Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Bit of Shaking and a Bit of Baking in California

Ahhh, vacation! I recently went home to California to visit with my family and some friends. It was a much needed trip for my mental sanity! The main reason for going was for the 8th grade graduation of my middle niece, Carolyn. While there, I also enjoyed a night out with my girls from high school and celebrated the 9th birthday of my youngest niece, Samantha! Of course, I also had to be sure that my oldest niece, Jessica, had not grown too much taller than I am (not much success in this regard!).

While on vacation I tend to find lots of time to bake and cook with my mom. I absolutely adore cooking for and with my family. This trip I had planned to make lasagna from the Daring Bakers recipe I had made awhile back, only not making the pasta from scratch. Carolyn requested a “plain” cheesecake with strawberries for her party. Of course, I turned to the recipe from the Daring Bakers that I had successfully accomplished a few times. I had also offered to make a dessert for the get-together with my high school girlfriends. And of course, I had to make a little something for Samantha’s birthday.

The trip started off with my parents and all three of my nieces picking me up at the airport in San Francisco. The girls were ADORABLE with their chauffer signs for me…they lined up with their “Auntie Christina Ride” homemade signs. Can I tell you how much I adore those girls?! They each hold an extra special spot in this proud Auntie’s heart for sure. 

We spent the day in San Francisco since we were there and it was still morning (well, Pacific time!) when I arrived. We went to lunch at the Delancey Street Restaurant. Good food, but even better was the service. If you are not familiar with the concept behind the restaurant, I suggest you go wander through their website (once you are done here of course!). The basic premise is that “Delancey Street Restaurant is a key training school of the Delancey Street Foundation, the country's largest self-help residential organization for people who have hit bottom to completely rebuild their lives.” Pretty cool, right?! Our server, Derek, was an absolute delight and the girls were still talking about his playful, fun service days later. He even gave Carolyn a candle to blow out on the dessert we shared and encouraged her to keep doing well in school. I would highly recommend anyone in the San Francisco area to go to this restaurant and support a great cause while getting a really good, decently priced meal.

After lunch, we wandered over to Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. All of these places are classic San Francisco to me. It was a usually warm, sunny day in San Francisco so these tourist areas were jam-packed with people. We had a great time just being together and enjoying the sights and sounds of San Francisco though. We decided to take the long way home so that we could go over the Golden Gate Bridge. What a beautiful bridge! Here are a few photos of our day:

Day Two was a day at home just hanging out and relaxing with my nieces. We watched a lot of Disney Channel! HA! It is such a joy to see how they have grown and continue to grow into young ladies. They are still very much “kids,” but I can also see how they are growing up as well. So proud of them and who they are becoming. I also had to ensure that they knew they would never grow too old (or too tall in Jessica’s case!) for their Auntie to love them. I simply adore being their Auntie. It was fun to just relax and let them be.

Day Three was Memorial Day. My mom and I decided to take my Grandma to the cemetery to place flowers on several family member graves, including my Grandpa’s. This was not an easy undertaking, but worth every second. I had not been to the graves of my Grandpa and Great-Grandparents in a really long time. It really brought home how long they have been gone and how much I still wish they were a part of my life. I have such fond memories of my Grandpa in particular. Sometimes I wonder how life would be different if he were still here to kiss my Grandma and me after he had freshly shaved with his bristle brush and “real” razor. I am sure he would have adored my nieces as much as I do, but they would definitely be a little rambunctious for his tastes…much like my sister and I probably were when we were young. It was a good day for remembering and also appreciating what we have now. It was good to spend time with Grandma doing something I know meant a lot to her as well.

Day Four mom and I went to Sacramento to tour a culinary school. Ahh…the dream! Of course, the expense of doing this as well as the fact that I would not be able to pay my mortgage makes it difficult to pursue. It was certainly fun to see and think about doing this though…who knows, maybe someday it will happen. Mom and I went to Old Sacramento for lunch. We ate at Rio City Café which is located right on the Sacramento River. The baja fish tacos were divine!! OMGoodness, so good! Yummm! After lunch we decided that we needed to purchase a few “turtles,” one of mom’s favorite candies. It was a good day with mom. It is always good to have mom/daughter time.

Day Five I spent with my friend Jane. Jane always encourages me and helps me think through things that are going on in my life. She knows my history, my heart and my struggles. She is one of the few people on this earth that knows me probably better than I even know myself at times. She is also one of my fiercest prayer warriors. Who knows what my life would be like without her prayer covering! She is also one of the most fun people to be around and oh boy, what a fun day we had! We had lunch with her sweet husband John, visited with her beautiful daughters, Anna and Audrey, and her fun-loving grandchildren. Once it was just us two we decided to have pizza for dinner, bake a cake and dye our hair! She decided to go back to her natural color and I decided to get a little crazy and go dark red! Oh the crazy things I do when Jane is around! I love it! Jane also shared a wonderfully easy and delicious recipe with me for the cake. It is a semi-homemade type recipe and is adaptable to pretty much any flavor you would want. I’m going to call it “Jane’s Easy Cake Recipe” because I don’t believe she shared the name of it with me. (Recipe below.) She made it a lemon flavor, and mmmmmm…it was good….. I left that night with a bit of sadness…I do love time spent with Jane.

Day Six was the big graduation day! I started the day though by spending some time with a friend from days gone by, Donna. We met at Starbucks and caught up on life. I am hoping that the next time I am home I get to spend more time with her and her family…I did promise to cook for her I believe!

After my morning with Donna, I hurried over to start the graduation fun! My parents and I took the girls to their favorite place to eat…Beijing Restaurant. They have a wonderful salad, huge potstickers and some seriously yummy food overall. The portions are such that it is best to do family style, and you will still go home with a take-out bag. After lunch we went back to get Carolyn ready for her graduation. I was honored to be asked to curl her hair for the big event. She looked so beautiful and grown up in her dress and graduation gown.

The graduation ceremony was excellent and after all the many photos were taken and diplomas awarded, Carolyn went off to party with her classmates. The rest of the family went to Chicago Uno’s for a light dinner. It was a good day…cannot believe that I have two nieces in high school now…are they growing up too fast or is it just me?!

Day Seven was spent spoiling my nieces! I took them to see the movie “Letters from Juliet,” we bowled two games at the local bowling alley and then capped off the day with dinner and ice cream at Weinerschnitzel! The movie was pretty cute, bowling is always a blast and how can you go wrong with fast food hot dogs from der Weinerschnitzel and ice cream from Tasty Freeze. It was great to have a day that was focused solely on what the girls wanted to do and just have fun. (One funny side story…when the lights first went out for the movie “Sex In The City 2” actually started…you have not seen an Auntie move so fast to protect her nieces delicate eyes…alerted the movie theater staff and they stopped the movie before anything got out of hand…the girls thought that was quite funny since my sister had very clearly said they could not see that movie…rightfully so!)

Day Eight was spent in the kitchen with mom! As mentioned earlier (in this now getting long) post, cheesecake was on the menu for Carolyn’s graduation party. The party was the next day, but cheesecakes have to chill overnight so I got started. I used the tried and true recipe from the Daring Bakers and it came out beautiful. The best part was using the real vanilla bean so that you could see all the flecks in the finished product.

I also had to make a dessert for my get together with my high school girlfriends. I had decided earlier in the week to make a Fresh Strawberry and Blueberry Tart to highlight the scrumptious fresh fruit that I had been enjoying all week (Recipe below). I also decided to take some fresh chocolate-dipped strawberries to add a touch of chocolate to the evening. The tart was easy to make over all, I had made it once before, but I quickly discovered that blueberries were harder to find than anticipated. I waited until that morning to purchase the fruit, wanting it to be at its’ peak freshness. I drove around town for about an hour and four stores later before I found them…ugh!

Feeling a bit frustrated, I started with the crust. The tart pan I had purchased earlier in the week (that’s right…had to purchase the pan too), was bigger than the recipe called for, but I didn’t think much of it until the first crust came out completely burnt. Starting over, I doubled the crust recipe…good choice, but the end product was a bit more than necessary. Next time, I will either have the right size pan or use one and a half the amount of crust the recipe calls for.

The evening overall was full of fun and laughter. It was so great to get with the girls from high school and catch up on life with them. I am amazed at how we have continued to stay connected. It has been longer than most of us care to admit since we spent our days hanging out in the band room, yet get us together and we are instantly transported to those days. The food brought by the other gals was so good and we were blessed to have Erika host at her beautiful home. That evening around the kitchen table with margaritas and yearbooks was a great reminder of just how far we have all come. We have all chosen different paths on our journey, but we are all happy and healthy…and we certainly have better hair!

Day Nine was the big graduation party for Carolyn. Lasagna from scratch was on the menu along with the usual sides. I spent the morning preparing the ragu sauce for the lasagna (sans veal…sadly it was not to be found in my hometown that week) using the Daring Bakers recipe from the past. There were a few hiccups in the day (cheesecake mishap which was thankfully easily fixed…party starting earlier than we remembered saying it would…three hours earlier!), but overall it was a great party to celebrate Carolyn’s accomplishment. The weather could not have been better for the day. Carolyn opened her gifts after we ate dinner and then we all enjoyed our sliver of cheesecake with strawberries. We took a few family photos and generally had a great time together.

Day Ten was my last day with the family, but it was also the day we decided to celebrate Samantha’s birthday! I decided to make cupcakes from the recipe Jane had given me because Samantha wanted vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting…she is a simple girl afterall. I used cheesecake flavored pudding because we had it in the house. They came out really well and were so moist! We took Samantha her cupcakes, helped her blow out her candles, watched her open her presents and then took her to lunch. We decided to go to one of their favorite Mexican restaurants. The “taco truck tacos” are soooo good at this place and surprisingly filling.

After lunch we played a bit of Guitar Hero (I am terrible…ugh!) and then said our goodbyes. It was time for me to head over to San Francisco again to get ready to fly back to DC. Hugs and kisses to all my girls and then my parents and I were off to the hotel. They checked me in and made sure I was settled before heading home. Tears are a mainstay at this point for mom and me, but it is ok…it just proves how much we still love and miss each other when we are apart.

I was fortunate to have one of my high school girls staying just down the street for her work that night. We had a fabulous dinner at the Elephant Café and just talked about life. It was a good way to bridge from being with family to being back on my own.

Day Eleven was spent on the plane…a thankfully uneventful flight. It was good to return to my cat, Marvin, who missed me terribly.

Sorry this post was so long…hope someone actually read all of this….maybe leave a comment if you did! HA! But if not, it was fun to get it all down so that I can look back and remember it for myself. Enjoy the recipes!

The Recipes:
Daring Bakers Lasagna
Daring Bakers Cheesecake

Jane’s Easy Cake Recipe
1 box white cake mix (use reduced sugar, if possible)
1 small box of instant pudding (sugar-free, if possible)
3 eggs
1 cup club soda
½ cup oil (vegetable)
½ cup nuts (optional)

Mix everything together and bake according to directions on the cake mix box.

Note: Jane used lemon pudding and added some lemon juice to hers…I used cheesecake pudding in the cupcakes for Samantha. I believe the “original” recipe called for pistachio pudding and pistachio nuts.

Fresh Strawberry and Blueberry Tart
Courtesy of Food Network

Almond Crust, recipe follows
Vanilla Pastry Cream, recipe follows

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ cup apricot jam
2 tablespoons brandy, or Kirsch
1 ½ cups sliced strawberries
1 cup blueberries, rinsed and patted dry
Fresh mint sprigs, garnish

Bake the pie crust according to the recipe and let cool completely on a wire rack. Spoon pastry cream into the crust, smoothing top.

In a small saucepan, combine the vanilla, jam and brandy. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the jam. Remove from the heat, strain and let cool.

Arrange the sliced strawberries in overlapping concentric circles around the top of the cream. Alternate with a row of blueberries. With a pastry brush, brush the tops with the jam glaze. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

To serve, lift the tart from the side of the pan and place on a serving dish or cake stand. Cut into wedges, and garnish each serving with a fresh mint sprig.

Almond Pastry Crust:
¼ cup slivered, blanched almonds, lightly toasted and cooled
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg yolk
¼ teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons ice water (as needed)

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse to finely grind the almonds. Add the flour, sugar and salt, and process to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. With the machine running, add the egg yolk and extract through the feed tube and process until combined. Add the ice water and process just until a dough forms. Remove from the machine. Fit into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing the dough first along the sides and then evenly across the bottom. Place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Line the dough with parchment paper and pie weights or beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the parchment and weights and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack before filling. Yield: 1 (9-inch) crust.

Vanilla and Orange Pastry Cream:
2 cups whole milk
½ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split in ½ lengthwise and seeds scraped out
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice
4 large egg yolks
¼ cup cornstarch, measured, then sifted

In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, vanilla bean pods and seeds, orange zest and juice. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and cornstarch until pale yellow, about 2 minutes. Slowly add 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture to the egg yolks, whisking constantly until smooth. Add the egg yolk mixture to the pan of hot milk and whisk to combine. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a heavy wooden spoon until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes.

Remove from the heat and strain into a clean container, scraping the bottom of the strainer with a spoon. Discard the vanilla bean or rinse and reserve for another use. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing down against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until well chilled, about 3 hours, before using. Yield: about 2 1/4 cups.

 Enjoy With Love,
(Auntie) Christina