Thursday, September 18, 2014

Baked Ziti

Once upon a time, a friend gave a dinner party and served a baked pasta dish full of sausage, cheese, and just a little bit of tomato sauce.  It was heavenly, and I sought out my own version.  I started with Muir Glen's baked ziti, which has all of the above plus zucchini, but completely changed the recipe, doubling and halving ingredients until it resembled the meal I was craving.  Unfortunately I never got around to writing down the changes, so I had to reinvent the wheel every time I made it.  One of the side benefits to a food blog is that it has your exact recipe revisions, but not until you get around to posting the recipe.

So better late than never, here is the final draft of my baked ziti recipe.  In addition to being an excellent candidate for dinner, this recipe freezes well and is a frequent player in the lunchbox freezer leftovers rotation.

The final incentive to get this recipe on the blog was the arrival of this monster, which is obviously too much squash for any one recipe to handle.  Half of it went into a batch of lunchbox enchiladas, and the other half joined up with some pasta.

Recipe heavily adapted from Muir Glen
Yield: 8 servings

8 oz pasta
1 lb Italian sausage
½ small onion
2 cloves garlic
2 medium zucchini (or half of a monster zucchini)
8 oz tomato sauce
14.5 oz crushed tomatoes
1½ cups mozzarella/provolone mix, divided
Red pepper flakes, to taste


Begin by slaying the beast.  If you're using an overgrown zucchini, remove the large seeds and plan on a little extra cooking time. 

Chop the onion and the garlic.

Cook the sausage, onion, and garlic on medium until the sausage is cooked.  At this point, start cooking the pasta and preheat the oven to 350°.

Add the zucchini and a pinch of salt.  Cover the pot, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is soft, about five minutes.

Add in the tomatoes and oregano, and simmer for about 10 minutes until thickened.

Stir in the pasta.

Stir in a cup of the cheese.  Season with red pepper flakes if desired.

 Transfer to an 8"x8" baking dish and top with the remaining cheese.

Cover with foil (or this handy dandy foil-on-one-side-parchment-paper-on-the-other deal so that the cheese doesn't stick) and tuck into the oven for 20 minutes. 

Remove foil and bake uncovered for five more minutes or until the cheese is browned to your liking.

And eat it up.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Off-topic: what it’s like to take and pass the CPA exam in 94 days with Becker Fast Pass

This post isn’t about food.  It’s about how I spent my summer taking the CPA exam.  Everything that I wished I would have known going in.

The short version

It sucked, but it was worth it. 

The really long version 

I’m an accountant by trade.  Much like my adventures in cooking and food blogging, I never had any formal training.  Two years ago, I headed back to school to get a Master’s Degree.  My school offered something called the Becker Fast Pass program, an intensive course designed to get students through all four sections of the CPA exam the summer after graduation.  I don't work in public accounting, don't "need" to be a CPA, but it seemed like a worthy achievement.  The cost was $3,000, not cheap, but surely something I could recoup over the remaining course of my career.

For those of you considering Becker, there are less drastic options than the Fast Pass Program.  Whatever you order, you will get a textbook and full access to the online lectures and homework.  You can attend live classes (either a Fast Pass or a slower schedule) or work through it at your own pace.  Becker will work with you if you make the wrong choice (i.e. they will let you switch from Fast Pass to the slower class, from online only to live classes, etc).

I had two hesitations.  First was the curious recommendation that students in the Fast Pass program work no more than 20 hours a week, a concept that is completely foreign to me.  Everyone I talked to said that they didn’t work at all.  Eventually I decided that I was done with being in school and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.  Hesitation #2 was the little detail of the passing rate.  The average pass rate for the CPA exam is around 50%.  It’s not clear how many people pass all four parts on the first attempt, but the numbers I saw were around 10-20%.  People spend years taking and retaking the sections until they pass.  Becker widely advertises that their students pass “at double the rate of non-Becker candidates.” Vague wasn’t comforting.  I wanted something more solid before I gave up my life for three months.  I turned to the internet and saw “Becker is gold” and “Becker is a complete waste of time and money.  You will fail, fail, fail”.

When the time came, I took the leap and forked over $3,000. A few days later I was pleasantly surprised to win a 50% scholarship.  Now that I had less skin in the game, it was time to figure out a schedule.  I was trending toward ignoring the 20 hour work limitation until I looked at the text book and logged into the online software for the first time.  There is no way to convey the sense of hopelessness that settled in within 10 minutes.  I took a look at my finances and told my boss that I wouldn’t be able to work full time for the summer (a flexible employer is a beautiful thing).  My schedule was based around my attention span: 2 hour study sessions.  I got up each morning at 6, worked out, and then hit the books.  I worked each day from 10-3 (yeah that’s right, 25 hours a week. What a rebel).  Then I went home and got in another 2 hours.  On nights that I had class, I headed up to school for the four hour sessions.  On nights when I didn’t have class, it was all study all the time.  On weekends, I studied anywhere between 4-10 hours a day, and rarely left the house or even got dressed.  There was very little TV, except as a study break on weekends.  I saw a few friends here and there, and spent time with a special someone, but had to pass on most everything else.

There was another problem.  You can’t just show up and take the CPA exam because you want to.  You have to be approved by your state accountancy board and be given the notorious NTS (notice to schedule) to sign up.  The test is the same in all 50 states, and can be taken in any state, but each state has different requirements for registration.  In order to meet Becker’s test windows, we had to get the NTS a few weeks before graduation.  It used to be that you could send in a transcript showing the final semester’s courses in progress.  Well, in January, our state eliminated early registration.  Becker suggested that we postpone the first exam until early July and take it at the same time as the second exam, noting that students often take more than one section at a time.  I wasn’t convinced.  The solution?  Register in another state with lower requirements.  A group of friends and I signed up in Georgia.  We live somewhere with a lot of snow, and never set foot in the Peach State, but it got us the NTS and the ability to lock in the test dates that we needed to stay on Becker’s schedule.

I graduated on May 10 and started the program on May 12.  On May 29, I took the first exam.  On August 14, I took the final exam.  The order of the tests was determined by Becker, though you can take them in any order that you want.  Here is a look at what happened along the way:

BEC (Business and Economic Concepts)

Class started: May 12, five live class sessions plus one self-study session

Exam date: May 29

Total study hours (time in class + study): 92.5

The first night, about 20 students showed up for live class.  The number dwindled quickly to 10.  Some switched to home study, some switched to a slower class.  The reason?  It’s a lot of material, and it doesn’t stop coming.  Early on, I fell into the habit of not only going to class but also watching the on-line lectures.  Most of my fellow students also did the same.  The live and on-line material is similar but not identical and we didn’t want to miss anything.

BEC has the reputation of being the “easy” section of the exam, with passing rates consistently over 50%.  The primary topics are cost accounting and finance, which are mostly math.  I’m bad at math, as evidenced by my GMAT math score in the 20th percentile.  By the end of the first section, I was seriously behind.  There just weren’t enough hours in the day, and the material kept coming.   There were many headaches that month.  The only thing that kept me going was the fact that all of my friends in the class felt the same way.  I was scoring between 50-70% on the multiple choice questions (hereafter referred to as MCQ).  A passing score on the exam is a 75.  I didn’t know then that the magic 75 isn’t a percentage.  Getting a 75 on the CPA exam is like saying that you got a 500 on the GMAT, it doesn't relate to real life.  

After a week and a half, class was over and we were on our own.  After pounding the same MCQ’s over and over, I was scoring 80-90%.  There were concepts that I just didn’t get and at times it felt like I was just memorizing the answers.  I took the official AICPA practice test, which only had a few questions, and got most of them wrong.  Another blow came when I started working on the essay questions.  All of the topics seemed very complex, and it seemed more than likely that I would have to write about something I knew nothing about.  I settled for learning the basic answer formula and reading Becker’s essay solutions.

BEC is a three hour exam, made up of three sections of 24 questions each, and then a fourth section with three essay questions.  The MCQ’s are worth 85% of the score and the essays are 15%.  Some of the questions are dummy questions, which are not scored. 

On exam day, I felt uneasy when I woke up.  I did a final quick study, and felt my pulse steadily increase.  By the time I arrived at the test center, I was in full panic attack mode.  I was shaking so badly that the machine couldn’t read my finger prints. I sat down in front of the computer and the first question came up.  It was familiar material and I knew the answer.  The world was right again. There were a few questions that required extra thought, and a few that were on a subject I had never heard of (material that I would later learn was covered in the AUD section of the exam), but nothing that I couldn’t handle.  I triple checked every answer.

The essay section was laughably easy.  Part of taking the CPA exam is that you can never reveal what was on it, but safe to say that they were all very generic subjects.  I followed the structure that the Becker book suggested.   After two and a half hours, I walked out of the test center in reasonable spirits.  I wasn’t sure that I had passed, but I was comfortable that I had done everything I possibly could and would be at peace with the result.  I came home, drank one beer, and immediately opened the FAR textbook.

Scores were released 8 days later.  How do you know when your score is coming out and how to check it?  Let me give you a hint, it’s not through official channels.  You go to the street, aka Another71.  They post the link to NASBA’s website for your state and give you their guess on the release date.  I checked a few times the morning of June 6, but saw nothing.  Later that afternoon, I checked again and saw a big ol’ 83 starting back at me.

75 is passing.  83 is gravy.

FAR (Financial Accounting and Reporting)

Class started: June 2, nine live class sessions plus one self-study session

Exam date: July 1

Total study hours (time in class + study): 181.5

By the time BEC scores came out, I was one week into FAR.  The material seemed easier (less math) and I was soaring from the win of BEC.  And then I noticed that the material wasn’t easier.  The study hours quickly piled up.  I had studied 30 hours a week for BEC, but now 50 hour study weeks became the norm, and I wasn’t getting the material.  My MCQ’s were in the 60-70% range.  I discovered the practice exams in the Becker software, and scored a brilliant 58 on the first and a 70 on the second.

My worst fears were becoming reality.  I had put my life on hold, had given up nearly half of my income, was working insanely hard, and was going to fail.  But again, my five best friends seemed to feel the same way.  Someone pointed me toward a thread on the Another71 forum with a formula to calculate your final score based on your Becker practice test score.  Using the formula, my dismal 58 translated into a 78.  It was small comfort, but at least it was something.

On test day, the same panic attack symptoms set in.  They didn’t go away when the first question came up.  Folks, it was bad.  FAR is a four hour exam with three sections of 30 MCQ’s each and a fourth section of seven task based simulations (sims).  About three out of the 90 MCQ's were on subjects I was comfortable with.  I’m still not ready to talk about the sims, except to say that they were brutal.  I finished the test in three hours, and walked out with my head held down.  I had spent 180 hours studying, what more was I supposed to do?  Clearly the dream was dead.

For the next 48 hours, I had the worst headache a human can have.  Then the healing began.  I decided there was only a 50% chance that I had failed.  Scores weren’t coming out until August 1, so there was nothing to do but press on.

AUD (Auditing)

Class started: July 7, five live class sessions plus one self-study session

Exam date: July 26

Total study hours (time in class + study): 93.5

The one bright spot after FAR was that I finally got a few days off and had a study free July 4th weekend.  The next Monday, I cracked open the AUD book.  AUD has one of the lowest passing rates, down in the 40’s.  I have no auditing work experience, didn’t do particularly well in auditing class, and was reeling from the defeat of FAR.  I should also mention that by this time, my attention span was shot.  I went through the motions of going to class and watching the lectures, but I wasn’t absorbing anything.  I was getting a decent amount of sleep, but felt insanely tired all of the time.  My first pass at the homework was around 20-40%.  But as soon as I got the wrong answer, I was able to easily work toward the right answer.  I worked up to 70-80% on the MCQ’s.   I spent a lot more time on the sims, and through they weren’t easy, they weren’t as bad as FAR.

The rest is an anti-climax.  I didn’t have a panic attack on test day, feeling no more than mildly nervous.  The test wasn’t as pleasant as BEC, but seemed reasonable.  Again, it’s a four hour test with 90 MCQ’s and seven sims.  I triple checked everything and was out of there in two hours.  Scores were due to come out on August 21.

REG (Regulation)

Class started: July 28, seven live class sessions plus one self-study session

Exam date: August 14

Total study hours (time in class + study): 117

REG covers taxation and business law.  It was the area I was most familiar with, and didn’t seem that dramatic.  But truth be told, I just didn’t care anymore.  FAR scores were coming out in a few days.  My group was all getting pretty nervous.  We were all certain that we failed, but we were at the point where we needed to know one way or the other.  We discussed our options.  Go through it all again at a snail’s pace?  Get another CPA prep program?  Walk away from the whole thing? 

The morning of August 1, I woke up in an agitated state.  I was not calm, and did not carry on.  I went into panic mode and stayed there.  I spent the entire day checking the scores, reading the Another71 forums to guess at when scores would be released, and texting my classmates.  This was the day I learned that scores are released by section and then by NTS number.  By the end of the day my body was out of adrenaline.  Then my phone blew up when a friend with a close NTS number had passed.  I logged on for the billionth time of the day.


There isn’t much to tell about the remainder of REG.  My friends all passed FAR, and it was like we were bullet proof from then on.  My MCQ scores ranged in the 70-80’s.  I bombed the practice tests.  On August 14, I went to the test center.  No panic attack, just mild annoyance.  By coincidence, three of my classmates were there.  I got to sit next to one, and about half an hour in, I saw another familiar face bob above the cubicle opposite me.  Like BEC, REG is a three hour exam.  72 MCQ, 6 sims.  A few of the sims threw me, but nothing very dramatic.  Ironically, I used the calculator more on this exam than any of the others.  Two hours later, I left at the same time as the 3rd friend, and we walked out into the summer sunshine and laughed and talked for a while.  And then it was over. 

I went home and…didn’t study.  I went to work on Friday for a full day for the first time in months like it was no big deal.  I went out to lunch with my work friends like it was something we did every day.  I had a great Saturday.  And then a slide.  I felt down for a few days.  Not a depression, just an uncomfortable emptiness.  And then my mental and physical states returned to pre-exam levels.

Scores for AUD and REG were released on August 21.  By then I was on a warm sunny beach with the aforementioned special someone.  No more emptiness and no more panic attacks.  My friends started texting when AUD scores came out in the morning.  85.  At 3:00, the texts came again for REG.  82.  It was over.

Final Thoughts

The next step is to get certified.  I’m pecking away at the process to transfer my scores from Georgia to my home state.  I have to take an ethics exam, have a CPA sign off on my work history, and get a criminal background check.  One day the paperwork game will be done, and then I win. [Update: the paperwork game was easy.  A few weeks later, I became a real CPA]

Out of our group of six, one person failed BEC (she worked a lot) and one inexplicably failed AUD by one point.  Two of my other friends took the program at a slower pace, and have each taken and passed one section.

Would I recommend Becker?  Of course.  It worked for me.  I will say that if I had failed, I wouldn’t have used the Becker Promise (if you fail, as long as you hit their minimum requirements, you can retake the class for the cost of materials.  And if you're anywhere serious about the exam, you will hit their minimum requirements ten times over).  My thought is that if Becker didn’t get me through the first time, why would it work the second time.  Also, if I had it to do all over again, I’m not sure that I would have gone to the live class.  The instructors were a mixed bag.  Some were good, others…were not.  I'm not a loner when it comes to study, but the on-line program that all Becker students get is complete.  The value of the live class was being kept on schedule and getting to spend time with people who were going through the same struggles and emotions that I was.  On my own, I would have fallen into a deep despair.  With many like-minded people around me, the burden was much lighter.

Friday, January 17, 2014

German Chocolate Cake

Last fall, a good friend threw a party to celebrate his 25th and his sister's 35th birthdays.  He mentioned that he wanted to bake a German Chocolate Cake, but a few days later, he said that he wouldn't have time.  It wasn't a surprise since he has a busy work and school schedule.  And it wasn't a surprise that I offered to pick up the slack since we all know I love to bake.

The first challenge with this project was time.  This friend is a fellow grad student, so his busy schedule is similar to my busy schedule.  The party was on Friday night, and Thursday night was class night, leaving no time to bake.  The plan for Thursday: bake the cake before work, and come home over lunch to make the filling and frosting.  The Friday plan: come home at lunch to fill the cake and apply the first layer of frosting.  Friday evening before the party: finish the frosting.

The second challenge was that I've never made a German Chocolate Cake before (BTW, they're not German.  The recipe was developed by an American whose last name was German).  The solution was to pick a recipe from a trustworthy source.  I used David Lebovitz's recipe, which was also posted on Brown Eyed Baker.  With two such fine endorsements, what could go wrong?  Well, as you will soon learn, two things went wrong.

And the final challenge was that I really cared about the outcome.   Grad school is no fun, and this person is on the team of fellow sufferers who have helped me make it all the way to the last semester without medication.  He's on the "friends help you move, real friends help you move bodies" list.

This post is less of a tutorial on how to bake the perfect German chocolate cake than a real world example of how to bake with limited time and how to cope when things go wrong. If you follow along on my journey, I guarantee that you will end up with a delicious cake, hopefully without my particular disasters.  And hopefully you have wonderful friends to share it with, which is really what this is all about.

(Adapted from David Lebovitz)
  • Cake:
    • 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate (I used 6 tablespoons cocoa powder mixed with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil)    
    • 6 tablespoons water
    • 2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate    
    • 2 sticks room temperature unsalted butter
    • 1 ¼ cup + ¼ cup sugar
    • 4 large eggs, separated
    • 2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Filling:
    • 1 cup cream
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 3 large egg yolks
    • 6 tablespoons butter
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup pecans
    • 1⅓ cups coconut
  • Syrup:
    • 1 cup water
    • ¾ cup sugar
    • 2 tablespoons rum
  • Frosting:
    • 8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
    • 2 tablespoons corn syrup
    • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    • 1 cup heavy cream


On Wednesday night, I measured everything out.  I mixed the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt) together, separated the eggs, and cut out parchment paper to line the cake pans.  At 6:00AM on Thursday morning, I started brewing coffee and pulled the cold ingredients out of the refrigerator.  Everything was ready to go.

The original recipe called for baking chocolate, which I don't keep around the house.  As a substitute, I mixed  unsweetened cocoa with vegetable oil.

Add water.

Stir to combine.

Add semi-sweet chocolate.  Heat in the microwave until the chocolate is melted, stir, and let it come down to room temperature.

Pour four egg whites into the mixer.

And beat them until they held soft peaks.

Add ¼ cup of sugar and beat until stiff.

Set egg whites and sugar aside.

Beat the butter and 1¼ cups sugar for five minutes.

Add the chocolate and beat until combined.

Mix in the egg yolks one at a time.

Lightly mix in half of the flour mixture.  Mix in the buttermilk and vanilla.  Add the remaining half of the flour mixture.

Stir in the egg whites until just combined.

Butter the cake pans and line them with parchment paper (I cut out the parchment paper the night before).

The original recipe called for baking at 350° F for 45 minutes.   However, I didn't do that.  My cakes have a tendency to dome, and long ago I'd read that baking them under temperature can fix that.  So I baked them at 300° F for 70 minutes (until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean).  Did I sit around a twiddle my thumbs while they were baking?  No, I did not.  As the smell of chocolate began to waft throughout the house, I took care of my weekly housecleaning and grabbed a quick workout. Grad school teaches you to do routine things at odd times.

So far everything had gone according to plan.  Which meant it was time for disaster to strike.  Problem #1 in this saga: the cake batter overflowed in the oven.  Badly.  My heart sank.  I didn't know if the project could be salvaged, and there was no time to bake another batch of cakes.  I let them sit just long enough to slightly cool, and them dropped them into the refrigerator and went to work.

I picked the project up again when I came home from lunch.  Emboldened by some quick internet research, I grabbed a knife with a serrated blade and hopped for the best.

Sure enough, the best came to pass.  I held my hand over the top of the cake while slicing though to make the cake level with the top of the pan.

With moderate difficulty, I ran a knife around the edge to remove the cake from the pan.  Again, success.

Now the hardest part.  With my history of cake decorating disasters, would I be able to slice the cake into even layers?  I scored small cuts around the base of the cake at the half way point, and then held the top while gradually circling in from the edge into the center. 

Much to my amazement, I came away with four perfectly even layers.  The project was saved.  I wrapped the layers in plastic and returned them to the fridge for safekeeping.

I ran the pecans and coconut through the regular toast setting on my toaster oven. (Try a 350° oven for 5-7 minutes if you don't have a toaster oven or don't want to be that casual in your baking projects.  Watch closely so that the end result is toasted and not burned.)

 Chop the pecans.

Mix the pecans, coconut, and butter in a large bowl, set aside.

Whisk the cream, egg yolks, and sugar in a saucepan on medium heat.

Heat the mixture to 270°, stirring constantly.

Pour the custard over the pecans, coconut, and butter.

Stir until the butter melts and set aside.

To make the syrup, combine the water and sugar in a saucepan on medium heat and stir until fully dissolved.  Remove from heat and stir in the rum (it's about time for alcohol to make an appearance in this project).

Next comes frosting.  Heat the cream to boiling.  Get the chocolate, corn syrup, and butter ready in a bowl.

Pour the boiling cream over the chocolate mixture.  Let stand for a minute and then stir until everything melts.  At this point, I packed up everything in the fridge and went back to work.

Friday at lunch, I came home and unpacked the project.

I placed strips of waxed paper along the sides of the cake plate, and put a dab of frosting in the center to anchor the cake to the plate.

I placed the base layer of the cake on the plate and liberally brushed it with the rum syrup.

I heaped on ¾ cup of filling and spread it out to the sides.

 Next came layer two, with a repeat of brushed syrup and filling.

And then layer three.

And finally layer four.

The next step was to apply the crumb coat of frosting.  I was worried that the frosting would be too stiff to work with after a day in the fridge, but it spread easily (a forewarning of disaster #2).  I covered the cake and packed the project up in the fridge again.

Friday night rolled around and I was ready to finish the project.  I piled on the frosting.

And smoothed it out with a frosting spatula.

Now it was time to pipe a decorative border around the top of the cake.

Cue disaster #2.  The frosting was too soft to hold the shape.  Out of 100+ comments on Brown Eyed Baker, only one other person mentioned this problem, and the advice was to let the frosting chill.  Mine had been in the fridge for a good 6 hours at that point.  I tried freezing it, but the soft consistency returned after a few minutes at room temperature.  It was almost time to leave for the party, so what to do?

I solved the problem the only way I could: by smoothing everything out.  If I had it all to do again, I suppose a better solution would have been to cover the entire top with chocolate.  Ah, hindsight.

The wax paper strips were removed, and the cake was ready to travel.

And we had a wonderful evening.