Real Talk about ExpatLIFE (Round Two)

"Does it feel weird to be back in New York?"

"No, the only thing that's weird about it is how weird it doesn't feel"

I repeated this interaction almost every day for a week. And every day it felt truer.

"Don't get me wrong, I know we live very comfortably here but... do you ever just have complete break downs? Like ugly cry break downs? I have those" a friend asks me back in Seoul.

"Oh yeah, I think that has to be a normal part of living abroad. Every so often it just gets to be so much. Three cabs passed you by before one picked you up, you just want to be able to buy dog food with out traipsing halfway across the city, you're missing one crucial ingredient that can only be found at the foreign food store - the little things, they just keep building up and then you remember you miss your friends, you miss your job... I think it's normal."

I sat in front of my computer Friday and I sobbed. Uncontrollable, unending, sobbing. I woke up and read that the bakery I was working for before we left for Korea, one of the few places I've felt sad to leave, was closing. I walked the dogs, holding back tears. I watched President Obama's statement on the shooting in Oregon, crying the whole way through.

These are, of course, two very different news events but my feeling of overwhelming powerlessness was the same.

For over a year I've had more time than is probably healthy to read the news. For over a year I've watched from abroad as my friends have taken to the streets in protest while the best I have to offer are retweets and facebook posts that, honestly, mostly are read by other people in my same liberal bubble, as we rack up racially motivated gun deaths and mass shootings in my home country. For over a year, I've felt fucking useless.

For over a year I've answered the question "what will you do when you go back?" with "Oh, I've been a baker for almost ten years, so I'll probably go back to baking. Honestly, I'd be happy to go right back where I left".

When we went to New York for a week in the Summer and I visited with friends and family, none of it felt weird until I was on the train to meet Dominique at SCRATCHbread and I started crying because I remembered this wasn't my life anymore and I wasn't going to wake up the next morning, put on my clogs and yell at the front of house for not telling me we were out of shortbread ten minutes ago. For over a year, I've thought my career could take the hit of a two year hiatus because at the end, hopefully, I could go back to a place where at least in my own little kitchen world, I was useful.

So in a two hour period, not only did I feel like I was completely useless at the moment but I also felt like all my future usefulness had just expired. I had a day of despair, of sobbing, of "I just can't anymore" and while I was having all that, I baked my friend a birthday cake and I decided it needed to be big because it was a big, fuck you world, cake kind of day.

Yeah, that's right, my fuck you to the world was a cake. We're probably going on 15 years of fuck you cookies, cakes and candy at this point. I get depressed or enraged and I create something and then I give it away. Sure, when I'm working, I'm selling it away, but still, it's my own tiny, daily protest.

The thing, of course, that kept going through my mind was that somehow, if I had been in America, I'd feel different or these things wouldn't have happened which is crazy. I am not singlehandedly responsible for preventing gun deaths in America and I think maybe one of the take aways from President Obama's speech is that we're not alone, we're not alone in being sad and frustrated and scared because he's the president of the United States of America, and he is too. And even if I had been at SCRATCHbread, giving my all, there's a good chance it still would've closed and I still would've spent the day sobbing. Most of the small businesses I've worked for have closed, food service is a hard industry. Neither of those statements are very comforting I guess but at least they take the blame away from living in Korea. I'm sad and that's fine and I'm going to sit with it.

I have to make a new plan for the future instead of living like I'm in a holding pattern that has another year to return to normal.

But ultimately, the plan is always the same.

Create more. Give more away.

(round one)

 

Seoul Snippets

Let's talk about some of the weird things I've taken pictures of to send to my husband lately to give you a glimpse into my everyday living in Korea.

YEAH BOYYYY, those are public trash cans! While I am CONSTANTLY extolling the virtues of Seoul having clean public restrooms in almost every subway station, all over parks and just on the street in many neighborhoods, I rarely mention that the trade off seems to be filthy streets and no public trash cans. This is both frustrating to me as somebody who likes to drink bubble tea on the go and has a Californian's deeply ingrained aversion to littering so ends up carrying a cup of melting ice for miles and as a dog owner who just wants to be able to throw bags of poop away as soon as possible. Thankfully, there are (some) trash cans in the park but there aren't any for the majority of the walk between our house to the vet or between our house and the dog cafe. So more public trash cans is basically the most exciting thing to happen in the last month.

It's almost Chuseok (Korea's harvest festival/Thanksgiving) which means on my last trip to Costco the SPAM (and knock off SPAM) gift sets were out in FULL FORCE. Because of food shortages after the Korean War, products like SPAM and other canned foods brought over by the American Military were highly prized. Korea is still the second largest consumer of SPAM in the entire world and these gift sets tend to show up around major holidays. As an American, I can't think of anything less luxurious than SPAM but in Korea, it's a big deal.

What even is the Sea of Japan? It's always the East Sea, and don't you forget it!

As far as I can tell Tasty Road is travel/food show hosted by one former and one current K-Pop singer who make questionable culinary endorsements. One of these signs outside an establishment basically guarantees droves of Koreans showing up, standing in line and making heavy use of the selfie stick to make sure they get themselves and the name of the establishment in the picture and thus, another fast cycling food trend is born. I have mixed feelings about them endorsing the Hot Dog on a Stick that opened a few months ago because I don't want it to go out of business because corn dogs are delicious and it's open at 2 am making it the perfect place to stop for second dinner on our way home from a night out in Itaewon BUT I don't want to ever have to stand in line for more then ten minutes to get mall food court food. Also, the same day I saw this sign outside, I noticed that Street Churros now has a Street Hotdog. Yes, that is a hotdog served on a churro, combining the food trends of yesterday and today! Coincidence? I think not.

I meeeaaannnn.... What? (and yes, it also says "Calorie Light Cooking Towel" in hangul so I really don't know what's going on here)

IMG_0564.jpg

In the Spring, a hastily, poorly constructed deck suddenly appeared in front of a business which always had its gate down. A few days later, the gate was up when I walked by and I noticed taco related words on the wall in passing. A few days after that I saw what appeared to be a counter with a steam table behind it and some tall tables set up. "Yes!" I thought, "it probably won't be very good tacos but it will be near me!". Except... fast forward to two weeks ago and it still hadn't opened and suddenly the hastily constructed deck and ENTIRE front of the building were removed. Now there's a tarp covering it. The good news is, I realized how inappropriate the taco related words were when I saw them this time and managed to snap a picture. RIP obscene taco place, I'd pour out a bottle of Tapatio for you but that stuff is more precious than gold here.

Funfetti from Scratch

I first learned about the magic that is making funfetti from scratch when I was team leading a New York Care's cooking class in the Bronx. While my classes were ostensibly supposed to focus on healthy cooking, my Bronx class happened on the weekends and was three hours to create a whole meal including dessert (don't ever tell my East Harlem kids who met for one hour after school and only got to make desserts near the holidays). I tended to focus my classes on familiar foods for which I could buy all the ingredients at the local Pathmark but made from scratch. So, corn flake crusted baked chicken tenders, take out style fried rice and chow mein, mac and cheese, etc and then occasionally throw in something new, like kale chips. (Seriously, these kids loved kale chips, one semester we made them at least four times by request).

The first time I made funfetti cake, we made it using leftover ricotta from the lasagna that was our main course. Yep, I took a ricotta based cake, which sounds pretty adult and fancy and I funfettied it. Because it turns out, all you need to do to make a cake "funfetti" is add a cup (more or less) of sprinkles to whatever white or yellow cake you're making and you'll get those confetti dots inside when it bakes up.

Last week I got a freelance request for a friend's husbands birthday for a cake shaped like America. When I asked the flavor, my friend said "not chocolate-y and moist". At first I offered a vanilla and lemon curd cake but then I asked if she wanted to go all out American and have a funfetti cake. This cake was maybe one of the most ridiculous things I've ever made and a resounding success.

Ingredients

Cake:

  • 7 oz (1 3/4 stick) room temperature Butter
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 4 Eggs (room temperature)
  • 2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract
  • 1 1/3 cups AP Flour*
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3/4 cup rainbow sprinkles

Frosting:

  • 12 oz (3 sticks) Butter, softened
  • 5-7 cups Powdered Sugar (sifted)
  • 2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract
  • 1/2 teaspoons Salt
  • 1/2 cup Rainbow Sprinkles

The Cake

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour a 9"x13" (quarter sheet sized) cake pan.
  2. Combine dry ingredients and set aside. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy and then add eggs, one at a time, incorporating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla extract and lemon juice. Mix in flour in two parts with the mixer on low and then mix on high for three minutes to aerate the batter. Fold in sprinkles.
  3. Spread the batter evenly in the pan and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown and just starting to pull away at the edges. Cool in pan for ten minutes on a wire rack and then invert directly onto the rack and cool completely before assembly.
  4. Yes, it really is that easy.

The Frosting

  1. Cream together butter, salt, vanilla and five cups of powdered sugar until smooth and fluffy add up to two cups more powdered sugar for your own personal consistency and taste. Mix in the sprinkles. You've just made funfetti frosting. Try not to make it every day now.

Assembly:

Of course, you have a couple of options here. You could just frost the outside of the cake and leave it at that or you could cut it in half and frost the middle and outsides, you could turn it in to one big U.S.A or you can make a smaller, double layered U.S.A. which is the option for which I'm writing instructions.

  1. Cut your cooled cake in half. Place one layer on a cakeboard and spread with a generous even layer of frosting, place the other half on top. Stick this in the fridge for fifteen minutes to firm up.
  2. Draw or print an outline of America (or any shape you want) that will fit within the dimensions of the cook hanging out in the fridge. Cut out the outline.
  3. Remove the cake from the fridge and place the outline on top, you can use a couple of dabs of frosting to hold it in place if you want. Use a paring knife to cut around the outline. Remember, you don't have to do this all in one go, use the picture in the upper right square as an example for how to cut parts of the coastline away.
  4. The sides of the cake are going to be pretty crumbly, so this is a time when it's pretty crucial to crumb coat your cake. Crumb coating is when you spread a thing layer of frosting over your entire cake to act as a base layer to seal in the crumbs so they don't mix in with the frosting. After you've crumb coated the cake, stick it back in the fridge for another fifteen to twenty minutes to set up.
  5. After your cake has set up, give it it's final, generous layer of frosting, on a cake this size, you're bound to lose some of the details of the coast (sorry, Puget Sound) try not to worry about it too much, I promise your guests (or client) won't care.
  6. This cake can be stored at room temperature if your house isn't too warm but in the Summer months I'd recommend sticking it in a sealed container in the fridge.

Getting Back in the Game

I know, I know, it's been a little quiet (ok, very quiet) around these parts these past two months. Between a dying computer, a new computer whose motherboard was DOA and had to be sent back and then back to us via a U.S. address and then getting a new dog right when I really had a working computer again, it's been more or less impossible to get something up.

I started writing a post about a year of living the expat life in Korea, but I hated it. So I scrapped it all and just posted this on Instagram instead.

I'm sure I have more to say. Friday I'll be meeting up with some other spouses to welcome and meet the new partners that have arrived with this class of my husband's program and Saturday we'll be brunching and welcoming the new people coming into the program from Stern. Just the idea of meeting people in the same shoes I was in a year ago is already making me reflect a lot more than just the date passing.

In the coming week, I'm hoping to get a recipe up for these pickled beets, this play on tiramisu I made for a friend's Tex Mex party and full reviews of Volstead and 1981. If you're not interested in recipes or Korean restaurant reviews, then stay tuned for my encounter that took place in Ukraine with my bff Salo the Vodka Pig.

In case that assortment of links didn't make it super obvious, even if I'm not writing here, I'm often writing mini reviews or posting recipe inspiration over on my instagram account where my handle is alana_margaret (and if you're not an instagram user, almost all of those things get pushed to my facebook page as well).

If you are super into dogs, or considering adopting a dog in Korea (there are so many that need a loving home) I'll also be writing about the resources and struggles I've found here and in the meantime, you can follow Ada and Shadow on insta with the handle badwolfclub (yes, that is both a reference to huskies being extremely willful dogs and Doctor Who).

Hello? Is it still #tongueouttuesday in America?!

A photo posted by Ada and Shadow (@badwolfclub) on

And on that note, I have to go take this 60 lbs puppy we've adopted on a training walk and convince Ada she'd rather stay home with a Kong full of peanut butter (probs won't take that much convincing, tbh). More soon. Pinky swearsies.

Spring Splurge

"Honey, I just remembered asparagus is a thing," he said to me, eyes wide and full of longing.

Our CSA has included an excessive amount of different varieties of cabbage and "salad greens" lately making using exclusively our CSA veggies and meat a bit less a fun game of Chopped and a bit more of a not so fun chore. Actually, Korea right now is feeling less like a fun adventure and more of a not so fun chore, so I went a little crazy last time I went to Costco.

Mostly when I go to Costco and I'm not shopping for a party, I stay away from the produce other than the citrus. For the most part it's not actually cheaper than other stores, there's just more of it and the more "western" vegetables aren't the greatest quality. But I check it out every time just in case - maybe the brussels sprouts won't be the size of my fist. This time I was rewarded with asparagus that looked "fine" instead of it's usual "the actual worst" and I thought about what Dan had said a few days earlier and I thought about how much I missed being able to make good, simple, not meat heavy dinners and then I blacked out and I guess I turned into chef Hulk because I came to and my cart also had a big box of basil, crimini mushrooms, avocados and a bag of limes. <insert money with wings emoji here>

That night I didn't have a plan for dinner other than to use as many of my fancy new ingredients in a meal as possible. So I peeled the bottom of my asparagus, chopped it in thirds, tossed it in olive oil, salt and pepper and threw it in the oven. I hadn't had pesto in months and handful after handful of basil was subjected to my immersion blender, a hearty dose of olive oil and some of the garlic chives from my CSA because why not? Some lemon zest, grana padano, red pepper flakes and salt later, I had a delicious sauce and a plan. The mushrooms were sliced and went into a pan with bacon lardons, garlic and (dried) herbs. I started one pot for rigatoni and another for poaching eggs. The asparagus came out of the oven and was treated to a generous sprinkling of lemon zest.

My pasta, asparagus, bacon, mushrooms and pest all went in a BIG bowl to get tossed together. Next, it went into our smaller bowls and got topped with a poached egg and fair amount of grana. I was so happy as I stuffed bite after bite of what would be a lazy, low key meal in America but in Korea felt like crazy indulgence.

Dan ate a bowl cold for breakfast the next day and I had the rest for lunch. Even cold, it was fantastic.

We managed to stretch out the rest of our asparagus into two more meals and had pesto for one more. Only about a third of each of our avocados was edible but we put them on as many things as we could, covered in fresh squeezed lime juice. The remaining precious limes are waiting to get used in cocktails, probably with some of the liquors we've been infusing with Thai spices.

This week, thankfully, tomatoes made an appearance in our CSA (already! I know!) and last night's dinner was a giant bowl of poached egg salad.

On the other hand, I just froze enough butter braised cabbage to keep us in pierogis until we leave Korea, I got another half of a giant cabbage and I still had another in my fridge. Any ideas*?

*Other than kimchi