Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's a Miracle!

And no, I'm not referring to the fact that I'm finally updating the blog - although that might seem miraculous and surprising, given my recent track record - I'm talking about the picture below:

Me and my adorable nephew, James, on my visit to Chicago in April

It may look like just an ordinary picture to you, but this one is special because it comes from my old hard drive. You know, the one that crashed months ago. The one that left me with no photos. The one that totally took the wind out of my sails and left me with little desire to get back in the blogging saddle. The one they told me would never, ever come to life again.

To be honest, I was crushed when it happened, but eventually I came to terms with writing all those things off. I'd already mentally said goodbye to a year's worth of pictures, posts (and all the prep work on my graduate thesis), when an old college friend offered to have a look at it for me. As talented as my friend is with computers - and believe me, he's a genius - I didn't have much hope. I'd been told, by people who know about these kinds of things, that I'd never see my stuff again...

...And that's where the miracle comes in, because my friend wasn't just able to save my photos - he saved everything! All at once, the things I thought were lost were restored to me, and it was a real lesson in gratitude.

I have so much stuff. I mean, I truly, honestly want for nothing, and yet the most important things I have aren't material. They aren't even the pictures on my hard drive or the posts I've written - they're my friends and family. Truly awesome people who are there when I need them and who, sometimes and in the right circumstances, can even work miracles!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Big Reveal

Well, the Olympics are over, and even though Matt and I only caught snippets of the action in London (one of the downsides to having no TV), I'm already going through the early stages of UK withdrawal.

I know things have been a little Brit-centric around here lately, but there's good reason for it - beyond the infectious display of Olympic spirit. You see, while the rest of the world turns its attention away from the UK, in the coming weeks I'll be focusing on that lovely corner of the world more than ever. As the athletes fly back to their respective countries and the ink dries on London's Olympic headlines, the headlines on The Traveling Spoon will be zeroing in on all things British.

That's right, in plain English......

The Traveling Spoon is going to England!!!!!

And we're not just talking about a two-week jaunt: I'll be relocating with one suitcase, my computer, a few books and this blog for the next 9-11 months!

Those of you who've been following along for a while might be a little confused; I've mentioned that Matt is scheduled to deploy for Afghanistan soon...and he's still going. The only thing that's changing is that I'll be using our year apart to attend grad school at the University of Cambridge.

I can't believe I'll be seeing views like this every day!

As you might have guessed, this plan has been in the works for a while - and keeping it under wraps this long has been one of the hardest things I've ever done! I've talked about going back to school for the past few years, but when I submitted my application back in January, I really had no idea that I would be accepted, find funding, and actually end up, seven months later, packing all my worldly goods into a single suitcase for a year abroad.

It may sound hopelessly romantic, but sometimes the prospect is as daunting as it is thrilling. Preparing for a military deployment is challenging for any couple, but it's an entirely different experience when both parties are relocating within weeks of each other (on the bright side, the time difference will be less). Over the past few months, I've struggled to balance school work with deployment preparation, trying to carve out time for preliminary studies while preserving some quality time and making memories with Matt before he leaves.

While I've been stockpiling warm sweaters and potentially useful manuscripts, Matt has been spray-painting his name onto an endless array of military supplies. While I've been dropping useful gadgets into our large, blue suitcases, Matt has been filling olive-drab A-bags with issued gear. Usually my pre-deplyoment activities consist of researching what can and can't be sent by post to Afghanistan, not ferreting out the most competitive British banks and cell phone plans.

Which brings me to another important point. Much like this blog, Matt's past deployments have been fueled by baked goods and tasty treats in regular installments. During the last deployment cookie-filled packages arrived with absolutely regularity, but that's not likely to be the case with this one. While I haven't been allocated lodging yet (I'm still waiting for the student visa that will allow me to stay in the UK for a year) the likelihood that it will come with a kitchen is very, very small. I'm crossing my fingers for at least a hot plate of sorts, but it's possible that for the next 9-11 months, The Traveling Spoon could have a lot more traveling and a little less spoon!

Too bad I won't have a kitchen - I love this apron from Cost Plus World Market!

I hope this won't deter you from following along. At the very least, I'll be eating my way through one of Britain's most beautiful university towns, and possibly lifting the veil a little on my experiences as a Cambridge graduate student. As much as I'm aware of the challenges of this trip, I'm also incredibly excited about it - especially now that I've finally had the chance to break the news - and I hope you'll be excited about it too!

Since Matt and I are counting down the days to his departure, I might not be as much of a presence on the blog as I'd like over the next fews weeks. Rest assured, though, that I'll be back to take you all in my suitcase on this English adventure! Before you know it, we'll be saying 'Cheerio' to Kentucky and a sweet hello to Cambridge!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pub Grub at Home: More Free Kindle Books!

Those who've followed The Traveling Spoon for any length of time know that I have a very special relationship with the United Kingdom. It's where I spent the majority of my childhood and where I first developed a taste for travel. It's also where I developed a taste for mushy peas and Cadbury's chocolate; where I learned to devour any meat smothered in brown gravy, or any meal doused in malt vinegar.

These days - thanks to the Olympics - it seems the world is going bonkers for Britain, and while British food is much maligned in culinary circles, I believe its poor reputation is undeserved. Some of the best meals I've ever eaten have consisted of stick-to-your-ribs pub grub, and now I've uncovered a few more free Kindle books to help you whip up some up at home. Of course, I'm not sure how long they'll be free, so what are you waiting for? Get connected and start cooking!

How to Make An Authentic Sunday Roast with Yorkshire Pudding

How to Make Cornish Pasties

How to Make Devonshire Tea with Scones, Strawberry Jam and Clotted Cream

How to Make English Breakfast

How to Make English Fish & Chips in a Beer Batter

Again, I haven't been compensated for this post, nor have I had the chance to cook from any of these books. I'm just passing on a tasty-looking tip!
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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Best Cocoa Brownies (from Alice Medrich!)

A brownie, is a brownie, is a brownie, right? Not so fast. Anyone who's tasted more than a handful of these rich, chocolaty bars knows that not all brownies are created equal.

First of all, there's the eternal fudgy-versus-cakey debate. Then you might be forced to decide between dark or semi-sweet, and finally, if you're really pressed for time, between from-scratch or boxed. Bring up the topic of add-ins (walnuts or pecans? marshmallows? toffee pieces? mint swirl?) and the issue gets even more complicated. But there's one kind of brownie that almost always get a bad rap: the cocoa-based brownie.

In my kitchen, cocoa powder is the ingredient I reach for when I've eaten all my 'real' chocolate but still need that fudgy fix. It's my go-to for last minute potluck desserts, when I don't have time to run to the store for 'better' ingredients. It's my "this-will-have-to-do" substitution when I run out of chocolate mid-recipe. In short, I've always treated cocoa powder like chocolate's plain-Jane sister; the shelf-stable, last-ditch, emergency alternative for actual chocolate.

It's a shameful truth, but I get the feeling I'm not alone in this. There seems to be this unvoiced maxim, in the blog world, that baking with cocoa is somehow less. That if you don't swirl Scharffen Berger into your browned butter brownies, douse your homemade vanilla bean ice cream in molten Callebaut, or bake Valrhona into your Jacques Torres Chocolate Chip Cookies, you're not really baking.

Sadly, the pictures in this post were taken in haste and of brownies that were no longer hot and gooey from the oven. Scroll to the end of the post for a fresher, fudgier version.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not here to disparage high-end chocolates: I'm sure they produce gorgeous results, but their richness comes at too dear a price for this home baker. Instead, I'm here to redress the prevailing prejudice against cocoa-based brownies, to remind you that cocoa can be an intentional choice, not just a failsafe or fallback. It's a simple and delicious lesson to learn. And trust me, your tastebuds - and your wallet - will thank you!

This simple recipe turns out silky, sultry, oh-so-chocolaty brownies every time, and the best part is that you don't even need expensive cocoa - even Hershey's will do nicely. In this recipe cocoa is the star, not just an afterthought, and because there isn't much flour included, these brownies have the richest, fudgy texture. Unbaked, the batter is as glossy and smooth as dark silk. This molten richness remains when the brownies are slightly underbaked - just the way we like them - but you can bake them fully for a thick and satisfyingly chewy treat. They can be whipped up in less than 10 minutes, using ingredients you most likely already have in your pantry - so what are you waiting for?

In case you need further convincing (and you shouldn't!), this recipe has a distinguished pedigree - it has been featured in Bon Appetit and comes from the doyenne of desserts herself, Alice Medrich. Certain versions don't include the browned butter step - but I think it makes these brownies so much richer. Browned butter or no, with such big names in their corner these brownies are guaranteed a total knockout! 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"Traditional British Pudding Recipes" FREE Kindle download

True story (i.e. embarrassing but cute vignette from my English childhood): My family moved to the UK when I was four years old. Since my birthday came up shortly after our arrival, my mother made plans to bake a cake for sharing with my new school friends - that is until I came home and announced that all British school children celebrated their birthdays with pudding. Fortunately, my mother's suspicions were aroused and she did enough prior research to discover that 'pudding' was just a catch-all British term for dessert!

In the end it was a phrase well learnt: anyone who disparages British food clearly hasn't tasted their desserts (or Cadbury's chocolate!), and in the years that followed that early and important lesson, I would become intimately acquainted with British 'puddings.' They may give them funny names - like treacle, flapjacks, and, of course, the infamous spotted dick - but they still make them wonderfully delicious. And now you can, too!

"Traditional British Pudding Recipes" is currently available as a free Kindle download, so if you've always wanted to try Sticky Toffee Pudding (there's that word again!) or just want to celebrate the Olympics with a bit of host-country style, this book is a great find.

I have yet to try any of the recipes, but I should warn you you'll need a scale since they're given in metric measurements - and you may find some of the ingredients unfamiliar (caster sugar, for example, is extra-fine granulated sugar commonly sold in the UK). Also, while the term 'pudding' is used to denote pretty much any kind of dessert in UK parlance, most of the recipes in this book are for actual baked or steamed puddings, so you won't find Victoria Sponge Cake or Shortbread here. That being said, how can you argue FREE?

Update: I just came across Traditional British Biscuit Recipes for free, also (Biscuits = Cookies, and everyone loves cookies)! Apparently there are two other books in this series so I'll keep my eye on them and let you know if they come up for free as well.

Note: This does not constitute a review, nor was a I compensated in any way for this post - I'm just passing along free books!

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Beer Bread (Sweet and Cheesy Varieties)

After a week of convalescence, I have a confession to make: I'm a terrible, terrible patient.

When I'm not forgetting to take my medication, I'm misplacing it. When I'm not chafing against the doctors restrictions, I'm neglecting them. I know I should be more careful, pay closer attention and take things slowly. I know the limitations are intended for my good. I know that, in the end, my compromised convalescence hurts only me. But the truth is that recovery is always so terribly inconvenient.

I didn't always feel this way. In fact, when I was little I actually enjoyed being home sick. I suppose I should clarify: it wasn't the being sick part I enjoyed - that made me as miserable as anyone else - I simply relished being home.

Cheesy loaf with all-purpose flour

Growing up in a family of seven people, our house was always busy and bustling. On most days, I wouldn't have traded our full and happy home for anything, but on occasion it was nice to be home alone, just me and my mum - even if that solitude came at the price of a few hours on the sickbed. Liquid Jello was her secret weapon in the fight against sickness, and that, coupled with customary sickbed screenings of The Princess Bride, usually had me feeling better in no time.

I didn't make any liquid Jello this past week, but I did have a different (and somewhat inexplicable) craving - beer bread! I'd made a loaf when we were visiting Matt's parents last month and I guess I'd been subconsciously craving it ever since.

Mixed whole wheat and white cheesy loaf

Unfortunately, there were two strikes against my choice, it being both solid and made with alcohol. I tried to convince Matt that, with 28 teeth still in my mouth, I could easily gum a piece of fresh bread. He wasn't so sure and, in any case, didn't think I should be mixing painkillers with alcohol, even in bread form (he's sensible like that).

Eventually I had to agree, but that didn't mean I was dissuaded. For the next five days, I thought about beer bread. Nonstop.

I thought about beer bread while I sucked down glasses of milk. I thought about beer bread while I gummed bowls of watery applesauce. I thought about beer bread while I spooned down bowls of pudding.

And then, as soon as I got the all-clear from my dentist this week, I made some.

And boy, was it delicious. Definitely just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Today, I'm a little less wise...

...and a lot more medicated!

That's right, I had wisdom tooth surgery yesterday. So while I can't bear even the thought* of food at the moment, I just wanted to let you faithful few know that I am still here (and by 'here,' I mean glued to my couch for the next couple of days, hopped up on pills and Pinterest).

The past few weeks have been really busy - even busier than wisdom tooth surgery and moving into new home in Kentucky would suggest.

But let's be honest, it isn't just busyness that keeps me from blogging these days. The catastrophic failure of my hard drive about a month ago really took the wind out of my blogging sails. Add to that Matt's rapidly approaching deployment - just over a month away, now - and I just haven't had the urge to write.

I'm still cooking and baking (is it even possible to separate those from breathing?) but my blogstream is full of stale, half written posts and the photo file on this new hard drive is practically non-existent.

I know I'll find my feet again soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to thank each and every one of you for patience, concern and (miraculously!) continued interest during these past few weeks of downtime.

While it feels a bit disingenuous to be plying you with yet another apology post, I promise I've no intention of stringing you all along (in fact, I even have some exciting, blog-related developments in the works that I just can't wait to share!). I'll be back soon, and hopefully better than ever - if just a little less wise.

*Okay, I lied. I'm always thinking about food - I just don't feel like eating if for the time being.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

After these messages....

Remember when those three little words were used to introduce commercial breaks? Well, you may have noticed that I've been away from my regular 'programming' for a couple of weeks. That doesn't mean I've been napping on the job; in fact, when things get quiet on the Traveling Spoon, you can be sure they're crazy-busy in 'real' life.

In the past couple of weeks, Matt and I experienced our first cruise vacation (to Bermuda, no less!), and spent a week visiting his parents in South Carolina. We've been back less than a full day and already we're preparing for the next big adventure - tomorrow we begin moving all of our things down the road to our first non-apartment home!

Our new place may be only 30 minutes away, but it's in a completely different state (we'll be living in Kentucky by the end of the week!), and since our entire lives are packed up in tiny shipping boxes, this move may prove to be rather challenging.

In other words, my 'commercial break' may have to last a little longer, but I hope you'll 'stay tuned' nonetheless. I'm hoping to share some great cruise-themed posts (yes, I basically ate my way across the Atlantic) and lots of new recipes - so don't go away, we'll be right back!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Biscoff Rocky Road

After several weeks of somewhat lackluster posting - thanks to busy schedules and, more recently, total hard drive failure - I knew I had to bring something special today. I also felt the pressure to step things up because Matt and I are about to go on a cruise, far away from wireless connectivity and kitchens, for the next week.  Oh, and did I mention that today is my little sister's 21st birthday? {Happy Birthday, Sarah!} If ever a day deserved dessert, it's today.

And this dessert, ladies and gentlemen, really is something special.

The sugary lovechild of rich, creamy Biscoff Spread and crunchy, chewy, oh-so-moreish Rocky Road, this candy may quite possibly blow your mind. What blew mine is that it doesn't appear to have been done before. You've got your Blonde Rocky Road, your Peanut Butter Rocky Road, your White Rocky Road and, of course, the lovely chocolatey Original, but as far as I can tell, there's never been a Biscoff version. So, if you've been waiting all your life for Biscoff Rocky Road, the wait is now over.

And just in case you thought these addictive little treats couldn't get any better, I've gone and added cookies. Not just any cookies, mind you - Girl Scout cookies! Their lightly spiced Dulce de Leche cookies are a perfect complement to the flavor of Biscoff Spread, but if you've already eaten all of your Girl Scout cookies (understandable, really) you can substitute other hard, crushed cookies such as shortbread, pecan sandies or, for a meta version, actual Biscoff Cookies!

For a recipe that tastes so decidedly decadent, these bars come together very quickly - and there's no baking involved which makes them a perfect summertime treat. They're perfect for taking to a potluck or picnic - just don't make them too far in advance or you might not have any left!

Biscoff Rocky Road

12 oz white chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup Biscoff Spread
2 Tablespoons butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 oz crushed cookies (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 cups mini marshmallows, divided

Grease a 8x8-inch pan, or line with greased foil.

In a microwave-safe or heatproof bowl, combine white chocolate, Biscoff spread, and butter. Using a microwave or double boiler, heat gently until the chocolate is melted and stir until the mixture is velvety smooth (for the microwave, heat in 45 second intervals on High power, stirring after each interval, until melted).

Once the chocolate mixture is smooth, stir in the vanilla and salt. Allow to cool for a minute or two (this should prevent your marshmallows from melting). While the mixture is still fluid, add the cookies and marshmallows, reserving 1/4 cup of marshmallows. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Lightly press the reserved marshmallows onto the top of the bars. Cool in the refrigerator until set. Cut into small squares with a sharp knife, and try not to eat them all at once!

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

To Have and Have Not

Well, my friends, the worst that I had feared has come to pass. My computer is indeed dead, and while the lovely people at Apple got me up and running again with a new hard drive, all of the information on the old one was lost.

To be honest, I'm strangely okay with it. Yes, I'm sad that I lost all my photos (hence the lack of any accompanying picture), as well as lots of personal and professional documents. I'm disappointed that I lost some of my favorite tunes, and all of my settings and bookmarks, but sometimes being cut off from the trappings of our everyday lives can be strangely freeing.

Matt and I are (still) in the middle of moving, and as I spend my days packing boxes, leaving newsprinted fingerprints all over our white cupboards, and generally trying to make the sprawl of our existence simpler, tidier and more compact, I'm struck by just how much stuff follows us through our daily lives.

If I'm honest, few of these things actually get used on a regular basis, and yet I find myself unable to part with them. Some have sentimental significance, but more often than not, it's my I'll-use-that-one-day optimism that keeps me holding on.

Losing my computer was frustrating - as far as the blog goes, I'm irked that I'll have to essentially start building up content and recipes from scratch - but the whole unfortunate experience taught me some useful lessons:

1. Nothing in life is permanent - not even the material things I hold so tightly (or the thirty boxes currently crowding my living room!)
2. Our lives are not defined by the things we have, but the things we do
3. It's possible (and kind of refreshing) to react rationally to the irrational
and finally,
4. Always, always back up your hard drive.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Unforeseen Circumstances

I wish I'd seen it coming.

I wish I'd known that my new little MacBook Pro was going to give up the ghost this morning. I wish I'd known that Angus MacBook (see what I did there? My computer is Scottish!) was suffering grave hard drive issues. I wish I'd known he was thisclose to packing it in all together. But I didn't, and he suffered in silence until this morning when he suddenly collapsed.

That's the worst thing about unforeseen circumstances - you never see them coming.

I've made an appointment to get my computer fixed, but since we live in the wilds of Tennessee, it will be a while before we can get to an Apple Store. Until then I'm tethered to Matthew's computer - which means I have to share. I'll try to keep updating the blog in the meantime, but what's worse is that it looks like my hard drive has been corrupted - which means I've likely lost all the recipes, photos and posts I've created in the far-too-many months since my last back-up. You know the most tragic part of the whole affair? I just told Matthew that I was overdue for a back-up...yesterday.

Moral of the story: back up your computers, folks. Don't just think about it. Don't just talk about it. DO IT!

P.S. I wanted to make a joke about a 'wormy Apple' but the pain is still a little too fresh. I'll have to get back to you when I get to the 'acceptance' stage of this process!

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Dad's Favorite Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Father's Day is just around the corner, and I love seeing all the Dad-themed crafts that are popping up all over the internet - the tie-shaped cookies, the painted stones that say 'Dad Rocks', the King-of-the-Grill aprons, the creative candy bar cards. My dad would have loved all of those things, but he passed away four years ago and this holiday has always hit close to home ever since.

To honor his memory and keep myself from too much introspection, I always make an effort to mark the day in a way that would have been special to him. Sometimes it's reading a nautical book (Arthur Ransome's stories are a childhood favorite), or watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie, but more often than not, it's baking strawberry rhubarb pie.

Last year, I spent the holiday on the road so I had to be satisfied with store-bought pie (at least it was Amish-made!), but this year, I had the opportunity to make my own. My Dad was a great lover of pie - a fellow sweet-tooth in a house full of savory-lovers - and strawberry rhubarb was his favorite.

We had our own rhubarb when I was growing up in England; a few large plants that sprung up at the back of our garden, amidst some rambling raspberry bushes and a hedge of beautiful-but-deadly foxgloves. I remember distinctly the first time I saw it, the slender, ruby red stalks a stark contrast to the large and spreading green leaves. I thought it was a vegetable (and it is, technically!) so I was amazed when a friend taught us to cook it with sugar and bake it in pies - such sweetness from a sour vegetable seemed nothing short of kitchen alchemy to me! I've been enthralled ever since, and though I love the magic and simplicity of a pure rhubarb pie, the addition of strawberries really does give you something special.

I make my strawberry rhubarb pies with a crumb topping because that's the way my dad liked them, but there is method to my madness - one of the most common problems with strawberry rhubarb pies is that they can become 'sloppy' during baking. Lots of recipes add cornstarch or tapioca to counter this, but I prefer to keep additives to a minimum, so I have a few tricks up my sleeve:

Firstly, the crumb topping helps to absorb some of the excess liquid while also allowing steam to escape easily during baking, unlike a regular pie crust, so there's no need for venting. Secondly, I cook my rhubarb on the stove first, with some of the sugar, to create a rhubarb compote which makes the filling thicker. And thirdly, the trick is to allow your pie to 'rest' before serving. I know there are few foods more comforting than a hot slice of pie with a cool slick of vanilla ice cream, but resting the pie does make a difference - you'll notice that I did not rest my pie before taking these pictures (do as I say, not as I do!) which is why some of them still look a little gooey.

If you really, desperately want to serve your pie hot, you can re-heat the pieces individually after cooling or just serve it fresh from the oven with the knowledge that you probably won't be dishing up picture-perfet wedges. Along the same lines, you'll get even better slice if you refrigerate your pie before serving - if you can wait that long! Of course, absolutely none of this matters if you're just going to eat it straight out of the pie plate with a fork. Or perhaps a teeny tiny spoon. Don't worry, I'm not one to judge.

Disclaimer: I have to admit that I'm not happy with the photos of this pie - Matt and I were so eager to dig into it that I didn't take the time for a proper shot, and it shows. I'm also a little disappointed that I had to use 100% whole wheat flour for the crust. I don't recommend this since it creates a drier crust, but since we're in the process of moving and trying to use up our groceries, I had to make do with what we had on hand. I guess all of that means I'll just have to make it again - soon!

Now that my excuses are out of the way, I will say that there was one thing that completely lived up to my expectations - the taste! This pie was absolutely delicious, from the first sticky-sweet mouthful to the very last brown-sugary crumb...and yes, Matt and I ate the entire thing between the two of us. Somehow, I'm pretty sure my dad would have approved.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Do You Durian?: My First Taste of Durian Candy

My recent trip to Chicago's Chinatown didn't just leave me with a tummy full of dim sum and a bag full of pork buns, it also allowed me to cross off an item on my Eat-Before-I-Die list - you know, the list that starts with caviar and foie gras and ends with 'Garbage Plate,' fried Oreos, poutine, and fistfuls of delicious Thai street food. Although I eat a lot of strange things, it's rare that I get to cross something off THE list, so needless to say I was pretty excited.

Incidentally, the item I crossed off is a Thai specialty - but I can't exactly say that it was delicious, and if you sold it on the street you'd likely get arrested! Its flavor is often described as "oniony, with a touch of gym sock," and my own Chinatown encounter was rather like chewing a lightly sweetened rubber tire on a hot day. The best description by far, though, comes from Singaporean cook Wai Ching Lee, who compared eating this food to "eating custard in a sewer."

There's only one culinary delicacy that could inspire such poetic, impassioned descriptions - that's right, folks, it's the durian.

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Imagine a skin so spiky it makes the African Horned Melon look like a cotton ball. Imagine a scent so malodorous it makes sewage seem perfumed. In case you think I'm making all of this up, or simply giving in to exaggeration, you should know that while the durian is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, it's also banned from lots of public places and forms of public transportation because of its pungent smell.

If you can imagine the combined aromas of rotting meat, dirty socks, melting rubber, and gas leak combined in sweet symphony, you'll have a slight approximation of the odor of a durian.

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At this point you may be asking why on earth I'd put this fruit on my eat-before-I-die list, forearmed, as I was, with such damning information. The truth is that in spite of its cringe-worthy stench and polarizing flavor, some people absolutely love to eat durian. I've eaten enough strange things in my life to naively believe that I might be one of them.

Sadly, I was very, very mistaken.

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Don't get me wrong, it's an 'interesting' flavor, but not one I'd necessarily go chasing. There's a hint of sweetness to it that's actually pleasant, I'm just not sure it's worth the exposure to the rotten smell and, worst of all, the lingering aftertaste. Eatocracy has a riotously funny and witty account of a durian experience that explains the untold peril of the "durian burp," but all I can say is that for the next few hours after eating one, yes one candy, my breath had the compelling odor of a natural gas pipeline!

It must be said that I did not try durian in its unadulterated form - I purchased hard durian candies (whose milky sweetness helped to mask the flavor and odor), but have been told that the custardy texture of the real fruit really helps it along - I guess the only question now is whether I'll ever be brave enough to test that out.

In the meantime, if anyone wants an opened-but-barely touched bag of durian candy, it's all yours!

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

DIY Pinhole Camera

Did you get to observe the transit of Venus yesterday? Matt and I did our best, we really did, but unfortunately we had to make do with watching it online. We did, however, have a lot of fun making our quick DIY pinhole camera for the viewing. Notice the box we used?

It took Matt about 5 minutes to put this together and we thought it very fitting (and resourceful!) to transform a Thin Mint box - proof that Girl Scout Cookies are good for more than just expanding your waistline!

The next transit may not be for another 105 years, but pinhole cameras can be used to view other events and are a fun activity to teach kids about science. If you'd like to try making your own, check out this great video tutorial at Life's Little Mysteries.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pineapple Coconut Macaroons

Okay folks, I still have a few Chicago posts to go, but I know I've been making you wait a long, long time for a recipe so I thought I'd share these little summery gems. I actually made these coconut cookies weeks ago, back when I was still wishing for heat and sunshine, but now that summer is here they're even more appropriate.

I seem to go through a coconut phase every summer - there's something so refreshing about that tropical flavor - and this particular treat came to me from David Lebovitz, by way of Baking Obsession. Their versions look crisp and delicious, but mine are a little different. With less added sugar and more pineapple, they're softer, with more of the flavor of summer and a little less over-the-top sweetness. That being said, they're plenty sweet - try them and you'll see!

Before the recipe, though, a word about macaroons. In recent years, French macarons have taken over the blog world. Those elegant, technique-heavy treats are certainly lovely, but these are not those macarons - they're stick-to-your-fingers, sugar-shock, coconutty macaroons, a great dessert in their own right, with no pretensions to being anything other than utterly delicious. If you're in need of a naptime/lunch break tropical escape, these should do the trick!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Chicago Chowdown: Wan Shi Da Bakery, Chinatown

Yep, I'm (figuratively) still in Chicago's Chinatown, doing due diligence on all the wonderful treats and tastes I discovered there, and today's post takes us to the delightful little Wan Shi Da Bakery on S. Wentworth Avenue.

If you read yesterday's post, you'll remember that my sister and I started off our visit with a delicious dim sum lunch at Shui Wah, so you might be forgiven for thinking that that was the end of our Chinatown chowdown. Of course, you'd be completely wrong - for the simple fact that no visit to Chinatown can possibly be considered complete without the purchase of at least one BBQ pork bun.

I've explained my fondness for pork buns in a previous post, so I'll just say that after chasing char siu bao through the streets of London's Chinatown and Chinatown NYC, I wasn't about to let them get away from me in Chicago.

So many pork buns!

If I'm honest, I spend more time thinking about these little golden pillows of sweet-and-savory, doughy perfection than I'd like to admit, so I was hardly going to pass up the opportunity to eat one...or several. In fact, for quality control purposes (of course!), my sister and I actually sampled offerings from two Chicago bakeries - the other being Chiu Quon, also on Wentworth Ave. - but determined that the pork-filled buns and other bakery treats at Wan Shi Da were most deserving of a review.

The Traditional

The bakery itself isn't anything to write home about, but the service is friendly and the treats - oh, the treats! In addition to the usual Chinese pastries, there's a large selection of fancy cakes, most of them brightly colored and covered with all sort of glazed fruits. We didn't try any of these. No, our attention was quite focused, as it should be, on the pork buns.

The Dry

Wan Shi Da is a great place to buy pork buns, not simply because they're plump, fresh, and delicious, or because they cost less than a dollar, but because they offer no less than three different kinds. You've got your traditional pork bun, your pork bun with sweet topping, and your dry pork bun (think very lightly shaved jerky-type meat on top and inside). Of course we had to try one of each.

The Sweet-Topped

The sweet topping reminds me of those almond cookies you sometimes get post-meal at Chinese restaurants, and while it couldn't woo me away from my favorite traditional pork buns, it's good for a change of pace. The dry pork bun was also an interesting and tasty alternative, but I still maintain that the original version, with its juicy filling, tender dough and ever-so-slightly-sweet glaze is the best of all.

In addition to our pork buns, we bought a few sweet pastries to carry home - my sister bought a sesame ball filled with red bean paste and an egg custard tart, while I tried a sponge cake and a custard-filled bun. Of these, I'd have to say that the sponge cake was my favorite - a pleasantly light and airy cake, reminiscent of Angel Food Cake in texture, but with a more substantial butter/egg flavor.

Sponge Cake

All of our selections were delightfully fresh and each one cost only pennies - I think I paid under $3 for four items (all carry-out items are 20% off, for an even sweeter deal!). I even bought a pork bun to take with me on my return trip to Tennessee the next day, and it was still fresh and delicious a day later, if a bit smashed from the journey. Overall, I'd heartily recommend a visit to Wan Shi Da. In addition to bakery items, there's a small cafe attached with 'real' food and on-site seating - and if there food is any bit as good as their baked goods, I think a return trip is in order!

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Chicago Chowdown: Dim Sum Dining: Shui Wah, Chinatown

Plop me down in any major city and you can safely bet that I'll eventually wind up in Chinatown. I just can't resist the allure of those red-painted pagodas, the restaurants serving dainty and delicious dim sum, and shops selling everything from oolong to oysters, steak knives to steamers, and, of course, decorative vegetable cutters in every imaginable shape (because everyone needs a decorative vegetable cutter). I've eaten and shopped my way through Chinatowns in London and NYC - and now Chicago.

During my visit to NYC last summer, I filled up on dirt-cheap (and delicious) dumplings at the famous Vanessa's Dumpling House and spent some time in pursuit of the perfect pork bun. Since I'm a girl who knows what she likes, I set off to do exactly the same thing in Chicago.

My sister and I couldn't find a similarly cheap-and-cheerful eatery to match Vanessa's (but really, is there any place in the world to match their four-for-a-dollar dumplings?) so we ended up at a dim sum restaurant on Archer Avenue.

Now, Archer Ave is full of restaurants and dim sum eateries, so after about 20 minutes of deliberation, we followed our noses into a little place called Shui Wah. As luck would have it, this restaurant has developed a good following for its delicious and reasonably priced dim sum.

This restaurant is tiny, but that doesn't stop it from doing a brisk business. In fact, the place was so full during our visit that we ended up sharing our table with another group - a practice we commonly encountered in Europe but have rarely seen in the US. Close quarters might also be responsible for another of Shui Wah's unusual traits: there are no carts at this dim sum eatery - instead you order on paper, as you would sushi or tapas, and the food is brought out individually. This process takes a little longer than the usual a la carte service, but it does mean that the food is piping hot when it arrives and there's no waiting for your favorite dish to make the rounds.

Clockwise from top left: chive cake, taro cake, shrimp dumpling

Between the two of us, my sister and I ordered steamed shrimp dumplings, chive cakes, fried taro cakes and steamed pork buns. The shrimp dumplings were wonderfully flavorful, if a little too soft, and the taro cake was a pleasant surprise, being both salty and sweet, soft and crispy. Of course, the highlight of the meal was the steamed pork buns - some of the best I've ever had, and I've eaten many. Even my baby nephew tried a bit for his first-ever taste of dim sum!

The delicious steamed pork bun

The atmosphere of the restaurant is a little harried (you'll have to be assertive about flagging down servers during the lunchtime rush) and, for dim sum neophytes, possibly a bit intimidating, but the food is good and the prices are very reasonable.

A few tips: don't be afraid to ask if you're unsure about any of the dishes - our helpful server even pointed out items on others' plates - and if you're really lost, ask for recommendations. The steamed pork buns are a known classic and we saw lots of delicious-looking orders of 'fried dough' and pork shumai. Additionally, the jasmine tea was a warm treat on an unseasonably chilly day - the perfect thing to fortify us for the walk back to the conveniently nearby Metra station. All in all, a Chinatown success!

Note: A message on Yelp states that the restaurant will be closing on August 1st. If true, it's a shame - but that still gives you a few months to get your fill of delicious dim sum!

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