Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gluten-free baklava

It looks like I finally got two grants (one by myself, one shared with a collaborator)! I think I'll get a third by April, but it's less certain. The main one was pretty important, and on the main thing I want to do, so it's already enough grants for tenure (especially as I already have a student funded by industry, even if the money doesn't pass through my group that looks good too). I just need to get another ~8 papers out. I made a list yesterday with my awesome postdoc and it looks good to get 10 more submitted in another 1.5 years. He's doing 4 of them and in the middle of 4 others, I hope that doesn't look bad.

So, I took the time to do something I've wanted to do for awhile: make baklava! We used to make baklava every thanksgiving for maybe 5 years or so, before I had to go gluten-free, but it seems really difficult to do gluten-free phyllo dough because I think the gluten itself is helping hold the dough together as it gets to be so thin. But I figured, I'm a soft matter physicist; I may be a theorist, but I'm good with my hands, and I should be able to figure something out. I tried making really thin dough once but it didn't work out well (maybe it could have, but I didn't pursue it further; it could be a post for another day, but isn't really worth it). The key to success was that awhile back I realized, I don't actually need phyllo, I just need really thin layers of dough with butter in between them. This is what puff pastry is. So, I found a friend to help and we set about our plan. I only tried it once (well, I made one batch of puff pastry but played with it in a few different ways) so I'm sure there's more perfecting to be done, but if I don't write it up now I'll probably lose interest, so here we go:

Gluten Free Baklava:

First make puff pastry. For various reasons (though not really complete scientific testing by myself) I believe that at this level, how the flour is ground up is important. So I used a mix designed specifically for pastry from Bob's Red Mill, and I used their recipe for puff pastry. It is found here . It's involved but it worked really well for me, and I'm not a master chef or anything. (A few years ago, I used cup4cup flour and a different puff pastry recipe I found online, and it did not work quite as well, but it could have been my fault.)

My goal was to make the puff pastry puff as much as possible to seem like real layers, so I decided to cook it as thin layers (so the nut layer wouldn't weigh it down during puffing) and then assemble it later. This required a paste-like nut layer to hold it together (as though it was baked together) because once baked, the puff pastry was brittle and wouldn't conform well to loose nuts. Another advantage of cooking the layers separately was that I could cook them to a toasty brown color (almost seemed like over-cooking them) to give that toasty flavor that is typical of baklava (toasty-ness is inherently easier to get for phyllo than for puff pastry, I think, because it is easier for the water to escape from the layers of phyllo).

My baklava recipe (in terms of the syrup and proportion of nuts/spices) is loosely based on the recipe on the back of the box of a brand of phyllo we used to get but that they don't make anymore. My tests were based on using 2 loaf pans to cook the puff pastry so that I could have a few different tries at this with one recipe of puff pastry. I'm not sure exactly what fraction of the puff pastry recipe I used for the following amount of syrup, but I think it was about a quarter to a third (so multiply by 4 or so to use all the recipe of puff pastry).

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the puff pastry to somewhat less than 1/4 inch (maybe 3/16ths) and cut to the size of the loaf pan. Place in the loaf pan and score into triangles; I scored each loaf pan piece crosswise into three rectangles each scored diagonally into two triangles. I did not score as deeply as I would for phyllo, just made marks so it would be easier to cut along those lines later. Cook for 25-30 minutes, but start checking at 20 minutes; the time depends a lot on exactly how thin your dough is and probably somewhat on what type of pan you use. You want it to be as golden brown as possible without being burnt.

Meanwhile for the syrup boil 3 T honey, 1/4 c water, 1 t lemon juice, and 1/2 c sugar in a medium sized pot. (If using 4 recipes of syrup you will need a big pot, it's easy to accidentally boil over.) Toast 1 c pecans in a dry pan (for regular baklava I didn't do this, but they were cooked with the phyllo; since we won't be doing that, this is a good alternative). Take half of the pecans, add 1/2 t cinnamon and a pinch of cloves and crush into small pieces (I use a plastic bag and hit them with the back of a cup measure). Add the other half of the pecans and half of the syrup to a blender (I used a Vitamix, so in general a food processor may be more appropriate than a blender) and blend to make the paste. Add the rest of the nuts (reserving a bit for pretty topping at the end, if desired) to the paste to make a chunky paste.

Once the puff pastry is mostly cooled, break or cut into rectangles. Dip a rectangle into the honey syrup (getting both sides), place it on a plate and spread a layer of chunky nut paste on top; add another dipped rectangle and nut paste, and complete with another dipped rectangle, being sure to stack so the score marks line up. Cut into two triangles along the score marks, and finally dip the cut edges in honey syrup or pour extra honey syrup on top. You can probably cut again into small triangles, these are big, tall baklava!


Wednesday, May 22, 2013


15 page grant number 2 submitted today!!

Short grant number 1 rejected yesterday. But it's not what I really wanted to do right now anyway.

The first 15 page grant I wrote is still out; that's the one I really want.

I also am waiting to hear on a small internal grant I wrote (short grant number 2) that I haven't heard back about. I was co-PI on a preproposal that didn't go through related to that also. And I need to submit something in the fall related to this.

Also soon I'll be in for a small percent on another 15 page proposal, (I suppose that already went through internal competition, but that doesn't really count). In the fall, I need to write one for myself to go with that also.

Someone wrote my name on a little internal thing also (at their location, not mine), but without talking to me first, so I don't think that really counts in terms of grant writing. That was slightly related to something else I need to write; the call is not out but I think it will be due only a couple of months after the call comes (which will be soon).

Over the year I met with industry people three different times about different things; one is part of a larger project that I don't know about yet, the other two didn't go anywhere (though one of those might go somewhere eventually). I also have another industry thing I need to discuss with people next week.

Also coming up in the fall, I may write something that's related to some of the possible industry things.

External proposals as PI: 3 total, 1 rejected, 2 still out.
Internal proposals as PI: 1, still out.
Preproposals: co-PI on 1, did not go forward.
Internal competitions to write proposals: co-PI on 1, went forward, due soon; sort of PI on 1, in that I got past this hurdle automatically and without submitting anything because it was past the deadline and nobody else did it.
Meetings to discuss industry funding or the potential writing of proposals: a whole lot.
Shaking hands with people whether or not they are directly related to potential funding: really a whole lot; some weeks, this takes most of my time (where shaking hands is defined broadly).

Drafts to be submitted: co-PI on 1.
Proposals I need to write by myself soon: 1.
Proposals that I am thinking about writing for the fall: 3 (all regarding specific collaborators, on 1 I would be PI on the others I might be).
Unfunded proposals that I could potentially resubmit in the future with some changes: 1.

I thought this (meaning, spending so much time grant writing) would be more frustrating, but actually writing the proposal does make me think through the plan and it does seem like I'm "doing science" while I write these. Actually, this feeling was only salient for the ones I wrote with my postdoc because of the good discussions, atmosphere of collaboration, and resulting thought about science; the others were soul-sucking to some extent as I expected. Even so, sometimes it feels like I'm not getting science done. At least my group is starting to do that for me.

I do have two non-proposal things I'm really itching to do. One is to think about some theoretical stuff I want to do that's related to my own postdoc advisor and my current postdoc and also to my prior work (slightly) and that will place me in a good spot to do what I really want to do next (the first 15 page proposal). The second is the hobby scale thing--that hasn't gotten enough of my time and I really want to do it!

Also I should probably spend some time with the kids or something, but they are getting really good at playing productively by themselves. Maybe I should just keep leaving them alone more (meaning the same amount as I have been while proposal writing) and that will be good for both sides.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


I finished my first year! Teaching was fun, and advising people is even better. I don't have as much time as I want to think through things in detail, but at least there's lots of help from others in my group. The kids are getting less needy at home, so there's a bit of downtime at home to think through things (though I usually don't have the time to really sit down and do hours of work while at home). I have 3 proposals in review right now, and because they are mostly for new people, the competition should not be as bad as for other proposals. Hopefully I'll get one of them. Now I'm writing one of the two I plan to submit in summer, and I'm planning to submit at least two in fall. I'm just starting to feel more comfortable about writing these so hopefully the next ones will be easier to write and be more compelling.

A tough problem for me recently (grant writing is the most important thing for me to do right now, and is something I need to do faster and better, but I think of this as my job, not a problem per se) is how good my postdoc is. I hired this person because of their technical skills that really nicely complement mine, and I already thought it was great that I could get someone so good to work for me (being new). I was pleasantly surprised that the postdoc is very independent and insightful even in learning new methods, and is a great resource for me to bounce ideas off of (if only I had more time to really discuss more ideas...). But it's also become apparent that there is no major deficiency in the postdoc's technical or communication skills that I need to help with. Sounds great, right? It definitely is, really, in every way. The problem is that I feel bad to have this person who should have been able to get a much nicer position with a more established person, and for my part as mentor I can't even help fill a major (technical/communication) gap in their skills. I mean, the postdoc is learning new methods and skills, and they are getting my general advising, but all of those things may have been better in a more established group. At least I can help with career planning and related advice. I feel I've been helpful in that area, maybe especially so because I have just been through the same career stage. 

My father had an interesting comment about this; he said maybe I'll do so well in the future that it'll be the case that actually it was a good career move for this postdoc to come work for me now. I suppose in any case it's the career move that was actually made, and now my job is to help us both profit from it. I think I can do this, maybe even make it worth the postdoc's while to come work with me versus someone famous. My current strategy is to be awesome myself, using the postdoc in whatever ways I can that are also helpful to the postdoc (such as for grant writing), and to give the postdoc lots of choices so that they can best move forward with their career.

In kid news, ELP learned to write her name (she wanted to be just like LP), and I think she now knows how to write every letter in the alphabet (in capital letters). LP is learning to communicate and plan better with her without getting too frustrated, so they can do interesting activities (usually made up by themselves) on their own for long times.

In more detailed news, today was awesome. I got a shout-out at a talk by a senior professor (he told someone who had asked a general question that I would know about [my field], and advised them to talk to me). Also, my chair was happy with me, just for a minor thing I did, but it's always good to make the chair happy. Separately, I fixed a minor problem related to my group with just a few minutes of effort--delegating is fun, and I think the group likes helping me to fix problems! But even though it's fun, it's still strange to be in charge of all these really interesting people.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

It's good to be home, and teaching!

I'm here!  We moved about a month ago, and the kids started daycare/school, and I started teaching.  It really feels like home here.  Since I'm from these parts, the small critters and plants that live here look normal, the crickets at night and the birds chirping in the morning sound normal, the weather is normal, the smells in the air are normal, the tap water tastes normal, and the people act normal most of the time.  Where we were, everything was different--sometimes for the better, but it just didn't feel like home.  It probably didn't help that I knew I wasn't likely to stay for too long.  Now I hope I'll be able to stay exactly here, in this house, in this department, until I retire or become emeritus.

The kids don't really remember where they were born, so from there perspective the weather is not normal here and they have noticed that.  But it doesn't seem to bother them, and they are making new friends in their classrooms and on our street.  We didn't know any kids near where we were living before, but now there are tons of them, and frequently they are out playing or biking on the sidewalks.

I have a large class of seniors in a class that's relatively unrelated to the other classes in our discipline.  That makes me feel better about my teaching because at least I don't have to prepare them for the next class in a sequence.  I'm a bit unsure of what I'm doing, but it seems to be going well so far.  Also, I hired someone already and have some collaborations getting started!  I am not sure how to decide what the people in my group will be doing, or how I'll get time to figure that out while I'm teaching, but anyway being a professor is amazing!  It's going to be even better in a few years when I have at least some vague idea of how to do all the things I'm supposed to be doing :)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Scientific advice from Grandpa

I had the occasion to ask several people for advice last week, and it made me think about how much insight and depth of understanding people gain over time (assuming they are thoughtful/intelligent people).

First I got some science advice from my Grandpa; I was up very late thinking about some equations that have been bothering me recently. (Long story short; I think some people in the literature have been calculating something in a less than optimal way and then explaining themselves incorrectly--but the heart of the issue is not really in my field so I've been reading a lot and wondering if I'm just crazy.) So I wrote an email to Grandpa in the middle of the night explaining my troubles (not the equations themselves, but the big picture and the fact that I'm not sure if I should be working on something outside of my field). He was a scientist in a related field to mine, but in industry. It was really helpful to read his reply. First he made an insightful comment about the system I am working on, then he talked a bit about how it's good for you to think about things outside of your field, but you also have a greater chance of making progress in your own field.

Later in the week, I got advice about an (unrelated) engineering issue that came up with a project that TE and I are working on recently. I asked two people, both scientists/engineers in the same field (not my field). One of them is at my career stage and the other is late-midcareer. The question was really too general for a research scientist, and the first one sort of punted (or perhaps didn't want to answer), saying that it would depend on the (unknown) specific parameters, etc. So I wasn't expecting a lot of helpful advice from the more distinguished scientist, but I thought it would be an interesting conversation so I went ahead. She took the lack of specific information as a challenge. She gave me an amazingly specific overview of what the parameters probably are for our situation, then she gave me her best guess on what to do next for the greatest chance of success. She also went into detail about the underlying science without going over my head. From my point of view, it sounded like she knew everything--and was able to extemporaneously go up or down a level of detail in discussion.

It must be nice to have a huge pool of background knowledge and experience all accessible off the top of your head. I mean, the younger scientist that I asked probably knew most of the specific things she said, but it wasn't connected together for him, or at least the coherent description of it all wasn't available in his head at a moment's notice. Of course, it's easy for me to understand that more experienced people know more things, especially further from the narrow field they're currently in. But it gets me every time how some of them can just pull on that knowledge so quickly to understand a problem and narrow in on what is important about it. I am looking forward to that time in my career (if I ever get there)!

Saturday, March 31, 2012


Ever since I got sick last year I've been reading a lot of medical literature. It was not particularly helpful before I was diagnosed because there was so much to go through that I couldn't figure out what I had. But even when it wasn't helpful it was comforting/empowering to do something. As an aside, I think is one of the best arguments for more free public access of the medical literature, which holds even if we can't assume that the general public will understand much of the literature. Since I've been mostly better, a few things just didn't add up (I think the diagnosis I got was the most accurate one, but some side things didn't make sense) and I still perused the literature occasionally. Of course, after diagnosis I could be more targeted and start to understand some things in this smaller section of literature. A couple of months ago, after talking with a family member who has Celiac, I was looking at the literature again and I saw some evidence that, if I had Celiac, would explain several of the loose ends.

So, even though I've been feeling almost completely normal recently, I tried going gluten-free. At the same time I made an appointment with a doctor, but it wasn't for a couple of weeks. After just a few days I started to think I might feel a bit better, and then in a week or so it was clear. I got the doctor to do a blood test, even though I hadn't been eating gluten that week. I knew it would make the test less accurate but I figured if I tested positive it would be a win-win and I wouldn't have to go back on gluten to get tested. But I tested negative, and my new rheumatologist (I had to switch rheumatologists for reasons that are not relevant to the current discussion) doesn't want to do further tests. So I have a double blind test going on right now (a friend made samples of various flours for me and sealed the key to which was which, and my husband has been adding one of them to my food once a week), which is recommended in the literature. It's possible I have a problem with wheat that is not Celiac (there is increasing agreement in the literature that people can have gluten intolerance that is not Celiac, and of course there are wheat allergies), but I'm pretty darn sure there is a problem, and hopefully I can be more sure after this test.

But whatever I have, initially I was elated to be feeling so great. Now I am just relieved and extremely grateful. My baseline idea of what being healthy was like was slightly off, meaning that now I feel even better than was typical for the rest of my entire adult life (although back more than 5 or 6 years ago the memory is fuzzier and it's hard to really compare). I can concentrate better too, although that's perhaps simply related to the fact that I'm not hungry all the time. It's sort of sad that I didn't figure this out earlier, but mostly I'm just glad I know now. It doesn't seem like a big deal on a day to day basis (I wasn't feeling that bad before), but in the long run I think this might be really life-changing. Maybe it's presumptuous of me to think that I understand the underlying meaning of the following lyrics, or that I know how I'll feel in the long term about my newfound good health, but I'm gonna go ahead and say that this represents my feelings including my inner celebration of this change:
It's "not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah".

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hobbies and the tenure-track

I'm thinking about taking on a big hobby/project that is tenuously related to my research. Of course, I know that I don't have much time for non-research stuff until I have tenure (and probably not even then). So the question is, how close does it have to be to be synergistic with my research? If it's interesting enough to me, should I do it even if it slightly hurts my (other) research? Does the fact that I am losing sleep thinking about it mean that I should take it on, or that I shouldn't?