought me comfort.  These Zella pants and top have basically been my uniform.  Because the top is so perfectly soft and flowy,  I ended up buying two colors: pink and black.  The pants are basically leggings with pockets large enough to accommodate my phone.  

Since everyone’s favorite activity this year is hand washing, I upgraded my hand soap to Aesop’s Reverence.  Yes, that name is a little grandiose and the $39 price tag is definitely a little unreasonable for hand soap… but the soap has a lovely woodsy scent and there are tiny little granules that buff away dead skin, so it leaves hands incredibly soft.  

A new coffee shop,  KLVN, with a killer hi-fi system, opened right before the pandemic set in.  I remember the first time I walked in, “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” by Belle and Sebastian was playing over the Dynaco A25 speakers. In the dozens of times I’ve heard the song, it never sounded so good. I would love to invest in a fancy hi-fi set up, but because we live in a small apartment, it seemed unnecessary for now.  These speakers from Edifier are only $99 and sound amazing… honestly, much better than all portable bluetooth speakers I’ve tried. 

Because we’ve been doing so much cooking at home, we are a little sick of our classic rotation of dinners.  I’ve loved trying recipes out of “Six Seasons” because the book offers interesting takes on a big variety of vegetables.  It is organized by season, so I can easily navigate by the time of year. 

The last thing: a nice journal.  It’s a little corny, but it feels important to write about this wild time in our lives.  Journaling also helps me process things.  If a problem is a tangled knot, writing about it helps me think clearly and unravel it. 

My Favorite Travel Items

Some unglamorous (but practical) travel must-haves:

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Field Notes Notebook, Sony Alpha A6000, S’well Bottle, Anker Portable Battery, Shampoo Packets, Travel Pouches, Muji Garment organizer, Turkish towel, Small Suitcase 

Most of the time, my monthly shopping list features a lot of thoughtfully-designed, bespoke pieces.  This month it is a little more basic, just a few practical items for travel.

I always travel as light, because it is so much easier.  I’d rather repeat outfits than check a bag.  I like to be prepared (I always travel with a towel, you might need an extra one!  Plus, Turkish Towels can serve other purposes, are easy to pack, and dry quickly).  I never assume anything will be provided. I try to bring just the basics and plan ahead to do without.

I started packing sample packets of shampoo and conditioner instead of little plastic bottles.  I usually have some on hand from my Sephora free sample stash, they are available on Amazon.  This is great because as you use them, they take up less room.  Also, a little sachet of shampoo takes up a lot less room than a mini bottle.

I stay organized while packing by partitioning everything into little baggies.  I bought this set off Amazon and use it to sort my cables, beauty products, and other miscellaneous small items.  I even used the largest bag to separate dirty clothes.  These packing cubes from Muji also help keep my suitcase organized.  I only ever travel with a very small, hard-sided, four-wheel spinner.

A few nice-t0-haves: I like carrying this S’well water bottle with me on trips because it is my only bottle that reliably fits in all sorts of pockets and cup holders.  It also keeps things hot or cold very well.  I pack it empty and fill it up with water at the airport.  Even though I have an iPhone with a very nice camera, I still pack a “real” camera.  I recently (after a lot of research) picked up a Sony Alpha A6000.  This model is a few years old, but takes great pictures and is very comfortable to hold and shoot with.  I like that it charges in a standard USB port, so I don’t have to bring another charger.  While traveling, I charge almost exclusively off of an external battery.  This one from Anker can last me for several days and charge two things at a time.  And finally, I always travel with a little notebook and pens because I really like to put pen to paper when jotting down any thoughts or notes.

Pantry Clean Out Granola 


A few weeks ago I decided to repurpose some of my oatmeal / oatmeal toppings into granola.  I almost always have oatmeal, dried fruit, and a variety of nuts in the pantry.  Because it has been so hot out, a bowl of oatmeal isn’t really that appealing.  But granola?  Absolutely.  I love it as a snack because it’s so filling and packed with nutrients.  I also like that once you have a basic formula down you can customize it and make it with anything on hand.  It’s also vegan, if that is important to you.

The basic formula is oats, nuts and/or seeds, shredded coconut (but you could leave this out!), a binder made of olive oil and maple syrup, some kind of seasoning, and dried fruit.  It then gets baked at a low temperature, cooled, and then broken up into pieces.  I love that this recipe is kind of basic because I always have this stuff on hand.  I always rule out granola recipes with weird binders like brown rice syrup because I don’t like buying speciality ingredients that are kind of uni-taskers.  I also avoid granola recipes that are overly sweet.  This one really isn’t!  The only sugar is natural – from the maple syrup and dried fruit (and honestly that may have added sugar — so if this is a concern, read the label before buying).  It could even go savory by changing out the spices.

I like my granola to be full of little clusters, and I finally realized that the way to achieve this is to really pack it into the sheet pan and not spread it out at all, and then avoid stirring it until it is completely cooled.

I have adapted my recipe from one from Carla Lalli Music’s.  It is so good that I’ve been making it at least once a week and eating it dry, as cereal, or as a yogurt topping.  I’ve adapted the recipe by cutting it in half (because it’s just a more manageable amount and I’m really just making this for Rob and myself) and adding ground flax seeds.  I like this addition because I found that it helps bind the granola.
Recipe 

Ingredients

1.5 cups rolled oats
1 cup of seeds and nuts
1/2 cup shredded coconut
2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds  (almond flour would work, too)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp sea salt
3/4 tsp cardamom or cinnamon
3/4 cup dried fruit
Method

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Start by mixing together the oats, nuts, coconut, flax seed, salt and cardamom.  Don’t mix in the fruit yet.  It is going to get mixed in after it comes out of the oven.  I made this mistake the first time I made this granola and had to painstakingly rake golden raisons out of my mixture.  They look sooooo similar to walnuts.  Don’t do this to yourself.  Add the olive oil and maple syrup and stir until everything is well-coated.

Pack the mixture into a sheet tray, only use about half the pan, don’t spread it out.  Pull the granola out of the oven when your kitchen starts to smell like toasted nuts and everything is sort of golden brown – about 25-30 minutes.  The cooking time really depends on your oven.  I would play around with lower/longer cooking.

Once the granola is out of the oven, sprinkle the dried nuts overtop and press them in.  Do not stir our break up the granola until it is completely cool.  Resist picking out little clusters and snacking on them because it will be like molten hot and really not enjoyable.


So clustery! 
So far my favorite combos are golden raison / walnut, cashew / cranberry, and pecan / dried blueberry.  I have also just done a mix of everything.  I really like flavoring it with cardamom, but cinnamon would be fine, too.   Let me know if you make this or if you have any interesting flavor ideas!

Third Wave Coffee Shops in Pittsburgh

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My favorite little pick me up is a well-crafted cup of coffee.  I know, the caffeine is literally a stimulant, so that’s why it always makes me perky and productive, but I really appreciate the care that goes into the coffee.  I like that more and more we know where beans come from, the roast date, the flavor profile, the terroir— it is a real craft.  I’m a total sucker for a cappuccino with a little leaf in the foam.  Third wave coffee shops also tend to pay attention to all the details – the thoughtful interior design, the cups, the snacks – everything, not just the coffee, is elevated.  I’m happy to spend $5 and tip 20 percent on the experience and quality.

Since moving to Pittsburgh I have come to love all the options for craft coffee.  We are really spoiled with gorgeous, thoughtful, independent cafés all over the city.  I love venturing across town to try them all.  This is not an exhaustive list, just some of my favorites, in no particular order.

 

Commonplace Coffee House – Squirrel Hill 
This is my neighborhood coffee shop, I love to bop in for an after dinner espresso, tack it on a trip to the library, etc.  Squirrel Hill is far from their only location, Commonplace Coffee Houses are dotted all over the city, and their roast is sold throughout southwest pa.  I love that the serve a little cookie with an espresso, because that is really common in France it feels extra special to me.


Constellation – Bloomfield / Lawrenceville cusp 
I love this minimalist cafe.  The interior features huge windows that let light from Penn Avenue pour in.  The tin ceilings are my favorite detail.  It is a great place to study or read because it feels kind of homey.  The menu is not exhaustive, but everything I’ve ordered has been really excellent.


Espresso a Mano – Lawrenceville 
Great espresso and atmosphere.  I like Espresso a Mano because isn’t trying too hard to have Instagrammable vibe (even though I’ll admin I always fall for that!).  Every time I’ve been here all the tables are full, so I that they have like a counter to just stand at and shoot back an espresso.


4121 Main – Bloomfield 
This place has the most gorgeous feel to it.  Plants everywhere !  Artisan chocolate / goods!  Dreamy music ! (Deerhunter’s Desire Lines was playing when I walked in, It instantly put a smile only face to hear an almost decade-old song that I love).  I wouldn’t expect to find 4121 Main where it is, because frankly it is kind of on a dumpy street.  It mixes parts of old world glamour, shabby-chic, minimalist and wabi sabi.  That doesn’t make it sound cohesive, but it is.


 

The Bureau – East Liberty 
The Bureau is an outpost  of one of my favorite Pittsburgh restaurants, The Vandal.  It is  located within Schoolhouse, one of my favorite stores in Pittsburgh.  I always seem to order cold brew at The Bureau, probably because I got it the first time I went and it was so good I keep ordering it.


 

Arriviste – Shadyside 
Arriviste takes a very technical approach to brewing. Everything is precise, measured, made to order – and thus takes time.  Expect to wait for it.  The cafe has a midcentury-inspired interior, with a friendly / collaborative atmosphere.  I think it is nice that people share tables.

B O O K C L U B

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Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman describes the life a woman trying to fit in with society, it is wonderfully weird, insightful, and well-written.
Vacationland – John Hodgman

Before Rob introduced me to the podcast Judge John Hodgman (where Hodgman settles petty disputes), I best knew Hodgman as the PC in the “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” Apple commercials circa 2006.  I’ve grown to appreciate his wit and commentary.  In Vacationland Hodgman pokes fun at himself as a product of privilege when he finds himself owning two vacation homes.

My Favorite Things

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This month I decided to do something a little different – the top 10 things I can’t live without.  While I like to discover new unique items each month, I always come back to my old favorites.  I’ve included some of my favorite clothes, accessories, and personal care items.

I start my day by washing my face with Purity face wash by Philosophy.  I’ve been using this face wash for almost 10 years.  The fresh scent helps me feel awake in the morning and it does take off make up at night.  I’ve never found a face wash that leaves my skin feeling cleaner than Purity.

Turkish towels seem like the opposite of what someone would want out of a towel.  Before converting, I would have thought that plush, pillowy terry cloth made a good towel.  The thin fabric is actually wonderful, because it dries so fast.  I love that my bathroom doesn’t smell mildewy.  These are also great for wrapping up hair because the fabric doesn’t have the weight of a traditional towel.

Another key part to my morning routine?  My Nespresso machine.  Basically anyone who has met me knows how much I love this thing.  It is the easiest way to make an espresso at home, and the quality is great.  Best of all, Nespresso recycles the capsules for free.

I’ve had a Kanken backpack for years, reviewing my first was one of my earliest blog posts!

I could say a lot about all of these items, but for the sake of my time and yours I’ll leave it at the list.