Friday, September 30, 2011

Lots of Food and Travel links!

I don't often do link round-ups, but I'm always collecting articles and links that I think might be of interest to my readers and, since things have been so busy lately, I just know that I won't get around to sharing some of these in greater detail. Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy them and check them our for yourselves!

Ever wonder why grocery stores use those chalk board-look signs? Here's an interesting look at the psychology behind the supermarkets.

Can't get enough of those fried strips of starch? All you ever wanted to know about French Fries, you can learn at the Frietmuseum in Belgium.

Schedule some gastro-tourism with help from the Tasting Table's new site,  U.S. of Eats: An Atlas of America's Best Food Travel Destinations.

How creative are these train ticket-style invitations? Have party, will travel!

Destination: Dessert! Lonely Planet details their favorite spots for sweets around the globe (I particularly enjoy reading everyone's opinions and contributions in the comments!)

Budget Travel's 15 Places Your Kids Should See Before 15. How many have you seen?

Lonely Planet uncovers the World's Best Long Walks. What are you waiting for? Lace up your boots and get going!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies: Browned Butter Cranberry Oatmeal Bars

Yes, the title of this post really says Christmas! I know it's not even October yet, but when I found out that the 12 Weeks of Christmas Cookies challenge/party started this week I just couldn't resist. I mean, who doesn't love the thrill, the smells, and, of course, the delicious products of holiday baking?

To be perfectly honest, I always get a little nervous when people start talking about Christmas in the fall. I haven't even baked my first pumpkin-laced dessert and now I'm supposed to be thinking about reindeer and stocking up on egg nog? I also find it strange that Christmas products are showing up earlier and earlier in the stores these days. I guess what bothers me the most is the commercialization of a holiday that should be about so much more than wreaths and wrapping paper.

Still, I love everything about Christmas - the music, the family, the decorations, and hope for the world that it represents. And yes, I really love Christmas baking! So each Thursday, from now until December 15th, I'll be sharing some holiday baking with a great group of bloggers - and all of you, of course! This little blog party is being graciously hosted by Brenda of Meal Planning Magic, and I can't wait to see what everyone contributes!

Those of you who are great planners (i.e the people who've already bought presents for one or more people on their Christmas list!) can use this party as an opportunity to get some ideas for your holiday baking. The uber-proactive can even crank up the Bing Crosby and start stuffing their freezers, but if, like me, you're a bit wary of Christmas-in-September, you can just treat each Thursday's post as an ordinary recipe - I promise I won't bring out the red and green food coloring for a few weeks at least!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Red Velvet Initiation

Okay, bear with me because I'm about to tackle a pretty emotional topic - one that, in my experience, has become quite a hot-button, divisive issue in food and dessert circles. Yep, that's right. I'm about to talk about Red Velvet Cake.

Part of this cake is Red Velvet!

I don't know exactly when or how this happened, but Red Velvet Cake has become something of a phenomenon in the food blogging and restaurant world. My southern friends assure me this has always been the case, but somehow I seem to see RVC (yes, it even has its own acronym!) popping up all over these days. Places that were once dedicated to cupcakes, or the even more ubiquitous 'cake ball' (and its trendy cousin, the 'cake pop'), are now splashed with scarlet and liberally smeared with cream cheese frosting.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Bite: A Natural History of the Senses (Diane Ackerman)

It's about that time again, ladies and gentleman. It's been so long since we had a Book Bite that I've decided to share one of my favorites. Like most bibliophiles, I probably have at least one or two hundred 'favorite' books, but this one really is one of my favorite books... of all time. In fact, I liked it so much that I pilfered my tattered, dog-eared, and well-traveled copy from a hostel in Astorga, where I stayed while on Spain's Camino de Santiago last summer.

What book was so awesome it incited me to thievery on a religious pilgrimage? Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses. In my defense, it was one of several books left by pilgrims for other pilgrims to enjoy, so it wasn't outright theft - though that doesn't make the book any less un-put-downable!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Three Cheese Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce

No story today, folks. Just food! Can you believe it? Okay, maybe there's time for just a little story, but then I leave you to enjoy these cheesy, gooey, carb-y stuffed shells in peace, I promise.

I'm finding it hard to believe that, in all my years of cooking, I'd never made stuffed shells until this week. Thankfully, that situation has been remedied and I've now made them twice - in as many days! No, Matt and I aren't in that much of a dinner rut, though this meal might be that good; the second showing was for a family from our church, and though stuffed shells certainly can't heal all the injustices of the world, they can give a little bit of nourishment and strength to some people going through a tough time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Simplicity: 1-2-3 Blueberry Custard Tarts

After weeks of writing about my visit to New York City and indulging in a bit of food nostalgia, I was in danger of mourning the lack of a theme for this week. Well, never fear - I've found one! For some wholly unexplained and unasked for reason, this week has turned out to be a perfect storm of deadlines, drama and to-do lists.

Though I consider myself rather spontaneous, and even pretty level-headed in a crisis, I'm not really the sort of person that thrives on mayhem and madness. In fact, as I get older, my aversion to drama only increases; the more hectic my surroundings, it seems, the greater my desire to get back to basics, to focus, to simplify.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Travel Tips: 8 Household Items You Shouldn't Leave Home Without

Have you ever watched the YouTube video in which a guy packs everything he needs for a month-long trip in a tiny backpack? Okay, maybe you're not that travel-obsessed, but I'm sure you've experienced that moment on the road when you wish you hadn't packed so much - or, at least, had packed better, leaving some luxury items behind in favor of a few, more needful things.

When preparing to walk Spain's Camino de Santiago last year, I painstakingly weighed each item destined for my backpack. A few ounces here or there don't matter much when you're flying to Chicago for the weekend or packing for a cross-country road-trip, but even that seemingly insignificant weight bears careful consideration when you're carrying all your worldly goods almost 600 miles across an entire country!

Though something of a pack-rat by nature, I strive to be a light packer, even on shorter trips - there's something freeing about taking to the road with a minimum of goods on your back - so I'm always eagerly collecting handy tips and putting them to use on my travels. I've gathered a few favorites (including some of the more unusual ones!) in this article for you to enjoy. Of course, I'm always on the lookout for more so share 'em if you have 'em!

Check out the 8 Household Items You Shouldn't Leave Home Without, here!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Root Beer Fruit Dip

Okay, so this isn't really a recipe as much as an idea - but one that's incredibly tasty and worth trying!

Plain yogurt is one of my kitchen staples, and there are times when its cooly acidic flavor is just what I'm craving, but sometimes it's just so...plain. I'm always trying to come up ways to liven and dress it up a bit, and making last week's Root Beer Float Fudge gave me a new idea.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Coca-Cola Braised Beef: Soda Shop Favorite

Today's post features another soda-themed recipe, one that makes use of the world's most popular soft drink - Coca-Cola.

The web is positively awash with Coca-Cola recipes, but instead of taking this opportunity to indulge my omnipresent sweet tooth, I've decided to change things up a bit and present a savory recipe! This blog has been very dessert-heavy of late - a condition I attribute to the fact that I use recipes to bake, but usually 'throw things together' when I cook - so it's high time I featured something a bit more nourishing - even if it does contain Coca-Cola!

I first encountered cola braised meat when we were living in Oklahoma, but it's taken me a long time to attempt a recipe myself. Matt and I don't usually buy soft drinks, but we had some Coke left from cleaning the car's battery terminals last week (a likely story, I know!) so I decided to give it a try - and let me tell you, the result was simply amazing!

I'll admit that I found the idea a bit gimmicky - surely a Coke-flavored meat would fizzy, frothy, and overly sweet (or else not taste of Coke at all!)? - but the resulting cut of beef was deeply flavored and surprisingly sophisticated. In fact, Matt and I were both reminded of some wild boar in chocolate sauce that we tasted in the Tuscan hill town of Monteriggioni. Before you dismiss this as ridiculously high praise, I encourage you to try the recipe for yourself.

(Of course, I think the comparison was helped by the addition of other unusual ingredients, including cocoa powder, cinnamon and cayenne pepper...but the opportunity to braise your meat in chocolate (well, cocoa powder) should just increase the incentive!)

The original recipe called for a detailed, multi-step oven-braising process, but I've simplified it for the slow cooker, so now all that stands between you and rich, tender, sweet-and-savory beef is a bit of marinating, chopping, searing and simmering.

Well, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Root Beer Float Fudge: Soda Shop Favorite

This fantastic recipe came to me via another blogger (thanks, Aimee at Schugary Sweets!) and I immediately thought it would be the perfect choice to share after our deliciously nostalgic trip to Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum yesterday.

I also thought it would be the perfect thing to send to my Mum before she went into the hospital for treatment last week, so all these tasty little squares of fudge got wrapped up and shipped off to New York - well, all but one or two (for quality control purposes, of course!), and those one or two were delicious!

This recipe is packed with great, old-fashioned root-beer flavor and is so simple that it takes the all measuring and guess work out of candy-making. I think it would make a great base recipe for experimenting with other flavors (maple? almond? peppermint? butterscotch?). It is incredibly sweet, so don't be afraid to cut your pieces up small and serve it slightly chilled for the most authentic root beer float experience!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum

We started this week on a nostalgic bent and today I go even further - back to the soda fountain era with a visit to Zaharako's Ice Cream Parlor and Museum in Columbus, Indiana. Zaharako's has been whetting appetites and quenching thirsts since 1900, and it finally quenched mine on a visit to Columbus last month.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Portillo's Hot Dogs: A Chicago Classic

From a Fifties favorite to a Sixties classic, today's eatery is a Midwestern mecca for lovers of the traditional, 'Chicago-style' all-beef hot dog.

Portillo's began, in 1963, with a small hot dog stand, and my family has been visiting its many present-day locations on trips to Illinois since I was a child. Their usual meal of choice is the "hot dog with everything" - a slender, all-beef sausage topped with mustard, relish, onions, tomato, pickle and sport peppers, piled onto a "perfectly steamed poppy seed bun."

Aficionados of this popular ballpark and street-stand favorite might recognize this as the very definition of a Chicago-style hot dog (notice the absence of ketchup - although Portillo's does supply it for those who can't resist!). Their dogs always looks delicious, but it's time for a confession - I don't really like hot dogs! Lucky for me, Portillos has other options, from hearty minestrone soup and famous Italian beef sandwiches to fresh salads and savory burgers.

Monday, September 12, 2011

It's All in the Family: Kirschbaum's Bakery, Western Springs, IL

I have a thing for kitschy bakeries.

Okay, I have a thing for bakeries in general, but they get extra points for quaint character and unique touches - and serving tasty treats, of course! Regular readers of this blog also know that I have a thing for backstories; whether it's the development of a recipe, the origin of an ingredient or, as in this case, the history of an establishment, this enquiring mind always wants to know. As a result, I've done a lot of research in my time and have visited a lot of bakeries, but none satisfy these two loves quite like Kirschbaum's of Western Springs, IL.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Wildflour Bakery, Saluda, NC

As if strolling through streets full of apples wasn't enough foodie delight for one weekend, I also made time to visit a bakery on my recent trip to North Carolina. The Wildflour Bakery - isn't that a great name? - began as a part-time, bread-baking venture in 1981. Now there's a bricks-and-mortar location in the quaint little town of Saluda, NC, just miles from my in-law's cabin, that produces fresh loaves, cookies, pastries and some truly delicious 'stickie buns.'

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Apple Appeal: Indiana Apple Dessert and the 65th North Carolina Apple Festival

Did anyone else leave for Labor Day weekend in the Summer and come back in Fall? There's a distinct chill to the Tennessee air this week, and though I'm pretty sure it's not here to stay (yet!), I'm enjoying the first whispers of Fall that make we want to reach for fuzzy sweaters, bake spiced, pumpkin desserts, and stir up enough split pea soup to feed a wind-chilled army.

Matt and I spent our weekend at his family's cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. We had great weather until Monday, which was fortunate since the men spent all weekend working on the front porch, while us ladies explored the local shops and enjoyed a few summertime events. One of these was the 65th North Carolina Apple Festival, in Hendersonville. 

A four-day celebration of Henderson County's signature crop, the street fair boasts vendors of every apple-based treat imaginable, from cider slushies and caramel apples, to fried apple funnel cakes and deep dish pies. Apple sellers slice up juicy samples of their crisp-fleshed fruits, and there are stalls offering face painting, handmade jewelry, and wooden toys. 

We contented ourselves with an apple funnel cake and a few apple beignets, but the festival put the idea of apples in my mind and this week's cold weather has just cemented it. With a few North Carolina apples in our refrigerator, I decided to whip up something warm and apple-y for last night's dessert.

Cold weather always makes me nostalgic, so I turned to one of my mother's favorite recipes - an apple pie with a twist. She called it 'Indiana Apple Dessert,' probably because we were living in Indiana when she began making it, but also because it's difficult to describe exactly what this dessert is. Crustless, but baked in a pie plate, it's one part pie, one part moist apple cake, and one part something else entirely.

In spite of my complicated description, the preparation is simplicity itself. The finished product is a bit rustic, but can be dressed up with a slick of cream or a generous scoop vanilla ice-cream - I've actually made it as a substitute for regular apple pie for the past few Thanksgivings! And no matter what you call it, it's wholly, utterly delicious- a perfect choice for a week that's one part Summer and one part Fall!

Indiana Apple Dessert
4 to 6 apples, peeled, cored and sliced to fill a deep-dish pie plate
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A few drops of almond extract (optional, but recommended!)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Arrange apple slices in a lightly greased, deep-dish pie plate. In a large mixing bowl, beat together eggs, sugar and melted butter until well combined. Gradually incorporate flour mixture and fold in until blended. Stir in the vanilla (and almond, if desired) and spoon mixture over the apples. The mixture may be quite thick, so take care to spread it evenly. Bake for approximately 40 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and the apples are tender. Serve hot or cold. Goes well with fresh cream, a cozy blanket and a good movie!

This post is linked at:
33 Shades of Green: Tasty Tuesday
Crazy for Crust: Crazy Sweet Tuesday
Chef in Training: Tuesday Talent Show
Crumbs and Chaos: Seasonal Inspiration: Fall is Here
Pinch of This, That & the Other: Whisking Wednesdays
Blue Cricket Designs: Show and Tell Wednesday
My Girlish Whims: Your Whims Wednseday
Lady Behind the Curtain: Cast Party Wednesday
Something Swanky: Sweet Treats Thursday
This Chick Cooks: These Chicks Cooked
Bear Rabbit Bear: Things I've Done Thursday
Designs by Gollum: Foodie Friday
Whipperberry: Friday Flair
It's a Keeper: It's a Keeper Thursday
Simply Sweet Home: Friday Favorites
Sweet as Sugar Cookies: Sweets for a Saturday
Sugar Bananas: Sweets This Week
A Well-Seasoned Life: Sweet Indulgences Sunday

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Eating NYC: Free Foodie Things to Do in New York City

I've spent the past couple of weeks detailing some favorite food-centric sites in NYC (and you may have thought I was finished!), but the truth is that I barely scratched the surface. I made an heroic effort during my three days in the city, sadly knowing that I would leave numerous gems untasted, untried and undiscovered. I didn't even begin to tip the high-end of the scale (Le Bernardin, Per Se, or the new Maialino, for example), but since my travel posts usually skew to the more budget-conscious, I did amass a wealth of cost-free tips and attractions. Here are some of the more food-related tips, so you can afford to have you cake and eat it, too, while visiting NYC!

Grand Central Market

1) Grand Central Market: This was my very first stop on my visit to NYC - my sister and I chose the famous Grand Central Station as our meeting place - and though I didn't cover it in a dedicated post, it's a worthwhile foodie destination. The market is tucked away on the east side of the station, and is Grand Central's answer to the food halls and indoor markets of Europe (think Harrod's or Fortnum & Mason on a very, very miniature scale). As such, the food is a bit pricey, but looking is free and there are lots of exciting things to see. Sniff some spices at Penzeys or catch a whiff of the sea at the Pescatore Seafood Co. stall. For sweet-lovers, there's Corrado Bread & Pastry, and Li-Lac Chocolates.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Flowers of New York City

Well, my Eating NYC series is pretty much wrapped up, but lest you think I spent my entire visit scoffing pastries and downing dumplings, I provide this post as evidence of another side of New York City. I devoted an entire morning to Lower Manhattan's Battery Park, and the nearby Hudson River Park, and snapped these shots of its amazing natural beauty. The park provides a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, a place where one can absorb sunshine, be refreshed by sea breezes, and enjoy Chinese pork buns in peace. An urban paradise? You decide.

Beautiful Sunshine - and not a soul in sight!
So peaceful - perfect place for a pork bun lunch!
Those are Big City fish!
Such wonderful color (with no editing!!!)
100% Natural, 100% Lovely
That's Lady Liberty in the background!
A few steps and a world away from Wall Street!
Rhubarb in the City - who'd have thought?
I collect photos of drain covers from around the world (unusual, maybe, but they're always unique!) and this one's especially pretty!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Cherry, Almond and Dark Chocolate Pie

Can you believe it's already September? The new school year has started, and with it comes the dwindling of hot summer days and the last few luxuriant weeks of fresh summer fruits. Though we live in a time and culture where it's possible to buy strawberries in December and clementines in June, there's nothing quite so lovely as enjoying fresh fruit in its proper season.

I've stocked my freezer with summer's berries and eaten bushels of fresh, fleshy peaches - many of them brought up from my husband's family home in South Carolina where we'll spend this holiday weekend - but I completely neglected the summer's bounty of cherries until this past week. I love the glossy, rubied fruits for eating fresh, or with a dollop of sweetened cream, but I sometimes find the task of pitting them for baking discouragingly laborious. Of course, there's nothing quite like a cherry for richness and depth of flavor, and when I found a recipe for Cherry and Almond Galette in August's pie-centric issue of Spirit Magazine, I knew their time had come.

I was able to purchase a heaping bag of these richly flavorful jewels for a bargain price, leaving me with far more fruit than could be contained in a simple galette - and so my galette became a full-fledged pie. From lack of ingredients I made some modifications to the published recipe, taken from Martha Stewart's New Pies & Tarts, but the pie still emerged bronzed, beautiful, and tasting of late summer. I improvised a cut-away crust to ensure proper baking (I also blind-baked the bottom crust, for this reason, but you might get away with cutting this step) and show off the gorgeous crimson of the fruit inside. The chocolate was added purely on a whim - because I've always loved cherries and chocolate, and because we happened to have some chocolate chips on hand. It does add a bit of luxury and depth to an otherwise simple pie, but if you're a fan of plain fruit pies, feel free to omit it.

The process may seem a bit laborious, but as with most pies, the end result is well worth it. To save time and effort, you can make bulk batches of crust ahead of time and freeze them in single-sized portions. Dough will keep for up to 3 months if frozen.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Eating NYC: Central Bagel, Jersey City, NJ

In this Eating NYC series, I've toured the Chelsea Market, lunched at Amy's Bread, feasted on Fat Witch brownies, downed dumplings in Chinatown, and compared champion chocolate chip cookies at Jacques Torres Chocolates and Levain Bakery - and now the last stop on my food-centric mini-tour of the City has me buying bagels at Central Bagel.

Any food lover worth their salt knows NYC's reputation for legendary bagels, but if you haven't heard of Central Bagel, you're not alone. In fact, there's nothing that sets this little bagel shop apart from the many thousands of others like it in the City - except that it's my sister's favorite local shop, and that's why we made our final stop here, to stock up on bagels for the long drive out west.