Making layered pumpkin cake for Thanksgiving

The sugar and butter in the last layer make a delicious crumbly crust.

I came across this recipe a few years ago while working in Lynchburg. It was published in the Danville Register & Bee, a paper my department designed. It was a reader-submitted recipe, so credit must go to Mary Jenkins.

I brought this over to my parents’ house for our Thanksgiving celebration. My little brother, Paul, finished his piece in about 2.5 seconds and began looking around furtively hoping someone would offer him another (they did).

Layered Pumpkin Cake

Layer 1

1 box yellow cake mix
1/2 cup melted butter
1 egg

Take 1 cup of cake mix and set aside. Mix remaining ingredients together and press into bottom of pan.

Layer 2

2 cups canned pumpkin (just plain pumpkin, not pie filling)
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons pumpkin spice (or 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ginger and 1/4 tsp cloves)
2 eggs
2/3 cup milk

Beat until smooth and pour over cake crust.

Layer 3

1 cup dry cake mix, which had been set aside
1/4 cup sugar (or 1/2 cup if you want the top layer crispier)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup butter

Cut together with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture is lumpy. Sprinkle over the filling and bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Serve warm or chilled. Also yummy covered in whipped cream. :)

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The soundtrack to my walks

I usually listen to podcasts while taking a walk (or run, if I’m feeling energetic), so I tend to go for ones that are at least half an hour or longer. These are the ones I listen to the most:

Judge John Hodgman: A very silly show from author/actor/Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman. People call in with disputes; he legislates and is snarky. This podcast is my favorite. There’s a lot of in-jokes and references to past shows, so for best enjoyment I’d suggest listening to the older ones in addition to newly posted shows.

Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! A news quiz radio show, taped mostly in downtown Chicago. A revolving panel of guests chat about current events and people call in to answer questions for a chance to win a voicemail greeting recorded by the show’s scorekeeper and question-reader, Carl Kasell. The Boyfriend and I actually went to a taping of the show once. It was awesome, and makes listening to the podcast even more fun since I know how it’s made. :)

• Point of Inquiry: A science- and politics-focused show in which authors, scientists and other folks are interviewed on their fields of study. Chris Mooney is likely the more well-known host, but I think Indre Viskontas is way cooler. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist and opera singer. A recent good episode delves into the art of rhetoric, and why more people should get good at it. A note of warning: The show comes from a very secular liberal perspective. If that would bother you, best to avoid it.

• This American Life: Sort of my gold standard for podcasts, though it’s actually a radio show released in podcast form. They pick a topic and tell 1-4 stories based on that topic. Many are journalistic reports, some are fiction, some are “based on a true story.” I’ve really enjoyed ones that involve people with a very different life than I’ve known. One episode that sticks in my mind has a story of a guy who was addicted to drugs, and decided to volunteer as a coach of a boys’ baseball team. Other really good ones are The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, in which a young boy goes missing in 1912 and is found with a man who may or may not be his kidnapper, and Switched At Birth, which is just what it sounds like. Compelling stuff.

Brilliant coffee ideas

Being a big fan of coffee, I’m always looking for variations on the usual beans, hot water, sugar, cream recipe. I’ve found that flavor extracts (like you’d use in cooking) are yummy in coffee. I use vanilla extract, almond extract, hazelnut extract and mint extract. A drop or two per cup is enough, so the little bottle lasts a long time, and they add virtually no calories (as opposed to the flavor syrups you can buy from Starbucks and such) if you’re worried about that sort of thing.

For fruit flavors, I’ve found a tasty option is using drink packets — the kind that you pour into a bottle of water. Obviously not all of these are suited to coffee. I suspect lemonade coffee would be gross, though I haven’t tried it… But raspberry and strawberry are excellent flavors for coffee. I recommend NOT using a whole packet, unless you’re making a full pot of coffee. For me, about a third of a packet in 12-14 oz. of coffee works best.

Another favorite coffee hack is coffee cubes. You pour coffee into an ice cube tray and freeze. Very easy, and no watering-down of iced coffee drinks. I make mine out of decaf to avoid over-caffeinating. :) Also a good idea is to have a dedicated tray just for coffee cubes — they leave a film of coffee oils on the tray. I read about this on the Internet, but it was a while ago and I’ve forgotten where I saw it first. So, thank you, Internet user who came up with this before me! The only part I can properly take credit for is using decaf.

Please note that I could not have implemented these ideas without having first consumed coffee, as it is required for brain function.

Pie chart, the non-easy way

Recently, I needed to make a pie chart for an article in one of the papers. It was very basic — percentages were 51, 45, 4 — so I drew it in InDesign using the Path Tool, added a stroke and used drop shadow to make it look pretty. Simple enough. After work I mentioned this project to The Boyfriend, who asked if I’d used Illustrator or Photoshop, as they likely have pie chart tools. I … hadn’t really thought of that at all, I admitted.

So a Google search reveals that Illustrator does indeed have such a tool, and it looks ridiculously easy to use. Now I need another project with pie-chartable numbers to practice on!