An Activity Tracker for the Privacy-Conscious

An Activity Tracker for the Privacy-Conscious

I have really wanted to get one of the new activity trackers that have recently become available. Between Stella walking duties and daily life in a walkable city, I imagined that I walk a relatively significant distance each day. I was curious just how much. Last year, I bought a $5 pedometer, but Stella chewed it up before I got into the hang of using it regularly. The wide array of wearable activity trackers attracted my attention because they are inconspicuous and capable of gathering a lot of data throughout the day. Unfortunately, every single activity tracker I researched (and I think I researched all of them- Fitbit, Polar Loop, Misfit Shine, Nike Fuelband, Garmin Vivofit, Jawbone, LG Lifeband, Spark) require the wearer to create an account in order to access the data that the device records. If I bought one of these trackers, I would have to create a mandatory account with the company, connect to the Internet, and upload my data from the device before being able to see it. In that process, all of my data would go to the company. And that is not ok.

Pedometer

I am extremely uncomfortable creating a 24/7, date- and time-stamped log of my physical activity and sending that information off to an unaccountable company. Although the companies that sell activity trackers are most likely to use the data for profit, they could also disclose that information to the government or allow it to be stolen. I am keenly aware that taking advantage of nearly all technology requires some privacy tradeoff. But for me, the cost of giving up control over very personal and detailed information does not outweigh the benefit of knowing how far I walk each day.

Pedometer

I have to assume that I am not alone in this calculation, but until I am able to find a product that lets me keep all of my data exclusively on my own computer or phone (let me know if you are aware of one!), I came up with my own solution. I bought a pedometer more advanced than my $5 version, one that personalizes its calculations based on height, weight, and stride length and stores 7 days worth of data. Then, I created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of my numbers. I even set the spreadsheet up to automatically chart my data on colorful graphs! Here’s the file you can download and use yourself :)

There are some obvious drawbacks to using a pedometer instead of a wearable activity tracker- it doesn’t log my activity at all hours of the day, and it can be challenging to figure out how to wear the pedometer with some outfits. I also have to log my data manually, but the memory function and relatively few data points keeps that from feeling burdensome. Even with these drawbacks, I am grateful not to worry that an unaccountable company is collecting my data on a very granular level.

So tell me, do you use an activity tracker and love it, have a different interpretation of the privacy scale, or have another low-tech way to track your activity?

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Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

As much as I love eating cookies, I’m not the best at baking them. I have a folder of photos on my computer of recipes that just weren’t worth sharing with you, and a decent portion of those show sad looking cookies. For some reason, my cookies never spread like they’re supposed to, regardless of the recipe I follow. To remedy this chronic shortcoming, I took a cooking class on the science behind making cookies, and I learned a whole lot. Although I have not yet applied my newfound knowledge to the cookie recipes that have eluded me in the past, I did come away with an excellent recipe for chocolate chip cookies. We experimented with a bunch of different variations, but working in some browned butter improved the standard chocolate chip cookie for me.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Some of the chocolate chip cookies we experimented with in class, starting at the top left and going clockwise were: classic, all white sugar, all brown sugar, 20% more flour, all egg yolk, and double egg. As you might guess from the picture, some of these were tastier than others.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

To make my ideal cookie, begin by browning 1 stick of butter. Add the butter to a small pot or pan over medium heat, and let the butter melt. The butter will begin bubbling, and you will see the white milk solids in the butter rise to the top. Then, the milk solids will fall to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown. You will usually first notice the browning around the edges of the pan, and as soon as you do, remove the pan from the heat, and swirl it. The remaining milk solids will brown rapidly. Set the butter aside to cool slightly.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

While the butter cools, weigh out 2.75 ounces (78 grams) of white sugar and 2.5 ounces of dark brown sugar. Add the sugars to a mixing bowl. Preheat your oven (to 350° F in a convection oven or 375º F in a non-convection oven). 

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Pour the butter and all of its brown bits (it should be cool enough that it doesn’t melt the sugar) into the bowl and beat it together with the sugar very well. Once the butter and sugar are evenly combined, crack in 1 egg, and pour in 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Beat the ingredients until they are completely combined, scraping down the bowl if necessary.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

In a separate bowl, weigh out 5.08 ounces (144 grams) of flour. Into the flour, stir 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. In two additions, stir the flour into the butter and sugar mixture. Once it is combined, stir in 5 ounces (142 grams) of chocolate chips. The cookie dough should be scoopable, so if it is too loose, put it into the fridge for 10 minutes or so to firm up.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and use a 2 tablespoon scoop to scoop out the cookies. Space the cookies about 2 inches apart to allow them room to spread. I got 19 cookies out of this batch.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Bake the cookies for approximately 12 minutes, rotating the pan around half-way through, until they are golden brown around the edges. Let the cookies cool before eating them. These are crisp around the edges and slightly chewy in the center.

The browned butter flavor is detectable but not overpowering, especially when compared to a cookie made with normal butter. It just has a little something extra. I love how flat these cookies get, quite different from the mound-like cookies I normally end up with. Such a success in my book!

Shopping list:

  • Butter- 1 stick
  • White sugar- 2.75 ounces
  • Dark brown sugar- 2.75 ounces
  • Egg- 1
  • Vanilla extract- 1/2 teaspoon
  • Flour- 5.08 ounces (144 grams)
  • Baking soda- 1/2 teaspoon
  • Salt- 1/2 teaspoon
  • Chocolate chips- 5 ounces
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Savory Buckwheat Crêpes

Savory Buckwheat Crepes

Stereotypically, one of the best parts of living in Paris was getting to frequent the crêpe stands. Most of my crêpes were eaten late-night, on the way home from the bars. I’d sometimes snag a nutella-banana crêpe on Rue Mouffetard, but the savory crêpes around Odéon were the best. We visited a few sit-down crêpe restaurants as well, where all of the crêpes were served plated rather than folded and held by hand. The biggest difference between sweet and savory crêpes is the batter, and it makes me crazy when restaurants here at home wrap savory ingredients in a non-Buckwheat crêpe. I have been making a lot of savory crêpes at home recently, and once you get the hang of the technique, it’s deliciously easy to eat them all the time.

Savory Buckwheat Crepes

Crêpe batter is NOTHING to be intimidated of. To make it, weigh out 3 ounces of all-purpose flour and 1 ounce of buckwheat flour. Set the flour aside.

Savory Buckwheat Crepes

Into a blender, crack 2 eggs. Then, pour in 1.5 cups of milk and 1.5 tablespoons of melted butter. Add in a pinch of salt. Put the lid on the blender, and combine those ingredients. Remove the center of the blender’s lid, and with the blender running, slowly add in the flours. Turn the blender off once the batter is smooth.

Savory Buckwheat Crepes

It’s easiest to get perfectly round crêpes using a crêpe pan. I like using a well-seasoned steel crêpe pan. It should be flat on the bottom with angled sides. The clear division between the bottom and the sides keeps the crêpe batter in a defined circle. A normal frying pan would let the batter run up higher, but you can certainly use one if it’s all you have.

Heat your pan over medium heat. Before pouring the batter in for each crêpe, lightly brush the pan with vegetable oil. Pick up the pan in one hand, and then use a ladle to pour in just enough batter to coat the bottom of the pan. As soon as the batter hits the pan, use your wrist to rotate the pan around to spread the batter in a circle. Your pan should be at a temperature so that the batter begins to set as soon as it hits the pan, but it shouldn’t cook so quickly that it forms bubbles and isn’t able to spread.

Savory Buckwheat Crepes

Return the pan to the heat, and once the crêpe looks dry, run a flat rubber spatula around the edges of the crêpe. Stick the spatula under the crêpe, and flip it over. You could use your fingers to flip the crêpe, but I mess it up almost every time that way. The spatula is much easier. Let the crêpe cook for about 30 seconds on the second side, just until it begins to brown. Transfer the crêpe to a sheet of wax paper. Continue making crêpes, remembering to brush the pan with oil before each one. To make crêpes even faster, you can get into a great rhythm and work two pans at once!

Savory Buckwheat Crepes

Once you have a stack of crêpes, you can either begin filling and eating them immediately, or you can wrap them well in wax paper and tin foil and freeze them. Crêpes defrost quickly and beautifully. It has been great keeping them on hand for a quick breakfast or a fun way to use up leftovers. I’ve filled them with mozzarella cheese, chicken, basil, and tomatoes- warmed a crêpe piled with the ingredients on a pan, folded it up, and drizzled it with balsamic vinegar. Amazing!

Savory Buckwheat Crepes

Breakfast crêpes are also really delicious. To make them, sweat some diced onion and minced garlic in a pan. Pour in whisked eggs, and scramble them. Remove the eggs from the pan, wipe the pan out, and set in a crêpe with its more golden side facing down (the golden side should end up showing for a prettier presentation). Lower the heat. Sprinkle cheese over half of the crêpe, making sure to get cheese over the edges. One crêpe stand in Paris would sprinkle a ton of swiss cheese over the edge of the crêpe, and it would get brown and crispy and stand up like a beautiful fan. It was my favorite part. Top the cheese with the scrambled egg, and season it with salt and pepper. Top the eggs with something fresh and crunchy, like pea shoots.

Once the cheese starts to melt, fold over the empty half of the crêpe. Allow the bottom of the crêpe to continue crisping. If you’d like, you can fold the crêpe in half again, which makes it easier to eat by hand. If you plan on eating it plated, you can play around with whatever folding technique looks prettiest to you. I LOVE these crêpes. Go forth, make them, and have a wonderful Bastille Day!

Shopping list:

  • All-purpose flour- 3 ounces
  • Buckwheat flour- 1 ounce
  • Eggs- 2
  • Milk- 1.5 cups
  • Butter- 1.5 tablespoons
  • Salt- Pinch
  • Oil for pan
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Stella the Lotus Flower

Aquatic Gardens

After 9 years in DC, we are still finding fun things to do. The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are well worth a visit and serve as another reminder of how easy it is to enjoy nature within the city limits. We took Stella over there on a surprisingly mild summer day to walk around the expansive marshland, admire the lily pads, and sniff out some wildlife. She wasted no time making herself at home- rolling around in the mud and sporting a dirty streak on her face. I was surprised by the grand scale of the lily pads. Plenty of them were taller than I was, and the ones resting on the water’s surface were large enough to serve as a pool float.

Aquatic Gardens

The lotus flowers were stunning. So many of them were open and in bloom. Newly opened buds were hot pink, and ones that had been in bloom for a while were more white. The flowers were also gigantic and had big, yellow seed pods right in their centers. The flowers swayed happily in the breeze, but I didn’t notice any flowery smell coming from them.

Aquatic Gardens

There was a wide variety of lily pads at the gardens. There were these smaller, hot pink ones as well as some white ones. The taller flowers were definitely our favorites though.

Aquatic Gardens

Stella was curious about all of the new things she was encountering and spotted a severed lotus flower floating in the water. She was very suspicious of it, so David fished it out for her to inspect more closely.

Aquatic Gardens

David was more incredulous about the lotus seed pods. The bright yellow ones seemed waxy and fake, and the green ones that lost their leaves appeared bug-like.

Lotus Root

On a related note, lotus roots are edible, but I’ve never cooked with one. Here’s a picture of one garnishing a cocktail (at Buddha Bar on my last night living in Paris…sniff).

Aquatic Gardens

Stella encountered her first frogs on this visit, but they were only heard and not seen. Her ears did not know what to make of those sounds, and I thought she was going to twist her head right off.

Aquatic Gardens

Stella also sniffed out her first turtle! Not this one though- it was smaller and nestled in the grass. She circled it cautiously, jumping back like she was in imminent danger, until David stepped in to scoop up the turtle and set it down closer to the water for an easy escape. It scurried away quickly (for a turtle) and fell down a hole.

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Chocolate Cake for the Soul

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

This chocolate cake is a feast for the eyes and soul. It is easily the most delicious cake I’ve ever made. I don’t profess to be a baker- the recipe came nearly perfected from Smitten Kitchen, where I saw this cake posted but never intended to make it. But then I was at home with my mom while she was recovering from surgery, and about 3 hours after she was home from the hospital, she requested chocolate cake. A sure sign of health! I sped to the kitchen and pulled up this recipe, recency effect in full force, and the chocolate cake helped us all feel better. It is rich in chocolatey flavor, slightly crisp around the tops and edges, with a crumb/fudge hybrid in the center. A slice (and sometimes two) of this cake welcomed all of my mom’s visitors, each of who asked if the cake was flourless. It’s not. The cake eventually dwindled down to its final slices, and the time approached for me to return to DC. But before I could leave, my mom kindly requested a replacement cake, and I was happy to oblige. I have now made this cake three times, each with success. I learned a few things along the way, namely that you should make this cake immediately.

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

To do so, get a 9 inch cake pan, and grease it by rubbing a stick of butter around its bottom and sides. Cut out a round of parchment paper, and stick it on the bottom of the pan to ensure that the cake will come out easily. Then, get a decent sized pot (a 3 quart pot is best, but a 2 quart pot will do). In the pot, melt 9 tablespoons of butter (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon). Once the butter has melted, remove the pot from the heat, and stir in 7 ounces of dark chocolate until it melts and is smooth.

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

Stir 2 tablespoons of water into the chocolate mixture until it is smooth once again. Then, stir in 3/4 teaspoon of baking powder, 1/3 cup of flour, and 1/3 cup of cocoa powder. Preheat your oven to 350º F.

Get out one medium-sized bowl and one large bowl. Separate 4 eggs, dropping the whites into the large bowl and the yolks into the medium bowl. To the yolks, add 1 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon of water, and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Use a whisk to combine the yolk mixture until it has gone pale in color and looks smooth. Stir the yolk mixture into the pot of chocolate until it is fully incorporated.

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

To the large bowl of egg whites, add 2 pinches of sea salt. Beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks, ideally using an electric mixer.

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

Add 1/3 of the beaten egg whites to the pot of chocolate, and stir it around to lighten up the chocolate mixture. Once the egg whites are combined, add in the rest of the egg whites, and gently fold them in until they are combined.

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

Pour the chocolate mixture into the prepared cake pan, and bake the cake for 35-40 minutes until you can insert a toothpick into the center of the cake and remove it relatively cleanly.

Remove the cake from the oven, and let it cool for at least 5 minutes before removing it from the pan, running a knife around the sides of the pan first to make sure the cake is loose. The first two cakes that I baked at my mom’s house puffed up, formed a domed crust, and then deflated as they cooled. The domed crust remained and eventually cracked when I removed the cake from the pan. It was no problem at all, I just plated the cake upside-down. It looked fantastic, and we still were able to enjoy the crispy top. When I made the cake in my own kitchen however, the cake didn’t puff as much and it didn’t form a hollow top crust. The top still crisped, but it remained solid, and I was able to plate the cake right-side-up. Somehow, the difference in ingredient brands and/or ovens caused these different (but equally delicious) results. Let me know which variety of cake you end up with- I am very curious!

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

The cake is wonderful with a light dusting of powdered sugar, but I find it even more delicious to eat every bite with a berry. I picked these black raspberries from my parents’ backyard. Several years ago, I talked them into buying a raspberry bush, and for the last few summers, it has yielded only 2-3 raspberries, most of which the birds ate before we could. This summer, there has been a raspberry EXPLOSION, and the birds have let us take in the harvest.

Chocolate Cake for the Soul

Serve the cake in thin slices with the powdered sugar and berries. My cousin enjoyed the cake with a glass of cold milk, which looked nice, if you like that kind of thing. Ice cream would also be fantastic. If you’re not feeding a crowd, fear not- this cake is just as delicious when eaten over a multi-day period. Just store it at room temperature, loosely covered with tinfoil. I will always associate this cake with feelings of comfort and home, and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Shopping list:

  • Butter- 9 tablespoons
  • Chocolate- 7 ounces
  • Flour- 1/3 cup
  • Cocoa powder- 1/3 cup
  • Baking powder- 3/4 teaspoon
  • Eggs- 4
  • Sugar- 1 cup
  • Vanilla extract- 1/2 teaspoon
  • Salt
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