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Gift Lab

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Gift Lab: The Perfect Wingman

October 29, 2012

Let’s just say I’m a bar guy. Want to see my friends? I go to a bar. Want to watch a baseball game? Bar. Play Jenga? Well, you get the idea. But, how do you stay lubricated in between a barhop? With a flask!

Being a design-focused guy, however, made me very judgmental of most flasks. Your local liquor store usually has flasks that an ex-con named “Spyder” would appreciate. Not exactly my style. So, I’ve been on the lookout for a good flask for a very long time.

Research:

The flask was actually recommended to me by a friend of mine, Leah Bourne, editor at Stylecaster’s The Vivant, a luxury and lifestyle blog. I immediately took a liking to it. It’s not so obvious to say “hey, look at me! I’m a writer/photographer/owner of a free-range, grass-fed, localvore farm that offers free massages and tucks in each of its cattle individually each night.” But, it has some subtle humor with the wingman vibe.

Hypothesis:
As pouring liquor into a flask is not exactly rocket science, my hypothesis was more about social acceptability than function. So, the question to test is: will people think I’m a crazy loon when they see a bespectacled, nerdy-looking guy whipping out a flask in a bar, and on a successions of stoops in the stroller mecca called Park Slope? Will they think he is even loonier when he strikes up a conversation about data and statistics as he swigs from his flask full of bourbon?

Experiment:

Step 1: Fill the flask with Bulleit Bourbon.

Step 2: Meet Leah at Barbe’s, a local watering hole in Park Slope.

Step 3: Engage in a little stoop drinking.

Step 4: Have the flask take me to Talde, a restaurant and bar nearby. (Remember, as Seinfeld’s Kramer says, “I’m not going to Sardi’s, the Tony is taking me to Sardi’s.”)

Step 5: Break out the flask! It helped me supercharge a Moscow Mule.

Results:

The bartenders were remarkably tolerant of the flask! That was unexpected. And the stroller-chasers of Park Slope? Too busy replaying their Dora the Explorer videos in a desperate attempt to put the kids to bed to notice. However, the in-depth discussion of polynomial regressions did confuse a few passers-by.

Conclusion:
A big hit! The flask will be very useful for barhops/concerts/weddings/bar mitzvahs/Tuesday afternoons. It will especially help dull the pain of watching daytime TV when I wait for the doctor or dentist.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Pizza Cones Kit

October 23, 2012

Research
I have lived in Brooklyn my whole life, so I know myself a good slice of pizza when I see one. With what seems like another pizzeria on every other corner, I have also tried many types and styles of the delicious and cheesy treat. Slices, squares, thin crust, deep dish, on a bagel, on an english muffin, with toppings or plain. I thought I had seen and eaten it all.

I was wrong. I must eat what few pizza-lovers have ever eaten before – the pizza cone.

Hypothesis
Pizza is already awesome. I predict that mixing things up with a new shape will only make pizza more awesome.

The Experiment
I started by assembling everything necessary to make my pizza cone:

  • the Pizza Cone Kit
  • Dough – The set comes with instructions to make you’re own. I bought mine from a local pizzeria for $4.
  • Cheese
  • Sauce
  • Optional toppings
  • Flour for working with the dough
  • A rolling pin

The pizza cone set comes with the tools necessary to cut and shape the dough so that you can roll it into a cone. This is my first time working with fresh dough and it feels so right. I think I was born to play a part in this evolution of the pizza. Just look at my hands go:

Next, I had the need to knead. As per the included instructions, I wanted a flat piece of dough measuring about an 1/8 of an inch all around. The dough should be wide enough to cut out two bell-shaped molds that would form two pizza cones.

Once you have the initial pieces cut, you fold them over in half and crimp the edges sealed. You leave the bottoms unsealed so that you can later place them over the pizza cone form. I used the included crimper tool to finish the job.


My expectations were rising as I prepared the dough to go into the oven for the first time. I carefully placed my creation onto the pizza cone form (which is made of no-stick materials).

After 6-7 minutes of baking, the dough was starting to brown. I removed them from the oven and let them cool before removing them from the pizza cone forms and placing them upright in the pizza cone stands. I brought over the rest of the ingredients and got to work filling the cones with sauce, cheese, and other toppings (sliced pepperoni in the pictures). Like an artist finishing his masterpiece, I used my spoon to splash sauce along the inner walls of the cone. I sprinkled cheese throughout until it filled up completely. I cleverly hid pepperonis in any unused pockets of air.

After a few more minutes in the oven, right up until the insides start bubbling, I was able to meet my creation.

Conclusion
I was wary at first. However, I have confirmed that the deliciousness of pizza has no bounds. Pizza cones are a fun new way to eat pizza, especially during the upcoming winter, when ice cream cones are just not as practical. I approve.

Dexter has volunteered as the next test subject when I run this experiment again.
Gift Guides

Gift Lab: DIY Lip Balm Kit

October 15, 2012


Research:
I am a total lip balm addict, as is our entire family. I have two on my desk at work, a few stashed in my bag, and always one in the car. The thing about my lip balm is, frankly, I do not like to share, and therefore I can never have enough of fresh sticks or tins of fresh balm on hand!

Hypothesis:
I am thinking that since I am a creature of habit and typically buy the same flavors, making my own lip balm with the DIY Lip Balm Kit will give me an opportunity to experiment with a different range of scents; and since everything is provided for us it should be fool proof!

Experiment:
I knew my 12-year-old daughter Tea was super excited to experiment with me and could not wait to open the box and check out the contents. We decided to make a variety of flavors instead of 6 tins of the same flavor, so we raided our cabinets for essential oils and found a few interesting base scents. The kit comes with peppermint, so we opted for the peppermint, our tangerine oil, and added a chocolate oil to the peppermint (for the “never yet seen on any store shelf”) chocolate-peppermint lip balm.

Everything is well labeled in the kit and very organized and the instructions were very easy to follow. Basically all that was needed was a scale, a few mixing cups, a spoon, and a double boiler. It was very nice to see the cards had details on all the ingredients – informative and educational.

We wanted a “plain” balm first, so we threw all the ingredients to melt together–basically beeswax, cocoa butter, and sunflower oil–let that melt and filled the first tin with the unscented mix. There are really clear instructions on how to get the balm to be smooth on the top, and what to do if it coagulates.

Since we were doing a variety of flavors, we had to plan out the best way to achieve our assortment, and it seemed like the best way was to just mix the plain base with the oil right in the little tins.

We discovered that if you add too much essential oil, it becomes too strong and can burn your lips, so in this case less is more, as the natural oils are very concentrated.

Next came the peppermint, and since this was our last base flavor, we added peppermint right to the boiler, and mixed it well. After we filled the tins with peppermint, we added some chocolate to the nearly empty boiler, making our last mixture of chocolate peppermint.

The instructions recommended a curing/hardening period of a few hours. In the meantime Tea labeled the tins so we could be ready for action when the balms were set.


Conclusion:
This was a super fun, easy activity that was basically fool proof. We over-scented one tin but found you could dilute the mix by added more wax/base… so all in all it was very fun, we achieved great results and had a lot of fun doing this together! I was very happy to have all the instructions ingredients provided for us, and know that if we want to continue another time, we just need to seek the ingredients. We still have the tins and the recipe, and the know-how; I am sure we’ll give it another try and even experiment with some more flavors next time!

The Uncommon Life

Gift Lab: Portable Magnetic Speaker

September 24, 2012

Background Research:
Camping can be a wonderful, relaxing thing. But, can my boyfriend and I survive 2 nights in the Great Outdoors without any tunes?! I’m going to test the Portable Magnetic Speaker to see if I can blend gadgets with my get-away-from-it-all trip. (I wouldn’t want to drain the car battery in the middle of the Catskills for a little background music.)

Hypothesis:
The Magnetic Portable Speaker will keep the tunes coming while my guy and I relax by the campfire.

Experiment:
We took off for Monguap Pond Campground in Sullivan County, NY. We charged the speaker on the laptop while we packed up. The tiny speaker was ready to rock in about an hour.

Easy to Charge Mini Speaker | UncommonGoods

Once we got up in the mountains, unpacked, and got the fire going it was time for some dinner music to go with our campfire hot dogs and s’mores. This speaker may seem tiny, but it has great sound quality. Also, the volume was surprisingly good; we had to make sure we kept it low enough for out camp site without disturbing our neighbors with Stones tunes.

Inside the tent we used the magnetic clip to keep the speaker anchored to a pillow case so the iPod wouldn’t get lost amongst the egg crate, blankets, and sleeping bags.

Portable Magnetic Speaker

The clip got used again during our afternoon bike ride around the campgrounds. (Keeping the volume at a respectable level of course!)
The speaker had a pretty long battery life too. We didn’t re-charge until the second evening. We used the rental car’s handy USB charger port. We didn’t need to recharge it again until we were safe, sound, and relaxed back in Brooklyn!

Conclusion
For the next camping trip this little iPod speaker will definitely be as important as the flashlights and bug spray. It made our excursion just that much more enjoyable without drowning out the sound of chirping crickets.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Mini Ice Cream Sandwich Press

July 25, 2012

Research
Since I am naturally an ice cream mix master (my first job in high school was with Coldstone Creamery!), I chose the Cuisipro Mini Ice Cream Sandwich Press for my experiment. Along with my mastered mixing techniques, I consider ice cream the seventh major food group and live off of the sweet stuff during the summer months.

Hypothesis
I think that I can make homemade ice cream sandwiches to cool off on a hot summer day.

Experiment
I knew this would be a fun project to work on during a hot Sunday afternoon with my brother, Colby. We first brainstormed what cookie and ice cream combinations would be the tastiest. I splurged on an Upstate NY favorite, Stewart’s ice cream. And we cheated a little bit on the cookies.

The first step was making the cookies!

Our little helper needed to take a break during the clean-up.

Once the cookies were out of the oven, we laid them out to cool. Note: I anxiously made the mistake of waiting only five minutes and I had a sloppy mess. You MUST wait for your cookies to be completely cool!

Once completely cooled, we started using our tools. Included in the package are three different sandwich shapes – a heart, a star and a circle. The directions are simple and printed on the back of the box – cut the cookie; scoop up the ice cream; cut the second cookie and twist the handle to press together; twist to release the sandwich.

Conclusion
What a delicious treat! We ended up with lovely heart shaped sugar cookies with black cherry ice cream, peanut buttery overloaded cookies with peanut butter cup ice cream, and star shaped double chocolate chunk cookies with a classic vanilla ice cream. After our sugar crash and hour-long nap from a hard-working afternoon, we went back for seconds!

I come from an awesome sweet-toothed family that celebrates spring with a party full of deserts, and I plan on making these for next year’s event. What a clever treat and fun activity!

The Uncommon Life

Gift Lab: Fresh Air Compost Collector

July 5, 2012

Background Research

The Fresh Air Compost Collector, designed by Heather Tomasetti and Tal Chitayat, is a smart-looking, new-fangled container for storing your compostable food scraps.

Image: Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society

First, for those of you who don’t already participate in the wonderful world of composting: what is it, and why should you do it? In a nutshell (ha-ha, see what I did there?), composting is piling up a lot of waste plant matter–fruit and vegetable peelings, moldy bread, browned avocadoes, raked leaves–in a specific way that makes them decompose in the same manner, but at a faster rate, than they naturally would on their own.

Compost Heap, a 39 Day Time-lapse

Not only does this divert them from the general waste stream and thus the landfill, but “finished” (thoroughly broken-down) compost works magic on plants, not only in an eco-positive way, but also in terms of complex plant science. I tried it, and my plants shot up like they were on steroids.

You’ve probably heard of people keeping worms in bins in their homes in order to compost. But you don’t have to do that. You can just save your scraps and bring them to a compost site run by your community, or a neighbor. However, there’s no getting around the fact that saving compost scraps means keeping them at room temperature for at least a few days if not longer, which can have its unpleasant aspects. The purpose of the Fresh Air Compost Collector is to make them less so.

Time-lapse Fruit and Vegetable Decomposition

See? It’s not necessarily gross. It’s natural, and fascinating to your inner biology nerd.

Most indoor compost collectors either have a lid to prevent odors from escaping, or, like the one I used to have, above, use charcoal filters or other devices to absorb them. (Admittedly, the ventilation-promoting, filter-holding, cut-out flowers on the lid are nicely done.)

The Fresh Air Compost Collector, on the other hand, is designed to allow air to circulate around the scraps in order to slow down the rot rate. (The inventors refer to “air flumes,” and there are no such things, but calling them that is kind of adorable on their part.) Oxygen can get in and heat and moisture can get out, so your moist, vegetably, fruity leftovers evaporate a bit, preventing “anaerobic” (oxygen-free) breakdown. That’s what causes quick bacteria and mold growth, evil-smelling slime, and the fruit flies it attracts.

Hypothesis

The Fresh Air Compost Collector will allow me to enjoy composting, relatively undefiled by disgusting smells and unwelcome fruit flies.

Experiment

I got my Fresh Air Compost Collector in January and have been using it ever since. To be honest, I didn’t expect it to work all that well, because I usually believe in the tried, true, and un-chic, and this is pretty stylin’ for a waste receptacle.

I was game to try, though, because it was a pain to deal with my old compost pail. With that one, I was never sure if I was supposed to put a bag inside it to collect the scraps, or drop them directly into the naked pail.

If I just put them in the pail, it would soon absorb their collective noxious stink. But plastic bags would never stay upright enough to catch the scraps when I dumped them in (which almost invariably happened when I was cooking and unwilling to stop, open the pail, and hold up the stinky, slimy bag to get the scraps in while somehow keeping it upright so as to not spill its contents). Paper bags disintegrated when wet. And when I pulled the bags out to bring it to the compost pile, they always dripped putrid, decomposing produce juice on me, either then, or on the way there, or when I dumped their contents into the community container.

So, on to the new one: First of all, the design of this container is deceptively simple. You can’t really perceive this until you use it, but it’s very well thought-out in every detail.

The sides and bottom of the container have ribs that stick out and keep the bag from lying flat against them. Any liquid that might drip evaporates instead of pooling and festering.

 


Image: Picker's Treasures

 

 

 

 

 

The spring-loaded lid, which is full of tiny holes that allow air to circulate but keep out the flies (just like the tin panels of an old-fashioned pie safe), pops open when you press the button, and stays open without having to be held.

A detachable metal frame keeps the bag upright, so you can toss your scraps into it without getting glop all over yourself. The frame is strong, but light and very easy to lift off and click back into place when you put in a new bag.

One ergonomically crucial factor for me is that, because of where it needs to be stowed in my kitchen, it has to fit under my all-the-way-open dishwasher door, and at 9” tall (and 11.4″ long by 8.5″ wide), it does.

Whether its 1.3-gallon capacity is a good size for you or not depends on how often you eat fresh fruit and vegetables, and how often you’re able to drop off your saved scraps at a compost pile. The one I go to, the North Brooklyn Compost Project, is only open Saturday mornings, so I have to keep my scraps for up to a week (or longer, if I miss the day–see below).

There have been weeks when it was too small for me (I joined a food coop, got overly ambitious, bought too many vegetables, then got busy with other things and most of them went bad in my fridge).

There have been other times when it was too big (my cat died suddenly, I wasn’t up to cooking for a long time, didn’t bother to grocery shop, and put only coffee grounds and the occasional squozed-out lemon in there).

Aaaaand there have been weeks when I missed the compost drop-off day. By “weeks,” I mean “three weeks in a row.” (In my defense, this happened in the middle of winter.) Then it started to smell, though it never got as bad as my old one did.

But those aren’t fair testing conditions; no composter could deliver fume-free service under such circumstances. In general, the Fresh Air Compost Collector performed as promised: it emitted way fewer smells than my old composting pail, and the only time fruit flies were appeared were that one time when I pushed the limits of biology way too far. Even then, I saw only the beginnings of mold.

 

You’re meant to use compostable liner bags with the Fresh Air Compost Collector, because unlike plastic ones, they “breathe.” Since the bags start biodegrading as soon as you put moist food in them, I was sure they’d break in the container, or on the way to the compost pile. As a precaution–because I don’t like coffee grounds mixed with fermented mango skin and slimy rotten cucumber bits dripping down my legs–I put the bag into a plastic shopping bag for the walk to the compost pile. But it was never actually necessary, even after three weeks. None of the bags has broken yet. Still, I recommend holding the bottom of the bag in such a way that it won’t tear when you pick it up. The speed with which they (and everything in them) break down increases as the temperature gets warmer.

The container can easily be taken apart and put in the dishwasher, though the one time I needed to wash mine (following the three-week-no-compost-pile era), I did it by hand.

Tip: Don’t buy the wrong type/size of bags like I did once, duh. Doggie bags! Rusty Marmalade (RIP) was so disappointed in me.

Conclusion

I’m impressed with this doohickey. The Compost-Scrap-Saving Experience no longer means mess, stink and flies. As all three of those are greatly disliked by humans, no wonder the Fresh Air Compost Collector won a 2012 Green House Design Award. Six months in, I’m still happy with it, and am looking forward to filling it with the remains of this summer’s delicious fruits and vegetables.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Molecular Gastronomy Dinner Party

June 21, 2012

Background Research
Wikipedia says that “Molecular gastronomy is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate, explain and make practical use of the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur while cooking, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general.”

Huh?

I have heard of this food science. I have heard of different restaurants in metropolitan areas around the world, maybe even in not-so-metropolitan areas. I have seen it done on one of those cooking shows. Many friends have gone to wd-50 in NYC and said it was interesting. My friend Stephanie had a 12 course meal of different foods reconstructed at a resort in Mexico. The pictures were awesome. I mean a lemon meringue pie that looks like a SOS Sponge awesome!

Walking at the NY Trade Show I see some fun pictures of crazy foods and then a kit. I can do this at home? Yes please! I couldn’t wait to try out this new product.

Hypothesis
I will be the new Wylie Dufresne, with the help of some friends, and make a meal that will impress the masses. This will all be accomplished in 1 night without a culinary class and with little cooking skills. My most impressive meal is chicken and rice.

Experiment
Materials Needed:
1 Molecular Gastronomy Kit with all its contents
Blender
Roomy Fridge and Freezer
Hand Blender
Lots of Bowls
Stove
Lots of Pots
Friends
Wine (just in case it all goes wrong)
Ingredients for all recipes (frozen chocolate wind, arugula spaghetti, balsamic vinegar pearls, goat cheese raviolis, raspberry raviolis).
Extra ingredients to pair with the yummy food
TV
DVD player
Timer
Scale if you want to be exact

Step 1: I watched the DVD to pick the recipes I wanted to cook and get all the instructions.

Step 2: I Gathered friends and all materials.

Step 3: Watch DVD of all recipes with friends and decide what recipe has the longest cooling time and do that one first. (FYI: Chocolate wind had to cool down in the fridge and then sit in the freezer for about an hour.)

Step 4: Start cooking/ being a scientist.

Goat Cheese Raviolis

Chocolate Frozen Wind

Arugula Spaghetti

Balsamic Vinegar Pearls

Step 5: Make everything look pretty for the cameras.

Goat Cheese Raviolis with tomatoes and basil / Arugula Spaghetti and Balsamic Vinegar Pearls with Tomato / Frozen Chocolate Wind with Raspberry Raviolis

Step 6: Enjoy!

Thanks for your help Nate and Stefanie and Morgan and Sorayah!

Conclusion
The kit has very thorough instructions that walk you through each step by showing you and some great music to keep cooks dancing. It makes the process easy and super fun! And the balsamic pearls and arugula spaghetti looked the best! But maybe I need some more snacks when things are cooling in case guests have not had a snack before the party. I think I just need one more party and a little less wine, and I can open my own restaurant! So fun!

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Beer Tasting Tool Kit

June 14, 2012

When most of us are confronted with the prospect of working over the weekend it often involves shuffling plans and muffling expletives. Luckily, at UncommonGoods we treat it like any other weekend and turn the mundane into a festival of flavor and fermentation. What follows is our rigorous “testing” of the Beer Tasting Tool Kit.

Hypothesis:
With this Beer Tasting Tool Kit my friends, colleagues, and I will be able to distinguish the difference between dunkels and doppelbocks, lagers and lambics. If not, we will have a good time trying!

Experiment:
We assembled a team of 8 imbibers to evaluate a cornucopia of beers springing from Brooklyn to Bavaria and beyond. The kit includes numbered paper bags for each bottle to encourage blind taste tests. Maybe it was this brown-bagging or the lack of a spit bucket, but this was surely no wine tasting garden party. With a pitcher of water and plenty of snacks on hand, we were ready to get started.

Adhering to the kit’s main tenets of “See, Smell, Sip, Swallow,” we began with the bag labeled #1. After each sampling we filled out tasting cards, measuring the levels to which we detected specific flavors (Creamy, Bitter, Hoppy) as well as notes related to the 4 S’s (Stephanie noted one beer’s smell was akin to “shoes” whereas I found chocolatey hues!). Comparing our notes after each round was as much fun as tasting the beers (some of which were downright painful…I’m talking about you Mr. Double IPA).

Conclusion(s):
We were learning a lot and every new pour made us thirsty for more, but unfortunately, the game came to its inevitable end when we ran out of beer. Perhaps most telling was the fact that our palates need some refining—we were all over the map in describing the taste impressions of each beer. But with further studying of the kit’s super informative fact book and a few more sessions of Saisons and Scotch Ales we will all be beer-tasting connoisseurs!

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