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19th December
written by mattborn

Inspired by Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s tonic syrup recipe, which I’ve made and enjoyed on several occasions, I created some flavorful syrup suitable for winter mixing.  To me, the spices of Thanksgiving and Christmas speak of cold snow and warm fires.  A few years ago, they also invoked hot cocoa and warm apple cider, but these days my tastes run a bit stiffer.

Here, then, I present a recipe for “winter syrup”, as well as a few ways to use it.  If you have other recipes, please leave them in the comments.

2C water

0.25C whole allspice berries

0.25C whole cloves

2 whole cinnamon sticks

1T whole cardamon pods

2 nugmeg seeds, crushed

Freshly extracted seeds of one whole vanilla bean

1T dried orange peel

0.25C fresh lemongrass, chopped

Combine all spices and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.  Remove from heat, and strain – I use a french press but feel free to substitute some other fairly fine strainer that you have available.

Return to heat in a clean pan and stir in 1.5C raw agave nectar.  Remove from heat, and refrigerate until you’re ready to use.

It took a while to find the right mix for this strongly-scented and flavored syrup, but the following two seem to be working well:

4:2:1 brandy:irish cream:winter syrup, hot

4:1 brandy:winter syrup, hot

Presidente brandy seems to blend well with the flavors of the syrup.  Enjoy!

14th October
written by mattborn

Maybe you’ve heard, it’s all over the interwebs – I’m getting married to MariaG.  In keeping with my deeply held principles of “why do something the easy way if I can learn new stuff instead”, I started organizing using a whole bunch of Google Docs spreadsheets.  While I use Google Docs all the time, my principal use of spreadsheets is as a gigantic table.  It turns out that they’re also pretty good at being a calculator.  And, thanks to our Google overlords, we can also bring data from the web into our spreadsheets.

While the first spreadsheet I made was a guest list, the second (and more interesting one, in my opinion) was a scheduler.  Several very important guests are on academic schedules, whether as teachers or students, and of course no two of them appear to be the same.  Having decided to try for a Saturday event, and having selected the location (big enough to accommodate the entirety of the draft guest list), I made a tool to help narrow down the candidate days.  It looks like this:

Wedding Planning spreadsheet screenshot

So the idea here is that I want to let the spreadsheet do the work of identifying all candidate dates and hunting down some useful information to use in making the decision.  Given any set of start and end dates, it will identify the first Saturday (hardcoded at the moment) in the range and every following Saturday.  Then it will go look up in the Old Farmer’s Almanac ( the temperature, rain/snow, and wind for that day last year.  It’s not perfect, but I like where it’s going.  If you want to play with the formulas or copy it for your own use, you can grab the template here.

Most of the stuff in this spreadsheet is run-of-the-mill formulas and number crunching that you can do just by looking at a calendar, but what puts this into the “useful” category is Google’s “importXML” function.  While maintaining the well-ordered and well-understood spreadsheet functions like rows, columns, formulas, etc., it also allows me to operate on data pulled from arbitrary URLs using XPath functions.  I’m no power user but I’ve run across XPath before, and it’s pretty neat: it’s basically a way to navigate to a particular element or set of elements in an XML document with highly configurable granularity.  Since the Old Farmer’s Almanac website is conveniently rendered in XHTML (thanks!), and the data is available through RESTful and deterministic URLs (again, thanks!), it’s a snap to extract the info I need and pop it into the cells.  You could easily see how this could be useful; more historic data and predictive data as well as charts would quickly make this a great tool for picking dates for all kinds of activities such as picnics, camping trips, etc.  Hopefully it’ll also help us with the wedding planning.


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4th October
written by mattborn

As some of you have no doubt sampled, we’re playing around with homebrew beer.  It’s all turned out drinkable, and some of it was downright delicious, but it’s been mostly luck.

Our beer supplies have come mostly from William’s Brewing, and although I don’t have any other datapoints, I’ve been pleased with the ingredients, equipment, and service.  The instructions are clear and straightforward, which is probably why things have turned out so well.  But there’s one thing we haven’t been following: the brewing temperature requirements.

Temperature is a major factor in the brewing process.  We’ve been brewing ales, which are relatively forgiving, but too hot or too cold can impair the yeast activities or impart strange flavors to the beer.  We’ve been leaving the beer to ferment in a cabinet in the kitchen, so that it would be in a cool dry dark place, and hopefully brew well.  But in truth, we have no idea what temperature it is in there.  Sure, I could buy a thermometer… or I could use this as an excuse to buy more microcontrollers.

The result is the “Beerbug”.  Right now, it’s an Arduino mounted in a cigar box, placed in the brewing cabinet.  It logs temperatures every five minutes and wirelessly sends it to another Arduino, which sends it over USB to a laptop computer, which uses a Python script to read the temperature data and logs it in a Google Docs spreadsheet, which then updates a line chart, which you can see at

The source and some of the technical how-to is on at

4th December
written by mattborn

I have Minnesota heritage, so when it comes to casseroles, hotdishes, and potatoes, I have natural instincts.  Often this takes the form of adding cheese.  On the flip side, though, I’ve never had much luck with cooking meat.  I can fake it with dishes involving ground beef and chicken, but now I feel the time has come to try grander things.

First, prepare the squash, as it  takes the longest time to bake.  I find that half an acorn squash per person is about all I can take, even though it’s delicious.

Using a sharp knife, and if you have the equipment, a rubber mallet, split an acorn squash in half from stem to tip.  Using a spoon, scoop and scrape out the seeds and stringy sections. For best results, you’ll now want to perforate the squash flesh in some way (although not the skin) – use a fork to poke some holes or a knife to make a few slits.  Then, brush half a teaspoon of melted butter over the flesh of each half, and drop a tablespoon of brown sugar in the hollow of each.  Place the halves cut-side up in a baking dish or tray with a quarter inch of standing water (to prevent burning the skin), and bake at 400 for an hour and a quarter.  Undercooked squash is not terribly tasty so err on the side of overcooking.

Cooking the rice is left as an exercise to the reader.  Or the reader’s rice cooker.

Now to the duck.  Use a glass dish (my hand-me-down Corningware seems to be working fine) for which you have a lid.  Grease the dish, and spread about a quarter cup of orange marmalade on the bottom.  Place your duck (in my case, a large duck breast from the corner butcher) on the marmalade.  I’m new at cooking duck, but I think it best to place the skin-side up, and it’s customary to cook duck with the skin on (in case you were wondering).  In order to help some of the fat run off, pierce the skin in many places but try not to pulverize the meat underneath.  Top the breast with more marmalade, sliced onions, minced garlic, and sliced oranges.  Bake at 475 for fifteeen minutes with the lid on, and then (to facilitate crisping the skin) remove the lid and bake until it reaches your desired level of “done”.  Apparently duck may be served rarer than other poultry, but for my first attempt, I went for at least 165 degrees – maybe another fifteen minutes.

And now, the verdict:

I had a logistical issue with timing the squash and the duck at the same time but while cooking  at different temperatures, so despite my own advice I undercooked the squash because I once I turned it up to 475 for the duck I had a problem estimating when the squash was finished.  As if to karmically compensate for this, the duck turned out to be overcooked.  I believe this was operator error on reading the thermometer…  In any event, it looked good, and the orange and onion was a fantastic combination, but it would be better next time to have two ovens and an assistant who can work a thermometer.

12th November
written by mattborn

So I picked up a bottle of pomegranate liqueur tonight, since Maria had had a pomegranate beverage at dinner sometime last week and liked it.  So here is a version of a pom-tini and my impressions of it.

1.5 oz pomegranate liqueur

1.5 oz vodka

0.25 oz orange liqueur

In particular, I used Pama (specially bought for the purpose), Svedka (only vodka on hand), and a really old bottle of Bols triple sec.  Shake over ice, serve in a martini glass with a lemon zest garnish.  I confess I didn’t measure the triple sec.  (Speaking as manly-ly as possible) I think the pomegranate flavors are just fine; possibly a superior vodka might carry them better.  Sadly I think my triple sec is the weakest link, but I don’t have cointreau to do a side-by-side.

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3rd November
written by mattborn

So ridiculously awesome.  They’re based on potatoes, so feel free to spice and top as you would a baked potato.

Take five or six potatoes, peeled and diced.  Boil until mashable, then mash with a tablespoon or two of butter.  Whip three eggs and stir into the cooled potatoes.  Spoon into greased muffin cups, bake at 350 for 45 minutes, and enjoy.

I added salt and pepper while mashing, and threw some cubed cheddar in before baking.  I topped with bacon, green onions, sour cream, and more cheddar.  I actually think the mashed spuds could have been a bit more delicious with some more spicing, possibly chicken bouillon or broth.  Cream cheese has also been suggested.  In any case, these things are awesome.

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16th April
written by mattborn

For dinner party #5, I whipped up some creme brulee for dessert.  The most difficult part of this process was actually getting up the guts to drop $40 on a blowtorch, and the results, while not perfect, were a great first attempt.  I was pleasantly surprised by how easy everything was and plan on giving it many second tries.

Creme Brulee
Heavy cream 1 C
Egg yolks 2
Sugar 1/3 C + 2 T
Vanilla Extract 1/2 t
  1. Preheat over to 300F.
  2. Boil several cups of water.
  3. Combine cream and 2 T sugar over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until small bubbles appear around edges of pan (~5 minutes). Set aside.
  4. In a bowl, beat egg yolks and vanilla until smooth and light.
  5. Pour hot cream mixture into egg yolks, a little at a time, beating continuously until well blended.
  6. Strain mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl.
  7. Divide mixture among 4 4oz ramekins.
  8. Arrange ramekins in a baking pan and place on middle shelf of preheated oven. Fill pan with boiling water to halfway up side of ramekins. Cover pan loosely with aluminum foil. Bake until custard is just set, ~25 minutes.
  9. Chill custard in ramekins ~2-3 hours
  10. Sprinkle remaining sugar evenly over top of cooled custards. Apply torch flame continuously in a circular motion until sugar becomes golden brown and bubbly. Serve immediately.
Source: Bonjour Creme Brulee Torch instructions.
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11th April
written by mattborn

I caught this never-before-seen wine at TJ’s today for $7.99 and thought that I should give it a try.  I’m cooking a spicy Indian-style dinner tonight and was shopping for Rieslings or Gewurtztraminers to stand up to it, but I thought “Muller Thurgau” sounded decently German and might be able to hold its own.

In color it is nearly clear, and the first taste is lightly sweet and is followed quickly by a shot of tangy.  It lingers with pepper, and indeed compares favorably with Riesling.  That’s my limit of pretentious description so if you want more you’ll have to try it yourself.

On my admittedly granular scale, I rate this wine a “buy it again”.

Winery Airlie
Vintage 2007
Variety Muller Thurgau
Origin Willamette Valley, Oregon [map]
Alcohol 10.0% (20 proof)
Grapes Unknown
Availability Trader Joe’s [map]
Price $7.99 / bottle
Rating +
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16th November
written by mattborn

1984 Honda Nighthawk 700cc MotorcycleMy 1984 Honda Nighthawk 700S came with some added character, including a burnt out light behind the tach.  Here’s my how-to on changing the bulb.

  1. Get the right tools for the job
    You will need a 10mm ratchet or wrench and a Phillips head screwdriver, as well as a replacement bulb. My bulb came from Honda with part number 37237-SA5-003. If you’re not using stock parts, it was also labeled as “Stanley 158″ which might help you find it.
  2. Be safe
    Always do electrical work with the key removed and the bike left in “lock” or “off”. Do not do electrical work with the ignition in the “park” position. It is still possible to get zapped if you touch the wrong wires, but it is probable that you will get zapped unless you leave the ignition in the “off” or “locked” position.
  3. Remove the nuts from the brace at the bottom-front of the front cover
    Using your 10mm ratchet, remove the nuts (x2) attaching the brace to the front cover.
  4. Remove the bolts from the frame on the inside left and right edges of the front cover
    Using your screwdriver, remove the bolts (x2) attaching the front cover to the frame assembly. On my bike, I had to nudge aside the hydraulics to even see the bolts, much less unscrew them. The front panel including the headlight will probably fall off at this point. Mine was attached to the frame with a wire but you may not be so lucky. If it doesn’t…
  5. Remove the front panel from the frame
    Tug, pry, cajole or otherwise entice the front panel off of the frame. To the best of my knowledge you should be able to freely move the panel about at this point. There should be wiring to the headlight and a safety wire but these should not restrict your freedom of movement.
  6. Pull the bulb assembly from the back of the instrument panel
    Using your fingers, pull firmly back on the rubber tab on the back of the bulb. There are two of these located on the extreme edges of the panel, so it should be pretty obvious which one you want to replace. I don’t recommend using a pliers to grip the rubber tab, nor do I recommend pulling on the wires.
  7. Replace the bulb
    Extract the bulb from the sock by pulling gently but firmly on the glass. Replace with the new one. Mine was idiot-proofed so as long as you seat it properly in the sock it should work. After you have inserted the new bulb in the sock, I recommend that you put the key in the ignition and turn it to “on” to check that it works.
  8. Put it all back together
    If you end up with parts left over you have probably screwed up.
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