Giorgio Moroder’s “From Here to Eternity” (1977)

Giorgio Moroder is most famous these days for being “that guy from the Daft Punk song”, referring to his cameo on Random Access Memories. Prior to 2012 or so, he was known as the producer of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. He had mostly faded into obscurity unless you were into ‘80s movie soundtracks (Scarface, American Gigolo, Midnight Express) or disco music.

On the strength of his newfound Daft Punk cred and “I Feel Love”, I had my eye on picking up one of his albums. This wasn’t one of those “must haves”, but it was on my mind as I sifted through several stacks of records at Giovanni’s Room thrift shop in Philly the weekend before last.

Lucky for me, Giovanni’s Room has a policy of marking down by half any records that sit for more than six months. This one slipped under the radar and was tagged $3. Best find of the weekend.

When you listen to this album, the first thing you notice is that it sounds a lot like you know who. The vintage drum machine and vocoder sound is what our generation associates with the robot duo or Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak, but it’s clearly borrowed from Moroder and his contemporaries and reinvented for a new generation.

The nice bit about Moroder’s sound being so imitated today is that this album listens like a lost Daft Punk album. It doesn’t sound dated at all. It’s got a cohesive house music beat that goes well in the background while you’re doing other things, but you could easily turn up the volume and get a dance party started.

Kinokuniya Books, one of our favorite places

Kinokuniya Books next to Bryant Park in Manhattan is really great. It’s full of all sorts of books, magazines, and stationery that you won’t find anywhere else, at least outside of Japan. It’s inspiring to go there because you’ll always find something new to catch your eye.

Their first floor is full of English language novels, some Japanese cookbooks in English, and some unique graphic design books and things, but I’m going to skip over all that for now, since it’s stuff that you can mostly find in the library or another bookstore.

The basement is full of really unique magazines. Compared to your usual bookstore, they have a ton of options with a guy’s aesthetic, on topics from music, to fashion, to interior design.

The basement floor has books for learning Japanese and Japanese culture. There’s also books in Japanese for learning foreign languages.

The top floor is Japanese and English language manga, graphic novels, and books on illustration. They also have a Studio Ghibli section, as well as those collectible anime figurines, if that’s your thing.

If you’re a frequent customer, they have a $20 annual membership that gives you 10% off purchases and access to periodic 20% off members only events. It includes periodic gift certificate “rebates” and in our case has already paid for itself.

“Matrix” engravings next to the label on vinyl records

When I first started buying records, I noticed that they often had hand-etched letters and numbers in the blank space between the last song and the label. At the time, not knowing anything about how records are made, I figured they were etched by hand onto each record by the company and denoted a numbered order of production, like a limited edition artist print. That would be a lot of writing! I chalked it up as another reason why new vinyl is so expensive.

When I discovered I could use Discogs.com to catalogue our records, I searched for some kind of identifying mark on the record itself and found that the etched alphanumeric string is called a matrix or run-out code. They do not count “up” with each new record produced. 

The first part of the number generally matches up with the catalogue number of the record and will also be on the label. The other information records the A/B side, the “cut” of the record stamper, and often the pressing plant or the mastering studio / engineer. Most have numbers or letters and dashes, but I even have one with a tiny flower, one that says “Porky”, and Paola has a green vinyl with a miniature signature!

The Beatles first US album label
Beatles hand-etched matrix code matching the 63-3402 code on the label
More matrix markings
Dylan’s Basement Tapes stamped matrix code
Coleman Hawkins USSR stamped matrix code

A guide to kneading dough with a food processor

Dough above 75 percent hydration are very sticky. Bread Illustrated suggests a mixer for these dough so you can stay “hands off” until the kneading of the dough hook turns it into something more manageable. If you don’t have a mixer with a dough hook, or like ours the dough hook just makes a mess, you can use a food processor!

Tips for use

Bread Illustrated suggests using the standard metal blade, since the dough hook attachment doesn’t reach to the edge of the bowl. Ice-cold water is suggested, as the movement of the blades quickly creates heat. I’ve used the metal blade, it works well, and I add ingredients at fridge instead of room temperature.

From my personal experience, the food processor is very good for a few specific situations: pizza dough works great and comes together in minutes, and low-hydration dough forms a tight ball in minutes. I have done both bread and pizza dough in quick succession because they’re so quick.

One very big drawback is that the machine quickly gets stuck with breads above 72 percent hydration and those using a tanzhong, which is a sticky flour-and-water roux for adding moistness to the final product. I made a whole wheat bread recently that was both heavier and higher in hydration. The flour soaked up more liquid than normal, so it didn’t seem sticky, but the whole weight of the dough was nearly too much for the machine. The blades struggled to keep turning.

In either of the cases above, when the machine is jammed or overworked, it clicks off and needs to sit and then be restarted. You can feel the heat coming off the side of the machine when the motor is struggling. Bread Illustrated, in fact, recommends that a food processor not be used for more structured dough because the blade can cut the gluten strands, but I’ve forged ahead anyway and it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference to the end product, the biggest issue for me has been keeping the blades from getting jammed.

Steps by step

The steps to kneading when using the food processor are something like this:

  1. Mixing. I like to mix the water into the other ingredients already in the machine’s bowl little by little, in maybe 3-4 parts and pulse the machine after each addition.
  2. Rough dough. The dough will start to come together and will be rough.
  3. Kneading. The dough should come together into a ball or two balls by pulsing the machine. Eventually the balls will start to bat around the inside of the mixer, slapping against the side. This is akin to the rough hand-kneading process. I haven’t seen the gluten being “cut” at this stage as Bread Illustrated suggested, but I might just not know what to look for.
  4. “Windowpane test”. After maybe two minutes, open the bowl (I unplug the machine to be safe). If the dough passes the “windowpane test”, which means the dough can stretch until translucent without breaking, it is ready to go.
  5. Hand kneading. Turn the dough onto the counter and knead it a few times to bring it together.

Bread Illustrated, my pick for top breadmaking cookbook

This past month I was deep in the early learning phases of making yeasted bread and I came across this great book, Bread Illustrated by America’s Test Kitchen. After looking through dozens of cookbooks, it was exactly what I was looking for.

I was struggling to understand the timing of everything: When making a bread, why wait for an hour, what am I waiting for, can I move to the next step? Bread Illustrated has step-by-step instructions with photos at each step. It includes useful tips for common issues like under-kneading or sticky dough. For a beginner, it does a great job of laying out the basic transferable concepts in breadmaking, which are often lost in other books because of their focus on individual recipes and glossy photos.

Here’s a bit of the basics that I learned from the book: The basic steps of breadmaking are mixing, kneading, first rise, shaping, second rise,  baking, and cooling. The steps are, in order:

  1. Mixing brings the ingredients together (3 minutes)
  2. Kneading develops stretchy gluten and brings the dough into a ball (10 minutes, by hand)
  3. First rise is waiting for the bread to double in size (about an hour)
  4. Shaping is when you roll or ball the dough into a shape to fit its baking pan (a few minutes)
  5. Second rise is an hour or so where the dough rises again to nearly fill its pan (about 45 minutes)
  6. Baking creates the final loaf with its crust and fluffy, risen texture (from 25-45 minutes, depending on the recipe)
  7. Cooling allows the bread to finish baking and release steam (about 3 hours)

Bread Illustrated is available online and as a NYPL ebook.

Sleeper Train Bucket List: Empire Builder to Portland and Seattle

Marvel at the majesty of the northern United States as you travel over mountain passes, through alpine valleys and past 7,000-year-old glaciers. Glide by buttes and bluffs, along mountain streams and across the Mighty Mississippi.

Amtrak.com

Amtrak’s Empire Builder traverses the US from Chicago to Seattle and Portlane, OR. One of its biggest draws is that it runs through Glacier National Park. With two stops in in Glacier, it’s one of the most popular methods of accessing this remote destination. As with all Amtrak trains west of Chicago, the Empire Builder has a domed lounge car in addition to sleeper service.

It’s on our list because neither of us have been to the Pacific Northwest, nor have we taken a sleeper car. Plus the scenery looks great. At 45+ hours total travel time, it should let us know if we like the experience enough to attempt a week on the Trans-Siberian route.

Service / Route

The route taken by the Empire Builder begins in Chicago, IL and travels for over 2,000 miles, traversing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington / Oregon. In Spokane, in Eastern Washington, the routes of the Seattle- and Portland-bound trains diverge and each arrives separately at its destination.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

As of February 2021, the Empire Builder offers service 3 times per week, Westbound on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. It was a daily service prior to COVID-related service reductions and will hopefully be again in the near future.

A brief search has sleeping accommodations for the 46-hour trip starting at $527 / 18k AGR points for a single-occupancy roomette or $772 for double-occupancy. This rate includes all meals and access to the station lounge. Bedrooms, with in-suite restroom, sink, and shower, start at $2215.

Photo credit for cover image.

Finding weird and wonderful album covers

Since I just repaired our turntable I’ve been going to record stores to expand our collection. So far Princeton Record Exchange (PRX) in Princeton, NJ and Generation Records here in New York have been my favorites. PRX is well worth the trip if you’re starting a collection because they have so many classics for under $10 and Generation has a great budget jazz section and some unique stuff on the walls.

In some cases, I’ve taken a chance and bought great music and at other times just took photos of odd and interesting covers that I didn’t buy. Here are some photos from the last few weeks:

Home baking Japanese shokupan (white bread)

In Japan they have this really fluffy, Wonderbread-style loaf that they call shokupan. It’s basically freshly baked white bread except more exotic because the recipe is from Japan. I’ve been into baking lately so I decided to make my own.

When I was starting out I used a recipe from Ethan Chlebowski and another from Kitchen Princess Bamboo. I actually preferred the latter, even though it didn’t include egg or the additional tangzhong step, which is a roux made from flour and water.

I even bought this book about shokupan at Kinokuniya, the local Japanese bookstore. It has great instructional photos and takes the most intensive, handmade approach, but the recipe is still roughly the same as below.

Here is the rough recipe with the ingredients listed as a percent of the flour, by weight:

  • Bread flour
  • Milk and water (68-72%)
  • Sugar (5-10%)
  • Salt (2%)
  • Yeast (0.3-1.3%)
  • Butter (5%)

Mix ingredients until they come together into a ball. Add in butter, knead again. Once the dough comes together in a ball and passes the “windowpane test“, proof it for an hour. After that, shape the loaf by rolling it into a loaf the length of your loaf pan (think of the shape of a cinnamon roll, only fatter).

Once the bread has risen nearly to the top of the pan, bake it for 25-28 mins at 390 F or 30 mins at 375 F.

These recipes sometimes include egg, dried milk, or other additives. Some recipes use a tangzhong, which is a roux made from flour and water, though I’ve found it makes the dough even stickier than normal.

I tried several methods for working the dough:1. Our vintage Sumbeam mixer. The dough climbed the hooks and ended up inside the mixer, which took hours to clean out. I don’t recommend it.2. By hand, in a bowl or on the counter. High hydration dough sticks to everything, particularly your hands. I may try this again but it was a mess the first few times.3. The food processor. This was recommended in Bread Illustrated from America’s Test Kitchen and it actually works well as long as the dough is around 70% hydration or lower.

The biggest adjustment when making bread is the waiting. The first rise is roughly an hour, then you shape the dough and put it into the Pullman loaf pan and wait another hour. That’s the bare minimum. Some recipes have two rises or even rest the dough overnight, which lets it rise more slowly and develop more gluten and flavor.

After all the waiting, we’ve had some great bread lately and I will keep making more.

Brewing coffee in a vintage steel vacuum pot

Maybe two or three years ago after returning from Japan, I decided I wanted to try replicating the siphon coffee that we were served for our first breakfast. I some research and found out that they used to be very common in the US before auto-percolators took off in the 1960s and were known as vacuum pots because the brewing process created a vacuum, in the bottom chamber, drawing the brewed coffee down into it. I then bought a Nicro Model 500 off Craigslist with the metal filter, figuring it would be less prone to breakage than glass and easier to clean than a cloth filter, which is the style that is used today in Japan.

The problem is, I could never make good coffee. The water wouldn’t heat up to the suggested 205 degrees and it would clog instead of draining.

Then, this past month, I tried it again and it made excellent coffee. It was complex, deep, clean, and even warmer at first sip than a pour-over. I used:

  • a light generic breakfast roast
  • a 17.5:1 ratio
  • a grind size similar to pre-ground drip coffee
  • 900g of water, enough for three mugs of coffee
  • no temperature measurement, only turning down stove and waiting for water to stop bubbling in the upper chamber
  • coffee steeping for around a minute, then turned off gas and let coffee drain

Full brew time was somewhere from 5-7 minutes.

I started thinking how I might have lucked into such a good cup and I realized that a big batch, high ratio, drip grind generic coffee, and no temp control is probably how the device was meant to be used in a 1950s kitchen or diner, where there wouldn’t have been fancy grinders, temp probes, or even time to fuss over the coffee like I would with a manual pour-over.

Fresh off a few great cups, I tried brewing an Ethiopian light roast and it went right back to clogging from all the fines. I guess to use this siphon, I have to keep my coffee styles from the 1950s as well.

For those of you interested in more historical detail, I was able to find old manuals to research my process, and old advertisements to roughly date my coffee pot at this site.

A philosophy for hiking lighter

Ultralight hiking is a mix of enlightenment and consumerism. It is semi-philosophical, encouraging hikers to “carry less and travel farther”. Less weight on your back means more miles and more comfort. Through the power of round numbers and online bickering, the limit for “ultralight” has been set arbitrarily at 15 lbs of gear, prior to food and water, known as a base weight. This has been further revised down to 10 lbs, depending on who you ask.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of this base weight can turn into a shopping spree of replacing functional yet heavy gear with lighter items in order to reach that elusive threshold. This gear acquisition functions as a kind of stand-in for the fun of actual hiking or camping, since it’s done from your computer while sitting indoors.

My goal with this article is to lay out the most useful steps I found for reducing the weight of what you carry without getting into obsessive territory. These are my tips, in rough order of savings.

Weigh everything

First off, weigh everything that will go into your pack and log it. Lighterpack is a hugely popular site for building a library of camping gear and cataloguing it by weight and it’s also free. I know this sounds obsessive, but it is an indispensable way to see the “big picture” of everything you’re carrying. When replacing gear, it lets you easily see the potential impact to your back of trading up to something lighter.

Key tool: Lighterpack.com

Carry less water

When I realized that 16oz of water weighs (surprise!) one full pound, I started to question whether I couldn’t carry a bit less and gather it along the trail. That change in philosophy included buying a lightweight tubular Sawyer Squeeze water filter where I formerly relied on Iodophor iodine solution for all water treatment. This change allows me to carry 64 or 96 oz of water when I formerly carried around a gallon.

Key gear: Sawyer Squeeze water filter

Lose the boots

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that hiking boots are no longer the shoewear of choice on the Appalachian Trail. Nearly everyone going long-distance hiking now uses trail runners or hiking shoes, i.e. footwear with good tread and the weight of a running shoe. I suppose it was just following the crowd that made me never question boots before now, because I was definitely an early convert to ultralight running shoes back in highschool.

I bought a pair of Brooks Cascadia (1.6lb/pair) and dropped 2 lbs when compared to my old Timberland Pro Goretex-lined hikers (3.6lb/pair). The Cascadia have a solid tread and padded sole, though they rely on breathability to wick water rather than waterproof fabric. Even though I’m giving up the Goretex, there’s a good chance my feet will be similarly dry, since my heavy lined boots used to make me sweat.

Key gear: Trail running shoes

Lighten your pack

Given the amount of gear I used to carry, I loved my 80-liter Kelty Redcloud. Though once I weighed my gear, I realized I could save roughly 4 lbs by trading my trusty old Kelty (6.5 lbs) for a lighter backpack. I ended up choosing the ULA Circuit (2.5 lbs). The Circuit has a 65-liter capacity, which is more than enough for my slimmed-down gear profile.

The Circuit has a lighter belt and frame, though is functionally the same as the Kelty. There are many others like it. Lighter options exist without a hip belt or frame, similar to a large school backpack, but I like the weight distribution of a frame for food and water carries.

Key gear: Lighter backpack (sub-3lbs)

Switch to down

When I started on this quest to upgrade my gear, my number one wish for an upgrade was my sleeping bag. I had had my previous bag since my Scouting years and it was synthetic, of unclear warmth, and huge. Even as a kid I was jealous of the Scout Dads with their lofty down bags.

I traded up to a down sleeping bag, the lightest that I could find under $300, which at the time as the Marmot Hydrogen 30-degree bag. Many others that go ultralight end up with down quilts which are essenially zipperless sleeping bags that wrap around and attach to your pad. My Hydrogen is 800- or 850-fill down, which is a measure of loft. Higher is better and lighter per unit of warmth, the cheapest bags will use 650-fill while high-end ones will use 900 or 950.

My sleeping pad had been a Thermarest Ridgerest foam pad for as long as I have been camping. These pads are very light but also not very padded. For the sake of comfort, I traded up for a Thermarest self-inflating pad. It’s my one trade up in weight but also in comfort.

Key gear: Down sleeping bag

Pop a new tent

A tent is one of those nice items that can be split in half if you’re couples camping. For us that meant splitting up a Marmot tent weighing over 6lbs. At the point I was looking to replace the tent I was in full-on immersion into the r/Ultralight group and so decided I would try out the Durston X-Mid 2P sold on Drop.com. It offers a good balance of durability, weather protection, and space, all while coming in under $300.

The Durston tent weighs a hair over 2 lbs, for a savings of nearly 4 lbs, but there’s a catch: many long distance hiking tents are made to utilize hiking poles as the supports for the tent. I got mine from Fizan and they weigh in at 10 oz, which makes the tent package a bit closer to 3 lbs. These are just about the lightest poles that are still usable for hiking, though there is the option to buy a set of simple foldable tent poles, which would weigh 6-8 oz.

Key gear: Sub-3lb tent and trekking poles (if applicable)

Lighten your stove

As a former Scout, I grew up using Coleman stoves and lanterns. In fact, I still use them for car camping, I have the big green briefcase stove and the matching green lantern. For backpacking, I had the Coleman Peak One stove. This was all overkill for hiking.

Backpacking meals are mostly re-hydrating food, so what is needed is a simple way to boil water. Early in my upgrade process I purchased a butane-propane stove from Snow Peak which, even with its case, weighs only 4 oz. I paired it with the inexpensive Stanley Adventure cook set and nested it inside, using the locking lid to secure the stove inside the pot.

I’ve since learned that many hikers use an alcohol stove, wind screen, and titanium pot for even further weight savings, though the ease of my butane-propane canister and minimal weight savings means this upgrade will have to wait for another day.

Key gear: Isobutane canister or alcohol stove

Conclusion

In order to draw some comparisons between all this new gear, I made some rough estimates of cost, weight saved, and the price per pound saved:

Sleeping bag: ~2 lbs saved / $200 = $100/lb saved

Tent and poles: 4 lbs / $320 = $80/lb

Backpack: 4 lbs / $260 = $65/lb

Shoes: 2 lbs / $100 = $50/lb

Stove: ~1.1 lbs / $30 = $27/lb

Water: 2 lbs (32 oz) / $30 = $15/lb

Total: 15.1 lbs saved / $940

Among hikers there is often a lot of debate around the “Big 3” of tent, sleeping bag and pack and what to choose. Not surprisingly, in my exercise those were some of the biggest weight savings, though they were much less cost effective than upgrading my shoes, stove, and [carrying less] water.

Admittedly, I’m messing with the numbers a bit by assuming I would carry 32 oz less water if I used a filter on-trail, but this exercise is a good example in diminishing returns. Those smaller items requiring a change in approach saved more weight, per dollar, than fancy gear-focused purchases.