Cooking MacGyver Style

Creative Cooking
I’ve been getting creative with various household items to get some cooking done recently. I like to call it cooking, MacGyver style. (If you’re not familiar with MacGyver, he was a television character famous for getting out of tight situations with a bit of creativity, some duct tape, and a Swiss Army knife.)

One of my regular improvs is my version of a cooling rack. You see, in the past, it seemed that a cooling rack invariably seemed to come with any house we bought, so I never had to buy one. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring them with me when we moved, and I haven’t seen any on the few occasions I think to look for one here. As a result, when it comes time to cool some sort of baked good, I’ve had to get creative. My go-to way of working these days is to take a handful of metal skewers we have and spreading them out across a plate. I don’t bake in large batches, so this usually fits my rare baking needs. It’s surprisingly effective!
Going MacGyver
It also takes up very little storage space when not in use, so I’m tempted to not bother buying a proper cooling rack any time soon. If I plan to do any larger batches of baking, I could just buy more skewers! One of my favorite tv chefs in the US was Alton Brown, who always insisted that any kitchen tool should be able to serve more than one purpose. I think he’d be proud of my ingenuity!

As for the cupcakes in my shots, they’re not going to be as good as those made by American Baking Company, but they are on the healthier side of the cupcake divide. They’re an old Weight Watchers recipe that I have and now know by heart. They suit my need for a little bit of something chocolate on occasion.

Chocolate Cupcakes
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2-cup brown sugar + 1 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup apple sauce (no sugar added) (I use the individually portioned apple sauce cups)
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar (I tend to just use natural vinegar now)
1 1/2 tsp melted butter (I use the liquid stuff)

First combine the dry ingredients and mix them together well. Then add in the liquid ingredients and stir just to combine. Then spoon the filling into a prepared 12-piece muffin tin and bake at 350F/180C for around 18-22 minutes.

I eat them plain, although they’re also good spread with a bit of Nutella. You can also add in a 1/4 cup or so of chocolate chips/pieces. Or sprinkle some hagelslag on top before baking. I’ve also used this recipe to make regular cakes. They’re not the end-all and be-all of chocolate cake, but they’re not bad when you want something chocolate, but also want to avoid lots of calories.

Different Donderdag: English

There’s a newish bartender at the Potdeksel these days. He’s very charming and friendly, and despite having a very Dutch name, he has a very English accent. If I didn’t know he was Dutch, I would have thought he was from England.

It’s not unusual for Dutch people to have a touch of an English/British accent when they speak English, because they are often taught “British” English rather than “American” English. However, with the numerous American films and television programs available to them, their accent becomes fairly neutral, other than any residual Dutch accent. I should point out that movies and television programs are almost never dubbed into Dutch here; they simply have Dutch subtitles.

Last week, while complementing Ruud on his excellent English, we found out that English is his major course of study at university. It turns out — and this is something I find fascinating — that when you choose English as a major here, you can also choose whether to have a British or American emphasis. Now I’m curious if they do something similar with other languages, especially those that have some differences depending on which part of the world they’re spoken. For example, if someone is studying Spanish, do they have the choice to learn the version spoken in Spain or the version spoken in the Americas?

Regardless, I think it’s an interesting approach to take when teaching a foreign language, perhaps especially when it’s such a widely used language. I’m curious if this is fairly universal in Europe these days or if it’s a Dutch/Utrecht thing.

Different Donderdag: Highways

Overpass
A highway is a highway is a highway. There probably aren’t that many differences from one highway to another, from one country to another, at least in the standard western world. Aside from the license plate shape, the picture above really doesn’t look much different from any similar highway scene I remember from the US. Still, there are a few differences you’ll notice on Dutch highways compared to American highways (and I use highway interchangeably with interstates).

First up, the Exit sign is now an Uit sign.
Exit

Speed signs are posted above the road in electronic form that can change as needed.
Speed

We’ve got electronic information signs too, of course, but they’re in Dutch!
Information Highway

There are the big blue signs providing direction to various cities, and information about ring roads.
Ring Around the Rosie

There are even signs directing you toward cheese! Yum! Gouda!
Say Cheese
OK, no, it’s not actually directing you toward cheese, just the city for which the cheese is named.

As you can see, it’s all pretty similar to anywhere else. One thing that is a bit different here is the fact that there aren’t the same huge, ugly billboards everywhere. This is the only one I saw that even remotely came close to the ones I was so used to in America (I saw these South of the Border billboards a lot in North Carolina).
Euro Menu

There are also a lot of wind turbines near the highway here, at least on the stretch we drove from Utrecht toward Rotterdam.
More Molen
You’ll also see lots of fields divided up by canals like these, often with cows, horses and/or sheep hanging around.
Canal
But it’s always going to be flat.
Koeien

Different Donderdag: Trivia

I was reading a blog post the other day that I’d found through someone’s link on Twitter. It was an interesting look at how living abroad, no matter how short a time, can change you, or at least make you aware of things in a new way. I got to this part and felt a particular recognition:

For me, the second noticeable change was the gradual realization that, as knowledgeable as I thought I was, I didn’t know anything about anything, relatively speaking. Politics, history, culture, personality types, food, relationships, language… I was a rank amateur in nearly every way.

We’ve participated in our fair share of quiz nights since being here. The ones we go to are all in Dutch, although we’re lucky to have translations provided when needed. I can generally hold my own in an American game of Trivial Pursuit and as the writer said, I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable person. However, once you start doing quizzes in another country, you start to learn just how specific to a location your knowledge probably is. I’d had a hint of this when playing G (a native of Italy) in a game of (American) Trivial Pursuit. He commented on how much of the trivia is related to things that are specifically American.

Playing trivia games here makes me realize that while I might know a fair bit about general European history, I’m sorely lacking in the finer details which make up general trivia here. Plus, I’m missing all of the general entertainment trivia: music, books, films, actors, etc. When you no longer have the same frame of reference, it can be harder to relate, be it to the person or to an experience. It’s easy to feel left out or simply stupid. After failing to know something seemingly simple or trivial, I often want to cry out in my own defense that “I’m not stupid in my home country! Promise!”

It may seem trivial to be concerned about a lack of trivia knowledge, but it’s often these small differences that can drive home the fact that you’re “not in Kansas anymore”. Try not to focus on how little you know anymore. You’re not stupid. You’ve just got different experiences and frames of reference. Instead, try to remember at least one little trivia bit that you didn’t know before. We do monthly quiz nights and I often miss tons of questions, simply because I’m not Dutch or even European and don’t have the background to know these things, but I try to remember the answer to at least one question and then go look up more info when I get home. After all, you weren’t born knowing the trivia you do know from your home country. It takes years to gather all that useless information. Don’t expect to know everything about your new country, either. Just take it in stride. Eventually, that random bit of knowledge that you’ve picked up will come in handy or seem impressive someday, maybe when you least expect it!

Different Donderdag: Going Postal

Postkantoor
If you ever find yourself in the Netherlands with snail mail to post, look for one of these red boxes. This is the Dutch version of a mail box. One side will be for a specific postal code, i.e., local mail, and the other side is for everything else. These two boxes are located outside of the main post office here in Utrecht at the Neude, but you’ll find one of these boxes at random places around town. To be honest, it took me about a year to actually pay attention to them and realize what they were. Usually if I mail something, I need to go through the post office, so despite their vivid red color, I tended to be a bit oblivious to their purpose. After all, they do look quite a bit different from what I used to think of when I thought of public mail boxes. As for stamps (zegel), you can buy those at the post office, or more commonly, you can buy them at the grocery store and some other newsagent shops. During the month of December, they sell reduced-price stamps (decemberzegel) that can be used for standard mail for that month. TNT Post is the name of the royal Dutch postal service, so if you see TNT, don’t think dynamite; think mail.

Of course, when you’ve got a postkantoor (post office) like the one we have in Utrecht, why wouldn’t you want to visit it whenever possible! It’s an architectural dream! Look!
Soaring
The soaring barrel-vault ceiling is truly awe inspiring and beautiful with the glass in between the ribs. It allows some of the natural light to come into the building, assisted with smaller, unobtrusive electrical lights.
Ceiling
Besides the impressively arching ceiling, one of the things most noticeable about the interior design is the series of carved figures located throughout the large room.
Amerika
The five figures represents the continents, with other figures representing prosperity, commerce, and the postal service itself. There’s even an olifant!
Olifant!
The building was designed by Joseph Crouwel in the Amsterdam School style of architecture. It was completed in 1924. Some of the trademarks of the Amsterdam School that are visible in the Postkantoor include extensive use of brick, organic, rounded shapes, glasswork, and integrated architectural sculptures. If you’re in Utrecht, it’s definitely worth a visit, although if you’re going to take photos, try to be as unobtrusive as possible. They tend to tell you to stop if they notice you, especially if you’re taking photos of the workers themselves.

The Post Office

Different Donderdag


I know before I moved that I always found the little differences between countries to be kind of interesting. I do mean little, too, down to the wall sockets. I’m starting to take all these things for granted now, as they’ve become a part of my daily life. Perhaps by the time I finally take my first trip back to the US, the little things there will start to seem different. Still, with this in mind, I thought I’d start trying to do a weekly piece looking at some of the things here that are just that slightly different from what I knew in the US, even if it’s something small like wall sockets.

I’ll save the wall sockets for a donderdag (Thursday) when I’m a bit more desperate for something to write about. Instead, today, I’m focusing on public telephones. In preparing for my parents’ upcoming visit, I had to get a mobile phone for them to use here. (Thanks to M&R for letting us use one of their old ones.) I should point out that they’re more commonly called mobile phones (mobiele telefoon) here, rather than cell phones, which is the more common term in the US, I think. See? Small differences. Anyway, as my parents and I were discussing phones, we were joking about the fact that public pay-phones seem to have all but disappeared. They’re certainly not as prevalent as they used to be.

As we were talking about them, I commented on the fact that there was one very near our house, not that I’d ever used it. Then, last week, as I was out running errands, I realized that the phone booth that used to stand on that corner was no longer there! I have no idea how long it’s been gone. Looking through some of my photos, I realize that it disappeared sometime between July and October of last year. Public phone booths are becoming an endangered species! Soon they’ll all be gone and we won’t even realize!

I wanted to get a photo of one of the few remaining phone booths and knew from a recent trip to the post office that there were still some there in Neude. When I went to get this photo yesterday, I decided to take a side trip to see if there were any in other locations that I just hadn’t noticed. I checked Janskerkhof, where the Saturday flower market is held, but no, not a pay phone in sight. Neude remains the only place I can think of nearby that has pay phones. I assume there are some over at the Central Station, but these days I wouldn’t be too sure!

So yes, there are phone booths here (three at Neude), but they’re still a bit different from the ones I remember in America. Certainly more spacious! I’m sure Clark Kent/Superman would much prefer the Dutch phone booth for making those quick changes!

All of the phone booths I’ve seen here have been the KPN green. KPN (Koninklijke PTT Nederland) is the Royal Dutch Telecom company, by the way. If you find yourself in a Dutch phone booth wanting to make a call, you’d better have a phone card. I don’t think any of them take coins anymore.