Monday, September 1, 2014

2014 Disneyland Half Marathon Race Report

2014 Disneyland Half Marathon - August 31, 2014
Over Labor Day weekend, I was in Anaheim for the 2014 Disneyland half marathon. I’d signed up for it back in late January/early February, was training steadily for it through May then got sidelined with shin splints off and on for the rest of the summer. This was supposed to be the half where I would try to set a new PR (personal record) and break under the 2-hour mark. Alas, it was not to be. When you’re supposed to rest to heal shin splints and time keeps ticking away with intermittent rest periods and no long training runs to build your endurance – yeah, that’s not the recipe to run a half in under 2 hours. There were points during the summer where I considered canceling on the half altogether. I wouldn’t get the exorbitant reg fee back but I was in dubious shape to run 13.1 miles, no matter how fast or slow I was.
But as the date approached, I became cautiously optimistic. My shins hadn’t completely healed but they were good enough that I could do short training runs of 4 miles at a time, even occasionally a 6-miler, 3-4 times a week. It’s nowhere near the training I should’ve been doing for a half but I decided it was good enough to be able to forge ahead.
I’d never run any Disney race before but I (correctly) guessed it would be well populated with die-hard Disney fans, recreational and serious runners amongst them.  I also guessed that, given how well Disney does with logistics in its theme parks, the event would also be operationally well run. I was right about that too. The whole process was rather smooth from race packet pick up, the Health & Fitness Expo, and the race itself.
The headband I bought at the Expo - is this me or what?
The half marathon was the third of three races. The 5K was on Friday, the 10K on Saturday and the weekend culminated with the half on Sunday. If you ran both the 10K and the half, you got a Dumbo Double Dare medal in addition to the medals given out for each individual race. It was my first exposure to the Disney bling and it was an eye opening education how widely coveted these things were. I’m not one for a lot of bling but I have to admit even I got “bling envy” looking at the other medals on display at the Expo. There was a Coast to Coast medal if you ran races from Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California in the same year. There were medals for other combination of races. I couldn’t keep track of them all. 
I did feel a pang in not being part of the Dumbo Double Dare. When I signed up for the half, the website was so inundated when they opened up signups that it took me half an hour to register for the half marathon. When I tried to sign up for the 10K, it had already sold out. In half an hour! Geez. In hindsight, it was probably just as well as with my shin splints issue, I don’t know if I could’ve run a 10K one day and 13.1 miles the next and still been able to walk. Still, that Dumbo Double Dare medal was super cute.
My corral at 5 am

Anyway, fortunately I had run my qualifying race before I had shin splints and been placed in Corral E which was the 5th corral. The elite runners (corral A) and the next fastest qualifiers (corral B) were released right at the race start of 5:30 am. The organizers let 10 minutes lapse to give the first group a head start then corrals C & D were let loose. While we were waiting for our turn, they moved each corral closer to the starting line. I was checking my watch and by the time my corral was set free, 15 minutes had passed since the race start. Although I didn’t expect to run fast, I wanted to have an idea of my time at I passed each mile marker so I wanted to know my true start time.
If you’ve never run a Disney race, you might not know, as I initially didn’t, that various Disney characters populate parts of the park which the course runs through and runners can stop and have their picture taken with them. Yes, the runners can stop running, line up and get their picture taken. I know, it surprised me too. Clearly, these runners didn’t care about their time, another concept I struggled with. But, seeing a couple of my friends post their pictures they’d taken during the run, I had to admit it looked like fun. I thought about doing it myself since I wasn’t really running for time (so I kept telling myself) but two things stopped me: 1) I hate stopping and starting during a race; stopping to line up and take a picture only makes it harder for me to start running again and 2) I look like crap when I’m running so I’ve never wanted my picture taken, regardless of whether Mickey, Minnie, Buzz Lightyear, Maleficent or Snow White's Wicked Stepmother was there or not. Although I almost changed my mind when I saw Maleficent ;).
I’ll spare you the mile by mile blow by blow account of the run. Some parts were easier than I expected and my endurance held up. Until I got to mile 10 and beyond. Then I started to flag. Not helped by the fact that I had woken up at 1 am that morning and couldn’t fall back asleep. My left shin started to throb. My feet were tired. My nose was running faster than my legs. Sweat was pouring into my eyes and I was starting to feel the spots I’d missed covering with Body Glide before the race. Especially underneath my arms – ugh, chafing, a runner’s enemy. The course was fairly flat but there were several inclines that I had to walk. I can’t even call them hills since they were just gentle slopes. But I hate slopes and inclines, gentle or not so to me they felt like mountains. Okay, they really weren’t but I walked them anyway. At several points, a saying on a headband at the Expo kept coming back to me, "I love to run. Except while I'm running." Yeah, that.

After the mile 11 marker, I was getting really tired and did a couple of 10-second walks before I made myself keep going. There were “ChEAR" squads throughout the course meant to be encouraging and keep the runners going. Lots of enthusiasm and support which is always nice for a flagging runner. The coolest part of the course was when we ran through the California Angels stadium and the stands were filled with supporters cheering all the runners as they went by. How many times have you been cheered by a stadium full of people? Yup, none before this for me either. Props to all the people who came out to support the runners. I don’t think all of them knew someone in the race but they came out anyway – nice.
The half marathon shirt we got at packet pickup
The necklace you could purchase as official race merchandise
I was checking my time at each mile marker and at first I was pacing around 10-minute miles. That only held up for the first 6 miles and I got progressively slower. I crossed the finish line at 2:32 and roughly calculated my time at 2:17 if I had crossed the starting line 15 minutes after the race’s official start. Looking at the official race results after, I was close to my guess. My official race time was 2:16:25. That’s my worst time of the 4 half marathons I’ve done but I figured it was decent enough considering I hadn’t properly trained and my left shin had started throbbing. Overall, I was happy with my time and the effort I put into the half. It’s too soon for me to think about signing up for a 5th half marathon and going for that elusive sub-2-hour goal but yeah, I might be open to it. I didn’t think I would be because it takes so much time to prepare and train not to mention it’s freaking hard to run 13.1 miles and I'm having a harder and longer time bouncing back from injuries. But a sub-2 half is on my bucket list and I’m stubborn enough to want to check it off at some point in my life. Not to mention, I'm now tempted to add to my Disney bling collection of 1.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Peanut Butter Chocolate Bundt Cake

Peanut Butter Chocolate Bundt Cake - made August 24, 2014 from The Little Epicurean
I can call this "what I made when I was woken up so early by a 6.0 earthquake" last week. The epicenter was more than 80 miles from my house and usually I don't wake up for a little tremor but for some reason, I surfaced to consciousness at just the right time to feel the bed shake, think "I bet that was an earthquake" then drift back to sleep. Unfortunately I didn't sleep for very long after that. You just know that had it been a weekday, I could've slept for hours afterwards. But since it was the one day I had to sleep in last weekend, I was wide awake by 5 am. *eye roll*
So I figured I might as well put the time to good use. Normally I bake on Sunday afternoons for work the next day, not Sunday mornings. In the morning, I'm usually pressed for time. I have to get my workout in, shower, get ready for church and rush to get there on time (but I'm almost always late). But hey, when you wake up 2 hours ahead of schedule, that's enough time to make a cake. And, while the cake is baking, vacuum, sweep, change the sheets, tidy up, waste time on the internet and catch up on my blog. When I'm awake, I'm really awake.
Now you might wonder why I keep making stuff with peanut butter when I keep saying I'm indifferent to it. But remember I like it well enough when it's paired with chocolate and, amongst my friends, coworkers and acquaintances, apparently I'm an oddity because I'm surrounded by people who love peanut butter. Just love it. That's enough motivation for me, especially since I typically only eat a small taste test piece and give the rest away. I don't have to exert much willpower to limit my intake for anything with peanut butter.
Anyway, the pictures on The Little Epicurean look so professionally turned out that it was a no-brainer to try out the recipe. Unfortunately, mine didn't turn out as well as hers did. I did end up a little pressed for time after all (the cake took longer to bake than I anticipated) so I inverted it out of the pan while it was still a trifle too warm and too fragile. The cake came out mostly cleanly, meaning a chunk or two stuck to the pan that I had to patchwork over. After I came back home that afternoon, I glazed the fully cooled cake and did the peanut butter carefree (i.e. sloppy) drizzling over it. I was trying to be neat and precise about it but decorating just isn't my thing and I ended up free-forming it just a little too much.
The true test of the Bundt cake's appearance though was how the peanut butter inside turned out. There I made a mistake as well. The chocolate cake batter was less dense than the peanut butter batter. Subsequently, the peanut butter batter sank into the cake. With the inverted Bundt, that means the peanut butter was concentrated at the top. If you make this, I advise layering more than half the chocolate batter on the bottom of the Bundt before adding the peanut butter batter and layering with the rest of the chocolate. That'll give the peanut butter a fighting chance to stay somewhat in the middle.
As for the actual taste and texture of the cake, I loved the texture. Firm, moist, perfect pound cake texture. It wasn't that sweet (my parents would probably like this) so the addition of the chocolate and peanut butter glazes were a nice offset. I did cut back on the espresso powder to 2 tablespoons as I didn't want a strong coffee flavor to compete with the peanut butter or chocolate. A little espresso can enhance the flavor of chocolate but too much can overwhelm it. In hindsight, although it was the right move to cut back on the espresso powder, I should've increased the amount of unsweetened cocoa by the same amount to amp up the chocolate punch. But still, this was a pretty good cake.
Chocolate Cake
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder (can cut to 2 tablespoons if you wish)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (increase to 3 tablespoons if you're going to cut back on the espresso powder)
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp fine sea salt

Peanut Butter Cake Filling
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 tsp fine sea salt

Chocolate Glaze
4 oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 Tbsp glucose, or light corn syrup

Peanut Butter Glaze
2 Tbsp smooth peanut butter
2 -3 Tbsp whole milk
3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
pinch of salt
  1. Chocolate Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Generously butter a 10-cup bundt pan and set aside. 
  2. In a microwave safe bowl, heat unsweetened chocolate at half power at 30 second intervals.  Stir often.  Heat until chocolate is melted.  Set aside. 
  3. In a glass measuring cup, stir together instant espresso powder and cocoa powder.  Add enough hot water until liquid mixture measures 1 cup.  Stir until powders are dissolved.  Add milk and let cool.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  5. Add eggs one at a time, making sure egg is incorporated before adding the next.  Scrape down bowl as needed. Add slightly cooled melted chocolate. Continue to mix on medium-low speed until combined. 
  6. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt.  
  7. With the mixer on low, add 1/3 of milk mixture, then 1/2 of flour mixture.  Repeat, ending with the milk mixture.  Mix until combined. 
  8. Peanut Butter Cake Filling: In a medium bowl, cream together butter and peanut butter until smooth.  Add sugar and mix until combined.  Add egg and mix. 
  9. Fold in flour and salt.  Add milk and stir to combine.  Mix until flour is incorporated. 
  10. Cake Assembly: Add half of chocolate batter to prepared bundt pan.  Distribute peanut butter cake filling on top of chocolate layer.  Swirl with knife to spread out peanut butter batter.  Add remaining chocolate batter to cover peanut butter batter. 
  11. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean.  Let cool in pan for a couple of minutes before unmolding.  Let cool to room temperature on wire rack.
  12. Chocolate Glaze: Over a double boiler, melt together chocolate and butter until smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in glucose.  Pour over cooled bundt cake.
  13. Peanut Butter Glaze: Stir together sifted powdered sugar, peanut butter, and salt.  Add milk and stir until smooth.  Add additional milk if glaze is too dry. If glaze is too thick, add additional sifted powdered sugar.  Drizzle peanut butter glaze over chocolate glazed bundt cake.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Chewy Glazed Lemon Sugar Cookies

Chewy Glazed Lemon Sugar Cookies - made dough August 9, 2014 from Lauren's Latest
I have a fondness for soft, thick, chewy cookies. Chocolate chip, chocolate, sugar, vanilla, butter, lemon, even peanut butter. Something to sink my teeth into. Literally. Which I got with this cookie. The dough was super easy to throw together although I must warn you if you portion out the cookie dough balls as generously as I did, you only end up with 7 cookies. I don’t normally mind doing small batch baking but 7 cookies didn’t seem like a prolific return for the investment of dirtying my Kitchen Aid bowl, spatula, cookie scoop, measuring cups and measuring spoons. But I won’t quibble. A soft, chubby, chewy cookie is a soft, chubby, chewy cookie.

To give it some extra lemon zing, I glazed it simply with a thick glaze of confectioners’ sugar and fresh lemon juice, just enough to coat each cookie thickly and set so you don’t have runny glaze all over your fingers when you eat the cookie. I loved the texture on these cookies. Only bake until the edges start to turn golden but the middles aren’t completely dry or cracked. If the middles are high, puffed, and cracked, you’ve overbaked them and they’ll be cakey and possibly dry. What I was less enamoured of though was the flavor. Because  the recipe calls for lemon extract, which I used, there was an artificial tang to them. I’ve baked cookies with lemon extract before and they’ve been fine but that artificial flavor was more pronounced in these cookies. Next time, I’m skipping the extract and adding more zest instead.
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar + an extra 2 tablespoons
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice (or however much or little for the desired consistency)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. Cream butter and 1/2 cup sugar together in stand mixer until light and fluffy. Stir in egg, vanilla, lemon extract and lemon zest. Scrape sides and mix again. Stir in dry ingredients until just combined. Scoop onto prepared sheets and flatten slightly with the bottom of a cup dipped in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake 8-9 minutes, cool 2 minutes and transfer to cooling rack.
  3. Stir powdered sugar and lemon juice together until smooth. Spread over top of each cookie and let set.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bakery Review: Village Baking & Coffee Company, Modesto, CA

Village Baking & Coffee Company - visited August 23, 2014
Last weekend I went out of town for a Hallmark ornament event (waves freak flag) in Modesto. As always whenever I go somewhere new, I look up local bakeries on yelp to see what I might go check out. Hey, we all need a hobby. In addition to baking, mine is trying out new bakeries wherever I go. It satisfies both my intellectual curiosity and my sweet tooth under the guise of "research". Yes, that's it, I'm doing research.

I got to Modesto pretty early, checked in at the Hallmark store then had a couple of hours to kill. So it was the perfect time to check out Village Baking. Since I'd left my house so early to get to Modesto before 8 am, I hadn't had breakfast yet.
Village Baking is pretty large for a bakery but they also double as a cafe that serves both breakfast and lunch. There is a plethora of display cases filled with baked goods, from breads to cakes to cupcakes and bar cookies to individual-size desserts. Needless to say, I went into sensory overload. In a good way.

Before I got too immersed in the sweet offerings though, I went with a breakfast order of pancakes and fruit with a side order of sausage. I ordered at the counter, paid for my meal and received a number on a stand which the server later used to track me down and deliver my order. The pancakes were decently fluffy and tasted good but I was disappointed in the syrup. It had the taste and texture of Aunt Jemima syrup from a plastic bottle. For someone used to maple syrup tapped from the trees of Vermont, it was a bit of a letdown. I actually ended up scaling back on the syrup and enjoying my pancakes without them. Fortunately the sausages were tasty so it saved my breakfast plate.
My breakfast order: pancakes and sausage
After breakfast, I allowed myself the sensory pleasure of perusing the display cases. Several times, the attentive counter people asked if they could help me but I demurred. I was full from breakfast so I knew I wouldn't be eating anything until later that afternoon and I wanted to choose wisely. Some moments just can't be rushed.

After indulging my visual senses for an appropriate length of time, I finally narrowed my selections down to 3: a Turtle Thumbprint Cookie, an individual apple tart and a larger-than-mini-but-not-full-size cake called Death by Chocolate. The name alone deserved a trial even though it was a larger size cake than I could finish by myself.

The cake was a bit expensive at $8.25 but greed governs the hold on my wallet and that hold loosened in the face of promised chocolate bliss. The bakery counter person packaged the cake in a separate box from the cookie and the tart which turned out to be a wise move. I had to leave the boxes in my car for half the day and it was almost a 2-hour drive back home so by the time I got back and opened my caloric treasures, the cake had softened considerably and was thinking about melting to punish me for its warm treatment in the trunk of my car.

I tried the Turtle Thumbprint cookie first. I had made something similar to it (Chocolate Turtle Cookies) for a holiday dessert party and I'm partial to anything chocolate and caramel. This had the same elements as the turtle cookies but I have to say, I like mine better. The cookie part of this Turtle Thumbprint was a bit on the dry side and was more of a crisp texture than a chewy one. It wasn't bad but it wasn't a standout for me.

Apple Tart
Then I got to the apple tart and boy, did my taste buds perk up. My jaded senses lost their cynicism and came to attention. It's still not quite the season for apples so the apples weren't particularly special but the outer crust and the inner crust holding up the apples were amazing. I can't describe it well enough to do it justice but it was like the perfect - and I mean perfect - meeting of tart crust and cake that got married and agreed on a 50/50 partnership. Sublime. The only thing I didn't like about the tart is the same thing I don't like about any bakery dessert with fruit. In order to preserve the appearance of fresh fruit, bakeries brush the fruit with an apricot glaze. It keeps the fruit from drying out and gives them a glossy appearance. That keeps them looking pretty but I've never cared for the taste of the glaze. Still, let's just say that while I probably wouldn't drive 90 miles just to go to a bakery (even I have my limits), if I ever happened to be in Modesto again, I'd make a point of going to Village Baking just to get the apple tart.

At this point, I didn't have much room for more than a bite (or three) of the Death by Chocolate cake. I had put it in the refrigerator to chill back up before I tried it which turned out to be the right thing to do. The cake is essentially fluffy chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse covered with a light(ish) chocolate ganache frosting. I'd repeat that but I'd probably gain another two pounds just typing out the words. It was good. Really good. I couldn't finish it so I ended up sharing most of it with my parents when I visited them the next day.
Overall, I'd give Village Baking and Coffee Company a thumbs up. Skip the pancakes unless you're going to bring your own syrup but they offer a great selection of baked goods and 2 out of my 3 selections hit the mark. A few days later, I'm still thinking about that apple tart.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

White Chocolate Snickerdoodle Blondies

White Chocolate Snickerdoodle Blondies - made August 16, 2014 from Sally's Baking Addiction
My nephew, Vanilla King, loves snickerdoodles. True to his moniker, he also likes white chocolate, although when he was younger and in a "I don't like chocolate" phase (at least I hope it was a phase and nothing permanent), we just called white chocolate "vanilla". True chocoholics will point out white chocolate is not vanilla but we're talking about a kid here. I can take some poetic license to get him to try a cookie.
Anyway, Vanilla King is a bit older now than when I gave him that nickname and he's since unbent enough to allow for M&Ms and Oreos in his treat consumption, both chocolate products, mind you. And I think he's stopped picking out the chocolate chips from chocolate chip cookies. You can imagine how much trauma that caused me.
Still, despite his progress towards embracing chocolate like anyone even remotely related to me should do, I err on the side of making his favorites whenever I meet him and his parents. This time I combined two of his favorites with this recipe. And I must say, this blondie strikes gold. It has all the goodness of a snickerdoodle cookie but with the ease of making into a bar cookie and for white chocolate lovers, it delivers on that too. While I'm not a huge fan of white chocolate per se, it works well in this blondie.
Although I like snickerdoodles in their "pure" form, I'd make these in a pinch for when I need treats to parcel out and don't have a lot of baking time. They're quick and easy to put together and they deliver on texture and flavor. As always (always!), don't overbake these. As with any snickerdoodles or blondies, if you overbake them, they'll become cakey and dry. I underbaked by a couple of minutes but once they had cooled, they had a nice, moist, "fudgy" texture. Super delicious.
2 1/3 cups (292g) all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (170g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (150g) light brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (180g) white chocolate chips

Cinnamon Sugar Filling
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/3 cup (67g) granulated sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Line a 9x9-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, leaving enough overhang on the sides to easily pull the blondies out of the pan and cut. 
  2. In small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. 
  3. Using a hand or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on high speed in a large bowl. Beat for at least 1 minute until creamy. Add sugars and beat for 2 full minutes on high speed until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl as needed. 
  4. Beat in the eggs and vanilla on high speed, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. On low speed, beat in dry ingredients until just combined. With a large wooden spoon or rubber spatula, fold in the white chocolate chips. 
  5. Spoon half the batter into pan. It will be a relatively thin layer, but try to spread it across the pan evenly. Combine the cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle on top of them bottom layer, reserving 1 tablespoon for the top. Spread the remaining batter over top. Some of the cinnamon-sugar will mix into the top layer as you spread it, which is fine. Sprinkle the top with remaining cinnamon-sugar. 
  6. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely for about 1 hour.