Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pandora's Music Box

Just returned from spending a week attending BYU Education Week. You can't go wrong spending time in Utah during the hideous month of August.

My sisters, Lori and Tammy, and my friend Linda, and I traveled together staying at our friend, Julie's beautiful, large, and comfortable home in Provo, Utah. We did this last year and had such a great time we wanted to repeat. You know how sometimes repeat trips just don't work as well as that first trip? Well, that didn't happen. It was just as great as last year.

Every year BYU offers a ton of classes for adults with topics on religion, parenting, communication, the arts, etc. One of the classes I loved was all about classical music. I learned about a free personalized internet radio service called Pandora

Click on Pandora, register for free, and start selecting music that appeals to you. Pandora will select music that you may like based on a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" rating that you select--similar to TIVO. Pandora come from the Music Genome Project which analyzes music and breaks it down to somehow figure out what a person likes (I am totally paraphrasing). However, I am finding all sorts of new pieces that I am loving. A piece by Carl Stamitz is playing as I type this. I put in Mozart and Mozart-like pieces come up. I really wasn't familiar to Stamitz but I'm liking his music. See below for a sample.

Symphony In D Major "La Chasse": II. Andante
performed by: London Mozart Players
play sample
Loading SamplePlaying SamplePlay Sample
Features Of This Song
Classical stylings
a symphony orchestra
tonal harmony
major key tonality
a walking pace tempo
an emotional aesthetic
a symphony

These are just a few of the hundreds of attributes cataloged for this song by the Music Genome Project.
Similar Songs
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play sample Loading SamplePlaying SampleSymphony In D Major "Veneziana": II. Andantino Grazioso
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play sample Loading SamplePlaying SampleCassation For Orchestra In B Flat Major, K. 99 (K. 63a): V. Andante
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play sample Loading SamplePlaying SampleSymphony No. 5 In A Major, H. 1/5: I. Adagio, Ma Non Troppo
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play sample Loading SamplePlaying SampleSymphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183 (K. 173dB): II. Andante
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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Oxford Experience

Several years ago I read about something very interesting called the Oxford Experience The Oxford Experience offers week-long courses over a five week summer period by Oxford University at Christ Church College. It sounded so heavenly that I mentioned it to Leslie, my Anglophile friend, and she immediately committed to attend with me. So we signed-up and started counting the days.

While a bit steep in price, the registration fee includes housing, all meals (held in the magical Hogwart's dining hall as depicted in the Harry Potter films), and a key to the front gate. Well worth it. And the subjects for the classes were all interesting such as: The Making of the English Landscape; Revolutionary Romantic Poet; or The Vikings in Britain to name just a few.

Twice now Leslie and I have participated in the Oxford Experience. My first course (four years ago) was creative writing with an art appreciation component. We studied paintings in the gallery at Christ Church, wrote a story or a poem about the painting and then made a book origami style to fit the story/poem and the painting. I loved every minute of this class.

Last year I selected another great class--Jane Austen. The class was comprised of 11 women (no men, what a surprise) from the U.S., Australia, and Sweden. We all clicked well. And it was so enjoyable to focus on Jane Austen and her work for five days.

On our fourth day we had a field trip. We traveled to Chawton to visit the last house Jane Austen lived in. While visiting the house there was a woman, her two kids, and husband also visiting the house. I recognized her as the actress Olivia Williams. She later told me she had just been given the role to play Jane Austen in her later years and was to begin filming in two weeks. The movie, "Miss Austen Regrets", was played earlier this year during the Jane Austen Masterpiece Theatre extravaganza on PBS. And she was excellent.

At the end of the week there was a lovely garden reception and dinner where we received certificates confirming we had successfully completed a course at Oxford. Leslie and I are planning to return--maybe next time we will stay two weeks and take two classes--that would be jolly-good.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie I've Ever Baked

My friend Jennifer clued me in to a whole new blogging world out there that is devoted to cooking. Ever since she told me about it has opened my eyes to a lot of really cool cooking blogs.

One of the links on SmittenKitchen led me to another blog that cited a New York Times article dated July 9, 2008 (my cute mom's birthday) that went in to great detail about the history of the chocolate chip cookie and what makes a great cookie (you can read all about it by clicking on the above link). The reporter, David Leite, interviewed several bakers and then created a new chocolate chip cookie recipe that a lot of the cooking/baking blogs are raving about.

So Friday night I decided to make the cookies with the recipe the NY Times wrote about. I used the recommended 60% cacao chocolate chips, the combination of cake and bread flour, coarse salt, chilling the dough for 36 hours, and sprinkling sea salt on top of the unbaked cookies. This morning I baked them. Oh my word. They were delicious. Without a doubt the best chocolate chip cookie I have ever baked.

One of the unusual directions for me in preparing the recipe was chilling the dough. Although the original baker of the famous Toll House chocolate chip cookie, Mrs. Wakefield (and owner of Toll House Inn ), mentions chilling the dough in her cookbook, it didn't make it on the classic recipe that's printed on the chocolate chip bag. I had no idea that chilling the dough could make such a difference.

I also have never sprinkled sea salt on the tops of cookies. But while I loved the added salt, Tammy and my niece, Ellie, did not. I did not use the recommended brand of chocolate noted in the article. Instead, I purchased Ghiradelli's 60% cacao chocolate and they tasted great. Hopefully I will be able to track down a less expensive chocolate--I'll let you know if I do. One more thing I haven't done before is to weigh the dry ingredients instead of using measuring cups. Eigher way is fine, but it seemed less messy to measure so that's what I did. I used a medium sized Oxo scoop to put the dough on the cookie sheets--my cookies measured around 3 1/2 inches after they were baked and I was able to get almost 4 dozen cookies out this recipe.

In the meantime, this a great recipe to try. Enjoy!

Time: 45 minutes (for 1 6-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons or(8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note)
Sea salt.
1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.
4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.
Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.
Note: Disks are sold at Jacques Torres Chocolate; Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Red Mountain Spa

Two years ago my friend Cassandra and I treated ourselves to 5 days at the Red Mountain Spa just outside St. George, Utah. Frequently voted one of the top 10 best destination spas in the US, Red Mountain Spa is low-key and one of the best-valued spas around.

The Spa is about a two hour drive from Vegas. And you definitely want a car--because after about 3 days of not eating sugar we had to sneak out and find the nearest Baskin and Robbins.

The Spa is set next to Snow Canyon State Park just outside of Zion National Park. So of course the scenery is stunning. Every morning there are scheduled hikes through the Canyon. Our days consisted of either hiking or exercise classes in the morning, lunch, and exercise classes in the afternoon with lovely spa treatments in the evening after dinner. We didn't wear makeup one day. In fact, some guests wore their robes to dinner.

Two additional points: there were a few men at this spa--the men that were there appeared to be with wives/girlfriends. And Diet Coke is not served in the dining room. But, I did find a hidden Coke machine--ah hah!

Right now Red Mountain Spa is running a special for $199 a night during the month of August. The price includes 3 meals a day, bike rental, and all fitness classes. Spa treatments are extra. Of course it is hot during August but the nights up there are still cool. So if you have ever been tempted to go to a spa you might want to check out this one.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Since I spend a lot of time in my car driving to and from work, meetings, etc., I have signed-up to receive books on tape from
It's better for me to read the serious stuff right off the pages, so I tend to order light-hearted stuff narrated by terrific voices.

I am laughing out loud when I listen to any of the Jeeves/Wooster series by P.G. Wodehouse. They are hilarious! This morning as I was driving in to work I was slapping the steering wheel, laughing, and hitting rewind so I could hear a searingly witty line again and again.

Jeeves is Bertie Wooster's valet (you should know that my secret dream is to have my own valet) and the setting is, of course, England. P.G. Wodehouse started writing this series in 1919. It was also made into a BBC series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry (I own the set if you ever want to borrow.)

Bertie is part of the idle rich living it up in London and various English country estates. He is surrounded by friends with the best names such as Gussie Fink-Nottle, Pongo Twistleton, and Tuppy Glossop, has a couple of aunts who come right at him with the best knife-sharp lines, and although worldly and wealthy he is surprisingly naive. Any time Bertie comes up with a plan to fix anyone's problems it turns into a disaster. Enter Jeeves--always calm, brilliant, low key, a perfect gentleman's gentleman, and ready to save the day.

One of the best lines that had me laughing this morning was the following from Aunt Agatha to Bertie, "Wake up, Bertie, you old ass! she cried in a voice that hit me between the eyebrows and went out at the back of my head." I'm laughing as I type this. The book I'm listening to today, Right Ho, Jeeves, is full of lines like that. Anyway, it starts my day off in a toddling-good way!

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Last July my sister Tammy, friends Leslie and Elizabeth, and I traveled together for eight days touring the Czech Republic. We started in Prague and worked our way south through the Bohemian and Moravian countryside.

Prague was just as I imagined it to be, well-preserved and beautiful. A great walking city and very easy to get around--you absolutely do not need or want a car while in Prague. Here are a few tips for traveling Prague and throughout the Czech Republic.

In Prague, arrange for a driver to pick you up at the airport to avoid the hideous taxi problem in Prague. Your hotel (or favorite guidebook) can suggest a reputable driver. And it's cheaper than you think.

Three nights in Prague is perfect. And it won't take you long to figure the layout of the city. I also suggest hiring a personal guide for a half- or full day customized walking tour. We used Sarka's Personal Guide and loved Jana, the guide assigned to us. The cost is reasonable and all the fun facts shared by our guide helped to give us a complete picture of Prague. And it is private--you are not sharing your guide with 10 other strangers (you know there is always an obnoxious one in the group!)

After touring Prague we headed out to the countryside. We rented a car before we left home (always a better deal) and stopped by a few castles on our way to Cesky Krumlov. Cesky Krumlov is much smaller than Prague and just as well-preserved. With all the castles and beautifully gabled buildings with intricate designs, you feel as if you are walking through a fairy tale. And although Prague is expensive, Cesky Krumlov and the rest of the countryside is very reasonable and sometimes downright cheap.

We spent our time outside of Prague visiting hilltop castles, exploring small (and sometimes very tiny) villages, and driving through the southern part of the Czech Republic. We even had the time to dip down into Austria for a few hours. Then back into the Czech forest where we stopped along the road to walk in and around some World War II bunkers. That was unbelievable! Nothing was fenced off or protected. No entry fees--just some old bunkers open for exploring in the middle of the forest near the country road.

Going behind the old iron curtain was a great education. Standing at the top of Wenceslas Square where Vaclav Havel stood (leader of the Velvet Revolution and later president), put everything in perspective. My sister, friends and I loved every minute of our trip.

Favorite guidebooks for this trip: Rick Steves and DK Eyewitness Books