25 September 2010

Have You Ever Wondered What Being a T-Rex is Like?

My most recent trip to Serbia began very inauspiciously. I walked into the airport with my suitcase, duffel bag, camera case, the large shoulder bag that holds my monster laptop, and my regular shoulder bag that holds everything else. Three, maybe four steps into the airport I promptly fell flat on my face.

Well mostly it was my shins that took the brunt of the fall which was good because I was wearing glasses but still. And of course all my bags fell on top of me. Have you ever fallen like that? Me (and I do that often), I usually just want to remain sprawled on the ground for a couple minutes to gather my thoughts, assess the damage, and put off facing everyone who just saw me fall. That is usually not really an option though, especially if you happen to do this in the street. Which I have done. A quadron of very nice men rushed over to pull my luggage off me and and check to make sure I was ok. I am not really ok but what can you do?

I got to my feet and dragged my bags over to the United check in counter. Sigh. My flight wasn't until 5:30 but I'd planned to get to the airport at 2 because on my last trip it took over 90 minutes just to get up to the counter there were so many people. This time I was there super early...and walked straight up to one of the blasted check in counters. So with over three hours to spare I headed to security which was equally empty. Except that I was in line behind a woman with two small children and a zillion carry ons who had obviously never been near an airplane before. ever. No ma'am, you cannot bring large tubes of toothpaste, lotion, yogurt, and SCISSORS on the airplane. I was ready to stab her with the bloody scissors. Her and the security guard who was possibly the slowest moving person I have ever encountered in my life.

I finally got through (no problems with my bags thank you) and headed for the nifty new trains at Dulles that give the illusion it's a real airport. Then I got on the escalator, or at least tried to. My nemeses, gravity and stairs, struck again. The foot to first hit the escalator and flew. I grabbed the rail with my right hand but the blinding premonition of tumbling head over tail down the escalator prompted my to sacrifice the bag in my left hand in favor of holding the rail with both hands and hold on tight. Unfortunately (and yes it can get more unfortunate) I hadn't actually closed the bag I'd let go of so as it tumbled down the stairs everything flew out: pens, my passport, tickets, granola bars, and yes, my laptop. Awesome.

A very nice gentleman helped me grab everything from the bottom of the escalator and I limped on my way. So to inventory, I'd banged up my shins and knees pretty well, wrenched my back, and a possibly no longer working laptop, my writs were sore, and I was getting a headache. Oh, and then there was the mild humiliation. If there's a collection of funny security video clips I made top 10.

And that wasn't the end. My flight was delayed for two hours. Luckily I had a five hour layover in Munich so I wasn't going to miss my connection but frankly I'd rather spend the time in the Munich airport than in Dulles. We finally got on the plane and I was happy to discover that, while I had a middle seat, at least it was in the first row of econ plus so I had all that leg room. We were finally served typically bad United food but I was so tired and hungry at that point I was happy for almost anything. Unfortunately that's when the bad thing about being in the middle kicks in. With people (in this case large men) on either side of me with jutting elbows I had little choice but to keep mine tucked close to my body and use only my hands and lower arms. At that moment I felt a lot of sympathy for T-Rex's. Although now that I think on it, I can empathize a lot more with them than with other dinosaurs. I'd have gone for the meat option as well.

But I've arrived now and am happy to be back in Belgrade. Hopefully the entire airport experience will be limited to that and not a portent of my entire trip.

21 September 2010

Happy Moon Festival!

Happy Moon/Mid Autumn Festival to all my friends in Taiwan! And of course anywhere else that celebrates the Mid Autumn Festival. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Hey wait, It's only the 21st, Autumn doesn't even start until the 23rd." Ah ha! That's what you think you silly people using the solar calendar. Pfft. The Mid Autumn Festival is celebrated in the middle of the 8th month of the Chinese, i.e. lunar calendar and usually falls in September.

When I lived in Taiwan, and you have no idea how much I've been dying to braek out a 'when I lived in Taiwan' story, I got to celebrate this festival with all my friends. Celebrations and activities were heldn in Liberty Square in Taipei and there were firecrackers (naturally), shadow puppet plays, music, and other such fun. And there were mooncakes.

I had a lot mooncakes. I think I may have lived on them for a week. We all got a cake at the National Taiwain Normal University's Chinese Culture and Language Center. I think that was my favorite. If I recall, the one I had was filled with red beans and walnuts. I also got a huge box of them from the family of a couple of my students. Some of those were good; I remember nuts and pineapples. Some were less good...green tea paste and an egg yolk. I don't like green tea and I don't like eggs. Except when they're in brownie or cake batter.

On top of these, there were the "free" mooncakes in the Da-An Forest park. A little background here...and I really only vaguely know these details so forgive me if they're not exactly correct. It seems that people were not quite so happy with the level of taxes they were paying so to mollify the people, the government started a lottery. A portion of taxes were set aside for this lottery (which was maybe monthly?) and you didn't have to buy tickets. Lottery numbers were autogenerated and printed on receipts. On ALL receipts. And lord help you if you tried to escape the store without your receipt because the cashier would run you down to give it to you. For a reason that I don't remember, there was an organization collecting receipts and in exchange for them you got moon cakes and milk tea. I think it was something like five receipts for each. A couple of my friends and I trooped down to the park with bags of receipts and just dumped them on the ladies with the food. The milk tea wasn't fabulous; I had definitely had better. But the mooncakes weren't too bad and, like I said, they kept me fed for a good week.

I remember having a heck of a time trying to describe to people what mooncakes were. So when Lauren found some here in DC and bought me one, I took some pictures.

Yummy! Mooncakes were always kind of like chocolates, you could never be quite sure what was inside. Or, for all I knew, they were fully marked and I just had no idea. My Mandarin reading skills were never very fabulous. So it was with a lot of anticipation that I slowly cut into this one, and discovered...

Egg yolks. Ah my old nemesis. This one seemed to have a dual filling, nuts/seeds and the egg yolks. The nuts/seeds part wasn't so bad but I totally avoided the egg yolks.

Anywho...Happy 中秋節!

09 September 2010

Sugar Coma Extraordinaire Part Two

Part two begins with me hoping that I remember everything that I didn't write about in part one. Let's start with the sorbets.

I made four sorbets but ended up tossing one because I tried to cheat and it didn't work out. My two favorites were the coconut and spicy chocolate.
1 cup coconut water
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk

Combine the coconut water and sugar and stir over a lowish heat until the sugar is dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool completely then stir in the milk and chill until cold. Once chilled, stick it in your ice cream maker (sorry yes you do need one for all the sorbets).

Coconut water has little chunks of coconut in it. If I'd had any I would probably have also added shredded coconut to the sorbet.

Spicy Chocolate:
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
Cayenne pepper to taste

Combine water and sugar and stir over low heat until sugar is dissolved (a developing theme this!) then whisk in the cocoa and pepper and simmer for about 3 minutes. Chill mix for at least two hours before putting through the ice cream maker.

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 1/2 pounds fresh peaches
juice of one lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine sugar, water, and corn syrup and stir over low-medium heat till sugar dissolves. Then boil without stirring for about a minute. Remove from heat and cool to room temp. Blend sliced peaches*, lemon juice, salt, and cooled syrup in blender until smooth then freeze immediately in the ice cream maker.

* It is entirely up to you whether or not to remove the peels from the peaches. If you do, the sorbet turns out a nice yellow. However, if you keep the peels on the sorbet has more texture and gets these flecks of pink and orange.

I kept the peels on my peaches.

1 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
2 ripe mangos
juice of one lime

This is the one I cheated on and used mango juice instead of mangos. So what I actually made was a mango slush and not a sorbet. Use the mangos.

Combine sugar and water yada yada. Peel mangos and cut as much fruit as possible off the pits. Combine the mago, lime juice, and syrup in blender then refrigorate until cool before running through the ice cream maker.

Now, all sorbets are eadible right out of the ice cream maker. However, for a firmer sorbet freeze for a couple hours (in the freezer, not the ice cream maker).

While part of the purpose of my party was not, as the beginning of this sentance may indicate, alliteration, it was the absence of cake, I decided to make cupcakes. I generally disdain the cupcake and am completely confused by DC's love affair with them. They require little talent or artistry and the ones available at the various shops and food vans here are overpriced and, frankly, only so-so in taste. I mean really...how much talent does it take to bake a cupcake and slap some frosting on top? But...if you decorate the cupcake, then I'm on board. And since Lauren got me the Hello Cupcake! decorating book for my birthday I decided to make some.

I cheated a little here as well and started out with a white cake mix to save some time. I made orange cupcakes so I also mixed in a little orange extract, grated orange rind (I used all the rind of one large orange) and the juice of the orange. I got some of the rind on my face while I was zesting it and holy crap that stung! For like ever.

After the cupcakes cooled I spread a simple cream cheese frosting (1 8 oz brick cream cheese, 1/2 stick of butter, and 1 pound powdered sugar) on them. For the decorating, I made candy butterflies. I used both dark and white chocolate and purple and blue candy disks to make them. It was actually much easier than I anticipated.

Melt the chocolate and candy disks in ziplock bags in the microwave for about 30 seconds then massage to fully melt. If further micorwaving is needed do it in 10 second increments, massaging after each round. Be careful to not over heat because then, well just do it.

Moving one wing at a time, draw the outline of the wing with the dark or white chocolate then fill in with the color. Using a toothpick, draw through the outine into the color to create the patterns on the wings. I seems to have managed to forget to take a picture of this stage. If you like you can also use the outline chocolate to make antennea. Once these are hard,  you can put them on top of the cupcakes. You can use a small piece of candy to help prop up the wings. Then to "glue" them together, pipe additional melted chocolate or frosting between the wings.

You can remelt the candy in the ziplock bags during the process when it starts to reharden. However, do it in small increments (again about 10-15 seconds) and massage each time so as to not over heat.

I also used left over fondant flowers to decorate some of the cupcakes. I thought they turned out pretty cute.

For one of the savory desserts I decided to try mini apple pies with cheddar cheese baked into the crusts. I prepared the pie crust a couple days before and chilled it until I was ready to use it. I was thrilled that the recipe let me use my food processor to make the dough rather than slave over it with a pastry cutter. I rolled out the dough as I would for a pie but used a medium sized cookie cutter to cut out the pie crusts. I didn't buy a round cutter and regretted it. While the hearts I used were cute enough, they are harder to keep together and I couldn't use as much filling as I would have liked. For the filling I used granny smith apples because I wanted something a little tarter to play off the sharp cheddar.

I piled as much apple as I could in the hearts then covered it with another dough heart, used my thumb nail to make indentations around the heart to close it up and brushed it all with a little egg white. Then I topped it all off with shredded extra sharp white cheddar cheese.

I baked them at 350 for about 15ish minutes and viola!

Lacking a mini cupcake pan but having recently bought a tart tin, I decided to make pecan tassies into one giant pecan tart.

For the shell:
1/2 cup cream cheese
1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup flour

Chop the cream cheese and butter together then sift the flour over it and cut together using a pastry cutter. The hilarious thing about this was that I was staring at my food processor, which I'd just used to make the mini apple pie crust, wondering if I could/should use it for this. Alas I didn't but at least my arms got a good workout. I rolled out the dough laid it in the tart tin. I was also reminded about one of the many reasons why I'm not a big maker of pies. I cannot roll out dough in a round shape to save my life. It didn't matter so much with the mini pies but the dough for the tart had to encompass the entire tin.

My dough reminded me strongly of Kosovo.


It actually wasn't big enough to completely drape over the tarte tin so I ended jup pinching off bits from the too big side and squishing them onto the dough where there were gaps. But in the end it was fine.

For the filling:
3 eggs
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 1 /2 tablespoons vanilla
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans

Lightly whisk the eggs then whisk in the brown sugar a little at a time, add the vanilla, butter, and salt. Fill the tin with the chopped pecans and pour the sugar/egg mixture over it. Bake for about 30 minutes at 350.

Of all the desserts I made, my favorite was the fresh strawberry pie. Now I know I've just said that I'm not normally a pie maker, but this is the exception to my rule. I think it's because the pie crust is actually a cookie.

Cookie crust:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks butter, chopped

One again use the food processor!! After it becomes dough press it into your pie pan and bake at 350 for 15+ minutes. Mine probably could have used 20 minutes but I got impatient. When you're ready for the next step (I set aside my crust for a few days) fill either with sliced or whole strawberries. Whole berries make a prettier pie but it's harder to slice.

I actually used a combination and filled in the cracks between the whole berries with slices. Over this you're going to pour a strawberry galze.

4 tablespoons strawberry jello
2-ish tablespoons corn startch
1/2 cup sugar
12 ounces water

Make sure you combine all the dries well before adding the water. If cornstartch isn't ready to mix with the water then it's just not pretty. Stir over medium heat until it thickens.

Then pour over the berries and let sit till set.

It really was my favorite. After everyone left and I'd cleaned up I sat down and ate the rest of the pie right out of the pie dish. And felt absolutely no guilt.

Here I took a break and made coffee. There was as much coffee drinking during this process as there was wine drinking.

The most complicated by far of all the desserts were the petit fours. I blame what a pain in the ass they are on the fact that they're French. Explains it all really. I used my little brother's method for making these. His turn out beautifully. Mine not so much. But they tasted just fine. So you need to start out by making cake. Just regular cake in a 9x13 pan. I made both chocolate and white cake. Once they have cooled, flip them out onto waxed paper that's been generously dusted with powdered sugar. Cover with more powdered sugar and more waxed paper and a cookie sheet. Then weigh down the cookie sheet until the cakes halve in thickness.

Knew those weights would come in handy! When the cakes are done being weighted down, cut the cake into quarters, the slice each quarter in half, fill, put back together, wrap tightly in plastic wrap then tin foil, and freeze for a few hours. Bless Lauren for giving me a cake leveler for my birthday!! I've said times out of mind that I can't slice a cake down the middle for all the tea in China. The leveler was brilliant for slicing the squashed cake quarters. Hurrah for Lauren and Wilton.

I used both a raspberry compote and bittersweet chocolate ganache for my fillings. When the cakes are sufficiently frozen, cut them into smallish squares and dip in melted chocolate. Not chocolate chips. You need to use proper candy chocolate for this because chocolate chips never melt nor stay thin enough. Now my first batch didn't turn out so pretty. I was again impatient and didn't let the cake freeze long enough so soon enough my melted chocolate was full of cake crumbles. All but about the first 10 in that batch turned out bumpy. The second batch froze almost too long and froze the bloody chocolate! There is apparently a very fine balance as to the level of frozenness that you need for these cakes.

I actually feel as exhausted writing this as I felt making it all. Next up are the pumpkin cheesecake squares. Pumpkin may be unseasonal in August but I love it so I didn't really care. This is one of thos ehappy recipes that I got off Epicurious so if you want it, click the link cause I'm going to opt to not write out the entire thing. Suffice it to say...yum-my.

I love "crumble"


Um, apparently that was the extent of the pictures I took. It's really hard to keep track of making everything and taking pictures of everything.

I also made raspberry walnut blondie brownies and apparently didn't take any pictures of those at all. Pity because they tasted darn good. Although I can tell you-do not use frozen raspberries! Bad, bad idea. At one point, because they were generating so much liquid, I had to take the brownies out of the oven and spoon off about a cup of juice. And I had to bake them almost twice as long as the recipe indicated.

Last but absolutely not least was the lemon goat cheesecake which was the unanimous winner. I had a lemon goat cheesecake at Nage on my actual birthday and it was like a revelation. Why would you make cheesecake that doesn't have goat cheese?!

In a food processor (or blender) crush graham crackers. You'll need about 2 cups for a 9 inch springform. I didn't want to buy and entire box of crackers for this so I actually used the leftover Golden Grahams cereal from the pan s'mores. Mix the crushed grahams with 8 tablespoons melted butter then press into the greased springform pan.

For the filling:
2 pounds cream cheese
1 1/4 cups sour cream
12 ounces goat cheese
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
juice of 1 lemon
10-ish ounces lemon curd (to taste really)

First beat the cream cheese in an electric mixture until creamy, about 5 minutes. Add the sour cream, goat cheese and sugar and beat until smooth scrapping down the sides every once in a while. Add the eggs one at a time then the vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon curd until fully incorporated. Pour into the springform* and at 350 for about 2 hours. Once cool, spead additional lemon curd on the top and then thickly cover with blueberries. And naturally, I managed to not take pictures of this either. Awesome.

*Note-baking cheesecakes in a water bath helps them bake more evenly. Make sure (before pouring the cheesecake mix into the pan) to cover the bottom well with tin foil. Then place the pan in a larger baking pan and fill with water so it comes up at least 1/2 -1 inch on the springform. Periodically check to see if more water is needed while baking.

So while I don't have pictures of a couple things, I did at least remember to get some pictures of the table o'desserts.

The final touches were to include a fruit plate, a cheese plate (sharp white cheddar, raw goat's milk hard cheese, stilton with apricots, and Italian truffle cheese) and a bowl of homemade whipped cream. I had planned to take post party pictures of all the desserts but it seems I made a wee too much food so the after pictures looked oddly like the before pictures.

In the end, all the work and crumbs were well worth it. I had fun making at least some of the desserts and had a great time at the party. So thanks to everyone who came and everyone in my office who ate the left overs over the course of the following week!

05 September 2010

Wedding Cookies

Amidst all my preparations for my Sugar Coma party, my sister got engaged. Sugar cookies are one of her favorite things so I got some wedding-themed cookie cutters and made some of the cookies I was doing for my party for her.

I mostly used food markers to decorate these but I did try a few other things. On three of the brides I sprinkled pale blue sanding sugar and painted gold and silver luster dust over the flooding on a couple things. I think my favorite was the honeymoon moon.

Sadly that picture didn't turn out very well. Knowing my sister, I knew that she'd be having a beach wedding/honeyoon so I drew a little sun, a palm tree, and some waves on the moon. I also sent her some of the champagne glasses I was doing for my party.

To ship them, I packed them up with lots of waxed paper and tissue paper in a sturdy box. Some of them didn't make it to her intact (so btw Bernadette...this is what they were all supposed to look like!) but more than crumbs made it so I consider that a win.