Geekamama


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Birthday treats!

Penuche is a brown sugar fudge-type candy. It’s got no chocolate, but the finished texture is similar to traditional fudge, and the cooking process is basically identical once you get past combining the ingredients. From what I can dig up online, it’s primarily Hispanic in origin, although Wikipedia claims that it was once very popular in Hawaii. It’s still pretty well-known in the southern parts of the U.S.A., although less common elsewhere. I’d never heard it pronounced (and thus was mispronouncing it pa-noosh instead of pe-noo-chi) but I think I’d read about it somewhere or other… probably in cookbooks from previous generations.

Since I was feeling both creative and generous, I decided to bring treats to share with the class my co-workers for my birthday. Technically it was the day before my birthday, but I didn’t expect many people to be in the office on a Saturday.

One of my cookbooks has a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie dough fudge that’s based on penuche. The recipe looks fantastic and I can’t wait to make it; the only problem is that it calls for a stand mixer and ours is out of commission. I considered using a hand mixer but after reading the steps, I realized why the brute strength of a stand mixer is needed. Since I couldn’t make that recipe, I fiddled around and came up with a variation that I hoped would suggest chocolate chip cookies. My plan was to make a cookie-crumb crust along the lines of a graham cracker crust, then pour the penuche over that to set up, and top it off with miniature chocolate chips. It didn’t turn out quite how I’d envisioned it, but it was close, and got positive reviews from my officemates, family and friends.

For the crust, I used Alton Brown’s recipe for The Thin chocolate chip cookie. I wanted something that was more on the crispy side, so that it would crumble up more easily. I left the chips out because I didn’t want to pick them out of the crumbs later. This resulted in some rather naked-looking cookies.

I baked the cookies the night before I made the rest of the components, so that they’d have time to cool and get crunchy.

The penuche recipe I used is basically the one from The Joy of Cooking, except I replaced half the brown sugar with white sugar, and I increased the recipe by 50 percent.

One of the best cooking habits I’ve gotten into (not just for candy but pretty much everything) is to gather and prep everything, and even measure out ingredients ahead of time before I even turn on the stove. Soooo much easier to have that right at hand mid-recipe, rather than trying to chop or measure while also keeping track of what’s going on elsewhere.

And now, get to cookin’! Combine the ingredients (other than the vanilla and butter which go in later), cook without stirring up to 238 F, then remove from heat, float the butter and vanilla on top, and let it cool — again, without stirring — to 110.

Meanwhile, my Chief Taste Tester and Personal Brute Squad was tasked with crushing the cookies. That champagne bottle next to the stove top is what I’d been trying to crush them with, until my CTTPBS stepped up to the plate… er, counter.

My base crust was just cookie crumbs and butter, combined and then pressed down flat in a 9×13 pan. I used the time while the penuche was cooling to get the crust ready. In retrospect, I should have gone with a thinner layer of crumbs, and possibly found something other than just butter to use as a binder for the crust. Because– well, you’ll see soon enough.

Once the penuche had set up for about an hour, I sprinkled chocolate chips over the top. I think I should have done it a little sooner, because the top was already firm enough that the chips didn’t really stick. And next time I’ll be more generous with the chips as well. Next time, wall-to-wall chips!

The following morning, I attempted to cut out little circles with my new biscuit cutters. The idea was that they’d look like cute little round cookie bites. The upper two-thirds of the team went along with this plan quite nicely, but the cookie crust crumbled.

I was bummed, to put it mildly. I almost gave up on taking them to work. After some grumbling and muttering, I fell back to my second plan, which was to cut squares rather than circles. That worked better.

And off to work I went, and made many new friends.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had these leftover naked cookies to deal with. They tasted fine without the chips so I could have just left them as they were, but I had a bunch of mini chips left over as well. So I melted the chips and channeled my inner Jackson Pollack. (Do you know how hard it is to take pictures with one hand while drizzling chocolate with the other? I do.)

So, lessons learned (because engineers habitually do post-release analyses, even when off the clock).

  • Making test batches is a good idea and they let your spouse take goodies in to the office too. (This is what led me to adjusting the JoC recipe.)
  • Test out as many components as possible before bringing them all together. If I’d tried a proof-of-concept crust with just one or two cookies, I might have known how to adjust it to make it work the way I wanted.
  • Don’t tell people how something was “supposed to” turn out. Let them enjoy it as-is (because they will), and pretend you meant to do that.

Changes for next time:

  • Much thinner cookie crust
  • More chocolate chips
  • Experiment with penuche recipes to find one with a creamier end result. Mine ended up more on the grainy side, which was still very tasty although not quite what I’d intended.
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There is no hill

This birthday thing that happened last weekend got me thinking a bit.

I have to confess that I mentally eyeroll (just a little bit, I promise) at people when they go one about turning 30 oh noes. A big part of that is that my 30s have been hands down the best decade of my life so far. So very many good things have happened to me over the last 10 years that if I had to pick a decade to relive, it would be this one. Because as I look back, I realize that my 30s have been hands down the best decade of my life so far. So very many good things have happened to me over the last 10 years that if I had to pick a decade to relive, it would be this one.

For most of my 20s, I was still in college, with all these unrealistic dreams about where my life and career was going to go. I let the guys I was dating have too much influence over my life decisions. I won’t say that I made bad choices, because I didn’t really, but I made a lot of choices that embarrass me a little when I look back at them now. I didn’t realize how much growing up I still had to do. On my 30th birthday I had a party with a couple dozen friends, and I thought my life was stable and that it would be this way for the next forty years.

But then things began to change. I’d made more friends at work, people with no connection to my husband. I was the sole income-earner and I think it did a lot for my self-confidence. I started making some real significant contributions at work, started spending time with a different group of people who introduced me to a lot of things I hadn’t tried before and never thought I would. I started looking at my life with a more critical eye, noticing that there were a lot of things that weren’t going the way I wanted them to, and finally realized that I really did have the power to change things… if I could just find the courage to risk it.

In my thirties, I realized that my marriage wasn’t beneficial to me, and found the strength to ask for a divorce.

In my thirties, I dove into the world of puzzles that I enjoy so much, and from which I’ve made so many friends.

In my thirties, I re-evaluated the conviction I’d had that I would never had kids, and realized it hadn’t been my own but my ex-husband’s conviction. And that maybe, just maybe, I felt different now that I was off on my own.

In my thirties, I lived on my own for the first time since the college dorms. I became a solo homeowner. I weathered some ups and downs at my job, and when that job became toxic, I somehow found it in me to walk away from that as well.

In my thirties, I found that I really could stand up for what I believed even when it wasn’t popular; that I could say what I was really feeling without worrying that my friends would laugh at me for it; that saying “Why not?” instead of “Why?” could lead to some fantastic experiences.

So when I see people talking with some trepidation about turning 30, or sounding like it’s the beginning of the end, I just… I don’t quite get it anymore. I expect I was probably the same way when I was 29, and now I laugh at myself a little bit for it. I had no idea of anything that was about to happen, or about how my 30s would be more about opening windows than closing doors. Lots and lots of windows.

And you know what? I’m sure my friends who’ve already passed that 40th birthday milestone see me eyeing it warily, and they probably do a little mental eyeroll as well. Because I have no idea what the next ten years are going to hold, and for all I know they’re going to leave my 30s in the dust.

You’re not over the hill until you’ve been buried on one. And it’s all uphill from here.


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A peek back in time, part 3 (conclusion! finally!)

And thus we finish my pre-birthday look back at what’s been going on around my previous 20 birthdays. Not a whole lot that affected people beyond my immediate friends and families, but then that’s probably true for most of us. (By the way, if you missed the first installments, here they are: Part 1 & Part 2.)

One thing that I find interesting is how the sections describing the longer-ago times are relatively short, while the past eight years or so have been so milestone-filled that they had to be broken off into separate chunks. This could be because my college and early work years just weren’t all that memorable because I was just getting started with this adulthood business. But perhaps it’s because events that seemed so significant when they were recent become less important with the perspective of many years’ distance.

At any rate: here’s the final segment. Enjoy!


Three years ago, our January 2009 involved a lot of breaking the news of my pregnancy to our friends.

A few months later, to celebrate our anniversary and our impending parenthood, we’d fly to Washington D.C. for a week of touristing. While we were there, my sister’s daughter would be born and we would officially be aunt and uncle on both sides of our extended family.

July would find us celebrating the birth of a tiny little Kiddo. And then learning all the challenges of parenting a newborn.

Not quite two months later, Husband and I and a handful of friends hosted Seattle’s first instantiation of DASH, a multi-city on-foot puzzle event. I impressed myself with how easy it was to do things with a child attached to me. That would change. Oh, how that would change.

Two years ago it was 2010 and life had settled into a pattern for us. Baby, baby, baby, and then baby.

Things hadn’t gotten really bad at work, but the downhill slide would start later that year.

We would buy our first new car in years, and drive it to Lake Chelan for a week with my parents and siblings.

Kiddo would learn to eat “real” food, and to walk–both skills that continue to challenge us.

I would join Twitter after declaring for years that I didn’t see the point, and also start this blog.

One year ago, 2011, and it was going to be another big year for us.

In April I would walk away from the company to which I’d given almost 12 years of my life. Six weeks later I’d start over at a new job, which is less stressful and more enjoyable.

In August we’d take a two-week family road trip that took us across the Continental Divide half a dozen times, reunite me with some of my high school classmates, and get the whole Smith family together for some summer family time.

In November we’d host Thanksgiving. I’d also attempt to keep up with the blog-every-day NaBloPoMo. I fell off the wagon shortly after the holiday, but I learned some interesting things – one of them being that if I take the time to write in this blog, people take the time to read it.

And that brings us back to here. It’s been an interesting trip so far. Here’s to the next twenty years.


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A peek back in time, part 2

Here’s the second part of my pre-birthday look back at how the past 20 years have gotten me to where I am now. You can find part 1 here; part 3 will be up soon.


Eight years ago it was 2004, and a lot of big stuff was about to happen that year.

I surprised even myself by volunteering to join the small core of PuzzleDay leads. Guess who else was on that core group? Hint: I’m married to him now.

Come April, Office 2004 for Macintosh would finally be released to manufacturing. I’d been pouring a lot of effort into work that spring, and it was reflected in my performance reviews. Just for fun, I put a big gold star on my office door like a Hollywood starlet.

That summer I’d face for the first time the tough decision to put one of our two ferrets to sleep. I’d never lost a pet before, and it was very, very hard on me. On both me and my then-husband, I think, but instead of bringing us together, it was the first step of the eventual end of the marriage.

In the fall, a few of my friends and I would form a team to play in my first driving Game, Shinteki:Untamed. The four-person team we assembled is still together, with the addition of a few others to come later.

In December, I would make another tough decision: I asked my soon-to-be-ex-husband for a trial separation.

Seven years ago it was 2005, and perhaps one of the most pivotal periods in my life to date.

For my birthday, one of my PuzzleDay co-leads invited me to join him and some of our friends to play remotely in that year’s weekend-long MIT Mystery Hunt. Sometime late Friday night, I walked out of our conference room for a few minutes and returned to find he’d arranged for a birthday cake for me. I got an inkling that there might be some mutual attraction.

I moved into my very first all-my-own apartment. My ex and I filed for divorce. It would be officially a done deal just eight months later.

I started dating the aforementioned PuzzleDay co-lead.

That summer I would run one leg of a marathon relay, along with my sisters and mom. My new boyfriend and I ran Bay to Breakers too. That ended up being the last time I did any significant running, either competitively or just for myself.

In August I would play in my first full-length Game, with my teammates from Shinteki and two other guys. One of them later moved to Germany, and the other is the fifth member of our current Game team.

In October, I’d sign the papers and hand over a great big change, in exchange for the keys and deed to a cute little condo in Kirkland.

Five years ago in 2007, I kicked off the year by moving out of that cute little condo and into my boyfriend’s house. I had some reluctance doing so because I sure loved that condo, but it seemed like the right move for us at the time. I would eventually sell it in November for a very nice profit, just as the housing bubble was starting to collapse.

While sorting through papers, I found my friend Julia’s email address, and wrote to her hoping to rekindle our friendship. One of the first things I learned was that she’d been diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer the previous December in spite of never smoking a cigarette in her life.

In April my boyfriend and I would go on a Carribean cruise. It had seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to propose marriage, and I found myself a little disappointed when he didn’t. Little did I know that in May, he’d scheme with the organizers of another Game to make the first event a marriage proposal instead of a puzzle. I remembered to say yes.

November would find us running Microsoft Puzzlehunt 11.0. This wasn’t just for interns, but for anyone who could put together a 12-person team that contained at least six Microsoft employees. I wrote a choose your own adventure type installation puzzle that sent people roaming through a huge underground parking garage. It was awesome.

Four years ago it was 2008. In March, my moments-away-husband and I would stand up in front of dozens of our friends and family members and vow that this time around, we’d do it right. (So far: success.)

My friend Julia wouldn’t be able to make it to our wedding, as her cancer was getting the upper hand. I’d find out at the end of May that she’d died a few days earlier. How can it be possibel to miss someone so much when you haven’t seen then in twenty years? Even now I still get a little teary-eyed remembering her.

In October we’d get a little plus sign on a little pink stick. (So would my sister, although hers happened a couple months earlier that year.) Life was about to change again.


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A peek back in time

My birthday (ahem) is fast approaching, like the lights in the tunnels that turn out to be oncoming trains, only without the impending sense of doom. This one has some special significance, as it will be the last one I have before I turn 40. This means I’ll have only one more year to plan my 40th Birthday Party Grand Extravaganza. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll need to prebook the flying giraffes, or if I should just stick with the dancing unicorns. Thoughts?

Semi-seriously though, as it’s both the beginning of a calendar year and a chronological year, it seems like a good time to take stock of where I am and where I’ve come. Apparently I’ve come quite a way, because this got so long I had to split it into three separate posts. Parts 2 and 3 will show up tomorrow and the next day, respectively.


Twenty years ago (good lord) in January 1992, I was a college freshman at The University of Montana, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Spanish, having been talking out of a Latin minor by the assistant dean of the Journalism School.

I was dating a guy six years older than me who was wrong for me in so, so many reasons. But he was my first boyfriend and I was in luuuuuuuurve. I still was in touch with some of my high school friends, but since I hadn’t had many close friends in high school it’s no surprise that some of the friendships I’d had were already fading. One that wasn’t, though, was a connection I’d made a few years earlier with a girl named Julia. We’d met at a choir festival during our junior year that both our respective high schools attended. Julia and I wrote letters to each other for the next ten years or so–she more faithfully than me–and I was sure that we’d be one of those pairs of friends who reunite after 25 years of never having seen each other in person.

I hadn’t yet met my eventual first husband, but that would happen only a couple of months down the road.

Fifteen years ago, it was 1997 and I was a graduate student in computer science at Montana State University. I’d complete my B.A. in Journalism (Print emphasis) two years previous, looked around for a year or so, and then decided that journalism was going to be a highly competitive, low-paying field. I’d been intrigued by comp sci and decided to take some nondegree classes, and eventually got talked into officially going for my Master’s.

I’d been dating my about-to-be fiance for about a year. He proposed on my birthday. We (mostly I) decided the following week to have the wedding that summer rather than waiting two years so his engaged sister could have her wedding first. I dove into wedding planning with all the enthusiasm of an early-20s-year-old excited about being a princess for a day and, oh yeah, getting hitched to my life partner. He joked that he’d only proposed so that I’d come with him if he took a job out of state. Solid foundations there.

Interesting note: One of my classmates was the guy who would eventually marry one of my current really good friends. I don’t know whether he even remembers this.

Ten years ago in January 2002, my then-husband and I took a week-long trip to Hawaii for my birthday, and returned to learn that his company was closing their Seattle office, and everyone who worked there was being laid off.

At that time, I’d been working at Microsoft for 2 1/2 years in the Macintosh Business Unit. We made Office for Macintosh. I think I was still a software tester on Word at that point. I’d made a lot of friends but was just getting to know the one who would eventually preside at my second wedding.

Later that year, I would join the staff of Microsoft Intern PuzzleDay and write my first two puzzles. One was pretty good, and the other was so-so. It was either that summer or the next where I’d meet my eventual current (second) husband. Both of us were married to other people at the time, and neither of us had any idea what fate had planned for us.

… to be continued …