25 January 2012

Behind the T-walls: R&R Debrief

Well, hello there friends! I've decided that because I don't have an e-mail address for everyone who might be interested in my Iraq adventures (as in, facebook friends, et al), I would start to post my previously mass e-mailings here. As this is a lifestyle, food, and travel blog, I really didn't feel the need to begin a new one specific for my life in Iraq, since this space is ready made with a following, and being in Iraq automatically meets our self-described manifesto! As Andrea's been diligently posting about her recent travels as well as her adventures in the kitchen, it's only fitting that I also discuss what's going on with me here in Baghdad! I can only hope that posting here will mean I will send updates more often...

As many of you know (and many who don't!), I have been posted in Iraq since August 24 of 2011. I'm not going to re-hash my musings on why on Earth I would want to come here just as the US Military began its departure, but I will talk a bit more about what my life here is like since I don't think that I've given much detail about that in the past, and I will also relay any other relevant information as well.

BIAP - Baghdad International Airport
Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) The ceiling is covered in these weird PVC pipes, and if a good breeze blows through, they just might "sing" for you. 
I left Iraq for a brief leave to go home in mid-December, and I returned to Baghdad just over a week ago. After nearly 4 months behind the T-walls, having the opportunity to go outside and do whatever I wanted was a little bit overwhelming at first. I went from only moving within an armored convoy, wearing PPG (personal protective gear), to being able to walk, unescorted out in the open. I stopped first in Dubai, and all I wanted to do was walk and shop, two things which are not possible here. For a while, I'd been more or less satisfied with the occasional off-compound visit, and I could get my shopping fix shopping on Amazon.com and sending things to myself through the APO. At the end of October, with the then-coming departure of the US military forces, we also lost our access to incoming and outgoing mail through the APO. Though through some personal connections I've been able to make here, I was able to receive a few straggling pieces of mail, though I'm still not sure how they made it to me instead of being returned to sender!

Anyway, when I arrived in Dubai, I went to the mall first, after dropping off my bags at the hotel. No, not the Mall of the Emirates, that would have been too much. After some direction from my boss, I opted to visit the Diera City Centre mall, very close to my hotel. It was a great choice! I did lots of shopping there, though not really for any Christmas presents, surprisingly. I enjoyed a coffee, a macaron (the French kind, not the coconut kind) and a newspaper (yes, an article about Iraq!) at the Paul Bakery in the mall.

Just me and Faisal I
Just me and Faisal I, enjoying a coffee. 
I'd been doing research for months on just what I'd do when I got to Dubai. I decided that my first stop would be the Diera City Centre Mall. It's a 'small' mall by comparison with the massive Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, but with three stories, there was plenty to keep me occupied for hours. Plus, they had a branch of Paul Bakery, my favorite coffee and pastry shop in the world. This is where I sat for an hour or so, enjoying a coffee, ad marcaron, and a Gulf News article about (what else?!) King Faisal I of Iraq.

Following my coffee, I wandered around for about 4 hours until I was totally exhausted by all the things I finally had the possibility to buy, and decided to go back to my hotel for dinner before getting ready to fly back to the States. I made the wise choice to eat at an Italian place at my hotel. I had the option to choose from about 40 different restaurants, and all I could think was, that they don't do anything simply in Dubai. I picked La Casa Mia, and was really drawn by the prospect of REAL! Cheese! Pizza! Look at how beautiful this 4-cheese pizza is! 

Though the service wasn't spectacular, I didn't really care since I wanted more or less to be left alone, and I also was just trying to remember that I had to make sure to pay at the end of my meal (we don't pay for our meals here, so you get quite accustomed to just walking away when you're finished eating!). I also opted to have a dessert. I didn't have the energy to wait for the flowing chocolate lava cake that I really wanted, so I opted for the vanilla pannacotta with a  raspberry (?) - mango sauce. Garnished with a real vanilla bean, I was definitely happy.
After dinner, I did manage to remember that restaurants require payment at the end of the meal, and then I headed back to my room to get ready for the 14-hour flight back to DC. The wonderful thing about this long-haul flight was that the galley was constantly full of snack-foods.The other wonderful thing? My account shows that I have the vegetarian/vegan option, and that means that I always get served first! The downside? The flight attendant will wake you up to force-feed you your special vegan food. The other downside: The flight is 14 HOURS!!! I don't even think our 2008 flight to China was that long...

When I arrived to Washington, I realized after I got outside, that I was actually a little bit afraid of riding in the car...on the roads...without armor on the car, or on myself. I think these feelings were completely unfounded, despite not riding in a light-skin vehicle in nearly 4 months, let alone in a vehicle at all in more than a handful of instances. As far as I could tell riding in the car after my arrival, every single car was trying to swerve into us. Needless to say, it took me a couple of days to re-acclimate, and be willing to drive at all.

I realize now that this recap is starting to get a bit long-winded. So let me just give you a few photo highlights of the trip:

Bronner's Christmas Wonderland
Who doesn't need a little more Christmas in their life? I sure did!

Gettin' ready to chow down on some 'famous' chicken.

  Indianapolis Sunset 
Amazing Midwestern Sunset!

  Christmas Morning 
 Just home from Church at Christmas

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!
 Making homemade pretzels with Auntie E

Making Christmas with Andrea - High Tea at the Mayflower on New Year's Day

  Looking at the Facilities of Doukenie Winery 
 A visit to pick up my membership wines from Doukenie Winery

  End of R&R Happy Hour 
 Last night in town - Happy Hour at Ardeo + Bardeo with the girls


14 January 2012

Whipped Cream + Alcohol...Yes

A friend of mine told me about Whipped Lightening, an alcohol-infused whipped cream in a can. How could this not be a good thing? It comes in multiple flavors and the website includes recipe ideas. I knew I had to try this.

The problem is that the closest store to sell it is near Baltimore and I was not renting a car to buy whipped cream. So since I had a lot of heavy whipping cream and a number of liquors I decided to try making my own. I had a couple girlfriends over and we narrowed down my collection to four likely suspects.

I've never added another liquid to the heavy cream so I didn't know how much I could add before the cream would no longer whip; so there was a lot of trial and error. You also might be asking yourself, Why would I need alcohol-infused whipped cream? Well that's a good question; but really why wouldn't you? I think it would just be a nice touch to desserts, a way to dress up coffees, top off a jello shot, whatever you want really.

We started with the Malibu.

I love coconut so I figured this would be really good. And it was pretty good. Our scientific method, which involved eating a lot of whipped cream, discovered the following:

Yum coconut
Could do with a lot of things (anything chocolate, top of a pina colada, coffee, etc)

Could definitely taste the alcohol burn of rum

We believe that a small addition of coconut milk (milk not cream as cream of coconut would break down the heavy cream) would help mask the rum and enhance the flavor.

Next up was the Buttershots.

This was the clear winner for all of us. My notes from our tasting only say "Yay!".

The Buttershots was followed by Godiva.

Aesthetically not quite as pretty as Godiva is a dark brown so it did color the whipped cream a little. Contrary to the Buttershots when we had nothing bad to say, with the Godiva we really had little good to say. With this we could also taste the burn of alcohol but, unlike the Malibu with which the coconut flavor was still very much evident, we couldn't taste any chocolate at all. We decided this was a good concept but could be helped along maybe by a small amount of cocoa powder or Hershey's syrup. It would also be interesting to experiment with some mixes and use both the Malibu and Godiva. Or Godiva and Chambord.

You can see how this experiment could have gone of forever.

However I only had a limited amount of heavy cream so we ended the project after the fourth liquor...root beer flavored vodka. (You might also be asking why would I have that. My answer is the same; why wouldn't I have that?)

This too had the heavy burn but like the Malibu you could still very much taste the root beer. The real problem with this one is the very limited application. Pretty much you could use it to top off root beer floats.

I would definitely still like to get my hands on some of the Whipped Lightening...largely because they have flavors like German Chocolate and Pumpkin Spice and I'm not sure how to make those on my own. It certainly was a fun experiment and I can see myself putting this to use in future dessert recipes. Especially since we're still in the dead of winter (when DC remember that it's winter and it's not 60 F that is) and I can see this nicely topping off hot chocolate.

09 January 2012

Hazelnut Crunch

*I pre apologize that the formatting is all wonky. I don't know what's happening here and can't get it fixed.

If you like Ferrero Rocher chocolates you will love this cake. Like many recipes I found this on Epicurious and modified it a bit to suit my pocketbook. I will say that this is one of the fussiest recipes I've ever dealt with, but that aside I think it's also my new favorite chocolate cake recipe.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sifted all purpose flour
1/3 cup sifted unsweetened cocoa powder
4 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar

First you have to sift the flour and cocoa powder three times.  THREE TIMES

Also you have to clarify the butter. Melt the butter but try not to let it simmer. Once completely melted, skim off and discard the floaty stuff on top. Then spoon out the remaining liquid, leaving anything on the bottom of the pan alone.

Add the vanilla to the clarified butter and set aside.

Next you have to rig up a double boiler and whisk the eggs and sugar until they get warm. It definitely helps to pre heat the water otherwise it takes forever for the mixture to warm up.

When that's done, put your bowl of clarified butter/vanilla into the warm water in order to keep it liquidy.

Then using a standing mixer if you have one (you'll get really tired if you don't) whisk the warm egg mixture until it triples in size; roughly 5-6 minutes. When it's done it should be all white and frothy and trick you into thinking its meringue.

Then, somewhat incredibly, you have to sift, again, the blasted flour/cocoa mixture over the fluffed eggs. Do it in three batches and fold it all together, do not use the mixer. Finally fold in the butter.

Pour into a 9 inch, parchment paper lined cake pan and bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes.

Hazelnut crunch
1 cup Rice Krispies
1/3+ cup chopped hazelnuts

This is where one of my modifications came in. The original recipe wants you to use some European hazelnut flavored chocolate that's so fancy you can only order it online. No. Why bother when there's Nutella? You can use Nutella on its own or what I did was melt some regular chocolate in a double boiler (I would recommend Baker's or Chiradelli) and then add Nutella. I didn't measure, I just spooned it in until it looked like I might have enough and then tossed in a little bit more.

Mix the hazelnuts with Rice Krispies (I used Cocoa Krispies because I knew I'd eat the rest of the box!) with chocolate/Nutella mixture.
Then spread it on the bottom of a parchment paper lined 9 inch spring form pan.

Before that hardens you'll want to press the cake on it to make sure that they stick together. So a bit of a late warning but hold off making this until the cake is cool enough to come out of the pan.

The mousse is one of the easiest things to make and one of the yummiest things to just eat. All you need to do is make whipped cream, use at least 1 & 1/2 cups heavy cream and beat until it's all whipped creamy, then fold in Nutella. I'd say use 2/3 to 3/4 of the smaller jar of Nutella. Spread that on top, dust it with cocoa powder, and viola!

I made this cake three times in two weeks. The second time was my contribution to dinner at one of my favorite cousin's house. I brought home a left over piece to my mom who loved it so much that I made it again a few days later for her birthday.